Across Rebecca Roberts’ whiteboard, thread fashioned to look like black barbed wire is strung across photographs of the Holocaust and World War II and a map with locations pinned to show the location of concentration camps. Her children are reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Prisoner B-3087.
In Nazi Germany, people with physical deformities were summarily executed. They were considered a useless financial burden on the State, and an impediment to breeding the purest European racial stock.
“Prisoner B-3087 is based on a true story,” Roberts said. “The guy’s still alive. It’s his story of what he went through when he was the same age as these kids.”
On the map, they are tracking where the Jewish boy is going, by train to camp after camp.
Roberts’ family vacationed in Florida in January and visited the Holocaust Memorial in St. Petersburg. She shared pictures with her students.
“You have to be careful,” Roberts said. “There are a lot of things you can’t show them, just because they’re not quite mature enough to handle it.”
In one of the black-and-white photographs, a metal sign at the entrance to one of the concentration camps reads Arbeit Macht Frei, German for Work Makes You Free. Roberts has discussed this lie with her students.
“Carter Sinclair went to a concentration camp when he was very young,” Roberts said of the youngest son of State Senator Amy Sinclair and elementary principal Boyd Sinclair. “He’s only a fifth grader, and he came in and talked to the sixth graders—just hearing from someone who’s seen it….”
It is appropriate this subject—the Holocaust—follows the assignment for Wayne Elementary School’s 38 sixth graders to read the novel Wonder, a fictional account of a boy who struggles through physical pain and social stigma to integrate into a normal school, and in so doing demonstrates to classmates a deeper understanding of personal worth.
Though Roberts has been teaching for 21 years, this is her first year as reading teacher for fifth and sixth graders in Corydon. Right out of Graceland University, she was hired as the junior high reading teacher, a position she filled until 2017.
“It was an accident,” Roberts said. “When I decided on Wonder for my kids, I was looking online and there was a Facebook group just for teachers teaching the book. I joined it and got a lot of neat ideas from them.
“Jonathan Siebert posted on it, and said it was his mission to speak to a class in all the states. He didn’t have Iowa, so I volunteered to be the Iowa classroom.”
Roberts had spoken with Bill Gode of the Wayne Theatre, therefore she knew the movie Wonder was coming to Wayne County for a weekend. She assigned her sixth graders to read the book.
“I wanted to do that as a special thing for the kids, so they could see it,” Roberts said.
By coincidence, before she knew they would make a movie, she had already read Wonder. Her husband’s aunt, Donna Niday, is an education professor at Iowa State University.
“It was one of the books Donna had given me at Christmas,” Rebecca said. “I had read it, and already knew I wanted to do it with the kids. I already had it planned and started before I knew they had a movie coming. It just happened to all work perfect. We read the book, watched the movie, and then got to talk to Jonathan Siebert—it made the whole thing really cool. The kids got a lot out of it.
“Jonathan has Apert Syndrome. The boy in Wonder had Treacher Collins Syndrome, but they’re similar. Jonathan had 27 surgeries by the time he went to school.
“The book wasn’t written about him, because it wasn’t based on an actual person. Jonathan has similar facial deformities as that character. He even met the movie cast.”
On Feb. 15, using FaceTime technology, Wayne’s sixth graders were able to speak with Siebert by instantaneous video feed.
“He told the story of how he was treated in school and information about his disability, and then the kids were allowed to ask questions,” Roberts said. “Just listening to his story was pretty amazing—how somebody could go through all that, and graduate from school, and now he’s taking college classes.
“Then, Cooper Anderson asked him if he’d been bullied physically, because Jonathan talked about how he’d been bullied.”
Cooper is the son of Ben Anderson and fellow elementary school teacher Adriann Warren Anderson.
“Jonathan said, ‘Yes,’” explained Roberts. “The look on Cooper’s face—he was crushed for that guy. He said, ‘I’m really sorry about that.’
“That was our discussion point after we were done talking to Jonathan, because that doesn’t go on here. Until they hear somebody say it, I don’t think they truly understand what could happen in bigger schools. That really hit home with them.
“It’s one of those days I won’t ever forget. Because it’s rare the kids get the point you’re truly trying to make. And then we had a really good conversation afterward about what it would be like going to a bigger school and how you would be treated there, and how you would be treated here.
“They said, ‘Small communities—we just accept people as part of our family.’ And they really do.
“I think they got it—they’re lucky they live in Wayne County and in a small town that takes care of its own.
“And then the kids all wrote Jonathan ‘thank you’ cards—they wrote some really good ones.”
Capturing Kids’ Hearts
Roberts believes the treatment of students like Jonathan in the Wayne school system has improved since she was a student.
“The way special ed is set up is different than when we went to school,” Roberts said. “And I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, because it does, but we have more kids that stand up and say something if they don’t agree.
“The way special ed was set up, they were separated from the rest of us much of the time. Now, it’s not that way. That helps with the kids accepting others.
“I credit Capturing Kids’ Hearts training, because all of our employees have been trained in that. That’s made a huge difference, and we pass those beliefs down to our kids.
“Mr. Daughton was in the very first group that went in 2001 to learn about Capturing Kids’ Hearts. I was one of the first. Sometimes school districts try programs and then they go by the wayside, but once we started, we never let it drop. We have refreshers all the time.”
Dave Daughton, now superintendent, was the biology teacher when Roberts attended Wayne. Along with her junior high science teacher Kenton White, they were two of her biggest influences.
“Because you respected them as a teacher, and therefore you paid attention,” Roberts said. “They just had a way of teaching that I still remember stuff they taught. We had a lot of good teachers, but those are two who stick out.
“New people that start working at our school, they’re trained,” Roberts said of Capturing Kids’ Hearts. “It’s one of the first things they learn.
“Capturing Kids’ Hearts’ philosophy is, in order to have their mind, you have to have their heart, first. It’s all about building relationships with the students, with the staff. We create a safe environment where the kids feel they can speak their mind. They’re comfortable here.
“We have four questions we ask kids who are misbehaving. What are you doing? What are you supposed to be doing? Are you doing it? What’s going to happen the next time? It makes them take ownership for their behavior, and they’re responsible for their own thoughts.
“We do social contracts at the beginning of the year with every class. It’s a written statement on the front of the desk of how we’re going to treat each other—how are we going to treat each other here, how are we going to treat each other everywhere, and what are we going to do if it doesn’t happen?
“These kids in sixth grade now, they’ve heard it from kindergarten on—it’s just what we do here. I think that gives them the tools they need to be able to step up and say something when they see something wrong.
“It amazes me all the time when I see it happening. At recess, or in here, someone will say, ‘Why are you saying that? That’s not very nice.’
“Since we’ve read Wonder, there was a mean kid in the book named Julian. He was the one who did the bullying. So they’ll say, ‘Don’t be a Julian.’ It’s funny how they make references to the book. They get it. A lot of times, the teachers don’t have to say anything because they’ve already taken care of it amongst each other.
“I’ve been teaching for 21 years now, and I even saw differences before we started to the beginning stages, and now this is part of our school district. You really notice it when you have move-ins. That’s when you must go back to the basics and start over with some of those kids, because they haven’t had this—you notice a difference in their behavior.
“In my classroom, I’ve had a lot of move-ins this year, so I’ve seen it a lot. I’ve seen kids on both ends of the spectrum—kids I think were picked on at other schools, but then you see them become braver as the days go on, because they’re treated as an equal.
“Then I’ve seen the other end, where I had a kid move in—he was not a nice kid—but he moved back the way he’s supposed to act, because the other kids helped. The kids are all about supporting each other.”
Rebecca’s husband is Seymour grad Chris Roberts. They live in rural Allerton.
Chris’ grandmother, Leela Niday of Sewel, will be 100 years old in April. Like Rebecca, she was a teacher.
“It’s amazing the stories she can tell about going to Chicago and working during World War II,” Rebecca said. “She taught in a one-room schoolhouse, and hid the fact she was married.”
Female teachers at that time often had to choose between their profession and a family.
Rebecca’s parents, Terry and Bonnie Dudley, live in Promise City.
Rebecca has a daughter, Joella Hanes Foster, 23, who lives in California with fellow Wayne grad and husband Cole Foster. Chris and Rebecca’s son, Hudson, is six years old and in kindergarten.
Rebecca is also training the family pet to be a therapy dog.
“He has to take a lot of obedience classes in Des Moines,” Rebecca said. “After school, Monday and Wednesday are dog days for me.
“But it’s nice. I really enjoy going to the nursing home here in Corydon and in Centerville. The five people we see in Centerville are Hospice patients. Wendy Tuttle got us started doing it, because she’s the volunteer coordinator through Care Initiatives.”
Whatever Roberts puts her mind toward accomplishing, it is with the willful intent of helping others. She sees the improved climate in her school as a conscious act.
“I think it’s because school systems have to be hyperaware of it, and have to stop it immediately,” Roberts said of bullying. “That, combined with what we do here—we don’t have a lot of it that goes on at our school. It’s interesting to look back and see how much has changed, and the reasons why.
“It takes a really strong person to step forward and speak up,” Roberts said. She could be referring to bullying in American classrooms, or to the climate that led to the Holocaust.
“There are many times when I was in school when I could have stepped up and said something, but I wasn’t strong enough to do that. And maybe it’s because we weren’t taught those skills directly. I don’t think it’s because we weren’t good people.
“It’s Read Across America week. Whatever you’re doing, they’re 100 percent excited about it at that moment. It makes it fun to be their teacher. You learn a lot from the kids.”