I introduced Sister Dorothy Stang to my second grade class in the spring of 2005. She had died just a few months earlier. I had heard her name mentioned while she was living by my father who worked in the Mission Office for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Sister Dorothy, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, had worked for more than forty years as a missionary in Brazil. She was murdered in the Amazon Rainforest on February 12, 2005. She gave her life working for justice for the impoverished farmers of northern Brazil and for the preservation of the Amazon Forest.
When I began the unit, I realized that the rainforest was a faraway place for my students. They did not see the impact the rainforest had on their lives, much less how they could help to preserve the rainforest and foster earth’s ecology. I needed to make this unit personal and so I began with literature books and projects. As the weeks went by, the children began to appreciate all the beautiful gifts the rainforest offers and how it impacts them in so many ways, from the food they eat to the furniture they use, to the oxygen we breathe.
This unit really affected the children in my classroom because Sister Dorothy brought the unit to life. In her we had someone who dedicated.her life to preserving the rainforest and she did it in the name of Jesus. She was someone who lived during the lifetime of the children. She fought for the same things that we had read about in books.
The connection to our religion lessons was powerful. We had discussions on missionaries. The children realized that all martyrs did not live long ago. The Beatitudes became a real life experience that the children understood. I knew that the experience of this unit would stay with the children for the rest of their lives. They became involved when we talked about Sister Dorothy and how we could continue her work here in South Bend, even though we were far away from the rainforests of Brazil.
One of my second graders realized that Sister Dorothy was a teacher of so many values and that, just by learning about the rainforest, we could continue her work. The children dedicated the three weeks of this unit to learning about the rainforest and, through the projects, had experiences that will remain with them for the rest of their lives.
Ana Maria Lewis