Alison Morse: ‘Paper Clips’ a profound educational lesson

Published: 4/20/2019 12:20:13 AM
Modified: 4/20/2019 12:20:00 AM

Connection is at the heart of a quality education. I felt it again the other day after screening the film “Paper Clips” for fifth- and sixth-grade students in an after-school program.

“Paper Clips” is a documentary detailing the 1998 Whitwell, Tennessee middle-school project that expanded into the creation of a monument to the Holocaust. Millions of paper clips were collected, each representing the life of one person slaughtered by the Nazis.

Ultimately, the collection was preserved in a railroad cattle car used to transport Jews to death camps. The middle school principal wanted to teach about diversity and empathy in her small town of 1,600 mostly-white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant residents.

As the optional middle school program unfolded, one student noted they couldn’t imagine a number as large as 6 million. That’s when they decided to collect 6 million objects. Student research revealed that the paper clip, invented in Norway, was worn by Norwegians, as a sign of solidarity with Jews, during the Nazi occupation of their country. And so the paper clip project evolved.

After viewing the film there was varying student responses including: sadness about this dark time in history, delight that good people were doing good work and a feeling of inspiration animated by a community project that took hold across the world. We found connection in our mutual desire to create or continue our own community service projects.

The sense of awe regarding Whitwell’s venture was palpable among us. Empathy. Diversity. Connection. Taking a stand. How do we teach these concepts? Organizations like Facing History and Ourselves offer educator resources to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice, and anti-Semitism. It is an excellent resource, as is the film “Paper Clips.”

Mediation and restorative justice, two methods of conflict transformation offer non-adversarial methods for defining issues to reach mutually acceptable outcomes. The time to bring about a more sane world with resources that connect us is imperative now — and always. Education is our tool of choice to effect this change.

Alison Morse



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