Sarah Morrissett, fifth-grade teacher at Sandymount Elementary, attended the 50th anniversary commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech Wednesday in Washington, D.C., as a guest of the White House.
Morrissett grew up in Carroll County and attended Carroll County Public Schools since the third grade. She earned her associate degree from Carroll Community College, a Bachelor of Art in philosophy with a minor in literature and a master's degree in elementary education from McDaniel College. She has taught for CCPS since 2000.
caught up with Morrissett to discuss what led her to receive an invitation and her reaction to attending the memorable event.
Q: What is the research that led you to a front-row seat as an invited guest of the White House to the 50th anniversary commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech?
Last spring I enrolled in Dr. Sharon Craig's course "Teaching Informational and Argument/Opinion Writing with Children's Literature" at McDaniel for professional development. Dr. Craig gives teachers the opportunity to take the inquiry process to their students, so teachers and students learn together, becoming a writing community. The final assignment was to research a topic that we felt passionately about and draft an informational book for our students. I chose the Civil Rights Movement using Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C. as the setting. After reading, analyzing and evaluating as many secondary and primary resources as I could, I decided to request interviews to get help to understand questions left unanswered, so I wrote letters to the owners of Ben's Chili Bowl, Virginia, Nizam and Kamal Ali, as well as various civil rights leaders including Congressman John Lewis, Maya Angelou, Dr. Robert Moses and Councilman Marion Barry. I included letters to Bill Cosby who has championed the Ali's for years. I also wrote a letter to President and first lady Obama. I wrote dozens of letters. Even though some people did not respond, I could not give up. My goal was to develop a thorough understanding of the civil rights movement as well as request messages for our young people to help them use lessons from the past to guide their futures. Truthfully, I never expected a response from any of these incredibly busy people, so I was amazed by the generosity of those people who responded to my letters, giving me their time for interviews, such as Congressman Lewis. After receiving my letter, the White House called me early one morning, one week before the 50th Commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington, and invited me to attend the ceremony as a guest of the White House. I have never felt so proud and so humbled in the same moment and could not wait to share the news with students who gave me the courage to write the letters in the first place.
Q: Why did you pick that research topic? What did you learn through your research?
I chose the civil rights movement because my mother grew up in the Deep South during segregation. Her family was and is intolerant of prejudice, and she taught the values of kindness and respect for all people to my brother and me. She deeply admires the work of Dr. King and other civil rights activists. I chose Ben's Chili Bowl after reading the history of that iconic restaurant. The owners, Ben and Virginia Ali, opened the restaurant in 1958 in D.C.'s historic Shaw neighborhood. They have overcome great obstacles, serving their community when other business owners in the neighborhood left during difficult times after the riots of 1968 in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Their intelligence, commitment and kindness inspired me. In my opinion, they are heroes in their community and set a model of success for us all. I learned that historically there was a great contrast between the experiences of African Americans in the Deep South and those living in Shaw neighborhood, and I wanted to know what created the difference. The Ali's introduced me to their historian, Dr. Bernard Demczuk. As a professor at George Washington University, he specializes in African-American history in D.C. and has helped me tirelessly with my research.
Q: What was the process of drafting your children's book? Will the book be available for the public to read?
The first draft was painful. I had no idea where to start, which details to include, which details to omit, so I wrote everything without judgment, hoping to sequence the details and connect the civil rights movement to Ben's Chili Bowl. I liked the draft when I finally finished and went to bed. Lack of sleep must have clouded my judgment because when I reread the draft in the morning, I hated it. Discouraged, I shared it with my students, who were in the same stage of their own inquiry projects. Asking for help or suggestions for change from my class, they told me their honest opinions. They thought my first draft was terrible. One student said that he didn't want to read it because it was too long. Another student said it was boring because the writing didn't sound like me. They all agreed that I needed to trash my draft and begin again. Photographs, vivid word choice, repeated line like Dr. King used, and modifiers to improve sentence fluency were all suggestions. With their help, I was able to create a blended genre text including poetic elements describing the role Ben's has played in their community, text boxes of short informative details about the civil rights movement and illustrated with primary document photos on each page. The kids loved the new draft. I believe sharing my effort, my failures and successful moments as a model of the inquiry process created an atmosphere of trust and enthusiasm for learning in the classroom. I learned the importance of collaboration during research and writing. Sydney Poitier learned a similar lesson in "Lilies of the Field" when he discovered that he could not build a chapel alone. Luckily, I learned that lesson from that movie at a young age, so I knew I needed to ask for help building my chapel.
Right now I am taking the process of writing a book one step at a time, learning as I go. My goal is to have the book published. Meeting with Congressman Lewis, one of my heroes, taught me to "be a pilot light" and patiently move forward toward my vision, just as he has moved toward his vision of The Beloved Community. Recently, Dr. Demczuk agreed to co-author the book, and I am so eager to collaborate ideas with him.
Q: How was the "Let Freedom Ring" commemoration? What was the most memorable part?
The event was overwhelming. It is hard to choose a few memorable moments because I am still pinching myself to see if I dreamed the whole thing. My husband, William Morrissett, and I sat on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial surrounded by congressman, activists and original members of the march in '63. Despite the drizzle, the mood was loving, respectful and hopeful. It was a good day. I was in awe of the speakers including Oprah Winfrey, Congressman Lewis, three presidents, daughters of former presidents Kennedy and Johnson and members of the King family.
Dr. King's sister spoke about being the only one there who knew him when he was a baby. Those words were especially touching because they instantly humanized someone of hero status, and I think we all felt how much the man personally sacrificed and how much progress he helped to achieve in his short life. I also appreciated President Obama's call to action with his repeated line, "we march," reminding us all to protect civil rights guaranteed in our constitution. My husband was grateful to see Jamie Foxx as a positive role model for young people in the speech he chose to give from the heart, just as Dr. King spoke from the heart describing his dream for the future. They are moments I will never forget.
Q: How did your students react when they found out you were a presidential guest at the "Let Freedom Ring" celebration?
I adore my students and could not wait to share the news about my writing project to get them excited about their own research and writing. However, being able to share the ups and downs of the previous year's writing in a way that was motivating to fifth-graders was eluding me. The invitation to attend the Commemoration of the March on Washington opened that door for me. On the first day of school, I told my students the highlights of my experience last year and concluded with the remarkable news that the White House called to invite me to the march as their guest. They gave me a standing ovation. Their enthusiasm was so genuine, it bonded the entire class as a learning community. I wanted to take them all with me to Washington, but the best I could do was educate them about the event, so I launched instruction explaining that we all read and write about topics that we want to know more about. Modeling good reading behaviors, I read narrative mentor texts about Dr. King and Congressman Lewis. After each book, students clapped and cheered for the bravery of these courageous and brilliant men. I can't tell you how wonderful it feels to look in a student's eyes and see true enthusiasm for learning. After each book, students shared their thoughts and brainstormed books they might choose and why. The variety of interests each child shared as a possible writing idea varied from dirt bikes to fantasy stories. Sandymount Elementary participated in a bell ringing ceremony with fifth-graders reading excerpts from Dr. King's, "I Have a Dream" speech. When the bell rang, I knew we were all thinking about his dream of equality for all people. The next day, my students bounced in the classroom door with questions, wanting all the details.
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Years ago, I read a fascinating book titled, "Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders" by Lawrence Weschler about a museum curator. The character said, "part of the assigned task is to reintegrate people to wonder." I kept that idea harbored in my mind, and it has been my philosophy for teaching since my first day in the classroom. Learning with students while they research their interests and share what they have learned through varied genres of writing does just that, reintegrates them to wonder.