Canadian school teaches 'we' instead of 'me'

July 2, 2007
For 15 years, Maxwell students have had a key role in the Portland Island Marine Park Stewardship Program, helping control an invasive plant and documenting progress. These students participated this past year.

HAWNIGAN LAKE, BRITISH COLUMBIA, Canada — It's only three words - a total of six letters. But the "Me to We" slogan helps students understand what service is all about, says the principal of the Maxwell International School, located in the woods of Vancouver Island.

"By adopting what Canadian youth activist Craig Kielberger calls the 'Me to We' philosophy, we help our students to be less 'me'-centered and more centered on the needs of others," said the principal, Dan Vaillancourt.

"Through service to others, students develop empathy and understanding while being exposed to many of the social issues that plague society," he said. "Working with the elderly, the handicapped, the homeless, the sick, the less fortunate - both here and abroad - will reinforce in our children the belief that we are all responsible for creating a better world."

Since its founding by the Baha'is of Canada nearly two decades ago, Maxwell International School - a college-preparatory institution, grades 7 to 12, with an enrollment of 150 students from some 25 countries - has placed heavy emphasis on service.

Many schools around the world offer academic credit for service projects, but Maxwell does not. Involvement in the greater community is simply a part of who they are - and a key part of what comprises a Maxwell education.

"It is all part of the learning at Maxwell," Mr. Vaillancourt said.

Overall, programs at the school reflect a spiritual view of humanity; use of practical, integrative and theme-based projects; the encouragement of creative and artistic expression in all aspects of school life; and the use of service as a tool for learning.

"Maxwell's aim is to encourage students to become servants to humanity, to see the world as an arena for community action, and to determine their active roles as transformers of society," the principal said.

The students come up with projects on their own, through organized programs, with the assistance of faculty or staff, or at the request of outside parties.

Maxwell students in grades 7 to 11 took part in the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, sorting their "catch" for recycling. Slideshow
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Maxwell students in grades 7 to 11 took part in the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, sorting their "catch" for recycling.

Some of the more prominent service projects are:

  • Emergency Response Team - Students are trained in first aid, search and rescue, response to fires and earthquakes, traffic control, and other procedures. They assist professional crews in the event of an emergency.

  • Dance and theater workshops - Music, dance, and drama are used to convey social messages on contemporary issues such as racism, poverty, gender prejudice, substance abuse, peer pressure, justice, and gossip. Presentations are given at area elementary schools and community gatherings, and Maxwell students sometimes travel during their vacation periods for performances.

  • Portland Island Marine Park Stewardship Program - For 15 years, Maxwell students have been working through the Ministry of Parks and Recreation to help control an invasive plant on Portland Island. Data collected by the students provide the ministry with the only long-term record available about the management and removal of this plant. Maxwell has received government recognition for its participation.

  • Rotary International Interact Club - Students work with Rotary, a well-known service organization, on both local and international projects.

One recent service project, called Sprouts, was started by students and involves educating the entire Maxwell community on environmental issues, said Sharon Welsh, director of development at the school.

She said the school encourages students to tackle international projects.

"In 2006 two Maxwell students traveled to Japan to provide leadership for a summer Dance Workshop program," she said.

And this year, four students are going to Tanzania for a summer arts program.

"These youth, three 14-year-olds and one 18-year-old, will join a Maxwell graduate who is on a year of service in Tanzania," Ms. Welsh said. "The project was identified and planned by the youth, who worked evenings and weekends throughout year to raise funds and prepare. ..."

The school has devised mechanisms to make service projects more effective and also to help students understand the nature of service, especially as a way of life. A key component is students being divided into groups of 12 or so, of different ages and backgrounds, and assigned a teacher as an adviser.

"The role of the adviser is to encourage, mentor, empower, and accompany the students on their journey of learning through service," said Mr. Vaillancourt. "Each Adviser Group chooses a service project of some kind to work on throughout the year. These service projects may be local, regional, national, or international in scope."

Laura Veary, a former faculty member who managed the school's community service programs, said some students are reluctant at first to take part in service projects but most do learn the benefits of spending time to help others.

"Students feel good about themselves as they see their accomplishments and the effect of their contributions," said Mrs. Veary. Most students, she said, become motivated to continue to be of service as adults.

Katie Yurychuk, 17, graduates this month and was the student leader of the Maxwell Emergency Response Team.

"The sense of service that Maxwell gives us helped me see myself as part of a world community," she said. "There is so much that we do here that helps us have a more holistic mindset instead of a self-centered mindset. I give 100 percent of that to Maxwell."

Galen Humber, 16, is finishing 10th grade and has been the coordinator for his grade for the Portland Island Marine Park Stewardship program. He said being part of the international community at Maxwell is helping him and his classmates look beyond themselves.

He illustrated his point with this story: "(One) day during home room we had a free period. Half of us decided to go and play dodge ball. When we came back we found the guys who didn't come writing letters to Baha'i communities around the world to encourage them to send their children to our school. We all thought this was a great idea."