“This stuff, this work, isn’t just for grown-ups. It’s for us to do.” – Grade Four Student

Earlier this year, I received an email from Liz Raja, a fourth grade teacher at Halton Hills Christian School (HHCS) in Ontario, Canada. Mrs. Raja informed me that her students intended to write a book based on one of the Pennies for Peace lesson plans, “More Alike Than Unalike.”

I was anxious to read the book, so I was thrilled when a package arrived in June with two copies of “The Dream that Changed Everything”. The charming book was written, illustrated, and published by grade four students at HHCS.

“The book takes on the difficult topic of equal access to education for children around the world. In it, readers meet Emily and Amena. They live in different countries, have different lives, and even speak different languages. But under all of that, they are the same – children who want to learn and go to school.” said Mrs. Raja. “The grade fours produced this book as a way to help make equal access to education more possible.”

The students sold their book a local farmer’s market to raise money for Pennies for Peace, where they were met with overwhelming support. “Customers were so impressed with my students’ ability to articulate their concerns” Mrs. Raja shared. “Never again will I underestimate the power and conviction of young minds. Social justice has gripped our classroom and I am grateful for the growth and learning it brought to my students!”

Mrs. Raja’s class read “The Breadwinner” by Canadian author Deborah Ellis, earlier in the year. “The students were enthralled by the setting, culture, and traditions. Many days we would only read 2-3 pages because they had so many questions. We are a Christian school and so many of the students had questions about what it was like to be a Muslim. But overall, my class was struck by the great inequality between the genders and they had never seen education as a privilege. Now they know that education is the single-most empowering and life-changing element of a person’s life – and it opens many opportunities for them.” Mrs. Raja, didn’t stop there she used the Pennies for Peace lesson plans as her foundation.

“The project bloomed from there. The lesson plans gave the children a framework to better understand the issues surrounding equal access to education. The class learned about perspective-taking, which I believe is a life skill that will equip them with compassion and a sense of justice as they continue to grow and learn about the world around them.”

Mrs. Raja also used the Pennies for Peace videos. “Students first watched the video of various girls and their morning routines. The class could immediately point out all of the differences between ‘them and us.’ Then they were encouraged to watch the video a second time, and to focus on what makes us the same. They were quite astute at pointing out the similarities: she laughs with her family, they eat breakfast together, she has chores, she has friends she looks forward to seeing. And all of a sudden, the class moved from being different from these girls, to developing a partnership of sorts: A team of children just trying to figure out what it means to grow up regardless of place, culture, religion, etc.  My students left the fourth grade understanding that when it comes to people near or far, we are more alike than we are different. What a powerful sentiment!” said Mrs. Raja.

Mrs. Raja use her project-based learning block for the Pennies for Peace project. The students decided that their project would be based on the question: “How can we, as global citizens, advocate for equal access to education?” The idea to write and publish a book was born from that question. “Their ultimate goal was two-fold,” said Mrs. Raja, “to sell books to raise enough money to buy supplies so that 200 girls could go to school for one year, and to make sure that the book ended up in the hands of girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan, so they would know how important they are.”

Mrs. Raja’s students also worked together to determine the best way to sell their book. It was decided that they would sell the book at a local farmer’s market. The students designed a stall, props, and made a schedule for the day. They talked about how to interact with adults and answer their questions about Pennies for Peace. “We knew that some people may not like our book, thinking our time would, have been better spent on something closer to home, something Canadian,” said Mrs. Raja. But as my one student said, ‘For every no, we get closer to a yes. And a yes has the power to send a girl to school.’ This is powerful learning!”

When asked what she felt was the most important aspect of the program, Mrs. Raja said, “Philanthropy – or service as we call it at HHCS. To look out for the interests of others. To go outside of yourself and see the world more objectively. To not only see injustices in the world but also do something. One of my students wrote in his journal, ‘I feel empowered because I didn’t know that I could help send a girl to school. I’m only in Grade Four, but I can make the world better too.’  Another said, ‘This stuff, this work, isn’t just for grown-ups. It’s for us to do.’ My students learned valuable life-skills because of this program. They learned to put others first, to take a stand and advocate for something bigger than yourself, to recognize that our similarities can draw us together, to be culturally sensitive, and to make goals and work towards reaching them.” But let them tell you in their own words:

“1 girl, 1 neighbor, 1 village, a city, a country, the world.  See what one small thing can do?  See what joy education can bring?  This is the work of Pennies for Peace.”  – Grade Four Students, HHCS

By Alanna Brown, Pennies for Peace Manager

Note: “The Dream that Changed Everything” has sold over 125 copies in English, and is being published in Pashto and Urdu for students in Pakistan and Afghanistan. If you would like to purchase a copy please email Mrs. Raja at l.raja@hh-cs.org.