Grad student’s writing project earns invitation from the White House

Graduate student Sarah Morrissett '95, M.S. '00 and Congressman John Lewis are surrounded with Civil Rights Movement memorabilia in his D.C. office.
August 27, 2013

Research for a graduate class at McDaniel led Sarah Morrissett ’95, M.S. ’00 to a front-row seat as an invited guest of the White House at the Aug. 28 50th anniversary commemoration of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

When Morrissett began researching Ben’s Chili Bowl and the Civil Rights Movement for professor Sharon Craig’s course, “Teaching Informational and Argument Writing with Children’s Literature,” the fifth-grade teacher never guessed that her project would take her on the journey of her dreams.

She has savored chili half-smokes at the world famous Ben’s, a favorite hang-out of Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Bill Cosby, Ella Fitzgerald and other performers playing D.C.’s U Street clubs in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Morrissett sat in the same booths too, that during the riots following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King remained open after curfew by police permission to provide shelter and food to activists and others trying to calm the violence. The restaurant survived ever-changing times and now its fame brings presidents, celebrities and even tourists from around the world.  

Over the nine months – so far – of her inquiry, Morrissett has talked with Congressman John Lewis, the lone surviving speaker from MLK’s 1963 March on Washington, toured the Shaw neighborhood around Ben’s with its leading historian, received phone calls from Bill Cosby’s publicist and Maya Angelou’s office, and last week was invited to be a guest of the President and Mrs. Obama at the Aug. 28 Let Freedom Ring commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the march.

“It is such an honor – I’ll be in front of the Lincoln Memorial to hear John Lewis, one of my heroes, speak,” says Morrissett, who began her 14th year of teaching on Aug. 26. “This entire experience has changed me not only as an educator but as a person.”

At every step – every interview and every resource – Morrissett has included her professor, classmates and most importantly, her students at Carroll County’s Sandymount Elementary School. They clamored for her updates, cheered her successes, critiqued her drafts and learned from her passion and persistence. The graduate class ended in May, but the odyssey continues with last year’s students stopping by at this year’s open house just to check in on the project, and Morrissett, as she thinks of it, still going, believing in “moving my feet while I pray.”

“My students are just as excited about John Lewis as they are about Ray Lewis, and they are learning the difference between hero and celebrity,” Morrissett says.

It began with a professor’s challenge: Choose a topic you are passionate about. Once they choose a topic, Craig mentors her students through the process, through the same experience these classroom teachers will teach to their students. With the goal of drafting a children’s book on their researched topic, the graduate students explore the writing and techniques of mentor authors. In their own classrooms, they create a safe, nurturing writing community that promotes mutual trust, risk taking and feedback among students. They introduce mentor texts to support writing, teaching children how to read like writers and imitate the craft techniques of their favorite authors.

“We want children to learn not just how to write well but to be empowered writers who take readers on a journey, who recreate their experience for readers,” Craig says of the course that is part of McDaniel’s Reading Specialist graduate program. “It begins with authentic inquiry, tapping a child’s intrinsic desire to know and creating a purposeful, compelling context for the child’s learning. Sarah has a gift for that.”

Early in the semester, Morrissett’s fifth graders turned thumbs down on her first draft calling it too long and too boring. She threw it out and started again fresh. That’s when interviews opened up and primary resources, so generous with their time and own experiences, lured her into the authentic adventure that is now taking shape as a children’s book co-authored by George Washington University historian Bernard Demczuk, an expert on Ben’s and the Civil Rights Movement. 

One person led her to another – each with an idea or thought that would enrich her understanding and perspective on a part of history that she has always held close. Some ideas came from unexpected sources. Congressman Lewis’ assistant from the D.C. neighborhood around Ben’s cautioned Morrissett to be sure to include the pride people have in being African-American and in their community.

A Philosophy major as an undergraduate, Morrissett felt in sync with the teachings of Ghandi and Thoreau, and she was raised to never tolerate prejudice of any kind. But the experience, she says, “has grown its own legs and I am just following it.”

Before the end of school – at McDaniel and Sandymount – Morrissett shared her new draft with the fifth-graders who had been so much a part of it as they paralleled Morrissett’s experiences with their own inquiry and writing, learning to paint pictures with words.

“They loved it,” she says, excitement ringing in her voice even three months later. “I discovered a voice I didn’t even know I had through listening and collaborating with my students.”

The new draft is a blended genre that uses techniques such as information boxes, a repeated line, explanatory and creative nonfiction and, her professor notes, a little bit of poetry in firsthand accounts of the Civil Rights Movement. Morrissett uses the symbolic Sankofa bird, which flies forward while looking backward with an egg in its mouth, to highlight a section featuring messages to the future, hoping the Obamas, former D.C. mayor Marion Barry, and Bill Cosby will join Maya Angelou and the other contributors.  

Chances are good too that Morrissett will share the pride she feels standing before the Lincoln Memorial as bells ring around the world – and on the campus of her alma mater – at precisely 3 p.m. ET Aug. 28 exactly 50 years after Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech.

For now, the phone call from the White House has helped her spark excitement in a new class of fifth-graders. She told them that after school their teacher was headed to D.C. to pick up tickets to be a presidential guest at the Let Freedom Ring celebration – and that it was all because of a writing project.