Educator with Lou Gehrig’s wants to takes students on life-changing trip

Apr. 15, 2014 @ 04:48 PM

Vivian Connell’s urgency is real as she works to give her students what she hopes will be a life-changing experience.

In a Facebook post, Connell disclosed that she has ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She likely has three to five years to live, and said she wants those close to her to help her do a few things.
Along with making sure her two children remember her and donating to the Duke ALS Clinic, she wants to do something for her students.
“I want to raise about $15k to take our 32 students at the alternative high school here in Chapel Hill to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum,” she wrote. “Many of them have never even left the area, much less the state, but they are fascinated when we teach about the Holocaust.
“Many of them have also encountered racism and cultural hatred, and a full day at the USHMM would make a permanent positive impact on their lives,” Connell said. “I probably cannot work another year, therefore, it is important to me to make this happen for these young people – ‘my kids.’”
Connell said that the students will leave on a Thursday and watch “Schindler’s List” on the ride to Washington, D.C., have dinner in the nation’s capital and discuss the film. Then while they are at the Holocaust Museum, they will write journal entries about their experiences on each floor.
They also will visit the Lincoln Memorial, Connell said, and tie the injustice and prejudice of the Holocaust to American slavery. They will return on Saturday.
Connell is currently the ESL teacher at Phoenix Academy but previously taught English II at Providence High School in Charlotte. In 2010, Connell went to law school and has been active in education policy since.
“I went to law school because nobody listens to teachers,” Connell said. “I wanted to help shape education policy to make a larger difference.”
Connell was on a panel at the N.C. Emerging Issues Forum and has written several op-ed pieces on education. She has been praised by education historian and research professor of education Diane Ravitch for her work as “a champion of children” and a “champion for democracy.”
In her blog, Ravitch said that she is in awe of Connell’s “spirit, her courage, her determination to make a difference and to help others.”
Before her diagnosis, Connell said that she wanted to provide this end-of-the-year trip to her students. After finding out she had ALS, Connell said, “I was just determined that they would get this experience.”
“It’s tangible, it’s discrete, it’s a single trip to represent my desire as a teacher and to empower people to take part in democracy and to advocate for liberty and justice for all by admitting we don’t have it and encouraging people to fight for it” Connell said.
In her post, Connell said that this trip will be her last major act as a teacher.
A former Belfer Teaching Fellow at the Holocaust Museum, Connell said that she is uniquely qualified to prepare students to get the most from the trip and to train chaperones.
Connell said that her interdisciplinary approach to teaching the Holocaust includes reading Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” watching the film “Life is Beautiful,” historical background information and supplemental historical pieces.
Also, part of the lesson on the Holocaust is “Writing Wrongs: Student Voices for Justice,” an anthology of student voices through art, poems and essays on their own experiences with injustice and those of Holocaust victims.
“I want them to see two things: one, that prejudice, bias and inequality have been a part of our society throughout history, that they’re not the first people to experience it,” Connell said. “I also want them to see how the failure of the Jews and of all the people who were not opponents to speak up, to fight back enabled the Holocaust to occur.
“I want to empower their voices,” she said.

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