I have often been impressed by my students’ capacity for empathy and their desire to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Unfortunately, I am often frustrated when I try to find meaningful ways to channel that empathy in classroom activities. So many service opportunities are only open to older students or require students to ask their parents (or other adults) for donations. Similarly, it is very difficult to find projects that keep an entire class engaged but also fit within the school day.
Having struggled with these challenges every year, particularly as the holidays approach, is part of what has made my recent experiment so rewarding. Over the last two weeks, I worked with grade 6 and 7 students to make $500 worth of micro-finance loans through kiva.org. I first got the idea when I watched Jessica Jackley’s inspiring Ted Talk about how and why she started Kiva. The frustration she described – wanting to help but not knowing how – resonated with my frustration about finding suitable opportunities for my students.
Working in groups, my students first established a list of criteria that should be considered when deciding to whom they should lend the money. They considered factors like whether the entrepreneur had a family, the risk rating on the loan and the re-payment term. They discussed whether they should concentrate their investment in one area or whether it should be spread to different places around the world. Once the criteria had been established, each group searched for an entrepreneur who met the criteria. They then had to make a pitch to another student who would approve (or decline) the loan based on whether it met the criteria.
It was amazing to see how engaged all the students were. They read about real people in real places and they were able to make a real contribution to what they were doing. The experience also led to great questions and discussions about the difference between a loan and a donation, the risks associated with lending and basic business concepts like repayment terms, profits and losses.
I think the greatest strength of this experience is that it isn’t over. The money has been loaned, but it will be repaid, and when it is, there will be another round of discussions about what to do with the money and how to make the decision.