When Kristy Nelson called a few weeks ago, she didn’t have to tell me she was excited or nervous. She did, anyway, though her voice signaled both the moment she started talking.
She was a teacher at Buchtel High School, she said, team-teaching a class of 10th-graders in American studies. The class was working on a special project. An example of the focus on innovative styles of teaching (some might say “holistic”), this project was designed to pull together lessons in English, history, current affairs, volunteering, community engagement, fundraising and all the soft skills necessary to raise awareness and generate action on a specific topic.
The teachers, Nelson and Drew Hoisington, and the class were exploring the Holocaust and a nearly 70-year-old promise: “Never again.” The class planned to invite a survivor of the Holocaust and a survivor of the atrocities in Darfur. They were planning an evening program May 23, with presentations by the guests.
The students wanted to send the word out that genocide is not history, that people still are dying in Darfur and around the world because of who they are and that there is a promise to keep: “Never again.” Nelson wanted her students to understand they can choose to make a difference. They set a goal to raise a minimum of $1,000 that would go to the Darfur Dream Team Sister Schools program, which supports schools for children in refugee camps in neighboring Chad.
But May 23 was just a few weeks away, and there was much work to be done. There was the challenge of locating survivors who would be able to spend time with students in Akron. There were questions of transportation and accommodation and honoraria. Teachers and students had to make sure their guests would not be addressing a near-empty hall. And, to be a persuasive voice for the voiceless in Darfur, the 10th-graders of Buchtel had to be up on their research.
Quite an ambitious project to pull off. But the pieces started falling into place. I could tell Nelson’s excitement by the number of exclamation points in subsequent emails.
A Holocaust and a Darfuri survivor were coming: Leo Silberman, president of the Kol Israel Foundation of Cleveland, and El-Fadel Arbab of Fur Cultural Revival, a shoestring Darfuri community center in Portland, Maine. The students were working hard, putting together their oral and poster presentations and making fundraising products and fliers. A student had suggested a winning name for the project. They were calling it The Promise Project.
The project grew legs. Math teacher Sarah Mizak helped students with calculations for making bracelets for fundraising. Linda Dillon and her class of juniors and seniors in the Teacher Academy, a program that trains students interested in teaching, got involved, too. The Buchtel PTA and Akron International Friendship stepped up to sponsor the event. Other volunteers lent services, among them Damon L. Blue and David E. Clayton, hosts for Arbab, and videographer Fred Barrett. From a grant that enables teachers to explore such approaches to teaching, the project leaders managed to offer the two presenters a small honorarium.
The evening of May 23, Kristy Nelson was the picture of a proud parent. A good-sized crowd was in attendance. Teenagers, children and adults listened intently to stories of survival they could barely imagine. Her students were on stage in the spacious new auditorium helping to introduce the project and guests, manning poster stations in the gymnasium, connecting history to present circumstances, eager to show how much they had learned about a corner of Sudan worlds away from their own.
What I saw and heard that evening keep rattling around in my head.
I saw teaching that engages.
Nelson and her team demonstrated as well as anyone that how we become knowledgeable enough about our world to act is not by divorcing one subject — history or math or language arts — from another but by melding them in the same way that life melds them. (“Holistic” may be the appropriate term, after all.) There are no divisions, for example, between geography, race, religion and politics in the way tragedy has unfolded in Darfur. A student nattily dressed in a spotless shirt and tie told me he learned about the geographic aspect of the Darfur situation, the question of land resources and the decision by the Sudanese government to deal with the issue militarily.
But this holistic approach takes an enormous amount of time and energy — not to mention vision and grit — to plan and to pull together. Evident in this case, it also takes a “village” effort inside and outside the school system.
It was wonderful to see how well it all worked out. But in an educational system increasingly concerned with quick results, cheaply funded, it is fair to wonder how long teachers and students can afford the luxury of time to plan and engage.
I saw students who were engaging. One rap against “young people these days” is that they are too loud, too disrespectful, overindulged and care too little about anything beyond their noses.
But what I heard bore no resemblance to “young people these days.” They were angered by injustice. They questioned the silence of governments in the face of suffering. They recognized the advantages of their own lives. They sought to wake up their friends and neighbors to a promise unkept. They raised a little over $1,200 for the Dream Team Sister Schools.
What I saw were young people trying to hold up their end of a promise made on their behalf, a promise they want to keep: Never again. Anywhere.
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at email@example.com.