Award-Winning Educator Connects Students and Survivors to Inspire Social Change
Bridging the gap between the safe, prosperous life that many high school students in Parker enjoy and the terrors of poverty, war and human rights abuses experienced by millions of people is no easy task.
This is the mission undertaken by Dr. Mark Thorsen, social studies teacher at Ponderosa High School, who endeavors to make his students aware of the many different struggles around them, locally and throughout the world.
“Social studies is one of the easiest subjects to make relevant for students. It allows us to think about solving problems. It is a really important foundation, regardless of what they go on to pursue,” Thorsen explains.
“Engaging the students is not difficult. Each of them wants to feel like their voice matters. They want to be a part of something bigger. If we provide the opportunity, they will rise to the occasion.”
Over the past 20 years, Thorsen has been involved with various sports and clubs at Ponderosa, including football and wrestling. More recently, he has supported activities that encourage philanthropy and social action among students.
“My biggest shift in thinking was when my sons were born,” says Thorsen. “I have three boys. I want to make the world a better place for them.”
Thorsen now sponsors Ponderosa’s UNICEF club. The club’s members organize fundraisers, like Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF, and increase awareness of social issues affecting the world’s most vulnerable children.
“It’s important to understand the relationship between our community and our school. We invigorate one another,” Thorsen says.
Every fall, Thorsen organizes the school’s Human Rights Awareness Week. Last year’s event featured speakers who have survived atrocities, such as human trafficking and genocide; authors; social change innovators; and leaders from A Path Appears, Children’s Future International, One Nation Walking Together, Restoration Project International and other non-profit groups.
“Social change is always made up of many tiny acts,” explains Thorsen. “It’s not about waiting for one big person to come along. Just talking to other people is a significant act. When students take something they are passionate about and talk to their parents, siblings and friends about it, they are including more people in the conversation. It’s important to give them an outlet.
“Individual students learn differently, and they change over time, but what drives them is consistent. They all want to matter. Recognizing and fostering that drive is the joy in what we do,” Thorsen says.
Thorsen’s efforts were recognized in March 2016 at the Douglas County School District’s Apple Awards ceremony, where he was named Secondary Educator of the Year.