Literacy and Love from Calgary to the Caribbean: Teen scribes put Ahava into Action

CJA Junior High students with photos of their GLA pen pals in Haiti. Photo supplied.

By Lesley Machon

(AJNews) – Junior High students at the Calgary Jewish Academy (CJA) are reaching across cultures and classrooms to connect with students in the Caribbean. This year, students are learning about Haiti through poetry, novels written by Haitian authors, art, and film. Infusing our curriculum with the authentic voices of authors and artists from different cultures is an important element of literacy at the CJA. To us, literacy is about more than simply reading and writing, it’s the ability to engage with language in a way that allows us to communicate and connect with other human beings, and make sense of the world around us.

At the CJA, our approach to literacy is unique. We focus on amplifying the voices of artists and authors from different cultural backgrounds, so instead of third-party textbook perspectives telling us about other cultures, we learn from them. We seek out marginalized and historically minimized voices, and we listen as they tell their own stories. This kind of deep listening expands students’ awareness of other cultures, and invites critical engagement with our own.

Children at the GLA school and orphanage in Haiti wish their Calgary Jewish Academy pen pals a Happy Hanukkah. Photo supplied.

Research demonstrates that cross-cultural exploration reduces stereotypes, increases curiosity and cohesion within a diverse classroom, facilitates deep self-reflection, and engenders appreciation for oneself as a product and subject of cultural influences (Jerrold Frank). Students engage more fully with their own identity as Jewish members of society, while deepening their capacity for empathy and dissolving barriers to connection. This process also tends to draw in even the most reluctant readers, by engaging their curiosity and expanding their minds in new ways.

This year, in addition to our unconventional curriculum, students were also paired with a pal at God’s Littlest Angels (GLA), a school and orphanage in Haiti. Pals ranged from babies to older teens, and each month CJA students received an update about their Haitian pals. When letters arrived, students eagerly shared the images and news of their friends overseas. They also wrote business letters to local individuals and companies to fundraise for school supplies and Christmas presents for the children – and raised close to $2,000! Much gratitude to all who donated.

Included below are a few notes from Myriam, the Haitian orphanage director:

“Praise G-d! Thank you so much for supporting our kids at GLA. We are thankful for your students’ interest in wanting to help our kids.”

“Thank you, your class, and your community for advocating for the kids at GLA and bringing awareness to kids’ educational needs in Haiti. We are humbled by your generosity!”

Prior to our exchanges, our pals hadn’t even heard of Hanukkah; there are no Jews in Haiti. And yet, they sent Hanukkah cards and messages to honour our traditions and celebrate alongside us. As the days get darker here, we are spending some time reflecting on the darkness Haitian people navigate daily: kidnappings, poverty, violence, fuel shortage and food crisis. Children offer so much light. Brighter, more just futures are built through efforts to reach for one another, communicate, empathize, explore, and connect.

Not only did students learn from Haitian authors and filmmakers this year, they imagined a future where poverty and injustice around the globe mattered deeply to all humans, regardless of background, skin colour, or cultural heritage. This is what literacy is really about: understanding the ways we interact with the world around us, how we shape it and are shaped by it. The students at the CJA are pedagogues among teenagers, and truly, well-read.

 Lesley Machon is a Humanities Teacher at Calgary Jewish Academy.

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