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Teacher's mission -- put a special book in a pen-pal's hand Stories to travel from Davis to Uman

November 6, 2005
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

“I’m on a mission,” says teacher Sue Britz-Diaz. She laughs as she says this, but she is more serious than not.

Britz-Diaz recently returned from her second trip to Uman, Ukraine, Davis’ sister city, where she visited friends, gave several workshops on teaching, and witnessed the magical power of a good story. Her mission is to supply books to at least some of the kids in Uman.

She stayed with an Uman teacher, Toma Nikolova, who last year at this time was hosted by Britz-Diaz and her family in Davis. When Britz-Diaz went back to Uman in September, she stayed with Nikolova and her family, including her 15-year-old son, Anton.

She brought Anton a gift – “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” She could not have thought of a better present.

“I’m the first one in Uman to have the new Harry Potter book!” crowed Anton.

“He read it in a day and began sharing it with his friends,” said Britz-Diaz. “It was a real coup for him, but more than that I saw a kid excited to have not just a new story but the actual book. A real book. They don’t have a lot of books.”

Britz-Diaz, who teaches fourth/fifth grade at Patwin, says her students can connect with Anton’s excitement about the new book – the same phenomenon happens here every time a new HP title is released -- kids stand in line to be the first to read and own the latest in the Harry Potter series.

“I told my Patwin kids about Anton and the Harry Potter story and they got excited, too,” she said. They were impressed knowing that other kids think owning a book is really an incredible thing.

Her Patwin students have pen-pals in Ukraine, in a program Britz-Diaz established after her first visit to Uman in 2004.

The kids decided that they wanted to send one book from their personal libraries to their pen-pals in Ukraine.

“If we mail them before Thanksgiving the books may arrive by Valentine’s Day,” she said. The books are sent by ship at a slow, cheap rate.

“These kids are excited at the thought of sharing their books,” Britz-Diaz said. “They believe they are making a positive impact on kids on the other side of the world in a meaningful and personal way. It’s a real and personal connection. I love that.

“There is so much fund-raising in Davis schools that it’s wearing people out,” she added. “But this is different, this is personal and they feel empowered by it.”

One of her students, Melanie Platt, 10, said the book project is cool. She doesn’t know what book she will choose to send to her pen-pal, Inna, but she did say that the “Little House” series is her favorite.

“It’s cool, we can write to people all the way across the world. Hopefully, I’ll try to go to Ukraine,” Melanie said.

Britz-Diaz also is going to make a series of about six short videos on different aspects of her visit, from the Jewish history of Uman to villages in Western Ukraine.

The teacher exchange will continue, too, when Katya Chetyrko from Uman comes to Davis this spring.

Britz-Diaz says the two countries emphasize different teaching strategies, both of which are effective but both of which should borrow from each other.

“Cooperative learning is emphasized here,” said Britz-Diaz. “It’s a philosophy of teaching where kids are not just receivers of information but have roles in learning.”

In this mode, she said, kids help each other learn and check each other’s understanding of the subject.

“It’s very effective and engaging, it’s dynamic,” she said. “You don’t leave anyone behind.”

The Ukrainian style is more methodical and structured and children learn more by memorization and rote – skills that Britz-Diaz said her Patwin kids could benefit from a little more of.

In Uman, Britz-Diaz taught an English class where instead of understanding every line in a story, the students were encouraged to act out the scene. Understanding and communication came about in a different but equally valid way, she said.

“And the kids loved it,” she said.

“We need to use the best of all educational systems,” she added. “We can take a little from all the teaching systems.”

If you can help Britz-Diaz mail books to Uman, contact her at sbritz @ djusd.k12.ca.us

-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at gizmo@dcn.org and watch for stories about books and local writers to be featured biweekly at this web site.

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