Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Mai 2004

8.1. Intercultural Education
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Susanne Binder/Mikael Luciak (Vienna)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Community Service and Teaching in an International School

Nikolay Peter Hersey (American International School, Vienna)


Moliere said: "We are responsible not only for what we do, but also for what we neglect to do."


I. The Setting

School is many things to many people. In school, children learn the important things offered by our accumulated historical and scientific experience. In school, children acquire critical thinking skills that are supposed to serve them and their community throughout their lives. Their own achievements in their lifetime will - to a large extent - be based upon the lessons they learned from their teachers and from their peers in a school setting. After all, we spend at least ten of our most formative years learning to read, to write, to reckon and to think in ways, which are supposed to allow us to build a future for ourselves and for others. Consider the following Mission Statement for the American International School here in Vienna:

"The American International School in Vienna offers a university preparatory education in the American day-school style for children of all nationalities from pre-kindergarten through high school. We provide a culture of educational excellence, a nurturing environment, and an atmosphere of open communication. We inspire our youth to discover their highest potential in diverse areas of endeavor. We foster personal integrity and democratic values and aim to prepare our students to become responsible, globally-conscious citizens." (1)

AIS, as we call it, has a population of about 800 kids, 30% of them are North Americans, another 20% are Austrian citizens and the remaining 50% come from more than twenty-five nations. This is clearly a multicultural setting, according to most people's definition of the word. What are my responsibilities as a teacher in this setting? In Teaching about Ethnic Diversity, 1984, Cohen and Bernstein wrote: "Educators who recognize and respect their students' ethnic identities should also prepare them to assume common obligations and responsibilities of citizenship which involve shared civic values..." And further, according to William Sanchez in 1995, "[Education] professionals are also challenged by the need to consider the impact of complex social/environmental problems, which in many contexts have negative consequences for children from various racial/ethnic and social class backgrounds."(2)

Neither Moliere nor Cohen and Bernstein nor Sanchez were involved directly in the formulation of the AIS mission statement, but they might have been!


II. A teacher's responsibility

It took the better part of three months in committee to create that AIS mission statement. The committee offered several drafts to the school community and enlisted feedback from parents, faculty and students. I'd like to focus on that last sentence, especially the part about becoming globally conscious.

What does it mean to become "globally conscious"? In earlier times, I guess philosophers would have used the term "enlightened", which has been characterized as a belief in the power of reason. Is it reasonable to expect children at the tender age of 12 years to become globally conscious? Or should teachers wait until their students complete their 16th birthday before presenting them with globally-relevant issues? Discounting the often profound influence of the various media on our collective psyche, school is potentially a significant part of the matrix of local and global communication and therefore of value transmission for children through their 18th year. The teacher still plays a central role in the interpretation, analysis, and transmission of information from various sources to children's conscious experiences. By combining academic preparation with social awareness, a teacher is in a unique position to motivate and inspire children to accept responsibility for more than just their own, personal success. It can be risky sharing one's values with other people's children, but if my privileged students are going to be expected to accept personal and collective responsibility for their actions someday, it seems reasonable to seek out socially-relevant topics, within the context of whichever subject I am teaching, to present to them. The topics I choose to present will quite naturally reflect my own, personal system of values. By becoming socially active in the community myself, I gain access to relevant issues that can be adapted to my instructional program inside the sheltered environs of my school.


III. Involving younger students in community service projects

Here are three examples of how community service can be integrated into a Middle School curriculum, in these cases, Science and Health:

1. In 1989, I read a report about the "Gold Diggers" in Brazil. This was a story about an eco-social disaster in the Amazon jungle, which involved reputable European businesses, unemployed and desperate urban Brazilian men and women, native Indios, called Yanomami, and gold. I visited the office of a small organization in Vienna, which was running a public awareness campaign about the fate of indigenous peoples. They lent me a film about the gold diggers and I purchased a book on the topic. After reviewing the film and reading the book, I decided that my students would be interested in the topic from several points of view. First of all, we were studying metals in my science class, and gold is considered a valuable, attractive substance. Secondly, we had also been learning about the importance of rainforests to the global ecological balance, and had learned that these huge, wild, green areas were endangered due to a lack of understanding and a preponderance for being greedy. It was fairly easy to arrange for a guest speaker from the indigenous people's organization (an Indio himself), to view the documentary film and to draft a letter to the Brazilian ambassador in Austria. In the process of this unit, my students learned that there was gold dust mixed in with many other minerals in the topsoil of the Brazilian jungle, that liquid mercury can be used to bond with the gold and that these two metals can be separated easily by applying heat energy. At the same time they learned that Brazil is a country, which, though rich in natural resources, has a large population of under-educated, jobless people. They also learned that parts of Brazil are home to indigenous people who live outside the mainstream society with which we are familiar. People from Europe and the USA, having secured permission from the Brazilian government, were willing to cut down many thousands of acres of trees in the pristine jungle, to dig hundreds of holes in the ground and fill them with water and then mercury, to pay very low wages to illiterate men and expect them to stand waist-deep in the polluted water for hours at a time in order to mix the mercury with the topsoil, then send the ensuing clumps through a pump into a storage tank for processing. When you heat a clump of mercury and gold dust over an open flame, the mercury quickly turns into a gas, leaving pure, solid gold behind. They learned that the men who breathed this gas developed fatal illnesses. Finally, they learned about the wealth that accrues to the clever businessmen along the way. The Brazilian ambassador's response to our letter was also enlightening: issues about preserving the rain forest, providing education and jobs for Brazil's poor and preserving the way of life of indigenous populations were global concerns, he wrote. Brazil, by itself, did not have enough influence to fix all of these problems. The ambassador appealed to my students to continue their education and to remember what they had learned in 6th grade later in life, when they became influential adults. It was a good letter; the ambassador also assumed some responsibility for the licenses granted by his government to allow foreign companies to strip the skin from the jungle's belly, citing the very real need for revenue. Inspired by this, we organized a bake sale and generated enough donations to purchase a piece of the rainforest. The children proudly told their parents that their science class was helping to save the rainforest. My science unit on chemical reactions was complete.

2. On September 11, 2001, three commercial airplanes were hijacked and sent crashing into a couple of very important icons of a very powerful and influential global force. The United States of America had been attacked just one year into the new millennium! The whole planet was in awe. Like everyone else I know, I was confused about my own thoughts and emotions regarding this very upsetting world event. Like everyone else, I was wondering how this attack and the certain reactions to it would affect my life, the life of my own family and that of my students and their families. For several days at the American International School in Vienna, children and adults were in a state of shock and disbelief. My sixth grade health class was in its third week. On September 14th, I gave my students the following homework assignment: "Talk to members of your family and find out if anyone was affected directly or indirectly by the events of 9/11." In the ensuing days, the children brought their stories into the classroom and we read them out loud to each other. I assigned a few children the task of rendering drawings that illustrated what had happened during and after the airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City and into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

As children, they were just beginning to grasp the significance of these attacks and of the resulting confusion of the adults around them. They didn't quite know how to respond. If you're a 12-year-old Italian or Egyptian or Israeli or Chinese citizen, how should you feel about a couple of airplanes crashing into buildings in the USA? Who planned these attacks and what were they planning to do next? Is this the beginning of War? Lise, a Japanese-American girl, wrote: " I really hope it doesn't start World War 3. I don't want it to affect Austria or many other peaceful countries."

The children typed up their stories, researched facts about the Muslim faith, completed their drawings and I compiled them into a booklet. A copy of the booklet was given to each contributor and we offered further copies of our booklet to the community of teachers, parents and students at AIS in exchange for a small donation, which we then sent to the Red Cross and to a local refugee organization. Some families bought several copies of our booklet to send to friends and relatives in the States. Some of the stories were even published in The International Educator (TIE is the official publication of The International Educator's Institute, a division of the Overseas Schools Assistance Corporation, a private nonprofit corporation founded in 1986). A copy of the booklet was displayed in the reception area of my school for several weeks afterwards, parents wrote letters to me and to the class, expressing their gratitude and appreciation for these stories and the AIS Director asked to speak personally to the kids in my Health class, thanking them for sharing the stories, saying their stories had contributed greatly to the community's efforts to deal with the grief and shock that violence leaves in its wake. It seemed that we had done the right thing by casting aside the planned Health curriculum for a few days in 2001.(3)

3. In September of 1999, about 20 heavily armed policemen stormed a building in Vienna's 10th district, breaking down doors with their boots and pointing automatic weapons at the heads of sleeping teenagers. They arrested more than a dozen young asylum seekers - refugees from countries like Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Gambia - who had been given shelter in the Zohmanngasse by Ute Bock(4), a city social worker. The building contains 88 beds in small rooms and is part of a network of shelters that serve troubled youth in the city. Frau Bock ran this shelter for three decades and has witnessed a lot of disturbing and even tragic circumstances involving institutionalized young people who come from dysfunctional families. All the young men who were arrested that morning were being accused openly in the media of being drug dealers and thieves. Anonymous witnesses gave spurious testimony in the weeks following "Operation Spring", as the police roundup of September, 1999 was called, which led to the incarceration of several of those arrested in the raids. The rest were released into no-one's custody, literally put out into the streets. The City of Vienna ordered Frau Bock to refuse shelter to African youth in the future. She began renting apartments, organizing language classes, finding jobs and assisting the refugees as they tried to sort out the convoluted bureaucracy of the Austrian immigration system. She became known as "Mama Africa". She received prizes and recognition from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the Austrian Jewish Community and SOS-Mitmensch, to name a few.

A short time later, I learned that this rather slight, aging yet energetic woman had literally spent her life savings, risked her position and committed her pension fund in order to alleviate the suffering of a few dozen African youth trying to survive in a xenophobic environment. She had been harassed by the police, insulted by lawyers, judges and politicians and even arrested for having dared to provide shelter for and extended hope to young homeless African men and women. How could we, as teachers and students in a privileged international school, provide support and perhaps even direct assistance to Frau Bock and her refugees? As a start, we organized fundraising events, raising more than EUR 1.000,- throughout the school year. When the Cameroon national soccer team came to Vienna, we were able to organize tickets for the game for more than twenty young Africans. My students had collected the money for the tickets and we made an in-school display of photographs of the event afterwards. In addition, appeals were made to the community for used furniture, clothing, linens and personal hygiene items. Another colleague suggested we ask individual students to each purchase about EUR 10,- worth of personal items which would fit into a shoebox (toothpaste, a pair of socks, a bag of rice, some playing cards and an apple were among the items), so we could present the refugees with a small gift at Christmas time. More than 60 such shoeboxes have been collected and distributed each year for the past two years. The school agreed to donate several used computers, which were set up in the shelters and in a local community center. Two of the refugee men were invited to my Health class to answer questions about the history of their flight from home and about their experiences in Vienna. In the summer of 2001, "Mama" Bock founded her own human-rights organization and in 2002 she joined forces with a larger organization to more efficiently deliver services to asylum seekers. Some of my students, along with others in my school community, have become sensitized to some of the complex issues involving acutely disadvantaged immigrants who experience life in this lovely city of music and culture in a very different way than the rest of us do.

In conclusion, it is my conviction that teachers and their schools should receive generous support from both governmental and private institutions to develop and expand their curricular offerings to include active community service projects. Most importantly, though, school administrators need to continue to be tolerant and supportive of their community service oriented teachers.

© Nikolay Peter Hersey (American International School, Vienna)


(1) AIS Mission Statement:

(2) William Sanchez :

(3) Readers interested in the booklet can contact

(4) Ute Bock Wohn- und Integrationsprojekt:

8.1. Intercultural Education

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For quotation purposes:
Nikolay Peter Hersey (American International School, Vienna): Community Service and Teaching in an International School. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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