Last summer, Cynthia Paces, associate professor of history, co-taught a course that was offered as part of an on-campus summer symposium for academically gifted students from Fisher Middle School. The class, Children and War, examined the difficulties faced by children living in war-torn areas such as Bosnia, Darfur, the Congo, and India.
To bring these children’s experiences to life, Paces had the students read Zlata’s Diary, which was written by a teenage girl living in Sarajevo while the city was under siege during the Yugoslav war in the 1990s. The students also made films and wrote extensively about their research. Trips to the Kidsbridge Museum (on TCNJ’s campus) and the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia were also a part of the class’s experience.
While it’s easy to surmise that the lessons Paces taught made an impression on the middle-schoolers, it is clearly evident that those students made an impression on Paces. “They were very caring about the plight of children in other places, and their desire to really understand other parts of the world has been really inspiring,” Paces explained.
The success of the program prompted Paces and her symposium co-teacher, Suzanne Gallagher from Fisher Middle School, to continue their partnership into the fall. Last semester, students in Paces’ freshman seminar class, What Happened to Yugoslavia?, worked with Gallagher’s students. The two groups met throughout the semester and discussed Zlata’s Diary. They also planned and hosted fundraisers, the proceeds from which were used to purchase school supplies for children living in a Bosnian orphanage. The orphanage attempts to help Bosnian children improve their English skills; therefore, Paces’ students and those from Fisher also sent their biographies, written in English, to the orphans as a way to help them practice their language skills. Paces’ student assistant, Laura Janssen ’10, who had volunteered at the orphanage in the past, brought the supplies there in December.
As a final project for the class, Paces’ students created an exhibit about the issues of tolerance and the children of war in Bosnia. It will eventually be housed in the Kidsbridge Museum, Paces said.
The collaboration Paces witnessed between her freshman seminar students and the students from Fisher has encouraged her to find new ways in which she can teach her classes to reach out and touch other parts of the world, she said.
“[It] has been exciting to know that [my students] want to take what they are learning…and actually say, ‘Okay let’s reach out and make a difference,’” Paces said.
Paces, whose area of specialization is modern Central Europe, has traveled to Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia. She said those trips have shown her what it means to go beyond the classroom, and she encourages her students to do the same, explaining that it is better to learn through experience than through a textbook.
“I’ve always had a drive to make what I teach meaningful outside of the classroom,” Paces said, adding, “I think what this project helped me do [was] to show that even if you’re taking a history course, you can actually do something concrete in the world today.”