Nearly 8,000 miles from home, Sarah Powley stands before a classroom of 50 eighth graders, preparing them for a writing activity that will teach them inductive and deductive reasoning. This is familiar territory for Sarah — with 30 years of teaching experience, she has taught this lesson often before.
But in many ways, this experience is different — vastly different. The classroom is at the FAWE Girls School in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. All 50 students in the room are Rwandan. All 50 are girls. And with what they, their families and their country have endured in the last decade and a half, not one of them takes her education for granted.
As the learning activity gets underway, the girls' hands shoot up — here, there, "Teacher! Teacher!" Sarah moves from one table to the next, stoking her students' enthusiasm, guiding their inquiries, challenging them to think and find the answers themselves. The room is alive with the exhilaration of learning, and though she has taught this lesson before, Sarah can't help feeling that this particular teaching experience will stand out in her memory for the rest of her life.
Though she's only here for a short time as a guest teacher, she's doing more than simply imparting curricular knowledge to these students. She's introducing them to a student-centered approach to education that makes them custodians of their own learning, an approach they're unfamiliar with. But perhaps most important of all, she's trying to help break the cycle of genocide, doing her part to prevent a recurrence of the tragic mass violence that in 1994 tore this country apart. And she's doing it with a powerful tool that she has honed and sharpened over more than two decades: teaching.
It's often difficult to mark the exact beginning of a journey — life is, after all, an eternal chain of catalysts and consequences. But Sarah believes that in many ways, the chain of events that led her to Rwanda began in 1993 with a meeting at the Indiana State House ... and a surprise.
Sarah Powley's students from McCutcheon High School at the Kremlin in Moscow
On a fall day in 1993, Sarah was one of six Indiana educators who, along with their district superintendents, gathered in the judicial chamber of the Indiana State House for a meeting with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen Reed.
The purpose of the meeting was uncertain. Besides Superintendent Reed, there were other dignitaries present, as well as cameras and reporters from the news media. This was clearly no simple chat among educators.
Then a California businessman named Lowell Milken, chairman of the Milken Family Foundation, began to speak. Sarah had heard about the Foundation through an article she had read describing a series of $25,000 Awards the Foundation had been presenting to teachers around the country. But none of these Awards had ever been given in Indiana, and Sarah never suspected that they had anything to do with the meeting she was now attending.
So naturally, when Lowell surprised all six educators with the news that they would each indeed receive this Award, Sarah was shocked.
"It was quite astounding," she said.
Unlike many other award programs, the experience of being a Milken Educator does not end once the Award is presented. New opportunities often arise as a result of being a Milken Educator. Five years after Sarah Powley received her Award, a new opportunity is precisely what she got.
The opportunity came in the mail from an organization called the American Council of Teachers of Russian/American Council for Collaboration in Education and Language Study (ACTR/ACCELS) — now known as American Councils for International Education (ACIE). They invited her to apply for their Teaching Excellence Awards (TEA) program, an annual teacher exchange between distinguished educators in America and Eurasia.
Sarah Powley gets an apple for the teacher—one from every student she taught at the FAWE Girls School
The TEA program wasn't open to just anyone. It was by invitation only, open only to those whose educational accomplishments had garnered considerable recognition and public praise. Sarah Powley believes it was the Milken Educator Award that led to her acceptance into the TEA program. Ten others among the 28 educators chosen for the TEA in 1998 were also Milken Educators.
ACIE sent Sarah to a Russian town called Kirovsk, at the base of the Khibiny Mountains in a region known as Murmansk Oblast, just north of the Arctic Circle. She was there for two weeks, visiting a school known only as School #13. There she observed Russian teachers and did some teaching of her own.
The Soviet Union had dissolved just six years earlier, leaving the various republics to deal with the joys and challenges of national independence. Sarah witnessed these challenges firsthand as they affected a Russian classroom.
"The teachers were trying to learn more modern methodologies," she said, "and the country itself was struggling with a budding democracy. So there were enormous needs."
Among those needs were basic educational materials that American teachers would have taken for granted: copy machines, computers, chalk, erasers — even paper. Sarah once observed a teacher in Kirovsk dividing a single sheet of paper into 20 pieces, which she handed out to students for a math quiz.
"It was half the size of an index card," said Sarah. "They had to work a problem on the piece of paper and turn it in."
Despite the scarcity of educational materials, what impressed Sarah was the level of dedication and resourcefulness among the Russian teachers. "They can make a feast out of nothing, it seems," she said, "and are able to create a positive and caring learning environment in spite of a lack of resources."
Sarah describes her two weeks in Kirovsk as a "pivotal experience" and a "real turning point for me." It was the beginning of an interest in international education that has since become a major focus of her teaching.
St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow
Sarah's Kirovsk experience made her eligible for yet another ACIE program, which in the summer of 2003 took her back to Russia. This time, it was with ACIE's Secondary Schools Excellence Program (SSEP), the purpose of which was to establish partnerships between secondary schools in the U.S. and Eurasia. Sarah's campus in Indiana, McCutcheon High School, partnered with the Pskov Humanitarian Lyceum in Pskov, one of Russia's oldest cities, for three years' worth of exchanges. And this time it wasn't just the teachers that traveled. Nine students from each school were also allowed to go.
"The Russian kids came here in the fall for three weeks, and we went there in June for three to four weeks," said Sarah.
The experience was eye-opening for all involved. When the Russian students and teachers traveled to Lafayette, they attended classes at McCutcheon, went on field trips to local sites, and were feted at a special international dinner in their honor. They were also introduced to what life is like in a democratic society, something they were only beginning to understand in their own country.
In turn, the nine McCutcheon students who traveled to Pskov each year learned a great deal about Russian literature and art as they took field trips to important sites. One such location, not far from Pskov, was the family estate to which Alexander Pushkin, Russia's greatest poet, had been exiled in the latter part of his life. Sarah's students were surprised to learn how deeply Pushkin's poetry is embedded into the Russian culture. "Every Russian — even the bus driver — could quote Pushkin," said Sarah.
Near the poet's estate, at the orthodox monastery where he was buried, Sarah's students recited one of his poems in English. Next, the Russian students recited it in its original language. Then they all placed flowers on his grave.
Sarah's American students play charades with Russian students at the dacha (country home) of one of the Russian students
"Some of our kids were moved to tears by the whole thing," said Sarah. "They said, ‘We don't have anything like that.' I think that's an experience that's stayed with them."
Sarah believes these experiences have helped spark a passionate interest in international relations among her students — an interest reflected in some of their life goals. Now in college, four of the nine students in the first year of the SSEP are currently "involved in international relations in some way." One student from the second year is interested in being a filmmaker in Russia. Another, from the third year, wants to be an engineer there, helping with the country's infrastructure. Conversely, many of the Russian students have expressed an interest in studying in the United States.
"This program has really touched a lot of lives," said Sarah. "It was their first taste of international relations and their first taste of travel, and I think it was pretty formative."
By 2005, the three-year SSEP project was coming to a close. But Sarah didn't want her students' involvement with foreign countries to end along with it. So she and two fellow teachers worked together to form the International Club at McCutcheon.
Focusing on three main areas — service, learning and fun — the International Club has engaged McCutcheon students in a variety of activities designed to connect them to the world at large.
"I wanted to awaken kids to the idea that people all over the world are fundamentally the same," said Sarah. "Their cultures might be different, their ways of doing things, their language, their dress, their manners — but fundamentally we're all the same."
With a membership roster of nearly 70 students, the International Club is now one of the school's most popular organizations.
Though the club's interest is truly global, members have focused much of their attention on two African countries — Kenya and Rwanda — as a result of two key contacts. A former McCutcheon student named Michael Starks is currently working with the Peace Corps in Isiolo, Kenya. He and the school's International Club established what the Peace Corps calls a "peace match." Students have sent Michael books and educational materials for the Isiolo School for the Deaf, where he teaches. The club is also raising funds to bring electricity to the school.
The second key contact was Sarah's daughter, Elizabeth, who works for an organization called the Initiative for Inclusive Security and until recently was living in Rwanda. The focus of the organization's Rwanda Project is to support women parliamentarians with research and training in order to help them be effective legislators.
Sarah (right) with four of the Russian teachers involved in the ACIE program
Visiting the International Club as a guest speaker, Elizabeth told McCutcheon students about the difficult conditions in Rwanda since the 1994 genocide, from which the country is still healing. The students learned that while free primary education for all Rwandan children is supposedly mandated by the government, it's anything but free. Students' often impoverished families must pay for the required uniforms, and many schools lack funds for basic supplies and maintenance.
When the members of the International Club heard this, they wanted to help. They decided to raise funds to pay for the education of a single Rwandan student. The student identified for scholarship assistance by administrators at the FAWE School was a girl named Chantal Umutoni.
International Club members also took it upon themselves to learn more about Rwanda. They watched the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda and traveled to DePauw University where they listened to Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager depicted in the film, who rescued more than 1,200 Rwandans from being slaughtered during the 1994 genocide.
As her students learned more about the tragic occurrences in this African nation, Sarah herself began to wonder how something so horrible could happen — and why it seems to have happened again and again throughout our world's history. More and more, she had been thinking about the problem of genocide — its roots and causes, and particularly what could be done to stop it from happening again. These thoughts were further developed as a result of her involvement in another Milken-related project.
In Spring 2002, Sarah received a book and a letter from Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Jane Foley (IN '94). Jane told Sarah that the Foundation was considering the creation of a teacher's resource in connection with the book, and asked if Sarah would read it and consider how it could be taught in the classroom.
Sarah began reading the book during a plane trip to Boston. By the time she arrived at Logan Airport, she had finished the book and was in tears — the story had moved her so much.
The book was called The Children of Willesden Lane. Co-written by Grammy Award-nominated classical pianist Mona Golabek and author Lee Cohen, the book tells the story of Golabek's mother, Lisa Jura, who in 1938, at the age of 14, was one of thousands of children who escaped Nazi-occupied Vienna aboard the Kindertransport.
Sarah was one of several Milken Educators who had been asked to read the book and provide their ideas on how it could be taught in the classroom. When the curriculum guide was released several months later, a copy was sent to every Milken Educator. Sarah not only began incorporating it into her own classroom lessons, but persuaded the Tippecanoe School Corporation to add the materials to the district curriculum for accelerated seventh-grade English at six middle schools.
Sarah presents a McCutcheon International Club T-Shirt to Rwandan student Chantal Umutoni
Soon thereafter, Jane Foley and Mona Golabek asked Sarah if she would join them in presenting the book and curriculum guide at the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) in San Francisco. It was the first of many presentations Sarah has delivered about the book and guide, including several at the Indiana Department of Education.
It was at one such presentation that Sarah met the department's fine arts consultant, Sarah Fronczek, a one-time teacher who is also a musician. Fronczek proposed to Sarah that the two conduct a series of workshops throughout the state on teaching the Holocaust through the arts, using The Children of Willesden Lane as an example. They conducted four such workshops, with Sarah reading excerpts from the book and Fronczek playing musical selections related to the book on a piano.
"It was terribly moving," said Sarah. "The power of the story and the power of the music are such that we made people in the audience cry."
As she spoke more and more about The Children of Willesden Lane and the tragic Holocaust at the center of the story, Sarah's burgeoning interest in the roots of genocide began to take shape.
"I had this feeling that there's a pattern to genocide," she said.
Her theory was confirmed when she discovered the work of Gregory H. Stanton, the president of Genocide Watch, who has identified eight discrete stages of genocide. Indeed, Sarah learned, there is a pattern.
"And patterns can be broken," she said. "If you understand there's a pattern, you can intervene."
That's when Sarah decided she needed to go to Rwanda.
"It occurred to me that I should go there and study the genocide," she said, "to really see it firsthand and come to grips with what I was beginning to understand."
She applied for, and received, a Teacher Creativity Fellowship Award from Lilly Endowment, Inc., and in June 2006, she began her one-month visit to Rwanda and Kenya.
Students at the FAWE Girls School give Sarah a warm welcome.
"While many students and teachers at McCutcheon spent our summer basking in the sun, working a part-time job or stuck in a chair in summer school, Mrs. Sarah Powley, English teacher, spent her summer making a difference."
So began an article in the McCutcheon High School newspaper, The Bull Horn, written by twelfth-grade student Whitney Howard, about Sarah's Rwandan experience.
Making a difference was indeed foremost in Sarah's mind when she made the decision to travel to Rwanda. It was a feeling she'd had ever since her first trip to Kirovsk in 1998: considering the difficult living conditions of the people whose country she was visiting, the last thing she wanted was simply to be a tourist. If she was going to go, Sarah thought, she would find a way to give back.
"I wanted to teach because I wanted to reciprocate," she said. "If I was going to go there and study the dreadful things that had happened in their country, I might have some skills to offer. So I proposed teaching some workshops on writing."
Sarah decided to focus on writing because she believes it combines multiple higher-level thinking skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and reasoning — skills desperately needed in that region of the world.
Sarah spent three weeks in Rwanda; while there, she taught classes for both students and teachers at the FAWE Girls School (FAWE is an acronym for Forum for African Women Educationalists) and at the Green Hills Academy. During this time, she stayed with her daughter Elizabeth, who not only provided her with lodging and transportation, but also introduced her to educators and facilitated her being able to teach in Rwandan schools.
In addition to teaching, Sarah spent her time in Rwanda visiting various sites from the 1994 genocide, several of which have been preserved as memorials of the gruesome events of that year.
"The genocide sites were disturbing and very painful," she said. "I'm sure it's not unlike going to concentration camps in Germany or Poland. It was disturbing, and I fully anticipated that it would be, but I felt like I really needed to confront all that personally."
It was, after all, the issue of preventing such genocides that had brought Sarah to Rwanda in the first place. She had begun to realize that every genocide is born out of a pre-existing prejudice against a minority. A power group then seeks to negatively label these minorities, enact discriminatory laws against them, isolate and demonize them. Add a barrage of propaganda and, Sarah says, "It's not much of a stretch for society to imagine that these people have to be destroyed. So then the killing starts and when it ends, there is denial."
It's one thing to live through such horrible events, as the families of the students at the FAWE School had done. It's another thing to see such events within the context of a historical pattern — and that insight is what Sarah was able to provide.
"I began teaching this pattern, and it worked like a charm," she said. "The kids got it. You could almost hear them gasp when they realized, ‘Genocide is predictable.'"
Sarah (left) confers with English teachers at the FAWE Girls School.
Understanding a pattern, of course, is only the first step to breaking it. The next step is intervention, which Sarah taught by showing students how the seeds of a genocidal pattern can be seen even in the small, seemingly mundane moments of their lives.
"They could see it all starts in the lunch room," said Sarah. "It all starts in gym class, or on the playground. When we taunt somebody, when we call people names, when we exclude somebody, we're setting the groundwork for creating a stereotype that if you're not careful, somebody will act on.
"The kids realize, ‘Yeah, I can be nicer to people, and I can be conscious of when I'm having a prejudiced reaction.'"
At the end of her three weeks in Kigali, Sarah had indeed — in the words of McCutcheon journalist Whitney Howard — "made a difference."
"It was truly an amazing experience in so many ways," she said.
Sarah hopes to return to Rwanda someday to "continue the connection we established through the schools I worked with." In the meantime, she is still teaching at McCutcheon High School in Lafayette, Indiana, educating her American students about the world both within their borders and beyond.
On March 5, 2007, Sarah and six of her students delivered a workshop about her Rwandan experience at the 26th annual Greater Lafayette Holocaust Remembrance Week Conference at Purdue University.
Rwandan schoolchildren on their way to class—girls in blue, boys in khaki.
Sarah also continues to provide professional development to Russian teachers visiting Indiana, introducing them to effective strategies for teaching their most popular foreign language, English.
It was probably never Sarah's intention to become an ambassador for education, but that is indeed what she has become. Through her work in our increasingly globalized world, she has demonstrated a truth common to every society, even ones as distant and different from each other as Russia, Rwanda and the U.S.A.: education changes lives.
So do outstanding teachers like Sarah Powley.
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