In an age of texting, social media and computer-based learning, one rural middle school in Sumter County is finding out how impactful writing one letter to a stranger was for a friendship that crossed continents.
The entire student and staff …
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The entire student and staff population at Ebenezer Middle School has this week been reading the same book at the same time in its new One Book One School program. "I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives" is a dual memoir that tells the true story of two teenagers, one an all-American girl, the other a boy in Zimbabwe, who became first pen pals, then best friends.
Students took turns reading a page or two in Laura Burleson's sixth-grade social studies class on Wednesday, getting to a part where Martin Ganda was in the airport for the first time, about to head to the United States, and decided to splurge on an $8 hamburger.
"Had he ever heard of a hamburger?" Burleson asks her class.
"No," they respond, eager and attentive.
"Because $8 is a lot of money for them," one boy said.
"I'm interested to see what he thinks of it," Burleson said, continuing to read.
Principal Marlene DeWitt discovered the book at South Carolina Association of School Administrators conference over the summer.
She fell in love with the story but needed to figure out how to fund the reading project. She didn't want teachers simply reading out loud to students. She wanted more engagement, knowing how important reading is. Before becoming principal 17 years ago, DeWitt taught math but also included reading in her curriculum.
"If they can't read, they can't do other subjects, either," she said. "Reading is the cure to everything."
She found out she could fund a book for every student, every teacher, every staff member through a Making Middle School Work grant through a focus on improving low reading scores in the state.
Each day this week for 30 minutes, teachers read the book to students, leading analytical discussions either during the reading or after with a provided set of questions for teachers who are not used to leading an English class.
In the book, it started as an assignment for Caitlin Alifirenka. She had to write to an unknown student somewhere in a distant place. Of the 50 students in Martin's class, only 10 got letters. He was at the top of the class, so he got the first one.
Their letter exchanges spanned six years and involved the girl's family helping the boy's with money for much-needed food, clothing and schooling.
Audrey Keys, a career specialist at Ebenezer, read to a class of sixth- and seventh-graders. She had a storytelling voice, the kind that rises and falls in the appropriate places, changes tones during dialogue, pauses for effect.
The students in her computer lab classroom all sat in front of computer screens, black from lack of use, faces instead scanning ink and paper. Concrete classroom walls were covered in internet safety rules and keyboard shortcut lists as about 400 people throughout the building learned about letters sent through the postal service.
Sharon Cheek, the school's curriculum coordinator, arranged activities each day related to the day's pages. When Caitlin learned Martin's family all had to share the same clothing, she sent him T-shirts. Cheek had the middle-schoolers draw what kind of T-shirt they would send.
They also were tasked with making a paper chain link with a random act of kindness they have done, heard about or would like to do. All the art projects have been displayed in the school's hallways.
Principal DeWitt said the program also allows students to hear what correct reading sounds like. An adult reading out loud with the proper pronunciations, timing.
"The boys surprised me the most. They seem more excited," she said.
The book has allowed teachers to have conversations usually reserved for adults with the students about poverty and the value of education.
DeWitt said with 73 to 75 percent of Ebenezer's students living in low-income families, they were able to differentiate what poverty means in their lives and what it was for Martin. They get a free breakfast and lunch at school while other children are often malnourished to the point where they can't concentrate on learning.
A highlight of the program was a fundraising challenge.
Cheek found a video that showed children in Tanzania who were malnourished. Through a nonprofit called Heifer International, each classroom competed to raise the most money to fund a year's worth of milk for children. With $72 buying milk for one child for a year, they combined to fund about 10 children.
After class switched and Wednesday's reading was over, Burleson came up to DeWitt and Cheek with the "milk money."
"They are so excited," she said. "They raised enough for two kids."
With 360-370 students enrolled at Ebenezer, 35-40 teachers and staff and children in Tanzania all having a connection to Martin and Caitlin, their story really has changed more than their two lives.
"We've had several kids say, 'What's our next book?'" Principal DeWitt said. "We're going to continue it."
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