Each summer, the MLK Committee, comprised of faculty members and administrators, gathers to choose a hero for a march and assembly six months later. The committee searches for an individual who has made an indelible contribution to peace in the world and someone to whom students across the school can relate. Once the hero is chosen, the committee designs ways for classroom teachers to integrate that person into their curriculum in the lead-up to the MLK Jr. Day celebration in January.
Malala Yousafzai was chosen as this year’s hero along with the theme “Voices for Education.” Malala would join past MLK Jr. heroes, Gandhi, Auyng San Suu Kyi, Rosa Parks. At just fifteen years old, strangers attempted to take her life while riding a bus home from school because she was speaking and writing about the need for girls to go to school. She has since recovered and become a global advocate for girls’ right to education, and this year she became the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
A project that has become the symbol of the MLK Jr. celebration is the creation of a large puppet of the hero of the year by fourth grade students working with art teacher Bev O’Mara. Students learn and utilize several techniques over the course of three months to create their 3-D sculpture.
Before beginning construction of the puppet, students first learn to sketch the proportions of the human head. Once they have mastered that skill, they study several pictures of the hero before using only newspaper and tape to develop the curvature of the face on top of an armature that Ms. O’Mara has created. Once the face has taken its form, students put on coats of Papier Mâché to harden the form and then paint the face and clothes. Finally, students choose the hero’s “tools of peace”; for Malala they chose her school notebook. The final step is for Ms. O’Mara to assemble the puppet’s pieces and rigging.
Students in other grades also prepared for the march by making signs and posters proudly displaying quotes from Malala’s speeches and, sometimes, their own thoughts about every person’s right to education.
The MLK March was not the first instance of Malala’s influence in the school. Earlier in the year, 7th grade students watched her Nobel Prize Speech and wrote responses to it. Students described a genuine sense of amazement at how a person, only a few years older than they were, could impact the world in such a big way.
In their English class, 8th grade students read excerpts from Patricia McCormick’s book, “I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World.” Following that reading, students were assigned to further research Malala’s story and prepare to write an iBook for students in Early Childhood the Lower School as an interdisciplinary project blending English, current events and technology.
Before they got started, Patricia McCormick, alumni parent, came to speak with them about what it was like to work with Malala. She graciously shared stories of the time she spent with Malala and answered students’ questions, not just about Malala, but about the process of capturing her story. She offered advice and ideas for how the 8th graders could relate to a younger audience, much as she did in her book.
When the iBooks were completed, the 8th grade visited classrooms of younger students presenting their work and Malala’s fight against injustice. Many students wrote about Malala as a role model, which was in perfect parallel with older students spending time with a teaching the youngest in the school.
Later in the spring, Malala continued to move through the school when a visitor from the Malala Fund, Maia Johnson, spoke with Middle School students about Malala and the work of the organization. Co-founded by Malala and her father, the Fund seeks to secure the right to education for the 62 million girls worldwide currently deprived of that right.
Students were impressed by Maia’s description of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, and were fascinated to learn that, like them, Malala sometimes frets over her exams in schools. Maia joined GCS for the peace march a few days before her visit and took photos of the puppet made in Malala’s likeness. She showed them to Malala and as a final act that wowed the students, she reported that Malala very moved by the puppets and signs.
Malala, through her bravery and resilience, was a lightning rod for creative teaching and learning opportunities this year. Teachers found a compelling subject to use to create lessons and projects that teach and reinforce fundamental skills and ideas. Students found a young hero to which they could connect and to aspire to emulate. The school found a new voice for education that reminds us how much work there is left to be done in the fight for equality and justice.