WARREN, NJ - Students in English and Social Studies classes in all four grades at Watchung Hills Regional High School participated on Thursday, Sept. 24, in an interdisciplinary discussion about the school-wide summer reading selection, “I Am Malala,” by 2014 Nobel Peace Prize co-recipient Malala Yousafzai, 18.
Michelle Obama and Malala Yousafzai appeared at the Global Citizen Festival, Saturday, Sept. 26, in New York City. Included among the many who attended the festival was Watchung Hills Junior Alayna Mocarsky of Green Brook Township, who just two days before that had participated, along with her fellow classmates, in the discussion at Watchung Hills about I Am Malala.
“The Memoir, ’I Am Malala,’ was selected as the school-wide read based on its connection to current events and its cross-curricular appeal,” said Mary Ellen Phelan, Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Watchung Hills.
English Department supervisor Marlene Stoto and Social Studies supervisor Anita Falvo, who organized the “I Am Malala” discussions, said that in addition to mixing the different subject areas -- English and Social Studies -- classes from different years were also mixed. For instance, in some cases, freshmen were mixed with juniors, sophomores were mixed with seniors, and so on. The idea was to allow for an even greater mix of perspective.
Yousafzai is a native of Pakistan who was shot in the face by Taliban terrorists after she openly advocated for the right of young girls and women in her country and around the world to get an education. She has said she believed this should be considered a universal human right. Her family ran a chain of schools in the Swat Valley of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of northwest Pakistan. In 2009, when she was 11, and while using a pen name, she wrote a blog for the BBC that reported on the efforts of the Taliban to terrorize her region. Her report also included her views about the importance of safeguarding access to education for girls and women.
On Oct. 9, 2012, while on a school bus, she was confronted by a gunman who pointed a gun at Yousafzai, and fired three times. One bullet struck her in the side of her forehead, traveled under her skin the length of her face, damaged the left side of her brain, and then went into her shoulder. Doctors operated for five hours to respond to swelling in the brain, and to remove the bullet. The bullet had become lodged in her shoulder, near her spinal cord. By Oct. 13, doctors removed her from sedation. Doctors found that she could still move all four limbs. Yousafzai was flown on Oct. 15 to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England, for surgery and intensive rehabilitation. She came out of her coma on Oct. 17, and underwent further surgeries to reconstruct her skull and to restore hearing.
By January 2013, she was discharged and by March of that year, she was attending school again, this time at her family’s temporary home in England.
News of the attack received nationwide attention in Pakistan, then international attention at the United Nations and around the world. In the United States, celebrities such as Madonna, spoke in favor of her cause, the right of girls and women to an education. U.S. political leaders, including President Barack Obama and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, also spoke out in favor of her cause and in awe of her courage.
By October 2013, a year after the attack, Yousafzai met with Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters in the Oval Office of the White House. She also published the book that Watchung Hills students read this summer. Its full title is: “I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.”
In 2013, she was also named among the “100 Most Influential People in the World,” by Time Magazine, and was awarded the Pakistan National Youth Peace Prize. She spoke at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, was awarded Honorary Citizenship in Canada, and received an honorary doctorate at The University of King’s College, Halifax, Nova Scotia.
She was named co-recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Kailash Satyarthi of India, who has advocated against oppressive child labor practices. She has been interviewed about her book, her experiences, and her advocacy for education and empowerment for girls and women on several high profile U.S. television outlets, including CNN, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and the Ellen DeGeneres Show.
The White House has announced that after the end of President Obama’s term of office, he and First Lady Michelle Obama would champion efforts to help adolescent girls around the globe through an initiative called, “Let Girl Learn.” For more information about this initiative, visit https://www.whitehouse.gov/letgirlslearn.
Watchung Hills students viewed recordings of the interviews with Jon Stewart and Ellen DeGeneres during their combined English and Social Studies classes on Sept. 24.
Literature and Social Studies teachers then started the students through a discussion about the book, about the story of Yousafzai’s struggle against the Taliban terrorists, and about her staunch advocacy of the right for girls and women to get an education.
The students were separated into smaller groups to facilitate discussions, and were presented with starter prompt questions and quotations from other advocates against violence, oppression and the denial of rights, including Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Margaret Mead, Elie Wiesel, Martin Niemoller and Nelson Mandela, among others.
Discussion points and opinions were captured on break-out easel sheets and posted on a student-sharing computer site, for reference and prompts during future discussions.
One of the exercises students engaged in on Thursday was to take words found in the quotes of the great leaders, Gandhi King, Wiesel, Mead, Niemoller and Mandela, and fashion them into a “sound poem.” The assignment was to write a poem that captured the feeling they had in response to the experiences they read about in the book, and the subsequent discussions about, “I Am Malala.”
English Supervisor Stoto and Social Studies Supervisor Falvo said that they hoped that the Yousafzai story would yield a variety of future discussion points that went beyond merely English and Social Studies classes. There could be a science/medicine angle because of Yousafzai’s injuries and recovery. There might be angles for geography classes, for language and culture sharing classes, for art classes, for current affairs classes, and for discussions about bullying, terrorism, the empowerment of girls and women, equal rights, human rights, governmental responses, United Nations responses, and the overall importance of education.
In addition, Stoto and Falvo said that for psychology classes, there could be future discussions about the emotional impact of being bullied, of being injured in an assault, of being forced to flee one’s home and become a political refugee. Then for English classes, Stoto said there could be future discussions about non-fiction writing, about journalism, about becoming an author, and becoming internationally famous. Falvo added more discussions could be stimulated in classes talking about social activism, about communication and about community organizing.
Students were asked Thursday if they could think of an issue about which they were so passionate, they would be willing to stand up to a bully, stand up to a criminal, or stand up to a terrorist.
Teachers leading discussions reminded older students of the “Power of One,” which had been a central organizing theme at Watchung Hills for several years. Annually, Watchung Hills students hold discussions, special events, school-wide assemblies and “White Out” days against bullying.
Stoto and Falvo said that going forward, teachers will be looking for more ways to draw into their curriculum relevant references to “I AM Malala,” and what students learned and discussed about Malala Yousefzai.
Photo caption: From left, seated: Junior Nick Ugarte of Warren Township, Freshman Victoria Pantagis of Green Brook Township, Freshman Maddie Murphy of Watchung, Sophomore Christina Chavez of Long Hill Township, and Senior Jordan Green of Stirling; and from left, standing, English Supervisor Marlene Stoto, English teacher Jana Battiloro, Social Studies teacher Jamie Lott-Jones, Social Studies teacher Cara Yuknis, English teacher Dan Larkins, Sophomore Michael Waiman of Green Brook Township, Senior Colin Cunningham of Watchung, Junior Alayna Mocarsky of Green Brook Township, and Social Studies Supervisor Anita Falvo.