“It only takes one person to encourage others and inspire them,” wrote eighth grader Leidy M. She was summing up her study of the novel Les Misérables under student teacher Mari Hawes. Leidy might well have been commenting on her teacher instead of Victor Hugo’s central character, Jean Valjean.

   Mari decided to teach the Hugo novel to a group of disadvantaged and underperforming eighth graders at Washington Middle School. She had them work in groups to analyze what they learned from the novel by answering the question, “Can one person change society?” All but one of the student groups said yes.

   Laura A. Maness, Popejoy’s Education & Community Outreach Supervisor, and I visited the school for the students’ final presentations last week. Laura took notes (thanks, Laura!) and I took photos. With their presentations set up in the library, and other classes coming to see them, the students made their cases to individuals or small groups, explaining Les Misérables’ story and its characters to all who stopped.

   Beatriz C. noted that she and her fellow students “learned from [the character’s] mistakes. By seeing how tough their life was, we learned how to appreciate how we live these days.” Savannah P. discovered that “Jean Valjean was very angry and still showed people you can be happy and lead an unselfish life.” Jesus G. realized that “Some people that have bad lives grow up and become the most successful people ever.”

   Students read sections of the book, rather than the full novel. (Amazon has one version available that runs 1376 pages, a daunting task for anyone much less eighth graders.) They also viewed portions of three movies, including video clips from the stage musical, and then returned to the book.

   Their vocabularies expanded as they learned words like “culpable” and “wretched.” Mari noted that the first time she gave a vocabulary test based on the book, most of her students failed it. She told them they would have to take that unit’s vocabulary test again and she was not going to dumb it down. They were going to have to step up. On the retake, most students got As or Bs.

   Mari entered her students in a raffle, one ticket for each completed assignment. She chose one winner from each of her three classes to bring to Popejoy when Les Misérables comes to our stage. Most of the students have never been to Popejoy, but thought it would be exciting to see the show in person, to see the story live. Selene L. and Vianey M. thought that such an experience would be like being a part of it.

   Mari now goes on to her next step in her preparation to become a teacher, but she has already changed the lives of a large group of students at Washington Middle School. Their respect and admiration for her was as much on display as their final projects. Ms. Mckahsum, as the students call her (sound it out), had shown them that they could indeed succeed academically, something many of them didn't know until they worked on this assignment.

   One student summed up what she learned from Victor Hugo and Mari Hawes: “Never give up.”

Terry S. Davis
Popejoy Hall

Photo: Mari Hawes evaluates Leidy M.'s final project.

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Comment by Mari Hawes on May 27, 2012 at 8:39am

Thank you for this wonderful article!  Even more daunting than looking at a 1400 page book (which I brought out the first day) was the fact that most of the students (90+%) are English Language Learners.  They took on the challenge of Les Mis knowing that it was going to be a literacy mountain to climb - and they climbed it, planted their flag and shouted "Long Live the Republic" from the peak.  I wish you would've had the time to stay for third :)  The students broke out in spontaneous singing and the entire library was filled with Middle Schoolers singing Red and Black, the song I had them sing in class because they too are the youth that will be bringing a need to have representation, to vote without limitation, and be heard as a voice of reason.

Comment by Terry S. Davis on May 29, 2012 at 12:07pm

Now I also wish we had had more time to spend with you on that Friday, but you certainly made a difference in those students' lives. I hope you and the three students coming with you enjoy the show Sunday!


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