What’s in a name? This question has been asked to 7th grade students at Upton Middle School in their English classes for almost 20 years. It’s a great first writing prompt of the year to get the know the students. As they research and share their name origins, teachers learn about their family history, traditions, passed loved ones, and religion. While it is always an eye-opening assignment, without a doubt, this year’s lesson was one for the books.
Social media in the middle school may not seem like a great idea to many, but last fall, it was an invaluable element to provide 7th graders with an experience they won’t soon forget.
A closer inspection of a person’s own name can lead him or her in many directions. For the 7th grade students at Upton Middle School, it sparked a connection with a former Big Ten athlete and current Los Angeles actor. It only took a shared email, a writing prompt, Facebook, and their teacher, Dana Walsworth, to make the connection happen.
Mrs. Walsworth began her lesson with a question: what is the origin of your name? The students responded with typical middle school enthusiasm — attempting to appear cool, but being secretly interested.
Less than a month before this, SoulPancake published a short, three-minute video featuring actor Siaka Massaquoi explaining the meaning of his name. A fellow English teacher at Upton forwarded the youtube video to the seventh grade teachers, knowing it aligned perfectly with the name origin assignment. (I encourage everyone to watch the clip here.)
The seventh grade English teachers shared the video with their classes. Seeing the students’ reaction to the clip, Mrs. Walsworth found the link on Siaka’s Massaquoi’s Facebook page. She left a comment, thanking him for sharing his story and describing the impact it had on several of her students. To her surprise, Siaka contacted her back almost immediately, going so far as to share a personal message to the students in a video response. This new connection was the start of a friendship and offered opportunities that would not have been made possible without technology.
Excited to hear from the actor himself, thirty-three students from seven different English classes met outside of regular class time to send Siaka a video of their own name origins. After some back and forth, Siaka agreed to a Google Hangout session to speak to interested students directly.
To her surprise, the project grew even further from this point. SoulPancake became involved and decided to turn this experience into a short documentary. They funded the airfare and lodging of Siaka, a producer, and two sound technicians so Siaka could meet and talk to the students directly. This detail was not shared with the kids. So on November 16 when the thirty-three students entered the Upton Middle School media center, they were looking forward to participating in a Google Hangout with the actor. The trap was set.
Joe Rommel, Berrien RESA technology consultant and MACUL board member, was on hand to help facilitate and play a small part in the ruse. Of course “unforeseen technical glitches” caused the videoconference to go awry, and student anxiety began to rise. As the students were facing the front, Siaka slipped in the back of the room. This was officially a moment to remember.
In all of the planning and connecting and scheming, there is always a moment of uncertainty. But from the moment Siaka answered the first question, it was clear that this was going to be powerful learning in action.
If you visited the Student Technology Showcase you heard all about this story. From a technology perspective, none of these steps was overly complicated or technical. And yet, at each step along the way it was crucial. It serves as an example of how technology integration can transform a lesson, and in this case, the lives of the students.
Dana Walsworth is a seventh and eight grade English Teacher at Upton Middle School. Visit her St. Joseph Public schools page.
The Upton Middle School enrolls students in grades 6 through 8. For more information about the school visit https://www.sjschools.org/upton-middle-school