Sometimes as a teacher educator I get to see a class and a project that is just about perfect. Students work cooperatively, they learn a lot about a topic, they have the opportunity to teach each other, they act creatively, and they are engaged in thinking about their world. I got to see one like that last Friday at PS 197 in the Midwood section of Brooklyn.
Cecelia Goodman, the librarian at PS 197, was part of a group of elementary school teachers who field-tested the New York State Great Irish Famine Curriculum between 1999 and 2001. The curriculum received the National Council for the Social Studies Program of Excellence Award. Whether in her own fifth-grade class or as school librarian, Cecelia has always made study of the Irish Famine an important part of what she teaches in social studies. She believes it is important that her students, nearly all immigrants to the United States or the children of immigrants, learn about the hardships, struggles, and triumphs of other people. One of the things that the children do is to create illustrated "Big Books" about the Great Irish Famine that they share with each other and present to other classes.
This year something special happened. President Mary McAleese of Ireland was visiting New York City to meet with Irish-American groups and to discuss the current global economic crisis with representatives of New York financial institutions. The Irish Consulate, which coordinated her stay, asked if she could visit a school where children were using the famine curriculum to learn about Ireland. I worked on the famine curriculum with my colleague Maureen Murphy at Hofstra University and we recommended Cecelia's school.
The children presented "Big Books" about the amazing potato, the impact of the famine, Irish emigration, and famous Americans of Irish ancestry to President McAleese. They performed two skits and sang a chorus of "When Irish Eyes are Smiling." Then came the best part. President McAleese sat down with the fifth graders and spoke with them and answered their questions.
One youngster asked about the economy of Ireland. "Do you all know the recession word? We got hit very badly," President McAleese told the kids in Brooklyn. When asked about how her own family was affected by the famine, the President said: "My grandfather told how his grandmother saw bodies lining the road, nine deep, hundreds of bodies. He also told how his grandmother's mother went to the big house where the British aristocracy lived, the local big wigs. She was a widow with four children and she begged for food. She was given what they called Indian corn, which wasn't fit for humans. They had to boil it and boil it, and two of her children died from eating it. In the records of the big house, we found her name on the list of people who got food." She ended up talking with the children for almost an hour.
The Great Irish Famine "Big Books" and skits is a wonderful project, even if President McAleese had not come. Her visit will make it an experience these ten and eleven-year-olds will never forget.
Bravo to the teachers, Cecelia Goodman and Denise Richford, the principal, Rosemarie Nicoletti, and the children of class 5-415.