Students celebrate diversity, honor a loved teacher

The late Nancy Orazem was a well-loved language teacher at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School. Photo courtesy of MVRHS

By Elaine Cawley Weintraub - June 1, 2006

Excitement about life and language was evident everywhere at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School last Thursday at a special evening to celebrate the life of a beloved teacher, the late Nancy Orazem, and to showcase the work of the students. Nancy would have enjoyed listening to students recite poetry, read stories, share films they had made, and perform dances representing the cultures that they study. For her, school was all about the students, and they repaid her interest in them with a great fondness for her and for the subject that she taught.

"She was our school mother, and for three years she was our teacher," one of the students who studied German told the audience gathered in the Performing Arts Center. "Nothing would ever intimidate Frau."

The event was both a fitting tribute to a popular teacher and a fundraiser for an annual scholarship established in her name. In addition, it gave the world language students a chance to share what they knew, and to impress with a series of presentations ranging from dance performances to choral readings.

The evening began with a performance of "Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes" sung in Spanish by the Oak Bluffs School second-graders. The program then moved through comedy and high drama, offered with panache and evident enjoyment. This event was about students, and they rose to the challenge.

French street performers Jonah Lipsky (left) and Evan Wardell. Photos by Brian Jolley

Bree MacLean, a longtime teacher of French who plans to retire at the end of this year, was guarding an eclectic array of food. Reflecting on the evening, she pointed out the importance of food in celebrating culture and understanding differences. "For me, the food is the best part," said Bree. "It's the best way that we learn about each other."

Maureen Fitzpatrick, a high school junior, agreed. "I had fun making a dessert that I had never made before," she said. "It was different, and I will make it again when I need something for a party. It is called brioche au chocolat, and it's French. This was a great project."

"The kind of food people eat tells you what they like," said junior Max Shay. "And it's important, when you learn a language, to understand the culture and talk to native speakers. That is how you get to be fluent, and to be able to mix with people who are different from you."

Jim Powell, who teaches Spanish, shared the students' views: "This type of learning is so much more complete, and you remember it for a very long time. We have certainly worked hard, and had plenty of noise and activity in our classrooms over the last few weeks, but the students have learned their presentations with their bodies as well as their minds, and they really know it."

Students received awards for their participation in the Culture Club, and Duncan Pickard described each presentation to the audience with warmth and composure. Following the performances, which included original films addressing issues of prejudice and discrimination against immigrants, Duncan led the audience back to the spirit of celebration. "We have taken you all around the world, and now we are coming back home to celebrate our own Wampanoag community and language," he said, as tribal member Chris Manning introduced a presentation of traditional and contemporary songs and dances.

Dancers whirl in a poetry/dance number from the Culture Club.

The Wampanoag presentation was greeted with loud applause from the audience, as was the spirited dance performance by the Portuguese class.

Value of culture and language

"An evening like this is fantastic," said Eric Alexander, who teaches a history class for emergent English speakers. "I think it takes the school out the box... it makes the box bigger. We have some students who speak four languages, and the Vineyard now, more than in the past, reflects the world. I think learning other languages gives the students transferable skills, and it builds good relations in the community. In the past, people had to lose their language to become part of the new country, but now we realize the importance of valuing culture and language."

Sophomore Emily Carter spoke of the value of learning languages as a means of understanding other cultures. "I think that it's really great to expose the community to all the languages that we have here," she said. "We can learn several languages, and we have students who can speak three or more different languages."

Jill Gault Moreis, teacher of both Spanish and French, commented about the evening, "For me, the best part was seeing the excitement of the kids backstage and their pride in their work. They were nervous as they prepared, but they were proud of what they knew, and they saw the value of learning other languages. This was a real achievement for them, and it brought the whole community together."

The desserts had a foreign flair too - like this German chocolate cake.

Celebration of life in all its perplexing diversity was the key theme of the evening, and the successful relationships that have been forged between the high school's World Language department and the community were evident. Many Islanders had participated in the making of the films shown, assisted with choreography, lent technical expertise, and served as inspirational resources for the students.

Preparing for the event gave students an opportunity to get to know each other better, and to appreciate linguistic and cultural differences. And it was clear that the community supported both the evening and the students. Plans call for making it an annual event.

Lynn Ditchfield, chairman of the World Language Department who will retire at the end of this year, had the final word on the first annual fundraiser for the Nancy Orazem Scholarship. "The most fun that I have is watching the kids who suddenly show their souls in a whole different way," she said. "Sometimes the students who have been very quiet and apparently uninvolved just come to life with this kind of project, and that is the best reward that any educator can get."

Elaine Cawley Weintraub is history department chair at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, currently on sabbatical, and is the author of "Lighting the Trail - the African American Heritage of Martha's Vineyard."