January 31, 2017

La Esperanza: More than a Story

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Article written by Carla Alblas, Community Journalst of the OACS News Service at Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools (OACS).

For the past six weeks, students in grades five and six at Trinity Christian School (TCS) in Burlington have been working on a project along with another group of students—nearly 3000 kilometers away.

“When our teacher told us that we were going to write a story with another class of kids that live across the ocean and don’t even speak English, I thought it was the most impossible project ever!” shared Isaac, a student in grade five at TCS.

“At first I thought Ms. McGregor meant that we would write a story for another class in another country,” shared Rachel, a grade six student in the split classroom. “But that’s not what she meant at all. She explained that we were going to write the story with them. So it took me awhile to get used to the idea and to understand how it was even going to be possible.”

The idea of partnering together with other classes to write a story was one that grade 5/6 teacher Audrey McGregor had been working on since the summer. Although she has done similar projects in the past with her students, writing stories and sending the completed books to students in other countries once they were published, she has never worked on the actual story-writing in collaboration with these students, and has been thrilled with the results so far.

“While I was mulling around the idea over the summer, I considered connecting with teachers in other schools across Ontario to see if they’d be interested in working together on writing a book together that we could publish and send to a school in the Dominican Republic,” shared Ms. McGregor. “But when the idea came up of writing the actual story together with the students over there, I knew it was such a great idea and I decided to just go for it!”

Ms. McGregor shared her project idea with EduDeo Ministries, an organization that partners with indigenous associations of Christian schools in developing countries. Together, they reached out to an organization in the Dominican Republic called Colegios Cristianos Reformados (COCREF)—a nationally run community of Christian schools that focuses on reaching children living in poverty-stricken areas in the Dominican Republic through Christian education—and connected with a school called La Esperanza (Hope) Christian School. They decided to write a story together in four parts—two written by students at TCS and the other two by students at La Esperanza.

“For me, this is an exciting way for students—both here and in the Dominican Republic—to think about the larger context in which we live and how we are all part of the body of Christ,” shared EduDeo Operations Director Phil Beck. “We have so much to learn from our brothers and sisters in other countries and cultures, as they do from us. This [project] provides a great bridging opportunity!”

Ms. McGregor began the writing process by brainstorming ideas with her students for a storyline.

“Our teacher asked us to think about ways to share a story that focused on being a blessing,” shared Hannah, a grade five student. “It was hard at first, because we kept thinking that the best way to bless other people who live differently than us is to give them stuff—so all of our story ideas were about how someone with lots of stuff would give it to people who had less. We had to get our minds off of the belief that giving money or things is the only way to bless people and think of blessings that would be meaningful to everyone who is writing the story.”

Her classmate, Kayla, agreed. “We started to think about what it would be like to live in a world that had no blessings at all and what kinds of things people could do in the world to bless each other in different ways. We realized that even just smiling at someone can be a blessing!”

As the students in the grade 5/6 class at TCS refined their ideas, they decided to begin the story by writing about a community that is struggling with loss after a fire has torn through the city. The town is a picture of gloom and sadness as the people live among the ruins. An orphan girl named Jessica wonders why everything in her town is gloomy and dark except for one house on top of a hill. In this house lives an old man who has decided to add colour and joy to his space. He paints his house, and he plants flowers in a garden out front, where everyone can see.

“The story is one that people from anywhere in the world can relate to,” shared Ms. McGregor. “We talked a lot as a class about what it looks like for people to join together to be a blessing, no matter where we live or what we do or do not have. And so, the village can represent any kind of village in any kind of place in the world. That’s what we wanted, so that the story would be meaningful to both groups of students involved in the project.”

After the first chapter was written, it was translated into Spanish and sent to La Esperanza Christian School, where students in grade five and six began to write the second chapter. “The students at La Esperanza had a similar reaction to the students here when told about the project,” shared Mario Matos, the executive director of COCREF. “They thought it was a little scary. The students asked, ‘We don’t even know English! How are we going to write a story with kids from Canada?’ They never thought it would be possible, so this is very exciting for them.”

“Once the students got going on the idea, they became very excited about writing their part of the story,” shared Guillermo Yan Alfonso, a teacher in the Dominican Republic who has recently begun to work with COCREF. “The students there had an abundance of things they wanted to share, and suddenly it was difficult to fit their ideas into 250 words or less!”

Sharing the writing of the story together with another group of students has been both fun and challenging for the students at TCS. “It’s hard to write a book where you put so much into the first part and then you just hand it off to someone else that you’ve never met to write the second part!” shared Isaac. “You can’t tell them that you want the next part to go a certain way, because then you might as well just write the book yourself.”

Hannah agreed that it was a strange feeling, but she also enjoyed the element of surprise and anticipation that the process offered. “I love that we get to see what the other class will imagine for the story,” she shared. “We wrote the beginning, but we have no idea what will happen next in our own story, which is so exciting!”

“When you write a story with people in a different part of the world, you have to look for the things that you have in common,” continued Isaac. “I never thought I’d be able to think of something to write about with kids who don’t own video games or even know what that is. But writing about how to be a blessing has been a great way to join together with people across the world. Just writing it has been a blessing to me because I see my own life differently now.”

The experience of collaborating together on a story-writing project has been influential for the students in both schools. “The students in the Dominican Republic are very enthusiastic about the project, because one day they know that they will see a story in a book that they helped to write!” shared Mr. Yan Alfonso. “They say that even though we are separated by a great distance and an ocean, God is uniting them through this project.”

“Connecting with kids in Canada has allowed the students of La Esperanza to see outside of their own community, to a world that provides different opportunities beyond their own situation,” added Mr. Matos. “They can think, ‘Maybe I can do more than just write to students in Canada. Maybe I can travel there myself someday.’ It gives them a bigger picture of the world of opportunities they have, and that brings hope.”

Once the story writing has been completed, the story will be published by EduDeo, and students from both schools will receive copies to keep in their classrooms. Each copy will include a picture of the students from TCS and from La Espereranza, as well as a preamble from the organizations involved in sponsoring the project.  “We are looking forward to publishing the book, and our intent is that additional copies will be made so that other COCREF schools can be blessed by the book as well,” shared Mr. Beck.

“From the beginning, the project has been about joining together to be a blessing in whatever way that looks like,” shared Ms. McGregor. “In our story, the villagers gather together to plant flowers and paint the church—the community comes together to push past their suffering, and hope and joy are restored. That’s what we hope a project like this can teach students, no matter where they live and learn in our world.”

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