6th Grade Language Art Curriculum Wins GET Prize

Grade 6 Homeroom Teacher Leila Huff's outside-the-box-thinking led to a GET prize.

In April 2020, Leila Huff, Sixth Grade Language Arts Teacher, won The Global Expression and Thought Prize for curriculum development. The GET prize, awarded by the Global Education Benchmark Group (GEBG), was created to emphasize the importance of student writing and faculty curriculum design that intentionally and meaningfully engage with global education. Huff won this prestigious award for her curriculum design for the book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer.

The idea for this unit came from conversations around incorporating global literature into the 6th grade curriculum and the need to show students the dangers of a single narrative. The 6th grade curriculum often considers the questions: How do we focus on underrepresented narratives, cultures, struggles, etc. in order to empathize? How do we listen and learn about humans and their experiences through literature?  

Huff wanted to incorporate a text into the curriculum that supported the school's efforts around global competency, and also wanted to be careful about unintended stereotyping in the process. In her classes, she emphasized that Cambridge is not representative of the United States as a country, and that examining experiences that take place on a continent most BB&N students have never been to can be tricky but powerful.  

BB&N students learned firsthand from the author about his experiences as a young adult growing up in Wimbe, a small farming village in Malawi. Inspired by his circumstances and challenges, William taught himself about the science of physics and energy with books at a public library. Through the process of trial and lots of error, he succeeded in creating a windmill that brought electricity and water to his village, changing the lives of those in his community. Students explored how William gained inspiration from his community, how he endured a process that allowed him to succeed in spite of many failing moments, and how his character traits helped him to work through this journey.

Students also explored their own thinking routines about places that are unfamiliar to them. They questioned what they knew before and after reading the book about Malawi and about Africa as a continent. Through photography, students corrected misconceptions about places like Malawi, whose drought and famine can often provide a single story of life in the country. As a class, they worked to build an understanding of a place without over-simplifying its reality and to recognize that books and literature provide perspective, even though the lenses of protagonists are often narrow. Using Chimamanda Adichie's TED talk, "The Dangers of a Single Story," students explored the theme for this year in Language Arts, empathy, and connected her messaging around representation and stereotyping with their concepts of windows and mirrors in the curriculum.  

Using the Design-Thinking methods from Stanford University, the sixth graders sought, like William, to create a tool that would help or enhance some aspect of the Lower School community at BB&N. William's motto for his Moving Windmills Project is "African Solutions to African Problems," so students focused on the solvable challenges they face in their own community. Students empathized, interviewed, planned, experimented, drafted, and created a prototype to meet their goal.

Dr. Karina Baum, Director of Global Education, and Maria Elena Derrien, Lower School Technology Integration and Interdisciplinary Facilitator, closely assisted Huff on this project. Baum helped with lesson and unit plans, and in particular, she helped create the process students would go through to deconstruct their preconceived notions and thinking around unfamiliar places by introducing thinking routines and reflection exercises. Derrien helped to come up with a project for the students to engage in that would mirror William's experience. She supported the students with their work in the MakerSpace, and she walked them through the entire design-thinking process. 

For Huff, watching the students come up with solutions to challenges they face on the Lower School campus was really inspiring. "I love it when students can take a question you pose as a teacher and answer in a way you never thought about; it reminds you of how much learning happens every day in this profession. When students are inspired by a book to tinker with and use technology to create solutions for waste reduction on their own campus, you get to see curriculum and thinking come together in a way that is not always visible." 

Moving forward, Huff's hope is to eventually visit as a class the MIT D-Lab in Cambridge, MA to bring this work to life for the students. In addition, since the project aligns with BB&N's global competency framework, she hopes to develop a template for future books and curriculum that will reflect BB&N's pedagogy and to encourage teachers to use different texts while relying on a thoughtful practice of exploring and engaging with unfamiliar places and experiences in the curriculum. 

- by Betsy Canaday, Middle School English Teacher and Global Education Liaison