Students use book’s message to unify school

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Not unlike any other teacher, Homestead High School English teacher Sara Hoeppner was working to find a way to engage her students in their studies — a way for them to make personal connections to what they were studying. Little did she know, what began with an assigned book reading and a simple exercise with note cards and ball of yarn would help transform her 12th-grade English class and inspire a schoolwide campaign.

It all started after Hoeppner assigned the book “An Invisible Thread” by Laura Schroff. The critically acclaimed memoir details the then 35-year-old advertising sales executive’s encounter with Maurice, an 11-year-old panhandler in the mid-80s, and how one small act of kindness changed their lives forever.

In preparation for the reading, Hoeppner asked her class of seniors to anonymously write one word on a note card describing their mood and how they felt. After collecting the responses, it was evident many students were bored, tired, even sad. Hoeppner, while holding the end of the string, tossed the ball of yarn to a student and proceeded to say something positive about that student. From there, the students held the string and tossed it angst themselves, relaying positive comments about one another. This created a sort of web, a visual connection illustrating how each student is connected to one another. After the exercise, students were once again asked to write one word on a note card describing their mood. Nearly every one of the responses improved. Students wrote they felt appreciated, energized and happy — a stark difference to the initial words shared. And the change didn’t stop there.

In the days following the exercise, Hoeppner’s students became active in class, both reading the book and participating in discussions. The students were engaged. Working off the ancient Chinese proverb featured in the book, “An invisible thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place and circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle. But it will never break.”, the students created a project, the Yarn of Unity (Y.O.U), and coupled it with a plan to share the message with the entire school.

In a courtyard at Homestead High School, Hoeppner’s students installed 12-ft. poles in the shape of a circle and labeled each pole with statements, e.g., “I know my future plans;” “I have been discriminated against;” “I play sports.” Organizers then invited all high school students and staff to visit the courtyard. Students were given a ball of yarn. Starting at the center pole labeled “I am a Homestead Spartan,” each student was encouraged to stretch the yarn to each pole/statement they could identify with. The end result, a visually stunning web that illustrates how each and every student and teacher are somehow connected.

“The purpose of Yarn of Unity was to show that we are all a united people,” said Jason Reed, a student in Hoeppner’s English class. “Our goal was to show everyone that the beauty of our differences is the fact that no matter how different we are, our paths cross and we can all connect to each other in some way. When I go out there and look at the yarn all I see is a beautiful, vibrant community of people who, whether they believe it or not, are all connected and all matter. It’s about bringing people together, and showing them that they are not alone and there is someone else out there they can identify with. This project’s purpose is to show our unity within our community, for if we don’t have unity, we don’t have a community, and without a community what do we have?”

For Hoeppner, the Y.O.U. project has been life changing for her, too. “I love seeing the passion and pride my students have developed as this project has grown. I am amazed every day how my students are able to see the bigger picture — a world where we are stronger united rather than divided. The tension surrounding this year’s presidential election has taught us, more than ever, how important it is that we see how we are connected and what we can accomplish when we think of more than just ourselves.”

(Stacey Fleming is the director of district communications for Southwest Allen County Schools. Contact her at sfleming@sacs.k12.in.us.)