Students in Susie Greenwald's problem-solving class don't just generate theoretical solutions to the world's troubles.
One year, her students at a Highland Park, Ill., middle school successfully lobbied for a stronger law against young people buying cigarettes - a project that brought Greenwald and a student to the White House.
So when her students learned about the plight of Afghan schoolchildren after Sept. 11, they quickly thought up a way to help: sending books to kids half a world away.
They raised thousands of dollars by selling watercolors of Afghan rugs painted by students and by raffling off chores to be performed by teachers. Publishers donated thousands more copies for free.
When students realized that publishers didn't offer many children's books in Farsi, one of Afghanistan's native languages, they found a father and daughter in Indiana who volunteered to translate the books. Other volunteers included 30 students in Beverly Hills, Calif., and a few individuals who heard about the project.
Ultimately, Ms. Greenwald's students donated 1,400 picture books - each with a translation pasted inside.
Authors visited the school to teach them about Afghanistan. The class ate at a local Afghan restaurant. The students even wrote a book about their own lives and sent along 200 copies with the other books.
Greenwald, who teaches the problem-solving class during an after-school program, annually organizes big projects. In addition to the antitobacco campaign, she once linked her students up with Israelis for lessons in tolerance. But after each time-consuming project, she pledged it would be her last. Still, Greenwald says she couldn't resist a chance to get involved in the Afghan project - an experience she says has been the most fulfilling of her 22-year-long career.
"I feel [that even] if I wasn't teaching, this could be an organization doing something important that's actually making a difference," she says. Her students plan to continue helping Afghan children and refugees. They're now working with a new organization that brings films to refugee camps.