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By Karen Herland
With so much handwringing about how our digital culture is reducing young people to iPod-wearing automatons glued to their computer screens and joysticks, it’s refreshing to find an educator using the technology for creative, socially engaged purposes.
Michael Sweet has been teaching language arts in high school for a while. When he began his MA in education, he knew what he did not like about the current system, but he was not certain what he could do to change it.
“Public education is in a dark age. There is so much senseless busywork,” said Sweet, who teaches full-time at Lester B. Pearson High School.
Inspired by former Concordia professor Emery Hyslop-Margison and pedagogical theorist Maxine Greene, Sweet decided to combine two ideas that had been kicking around in his head. On the one hand, he wanted students to participate in the democratic process. At the same time, he wanted their work to be recognized. “Kids were writing great stuff, and it was just going to my desk for a mark and then the recycling bin.”
He decided to take advantage of digital advances that have democratized the publishing industry and developed Learning for a Cause, a program that gets students writing creatively about social justice issues, working to get their material publishable and then actually producing books of the students’ work (www.LearningforaCause.org).
“It’s exciting to see students who never carry a book reading one because they know the authors,” said Sweet, who keeps the resulting volumes in his classroom.
The third book, Down to Earth, has just been published by Trafford Press in B.C., and features introductory remarks by Roberta Bondar and Justin Trudeau. It contains the poetry and stories of about 100 of Sweet’s students addressing environmental concerns. “The theory supported my practice and my practice supported the theory.”
Sweet worked individually with each student once they had picked the assignment they wanted to see in the volume. Completing his degree requirements while overseeing the project was difficult, “But I’m really passionate about it. I can’t believe I get paid to do this.”
Other educators have express-ed interest in the project. He is working with a few teachers, though most are thinking about combining several years’ worth of student work into publications.
Meanwhile, his students are making a difference on many levels. “Their voices are leaving the classroom and going to the community,” he said. And their engagement extends beyond that. The students have already donated hundreds of dollars in royalties to the Montreal Children’s Hospital.