What are schools for? This is an important question. I argue that a school's main function is to prepare students to be productive and successful citizens and I would bet that there are very few opponents to this definition. The trouble begins when another question is asked: “How do schools prepare citizens?” This question has many answers which invokes philosophical and political debate and can even lead to arguments among educators. The truth is that there isn't a perfect answer to this question because life isn't a multiple choice quiz. It is open, creative, and evolving. In fact, I believe powerful educators promote the idea that there are many answers with the best solution ultimately being a colorful collection of many approaches rather than a simple statement.
One of these approaches is to teach students how to embrace the local community. In an era when global collaboration and video conferencing are becoming common classroom practices, we can easily overlook the fact that we can't get global unless we step outside the front door first. Schools are built to be community centers. They are concert halls and sports arenas. Yet we too often remain isolated in a classroom with few visitors and even fewer outreach options. I know this model does not help to create successful citizens. As international events and the shrinking of our world puts pressure on teachers to connect at this scale, we shouldn't overlook the value of connecting locally.
I promote this simple concept every day. While the title of the courses I teach are usually named Technology Seminar or Computer Science, it is commonplace to walk in to my computer lab and see a dozen high school students cutting signs for the Lion's Club, sketching logos for the local coffee house's website, or transcribing the bylaws for the local senior center – and they are smiling. Students chat with tech support online, go to the store for supplies, and make phone calls in search of the best prices for the organizations we help. They enjoy helping and they enjoy class. They are connected as community members and have ownership. When they get free coffee from Brig O'Doon for their work, of course they are happy!
It isn't always about the curriculum, the standards, the tests, or the grades. Remember, it is actually about preparing students to become successful citizens. Our charge is to teach the whole child all the time and a narrow vision of education will not due. Posting a website for a cancer survivor's benefit builds character, volunteering time at the elementary school instills a value for service, and struggling with a church's database of local war veterans teaches perseverance. These soft skills honed in community activities prepare students for the world after high school more than any curriculum and they can't be taught. Students must earn their character and that is the best lesson I know how to teach.
Rich Kiker is the Media Technology Chair and Technology Coach at Palisades School District in Bucks County, PA as well as an adjunct professor of Instructional Technology at Kutztown University. He is also am an educational technology consultant leading professional development for organizations and IUs around PA. You can also find him on twitter - @rkiker.