Sara Needleman's Learning Story


When Mandy handed me the first draft of her Class Orator speech, my initial and audible reaction was, “Mandy, I don’t think you can deliver this speech.” Confused and crestfallen, as she had worked so hard to follow my directions (speak from your heart, capture the voice of your classmates, write with pride, show me your drafts), Mandy wondered why I had reacted this way. I went on to tell her that indeed she had followed all of my directions. I told her the speech was truly powerful; deeply moving; it resonated with her own voice and the voice of her peers. She and I had not talked at all about what she might write. I told her this speech was hers and that I would help in any way I could, but the seeds should come from her. I told her to try a draft and show it to me when it was complete. Here she was, standing at my desk, full of eager anticipation for my reaction. “Mandy,” I said, “I am afraid everyone will think I wrote this speech.”Mandy’s speech was captivating. She chose not to relive her grade- and middle school days with her peers. She did not heap praise on each teacher in her recent memory. She did not encourage her classmates to find the best in themselves and apply it in the world. Instead, she shared with her entire audience a Truth she had learned in my class — a Truth so powerful that I could hardly believe we had actually touched it in an eighth grade English language arts classroom. Mandy explained to her audience that during the past school year we had read the book Night, by Elie Weisel. She wisely provided her audience with a very brief book synopsis and then went on to describe the project our team launched as a follow up to the book. We took a very careful look at the then current and brutal genocide occurring in Darfur, Sudan. Initially, the primary aim of our project was to raise awareness in our own community of that genocide. The students were adamant, however, once they had learned for themselves about the Darfur genocide — its history, its persistence, the gruesome atrocities associated with it and its haunting connection to what they had read in Night — that we not only raise awareness but that we take political action and raise money too. Toward that end, the students and I brainstormed a long list of strategies we might use to educate our school, take action and raise funds. Once we had generated a list of viable options to pursue, the students split up into teams to fulfill the tasks. We planned a full week of Darfur-related events to conduct in our school and ended up extending our efforts beyond the week because the reaction we got from the community was so strong. Our first step provided the “hook” for the school. One of the student teams and I spent a Friday afternoon after school “wallpapering” the perimeter of the cafeteria ceiling with a slogan they had crafted, “Stop genocide. Save Darfur.” The same group hung posters in public spaces in the building which read, “Google Darfur”. The goal was to generate a buzz starting on Monday morning. Once we had the school community asking, “What is Darfur? What does all of this mean?” we began to deliver our message. We spent the following week educating and energizing our community. The students had written “Words of Wisdom” to be delivered each day of that week in place of the quote of the day shared during morning announcements. The “Words of Wisdom” gave the rest of the school the most basic information they needed to understand the conflict in Darfur and why we had chosen to focus on it. We followed up by sending small teams of well-rehearsed students into each classroom during tutorial periods to share more details. The students gave more information, explained the petition we had crafted and were hoping to fill with signatures, and finally played a short quiz game. The prizes for those who answered the questions correctly were buttons we had made. Our plan was to sell the buttons, bearing a variety of original slogans, such as, “Save Darfur” and “Hope for Darfur” as we gathered signatures for the petition. On the days we stationed ourselves for petition signing and button sales, our whole team donned the “Help Darfur” T-shirts we had made. The backs of the T-shirts listed three steps any person might take to help lodge a small protest. It turned out that the T-shirts were so popular that we put them into mass production and sold them as well. Our team of students spent the entire week (and the weeks beyond as we managed T-shirt sales) energized and invested. Finally, when one of the parents of a student on the team helped us to bring a Darfurian man in to speak with our students, I saw the real power of this piece of “curriculum”. The students listened, riveted to a man with very dark skin and a very thick accent discuss how his own family was split apart and how he fled to escape murder. They asked insightful and respectful questions, they nodded as he delved into the history of the genocide and used terms familiar to them like “Janjaweed” and “militia groups”. They wiped tears from their eyes as he wiped away his own and they all wanted to hug him and shake his hand as he left, wishing him good luck and thanking him for his time. He was all too happy to return the sentiments.The project behind us and eighth grade commencement in front of us, Mandy and I laughed. I swallowed the enormous lump in my throat and tried again to give her some well-deserved feedback on her speech. I helped her polish and rehearse it and when she quoted me on the night of its delivery, saying, “Ms. Needleman told us that the real importance of reading works like Night comes when we apply what we learn to the world we live in today”, I wiped away my own tears. Mandy and her peers learned a great deal in eighth grade, but the most important thing she and her classmates took away from that year was the simple Truth captured in the response to our essential question for that year, “What is just, right and good?” Mandy had an answer.