Actions can make a difference

16th September 2005 at 01:00
A paperback costing just five pounds is helping pupils discover the spirit of altruism. Jerome Monahan reports

Jessica Pilkington (14) has just walked farther than she has ever walked before. Her 20-mile cross-country hike raised pound;100 for her school's contribution to Make Poverty History. Unremarkable in itself, perhaps, but Jessica's efforts are part of a spirit of altruism that's been growing in her school, St James's Church of England Secondary in Bolton, in recent months.

The origins of this collective outbreak of good nature lie in a book called Change the World for a Fiver. The pound;5 in question buys readers access to 48 simple yet wittily and compellingly described "actions" likely to boost their consideration for others and their environment. More than 100,000 copies were sold in the three months after its publication in 2004, and it is already having an impact on schools in their efforts to foster pupils' active citizenship.

"Mahatma Gandhi said that we should be the change we want to see in the world," says Karen Owen, RE teacher at St James's. "It's the book's central message and it got us asking what kind of world and school we wanted. We realised how similar our hopes were and that it was up to us to make them real. The book gave us lots of ideas and we began adding some of our own."

Action 5, highlighting the fact that fewer muscles are needed to smile than to frown, was the first to have an impact. At St James's, default smiling has evolved into a pattern of random acts of kindness between staff and students. The Make Poverty History campaign and a Bulgarian orphanage have also benefited.

At the Thomas Lord Audley School in Colchester, citizenship co-ordinator Pauline Ireland has also found Change the World for a Fiver invaluable, making it the basis of a programme of lessons that have been well received by colleagues and students. "The book's suggested actions are a challenge to young people's assumption that they are incapable of making a difference in the world," she says.

Page seven contains a packet of Scots pine seeds alongside instructions to plant them in a stand against the destruction of the world's forests. "By getting more seeds and asking students to bring in compost, one lesson became a mass planting," says Pauline.

"Meanwhile, Action 17 got students thinking what they could do instead of watching TV. The work helpfully reinforced maths skills and dovetailed with Action 12, against leaving TV sets continually on standby."

Among the book's contributors are some of the biggest names in advertising and marketing. A key component of its impact is its revitalising of well-worn good deeds messages through clever design, photography and copywriting. Prizing two stuck pages apart reveals data about the annual cost of removing chewing gum from the UK's streets (pound;150 million or the equivalent of 8,500 teachers). The Action 35 page provides a card to send to someone who has inspired you. And the message for Action 46 is revealed when the page is held to the light, enabling the words on the reverse to appear - "use both sides of paper".

"The goal was to make these actions and the sense of community that underlies them into a brand capable of generating the loyalty that surrounds commercial products. We are not promoting a charity, but a global movement," says Anne Shewring of the community links project, We Are What We Do, which published the book. There is also a website where visitors are invited to add their "actions" to a totaliser - currently standing at half a million altruistic deeds.

Back at St James's, Karen Owen is excited about how the goodwill foundations laid this year can be built on in the next.

"It may sound corny," says Matthew Ashworth aged 14, "but giving really does gain you happiness."

* We Are What We Do http:wearewhatwedo.org

Teachers resources and assembly downloadable PowerPoint files: http:wearewhatwedo.orgdownloadsdownloads.php

Citizenship Foundation - G-Nation: www.g-nation.co.uk

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