Shaler Middle school students launch ‘Souls of Shaler Area’ blog |

Shaler Middle school students launch ‘Souls of Shaler Area’ blog

Tom Gray

Brenda Barner and her students initiated a project that reiterates a theme found within Harper’s Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” — a book Barner assigns her Shaler Area Middle School eighth-graders.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” the character Atticus Finch says.

Barner and her students have launched the “Souls of Shaler Area” blog, which aims to give viewers a better understanding of others by showcasing the common human experience.

Inspired by the “Humans of New York” series, the blog features photos of Shaler Area Middle School employees along with their names, titles and quotes about their lives.

For instance, social studies teacher Tom Gray’s post displays his quote: “My role models would have to be my grandfathers; they were war heroes. Because I had a love for history, I was always fascinated by them and the stories they would tell me.”

The students got the chance to explore things that they may have never known about.

“I learned that there can be many different sides along with traits a person possesses that few know of because maybe they didn’t make the time to ask,” said Lexi Hillwig, 14.

Connor Newlin, 14, learned from interviewing math teacher Abigale May that “everyone has a complex life, even if you don’t know about it. A lot of people should learn this about others.”

Barner provided the students with sample questions she found online focusing on subjects’ childhoods, interesting anecdotes, advice for others and hopes for the future. She also gave them permission to include their own questions, but taught them to ask questions garnering open-ended responses.

Anna Sholties, 13, asked French teacher Sharon Isherwood about “her childhood, good and bad memories and if there were any events in her life that really affected her.” In turn, Isherwood spoke about the grief she experiences from her parents’ deaths.

After each student finished his or her interviews, he or she had to choose a single quote to post online.

“They have to figure out, ‘what small part of this can I take out and put onto the blog that will sound like a human experience that everyone can relate to?’” Barner said.

World and classical languages instructor Andrew Koller’s response to the question “Did you have any heroes or role models as a child?” explains “what kind of person he was,” Jonathan Zang, 14, said, noting that he did not struggle with choosing one quote to use.

If Barner did not agree with a student’s quote, she would try to steer him or her in a different direction by questioning the choice or showing him or her the blog, again.

“Sometimes, they had to go back and reinterview a person a second time. I think that is when the real learning happened,” she said.

“I think it’s a great project to teach them how to interview people, be personable, how to write and how to communicate. It gives them a lot more skills than just, say, reading a novel and taking a test on it.”

Barner hopes to continue the project, with it eventually expanding to include community members and becoming totally student-run.

To view “Souls of Shaler Area,” visit

Erica Cebzanov is a Tribune-Review contributor.

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