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.