by Heather Hester
English Facilitator, Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School
The culture in our school has cultivated a closeness that is unparalleled to experiences I have had in traditional schools. Students trust each other. There is a sense of earned respect for one another, but they don’t always know what life outside of the school walls is like for one another. The combination of these factors creates an environment that allows for students to share some of their personal stories.
Seniors start the year with a PBL that requires them to submit an entry to the “This I Believe” essay contest through NPR. The contest has been around since the 1950’s and features written work by famous figures as well as every day folks. The seniors are led through a series of workshops that encourage them to consider moments in their lives that have defined current beliefs. They ask for workshops to learn story telling writing techniques. Series of editing and revising are also necessary components to strengthen writing skills and polish essays before they are submitted.
Another requirement is that they present their essays to the class. They practice using their voice, eye contact and gestures to help tell the story of their essay instead of reading it inanely from the page. It is during these presentations that I find myself developing more empathy for my students than ever before.
Because of this PBL I hear from kids like Jacob Dunn who shared statements such as, “I grew up in an abusive home, and while I was never hit, spent my childhood breathing unhappy air.” He spoke about spending Christmas with no heat and eventually what hit home was when he said, “I think what truly changed me was being homeless. There is honesty in throwing everything you own away.” This story gripped my heart when he shared that his belief is that “living is the reward for staying through hard times.”
In another presentation I was compelled to laugh when Aaron Burton stood in front of his class to ask if we are “fans of the fan.” The sounds of his bedroom fan not only helped him sleep at night but drowned out the arguments that he didn’t want to hear. He had written his essay about the seriousness of appreciating the simplicity in life but so cleverly threaded his paper with his keen sense humor.
In yet another presentation, our class learned from Valeria Guerrero that despite suffering domestic violence, rape and poverty, she strives daily to get the education her mother wanted but never had the chance to earn. Her goal is to make her mother, her hero, proud. Her belief that no human should be made to feel less than any other is testament to her genuine maturity.
As a result of what started as a PBL using NPR’s historical essay contest as an externalized enemy, ended as one of the most powerful opportunities for honesty and understanding that my seniors will experience in this final year of high school. I think Isaac Joyner encapsulates it best in his essay, “As the French say, ‘Ne craidriez pas la peur,’ which translates to ‘Don’t be afraid of fear.’” He encourages that “it is often in the face of fear that we do the most spectacular things.” What begins as a scary, intimidating English 12 project ends with tears and hugs and understanding.