Everything I Know About Feminism I Learned From Nuns

What it meant to be surrounded by educated women who were not wives or mothers.

By Liesl Schwabe

Ms. Schwabe is a writer.

CreditCreditMonica Garwood

It can be hard to trace the origins of our deepest convictions.

I was raised primarily by a single mother, cognizant, essentially from birth, that women can, and do, do everything, especially when no one else is around. I entered Antioch College in 1993, the same year the school’s sexual offense policy was relentlessly, internationally mocked for introducing the idea of verbal consent. Not long after, I shaved my head at a Burmese monastery to persuade myself that I was not defined by my physical body.

But the most vital feminist education I received was at Catholic school, in the early 1980s, in the suburban Midwest. It was there that my most beloved teachers were nuns who taught us to help the poor, pray for the sick and send our milk money to El Salvador. It was there that I learned of the necessity — and the possibilities — of self-sufficiency and cooperation.

In their polyester pantsuits and orthopedic shoes, Sister Irene and Sister Betty — my first- and second-grade teachers — emanated a sense of joy and purpose I found infectious. Founded in 1923, Our Lady of the Elms, in Akron, Ohio, has maintained its all-girl population for nearly a hundred years. The school promises that “Woven into the experience of every Elms girl is Veritas, the pursuit of truth and justice.”

Perhaps because my own daughter is now in second grade, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the ways in which I was taught to pursue truth and justice, and how inseparable these ideals became from my understanding of what it meant to be a girl.

In early December 1980, three American Catholic nuns and one lay volunteer were raped and murdered a few miles from the San Salvador airport. The men responsible were part of the United States-trained death squads upholding military rule in El Salvador. The clergy had faced disapproval from the Vatican for speaking out against the violent regime. As the writer Hilary Goodfriend explained, these women were“fiercely courageous” for risking “their lives to support the most vulnerable victims of U.S. foreign policy in their struggle for dignity.”

I was 5 when I began first grade in the fall of 1981. Sister Irene, with short, silver hair and oversize glasses, sat before my class in a little orange chair. With a map of Central America pulled down behind her, she passed around a badly photocopied picture of the sisters’ burned-out van. I don’t remember her words, but I remember the sensation: the gravity of the shock tempered by Sister Irene’s insistence on forgiveness.

We did not learn about “capitalism” or “revolution.” The nuns did not traffic in propaganda. We were taught to pray along the same lines, I later learned, as the Buddhist practice of lovingkindness, the recognition that all people want to be safe. As children, we understood fear. Sister Irene taught us that vulnerability didn’t separate humans, it connected us.

When I was in second grade, my bohemian father once packed nothing but smoked oysters in my “Pigs in Space” lunch box. The smell alone was humiliating. But as I tried to throw them away, Sister Betty stood with her hands on her hips, blocking the garbage cans.

“We don’t throw away food, remember?” she said, her hair in a halo of a perm. And I did remember: We didn’t throw away food because there were children starving in El Salvador. This helped us, I think, fixate less on what wasn’t fair at our own lunch tables and, instead, to imagine what wasn’t fair in the world. For everything I did not know, I understood there were people who did not have enough food.


While there’s no doubt that generations of kids being told to clean their plates because of hungry children in Ethiopia or Bangladesh spurred fledgling notions of American exceptionalism, our current habit of throwing away entire lunches (and outfits and everything else we buy without using) strikes me as far worse, part of an American myopia that never considers anyone else at all.

Until relatively recently, becoming a nun was one of the only ways for women to pursue higher education or a path outside marriage and motherhood. Consequently, for over 1,000 years, women around the world were called to undertake vows of poverty and celibacy.

Throughout the 20th century, nuns built and oversaw a vast system of schools and hospitals. But by the 1980s, demoralized after Vatican II failed to grant women the equality many nuns expected, the number of sisters was dwindling. The civil rights and women’s movements, along with expanding opportunities for employment and education, also meant that women who might have otherwise chosen to become nuns had different options.

My classmates and I caught what turned out to be the tail end of an era. We were surrounded by educated women who were not wives or mothers, who did not wear makeup, and who lived in group housing and shared a car. Equality was modeled for us. We were shown what we did not yet know was a completely different way to live.

My exposure to Catholic schooling was brief and, in my adult life, I’ve never considered myself Christian. But the nuns taught us generosity and introspection as directly as fractions and cursive. My education, in other words, was never only about me, but also about the world I was poised to inherit.

At a time when violence against children, against women, against the displaced and against the planet is so pervasive, I find glimpses of hope in the nuns’ conviction that compassion can be taught and forgiveness fostered. If we can learn to confront the existence of suffering not as a sign of hopelessness, but as an opportunity for love, we are all better positioned to take responsibility for that suffering. If we understand the necessity of truth, we can seek justice.

How Teens Are Using Tech to Solve Some of the World’s Biggest Problems

IN 2016, WHEN GITANJALI RAO FIRST HEARD ABOUT the water crisis in Flint, Mich., she was shocked that something so essential to a community could be compromised. “It was scary to think about these kids drinking water that was harmful for their bodies,” says Gitanjali, 13. “I felt like clean water was a right. It was definitely something I took for granted.”

Gitanjali saw a problem that was hurting others, and she wanted to fix it.

In just three and a half months, she came up with a solution: a portable device that could detect the levels of lead in water faster and at a lower cost than what is currently available. Gitanjali called it Tethys, after the Greek goddess of fresh water. Her device uses disposable cartridges that, once dipped in water, provide accurate and immediate readings of lead levels. “It’s based on something called carbon nanotube sensor technology,” she says. “And with a Bluetooth extension, it gives you results on your mobile phone.”

With Google at everyone’s fingertips, coding tutorials readily available and open-source systems unlocking ever-expanding possibilities, young people like Gitanjali are increasingly using technology to solve weighty problems. And with a refreshingly non-jaded “what if” mindset, these teens might just figure out a way to create a better future for us all.

A Platform That Can Prevent Wildfires

CONCERNED BY AN INCREASE IN CALIFORNIA WILDFIRES, high school classmates Aditya Shah and Sanjana Shah (not related) joined forces in 2016. “Because of climate change, extreme weather events, like flooding, wildfires and droughts, are on the rise,” says Aditya, who is now 17. “We feel this urgency to protect the environment for later generations.”

The teenagers, who live in Cupertino, Calif., were already working in the field of environment protection and water conservation, and wanted to use their science and tech knowledge to create long-lasting solutions. “Sanjana and I have been coding for a long time,” Aditya says. “Programming is essentially our second language. We have a good sense of solving problems by integrating hardware and software. We live in a world of technology, with cloud computing and machine learning, so we thought, ‘Why don’t we develop a device that is able to take into account factors like wind speed, temperature and humidity, and also use image recognition to identify the types of fuel in the area that contribute to a wildfire happening?’”

And they did.


“Prior generations did not have these resources, but now, anyone can easily learn programming. If you can dream it, you can do it.”

Aditya and Sanjana created the Smart Wildfire Sensor, an outdoor hardware setup that predicts the likelihood of fires before they start, with the potential to protect homes and lives and reduce firefighting costs. The sensor can be mounted to a tree and has two parts: a device that records and transmits weather data, and an embedded high-resolution camera that captures images of the biomass, the organic matter that acts as the fire’s fuel.

“Using TensorFlow, Google’s open-source machine-learning platform, we analyze images of biomass and estimate their moisture content to find out the amount of dead fuel,” Sanjana says. “We’re getting about 89 percent accuracy.” The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection took an interest, and the two teens are now working with the department to further develop, test and implement this technology to mitigate wildfire risks, which have increased exponentially in recent years.

“If you’re dreaming about some potential solution, you have all of the resources you need online,” says Sanjana, who also developed the Smart Flood Sensor. “Prior generations did not have these resources, but now, anyone can easily learn programming. If you can dream it, you can do it.”

Orange Peels That Help Drought-Stricken Crops

HAVING GROWN UP IN JOHANNESBURG, KIARA NIRGHIN was dismayed three years ago when she saw that the normally full reservoirs in her city were nearly empty because of a severe drought. So she came up with an eco-friendly way to help farmers grow food even when rainfall is scarce. Nirghin won the 2016 Google Science Fair at age 15, with a creation she made from orange and avocado peels that increases the chance for plants to sustain growth during a drought by 84 percent.

“It’s a lot cheaper than the synthetic material farmers currently use,” Nirghin says. “Plus it’s more effective and better for the environment.” Known as a super absorbent polymer, the powder can be sprinkled on top of soil, mixed into it, or added in tablet form to retain water hundreds of times its mass, creating mini-reservoirs and allowing crops to thrive in drought-stricken areas.


“I think young people bring something so unique to the table, in terms of their imagination and what they can create.”

“Even though a lot of people think that teenagers don’t have the resources to come up with solutions, and say, ‘You should wait until you’re a scientist,’ I completely disagree,” Nirghin says. “Teenagers can be very good at understanding problems.”

Nirghin is now a student at Stanford and has partnered with an international agricultural company to develop her product. “I think young people bring something so unique to the table, in terms of their imagination and what they can create,” she says. “Our communities should take advantage of that.”

Affordable Water-Quality Tests and More

WHEN YOUNG PEOPLE USE TECHNOLOGY TO SOLVE PROBLEMS, they can sharpen their critical thinking skills and become more confident, says Eli Kariv, the chief executive of a computer-science-based after-school program called the Coding Space. “There are so many times I see students of all ages think of new ways of approaching issues,” he says. “Students can figure out things that adults may not know or that someone did not teach them. At that point, you can create anything.”

Josh Sheldon agrees. “Kids are fearless,” says Sheldon, an associate director of the MIT App Inventor, where Gitanjali learned to build apps. “Adults learning to code are tentative and afraid to move a mouse to click something, because they think they might break the computer or crash the program. Kids are just, ‘We’ll try it. We’ll see what it does.’”

Gitanjali says she failed time and time again while developing Tethys. Until she didn’t. “My mantra in the beginning was, ‘Just have fun with it,’ because I didn’t know what was going on: ‘Carbon nanotubes, what?’” she says. “And by the end of this, I figured it out, because I was experimenting and trying new things. I wasn’t afraid to fail.”

Now in eighth grade at Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) School Highlands Ranch near Denver, Gitanjali is enhancing the Tethys unit to be “a lot more accurate, compact, affordable and easy to use,” she says, so people worldwide will be able to easily test their drinking water. She also plans to use the Firebase app development platform to allow Tethys users to upload the results of their water test. “With that data, I’ll create a global water-quality heat map using Google Maps Heatmap function,” she says.

“We are growing up in this reality where you’re seeing global problems that never existed before. We want to make the world better for everyone.”

Gitanjali now codes just about every day and regularly creates new apps. “Because Android has an open architecture, I am able to use third-party tools to develop apps quickly and test them,” she says. “Also, Android is the most common operating system in the world. I like that anybody in developing countries who cannot afford an expensive iPhone can use the app.”

Gitanjali’s inspiring journey with Tethys was recently featured in the Google Search On short documentary series. And her newest endeavor? “I want to learn gene editing,” she says.

Somehow, this 13-year-old also finds the time to mentor younger children, offering her own style of anti-bullying seminars, which includes a little science. “I start with the message of kindness and then end the sessions with one STEM topic, such as 3-D printing or simple programming, or ways to observe problems around us,” Gitanjali says. “It’s amazing to see that kindergartners and first-graders can understand problems easily and jump to solutions without barriers.”

Armed with technology and determination, today’s young people offer hope that humanity will get back on the right path. “We are growing up in this reality where you’re seeing global problems that never existed before,” Rao says. “That’s where this creative mindset comes from: We want to make the world better for everyone.”

Ready to make your mark? Google offers free resources to help both students and teachers learn computer science. If you’re between the ages of 13 and 18, you can submit your idea to the Google Science Fair to solve a problem using science and technology.

Have an idea for how you could use AI to build a better world? Check out the Google AI Impact Challenge, an open call for nonprofits, academics and social enterprises around the world to share proposals for how they could use AI to help address social and environmental challenges.
Illustrations by Tom McCarten

How Rwanda Tidied Up Its Streets (And The Rest Of The Country, Too)


The people of Rwanda are required to take part in the national clean-up day, Umuganda, on the last Saturday of every month. Above: getting grass under control in Kigali, the capital city.  Forster/ullstein bild via Getty Images


At 8 a.m. on a sunny morning in April, people are sweeping the hilly streets of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, with straw brooms and picking up stray bits of litter.

The roads are empty of cars and all vehicles and shops are shuttered here — and across the country.

This is “Umuganda,” a community clean-up held on the last Saturday of every month. It’s one reason that Rwanda is renowned in Africa for its cleanliness.

It’s not a volunteer project. Police monitor the streets – and can stop Rwandans who aren’t participating and make them clean up on the spot. Rwandans who don’t participate in the clean-up can be fined 5,000 francs, nearly $6, not a small sum when average income is about $150 a month.

The name of the event is a Kinyarwanda word that translates as “coming together in common purpose.” But this seemingly positive definition belies a dark legacy. In the 1970s, Umuganda was the term used for a form of forced labor. And during three bloody months of the 1994 genocide, leaders exhorted ethnic Hutus to do Umuganda, to do their nefarious “job” of killing minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Indeed, to outsiders with fleeting knowledge of Rwanda, the country is synonymous with the 1994 genocide, when at least 800,000 people were killed in 100 days. But much has happened since then. The government has rebuilt the ravaged country through strict governance. President Paul Kagame’s repressive administration is controversial. Yet it has maintained stability in this poor country and spurred development in a region dogged by turmoil and corruption. The streets are quite safe — no small thing given violent crime is common in nearby countries like Kenya and Tanzania. In Rwanda, rules and laws are largely enforced. And one striking consequence is its remarkable cleanliness, well-paved main streets and sheen of order.

That wasn’t always the case. Not long ago, in the early 2000s, garbage was more common in Rwanda. Today the country lacks the moldering roadside rubbish piles and the ditches choked with plastic bags that plague many low-income countries — and wealthy ones too. (New York’s subways suffer delays from garbage fires erupting on train tracks.) Rural areas in Rwanda are also clean.

One reason for the country’s cleanliness is a decade-long ban on plastic bags. Other countries like Kenya have also outlawed plastic bags and though last year’s ban there is largely enforced, litter still blights parts of Rwanda’s larger neighbor.

The other reason for Rwanda’s tidiness, of course, is Umuganda.

Rwanda institutionalized Umuganda in its current form in 2009. It’s compulsory for all able-bodied people ages 18 to 65, and the president and cabinet members pitch in too for this monthly community service.

Not everyone participates, especially in cities where it’s harder to keep track of the citizenry. Some are excused because they’re caring for their children or are ill. Others simply stay at home until 11 a.m.

Rwanda’s government also employs professional street sweepers, gardeners and road crews. But ordinary citizens definitely do their part. And since litter is now so scarce, for Umuganda people often do other community service, such as building roads, repairing houses or cultivating vegetable gardens.

Not everyone is a supporter of Umuganda.

On a mundane level, shopkeepers in Kigali grumble about lost business during Umuganda, and people who must travel are inconvenienced by the ban on driving.

The concerns go far deeper than that.

An oft-debated question is what is gained or lost by the country’s steely governance.

Some people, especially outsiders, say Umuganda is forced labor imposed by a harsh regime that represses any dissent – part of a veneer of order and modernity that masks authoritarianism.

And in a country with no compulsory military service, is mandatory clean-up OK?

Without such stringent rules, could Rwanda revert to the turmoil and ethnic violence that nearly destroyed it 24 years ago? Would corruption and dysfunction take hold as with other countries in the region?

Whatever the answers, cleanliness seems to have seeped into the country’s consciousness. Many Rwandans simply see Umuganda as community service – albeit mandatory. “Now it has become like a lifestyle. People are used to it,” a Rwandan man tells me matter-of-factly.

Ignace Gasimba, a Rwandan doing Umuganda that Saturday in April, admits he used to litter. Now if he buys something and has packaging to dispose of, he waits to find a trash can. “I have to think twice,” he says.

For this Umuganda in April, Beathe Uwizeye, an office manager at the African Institute for Mathematical Science (AIMS) in Kigali, is shepherding about 20 graduate students who hail from across Africa. For many of them, it was their first community clean-up. Uwizeye recalls the surprised reaction of students from Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. “They asked, ‘How can you unite people like this?'”

When Uwizeye visits neighboring countries like Uganda and sees litter, “It drives me crazy! I wish I could tell them, please come to Rwanda and see,” she says.

Sylivera Massawe, a student from Tanzania, marvels at how Rwandans come together for Umuganda, “given their history.”

In another part of town, the Kigali Genocide Memorial bustles with people trimming lush grass with machetes and mopping suds over a brick pathway. Olivier Nduhungirehe, Rwanda’s state minister for foreign affairs, also joins the grass-cutting. They are beautifying the grounds for the annual commemoration of 100 days of Rwanda’s genocide. The memorial period starts in April and ends on July 18.

The Memorial’s manicured, idyllic surroundings contrast with its bloody foundation. More than 250,000 people are buried here in mass graves. Many were killed by ordinary people wielding machetes and farm tools to slaughter neighbors, colleagues, friends and children.

Inside the Memorial’s museum, skulls of victims are enshrined in glass cases. Photos of victims – their wedding pictures, school portraits, smiling snapshots – are displayed in shadowy alcoves. One exhibit recalls Kigali during the genocide’s horror: “The streets were littered with corpses. Dogs were eating the rotting flesh of their owners. The city smelt of the stench of death.”

That is all a stark contrast to the streets of Kigali in 2018.

When the students and I finish Umuganda and troop back to their school, I notice a stray cigarette packet and a plastic bottle on the side of the road. I exclaim at this unusual sight, like a safari tourist who spots a rare animal. “Don’t worry,” says one unperturbed student. “It will soon disappear.”

Amy Yee has written for The New York TimesThe Economist, NPR and other outlets. She is a former staff journalist for the Financial Times.

The Power of Performance Assessments: Oakland Unified’s Graduate Capstone Project

Learning Policy Institute

Their Graduate Capstone Projects may be done and graded, but seniors from the Oakland Unified School District say they’ll be reaping the benefits and keeping alive the passions that came with their yearlong graduation requirement as they move on to college and work.

Oakland High School’s Kennedy Russ plans to work for improved reproductive health care for underserved women. Valeria Fernandez, from Fremont High School, has her sights set on a career in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field and plans to be a role model to encourage young women to pursue STEM careers. Marwat Al-Olefi, from Life Academy, wants to combat racial bias in health care. All of these aspirations were honed and deepened as these students worked on the research for their Capstone Projects.

Passion, relevance, in-depth research, control over their own learning, and a desire to create change in their own community are a few of the ways Oakland’s Graduate Capstone Project differs from other assignments and assessments that are often completed and then forgotten.

During the yearlong project, students delve deeply into issues that interest them, designing their own research projects that include analyzing online and print sources and conducting field work. In addition to completing a significant research paper, students share their findings and analysis with peers, teachers, and the broader community in a formal presentation. Throughout the process, they’re honing an array of critical thinking and communications skills that they will need to meet the future challenges of college, work, and civic life.

Video Series: Reflections on Oakland’s Graduate Capstone Project
OUSD students, teachers, and administrators reflect on performance assessments and their impact in these video clips.

OUSD Video Gallery

Teachers, for their part, are learning to shift their practices to function more as coaches, providing support and guidance to students throughout the project. They’re also working with peers in their school and district to create and refine the structure, process, and evaluation of the Graduate Capstone Project.

Preston Thomas, high school network superintendent for Oakland Unified, said the goal of the Capstone Project is to provide students with the challenge and opportunity to solve authentic problems and engage in deep learning that has an impact in the real world. Throughout the process, they have “an opportunity to integrate college- and career-readiness skills.”

As part of the district’s Linked Learning initiative, students explore career pathways through coursework and related internships. For some seniors, Capstone Projects are born out of these work experiences. Others choose to explore a topic that’s relevant to their neighborhood or community or that they’re curious or passionate about. Capstone Projects for the Class of ’17 focused on such diverse topics as the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields, sexism in video games, the forced sterilization of incarcerated women, alternative medicine, beekeeping, refusing medical treatment, sex trafficking, lack of access to reproductive health care, and life expectancy differences between minority and white populations.

A Path Toward Equity

Oakland schools have long required senior projects for graduation. In the past, however, instruction, project requirements, and results varied from school to school and from teacher to teacher. “You had some (projects) that were portfolios, some that … almost looked like middle school reports, you had some that were in-depth research papers, you had some that were action projects,” said Young Whan Choi, district manager of performance assessments. “From that incredible diversity of senior projects emerged the sense that there was a lot of inequity, and students and teachers were clamoring for more support and direction,” he added.

In 2014, district administrators began partnering with teachers to fashion a more consistent and equitable system of assessment. Through that process, they created a districtwide rubric that effectively defines skills to be evaluated and creates a more structured and collaborative process so that requirements and assessments are comparable across schools.

It was important, said Choi, that the teachers created a shared vision of what high-quality research, writing, and oral presentations looked like. “What the performance assessment system requires is a high degree of collaboration and everybody being aligned to a common mission and purpose as a school community.”

A Focus on Revision and Growth

Throughout the process, students have opportunities to get feedback and revise their work. Students and educators alike see the emphasis on growth and improvement as integral to the yearlong performance assessment. A low or even failing grade on a paper or presentation is not considered the end of the road, and many students appreciate that the assessment allows for a second or third opportunity for them to incorporate feedback, revise their work, and further hone their knowledge and skills.

 One of the ways I see our young people grow and develop through the senior process is confidence.
—Matin Abdel-Qawi, Principal, Oakland High School

“One of the ways I see our young people grow and develop through the senior process is confidence,” said Matin Abdel-Qawi, principal of Oakland High School. “They don’t believe they can write a paper of that length. They don’t believe they can do that amount of research. They don’t believe they can stand up in front of a group of adults and present their findings and their research. … The beauty is we have such amazing teachers here who continue to remind them and encourage them and watch them go through that productive struggle from ‘I can’ to ‘I did.’”

Teachers find that in teaching the skills that are essential to successful completion of the Capstone Project, they grow, too—both in their ability to support independent student learning and their ability to step back and let the students put their developing skills to work.

“Incorporating performance assessments in my classroom has changed the way I teach,” said Fremont High School English teacher Johanna Paraiso. “I’m a much more courageous teacher, not only in keeping up with new technology, finding ways to incorporate rubric skills throughout the year, and being responsive to students’ questions and dilemmas, but in being part of a teacher team willing to openly assess whether their teaching methods are working and to change direction if they’re not.”

That willingness to continually reassess happens at the administrative level, too. Abdel-Qawi said he and the teachers continue to find ways to make the projects more rigorous, more relevant, and more related to the goals of the Linked Learning Pathways and the school.

The district, for its part, supports teachers and school sites through regular professional development, assistance with changes in the master schedule to allow for more collaboration time, and convening teachers so they can make ongoing revisions to the rubric. Just as students are encouraged to do, Choi says the district is “constantly trying to assess, ‘What can we learn? How can we get better?’”

Britain Considers a ‘Latte Levy’ to Cut the Use of Coffee Cups


In Britain, 2.5 billion disposable cups are discarded each year, according to a report. Starbucks is looking to test a 5-pence paper cup charge in 25 stores across London. CreditAndrew Winning/Reuters

LONDON — The humble paper coffee cup, that mainstay of mornings and modern office life, may be going the way of the pull-tab soda can and, perhaps, plastic bags and bottles. The problem, it seems, is that, in their current form, the cups are surprisingly hard to recycle, and therefore contribute an excessive amount to waste streams.

On Friday, a parliamentary committee in Britain issued a reportrecommending a hefty tax of 25 pence, or 34 cents, for every cup sold. Dubbed the “latte levy,” the fee would amount to around 10 percent on every cup of coffee sold, presumably a painful enough charge to induce most people to carry around their own reusable cups.

Disposable cups are often laminated with plastic or polyethylene to make them waterproof. But traditional paper mills and recycling facilities are not equipped for the complex process of stripping the plastic away. Instead, the containers end up in landfills or are burned in incinerators, a concern for environmentalists who say that toxins can seep into the ground or escape into the air.

In Britain alone, 2.5 billion cups are discarded each year, enough to circle the planet five and a half times, according to the parliamentary report. That number could expand to five billion cups a year in seven years’ time as the explosive growth of cafe culture in the country shows few signs of abating.

The proposal for a coffee tax follows a 5-pence charge for plastic bags at stores, introduced in Britain in 2015, which has led to a plunge in usage of more than 80 percent. Some consumers complained that the latest levy should be imposed on coffee retailers, rather than coffee drinkers. But supporters of the campaign say that a tax may well force a shift in consumer behavior, as it did with plastic bags.

“The polluter should pay for it,” Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Recycling Association, said in an interview. “It shouldn’t be the public that should pay for it, but we’d still be in favor because it will change behavior.”

But Ian Fisher, 49, who was taking his breakfast at Costa, a major coffee chain, found the tax proposal “unacceptable,” adding, “Coffee is expensive enough, and it’s not going to cure the problem of people littering.”

Most coffee chains currently offer small discounts when drinks are served in reusable cups.

Starbucks on Friday said it was looking to test a 5-pence paper cup charge in 25 stores across London starting in February. “We will investigate the impact of a 5 pence charge on a paper cup, coupled with prominent marketing of reusable cups,” the coffee giant said.

Caffe Nero, another prominent coffee retailer, said it was committed to increasing “the sustainable recovery and recycling of paper cups.” Costa, the biggest coffee chain in Britain, said it had collected more than 12 million cups for recycling over the past year, though it was not clear how many of those were recycled.

Members of Parliament behind the report dismissed the efforts made by coffee shops and cup manufacturers. They have “recently made voluntary commitments or provide in-store recycling, some of which were introduced during the course of the inquiry,” the report said.

“However, despite having spent years talking about the problem, industry’s voluntary commitments have been inconsistent and ineffective.”

A 2011 consumer survey cited by the lawmakers found that eight in 10 consumers were laboring under the misconception that disposable cups were being recycled, and that most consumers tried to discard their cups in recycling bins. The report found that fewer than one cup in 400, or 0.25 percent, gets recycled.

There are alternatives to the latte levy. Two facilities in Britain have the capacity to recycle disposable cups, having invested in the multimillion-dollar machinery needed to strip the plastic away from the paper.

“The tricky part is taking the plastic from the fiber,” said Richard Burnett, market development manager at James Cropper, a fine-paper manufacturer that recycles the paper into upscale shopping bags for department stores like Selfridges.

The operation has the capability to recycle half a billion paper cups a year, he said by telephone, but they were not being collected properly and sent to the manufacturer, based some 260 miles north of London, to be recycled. “That’s the missing part of the jigsaw puzzle,” he said.

Since paper cups only make up less than 1 percent of total packaging waste in Britain, most paper mills have not invested in specialized machinery, Mr. Burnett said. Paper recyclers also generally reject packaging that has been “contaminated,” or come into contact with food or drink.

On the other end of the spectrum, some companies are starting to develop cups that can be recycled more easily. Frugalpac’s “Frugal Cup” contains a plastic liner that is glued only lightly so that it separates quickly and easily when the cup is re-pulped, lawmakers said.

Hannah Baines, 16, who was studying one morning at a Costa shop and drinking coffee out of a cup, welcomed the bid for a latte tax. But in the long run, she said, “it’s probably just better to make the cups recyclable.”

Can Prep Schools Fight the Class War?


John Allman, head of school at Trinity, wrote of a sense of alienation among students at the school — regardless of race, class and privilege. CreditBebeto Matthews/Associated Press

Earlier this month Princeton University Press published a book called “Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence,” by a sociologist, Rachel Sherman, who researched the spending habits of 50 well-to-do parents in New York City, and diagnosed a pervasive problem of reticence around wealth. Ms. Sherman uses her encounters with people who agreed to speak with her, in many cases about their fears of seeming showy, to conclude that there is too much silence around money and that all of this alleged hush and professed shame ultimately slow our efforts to mitigate inequality.

Given that we have segued from the era of the Rich Kids of Instagram to a moment in which the rich wives of cabinet secretaries use social media to tell us that they are wearing Hermès and that they are better, it is a difficult time to argue that modesty is really what is complicating things, or that a greater degree of honesty about renovation costs on Central Park West will lead us to a more just tax code. And yet Ms. Sherman’s book does take absorbing measure of what has become a corrosive reality in New York: the tendency among well-off people to regard their circumstances as entirely ordinary — “Manhattan poor’’ as others have put it — given that everywhere they chose to look they find someone who has a lot more money. Private schools emerge as dangerous incubators of this dynamic because they are the places in which the affluent receive the most intimate exposure to the obscenely rich — where your week in a rented condo in Sun Valley is a deprivation compared with the schoolmates flying from Teterboro to third houses in Vail.

In recent years, and most obviously since the rise of Black Lives Matter, private schools around the city have taken concerted care to recruit minority students, to introduce curriculums and conversation about racial understanding in lower grades, to seek diversity consultants and to promote inclusion around gender. At the same time, ostentatious displays of wealth and entitlement that can dominate a school’s ecosystem have gone too often unchallenged. At the end of last month, however, John Allman, head of school at Trinity, wrote a letter to the parent body meant to shake up the existing order.

Invoking the country’s current state of chaos, he wrote of a sense of alienation among students at the school — regardless of race, class and privilege — that stood apart from the larger political and social crises besieging us. He blamed, in large part, “consumerist families that treat teachers and the school in entirely instrumental ways, seeking to use us exclusively to advance their child’s narrow self-interest.” He called for a dismantling of “this default understanding of Trinity as a credentialing factory,” warning that without it, students would merely ascend to “a comfortable perch atop a cognitive elite that is self-serving, callous and spiritually barren.” Without a shift in ethos toward greater commitments to the common good, toward social justice and activism, he said in the letter, “I am afraid we are, for a majority of our students, just a very, very expensive finishing school.”

Even outside the bubble of Manhattan private schools, it’s a fairly blunt critique of privilege. That the statement came from Trinity, founded in 1709 and one of the most rigorous and prestigious schools in the country, made it all the more powerful. Board members at other Manhattan schools noted how astonishing the document was, given its potential to turn off donors who might have been completely at peace with the way the school had been doing business.

“We’ve been talking about this for a long time, about infusing our program with a greater sense of redeeming purpose,’’ Mr. Allman told me, “and approaching it from a perspective of student well-being with a better sense of why students are going about this work.’’ Mr. Allman came to Trinity several years ago from prep schools in Texas and Georgia — he ran St. John’s in Houston when Elizabeth Holmes, the fallen Silicon Valley billionaire was a student — environments in which the parent bodies were no less intensely focused on ambition and achievement. Mr. Allman’s letter also explained the way that Trinity would go about transforming its approach to community service, integrating what students would do outside the classroom with what they were learning inside. Trinity is on the Upper West Side near several social service agencies and adjacent to a public housing complex, whose playground the school’s children have used over the years.

Radically rethinking a school’s culture involves not only getting parents and children to alter a deeply ingrained mind-set and executing pedagogical changes, huge projects in themselves, but also ensuring that the families admitted are in tune with these values. This requires an ability to determine what sort of parents seek admission to your school solely so that their children can sit atop a cognitive elite and suggest to them that they might be happier elsewhere. This is not easy, but it is important work for institutions that continue to groom the people who seem to keep running the world.

I asked Mr. Allman how he thought his letter had been received by parents in the school, some of whom I had spoken with who said they found it inspiring and soulful. “Parents get to see people up close who use us for purely instrumentalist purposes, and they are happy to see the school push back,’’ he said, “and give it to them.’’

What the Heck Is Service Learning?


Here’s a simple definition for service learning with details and resources for planning a unit.

According to Vanderbilt University, service learning is defined as: “A form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves.”

Wikipedia explains service learning as: “An educational approach that combines learning objectives with community service in order to provide a pragmatic, progressive learning experience while meeting societal needs.”

That second definition is easier to comprehend, but it still feels more complicated than it needs to be. How about this: In service learning, students learn educational standards through tackling real-life problems in their community.

What Does Service Learning Look Like?

Community service, as many of us know, has been a part of educational systems for years. But what takes service learning to the next level is that it combines serving the community with the rich academic frontloading, assessment, and reflection typically seen in project-based learning.

In a service-learning unit, goals are clearly defined, and according to The Center for Service Learning and Civic Engagement, there are many kinds of projects that classrooms can adopt. Classes can be involved in direct issues that are more personal and face-to-face, like working with the homeless. Involvement can be indirect where the students are working on broader issues, perhaps an environmental problem that is local. The unit can also include advocacy that centers on educating others about the issues. Additionally, the unit can be research-based where the students act to curate and present on information based on public needs.

Here are several ideas for service-learning units:

  • Work on a Habitat for Humanity building site.
  • Pack up food bags for the homeless.
  • Adopt-a-Highway.
  • Set up a tutoring system or reading buddies with younger students.
  • Clean up a local park or beach.
  • Launch a drought and water awareness campaign.
  • Create a “pen pal” video conferencing group with a senior citizens home.

The Breakdown of a Service-Learning Unit

It’s not enough to help others. Deep service learning isn’t afraid to tackle the rigorous standards along with the service. You might find it helpful to split your unit into four parts:

1. Pre-Reflection: Have your students brainstorm in writing the ways in which they can help their world or their local community. Check out Newsela, CNN Student News, or their local papers for articles on current events and issues of interest to get in informational reading, as well.

2. Research: Guide your students in techniques to help them search wisely and efficiently. They should conduct online polls (crowdsourcing) and create graphs to chart their findings. Students should summarize their findings using embedded images, graphs, and other multimedia elements. (Try an infographic tool likePiktochart.)

3. Presentation: Have your students present their findings to the school, each other, and outside stakeholders. They can develop posters to promote their call to action, write a letter campaign, or develop a simple website using Weebly. Students can “go on the road” with their findings to local schools and organizations or produce screencasts for the school website.

4. Reflection: Ask your students to think back on what they gained from journeying through this project. Have them reflect on the following:

  • What did you learn about the topic?
  • What did you learn about yourself?
  • How do you now think differently?

Assessing Service Learning

Another element that tends to make service learning unique is that multiple stakeholders assess students:

Community assessment: The community partners can get their say as well by assessing the students. They may even get voice in developing the rubric or criteria for evaluating the students.

Teacher assessment: Along with evaluating students on the content, you might additionally assess them on how well they accomplished the writing, graphing, researching, or speaking.

Student assessment: Your students might conduct self-assessment as a form of reflection. They also may assist in developing the rubric that other stakeholders use to assess them.

What we’re talking about here is a form of engagement. It’s about leveraging the need to do something good in the world as a means to help kids hit their learning objectives. It’s about teaching empathy as well as literacy. It’s about teaching compassion as well as composition. It’s about teaching advocacy as well as algebra.