In December, Rowland Hall Middle School English teacher Mary Lawlor hosted “Oprah Day” in her sixth-grade classroom. Even though many of the students had never before heard of Oprah Winfrey, they trusted the celebration would be fun, creative, and meaningful. One thing Mary's students "know for sure" is her joyous embrace of originality.
Oprah pioneered the confessional approach to TV talk shows, using compassion to break down twentieth-century taboos. The highly read O, The Oprah Magazine, features a monthly inspirational column titled, “What I Know For Sure.” Mary is a regular reader of the column. After 20 years of teaching the sixth grade, she dubbed her annual lesson-plan guide “What I Know For Sure About Sixth Graders.”
But what Mary didn’t know was that a parent of one her students shares her passion for Oprah’s wisdom. One day in early December, sixth-grader Drew Lang announced, “My mom is going to be on the Oprah show.” In her characteristic lighthearted tone, Mary challenged, “No way, Drew, because there isn’t an Oprah show anymore.”
Drew came back the next day restating his claim that his mother did, in fact, have a connection with Oprah. But he wasn’t sure exactly what it was. Mary made a wager: if Drew’s mother had any tie at all with Oprah, she would host an Oprah Day for the entire sixth grade.
During the holiday break, Mary received a text message from Drew with a link to the 2015 December edition of O magazine. The page included his mother’s essay, with her name on the byline. Drew’s text read, "Here’s proof. When’s Oprah Day?"
Drew’s mother, Jill Lang, had submitted a short essay in response to O magazine’s seasonal prompt: “What is the greatest gift you’ve ever received?” Jill’s memoir described finding her father’s journal, titled "Larry's Musings and Collectibles," after he had passed away. The experience prompted Jill to begin journaling, in the hope that "even when I'm not with them anymore, my words and wisdom will console and amuse my children.” Her essay was published among those of well-known authors, actors, musicians, poets, professors, and chaplains.
To make good on her promise at school, Mary enlisted Jill. Together, they made O-shaped cookies, told and retold the Oprah story, watched reruns of the annual “Oprah’s Favorite Things” television special, and incorporated the prompt “What I Know For Sure” into the day’s writing curriculum. The students’ responses were especially imaginative that day, proving that creative teaching generates meaningful connections. View a gallery featuring Jill Lang's published piece and students' own reflections.
A few weeks later, Jill received another email from Oprah's publicist. It included a photo of Drew and his mom in Oprah’s newsletter and a post titled, “O, What a Wonderful World.” Everyone is hoping Oprah Day will become an annual sixth-grade celebration. But we'll have to peek inside Mary's 2016 lesson-plan book before we know for sure!