Catch The Fire: Inspiration for Bringing Heart and Community to Middle School Students

By Donna Bracewell,
Middle School Learning Support Teacher and Grade 7 Leader
United Nations International School of Hanoi, Viet Nam

For the past five years I have taught in an international school in Hanoi, Vietnam. As a middle school teacher I have struggled to find ways to bring a more heart centered, arts practice to the amazing students that I work with. I coordinate the Grade Seven group; 85 bright, sophisticated, well traveled young people who, like all teens, seek empowerment and community.

theatre nightsharing games at the local school

Culture in a Jar

As I read Catch the Fire this past summer, I felt my excitement rise, imagining ways to infuse this practice into my work with my Grade 7s. I tested the waters by introducing some arts based exploration of culture for our UN Day Celebration. While this sounds somewhat unremarkable, in a school where every child is handed a laptop and creativity is focused through technology, what I was asking of them, to create with their hearts and hands, was a radical departure. We gave each student a glass jar and some general guidelines and invited them to represent their culture in a jar. Our students come from over 65 different nationalities and the majority of them move every three years to a different country. Many have never lived in their home country. These ‘third culture kids’ jumped at the chance to share their fears, pride, struggles and statements about how they saw themselves in relationship to culture. The results were powerful and moving!

7th Grade Gender Circles

The next step I took was to find a way to create a forum for their voices. I wanted to introduce a way for them to talk freely about what was important to them. I poured over the chapter in Catch the Fire about story telling and decided to split the 85 Grade 7s by gender. Our team of teachers was somewhat skeptical about how it would go—especially for the boys—but we prepared a few prompts and jumped in.

I asked the teachers to hold the discussions in a circle and to minimize their own voices and model listening. Even I was amazed by how enthusiastically and passionately the students jumped in. When we had to close the circles at the end of the period, the students begged us to schedule another session. We have had three such sessions this year, and each one has been more successful than the last. We provide a general focus and turn it over to the students.  The three topics were ‘The best and worst about being a middle school student’,  ‘What is pressure to you?’ and “How so you see the differences between being a Grade 7 girl vs. a Grade 7 boy?” The statements, perceptions and depth of feeling within both groups were so passionate, we now plan to provide a structure for the two circles to share their views with one another. The students have started calling these discussions ‘gender circles’, and in a short period of time these have embedded themselves in our Grade 7 school culture.  Next year I hope to move them into all three of the middle school grades.

culture jarsduring open mic- from the audience

Building Community into Service Learning

When our annual Week Without Walls trip approached, I again turned to Catch the Fire for inspiration in planning a more community-centered trip. We take all 85 grade 7s and our team of teachers to a small rural village in eastern Vietnam for a week focused on cultural exploration and community service. Each year, our students do a service day at a local middle school and lead games for the local students. In previous years, the students have struggled with some of the negative responses they have received from the oldest students at the school.

This year I built on the ideas presented in the chapter about theme-based learning to lead discussions and reflections about privilege and power, cultural values and the needs that all youth have to be heard and seen. We explored how negative reactions might occur when they go to do service work in the local school as the ones in control, doing the giving and the teaching and expecting gratitude in return. As a result, the students began to ask how our “service day” could be more of a ‘’two way street’ and how we could expand our service beyond a once a year drop in. We   established a group of student representatives, whose role is to communicate with the school before and after the trip and to plan some joint projects and activities that would build the relationship. On our service day, students from both schools prepared and performed for one another and both groups taught each other games. It was a great beginning!

We also incorporated several other activities inspired by Catch the Fire, into our trip. We had a theatre games night, three art expression workshops added to our usual culture workshops, and an Open Mic night totally organized and run by the students—after I successfully fended off well intentioned teachers who wanted to run it like a judged talent show! We celebrated the end of the trip with a beautiful closing circle in which every single student and teacher tied a ribbon onto a central string while publicly stating something about the trip they were grateful for. It was a fantastic trip with almost no ‘social drama’ (unheard of during this intense week) and everyone walked out of the village with their arms around each other.

These are just a few of the activities and ideas I have incorporated this past year, inspired by Catch the Fire. I am excited to bring these activities and more into the week-long orientation we are planning for our Middle School next fall. I am so grateful to have this resource to help us build a more aware, connected, and intentional community of students and teachers.

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