— From “In My Life” from the musical Les Misérables
Student teacher Mari Hawes contacted us this week to tell us about the 8th graders she’s teaching at Washington Middle School. These kids come from poor families, too many of them homeless. English is the second language for almost all of them. Mari decided they should read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.
She was told she was dreaming, that the story would be beyond the reach of her students. She was told that her students skip school and don’t do homework. But she loved the story and thought her students would, too. She wanted to try.
Les Misérables follows prisoner Jean Valjean, jailed for stealing bread for his starving family, and the others he meets in France during the early 19th Century as they struggle against oppressive poverty and pitiless leaders. Tough though the story might be, Mari felt that her students could connect with these characters.
She knew she'd have to help them with what she called "the rich, old language of the book" because most are still learning English, and she's not very fluent in Spanish, she told us in an email. “I have acted out parts, I have students take on roles as we read, and we have watched movie clips. Music is a powerful teaching tool, and with each character description or major scene, I have played the song that corresponded from the musical. This method has really helped bring each character to life.”
They began reading the book two weeks ago. Attendance for her class has increased. Her students turn homework in at a rate of 95% daily. At one point, showing a movie version from the 1950s, Mari had to stop the film during the scene where Fantine was being arrested because her students were angry. “The injustice of it overwhelmed them for a moment and when (Jean Valjean) promises to bring Fantine's daughter, Cosette, to her, the class cheered.”
Her students’ journal entries reflect the lessons they’ve already gained from their work.
“I’m learning about the characters and what they feel/ what they have to do in the book. It’s very interesting because I’ve never read a story like this before. This is a story we can connect to. We feel emotion as we read,” one wrote. “I … feel so proud of myself for turning in all the homework we had this week,” commented another.
As a reward for turning in their homework, Mari enters them into a raffle. The prize is a ticket to see Les Misérables when it comes to Popejoy Hall this June. She has one ticket for each of her three classes and one ticket for herself. She paid for the tickets mostly with her own money.
Mari is proving something we’ve always known: stories build bridges. They transcend language. Although language is the currency of story, some move beyond their own cultures to become stories for all humankind.
Mari Hawes knew that from the start, and her students — thanks to her belief in them — get to discover that for themselves.
Terry S. Davis
PHOTO: National touring company of Les Misérables