For the past several years, Laurie Byron (upper school English teacher) and Jodie Leen (middle school English teacher) have worked to broaden and diversify the scope of Derryfield’s literature program. This year students in both classes had the amazing opportunity to visit (via Zoom) with the authors whose works they had been studying throughout the fall term.
The ninth grade met with Judith Heumann, author of Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist. Heumann, who was crippled by polio at the age of 18 months, was denied access to public education and a teaching license (Heumann vs. Board of Education), but went on to establish the World Institute on Disability and to work at the World Bank and the State Department. Laurie Byron noted that Heumann’s book “invites conversations about empathy and inclusivity.” In her meeting with the ninth grade class, Heumann shared her life experiences and answered student questions.
At the conclusion of their study unit, the ninth graders each produced “A Brief But Special Video,” based upon the format popularized by PBS NewsHour in their “Brief But Spectacular” videos. Some of the topics addressed by the Derryfield students in their 2-4 minute segments include ADHD, disability etiquette, advancements in prosthetics, and accessibility in architectural design. Byron noted, “The overarching goal was to make a space in a topic associated with disabilities.”
The sixth grade students read The Night Diary, a young adult novel by Veera Hiranandani. The story takes place in 1947, during the partition of India along religious lines. The main character is a twelve-year-old girl who addresses her hopes and fears and life observations in diary entries to the mother she never knew. Jodie Leen said The Night Diary was chosen because it opens the door to a part of the world and a period of history and a collective experience that is not well known. Hiranandani connected with Derryfield on December 10. Students commented, “She incorporates so much of her ancestors’ life, it made it seem real!” and “This book really touched my heart.” Leen said her kids were ecstatic to hear Hiranandani answer their many questions about the backstory of her novel.
Prior to reading The Night Diary, Leen shared with students videos of the time period and interviews with some of those who survived the arduous and dangerous journey from Pakistan to India. To aid the sixth graders in their understanding of Indian culture, Leen also assigned vocabulary words, many food-based (as cuisine plays an important role in the novel), which her students then researched and presented to their classmates. The students were also tasked with choosing one or more characters from the book and writing diary entries based upon the voice and experience of those characters. These entries were further enhanced with illustrations based upon elements of the story.
Both Byron and Leen observed that although pandemic learning has constrained education on some levels, it has also opened doors to new experiences, including the ability to bring renowned but far-flung authors into Derryfield classrooms.