In Amanda Ocariz’s language arts class at Mother Teresa Catholic Elementary School in Liberty Township, students learn what it means to be an upstander. “The bystander is someone who stands by and watches. The upstander stands up and does something,” said Ocariz.
The books her seventh and eighth graders read drive this message home. They include To Kill a Mockingbird, Elie Wiesel’s Night and A Long Walk to Water, which recounts how Salva Dut was born in Sudan, lived as a refugee for a decade and eventually returned home to bring clean water to those in need.
“I wanted to read about good examples and people doing the right thing,” said Ocariz. “And, a little bit of people doing the wrong thing so we can learn about that, too.”
The selected novels and memoirs look at the fight for Civil Rights and basic human rights, shining a light on discrimination, diversity and the difference between right and wrong. Ocariz’s ability to challenge her students’ thinking earned her this year’s “Excellence in Teaching Diversity Award” from the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. She is the first Catholic school teacher to earn the honor.
In nominating her, principal Aideen Briggs said Ocariz stretches children’s thinking about themselves and their world: “By exposing her students to the failures of humanity as well as its achievements, she shows them the ugly and beautiful truth of what it is to be human, and how important it is to look inward for what is right, and then act outward toward redemption for all.”
Ocariz developed the curriculum and started the junior high program at Mother Teresa with co-teacher, Karen Geiger. “She puts her heart and soul into the books she chooses,” said Geiger. “We look at these books and try to make them relevant to what’s going on in today’s society and try to help them learn from the past and not to repeat it.”
Ocariz and Geiger also continue to educate themselves. They attended a week-long class at the Cincinnati Holocaust and Humanities Center so they could hear first-hand accounts from survivors then better teach their students about this awful period in history.
Those who know Ocariz say it’s not just her reading list that is impressive, but the way she teaches. The students research the history around each story so they can better understand the events’ context.
Chad Schaefer is a Board Trustee for Mother Teresa Catholic Elementary and father to one of Ocariz’s students: “Over the 10-12 years I’ve been [a part of the school] she just has an ability to make these kids achieve things they don’t think are even possible as far as their intellectual skills, their writing, their literature and their understanding of the material.”
Beyond reading and researching historical events, students write essays and news articles, create podcasts, choose role models, and work on one philanthropic project each year that gets them involves them in a community charity. By graduation, these students are far more prepared for high school- level classes than many of their peers.
Ocariz has an ability “to really challenge kids and get them to do things they didn’t think were possible. She finds a way to get them to respond,” Schaefer said.
This article appeared in the May 2022 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.