Learning in Action / by Krista Boivie

Today, I am enjoying Nevada Day by finishing my book from my trip to Turkey. I visited Turkey in 2007 with a group of American teachers. Our trip was sponsored by the Turkish Cultural Foundation and was designed to teach us about the country and the culture of Turkey, and to have us return home and teach our students. It was a transformative trip and I can't wait to one day return to this gorgeous country.  

I thought I would share one of the most moving experiences of my trip.

On August 17, 1999 Turkey was struck by a devastating earthquake. The northwest region that was hit is not far from Istanbul. Many people had immigrated from the eastern part of Turkey to this area in order to find better employment opportunities. More than 17,000 people were killed and approximately 35,000 people injured in the devastation.  

After this massive devastation, the Enka school organization decided to use some of their money (along with money from some multinational coporations) to build a special school in Adapazari for the children who were victims of this earthquake.  Students who had lost one or both of their parents in the earthquake were able to come to this school at no charge (funding was also provided for uniforms, meals, transportation and boarding). They began building the school 40 days after the earthquake by searching out needy children and teachers.

Today the school is the home for 560 students in grades K-12. Acceptance into the school is rigorous and 85% of the students admitted are from poor and disadvantaged homes. I was so moved by the mission of this school and the accomplishments of the students.  More than once I had to wipe away the tears as I heard about the amazing things that they were doing at the school. Two things impressed me the most: First, lunch time. Teachers and students all ate together at lunch.  The teachers did not congregate together but sat and ate with their students to get to know them better.  Each meal was served family style—the middle of the table had food warmers for the hot dishes—and the students and teachers would take turns each day dishing the food onto the plates for those at their table.  This dining style created a feeling of camaraderie and family—something that was missing for those children who lost everything in the earthquake.

The second thing that impressed me was the senior projects the students designed. The students were divided into groups and each group had to create a project that focused on a different issue. The students were responsible for all aspects of the project; deciding on slogan, collection information, finding international partners, performing the project, etc. The principle was for them to tackle a real-world challenge that somehow benefited their community.

The group that presented their completed project to us, weren’t originally sure what they wanted to do, so they decided to go and interview all the adults in a nearby village. Through their interviews, the students discovered that most of the adults in the village were unemployed and the only school in the village was so unsafe that it could not be used. The students decided that their project would focus on those two issues: finding work for the adults and getting the children in a safe school environment. Further interviews with the villagers revealed that the adults had some handicraft and textile experience.

The students contacted Wal-Mart International and negotiated a contract that allowed the villagers to complete one step in the manufacturing of Wal-Mart clothing. The villagers would cut-out clothing that would later be sewn together in another factory. After negotiating the contract, the students then went about securing enough donations to rebuild the community center (where the work would take place) and to fix the dilapidated school building.  Partnering with a sister-school in Austria the students planned how they would construct and restore these two buildings. The students from the sister-school traveled to Turkey and the two groups spent four days furiously constructing and preparing these two spaces.

All of the teachers in our group were dumbfounded to hear presentation.  I have never been more moved by a group of students. They brought an industry to a dying community and provided a way for the villagers to educate their children—powerful stuff. 

I would love to see my students become so invested in a project that it no longer is about their grade, but it becomes about transforming the lives of other people.