Steamboat Springs First-year Hayden High School teacher Kendra DeMicco was hoping to expose her 11th-grade honors English class to a reading project that would get her 15 students thinking critically about serious current events.
She already had the book picked out: “Escape From Camp 14,” a New York Times best-seller published in 2012. It’s a harrowing nonfiction story about the only known person, Shin Dong-hyuk, born inside a North Korean labor camp to have escaped. It’s a book DeMicco had used last year during her student-teaching in Pennsylvania.
But DeMicco wanted her students to go beyond the standard read-and-book-report routine. And what DeMicco got was a look into how much the shocking story captivated the group, with many students ignoring her reading schedule and blazing through the book during the first weekend.
“I was with my students one day and they were writing an in-class essay, and I thought maybe I should take a chance to email the publisher to see how much it would cost to have the author (Blaine Harden) come to Hayden,” DeMicco said. “Talking to the author can make the experience so much more in depth.”
The publisher emailed DeMicco a price that was even more far-fetched than the idea, but Hayden 11th-grader Sofia Rodriguez tossed out the idea of getting Harden to answer some questions via Skype.
DeMicco thought, “Why not?” so she emailed back again. This time, she got a response not from Penguin Group, the publisher, but rather from Harden himself.
Harden happily agreed to a 30-minute Skype session Friday with DeMicco’s students, as well as Hayden teacher Pat Moore’s 12th-grade Advanced Placement English class.
DeMicco’s class already had been in the process of putting together chapter-by-chapter presentations and responses relating the story to outside sources, such as TED Talks and other texts about the topic.
The day before the Skype interview with Harden, the students were asked to write questions on a note card. Questions ranged from how Shin felt about being approached for the story to Harden’s relationship with the labor camp refugee.
“There were things Harden didn’t include in the book he could tell us, from a writing perspective,” DeMicco said. “There were students who really want to pursue a writing career who got that inside look.”
Moore — who said his 12th-graders practically were begging to have “Escape From Camp 14” as their next reading assignment — noted that having students get one-on-one face time with the author proved to be a tremendous learning experience.
“Our big goal was for the kids to connect with the text in a way they don’t normally get to — to connect with the author,” Moore said. “When the author is sitting there talking to us, it hits them pretty hard, which was our big goal.”
When DeMicco’s students return from the holiday break, they will finish up the unit by putting together personal reflection pieces, tying the information culled from the book and projects with how it influenced them emotionally.
She called it a “mind-blowing” experience from a teacher’s standpoint. DeMicco knew her students had potential, but their ownership of the assignment exceeded all expectations.
“A lot of my students were like, ‘What can we do? How can we help these people?’” DeMicco said. “To me, that was exactly what I wanted to hear as their teacher, for them to be more conscious global citizens.”
To reach Ben Ingersoll, call 970-871-4204, email bingersoll@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @BenMIngersoll
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