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Teaching Students to Live Lives of Greatness

I am concerned about the belief systems that so many of my students have. The vast majority of them sell themselves short. They lack the concept that their life is a gift to the world. They think they are ordinary and that they do not make a big difference in the world.

The result is devastating. That is why many don't try. It is why they indulge in a whole spectrum of risky behaviors. They don't take the kind of risks that we would like them to take either. That is the kind of risk that has them trying new activities: joining a team, taking a harder class, or auditioning for the choir. Their grades are low because they don't have a sense of the impact that their lives can have. They are willing to live mediocre lives because they don't have a sense of what is possible.

Teachers need to teach their subject matter, but we also need to create curriculum that helps students believe that they can live iives of greatness. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "Everyone can be great because everyone can serve." George Eliot said, What do we live for if it is not to make life a little easier for others."

My point is that each person has greatness within them if they care to find it. We do not have to be great performers; we can make a huge difference in the lives of others in so many ways. Each profession has its own special impact on society. Parenthood is an often overlooked chance for greatness. Many people find greatness in the things they do outside the workplace.

I have a few ideas on how teachers can create the kind of curriculum that will help students begin to wake up to the great potential that lies waiting within them. I am hoping that other teachers will respond to this post with their ideas, so that I can use those ideas as well in reaching my students.

Idea #1 Former students who portray greatness.
We need to find former students who sat in the very desks that our students sit in now who are examples of greatness. We need to relate the magnificent stories of the impact those ex-students have made on their families, their communities, their countries, and their world. Occasionally, we may want to invite them to come speak to our classes or to assemblies - whether for the freshman teams or the whole school. Remember that they don't need to be world leaders; however, most schools do have spectacular alumni.

Idea #2 Presentation of literary and historical characters who exemplify lives of greatness
This can be done easily in English and history classrooms, and there is opportunity in math and science classrooms as well. Homer Hickam (October Sky) would be a good example for both science and math teachers.

Idea #4 Songs
A surprising number of songs present the kind of messages we would like to present to students. "Unwritten" by Natasha Bedingfield is an example. I hesitate to mention country songs since so many people make fun of them, but Randy Travis has a song called "I Did My Part." It raises the question of the kind of legacy he will leave. While my students often make fun of my choice of songs, we often just look at them as poetry. That is one way that I avoid the issue of musical taste.

Idea #5 Movies
Movies like October Sky and The Mighty have been used in my school to help students see that there are possibilites for them that are greater than they can imagine. Sometimes, we have used a movie as the basis of a major interdisciplinary project. Other times the movie will be shown in a science class and a paper will be written on it in English. Often we use only a clip from a movie. A great example is from Second Hand Lions. A young boy asks his uncle if stories about the uncle are true. The uncle says that it does not matter. He says that a man should believe is something, whether true or not, because it is worth believing in. That kind of believing is the kind that can change the course of a life, and it is the kind of believing we want our students to do.

Idea #6 Quotes
Teachers in all subject areas can use a quote as a bell ringer or do now assignment at the beginning of class to get students seated with their notebooks open. Former Senator Phil Gram said that America is not great because it has the best people. He said that America is great because in all the history of time and of all the places on the face of the planet, America offers the greatest opportunity. Now that is an idea worth considering!

I hope other teachers will share strategies, songs, movie clips and other ideas that help students realize that they can live lives of greatness.

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Comment by Chris Blackburn on February 16, 2009 at 10:18pm

This is a really good post. I love the movie October Sky and find myself motivated by it. I work with school in McDowell Co. WVA and I have seen how poor that county is. It is hard to believe that these boys were able to accomplish what they did being from such a "poor" community. If only today's kids could see that anything is possible when they put their mind to it and work for it despite their environment or what other people think.

Comment by Scott Habeeb on January 19, 2009 at 5:58pm

This is a really great post. I think that each of the seven ideas could probably serve as individual topics for future blog posts. I think the members of the network would benefit from your experiences in each of these areas.
Comment by Ray Moore on January 15, 2009 at 5:41pm
Idea #7
Service Project
For the last two years, our Freshman Teams conducted a "Walk for Africa-One Life to Make a Difference" service project. In team classes we watched a number of different videos on the plight of children in Africa. The clips showed the devastation of war, famine, and disease on these innocent victims. Then the students developed sponsors and on the last day before Thanksgiving, we walked on the school track for the first three periods of the day. Each year we raised around $5,000 that was sent to help children in Africa. This year, matching grants provided $17,000 total aid from our walk. Prior to the walk, we made tie-dye t-shirts with the slogan "One Life to Make a Difference" screen printed on the front. Students have been wearing them to school ever since.

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