* See Book References below...
It was just a simple story. When Dallas Thompson prepared to read a simple story to her students last fall, she had no idea that she was about to change lives in profound ways. It was Something Beautiful by Sharon Wyeth, and Ms. Thompson warned her 5th grade class that she would try not to cry, knowing this story has that effect on her. It's about a little girl who lives in less than ideal circumstances, but the child finds a way to become powerful in spite of her surroundings. The heroine in the story can't fix everything, but she makes her statement in a moving way by the end of the story. The students WERE moved and they didn't stop there.
Thompson recalls that a few students were especially focused on the illustration of a homeless person near the little girl's building. Those without homes had been in the news recently in Gainesville, Georgia, where Centennial Arts Academy is located. Some local churches had been making an effort to help displaced people who had taken up residence under a bridge. The children had noticed that, too, and they were able to connect the elements in the story with events happening in their town. It all became very real to them, and they decided they couldn't be passive when people needed help.
"That's not right!" they protested. "What can we do? We have to do something!" Thompson remembers their indignation and determination vividly, and their suggestions weren't small. Thompson's class wanted to hold fundraisers to raise money for a a house for those in need. Thompson tried to steer their philanthropy towards something manageable and meaningful. She told them, "You can't just throw money at problems. When you care, you have to put your heart and soul into it. What can you do with your heart and soul?"
The ten and eleven year-olds decided to offer food... for both the bodies and the spirits of the people under the bridge. They needed help before they could help, and they were on fire to begin right away. Thompson suggested she could send an e-mail to parents and see if anyone wished to send in sandwich-making supplies the following week. Students said fine... but faster. They wanted to send food immediately. Thompson obliged their heartfelt requests and messaged the parents that same day. "The next day," she says, still surprised, "I had nine loaves of bread, peanut butter, jelly, and sandwich meat... the very next day!"
Setting aside a portion of their language arts writing block, students embarked on what has become known as The Sandwich Project. Students donned gloves and made lunches. They didn't write for class, but they did write... decorating lunch bags and including small notes of encouragement. The dedicated students have made this a monthly endeavor. They make meals, craft motivational messages and send them to the homeless through non-profit organizations in their community. Both Under the Bridge Ministries and Good News at Noon provide services to homeless neighbors and help them to regain their footing. The lunches and other items the students have sent, which now include blankets and warm clothing to combat cold weather, have made an impression on others in their city.
Thomas Ramirez directs Good News at Noon. "It plays a big part in our ministry," he shared, "...the help of those students. I think it's so impressive, seeing young people get involved and realize that they can help adults." Ramirez says some of those dwelling at the bridge do have homes, but they'd become so depressed with their life challenges they'd simply left behind friends and families. They'd simply given up, he says. "Some people just need a little encouragement to help them. They really light up...just a small letter or a few words on a lunch bag, letting them know that somebody really cares and really wants them to get back into society. When it's young people who are involved, they really notice. It matters to them that somebody cares, that somebody loves them, that somebody knows they're here!"
The students have had a fair share of local press coverage because of their endeavor. They've also strayed significantly from the original goal of their assignment. Thompson, who frequently uses picture books to teach content, had intended to read this story for an elements of fiction writing lesson that day last fall. They were to listen, reflect and then write about what was beautiful in their own lives. That particular lesson didn't happen. Other lessons have. Thompson remarks, "Their connections to literature have become more profound. They are extremely interested in finding books on homelessness and poverty. I order from a Scholastic website, and they insisted we order more books on the topic." Thompson also noticed that books on poverty and homelessness were popular with her students at the school book fair. And she saw sincere interest when they covered The Great Depression in social studies, as students were able to connect that period of hardship with something real, with something they felt and understood. "Research shows that this deep kind of learning will stay with them longer," Thompson points out.
Their writing has been affected by The Sandwich Project, as well. As she graded student practice work, in advance of their state writing test, Thompson saw that virtually every student had mentioned the lunches and love for the people under the bridge. The young writers had been prompted for passages about nominating someone for a student hall of fame. It was clear, she said, that this project had "helped them to respect themselves and others." She said she read what may have been the best writing she had ever received from her students. One student wrote, "I felt powerful...like I could change the world."
As a Character Through the Arts Academy, this is exactly what Thompson wants for her students... and she believes this sense of empowerment and emphasis on character will likely last far beyond this school year. Some of the parents have already said they'd like to continue The Sandwich Project through the summer. A few plan to take their children to meet some of the people they've sought to befriend. Thompson says with conviction that what they've accomplished has been worth a few minutes of language arts time each month. "I think I do a good job as a teacher, but how many lessons do they internalize this way? If they can walk away from me with confidence, knowing they can really do something... I've done my job and I can feel proud."
It started with a simple story: Something Beautiful. And it's led to something more beautiful than they had imagined.
Dallas Thompson is in her fourth year of teaching at Centennial Arts Academy in Gainesville, Georgia. She is a Gainesville native who was just named 2012 Teacher of the Year (She didn't volunteer that information; HAPPY discovered that on our own.) She is passionate about reading and about her students. She says the only thing that gives her more joy than achieving excellence with her students is sharing how she's doing that. She and a colleague maintain a blog: Nerdy! Nerdy! Nerdy! at http://nerdyteachers.blogspot.com/ You can also find more about The Sandwich Project at www.mrsthompsonteaches.com