“The Gander Project”: How a Musical Led Texas Students to Write Letters to NL

After learning of Gander’s response to 9/11, Leen Zayed and Maria Arenas wrote letters to the city in Madison Hughes’ English to Speakers of Other Languages ​​class. (Kirby Clarke)

When eighth-grade student Leen Zayed learned how residents of the town of Gander, in central Newfoundland, greeted thousands of air passengers stranded during 9/11, she thought it was a bit “weird” at first.

“They didn’t know them or they [weren’t] like their cousin or whatever. And they just acted like their friends and family, and they helped them as much as they could, “Zayed said.” It was just a very surprising and amazing thing they did. “

Originally from Jordan, Zayed learned of Gander’s response to 9/11 in his English to Speakers of Other Languages ​​class in Katy, Texas.

Zayed’s teacher Madison Hughes was inspired to teach the subject after seeing a performance of the Broadway musical Come from afar, whose creators wrote songs based on the experiences of stranded passengers and Newfoundlanders who cared for them following the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. Thirty-eight planes were diverted to Gander when US airspace quickly closed that day.

Another teacher from Texas, Megan Croes, said Hughes had always been a big fan of Broadway.

“For a really long time, I gave him a hard time on this,” Croes said.

But once Hughes convinced Croes to try the musical, Croes got hooked on everything. Come from afar. And now, for the third year in a row, the duo are teaming up to highlight how Gander fed, housed and trusted thousands of foreigners after 9/11 for their junior high school classes in Texas.

Among themselves, they call it “the Gander project”.

Students from all over the world learn English in Hughes’ classroom. With nine different countries represented this year, including students from Venezuela, Colombia, Finland and China, Hughes called his class a “mini-Gander.” Croes, meanwhile, mainly teaches students from Mexico.

Texas high school teachers Megan Croes and Madison Hughes teach “Project Gander” to their classes of new English learners. (Kirby Clarke)

When teachers begin teaching “The Gander Project,” they begin by presenting 9/11 as a history lesson, in and of itself, before continuing on to Gander’s response. At the end of the day, their students are asked to write a personal letter to the people of Gander.

Hughes said that because many of his students were not born in the United States, they often relate to the “people on the plane” who suddenly found themselves grounded at Gander International Airport.

“A lot of my kids remember that first day on American soil when they too were dropped off somewhere where they didn’t speak the language. They didn’t know what people were saying to them. They know that feeling,” he said. he added. said Hugues.

“And so they really pour out with these letters because it’s almost like the kids are there. And they know what it feels like to be greeted by someone, to be seen by someone.”

A student from Texas holds his letter to the people of Gander. (Kirby Clarke)

In her letter last year, Zayed said she “tried to say thank you in the most meaningful way possible”, using the English vocabulary she had at the time.

“I hope no one will forget this story, no matter how old they are,” Zayed wrote in his letter to Gander.

Eighth-grade student Maria Arenas, who first moved to Texas from Colombia, also wrote a letter to Hughes’ class.

“What I can understand from this beautiful story is that I know how the people on the plane felt, because I was once [someone] who did not understand a single word of English, ”reads Arenas’ letter.

Teach the universal language of kindness

When teaching “Project Gander,” Hughes and Croes say their primary hope is that their students remember the kindness revealed during those five days in Gander and other communities in Newfoundland and Labrador. And with around 95 languages ​​circulating among the passengers on the plane, teachers are also focusing on how that cuteness transcended significant language barriers.

“[The people of Gander] were able to show these people by actions and gestures and words that you know, you are welcome here, you are safe here, “said Hughes.” And so when these kids hear this story, they are realize that cuteness is not just words in a certain language. It helps anyone. “

In recent years, Croes said his students even started to be more compassionate towards each other after hearing about Gander.

“It really changed the dynamics of my classroom culture,” said Croes. “I mean, all of a sudden my students are quoting, you know, ‘Well, what would the people of Gander do? “If maybe someone wasn’t the nicest in the class.”

With students from nine different countries in her course from English to Speakers of Other Languages, teacher Madison Hughes calls her class a “mini-Gander.” (Kirby Clarke)

These days, what started out as a simple classroom activity for Hughes and Croes has snowballed far beyond what teachers imagined. In the pre-Covid era, executive producers of Come from afar invited their students to a show in Houston. Captain Beverley Bass and former Gander Mayor Claude Elliott, now famous as characters in Come from afar—visited Hughes’ class. Journalists and documentary filmmakers have also all chronicled “Project Gander”.

But in the end, the two teachers said that the students themselves are leading the project.

“They are so engaged,” said Hughes.

“When we send the letters, you know, they scream in excitement, ‘Oh my God, it’s about time! ”Said Hughes. “They really take this project upon themselves, and they’re so proud – so excited – to be a part of it.”

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