Table of Contents
The Change Writers project engages students, teachers, and community activists in thinking deeply about their world and in using writing as a tool for change.
The journey we’re about to share started in the Summer of 2008, when the two of us traveled to New York City to join the Holocaust Memorial Library Summer Institute. And that’s where our on-going conversation started on how we could use writing and technology to connect students around issues of social injustice and to empower them to take social action.
In the summer of 2008, I traveled to New York City to participate in the National Writing Project’s Holocaust Memorial Library Seminar. This amazing event brings together middle school through college educators for two weeks of learning and collaborating about effective methods and approaches to teaching about the Holocaust, as well as more recent genocides. As I listened to the powerful lessons my colleagues had developed for their secondary students, a question kept coming to mind: at what age is it appropriate to discuss the topic of genocide? Is it appropriate, for instance, in the 4th grade study of California? In my job as a district technology specialist, I visit many elementary sites. The classic 4th grade California Missions projects that typically present missionazation as mutually beneficial are still displayed prominently at many sites, with no mention of the devastating impact on native tribes. Yet, interestingly, the district-adopted 4th grade language arts text includes a story about Anne Frank, written by her father, a Holocaust survivor. I left New York hoping to join a conversation with 4th grade teachers about how they approach the teaching of such a profound act of inhumanity. Surely not with worksheets or multiple choice tasks that limit students to simple recall, with no invitation to higher order thinking?
As luck would have it and as the new school year opened, I assumed the coordinator’s position for our district’s Enhancing Teaching Through Technology (EETT) grant. Year one of the grant targeted 4th grade classrooms at three of our Title 1 schools. Thus began my journey and my privilege of working with the dedicated 4th grade team at Prairie Elementary School. I happened to be on site providing some technical assistance the afternoon the team was planning for a Day of Tolerance, an event they hoped might transform the hearts and minds of their students, extending well beyond a single day. The students had read the Anne Frank piece and would be watching the movie as part of the day’s events. The teachers decided to weave in a local story of intolerance: the story of the forced removal from the West Coast of over 120,000 citizens of Japanese heritage following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In a community that had once been the heart of California’s strawberry farms, justice failed, changing overnight and forever the history of Elk Grove. I suggested inviting community activist and former internee Marielle Tsukamoto as a guest speaker.
As the students listened to Marielle share her childhood memories of exclusion and discrimination and her belief in the importance of one’s culture in remaining resilient despite setbacks, they gained a sense that history does not happen just in textbooks; it happens in our own communities – and each one of us has the potential to be an “upstander,” even though initially it’s easier to remain a “bystander.”
While listening to these 4th graders connecting the past to the present, and grappling with issues of intolerance in their own lives, I knew they were having some of the same conversations that Pam Bodnar’s 8th grade peer mediators were having two hours north at Marsh Jr. High. Because new technologies make it increasingly easy to connect students in different physical locations, I suggested to Pam that we introduce her students to the Prairie students.
My role was simple: I would provide whatever tech support was needed to get online conversations started. Although the Prairie team was initially leery of extending learning beyond their paper-and-pencil comfort zone and out onto the Internet, when they saw how energized their students were by the opportunities to collaborate, create, connect, and share, they began to come on board with the technology tools.
Lesley McKillop was the first digital explorer. With a little help, she set up her classroom blog. The Day of Tolerance art and writing pieces that she had stapled to the classrooms walls, started making their way to the blog – and into interactive discussions with Pam’s students. The two groups began to connect as a community of writers, which, within a matter of weeks, transformed into the Change Writers.
Before the school year ended, the two sites connected via an interactive videoconference for a virtual Change Writers meet up. Both groups had much to share. What began as a discussion about bullying issues at their own sites evolved into a discussion about the consequences of targeting any group of people for forced removal from their communities. The 4th graders were were clearly knowledgeable about the internment of Elk Grove’s Japanese-American population. The 8th graders shared what they had learned from interviewing three Holocaust survivors now living in the Mendocino region of northern California. Before the videoconference ended, Justin, a 4th grader, summed up the difference between these two chapters in history by explaining that “it was never the intent of the US government to kill the Japanese-Americans, but it was Hitler’s plan to kill Jewish people.” He then went on the share a Daruma doll from their student-made class collection, demonstrating the ability of the Daruma to bounce back no matter how many times it is knocked down. “Resiliency,” Justin explained, “is what helps people survive bad things and keep going.”
Without the technology, it would have been difficult for the above conversations, connections, and ‘ah ha’ moments to have happened. While technology is not automatically a silver bullet for engaging and empowering student writers – it can certainly help. When I walk into classrooms and find rich examples of writing on the walls, I feel compelled to hand over the staple remover and introduce whatever technology tool could best take students voices off the walls and out into the world. In the 4th grade wing at Prairie, as I walked across the hallway in any direction from Lesley’s room, I saw student work on display that begged for a broader audience.
In Lutricia Hardaway’s class, I found the walls covered with beautiful pieces about the students’ thoughts on our nation’s recent election of Barack Obama to the Presidency. I showed Lutricia what a VoiceThread looked like. She had the student work off the walls within minutes, ready to be scanned and uploaded to the Barack Obama Rocks VoiceThread. Her students, who are too often confined by poverty to a small radius of the community, knew their voices were going beyond the classroom and felt validated by the growing bank of positive comments posted to their project.
Elisabeth Goossens unstapled her 4th graders’ poety-in-two-voices projects and uploaded the Poems of Tolerance to VoiceThread, taking Paul Fleischman’s Joyful Noises samples in a whole new direction of inquiry and writing.
The last of the Prairie Change Writers (and self-proclaimed ‘total technophobe’) Halie Ferrier and I are still in awe of the transformation that happened in her classroom as the integration of technology helped shift ownership of learning to her students. We didn’t really need the ‘outside’ validation to realize that the Letters from the Internment Camps ‘off-the-walls writing’ was a powerful example of why students need and deserve an audience beyond the classroom. However, the related products that ensured, such as the Change Writers video and the correspondence with VoiceThread developer Steve Muth were proof that Halie’s students had developed a “stand out project”:
“First congratulations, everyone that I’ve shared the video and the VoiceThread with have been moved and inspired. I don’t think it’s any one thing but instead the combination of number of things that came together to make it so powerful. Educators are always looking for a way to engage their students, to make them aware of the importance of the work at hand, and to make them aware that their very own work has real and immediate value. You folks really succeeded on every level and I think promoting the project, and encouraging others to do something similar would have lasting value for educators and students anywhere.”
From blogging, to videoconferencing, to VoiceThread, I am struck by the possibilities for technology to level the playing field for all students, allowing them to take their voices to a global community, and, in the process, to become instruments of change as they challenge injustices and inspire others to social action.
My journeys to the African continent permanently changed my perspective on the human condition. Traveling through Ugandan schools and HIV/AIDS clinics in 2002 and the ravaged villages in post-genocide Rwanda in 2004 during the 10th anniversary “Remembrance” left the resounding sounds of “never again” in my mind. Africa’s visible beauty, color, and music reflected the underlying resiliency and hopeful spirit of its people. These experiences drew me to participate in the Holocaust Memorial Library Institute to further explore the intrinsically resilient nature of survivors of traumatic events.
My role as a junior high counselor in Chico, CA allows me the flexibility to explore avenues outside of and beyond the mandated curriculum. As the program advisor and educator for my group of 8th grade Peer Mediators, I challenged the students to look deep inside themselves to discover the voice they wish to share with others. The Mediators are a dedicated and motivated team of socially conscious teenagers who voluntarily devote their energies to promote peace and tolerance at our site. My challenge is to inspire and direct them toward new and exciting opportunities that will enhance their jr. high learning experience and provide the vehicles by which they can accomplish their goals.
Team building and trust are essential to a cooperative learning venture and there is no better bonding experience than a challenge that requires dependence on one another to succeed. Our trek to the summit of Mt. Lassen, to an elevation above 11,000 ft., left us all light-headed and glowing with a feeling of accomplishment. Peer Mediator Katie R. stated, “I really enjoyed going to Mt. Lassen because I feel like I got a lot closer to everyone.” Nimrat M. echoes her sentiments,”I enjoyed bonding with the other mediators. I love being a mediator and I will never forget being one.”
The creation of Identity Boxes gave each student permission to look deep inside themselves and discover their unique identity. Mediators collected mementos, photos and significant artifacts representing their lives to display in their box. They shared their box, and the personal “pieces” of themselves, with the entire group. After interactive discussions and reflection on the project, several conclusions surfaced. A person’s identity is extremely valuable. Inhumane treatment among people attempts to strip people of their identity. Maintaining one’s identity during traumatic events is the key to survival. And finally, every individual has value as they are.
The mediators were then ready to progress to the next level. I presented them with seeds for thought about the possibilities of connecting events from the past related to social injustice and civil unrest with their lives in the present moment.Sharing my personal stories of childhood, family life, educational experiences and journeys cross the globe seemed to whet their appetites. During a brainstorming session, the group decided to investigate the Holocaust, Rwandan Genocide, Darfur “Civil” War, social protest, and the issues of racism, discrimination,bullying, and conflict resolution.
A variety of resources (print, online, video, music – Playing for Change) were made available. Plans to hear first-hand accounts of the Holocaust were set in motion by locating three survivors who could share their stories. Hannie Voyles was 8 years old when the Nazis began rounding up the Jews in her home town of Amsterdam. She spent her days living on the streets, eavesdropping on soldiers’ discussions in order to keep her Jewish mother safe and well-hidden. Hannie wears a red gem hanging from a chain around her neck to represent the blood of the children she witnessed being herded into trucks toward the concentration camps. Her pangs of guilt as a bystander have haunted her dreams for over 60 years. Jay and Monique Frankston were adolescents residing in France when the Nazi forces aided their villages. Monique’s family was exterminated in the gas chambers of Auschwitz while she survived as the “gentile daughter” of her school principal’s aunt. The world came to know that many honorable upstanding souls risked their own lives to rescue innocent victims of Hitler’s campaign. Jay is now an outspoken social activist, advocating remembrance and global responsibility. These personal testimonies allowed the mediators to establish a real and emotional connection to the events of yesterday, inspiring a sense of ownership and pride in their ability to initiate change in their community and themselves. Shelby M. comments, “Oh my gosh, the things I have learned this year about the Holocaust has made a huge impact on me. It made me stop and think about the world more seriously. I definitely have a better understanding”.
Intrigued by the concept of sharing their voices with the outside world, the students engaged in international and cross-age communications. Through an on-going penpal program with children living at the Streets Ahead Children’s Centre Association (SACCA) homeless shelter in Rwanda, Africa, the mediators discovered the commonalities among teenagers related to sports, religion, food preferences, desires, family, disappointments and dreams. The aftermath of the Rwandan genocide was clearly depicted in the SACCA children’s letters to their new friends in California.
Through a collaborative effort with Lesley McKillop’s 4th graders in Elk Grove, California, the mediators became mentors to younger students. A classroom blog fostered thought-provoking dialogue between these two groups of Change Writers. They shared personal stories, ideas and questions about becoming upstanding citizens and leaders in the school. Nellie reflects on her entry “I think my response to the laying For Change (DVD) on the blog was the best thing I’ve written. It was the shortest and most meaningful way I’ve ever put down my thoughts”. A culminating live videoconference provided the students with the opportunity to meet and speak to each other about their journeys of self-discovery, each traveling their own separate road, supporting each other along the way. They had become a community of inspired Change Writers ready to challenge themselves to make a difference in the world. Nimrat M. reflects, “When I started mediators I know I was a bystander, but now I feel I have become an upstander. I discovered that we all have a voice and sometimes we forget to use it. I know I will never forget to use my voice and stand up for what I believe in.”
From the letters of children in Rwandan villages, to the summit of Mt. Lassen, to the heartfelt testimony of survivors, to the small conference room at Marsh Jr. High in Chico, CA, an otherwise ordinary group of 8th graders emerged as agents of change. Supported by 21st century technologies, a community of encouraging educators and family members, and their own desire to find a place in the world, the Marsh Junior High Change Writers have discovered the power of the written word and the voice to be heard.
Change Writer Resources
Download a table of resources that provided inspiration to our students as they became Change Writers. Each book title or media resource is marked as appropriate for fourth grade, eighth grade, or both.
Through this project we discovered that students, even young students, care deeply about issues of social injustice and are eager to examine examples from their immediate communities and to compare how they are similar or different to what students in other locations are observing or experiencing. Students are also quite capable of delving into complex social issues that span communities and generations. We learned that the introduction of the term genocide, for instance, need not be restricted to a particular age or grade level. If the materials and the manner in which the topic is introduced are age-appropriate, elementary students can join middle school students in a meaningful, shared conversation. In the Change Writers project, the 4th graders became experts on the internment experience; the 8th graders, on the Holocaust. It was through the technology, beginning with blogging and culminating with an interactive face-to-face videoconference that students demonstrated their ability and willingness to share co-expertise not only on these two historical events but also on bullying, an issue all had witnessed and/or experienced. As Change Writers, they had started what could become a life-long conversation.