I woke up the other morning feeling pretty good about 2008.  From signing my first book contract and being published in several important education journals to being hired as a professional learning communities consultant/associate by Solution Tree, my life has been professionally rewarding.

So I wanted to find a way to give as much as I’ve gained.  Like most teachers, I’m a pretty socially aware guy always looking to make contributions to the world—and taking action this year just made sense.  My struggle was finding the right way to give back.  While I love working in my community, there just seems to be far greater challenges outside of my corner of the world that needed attention.

That’s when I stumbled onto this Karl Fisch blog post, detailing an open, collective effort on the part of edubloggers to drive change in the world called Team Shift Happens.  Working through Kiva—an organization dedicated to ending world poverty by connecting interested people in the developed world with entrepreneurs in need of microloans to start businesses in the developing world—Team Shift Happens has already loaned out over $1,800 to citizens of dozens of countries around the globe.

After poking around the Kiva website for about 20 minutes, I was hooked.  Being a social studies teacher who covers Eastern Europe and South America with students every year, I understand the income disparities that  plague residents of our world’s poorest countries.  Honestly, it’s one of the greatest geopolitical challenges of our time—and the root of many of the conflicts that we’ll wrestle with throughout the 21st Century.

To be able to help by spreading my wealth around—-with no offense to Joe the Plumber—just plain feels right.

So I made a $100 microloan to a group of women in Bolivia working to start several small businesses.  Some are interested in making and selling baked goods and groceries.  Others are working as domestic servants or in public transportation.  All are committed to one another and to bettering their communities.  And all are committed to paying back the $4,675 dollars loaned to them by 144 people in 20 different countries ranging from the United States and Canada to Italy, Switzerland, Romania and Korea.

How amazing is that?  144 people from different corners of the globe who have never met one another have come together to help 16 women in Bolivia change their lives—and the lives of their families and communities.

For me, this lesson in giving is one that I’ll carry back to my classroom.

You see, our school is constantly looking for charity/service projects to get involved in—and while everything that we’ve chosen has been worthy of great admiration, none have encouraged our children to see beyond the United States and to look at the realities of life in the world’s poorest nations.

We talk about poverty in South America in sixth grade.  Our seventh graders study Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, which are some of the poorest regions in the world.  Kiva gives that poverty a face—and gives my students a practical, hands-on opportunity to drive change in the regions of the world that they are learning about.  With simple loans of anywhere from $25 to $100—sums that my classes will be able to easily raise—my kids will see that wealth isn’t universal.

What’s even better, my kids will learn lessons about money management and loans.  In general, organizations like Kiva that make microloans see incredibly small default rates.  In fact, the group working with the Bolivian women I’ve sponsored has loaned out almost $600 thousand dollars and never had a loan that wasn’t repaid.  As each loan my class makes is repaid in full by people working hard in countries where poverty is crushing, my kids will gain valuable role models for fiscal responsibility—-something that America can’t seem to provide on its own right now.

Finally, my kids will learn lessons on how digital tools make it easy for people to come together and drive change.  Where else can 144 people from 20 different countries meet to take action as one?  That’s the power of the internet—-and the power of digital communities—at work.  And that’s a message in influence that our kids need to hear.  None of us are alone in our efforts, our ambitions or our commitments any more—and if we use easy and free communication and collaboration tools, we can pool our efforts and improve our world without breaking a sweat.

So Kiva—and Team Shift Happens—is probably the best holiday gift I’ve found this year.  Not only are both groups that I can support and believe in, but both help me to engage my students in conversations about the realities of the regions that we study and the role that individual citizens can play as change agents.

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