English Project Takes Off

By Frank Chen and Alekya Rajanala

English Teachers Katherine Geers and Jennifer Moore’s sophomore students are currently participating in a pilot program that is co-directed by the non-profit organizations Facing History and Ourselves and Voice of Witness. This project may be featured in the Smithsonian Museum of Washington, D.C. later this year.

The purpose of Facing History and Ourselves is to help give educators the resources to teach students about concepts such as human rights crises, human behavior, and narrative history. Voice of Witness is an organization that serves as a platform for oppressed or unheard voices to be recognized. Together, they aim to integrate the importance of oral narrative history into high school curriculums across the nation.

Geers and Moore have attended several literature and human rights workshops hosted by Facing History and Ourselves. They were nominated to take part in a conference at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Their involvement in this and other programs led to an invitation for them to hear about the pilot program and decide if they wanted to participate. Moore and Geers believed that this project is a great opportunity for their students, and they agreed to take part while “being the guinea pigs.” Based on the results, the students’ work and feedback will be used for developing a curriculum for other teachers across the country to refer to.

According to Geers, the main reason behind their choice to participate in this program was the chance for their students to be able to make a human connection with another individual by listening to his or her story. This method, in her opinion, outweighs the intense behind-the-scenes work involved in shuffling the curriculum and working to include new lesson plans.

The students are following steps similar to the steps that Facing History and Ourselves and Voice of Witness take when they create their books, which contain narratives based on personal stories. In order to make the planning portion easier for the students, Geers and Moore created a timeline that students must strictly follow. The students, working alone or in groups of up to four, located an interviewee and conducted an interview. By the beginning of January, students had already finished transcribing their interview and editing it into a narrative that honors the interviewee and faithfully tells his or her story. By the end of first semester, students will have turned in their final project, which may be a song, poem, video, graphic novel, or another appropriate venue that recounts the interviewee’s story.

When asked about what skills her students are gaining from participating in this project, Geers said, “[The project] teaches them everything from how to listen, really listen, to an individual, to how to record, to transcribe, and to edit  an interview accurately while still honoring the person. Mrs. Moore and I like the aspect of writing and editing a narrative based on the person’s story, and also the creative aspect which involves producing a final project. And of course, the fact that our students are learning to be gracious and respectful while interacting with adults—that is an added bonus.”

Since this program is relatively new for the students (and teachers), some have been overwhelmed by the process and the work. Geers says, “I am so thankful that my students have been very forgiving about the fact that I don’t have all the answers to their questions regarding the project. They understand that this is a pilot project, which means this is the first time it is being done. We’re all in unknown waters together right now.”

Cliff Mayotte, the educational program director of Voice of Witness, describes how the pilot program educates students. “Oral history nourishes empathy, which in turn motivates students to engage with their communities and to connect with issues and narratives from around the world.” Mayotte, as well as Moore and Geers, hopes that the pilot program will teach students to be active citizens in their community and to realize that everyone has a voice that deserves to be heard.

As the final stage is starting to come into place, Moore and Geers have high hopes about the project that their students have been working on for the past few months. Moore says, “I think the goal of this is for it to go nationwide eventually. I think it is pretty exciting that it is starting so small right here at Mission and [the students] may be inspiring thousands of teachers, if not more, to do the same thing.” The pilot program at MSJ and other schools in the Bay Area, if successful, will become one of the examples that teachers and students alike will follow in the future.

The students are currently finishing up their final projects, which will be turned in on January 25. Regarding the future of the pilot program, Moore said, “It’s all trial and error; you do it one year, and you have to figure out what you can do differently next year. But I think this program is going to go big.”

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