The Globe and Mail: Schools need to create human beings and citizens who are empathetic

The piece originally appeared in The Globe and Mail: Schools need to create human beings and citizens who are empathetic

One of Adam Lanza’s high school friends said he was “probably a genius.” Another student recalled him as “a very bright kid.” And he was said to have corrected students’ Latin homework when he was 14 years old.

Concurrently, Mr. Lanza was a fish out of water, a misfit, an oddball. He had tremendous difficulty relating to his classmates, was labelled as stiff, shy and dysfunctional.

As investigators scramble to piece together a profile of the man who mowed down 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the sleepy town of Newtown, Conn., and uncover the reasoning that led him to do it, many are wondering what could have been done to prevent him.

While most of American is jostling over issues like gun control, improving mental health care, and reducing violence in media, we’re missing an indispensable element – why schools need to create human beings and citizens who are empathetic. Empathy is the ability to identify and understand the feelings and conditions of another person. Or as Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Empathic Civilization, puts it, “Empathy is the social glue that allows increasingly individualized and diverse populations to forge bonds of solidarity across broader domains so that society can cohere as a whole. To empathize is to civilize.”

In his book The Age of Empathy, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that empathy has three layers. The first is emotional contagion, where people are hit by a flood of emotions during a climactic event. The second layer is feeling for others. We do this through “body-mapping” – trying to “recreate what we have seen others do.” And the third layer is “targeted helping” – where people attempt to ease their emotions through altruism.

Today, there is a dearth of empathy in young people. After analyzing data among almost 14,000 college students over the last 30 years, a University of Michigan study two years ago concluded that college students are 40 per cent less empathetic than their counterparts in 1979. Indeed, the most significant drop has been in the past decade. What’s more, cases of bullying and suicides are climbing at an alarming pace. That means empathy education is needed more than ever before. There is a growing consensus among neuroscientists, psychologists and educators that bullying and other kinds of violence can be reduced by encouraging empathy at an early age.

Primarily, children need to learn how to control and understand their feelings and emotions. We need to place children in capacities to practice and model empathy for themselves. Learning how to step into someone else’s shoes is hard, but without the personal immersion in the process, the experience will be a complete waste.

One program that is devoting itself to this is Roots of Empathy, started by Canadian educator Mary Gordon that has now reached more than 325,000 children in 10 countries in their 16-year legacy. A baby and its mother or father visit a school classroom 27 times during the course of the year. The curriculum is divided into nine themes, with three visits supporting each theme (a pre-family visit, family visit, and post-family visit). Students are asked to carefully observe the interactions that occur between the child and parent as well as their mood, and over time slowly become attached to them. In the process, they are learning emotional literacy, a term Ms. Gordon defines as “the ability to find our humanity in one another.” Later, the students express what they have learned in other subjects.

It’s remarkable to see how babies remake these kids. In a wonderful piece for the New York Times, after observing Roots of Empathy classrooms, David Bornstein writes, “Around babies, tough kids smile, disruptive kids focus, shy kids open up.” After conducting controlled studies specifically pinpointing “proactive aggressive students” – your playground bullies – Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, found that 88 per cent of these children decreased this form of behaviour over the school year compared with the control group where only 9 per cent did.

Roots of Empathy is typically for schoolchildren from kindergarten to eighth grade. I can’t see a reason why this program can’t be implemented in high schools around the world. Even the most bruised and battered students will succumb to the power of a baby.

Ms. Gordon often says, “Empathy can’t be taught, but it can be caught.”

Could a program like Roots of Empathy have ultimately prevented Adam Lanza from mowing down innocent children and adults on a December morning? We will never know. But what we do know is that if we spawn an empathetic society, if we lend our hearts and souls to those who are hurting inside, and if we bring lonely and ignored people into our circles of friendship, then the number of families who lose a loved one from an act of violence or bullying will be largely extinguished.


MSNBC: Where American Education Went Wrong

This piece originally appeared on MSNBC: Where American Education Went Wrong.

Historian Vincent Harding quoted a West African poet and said, “I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.” He went on to assert that this is a country that we still must create—a country “that cares about itself and about the world, that cares about what the earth needs as well as what individual people need.”

Harding hit the nail on the head.

Creating a country starts in our schools.
Our current learning culture is stale and reeking of industrialism. We educate children like they are blank slates and passive vessels. We pry out their talents and gifts until there are none left. And we cage them up like livestock for at least twelve years of their lives. And then we throw them into the scary and uncomfortable world of the unknown.

As a society, we aren’t realizing the true purpose of school—becoming lifelong learners and active, engaged citizens in democracy. Conformity and sticking in your shell is no longer the shortcut to success. What separates the best from the average in the world is grit, uniqueness, drive, and resilience.

Is it an accident that learning environments are contrary to the natural process of learning? Absolutely not.

One of the purposes for building a public school system a century ago was to ensure that millions of children weren’t roaming the streets and causing mayhem. School was there to civilize them into meek members of the population. It has worked perfectly, even to this date.

What’s more, the very dogmas that guide our schools go awry when stood up against the principles of basic cognition. Human beings learn best by doing and experience, not by ingesting and swallowing facts and figures. Look at young children: They laugh, they cry, they sing, they dance.

Suddenly, at age five, it’s as if they get arrested and thrown into an Alcatraz-like system called formal schooling. Most unstructured play vanishes. Days of freewheeling laughter, exploring, and creating get replaced by bubble filling content. What industrial-age institutions are engaging in is a crime, one that continues to cheat generations.

For all the chit-chat on education reform, very few are asking the question: What is the purpose of school? Ask yourself that. And then define what is “good” education. I suspect that far too many people will say that the end result should be high grades and test scores and prestigious college acceptance letters. That would confirm that in school, curiosity, happiness, and creativity are second-string and that America has lost its way. We need to recognize the fruits of American ingenuity.

That’s why we are desperately craving for a learning renaissance where the old order of education is shattered and institutions adapt and reinvent or go extinct. Public education may be the only institution that has largely remained the same as it was a century ago.

Imagine if we transformed schools into French salons of the 17th century, social engines, and public spaces for tinkering, hacking, and disrupting. Imagine if everyone in the community engaged with one another and the barriers that divide us came crashing down. Imagine if kids love going to school each and every day. A transformation on this scale entails setting people free to “unlock the code of their souls.”

Is this even possible? It is if we’re committed to shifting our industrial gears into a disruptive mindset and diverting trillions of dollars that we frivolously spend on standardized testing and “Race to the Top” circuses into making these radical changes a reality.

As Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown write in their book, A New Culture of Learning, “The goal is for each of us to take the world in and make it part of ourselves. In doing so, it turns out, we can re-create it.”

It takes a village to raise a lifelong learner. If we follow the lead of schools which treat children like artists, creators, and empathizers, then we are on the stepping stones to creating a truly United States of America.

Nikhil Goyal is the author of “One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School.” Goyal, 17, is also a student at Syosset High School in New York.

GOOD Education: Kicker: New Media Startup Fights Back Against the Dumbing Down of America

This piece originally appeared on GOOD Education: Kicker: New Media Startup Fights Back Against the Dumbing Down of America.


Who is Osama bin Laden? Is he famous? Is he in a band as well? And why should I care? These were all questions that teenagers tweeted in May 2011 on the night President Obama announced that U.S. special operations forces killed Osama Bin Laden. Data released by Yahoo! concluded that two thirds of the people who searched “Who is Osama bin Laden?” that night were teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 years old.

I’ll give these kids a break—many of them were very young during the September 11th attacks. Still, you would think that at some point in their many years of schooling that somebody would have mentioned and discussed the most wanted man in the world, his background, and why thousands of American servicemen and women are stationed in Afghanistan. With such a heavy focus on what’s tested—math and English—our public schools simply aren’t teaching civics and current events.

As a result, a 2007 Harvard University study determined that a majority of teens are ignorant about current affairs and do not read the newspaper. Moreover, a Pew Research Center survey found that people age 18 to 34-years-old are consistently less knowledgeable about current events than their elders. On a current events quiz, young adults averaged 5.9 correct answers out of 12 questions, fewer than the averages for Americans ages 35 to 49 and above age 50. Many of these teenagers are or will be voters in a short time. I don’t think there’s anything more frightening than this. 

Fortunately, a former New York Times editor is trying to upend the astonishing rise of ignorant Americans with her new startup, Kicker. Intended for people who are “turned off by traditional news media and want to “make a difference” and “get in the know easily,” founder Holly Ojalvo, a Brooklyn-based entrepreneur, hopes to disrupt the way teenagers engage with the fourth estate.

“A lot of news products aimed at high school and college students are designed as curriculum supplement,” says Ojalvo. “Some are alright, but it shouldn’t be the only way to engage young people for current events.” For teenagers, Ojalvo explains that news is overwhelming, confusing, irrelevant, and hopeless. “We want kids to feel smart, not stupid,” she says.

What Kicker does is make the news accessible, engaging, and actionable. There are only few news stories a day, expressing the highlights of major stories and writers use info graphics, tweets, maps, and quotes—”whatever tells the story best,” says Ojalvo. Perhaps, the most significant in the trio of elements of Kicker is that each story has a way for the reader to take action.

For instance, a recent piece on global warming suggested that young people can get involved by signing the Climate Reality Pledge, joining a virtual march, or a local group. As Ojalvo puts it, “When someone’s telling you a story, the kicker is the gist, the takeaway, the zinger. The kicker to any story we tell you is that you can start taking action. Right now. And we’ll point you in the right direction.”

For the future of Kicker, Ojalvo plans on experimenting with a few new features and will be collaborating with a Columbia University class on a digital strategy for the company and Brooklyn Law School, who is providing legal assistance.

To hammer away at the civics crisis in America where three quarters of high school seniors are unable to identify a power granted to Congress by the Constitution among other embarrassments, we should be turning to sites like Kicker.

It isn’t just teens who need more civics and current affairs education, either. Do you recall the recent Saturday Night Live skit mocking “undecided voters?” Undecided voters were invited to ask questions about the election. Questions included, “When is the election? What were the names of the two people running? Who is the president right now? Is he or she running?” While the skit was undoubtedly exaggerated, it’s based in reality: Ojalvo says that adults in their 40s and 50s are secretly emailing her that they need Kicker to understand what’s going on, too.

So to every American who fails to identify the President of the United States, unable to pass the citizenship test, or just wants to comprehend the cluttered national conversation, it would do you very well to spend a minutes a day on Kicker. Let’s mark the words of Adlai Stevenson: “As citizens of this democracy, you are the rulers and the ruled, the law-givers and the law-abiding, the beginning and the end.”

Teen raising hand photo via Shutterstock

MSNBC: American students deserve better than Arne Duncan

This piece originally appeared on MSNBC: American students deserve better than Arne Duncan

As a 17-year-old high school student, I’m both a No Child Left Behind and a Race to the Top baby. I’ve lived through both pieces of failed legislation under former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and now current Secretary Arne Duncan that have seriously derailed the status of education in this country. But I’m optimistic. Along with millions of frustrated students, educators, and parents, I’m committed to a radical reinvention of the system from scratch.

And while it isn’t official yet, Secretary Duncan has hinted that he will return to President Obama’s cabinet for a second term. I can tell you that isn’t good news.

At the Council of Chief State Officers conference last week, Duncan outlined the basics of a second-term education agenda with plans to “replicate” the work the administration did in its first term. He hopes to reauthorize the defective No Child Left Behind law and continue his carrot-and-stick approach to ramming his proposals into states and school districts. Secretary Duncan’s most likely appointment is a clear sign to the American public that President Obama has turned a blind eye toward students, educators, and parents.

Look, I wholeheartedly respect Secretary Duncan and I’ve met him a number of times, but the Department of Education deserves nothing more than a big fat F for its first term. Race to the Top has been an utter failure for brutalizing the teaching profession, adding irrational testing for preschoolers (I wish I was kidding), driving a national obsession over high-stakes testing, and pushing for charters to hijack public schools. It’s like a “Russian novel, because it’s long, it’s complicated, and in the end, everybody gets killed,” as one superintendent quipped.

And now Secretary Duncan wants to “replicate” all of this. Give me a break. Education is not a race; it is a journey. And as John Dewey said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

I don’t have a doubt that the president will re-appoint Mr. Duncan, but my question is: Why should the future of American education hang in limbo because President Obama wants to keep his pal for basketball scrimmages? Let me begin by noting that the president doesn’t even agree with Duncan on a number of things. In his State of the Union address last year, Obama declared that schools should “teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test”—antithetical to his very own Department of Education’s policies.

This model of governing, adopted from the Chicago schools system, is simply broken.

Recollect Secretary Duncan’s unnerving operations when he was the head honcho of Chicago public schools a few years ago, when he bounced kids around from district to district to make it appear as though schools were “turning around.” Duncan did not confront the issue of the effect of poverty on learning in a city where 80% of the school children live below the poverty line. He dumbed down standards, misleading the public when he proclaimed that test scores had risen. Mr. Duncan shuttered “failing” schools, replacing neighborhood schools with charters, often run by billionaires and corporations. Duncan didn’t address the abysmal 40% dropout rate, a national embarrassment. If his reforms unequivocally failed miserably in Chicago, how the hell were they supposed to work successfully on the national level?

At NBC Education Nation, Governor Mitt Romney lauded Duncan for his stellar track record; Romney raving about a Democrat should raise some eyebrows. Finally, take note that Duncan called Governor Bobby Jindal,  a politician who has tried strenuously with his iron fist to obliterate public education and establish a voucher system to more than half of the students in the state of Louisiana, ”a visionary leader.”

The last thing our schools need is Arne Duncan for four more years. President Obama—sack him now or you will soon find millions of educators, students, and parents in your backyard. Mark my words. Public education has had enough. Teachers have had enough. Students have had enough. Parents have had enough.

Call it whatever you want, but this is a blatant full-blown assault on institutions that educate the members of our democracy.

You know what would be a radical, and a popular, move by President Obama? If he appointed a progressive thinker to be the Education Secretary, someone such as Joichi Ito, Monika Hardy, Sir Ken Robinson, Lisa Nielsen, Gever Tulley, or Alfie Kohn, all of whom want to truly transform the way we learn. Now, that would be a big deal.

GOOD Education: The Rise of Democratic Schools and ‘Solutionaries’: Why Adults Need to Get Out of the Way

This piece originally appeared on GOOD Education: The Rise of Democratic Schools and ‘Solutionaries’: Why Adults Need to Get Out of the Way


Twenty years ago at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Severn Cullis-Suzuki, a 12-year-old girl from Canada, “silenced the world for six minutes” with her raw and powerful oration lambasting adults for dumping the problems they created onto the next generation. “At school, even in kindergarten, you teach us how to behave in the world,” she said. “You teach us to not to fight with others, to work things out, to respect others and to clean up our mess, not to hurt other creatures, to share, not be greedy. Then, why do you go out and do the things you tell us not to do?”

Last March, Esquire revealed what it called the current “War on Youth”. In July, Newsweek dubbed millennials “Generation Screwed”. In the middle of this mayhem, young people have been left on the sidelines, given the cold shoulder, and ignored. In my life, I’ve been told to shut up, sit down, and listen. I witness this every single day at school. Top-down, rigid policies dictate word-for-word what students and teachers must do and learn. As a young person, very few seem to be on our side and even fewer attempt to strengthen our voice. Education thought leader Paulo Freire once quipped, “If the structure does not permit dialogue, the structure must be changed.”

Young people bring a fresh angle to the conversation. It may not always be correct, but at the very least that perspective isn’t drowned in years and years of expertise. You wonder why this may be the best time in human civilization to be a young entrepreneur. Anyone can invent or create something without the risk of failing miserably considering the networks, mentors, and resources we’re bathing in.

Most adults are simply not doing enough, except for perhaps Charlie Kouns and David Loitz—the visionaries at Imagining Learning. Around the United States, Kouns, Loitz, and their team have been hosting listening sessions, inviting young people to share their revelations and insights on education.

“We have been told by students that this was often the first they had been asked to share their own views on education,” says Loitz. “We must provide a safe space for them to express this vision, to dream, critique, revise, and reinvent the world in which we live.”

After these listening sessions, Kouns and Loitz analyze and try to make sense of what they have learned by connecting the voices of young people around the nation. Now students are even calling up Imagining Learning to hold sessions in their own communities. Their ultimate goal as Kouns tells me is to “create a national collective voice on the wisdom of young people.” They are certainly on their way.

Now let’s frame the disenfranchisement of youth in terms of the role that schools play. Zoe Weil, president at the Institute for Humane Education, puts it point-blank. “Given the grave problems that confront them—at a time when we face dwindling resources and when one billion of whom don’t even have access to clean water and enough food—young people need real knowledge, tools, and motivation, and if they don’t receive these in school we are, in essence, wasting their time and threatening their future.” That’s why Weil argues that we need to create a generation of “solutionaries.” Ones who are willing to attach themselves to a cause or issue that is greater than themselves.

Some schools, that rarely get much media attention, have made Weil’s philosophy their mission. This includes some democratic, Montessori, and public schools, like the Brooklyn Free School, Sudbury Valley School, and the MET Schools.

Let’s put the microscope on democratic schools. In 2005 at the Berlin International Democratic Education Conference, participants agreed on this statement to define these institutions: “We believe that, in any educational setting, young people have the right: to decide individually how, when, what, where, and with whom they learn to have an equal share in the decision-making as to how their organizations—in particular their schools—are run, and which rules and sanctions, if any, are necessary.”

I spoke with the leading voice in the alternative school movement, Jerry Mintz, the founder of the Alternative Education Resource Organization. “Democratic schools,” Mintz explains, “harness the authority of all members of the community and believe that every community member has something to contribute.” Children are treated and respected like human beings in society and transform into self-directed learners with teachers and mentors as guides on the side. Above all, “the rights of the students are supported,” adds Mintz. (Full Disclosure: A.E.R.O. published my book).

This is a type of school that perhaps I would be anxious to attend every day. Imagine if governments, businesses, and schools took these principles to heart. Imagine how radically different our planet would operate. At first it would ruffle the feathers of an old, white male elite system, but it would in due time result in a spree of efficiency, transparency, and inventiveness

Consider Joichi Ito, director of the M.I.T. Media Lab, in the book What Matters Now (PDF): “We live in an age where people are starving in the midst of abundance and our greatest enemy is our own testosterone driven urge to control our territory and our environments. It’s time we listen to children and allow neoteny to guide us beyond the rigid frameworks and dogma created by adults.” A generation is an invaluable thing to throw away. More than half of the world is under the age of 30. In other words, start listening to my peers—young people!

Severn Cullis-Suzuki’s father has said, “You are what you do, not what you say.” Grown-ups, it’s up to you to give this generation a seat at the table. You owe this to us.

A version of this post originally appeared at WISE-Quatar

Teenager walking image via Shutterstock

GOOD Education: Students For Education Reform? Not the Change We Need

This piece originally appeared on GOOD Education: Students For Education Reform? Not the Change We Need. chair.schoolIt all began in early August of this year. Stephanie Rivera, a student at Rutgers University and future teacher, published a gutsy, investigative piece uncovering the lunacy behind Students for Education Reform, an organization founded by two Princeton students, Catharine Bellinger and Alexis Morin. I highly suggest you read it yourself, but the commentary struck a profound chord with me for a number of reasons.

SFER has rolled out its corporate reform agenda onto over a hundred college campuses across the nation, which includes defending the takeover of public schools by charters and teacher evaluation systems that tie salaries to test scores. Don’t believe me? Bellinger and Morin, marionettes of the likes of Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, and Eli Broad, are now forcing some chapters to sign onto agreements that they carry out the mission of SFER—this was, not surprisingly, uncovered by Rivera.

SFER’s primary mission is to close the achievement gap, but as education historian Camika Royal writes (referring to those who generally use the term), the organization only “speaks of academic outcomes, not the conditions that led to those outcomes, nor does it acknowledge that the outcomes are a consequence of those conditions.” Where do they address on their site the putrid effects of poverty on schooling? They don’t.

As journalist Dana Goldstein writes,

“…No school can find decent jobs for under- or unemployed parents who can’t put nutritious food on the table; nor can a school make up for the chronic instability of a young life spent in foster care or moving from apartment to apartment in a futile quest for safe, affordable housing. Volumes of research show such experiences affect cognitive development and children’s ability to focus in school; dedicated educators and counselors work wonders with such children each day, but they don’t rescue neighborhoods from poverty.”

In terms of funding, Education Reform Now gave SFER and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst—or as I like to call it StudentsLast—over $1.6 million in 2010. Remember, this is an organization whose PAC is DFER, a group bankrolled by Wall Street hedge-fund titans, moguls, and a number of billionaires. That’s not to mention that SFER’s board members include evangelists of KIPP and Teach for America. Many of these college students do not realize they are literally being bought out. Both Bellinger and Morin are in bed with these organizations.

When I was in the beginning stages of researching my book, Morin contacted me for a brief conversation and I agreed to speak with her. I recall that she particularly discussed SFER along with the “successes” of the New York City public school system, and said that Mayor Bloomberg had made significant progress. I was flabbergasted. After the conversation Morin, sent me a piece written by Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. I kept my unease to myself, but then three months ago Rivera’s piece was published, validating my concerns.

That same day I was banned from posting on SFER’s Facebook page. All I wrote was, “Don’t get tricked by SFER tactics! It promotes a corporate agenda! It’s hurting millions of kids around the country,” and I included a link to Rivera’s post.” Oh well.

A question I’d like to ask is: What is in the water at Princeton University? Two epitomes of failure in educational change—first Teach for America and now Students for Education Reform. Please, make it stop.

Educators, administrators, parents, I beg for you to not think for a second that SFER represents the voice of students. It doesn’t. It is instead a mob of baby sheep, educated in obedience and submission, kowtowing to the forces that seek to obliterate public education. As a student, it’s shameful and degrading watching these delinquents bash the very people who educated them, call for evaluations that reduce children to numbers, and allow for corporations and billionaires to wither away our democracy. It’s a national disgrace.

Longtime teacher Susan Ohanian put it beautifully, “Either you join the revolution or you stand against the needs of children and democracy.” Wake the hell up, America.

Wooden chair and blackboard photo via Shutterstock

The Globe and Mail: Students should help Sandy victims, not attend school

This piece originally appeared in The Globe and Mail: Students should help Sandy victims, not attend school.

Each day, the New York region attempts to ease the suffering and mayhem caused by Hurricane Sandy and return to a period of normalcy. Mass transit systems are slowly awakening after days of being paralyzed. Power lines are being restored. And fuel arteries are becoming unclogged.

In these ailing and grieving times, there are a few flickers of light – stories of extraordinary human beings. A Flatbush, N.Y. man walked more than a mile in the hurricane to save a litter of newborn kittens. Newark Mayor Cory Booker invited victims into his own home. Richard Nicotra, a Staten Island hotel owner, refused to evict hurricane victims from their rooms.

Still, an estimated $50-billion in damages were caused, thousands have lost their homes and millions are still without food, clean water, and heat. We certainly have a long way to go.

On Monday, most schools in New York City, Long Island, and New Jersey resumed operations. Many children returned to schools that are structurally damaged and without heat.

Is this is the right move when millions of Americans are still stranded? This is my plea : Close down schools for the rest of the week and bring students and teachers to disaster relief and volunteer centres to help the hurricane victims. Why? My response: Why not?

First, the fuel intended to heat schools can be re-allocated into distribution centres, soup kitchens, and shelters.

Second and more importantly, we have a perfect learning opportunity at our fingertips to teach young people about the importance of community service and awareness, both of which are fundamentally lacking in American public schools. Across the Tri-State area, organizations are helplessly scrambling for more volunteers. For example, at Randall’s Island Park, more than 50 volunteers are needed for a park clean up. At City Harvest Mobile markets on Staten Island, blankets, food, and water bottles aren’t going to be handed out by themselves. In Far Rockaway, organizers’ hands are tied as they search for canvassers to go door to door to deliver supplies.

Thus, classes of students accompanied by their teachers can attend to specific disaster areas. The most important sources of knowledge are not schools, but rather informal institutions like community centres and museums. By participating in relief activities, students are learning by doing.

Hurricane relief is also service and project-based learning at its best. Curriculum can include spearheading a letter-writing campaign to call on oil companies to pay for relief, creating an app to help drivers find gas stations that are open, or building a simulated model of a New York City levee system. What these three ideas have in common is that they are real-world experiences and grounded in critical thinking and collaboration.

One manifesto goes like this: “We [need to] start creating school as a dynamic social engine for entire towns and cities that drive every citizen toward a higher, greater good: the public interest.” For far too long, we have treated schools like citadels from ancient times, isolated from the outside world. John le Carré once quipped, “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” Imagine if the city is the school.

As a high-school student, I would love to witness millions of young people go door to door and hand out food and water and blankets, clean up debris, and organize food and clothing drives. My generation is crying out for opportunities to be a part of something bigger than themselves. This would stamp their identities onto rebuilding these devastated communities. This is our call to action. There’s no age limit to partake in the recovery effort.

Sure, if millions of children go to school they will have more hours of instruction added to their bullion, but the opportunity cost is tremendously high. Helping with relief efforts may very well become these kids’ best learning experience of their lives.

Nikhil Goyal is the 17-year-old author of One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School, which was published by the Alternative Education Resource Organization in September 2012 and offers ideas to revolutionize education. He is a student at Syosset High School in New York.