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Empathy in Origami: AST students bring history to life through paper cranes

The Middle School Commons at Aurora Science & Tech (AST) is alive with a vibrant display of thousands of paper cranes, each carrying a story of empathy, resilience and hope. For the past four years, 7th-grade students in Allie Crites' Social Studies class have folded paper cranes as a kinesthetic project intertwined with their history lessons, creating a powerful tradition that resonates throughout the school.

The project began during the challenging 2020-21 school year when hybrid learning left both students and teachers weary of screens.

“I was SO tired of being online and in front of a computer screen. So were the students,” Crites recalls. Inspired by the story of Sadako Sasaki and the legend of the thousand paper cranes, Crites introduced this hands-on activity to her class. “History is just a bunch of stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things that the time calls for,” she said.

Crites’ personal connection to the story of Sadako, which she read in middle school and later revisited during a poignant trip to Hiroshima, helped her see the potential impact on her students.

“I cried and fell to the ground seeing all the paper cranes from all over the world sent in memory of all the innocent children who have perished in wars,” she shared. This emotional experience fueled her desire to make history relatable and meaningful to her students. 

Each year, the project has taken on new significance, reflecting contemporary global issues. The first year’s cranes were dedicated to the victims of COVID-19. The following years honored children in Ukraine, oppressed black and brown children in the community, and most recently, children who have died in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

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The impact of the project extends far beyond historical education. “This unit really impacts me every year. I develop closer relationships with students that I didn’t think would trust me,” Crites notes. The hands-on nature of the project not only fosters a deeper understanding of history but also encourages students to communicate, collaborate, and step out of their comfort zones. “When they complete their first crane, they are so excited,” she adds, highlighting the personal growth and excitement that comes with mastering the delicate art of origami.

Students' responses to the project are a testament to its success. Taylor Paul, a 7th grader, shares, “I found determination in trying to beat my sister (Cadence, 10th grade), but most importantly I had a lot of fun and it was so calming.” Another student this year surpassed the expectation of making 10 cranes, crafting an impressive 215.

Looking to the future, Crites hopes the project continues to thrive.

“I have had siblings ask if they ‘get to make paper cranes in 7th grade’ when they see the Origami Paper being distributed,” she says. The project has left a lasting impression on former students, who still talk about the positive impact it had on them. Crites believes in the importance of creativity in teaching history. “ If the students see that I have fun and passion, and am being real with them, students are more engaged,” she emphasizes.

With every crane folded, the AST students are not just learning history; they are becoming part of it, embodying the belief that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.