Elixir Project 2013: Using a Service Summit to Motivate Student Action

2013-01-12 07.27.02Introduction

The 6th Annual Service Summit was held Saturday, January 12th at Hong Kong International School involving more than 60 Humanities I in Action students. As part of students’ journey through this service-learning course, students are required to complete an Elixir Project in which they attempt to make a positive impact upon themselves, our school campus or the community. The starting point of this project is a three-hour “Service Summit” which presents students with a wide variety of service activities to help them consider what kind of action project they would like to initiate.

The overall goal of the Service Summit is to assist students to:

(1)   grow in their social conscience through action responses to present-day social realities.
(2)   consider their own self-efficacy with regards to making a positive impact upon society.

While the pictures come from this year’s Service Summit, this entry’s primary objective is to describe the Service Summit concept within the Humanities I in Action course. Secondarily, this entry also describes how we practically implement this 3-hour mini-conference.

Role of Action in Social Conscience Education

My doctoral research documented the central role that student action plays in social conscience development. Based on qualitative interviews with students and teachers, I defined social conscience education as “a personal consideration of one’s role and responsibility in society in the context of an emotionally-engaged understanding of the world” (Schmidt, 2009, p. 124).  The research suggested that when awareness of social issues is combined with emotional engagement, students’ most common response is a desire to act to alleviate social problems. Additionally, during each step of this process, including the action dimension, students gain a greater sense of relatedness between themselves and the world that lies outside their immediate personal lives. The social conscience process is represented in the figure below:

symbol SC triangle - aware ee act relate

Figure 1 – Four Elements of Social Conscience

The research made clear that students’ social consciousness is heightened when an action response is made. Not surprisingly, for many students their greatest personal insights come outside of the classroom when they are interacting with people or situations that they had previously only read about or viewed on television.

Not only does taking action often initiate students’ journey of social conscience, it also becomes a litmus test for many students whether they have actually gained the ability to ‘make a difference,’ even if the action is something as simple as talking to friends or family, or publicly taking a stand on an issue. According to students, social conscience education comes to fruition with a growing sense of empowerment, which can be called self-efficacy, as seen below.


Figure 2 – Long-Term Impact of Social Conscience Education upon Student Self-Efficacy

Elixir Project in the Humanities I in Action Curriculum

In a core 9th-grade humanities course called Humanities I in Action, we take students through an intellectual and personal journey of self-understanding which enables them to develop a worldview capable of improving society. We use a variety of disciplinary lenses – literature, history, and psychological and sociological research – to help students consider a provisional life philosophy.  We hope that students become aware of the distinction, as Taylor (1989) observes, between the ‘good life’ and the ‘ordinary life’.  Throughout the course we employ perennial questions of human existence, such as: who am I? what is my purpose? what is my relationship to others? what role do I serve in society? and what is the collective purpose of human society? These questions assist students to consider the relational intersection of their developing personal identities with the community.

During the first semester students study the concept of worldview, and focus on issues related to human nature and human behavior. The class reads Golding’s Lord of the Flies, examines well-known research studies such as the Milgram experiments and the Stanford Prison Experiment, and studies the Rwandan genocide. This curriculum helps students consider the complexity of human nature before trying to make a difference in society. As capstone assessments at the end of each semester, students write essays responding to the central question of the course, which asks them to define their worldview, a tentative life philosophy that may guide them as they seek to bring about positive social change.

In addition, students participate in approximately ten out-of-the-classroom activities, such as hosting refugees at the school or visiting the elderly. The highlight of the action dimension for most students is a 4-day trip to an orphanage in China. Following this powerful emotional experience that occurs in November, students have a better understanding of what the course is all about and are ready for, and indeed are in need of, a personal action response.

graphictwo.gifAs part of this journey, students are required to complete what we call an “Elixir Project,” by which students attempts to remedy some concern they have about themselves, school life, or the community. Guided by Joseph Campbell’s “Heroic Cycle,” we ask students to seek for an elixir, or a gift, that can bring healing to some part of our community. The Service Summit, which is positioned on the first weekend of the second semester, kicks off this part of the course. Following the Service Summit, students read Daniel Quinn’s (1992) Ishmael as a prelude to our study of environmental issues and globalization.

Planning the Service Summit

For those interested in creating a Service Summit, there are numerous tasks that need to occur in the weeks and months preceding the event:

(1)  Set a date on the following year’s calendar.
(2)  Request funding for keynote speakers.
(3)  Book a venue space.
(4)  Recruit student and NGO representatives to speak at the Summit, and have them submit workshop descriptions.
(5)  Draft and print a program.
(6)  Sync the school bell with the Service Summit schedule.
(7)  Put up signage on classrooms outside of each presentation.

After booking the venue months ahead of time and arranging for a keynote speaker, the biggest task in the months before the Summit is to arrange for on-campus students and off-campus NGO representatives to speak at the break-out sessions.  I gradually accumulate these speakers throughout the fall.

In the last two weeks, the student who serves as our student government’s Service Senator helps me produce the booklet that accompanies the Summit. The day before the Summit, the “Me to We” presenters speak to our classes to generate enthusiasm for youth-led projects, and to prime student interest for the next day’s big event. During that period we hand out the Service Summit program so that students can carefully select which breakout sessions they will attend.
SS image.jpegDescription of the Service Summit

Following a welcome from myself and the Service Senator, we turn over the floor to our presenter from the Canadian social enterprise, “Me to We,” to provide the keynote presentation.

2013-01-12 05.42.11

Following the keynote, students attend five 15-minute workshops that aim to inform and inspire them about various current causes, or recruit them to get involved in specific program initiatives.

We used the following schedule for the Summit this year:

2:00 – 2:15     Introduction
2:15 – 2:45     Keynote Presentation: “Me to We” presenters
2:48 – 3:03    Workshop #1
3:06 – 3:21     Workshop #2
3:24 – 3:39     Workshop #3
3:42 – 3:57     Workshop #4
4:00 – 4:15     Workshop #5
4:18 – 4:25     Final Debrief & Picture

The first key ingredient of the Service Summit is an inspirational keynote presentation. For the last four years we have flown out speakers from the well-known Canadian youth leadership organization, “Me to We.” This year specc81cial-enfant-craig-kielburger-photo-credit-michael-rajzmanJameson Voison articulately combined his own service story with that of their founder, Craig Kielburger, who at the age of 12 started “Free the Children,” the largest organization of children helping children in the world. For most students, the most inspiring part of the day was hearing Jameson relate Craig’s story.

The second major component of the Service Summit are the breakout sessions. This year we had 15 presentations during the 5 sessions, each lasting only 15 minutes.

2013-01-12 07.06.14Six off-campus NGOs participated in the Summit, while 9 student groups shared their projects.* Two alumni were among the presenters. Some representative examples from this year’s Service Summit include:

  1. Table for Two: The founder of this NGO in Hong Kong SCMP 01DEC11 YP TABLE1  NORA8544.JPGand an HKIS alum, Stephanie Tan (pictured on left) shared how buying a meal at certain Hong Kong restaurants results in a nutritious meal for someone in another country. 
  2. Adopt a Grand-Friend: Three students visited an elderly home in Hong Kong on a regular basis as part of their Elixir Project two years ago.

One of the student presentations, Brittany, related how how she and her friend, who attended the 2010 Service Summit 8th-graders, subsequently did a fundraiser to build a “Free the Children” school in Africa. Several months later,Brittany with Kenyan the entire middle school participated in an event that raised $11,000 US to build a school in rural Kenya with “Free the Children.” One of the girls, Brittany, even went on a “Free the Children” trip to Kenya during her summer holiday and was able to work in a similar school to the one she raised money for. In less than a year, then, an idea prompted by the Service Summit in the mind of one participant resulted in a new school being built in Kenya.

2013-01-12 06.35.59

Students found the presentations to be creative and inspirational as they began to consider their own Elixir projects.

Improving the Service Summit

We have made a number of significant changes in recent years to enhance the Summit’s effectiveness. First, flying out “Me to We” guests provides inspiration to the students. Secondly, the ratio of 1/3 NGOs to 2/3 on-campus groups is an effective mix. While off-campus NGOs inject new energy into the event as well as bring community recognition of the value of the student projects, having the majority of presenters being upper-class students helps 9th graders see that they are capable of doing credible projects.

Another helpful tip was making sure that the school bells rang in 3-minute intervals between sessions. This kept everyone on schedule. This year all the students attended all five sessions, whereas in other years as students lost track of the schedule, some of them opted out of the latter sessions.

Finally, this year we also had all the NGOs present sessions 1, 3, and 5, while student groups spoke in sessions 2 and 4. This kept the presenters fresher than if they had to present during all five sessions.

Student Responses

The Service Summit consistently receives positive reviews from students, as can be seen in these responses:

  • “My favorite workshop was the Feeding Hong Kong lillybecause I thought it was really interesting to learn about a problem where I live. It made me feel very guilty because there is so much food wasted here. I know that I waste a lot of food, and when your throw out food, or leave it on your plate I personally never think about the fact I am wasting, because it has come to be such a natural instinct for me now. Hopefully now that I am a bit more educated on the about of hungry people in Hong Kong, that I will stop wasting my food, and if I don’t think I can eat it all, then I will take smaller portions for myself.”

This blog comment from Lilly clearly illustrates the first triangle above concerning the process of social conscience education.  Lilly had never been aware of food wastage in Hong Kong, but through the presentation by Feeding HK, she became emotionally engaged in the issue. She felt “very guilty” about her own actions, and has vowed to stop wasting food, an action step.

  • “My favorite workshop I attended was the “Running to Stop the willTraffic” presentation. This presentation stood out to me because it involved a passion. To be honest, the only way I am ever going to make a difference is though one of my passions. When you take that passion and you use it for something good, that’s when you have an effective project in my opinion. That’s exactly what James Rau was able to do.”

Will’s comment demonstrates the indispensable role of emotional engagement in social conscience education,  a fact highlighted by many students in my research.

  • “When learning about how bad our world is all the time in Humanities, I kind of lose hope for the future of humanity… But when watching presentations on how much people actually are doing to help our world, I don’t see how we are still as messed up as we are. It seems that everyone is doing so much to help out and trying to get others involved. The Service Summit helped me realize that there is hope.”

This final comment epitomizes the struggle that most students face in this course, the question of hope. Oftentimes the study of the dark side of contemporary issues leaves students feeling pessimistic about the global future; however, hearing presentations about people, especially peers, who have not given up and are making a difference can elicit hope.

Past Elixir Projects

We feel the most important responses, however, come in the form of students’ action projects that are presented at the end of the school year. Some successful examples from previous years’ classes include:

(1)  Establishment of a health station on an island in the Philippines.
(2)  Collecting and taking books to China to support a rural libraries project.
(3)  Regular visits to an elderly home.
(4)  Raising money to build a water system in China.

For students involved with these activities, their action project was often a highlight of their high school career. While some projects were less successful and some could even be regarded as failures, students typically affirmed that the Elixir Project is well worth the curricular time and energy invested.


The Service Summit event has emerged out of a belief that humanities students need to put their learning into action in order to further enhance their social conscience development. Over the past six years, teachers and students of this course have come to see the Service Summit as a valuable learning activity in support of this goal, and it appears to be an event that could be replicated in other settings.

2013-01-12 07.34.43


Golding, W. (1954). Lord of the flies. New York: Berkeley Publishing Group.

Quinn, D. (1992). Ishmael: An adventure of the mind and spirit. New York: Bantam/Turner.

Schmidt, M. E. (2009). Teaching for social conscience in Hong Kong secondary schools. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia.

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the self: The making of the modern identity. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press.

* List of 2013 workshops

Six off-campus NGO representatives:

  • Feeding HK by Gabrielle Kirstein
  • New Day South by Doug Bush
  • Kids4Kids by Daniel Chun
  • Table for Two by Katie Yung and Stephanie Tan
  • Leprosy Project by Peabody Hutton
  • Me to We by Jameson Voison and Justina Wong

Nine on-campus student presentations:

  • Water project in China by Christa and Terri
  • Tzu Chi Recycling by Serena
  • Human trafficking by James
  • Vow of Silence by Caroline
  • Ember Girls scholarships in China by Sarah, Nicola, and Jenn
  • G-CIKS (Computers in poor HK schools and beyond) by Rohan and Arnesh
  • Adopt-a-grand-friend by Carla and Gillian
  • Glass Recycling by Sheldon
  • Dinner in the Dark by Sheila

Recommended Resource:

indexActions Speak Louder than Words: Community Activism as Curriculum (2012) by Celia Oyler

Oyler’s book, which follows teachers from primary to graduate school, is an excellent guide to consider many questions that are raised when initiating these kinds of projects, such as:

  • How can teachers organize action without telling students what to think or what to do?
  • How can teachers balance student-focused, project-based lessons without neglecting necessary content and background knowledge?
  • How can teachers develop the affective dimension of student community activism?
  • How can teachers balance activism with consideration of multiple perspectives?

Not only are the issues discussed intelligently, balancing insights from relevant literature with on-the-ground case studies of teachers implementing projects in the classroom, but the narrative style which integrates scholarship, pedagogy, and activism should appeal to a diverse range of readers.


About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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One Response to Elixir Project 2013: Using a Service Summit to Motivate Student Action

  1. Pingback: Education for Transformation: Introducing Humanities I in Action | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

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