As the bell rings seventh graders troop into English Language Arts Teacher Gertrude Shaffer’s distant learning class to find answers to the hard questions our world faces today. Each year this class embarks on a new journey based on the eight Millennium Development Goals set forth by the United Nations.
Shaffer calls her style of teaching a “Words to Deeds” method in which students research topics and then develop them into a hands project. In a recent class project students visited Albany, New York for the Walk for Water initiative to raise awareness about the lack of safe water access in certain countries. These same students raised $10,000 to install a new well near a school in the Republic of South Sudan to make attending classes easier for girls.
“I have been waiting to fly over to Juba to present the check personally but there have been a series of unrest in the area and most U.S. citizens have been told to evacuate the area,” Shaffer said.
This project was only one of several in which led her students outside the borders of her classroom. Shaffer has brought in international speakers such as the Lost Boys of Sudan.
“I was at a gym one day and heard the guy near me talking in a different accent. So I asked him where he was from and he started telling me about his life story. Afterwards I said you should come to my classroom and Kingsley has been connected to us ever since,” said Shaffer.
After watching a documentary about migrant workers losing limbs while jumping trains to arrive in Canada and the U.S. for low paying jobs, her class took a field trip to see migrant workers in Central New York cabbage fields
“We watched a documentary about the migrant workers who jump from train to train and end up losing a foot,” Shaffer said. “When students saw this they couldn’t realize the injustice that was happening to these migrant workers and wanted to do something about it.”
She took her class into cabbage fields in central New York and introduced them to the dehumanizing work conditions migrant workers face. Students found conditions of little shade, no latrines and no workers compensation. . During this trip her students were astounded to find the terrible working conditions these migrant workers lived in and decided to attend a walk in Albany, New York against these conditions.
As a new class rolls in the process will begin once again for students to choose and decide what borders they want to break down. Seventh grader Maddie Welch began the class by talking about AIDS awareness.
“I am interested in finding ways of protection and raising awareness for AIDS,” Welch said.
Students Anthony Reff, Jack Mott and Cody Flower were amazed when they found out that not all countries followed the 12 principles of democracy. They found it unfair that other people in the world had to fight for their right to certain freedoms.
“We really take these rights for granted in the United States,” Reff said.
Other projects included education outreach and forced marriage. Students Maddy Houck and Julia Hubbard decided to make a video about the Cardboard City Project which eighth graders last year organized for a Habitat for Humanity fundraiser.
“The Cardboard City project was a way to raise awareness for homelessness in the area,” Hubbard said.
They plan to edit and submit the video to UNICEF to raise awareness about the problems of homelessness regionally and internationally.
“These projects seem to stick with students after they leave my classroom,” Shaffer said.
Currently she has two ninth grade interns Nga Ruckdeschel and Jenna Darling. These two will be attending the Model United Nations Conference from March 30 to April 3. The previous year students who attend the conference stood before a group of 300 to 400 people and read a poem about the Water problems facing South Sudan.
Shaffer was also invited to the Ripple of Hope Gala to talk about her distance learning class efforts to raise awareness for the world water problems. Heading full steam into the next project she believes these hands on learning experiences could be the future of curriculum.