I shared the following story with a friend the other day. She insisted I post, although the group of students in the story are now in their early twenties.
A coworker and dear friend, Lisa K., and I did an in-depth unit on WWII and the Holocaust. While these periods of history are not covered in the CA state standards, there are several literature selections focused on the people and events of the time. We read picture books and an amazing novel, Number the Stars. Our students were so engaged, and begged to learn everything possible about the subject. We were able to take our fourth and fifth graders to the Museum of Tolerance. Normally, fifth graders are the youngest students allowed on field trips to the museum. We were given special permission to bring our fourth graders, but the third graders were not allowed to accompany us.
While there, the rest of our students commented that the third graders could have handled the experience with no problem. Because of all their prior experience with the subject, and the fact that with a multiage class we all learn together regardless of grade, our older kids knew their younger peers were as prepared as they to handle even the most difficult of subject matter. In fact, the docents leading us on our tour commented on how knowledgeable, focused and mature our students were.
As a culminating activity, Lisa's father-in-law, Mr. K, a concentration camp survivor, came to talk to our students. We spent time beforehand brainstorming questions for Mr. K, and talking about being a good listener, a compassionate group participant, and one who is patient while listening to an elder telling a poignant and difficult story.
We gathered in one of our classrooms ... all 64 students ... sitting on the floor and in surrounding chairs while Mr. K shared his stories and answered questions. It was one of the most touching and beautiful moments of my teaching career. We had to stop the questions as we could tell that Mr. K was getting tired. Telling this particular story was beyond an emotional drain, yet he would have kept sharing as long as the kids would listen. And listen they did - without incident. They'd have been content to sit as long as Mr. K was willing to be share.
The next day, our students wrote thank you letters to Mr. K. They were beyond beautiful, written with honesty and integrity, and with the compassion befitting a much older person. Their understanding of what Mr. K had shared was evident. These eight, nine and ten year olds shared in their letters and in their words to their teachers how much this experience meant to them. For the remainder of their tenure in our classes, the study of this period of history was one of the most important experiences they'd had. The kindness with which our students treated one another was wonderful to see. Over the years, students from my class at that time have come to visit. They have not forgotten a single element from our unit of study.
I wondered why telling this story means so much to me. I believe it's because the direction of education as we approach 2012 heads toward a score on a test. All the children in our classes that year demonstrated their ability to read, to write, to listen, to speak. The story I tell is what we should care about - compassion.