Liberating Lesson

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When a Colorado 4th grade class learned that slavery had not been relegated to the history books, it set in motion a modern-day media campaign that has captured international attention.

Aurora, Colo.

It would be wrong to say that Barbara Vogel doesn't want publicity. Reporters and photographers are welcome in her classroom at Highline Community School here. Television crews, with their cumbersome equipment and bright lights, have become routine.

"It's for a good cause," a school employee explains as she escorts yet another journalist down the short hall to what currently may be the most-photographed, most-filmed classroom in the country.

Vogel and her 4th graders appreciate the frequent interruptions. They believe every interview, every photograph, and every story advances the cause they are fighting for: the freedom of black slaves in Sudan.

"They're comfortable with the media," Vogel says of her students. "They know that because the media is here, people will be saved."

The U.N. Children's Fund has spoken out against Christian Solidarity International's slave-redemption program.

"If I tire, what do I model for these children?" asks Vogel, as she sits in her classroom at a table stacked with homework assignments and a pile of letters written by the students to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. "I want them to remember the feeling of how good it felt inside to make the world a better place."

The teacher's concern for the Sudanese people, however, is equaled by her commitment to the academic success and growth of her students. In fact, the slavery issue has become a powerful tool for teaching every subject in her classroom.

"Barbara at no time has lost sight of the need to prepare literate people," says Robert D. Tshirki, the superintendent of the 40,000- student Cherry Creek, Colo., district.

Her students now comfortably use such words as "eradicate," "abolition," and "horrific." When a check arrives in the mail, the youngsters can immediately calculate how many slaves the money might free. Letters to public figures have become lessons in persuasive writing.

When Vogel's cellular phone rings with a call from a congressman's office or a reporter from CBS, the students no longer even look up from their work.

Her story is a highly visible example of how a teacher can maintain a structured learning environment in the midst of international media coverage.

"In most districts, this would not have happened because of the risks associated with it," Principal David Fischer said of the school's and the district's openness to reporters.

Vogel's experience raises new issues about the relationship between schools and the news media, especially in an age when such intense coverage is often associated only with tragic events on campus.

"I think it's a wonderful lesson for children on how to mobilize information and communication for good, to help someone in need," said Karen Kleinz, the associate director of the National School Public Relations Association in Rockville, Md.

Kleinz added, though, that simply because of the circuslike atmosphere reporters and television news crews can create, it's important for schools to set guidelines for giving reporters access to their classrooms, whether the story is positive or negative.

Last fall, when Vogel met her new 4th graders--a group she'll have for two years--she backed off the STOP campaign for a few months and made little mention of it in the classroom.

"First they needed to be 4th graders," she says. "We had to establish a routine. We had to get to know each other."

When reporters asked for interviews with the children, she directed them to her former students. Most of the 6th graders are still involved in the effort to buy freedom for slaves in Sudan.

Vogel wasn't even sure whether her new class would respond to the issue with the same fervor and commitment that the other students had. But her new students asked about the campaign every day, she says, and they wanted to know when they, too, could begin writing letters.

"It was like holding back little wild horses that wanted to go," Vogel says.

Mornings in Vogel's classroom are usually protected. The cell phone is off, and reporters are often kept out until after lunch.

Booba Turner, whose son Thomas is in Vogel's class, said the teacher hasn't allowed the children's humanitarian mission to overshadow their first responsibility as students.

"She's very strict," Turner says. "[Thomas] gets the same amount of homework. If he doesn't complete it, I still get the notes home."

For Thomas, the STOP campaign has brought about something of a transformation, his mother says. While he always excelled in math, he took no interest in social studies. Now, he willingly watches the History Channel on television and reads newspaper articles about foreign affairs.

"I really thought this was going to fade, but it hasn't," says his mother, who was born in Zambia and came to the United States in the early 1980s. Turner has taken Thomas to visit Africa.

Vogel also has tried to balance the flood of reporters' visits with respect for her colleagues. At first, she apologized to Fischer every time a reporter or camera crew came to the school.

Greg Hastings, a 4th grade teacher in the classroom adjoining Vogel's, says that simply because there have been so many visitors, it's no longer disruptive.

Still, the project and the media attention it has brought to Highline Community School haven't always been warmly received.

Though they represent a small minority, Vogel--who describes herself as a teacher with "one foot out of bounds"--says she knows there are some at the school who have been envious of the attention she and her students have received.

And while he hasn't received any complaints from parents about the campaign, Tshirki, the superintendent, said he has heard from some at the school who say the interviews and film crews are too much of a distraction. A more philosophical objection also was raised over whether it's right to literally exchange money for another human being.

The calls, he said, were not unexpected, but they didn't weaken his support for Vogel, whom he has worked with since he came to the district seven years ago.

"I think you've got to follow your heart," he says.

As Vogel had hoped, the STOP campaign has become more than a moving human-interest story on the evening news.

In recent weeks, she has been in touch with a U.S. senator and two members of the U.S. House of Representatives. One of those congressmen, Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, delivered a statement from the students to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.

Vogel has even heard from a Sudanese government official at the United Nations, who called to deny that the slave raids were taking place.

The teacher's concern for the Sudanese people is equaled by her commitment to the academic success and growth of her students.

The teacher has been invited to speak at conferences. She and her students have received a Certificate of Congressional Recognition, and a plan is in the works to bring Vogel and her students to Washington to speak on Capitol Hill. They also participated in a recent teleconference on modern-day slavery in Africa at the Simon Wiesenthal Center at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. The museum focuses on the history of the Holocaust, as well as the issues of racism and prejudice.

During the late-February event, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, an associate dean at the center, said that what's remarkable about Vogel and her students is that they were able to "present an important human-rights issue to the world when the media was locked on the impeachment hearings" of President Clinton this past winter. "They are the ones who have delivered the wake-up call to the American people."

But the STOP campaign is not without critics. It has become a target for organizations that hold different opinions about how best to end slavery in Sudan.

The U.N. Children's Fund, which works to protect the rights of children worldwide, has spoken out against Christian Solidarity International's slave-redemption program.

"While we applaud any effort by a group like CSI for drawing attention to this issue, we don't believe that the solution is the buying back of slaves," said AnneMarie Kane, a UNICEF spokeswoman. "Making payments for slaves will not end the pattern of slave raids."

She added, though, that she doesn't want to discourage Vogel's students from taking a stand on such an important global issue, and she acknowledged that, at least indirectly, the children are having a positive effect.

"Media attention can very well generate political will," Kane said.

Vogel doesn't show much patience for diplomatic reservations about her approach.

"What do we do, leave them in slavery until [the politicians] solve the problem?" Vogel says. "Are they crazy?"

The lessons Vogel's students have learned go beyond an awareness of what's taking place in Sudan. This experience, the teacher says, is character education in action.

"These children will have spent two years of their education immersed in the fight for freedom," she says.

Her students also exhibit a self-assurance and a level of maturity around reporters and other classroom visitors that many 4th graders have not yet developed.

Vogel hasn't missed an opportunity to teach the children that their crusade is about more than just seeing their faces on television or reading their words in the newspaper.

Nine-year-old Melvin Harmon knows this well. When he got in trouble for bullying another student, his punishment was a bit unorthodox: He wasn't allowed to be interviewed the next time a news crew visited the class.

"I'm usually a good kid, but every kid has a dark side," he says.

Vogel says she won't allow her students to speak for the STOP campaign if they are not showing respect and care for each other.

But Melvin apparently learned his lesson. When the class participated in the symposium on slavery at the Museum of Tolerance, it was Melvin who was chosen to read aloud the question that the class had posed to the secretary of state about the slavery issue. Political leaders as well as other school groups were electronically linked to the event.

Stuffed into two thick spiral notebooks are dozens of phone messages that Vogel has received--not just from news organizations, but from other teachers who see her as a role model and want somehow to replicate the project in their classrooms.

One of them is Ron Kelbaugh, who teaches 5th and 6th grades at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Bellflower, Calif. After catching a glimpse of the STOP campaign on ABC-TV's "Good Morning America," he got in touch with Vogel.

But before his students got involved, Kelbaugh says, he explained to them that it was Vogel and her students who had brought the issue before the world. "I explained that if you're doing this because you think you're going to be on TV, you're in the wrong place. They still wanted to do it."

For as many calls as Vogel has received from enthusiastic teachers who have started similar campaigns in their own classrooms, she has also received letters and e-mail messages from frustrated teachers who were told by their administrators that the project was too political.

She encourages them to look for another issue that they can feel just as passionate about--something that will allow them to "rise above the handed-out curriculum."

Reporters who visit Vogel's classroom walk away with a good story. But Vogel requests something in return. She asks that each one talk about his or her job and answer questions from the students. Through these exchanges, everyone benefits, she says.

The media, Vogel says, "are completely polite and very aware that my first job is a teacher."

She worried one time, however, whether one of her students had begun to lose sight of the reason she was letting so many reporters in her classroom.

"We're famous," 10-year-old Dong Cho declared while talking one day to a reporter.

Vogel immediately wanted to step in and correct him for thinking so selfishly. But, instead, she waited to hear what the boy would say next. She wasn't disappointed.

He continued, "We're famous for being kind to people."

Vol. 18, Issue 29, Pages 22-27

Published in Print: March 31, 1999, as Liberating Lesson
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