Spotlight on Teaching: Telling a Hero's Story

by Lucie Aidinoff, Dean of English 

At Grace Church School, our collective commitment to social justice is foundational to each student's experience. The study of social justice begins in junior kindergarten and continues through grade twelve. Thus, on the Wednesday preceding the Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday, the community takes the opportunity to mark his legacy with a peace march honoring human rights heroes, a peace chapel and student led symposia and an assembly that focus explicitly on King’s legacy. The eighth-grade class takes on the responsibility of telling these heroes’ stories to the lower school and early childhood students by writing engaging narratives that reflect the importance of embodying the values we treasure at Grace.
As Dean of English and the eighth-grade English teacher, I am moved each year by the care with which our students write these books. The skills that the eighth graders acquire earlier in the year in studying literature and learning to focus on another author’s language as well as on their own, help them to create coherent biographies and explain salient concepts. In English, students begin the year by reading “All Quiet on the Western Front.” They come to understand how the author, Erich Maria Remarque's fervent indictment of war reflects a disenchantment that informs twentieth century history. The class studies the novel over a number of weeks and learns to compose and revise a sophisticated analytic essay about it. (Such complex insight also serves students well in their twentieth century world history course.) Eighth graders then study poetry and short stories with an eye toward the goals of understanding authorial intent and of honing their ability to explicate this knowledge in clear and cogent prose. Students read the work of Wilfred Owen, Elizabeth Bishop, James Baldwin, Eudora Welty, and Robert Hayden among others. As the fall progresses, eighth graders come to see that grappling with complex ideas is a process, as is crafting effective prose.
When the eighth graders return from Thanksgiving vacation, it is time for them to learn about another kind of writing and to focus on another kind of process. For the past several years, the students have been writing eBooks for the lower school and early childhood students. While eighth graders certainly help each other with revision earlier in the fall, the project is the first collaboration in the course. This year as the school honored American women trailblazers, the class wrote books about the women slated to be featured on the new United States currency. In groups of two or three, students composed brief biographical eBooks about Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Marian Anderson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul and Sojourner Truth. Technology proves an invaluable tool here. The students begin by taking notes from reliable websites on shared google documents. These shared documents make collaboration as well as teacher oversight easy.  Creating an electronic book allows students to write and revise together and to include archival images gleaned from the Internet. Once the students assess what information is pertinent, they face another challenge. They must decide how to present a complex life story to young children. So too, as the older students struggle with relating troubling stories of injustice and cruelty to their young readers, eighth graders must grapple with the enormity of such injustice and the questions of what to incorporate into their narratives and how best to do so. It quickly becomes evident that writing for junior kindergarteners is quite different from writing for fourth graders. Reaching a particular audience effectively is no longer an abstract idea, but a complex problem to be solved. 
In January, eighth graders return from winter break refreshed. Before they embark on a study of Shakespeare in English and with the Classic Stage Company in drama, they revisit their eBooks. Students proofread their writing, read the work of other groups and, with the advice of their teacher, help each other make sure that each book is clear, accurate, and age-appropriate. In the days before the peace march, the authors meet their audiences. Eighth graders visit the early childhood and lower school classrooms and read their eBooks as they are projected on the class smartboards. Every year, the authors happily linger to discuss the subjects of their biographies. Integral to the eighth-grade Grace Church School experience, the eBook project has become an opportunity for collaboration within the classroom, for students to teach and mentor each other, and for so many members of our community to reflect on the need for courage, integrity, and social justice.