Things typically wind down in the last days of school, but not for the kids in Anne Cirelli's language arts class. Last week they were busy bees, designing patterns, cutting brightly colored fabric, ironing and sewing to create a 3- by 6-foot panel that will become part of the NAMES Project Foundation National AIDS Memorial Quilt to honor Florida teens who have died from the disease.
The sewing project that features a bright green cut-out of the state of Florida with a big red heart at its center wasn't in Cirelli's original lesson plan. This was a spur-of-the moment effort propelled by an autobiography written by Ryan White that reached into the hearts of her students — particularly Braxton Mora, 13. After learning about the quilt and how various portions of the larger project travel to communities throughout the country, he thought Hudson Middle students should pitch in.
"I wanted to do something," said Braxton, "I thought it (the quilt) was kind of cool."
All 21 students in Cirelli's first-period language arts class read My Own Story by White, a teen from Kokomo, Ind., who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984 at the age of 13 due to blood transfusions required to treat hemophilia.
White became a national poster child for AIDS-related discrimination after being expelled from middle school because of the fear the disease induced. Along with his mother, his efforts brought to light the fact that AIDS cuts across all demographics, including age.
White's story was a worthwhile read, Cirelli said, "because of the need for character education on bullying, which has been in the news so much lately."
The first-person narrative was effective in getting right to White's thoughts and feelings about the bullying and discrimination he was experiencing, and tied in with the class' human growth and development unit in science, she said. "I knew they could relate to Ryan because at the time of his diagnosis, he was their age and was a kid just like them."
"It was so inspiring — happy in some parts because you got to hear about his life and how other people were inspired by him," said Alyssa Bacon, 13. "He understood why people bullied him because they didn't understand the disease.''
Lessons went beyond the book as students learned about hemophilia and the lawsuits waged against the school district just so White could attend school. They read newspaper articles from the 1980s about the struggles of the three Ray brothers of Arcadia, who had also been diagnosed with AIDS and became activists after their home was burned down. The class listened to a National Public Radio interview with Jeanne White, Ryan's mother, and heard his favorite songs that were played at his funeral. There were discussions on current HIV-AIDS medications and the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program.
And finally, the kids put their sewing skills to the test with materials purchased by Cirelli and sewing supplies donated by family and consumer science teacher Robin Berube. By summer's end, Cirelli should receive notification of the panel's inclusion so students can track the quilt's travels.
"All in all, I think the students came away with a sense of the importance of treating others with respect and dignity, no matter their race, religion, gender, social class, sexual orientation, or health status," Cirelli said. "They read firsthand how bullying can affect one's self-esteem and just how deeply it can cut, especially in kids."