“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
― Margaret Mead
I had my first very teachable moment, and it began with Alan Paton’s Too Late the Phalarope. In my classrooms, as students read and discussed the novel, they were unmoved by the injustice of apartheid. I quickly realized that apartheid was just a word to them, like hall pass or water bottle. This was too vital of a target for them to miss. Read “Who is Responsible for Student Learning?”
I quickly changed my plans to make it a lesson, not on Paton’s literary style, but on the heart of his novel, the authentic reason behind the novel: the people and the injustice they endured.
Students divided into groups and researched apartheid, deforestation, blood diamonds, colonization, human trafficking, and cocoa plantations. Their presentations were heart breaking as they shared, not the analysis of the novel or of Paton’s writing, but the soul of the novel: injustice, humanity, authenticity.
With their new knowledge, they wanted to do something, to contribute to a solution, so I taught them to write letters (in this age of technology, a formal letter is an anomaly, and students faced a learning curve on how to structure and generate content to support their causes.) I taught them how to write to their senators about the issues that pulled the students into action. Students wrote, consulted each other, revised, and mailed their letters.
There was energy in the class because we were all empowered–people taking on real-life issues. I was not stuffing their heads with ivory castle facts and then staggering home to mark their work in red ink; the momentum changed for us all.
One girl asked why no one had told them of these atrocities before. Good question. Maybe we weren’t listening, but the point is that we now knew about the issues, and learning, while a gift in itself, carries a responsibility of action.
People ask, “What about homework in an English class like this?”
That’s easy: change the world. Doing it is the heavy lifting. Check out Walk in Their Shoes: Can One Person Change the World?
My students did not change the world, but they did change a part of it: they adopted a reforestation project in Ethiopia, and making their case before the student body with assembly on reforestation, they were able to raise $970.00 in a week. That action translated into 97,000 trees. The project they adopted is the least expensive and most sustainable reforestation project in the world. Later we received word that the trees had been planted in an area that experienced flash floods because of deforestation, and five school-aged children died in the last flood.
During their senior year, they received a picture of the village and the change that has occurred because of the trees. Also, every senator wrote back to them. One student said he was going to frame his letter because he did not believe elected officials really listened to the people.
By the way, Too Late the Phalarope became their favorite novel, so I accomplished English teacherly things, too.
But I knew other English teachers were shaking their heads. How is this about the standards and the CIM? I was also wondering what box to check in grade book for the senators’ letters. There was no such such box to link students’ learning from this project. The system was not set up for change, but my students were involved, their hearts were in their projects, and they were engaged in their learning. I knew I was on to something, even if I didn’t have my colleagues’ support or a stamp of approval from the language arts standards.
The experience with that first class changed the way I looked at teaching writing and literature. I knew that the students had to make a human connection and then write from that connection. And it’s been my mission ever since.