Caren Stelson



for all

Sachiko in Belize

writ­ten by Lonni Skrentner with Ayoni Esquilano

Caren: I’ve always admired my friend and col­league Lonni Skrenter and have relied on her exper­tise as an exem­plar high school his­to­ry teacher. Lonni has wide edu­ca­tion­al expe­ri­ence, but most­ly I know Lonni from her teach­ing days at Edina High School in Edina, Minnesota, an upper-middle class com­mu­ni­ty with a high­ly regard­ed school sys­tem. When Lonni told me she spent her retire­ment win­ters in Belize, Central America, teach­ing, I had an idea. With a grant from Dr. Walter Enloe at Hamline University’s School of Education, I glad­ly sent Lonni a dozen copies of Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story to sup­port her work. “Tell me what hap­pens,” I said, imag­ing a mod­est school with eager 8th graders under her tute­lage. The descrip­tion Lonni sent back was eye-opening. Here’s Lonni’s expe­ri­ence in her own words.

* * *

This is the sev­enth win­ter I have vol­un­teered at Holy Cross Anglican School on Ambergris Caye in Belize, Central America. Life is filled with serendip­i­ty, and this is one of those stories.


As a retired edu­ca­tor, I was anx­ious to “give back” to my new com­mu­ni­ty. I didn’t have to search. I hap­pen to know the chair of the foun­da­tion board that sup­ports Holy Cross Anglican School. He approached me, ask­ing that I “do some­thing” to lead their stu­dents toward “high­er edu­ca­tion” … in this coun­try mean­ing high school and maybe com­mu­ni­ty col­lege. It turned out he was ask­ing me to vol­un­teer in one of the poor­est schools on the island. Even their best stu­dents were hav­ing trou­ble with the British style Primary School Exam. The Language Arts sec­tion includes writ­ing a let­ter (not too hard) and writ­ing a short sto­ry! A short sto­ry … in 50 min­utes based on one of four prompts stu­dents have nev­er seen!

It didn’t take me long to fig­ure out that stu­dents real­ly didn’t under­stand what a “sto­ry” was. Over the years, I’ve tried short sto­ry units, “recipes” for writ­ing a short sto­ry with grad­ed feed­back. It took me awhile to real­ize that the basic prob­lem was a lack of inde­pen­dent read­ing skills. In a poor school with few resources, they read in groups, often with the teacher read­ing aloud. Their com­pre­hen­sion in that sit­u­a­tion is “fair to middling.”

When it came to the exam, where they had to read silent­ly to them­selves … they couldn’t do it. So … I came to the con­clu­sion that what we need­ed to do was read whole books—books at a grade lev­el, allow­ing the stu­dents to strug­gle on their own … ask them to cre­ate how and why ques­tions for their class­mates and teacher (me). The pri­ma­ry goal was sim­ple … increase their inde­pen­dent read­ing skills so they could com­pre­hend all the direc­tions and para­graphs on the exit exam! I also, pie in the sky, want­ed them to learn to love read­ing, and expand their hori­zons beyond the island many of them have nev­er left.

bk_sachiko_220px-6054150Second piece of serendip­i­ty. I had been a proof­read­er for Caren Stelson dur­ing the pub­lish­ing of Sachiko, after work­ing with her on the Hiroshima Exhibit at the St. Paul Landmark Center. The book seemed per­fect … one main char­ac­ter and a clear sto­ry line. It was designed for mid­dle school. I could acquire some books through grant mon­ey from Dr. Walter Enloe, and I bought the rest as a dona­tion to the school … brought them down in an extra suit­case in January 2018.

The book was per­fect! The fact that each stu­dent got to sign one out and take it home was spe­cial to them. It grabbed stu­dents atten­tion and kept it. Though they strug­gled a bit with vocab­u­lary, they all, when asked, rat­ed the book high­ly. Only a few stu­dents said it was “just too hard” for them to read. The gray pages on WWII turned out to be absolute­ly crit­i­cal. Although Belize helped the UK patrol the Caribbean dur­ing the war, there is noth­ing in stu­dents’ study regard­ing the war. Reading those pages gen­er­at­ed most of the ques­tions which seemed to be about fill­ing gaps in stu­dents’ fac­tu­al knowl­edge. Other ques­tions focused on Japanese cul­ture, which was anoth­er learn­ing expe­ri­ence. Several stu­dents have asked me to bring more copies of the book so they can buy their per­son­al copy!

I devel­oped a basic dai­ly plan—open with stu­dent ques­tions, open­ing them to stu­dent and teacher answers. Their reg­u­lar teacher was my “side­kick,” often ask­ing ques­tions and help­ing stu­dents to under­stand. At first I wasn’t check­ing their homework—bad move! Like typ­i­cal eighth graders they weren’t writ­ing it! From the third class on, I start­ed by walk­ing around the room with a class list, giv­ing them checks, check plus­es, and minus­es. Their exam requires them to use sim­i­les, metaphors, and active verbs and adjec­tives. Caren’s book is filled with exam­ples; it became part of their home­work to make a list, along with phras­ing how and why questions.

Students wrote some of their exam­ples on the board, and we ana­lyzed them. The first sec­tion I used Sachiko’s ques­tions on the last page as the basis for an essay assess­ment. What is peace? How do we, as indi­vid­u­als, help to bring about peace? Reading the essays was painful. It was some­thing stu­dents had not been asked to do before … and I thought it would be eas­i­er than try­ing to turn all or part of Sachiko into a short sto­ry! Although stu­dent essays were poor, they had some insights that warmed my heart, espe­cial­ly about peace. “You may say I’m a dream­er but I’m not the only per­son who dreams.” (Suseli Lopez) Considering the gaps in cul­ture and gen­er­a­tions, I doubt this young woman had John Lennon’s “Imagine” in mind, but the rest of the song quick­ly appeared in my mind as I read her paper. The idea that we must dream in order to tru­ly work on world peace had depth of thought.

Teacher Ayoni Esquilano with Lonni Skretner
Lonni’s 8th grade stu­dents avail­able for a photo.

Another thought vir­tu­al­ly smacked me in the face. In writ­ing about what caus­es war, one stu­dent stat­ed “they do not know what is peace and have not expe­ri­ence (sic) peace.” (Amtzi Pacheco) I real­ized that those stu­dents who desire and work for peace are work­ing in a world that has nev­er been with­out war … Although Belize is a third world coun­try that has nev­er expe­ri­enced true war, they have cable TV. So like those of us in the US, they are con­front­ed dai­ly with pic­tures from Syria and Afghanistan.

We had dis­cussed in class the whole idea of defin­ing peace. We had decid­ed that it is more than the absence of war. One stu­dent end­ed his def­i­n­i­tion with a pow­er­ful metaphor. “Peace is lis­ten­ing and under­stand­ing oth­er peo­ple to pre­vent war and live in har­mo­ny. Without peace the sky would grow dark with hate.” (Yovanny Campos)

Another stu­dent end­ed her essay with a pow­er­ful thought. “Our World is a gift.” (Alinie August)

Because the essays were poor and because they have to write a short sto­ry for the exit exam, I end­ed the sec­ond sec­tion with a dif­fer­ent assess­ment. Turn Sachiko into a short sto­ry, using orig­i­nal metaphors/similes or ones from your list. I allowed them to use their note­books for the assess­ment but not the book. In class we dis­cussed and out­lined plot and char­ac­ter. We had a long dis­cus­sion on what you would con­sid­er the cli­max of the book. A lot of stu­dents want­ed to make it the drop­ping of the bomb, but a long dis­cus­sion allowed every­one to con­clude that the bomb was more of an intro­duc­tion or hook to get you into Sachiko’s sto­ry. In the end the stu­dents decid­ed that it was Sachiko’s deci­sion to tell her sto­ry in pub­lic, and I basi­cal­ly agreed with them. I’m not at all sure this was a bet­ter assess­ment. A cou­ple of stu­dents proved they had nei­ther read the book nor paid atten­tion to class dis­cus­sion as they filled their sto­ries with fabrications!

bk_out_of_my_mind-5962677This was the first time that any­one tried this with the stu­dents in this school, and we achieved some of our goals. Students increased their abil­i­ty to inte­grate sim­i­les and metaphors into their writ­ing. Students’ vocab­u­lar­ies increased. It appeared stu­dents were more inter­est­ed in the cre­ative aspects of gram­mar. The teach­ers, prin­ci­pal, and I still believe that the best way to inde­pen­dent read­ing with com­pre­hen­sion is through books that will grab stu­dent inter­est, while increas­ing their vocab­u­lary and com­pre­hen­sion. We’ve already cho­sen a sec­ond book, Sharon Draper’s Out of my Mind, to use with Standard V. I’ve writ­ten les­son plans for both books which teach­ers can use, mod­i­fy etc. The prin­ci­pal, Mr. Griffith, and I met with all upper lev­el teach­ers, and there was high “buy in” for the project. I will con­tin­ue to search for high inter­est books that will both grab stu­dents’ inter­est and broad­en their view of the world. Our goal is to have two books (with class­room sets) for Standards IV, V, and VI by the time we are done.

Typical class­room at Holy Cross Anglican School on Ambergris Caye in Belize,

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