How One Teacher Inspires Her Students To Take Action For 62 Million Others

Elise Higgins-Steele Girls

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This story starts with a desire to fall in love with my job again. You see teaching middle school during the age of standardized testing really takes the wind out of a teacher’s sails. My scores are never at the level that adequately demonstrates how amazing my students are and it is crushing.

Every year after the English Language Arts MCAS, I teach my favorite unit – a unit on how you need courage while growing up. This year, after a particularly disheartening emphasis on standardized testing, I yearned for something new, and exciting, to keep me from burning out. I was thinking of using Skype to invigorate this unit and on the Microsoft Skype for Education website, came across the documentary Girl Rising. It was a perfect fit.

That night, I watched the movie with tears welling in my eyes over each story for different reasons. But mostly, I felt incredibly moved by the resilience of these girls and the human spirit. In these stories, I saw myself, my students, my own children and this incomprehensible number of 62 million girls who aren’t getting an education.

I was sold. This documentary became my muse. I went deep into a rabbit hole on the Girl Rising website. It gave me incredible ideas for different ways of engaging students. I pulled in TEDTalks and supplemental close readings to add different dimensions to these incredibly powerful stories.

I showed six out of the nine chapters of Girls Rising. Before each chapter I had students write nonstop for 5-7 minutes reflecting on their lives, values and perceptions. We followed these prompts with a discussion of each question. The way I set up the viewing was we would watch a chapter as a class without introduction then immediately following the chapter students would write a reaction. My co-teacher Kristin Smith and I emphasized that students wouldn’t be graded on spelling or grammar, but on depth of reflection and writing endurance (writing nonstop about a subject for an allotted amount of time).

Writing is like running, you need to build endurance to get better and the more you push yourself to think and write, the better your performance gets.

We started with Sokha’s chapter and ended with Mariama’s. What Kristin and I noticed throughout this unit was fantastic growth in the quality and quantity of student writing. We saw a paragraph turn into a page and then become more than a page. We saw students who detested writing essays all of a sudden motivated to write and discuss their writing.

Of course this isn’t a miracle but a tested theory, that when you get kids to write about something they want to write about they will write more and their writing becomes better. The kids wanted to write about these stories. They felt inspired and connected, which was reflected in their responses.

At the end of the chapters, we were lucky enough to be able to Skype with Kayce Freed Jennings, senior producer of Girl Rising. It was an amazing experience because it opened up a behind the scenes perspective that added insight into how a question becomes a story and how these stories become a documentary. Furthermore, it provided my students with insight into how these stories are only a small window into the 62 million girls they represent. One of my favorite exchanges during this conversation between Jennings and my students was when three of my reluctant learners fired off a slew of thoughtful questions about the girls now, their parents, and gender inequality. Jennings explained how complicated life is in the developing world and how journalists are storytellers who investigate ideas and share their findings with the world. It was a powerful experience because it wasn’t me telling my students about things I have only learned about, rather they were interacting with an expert and primary source in real life. This is how real learning occurs.

Finally, the culminating project was a choose your own adventure. I found these project ideas from the Girl Rising curriculum website but modified the criteria and rubric slightly. I told students they had choices and each choice required significantly different skills, resources and stamina.

The four choices were:

  • A personal narrative reflecting on different themes or concepts from Girl Rising and exploring how they shaped the writer’s life.
  • Seven to ten poems based on themes from the documentary using poetic devices. The poems needed to be supplemented with a slideshow of photographs that corresponded with the different poems individual themes.
  • A song based on a theme from Girl Rising.
  • Take the statistics from the documentary and turn it into lifesize art

The projects took about two weeks to complete. One small thing that is worth noting is that I tried to have students use as many recyclable materials as possible and repurposed old discarded items in the school. Kristin and I reiterated to students that if they came up with a great idea and worked hard then we wouldn’t let them fail.

You see, this documentary transformed the way we teach, that we are in this together and part of something bigger than us. Failure isn’t an option because too many girls, children don’t even get an opportunity. My students amazed me with the outcomes of their learning. Most importantly, for me, this unit transformed the way I teach because it gave me a deeper perspective for why I teach.

This story was originally published on Girl Rising.


About the Author

Elise Higgins-Steele

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April 2017 – GIRLS

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