Kathy DeBona’s Students Take Action and Give Back

A Newsela article sparked an experience that showed my students the power of words, changed another teacher’s life, and was a highlight of my career.

One day, my fifth graders read a Newsela article called “High-fives for 3-D hands”, which is about a boy who has a prosthetic hand made by Dr. Albert Chi at Johns Hopkins Hospital using a 3-D printer.

As we discussed the article, I reminded my students that their fourth-grade teacher, Patti Anderson, lost her hand in an accident when she was a teenager. My students immediately began talking about writing to Dr. Chi. Every single kid wanted to help Ms. Anderson get a new hand.

With Ms. Anderson’s permission, we wrote letters to Dr. Chi asking if he would make a hand for her. A few weeks later, the doctor’s office called the school and confirmed that he would. I went upstairs to her classroom, crying.

“He’s going to do it!”

“Who’s going to do what?” she asked.

“Dr. Chi is going to make you a hand.”

Ms. Anderson and Dr. Chi traded photos and measurements, and soon, the hand was ready. We all loaded into a bus and drove from Allentown, PA, to Baltimore, MD. Dr. Chi greeted us at the hospital and led us on an incredible tour. Kids tried out all kinds of prosthetic hands and interacted with a lifelike body used to train doctors.

Dr. Chi also told us the inspiring story of how he became a doctor. When he was in college majoring in biomedical engineering, he crashed his motorcycle and almost lost part of his right leg. Dedicated doctors were able to rebuild his leg using muscles from other parts of his body, and Dr. Chi went on to run a marathon and climb Machu Picchu. He realized the power of medicine and decided to pursue a career as a doctor. It took him a few attempts to get into medical school, and now, he is a nationally renowned pioneer in prosthetics. In my opinion, there is no better role model for the power of perseverance and passion.

Finally, the moment arrived when Dr. Chi presented Ms. Anderson with her new prosthetic hand. Dr. Chi’s wife had painted it in zebra stripes as Ms. Anderson requested. It was a very emotional experience for Ms. Anderson. She was used to relying on all kinds of adaptations just to live her daily life, and all of a sudden, she had a usable hand again.

After the long bus ride home, the class made Dr. Chi a thank-you card that was zebra-patterned on the outside and featured two clasped hands inside. They were so touched by the entire experience.

Newsela engages my students in thinking about all kinds of topics. They are particularly interested in issues that relate directly to their lives, most recently in an article about the fact that some kids don’t join school sports teams because of the extra costs (“Can’t pay? Can’t play. Poor families can’t afford to have kids play sports”).

Since our trip to meet Dr. Chi, my students have written to the new governor of Pennsylvania and a state legislator, inviting them to visit our classroom and learn what day-to-day life is like in schools today. My students have a sense of possibility now. They have seen that their letters can make great things happen. And they know that words matter.

Kathy DeBona is a fifth-grade teacher at Western Salisbury Elementary School in a small suburb of Allentown, PA. She has taught for 17 years at the school. Two filmmakers accompanied the class to Johns Hopkins, and you can experience the trip by watching the short film “The Robot and the Hand” . You can also learn more about the trip by reading this article in the local paper.

Newsela: In the Classroom and Beyond from NewSchools Venture Fund