Belief in community
Some people just can't let well enough alone. Pushed along by curiosity and determination, they're constantly peering over the horizon for new ideas to make a difference to people around them.
Like Matthew Malowski, a young teacher at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, the father of two children under three, who carries a full load as a teacher and works at a tackle shop, and as a shore fishing guide during the fishing season.
Mr. Malowski decided to act on ideas that had impressed him in a book he read recently - "This I Believe, The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women," edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman (Henry Holt, 2006). "I just found it, and I like the idea so much - I was so inspired by it," he says.
He considered how he might use the book's theme to bridge the gap between his students and the Martha's Vineyard community at large. "With a certain population of kids, anyhow, I think there's a big disconnect. And I do believe that it takes a village to raise a child."
Photo by Lynn Christoffers
Mr. Malowski is appealing to community members to meet for an hour each week to talk about what motivates them, and then, to eventually write a short personal essay like those on "This I Believe," the popular series heard regularly on National Public Radio (NPR). The mission of the program is "engaging people in writing, sharing, and discussing the core values that guide their daily lives."
If Mr. Malowski's project catches on, community participants might be invited into the schools to share their writing and beliefs with students in the STAR (Students and Teachers Achieving Results) program, which he coordinates.
"I want to use this as a bridge, as a starting point, to get people thinking and talking," he says, "and eventually getting these people to maybe take an interest in coming into the classroom and talking with the kids and sharing their beliefs with the kids - just build a dialogue."
The STAR program, now in its second year at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, identifies students who are struggling academically, and provides them with "individualized, hardcore, in-your-face attention all the time," as Mr. Malowski puts it. "These kids can get lost in a class of 20 students. They haven't had structure; they haven't been held accountable." Mr. Malowski believes they can benefit from the community at large.
He speaks from experience: "I'm from a small town in up-state New York. I can remember being in the grocery store one time with my mother - I was probably nine or ten - and I was being a little jerk, grabbing things and being obnoxious, and my Mom kept trying to [control me] and she had my little brother. And finally I remember just getting picked up by my arm, and some woman just gave me three whacks on my butt and said, 'Your mother told you to stop.' And my Mom said, 'Thank you very much.' I'm from that small town philosophy, and I like that, that sense of responsibility of the community."
While some see a small community as a random collection of individuals going every which way, Mr. Malowski sees a collective potential for positive impact. "There are so many people in this community that have so much to offer and that haven't been tapped into and need to be tapped into. And this is what I'm hoping for, that if seven people go into that classroom to share their beliefs or insights or outlook on life to these five students, and all seven bomb, but the eighth one that comes in...and reaches those kids on a level that we as teachers can't do..."
NPR's version of "This I Believe" (originated by Edward R. Murrow in 1951), was initiated in 2005 by Woods Hole resident Jay Allison, an award-winning broadcast journalist who founded and is currently executive producer at WCAI, the local NPR outlet. More than 50,000 essays have been submitted to the program in the past three years.
Mr. Allison echoes Mr. Murrow's sentiments about the mission of the program: "As in the 1950s, this is a time when belief is dividing the nation and the world," he has said. "We are not listening well, not understanding each other - we are simply disagreeing, or worse. Working in broadcast communication, there's a responsibility to change that, to cross borders, to encourage some empathy."
Mr. Malowski had a similar goal in mind when he decided to adapt "This I Believe" to the Vineyard community. "So I like the idea of conversation, of getting people together and just start talking and see what happens," he says. "It's a little sociological experiment here, and I'm kind of hoping for some help from the people who start showing up, and having it be very organic. I'm also hoping to get kids to show up on Tuesday nights to talk about this stuff, or just listen."
As Mr. Allison wrote, "Through these essays, young people can encounter adults thinking hard - not lecturing, but soul-searching. They hear that grown-ups don't have all the answers and, in fact, are continually looking for them, which grants young people the authority to do the same."
This I Believe Discussion, Tuesdays, 7 pm. Library Conference Room or Room 113, Martha's Vineyard Regional High School. For more information, contact Matthew Malowski, MMalowski@mvyps.org or 508-693-1033, ext. 278.