Words Matter: The Seventh Grade Speaker Experience

By Larry Sandomir

Ben Stiller '83 (Director, Producer, Comedian). Liz Murray (Inspirational Speaker, Harvard Graduate, Formerly Homeless). Brendan Kiely (Author, Educator). Sami Steigmann (Holocaust Survivor). How do they connect with the seventh grade English curriculum at Calhoun? It all has to do with the power of words.

The power of words is the overriding theme in seventh grade English. All the books we read, all the writing we do, and all the discussions we have involve recognizing, understanding, and applying language in ways that reflect its power to move, involve, control, connect, and persuade human beings. The young people who occupy the seats for these ten months are challenged to investigate how words can heal and hurt, inspire and destroy, and elevate and demean. There are the novels: All American Boys, The House on Mango Street, and The Book Thief. There is spoken word and written poetry, vignette writing, YouTube videos, songs, philosophical inquiry, and freedom to satisfy the frozen moments when ideas appear and must, absolutely must, be written down.

And then there are the people who come in to speak with the kids. These are individuals for whom words matter. They use language to make people feel certain ways in their everyday lives. They connect with us through film, books, experiences, and survival. They spend the day with us, sitting down and having conversations with each class individually. They speak truth to the power of words.

Ben Stiller '83 discussed how he uses words in movies and in his work with refugees to entertain and education. He even showed a clip from Night at the Museum, where two characters (Ben and Attila the Hun) confronted each other, yelling at one another within an inch of their faces, spewing absolute nonsense words, and yet, were still understood. He explained how tone and facial features help words to mean more. He spoke about how language controls the connection with an audience.

Liz Murray has come to Calhoun for the past three years to work with the seventh graders on writing. First, they learn about her story and how words took her from being homeless to an alternative high school (where she completed four years of high school in two) to Harvard University, and then to a life of writing, mentoring at risk youth, and inspirational speaking. Each time she comes, she offers the kids writing prompts – “If You Really Knew Me, You’d…” “What I Want My Words to Do to You”- and they just write. It’s simple to explain, but profound in its effect on the rising writers of grade seven.

Brendan Kiely is an author and former teacher at Calhoun. He’s the co-author, with Jason Reynolds, of our first novel we study together, All American Boys. He came in, fell right into teacher mode, and led four intensely wonderful discussions over the course of the day about the book, its larger meanings, why he and Jason Reynolds wrote as they did, how they came to actually write certain parts as they did and why, and why the story moved in the direction it did. The kids asked questions, Brendan asked more back. He challenged them to think about the power of words in the book and what stayed with them once they were done. He whipped them into a linguistic whirlwind.

Sam Steigmann, a survivor of labor concentration camps and horrific medical experiments during the Holocaust, riveted the seventh graders with his story, with the manner in which Hitler and Nazis used language to create the “evil Jew,” and how those words controlled the minds of the Germans, brainwashed them, brilliantly, and moved them, in the most banal, inhuman ways possible, to kill six million Jewish human beings. He spoke about the language of survival and the words of hope. He made the kids think deeply, to stand and speak with him one-on-one, and then, in the end, hug together.

Each of these extraordinary people left our students thinking about what language does for and to us all. They helped encourage them to consider carefully the words they say and write and how each element of the writing process creates meaning and can change the way a person looks at the world and the people in it. Words, used in their most powerful ways, can alter the direction of an individual’s life, and our seventh graders had to reflect deeply on that idea. The hope and the goal of having these individuals come in to speak with our kids is to put them in the position to use words in ways that affect us, humanize us, help us to better understand and appreciate one another, and say the things that must be said.

Seventh graders are trying, each day, to figure out who they are and how their identities are formed. They use words to let the adult world know what they think, feel, and see. They speak their truths in their singular voices and push us hard to consider the kind of world we are giving them. They let us into their hearts and use language to break ours in their desire to be heard and make sure we know they matter. They challenge us, confront us, expose us, and forgive us. They offer their emotional intelligence and their ideas to help guide us along.

The gifted people who come in to speak with the kids are catalysts to energize their minds, to apply language in transformative ways, and along the journey, change us all.