I had the great pleasure and good fortune several weeks ago to teach a travel writing class in New York, and while small, the intimacy of the group allowed me to just flat out fall in love with my students.
One of these remarkable women, Laura Mayer, is a high school teacher for kids with learning disabilities, and she found a crack-the-crust way to bring the world into her classroom. She had connected to Women for Women International, an organization committed to helping women survivors of war rebuild their lives. In addition to her personal commitment, Laura felt there was an opportunity here to expand the horizons of her New York class via the life of her “sister” in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I was proud of Laura’s writing in our class, and even more here, where she opens up her heart. Her letter to Women for Women International and a link to their posting of her work, is after the jump. Please read it. Laura and her kids will grab you. I promise.
In June, 2008, I received my initial Women For Women Int’l welcome package introducing me not only to my country of choice, the Democratic Republic of Congo, but to my first sister, Jeanne Bakubali. I had all kinds of ideas on how to write my first letter, but was concerned I might overwhelm her with information. I was also acutely aware of how vastly different our lives were and sensitive to the fact that my life as a single, educated professional living in New York City could seem to her like some strange sort of fairy tale.
As a teacher of high schoolers with learning disabilities, I also wanted to use this experience as a lesson and ongoing unit. Introducing my small class of 10 students to an actual person would certainly engage them on a much more personal and authentic level with my “homemade” social studies and global issues lessons. So I set up a week of lessons where we first studied the DRC itself, learning a brief history of the troubled country and watching some documentaries I had accumulated, including one about young war-ravaged women with fistulas called “Lumo”. I wanted to ensure they had a strong understanding of what our new sister may have been through before we really introduced ourselves to her.
I then had them work on a short essay about the country using a writing prompt homework worksheet. We kept a special bulletin board up in the room to post all correspondence, photos and maps.
Initially, I wrote the introduction part of the letter, explaining to Jeanne some of my own background and setting up the body of the letter, which was a short paragraph from each of my students introducing themselves and then asking her one or two questions. We sent it off with a full-color page of photos of all of us and waited excitedly for her reply!
Unfortunately, this was in June and of course with the time lapse between letters, it was September before we heard back from her. Luckily I still had many of the same students in my class the next school year, but as much as I hate to admit it, it was several more months before things settled back into a routine where I could re-introduce the lesson to the new additions in class. We fell behind and before we knew it, Jeanne had graduated!
I promised not to let us get behind with our second sister, Annonciata. Though my class this fall is comprised of entirely new students, I am introducing the unit as part of an abridged December “Genocide-Conflict” theme I started last year.
I have already penned a letter off to her, but will engage my new group into writing short notes as well, which we will then place together with a Christmas card and class photo!
I have found this project, while still very much in its initial infancy, to be a remarkable way to drive home the point that so many of our kids take a sense of entitlement and an idea of school being “pointless” to such an extreme, they cannot see past their own often petty grievances.
As a Special-Education teacher, I am constantly fighting a bureaucracy that seems to aim for the absolute minimum when it comes to teaching kids like mine. I saw clearly that not only were the students in my class able to understand the issues presented, but their compassion and curiosity made me proud of them. The initial letter we wrote last summer proved that the higher we aim for all of our kids, the deeper will be our understanding of each other and the more peaceful will our world become!
Women For Women International has provided this teacher with the incredible inspiration to break these boundaries and engage students in a simple experience that they will keep with them their entire lives.
New York City