Howard Wright has learned one thing from his years of teaching: The best teachers are the students themselves.
“If you have a student who is having a hard time learning something, you get another student to teach it to him,” said Wright, who has taught chemistry at all-boys Chaminade College Preparatory School in St. Louis for eight years.
So when he was thinking of a way to impress the importance of the life of unborn babies to the sophomores he teaches, he decided the best way would be to have them work with other students.
Wright also knows another thing about teenage boys: The best way to get their attention is with teenage girls.
So he approached Elizabeth Miller, a teacher at all-girls Notre Dame High School in St. Louis, about having her sophomore religion students work on the same project.
Thus was born an interactive project aimed at educating a love for the unborn.
“I thought it would be a good and powerful thing,” said Mil-ler, who is Wright’s goddaughter. “As Catholics, we teach it as a faith issue and not as a science issue. This was a way to do both. I liked that it was with guys, because it got their attention a little more.”
The boys from Chaminade were assigned to research the scientific evidence that a fetus is a human being, complete with its own DNA and separate from its mother. The girls from Notre Dame were assigned to research Church teaching on the sanc-tity of life starting at conception. They wrote up their findings and exchanged them.
Then each student wrote a short reflection on what he or she had learned from reading the other students’ work. At the end, the classes came together for a pizza party and discussed the issues further.
Miller, who was pregnant when her students did the project last spring, said the girls did not know much about fetal development when they started, so she spent time with them visiting websites that explain how a fetus grows and changes week by week. Then they discussed how an abortion is performed, which shocked them.
“We didn’t use any graphic pictures or anything, but we said, ‘This is how it happens,’” Miller said. “We’re not always good at teaching the truth, because it’s gruesome.”
Then she had the girls research what the Church teaches, and why.
“I learned that even the smallest being in the womb has a life, and that life is worth protecting,” said Notre Dame student Jennifer Burghoff in an e-mail interview.
“It was uncomfortable at first, to write letters to the boys, because I thought that abortion is a topic that is deeply personal, especially for women. But after I got to read their papers, I realized that they understand that the fetus is a living thing, except they approached it from a scientific side, whereas we got to express our religious beliefs,” Burghoff said. “I really did enjoy sharing my knowledge, because I feel that if I tell what I know, then maybe one day I can save a life by sharing my knowledge of abortion.”
Fusing faith and science
Chaminade student Stephen Wilson said he appreciated the opportunity to research the status of the fetus from a scientific perspective, because he thinks people who are not Catholic or do not practice their faith are more likely to listen to the science.
“Having the religious background is one thing, but to be able to explain it scientifically will help me convince people,” Wilson said.
After the girls read the boys’ papers and wrote their reflections, Miller said, several expressed surprise that the boys thought they should have a say in the abortion issue. “They had no idea the boys cared,” Miller told OSV.
The boys were surprised that the girls thought they didn’t care. “We care a lot about this topic,” Wilson said. “This is just as much about us as it is about them.”
Chaminade student Matthew Gauvain said the project didn’t change his mind about abortion, but it made him realize that young people need to discuss the issue.
“I am still just as against abortion as I always have been,” Gauvain wrote in an e-mail interview. “I still believe preg-nancy to be something that is held as sacred by a couple. However, it did make me realize how important it is that teenagers learn about and discuss abortion in group discussions.”
Educating young minds
Wright said he hopes the students learn that creating a new life is wonderful, but very serious, and that the best plan for young people is not to put themselves in a position to produce a child until they are married.
“The Supreme Court said it couldn’t decide if a fetus was a human or not,” Wright said. “It didn’t give women the right to have an abortion. It gave women the right to choose whether the fetus is human or not. But the Supreme Court couldn’t decide, so we’re asking a 15-year-old girl to make that decision? The best thing is not to ever have to make that decision.”
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.
Student's Reflection on Abortion (sidebar)
Students who participated in the project at Chaminade College Preparatory School and Notre Dame High School said it offered them new perspectives on the issue of abortion, and suggested that the project should be replicated.
Following is an excerpt of a reflection that Chaminade student Matthew Gauvain wrote after reading a girl’s paper on the Church’s teaching on abortion.
“She spoke about both sides of the story and how difficult it is to decide. … She brought up topics that people often discuss, such as injury to the mother or baby and other reasons why many people believe abortion should be legal.
“I liked the way she wrote this paper mainly because it taught me new things about abortion and what a woman has to go through when she is pregnant. One of the most interesting points that she brought up was that when most abortions take place, most of the organs necessary for life have already developed. She stated that by the time a woman knows she is pregnant and is able to have the abortion, the fetus already has a beating heart and most likely has a brain that sends pulses to the body.
“Also, she brought up controversial topics such as rape, physical problems with the baby or possible injury to the woman. However, she made sure to state that the Catholic Church believes that, no matter what, the baby must be born, and it cannot be killed by any type of extraordinary means. By killing this baby people commit sins. Her paper helps to stay on topic and stay focused on the religious aspect of the abortion process and what the Catholic Church teaches regarding the matter. I believe that if all women were able to read her paper, there would be a lot less abortions because their eyes would be opened as to how exactly to approach their situation.”