It started with 13 books, written by children for children. That’s how fourth-grade teacher Ann-Marie Dorman first connected her students at Ojai Valley School with the splendor and sorrow of India, having them pen stories last year to create a library for a school in the slums of New Delhi.
That was followed by a new crop of fourth-graders this school year who sold cushion covers hand-embroidered in India to raise money for the one-room Anusaran School and plan to produce more books this spring for its fledgling library, which had no reading material until Dorman stepped in.
Now the 33-year-old teacher intends to slip on her sneakers and run the Los Angeles Marathon next Sunday to collect contributions for some of the poorest schoolchildren in India’s sprawling capital city.
“India has completely changed the way I look at the world,” said Dorman, who spent eight weeks last summer teaching English to children in New Delhi and a significant part of this school year translating those experiences to her Ojai class.
“I think my enthusiasm is rubbing off,” said Dorman, now in her seventh year at the school. “The kids love learning about India. And fourth grade is perfect, because they are just at that age where they can start to see beyond themselves.”
In Dorman’s classroom, what students see is a teacher whose real-life experiences serve as a foundation for lessons about tolerance, community service and appreciation for other cultures.
Born and raised in Santa Barbara, Dorman developed a keen interest in cultural studies while earning a degree in anthropology and liberal studies at San Diego State University. After getting her teaching credential, she taught for two years in San Diego-area public schools.
But she found her niche at Ojai Valley School, a private boarding and day school that enrolls nearly 400 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grades and boasts a large international student population.
Unconstrained by a rigid state-mandated curriculum and federally mandated testing, Dorman started to weave her interest in India into her classroom four years ago during the school’s Theme Week, in which elementary and middle-grade teachers focus on other cultures.
Last year, Dorman broadened those lessons. To fulfill a community service requirement, she had her fourth-graders write their own eight-page children’s book and send a copy to the Anusaran School, a nonprofit institution for New Delhi youngsters who can’t afford to attend government-run schools, which charge a nominal fee, Dorman said.
She also landed a $5,000 faculty enrichment grant, sponsored by Ojai Valley School parents Peter and Diane Goldenring, designed to reinvigorate teachers and provide once-in-a-lifetime experiences that can be incorporated in the classroom.
Dorman stretched her money into an eight-week stay in New Delhi, in which she lived with a host family, taught English at Anusaran and volunteered with a project aimed at teaching life skills to women. The books from her Ojai students arrived in India while she was there.
“It was so meaningful for our kids,” said Dorman, whose Ojai classroom is plastered with photos of Indian youngsters leafing through the books and their stories of friendship and sharing. “They put so much work into these books and were excited to learn that they were actually being used for teaching.”
Such lessons are a good fit at Ojai Valley School, which values community service and outside-the-classroom learning as much as academic preparation, said Michael Hall-Mounsey, a headmaster at the school.
But even by those standards, Hall-Mounsey said Dorman’s class was special.
“They really do have a wonderful journey in fourth grade,” he said. “We are very proud of [Dorman]. She’s a terrific asset to our school and to those students.”
The depth of Dorman’s commitment and connection to India were evident during Theme Week earlier this month.
Dressed in traditional Indian garb, she started each day by having her students sit in a circle on the floor of her small classroom, where incense burned and bulletin boards were jammed with photos of girls in colorful saris and diagrams of children stretched in yoga positions.
Bejeweled with bindis at the center of their foreheads, the youngsters folded into the lotus position, turned their palms toward the heavens and joined in a meditative chant before turning their attention to the teachings of Gandhi and Mother Teresa.
“What have we learned so far about Mother Teresa?” Dorman asked. All 12 students raised their hands, but 9-year-old Marissa Maas got to answer.
“She gets assigned to teach rich girls but she really wants to teach the poor,” Marissa said. “She decides she needs to go to them, she needs to go to the slums.”
Above all else, it is this sense of service to others that Dorman wants to instill.
That’s why she was so pleased when her students in December rushed to sell the handcrafted cushion covers to raise nearly $600 for the Anusaran School.
It’s why she volunteers to write brochures and website content for the New Delhi school and plans to return by year’s end, hoping to teach by example the value of helping the less fortunate.
And it’s why after a full day of classes she puts in the miles in preparation for the marathon, hoping to raise at least $2,000 for the Indian facility where every act of kindness counts.
“I now recognize that even the smallest efforts help so much,” Dorman said. “It’s a small population that is being served right now in New Delhi, but it’s very significant to those who are being reached.”
To contact Dorman or sponsor her marathon run, call Ojai Valley School at (805) 646-1423, Ext. 318, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.