by Kristina Hulvershorn
At the same time, I know that the layers of my relationship to the learner (“Is the teacher judging me for buying Nike’s?”) and their own emotions (“I feel awful. I had no idea cocoa beans are related to child labor.”) can get in the way of really grappling with that information.
I also am not able to separate myself from the young learner I once was in a Montessori classroom, where the child is trusted to learn independently and at their own pace.
Now, I think processing some content with a larger group can be useful, but to slow down and really understand some of the humane education topics independently is really useful for learners.
These are some of the key reasons I created Be the Change, which is a humane education museum in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Circumstances aligned for me to be able to create this small museum as a partnership between HEART and Peace Learning Center. It contains 30 discrete exhibits, most of which are hands-on experiences.
All humane educators are pioneers.
We are all swimming upstream and building our planes as we fly them, so I know I’m in good company as I try new things. Here, I’ll share some of my successes and lessons learned in hope that this might have some relevance to the humane work you are doing.
One of my favorite aspects of an exhibit format is that when it is executed well, I can get out of the way, and the learning is all the more meaningful because of it.
One of the first objectives I had as I created the exhibits, was to demystify some of the statistics that had become so meaningful to me.
I often wondered, and still do sometimes, about how we can continue living the way we do when we learn things like, “The US population makes up less than 5% of the world’s population but generates over 30% of the total waste!”
To “get” that, you may have had to read it a few times. If you’re like a lot of kids, you have statistics and numbers flying at you all of the time, so you probably have gotten pretty good at ignoring some of them.
I wanted to create a way to pull people in to understand some of these numbers, which creates a greater likelihood that they will then care about what the numbers communicate.
The exhibit “Material World,” which is displayed along with the photography and book featured in the “Material World” collection, is an attempt at displaying some of the statistics associated with the consumption habits of Americans. We wanted to do that in an inviting way, while also helping students grapple with the question “Does more stuff really make us happier?” That question is not directly answered, because that is the work of the learner. In fact, more questions arise, but they are given space to grapple with the complexity and reflect.
Like “Material World,” a lot of the exhibits focus in on one specific set of statistics, like the carbon dioxide (CO2) output of food choices, water usage per food choice, etc.
For the CO2 output, first we needed to understand how to even conceptualize what a pound of CO2 is.
After all, most of the examples of carbon impact are measured in pounds of CO2. To approximate an understanding, we calculated that one pound of CO2 would be enough to fill 27 balloons.
So, we made 27 papier-mâché balloons to display as a visual reference.
Then, when you learn that an average American creates more than 200 pounds of CO2 a week just by driving, the seriousness of that metric takes on new meaning.
We also made test tubes to demonstrate the relative quantities of CO2, so that you can compare the pounds of CO2 in a hamburger to that of a tomato. Seeing the comparison between these two was really important as people grapple with how they can do the least harm in food choices.
Next, it was important for us to allow visitors to understand the water footprint of their food to see which of their foods were more resource-intensive when it comes to water. A student suggested that we could use discarded single-use plastic bottles to represent the water use, so each bottle actually represents 500 gallons — which is about a hot tub’s worth of water.
So, without going too far into the weeds, there are several levels working to help the learner understand the data and then draw their own conclusions. We sourced many of the statistics from the Environmental Working Group and worked hard to make sure the stats we used were as accurate as possible.
Empathy and Perspective
Several of the other exhibits (such as “Someone Else’s Shoes” and “Empathy Theatre”) are really about pushing the learner to engage with a subject from another’s perspective, all designed to enhance empathy.
There are a series of role-playing scenarios that ask participants to think and feel from another human or another animal’s perspective. These activities are done respectfully and are intended to make the realities of a sugar cane farmer or a wolf experiencing disappearing habitat, for example, more real.
Simply asking the learner to stop and to really think through these realities can be extraordinarily powerful. These are examples of “sticky” learning (concepts that stick because the way we learned them was so engaging or real.)
I don’t doubt for a minute that if more humans were asked to really sit with and take seriously the realities of deforestation or child labor (among others,) the trajectory of life on this planet would change for the better.
Breaking out of the traditional education paradigm has been amazingly nourishing for me, as a person who thrives when I have the opportunity to be creative. Building out new and novel ways to get learners of all kinds to understand our content is a serious charge, but it can also be a joyful one.
Here’s to finding creative ways of building bridges between humanity and the planet, between human beings, and between all of the creatures who call this Earth home.
(Editor’s Note: Watch a presentation Kristina gave at the 2019 Humane Education Coalition Summit about the museum and exhibits she has created.)
Guest contributor Kristina Hulvershorn, Director of Restorative and Humane Programs at Peace Learning Center and Indianapolis Program Manager for HEART, has been a teacher in Indianapolis Public Schools and Chicago Public Schools, specializing in the emotional and behavioral lives of students.
She earned a B.A. in both general and special education, as well as a master’s degree in humane education from the Institute for Humane Education. She has also worked as an administrator in Chicago Public Schools and brings a passion for social emotional learning, social justice, and school climate as addressed through peace education and restorative practices.
She is the founder of Be the Change, an exhibition housed at Peace Learning Center, designed to inspire compassion for animals, our environment, and humans. She is also the co-director of Climate Camp and the author of Secret of the Troublemakers.
She lives with her human and animal family in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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