A group of Upper Schoolers spent a recent lunch hour sorting essays into piles. “This one’s a no,” said one. “I thought this one had potential,” remarked another. “Maybe yes for this,” said yet a third.
They weren’t playing teacher for a day; these students were volunteering to evaluate essays for the Max Warburg Courage Curriculum, which helps sixth graders recognize and celebrate courage in their own lives through reading, writing, and critical skills development. The nonprofit Courage Curriculum is named for Max Warburg, a sixth grader who succumbed to leukemia in 1991 and who inspired others by his example of courage and resilience in the face of challenges. The curriculum culminates in an essay contest that garners more than 1,000 entries from public, private, charter, and parochial schools in the Boston area and beyond.
It takes a village to read and assess those essays, and that’s where Rivers Upper School students stepped in. For several years, Kit Cunningham, director of service learning, has overseen a group of students who volunteer to screen the essays, choosing one “yes” essay from each classroom that participates. Those top essays in turn are evaluated by another team of volunteers who ultimately choose one as the year’s winner.
Typically, volunteer readers are professional writers, retired educators, librarians, and the like. Rivers, says Cunningham, provides the only group of student volunteers, who bring to the task fresh eyes, enthusiasm, and relatively recent memories of sixth grade.
On the evening of Thursday, February 14, the Courage Curriculum’s program manager, Tess Waters, came to Rivers to train some 15 students for the task of essay-reading. She laid out the judging procedures and emphasized that the contest values content over form – that is, the essays, born from the contestants’ experience, are not judged by the quality of the writing but by the author’s ability to demonstrate his or her understanding of courage.
The 15 student volunteers jumped in on Thursday and were eager to continue the work, so an additional lunchtime judging session was scheduled the following Tuesday. Working in small groups, the students read through piles of essays written by sixth graders from the Josiah Quincy School in Boston, then turned their attention to essays from a sixth grade class at Buckingham Browne & Nichols.
As they read, they continually kept in mind that they were there to recognize courage, not writing skills. “Even if something is well written,” said Rayha McPherson ’20, “we’re not choosing it if the subject matter is kind of generic.” What would constitute a “generic” subject?
“Sports,” said Rachel Mann ’20. “There are a lot of essays about sports.”
More compelling, she said, was “one amazing one about coming out to friends and family when she was really young – like in third or fourth grade.” Jackie Benjes ’20 cited a memorable essay by a boy who had cancer. McPherson had been struck by one about self-harm.
The students sorted essays into “yes,” “no,” and “maybe” piles, then compared notes to come up with a top choice from each class. “The cancer one” had four yesses; the “one about the grandpa,” three maybes. Generally, the students noted, each class had one or two clear standouts, and there was usually agreement about which essay best exemplified courage.
The Rivers students seemed happy to give up a bit of their free time to ponder the essays and the very idea of courage itself. “I like correcting essays,” said Mann. McPherson said the Courage Curriculum “seems like a really good program.” But the experience also offered opportunities for self-reflection. “It’s interesting to see what they say,” said Benjes. “The things they went through, I never went through. It really gives you perspective.”