|27 Sep 2023|
|United States of America|
|2023 Finalists Global Teacher Prize|
As a journalist for many years, most notably for MTV News, Shawn’s destiny was ultimately to help thousands of students tell their stories about the impact of COVID-19 on their lives. As an English and Psychology teacher at Science Park, New Jersey, Shawn has worked with over a thousand students since 2020 to produce The Class of COVID-19 – three collections of student memoirs centered around experiences during the pandemic. These books – the last written with submissions from the entire state on behalf of Ramapo College of New Jersey – touch on all aspects of what it's like to be a teenager during a global plague. Personal, vulnerable and heartbreaking, these stories of tragedy and resilience are all centered on life during COVID-19. Students share how they have healed themselves, seized power from the world, and self-actualised through their writing.
More important than the public accolades, participation in the programme invites students to “become” real authors whose voices really matter. Many students in Newark struggle with language barriers, economic instability, and health and safety concerns built in through systemic injustices and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some are forced to work to support families that cannot otherwise make ends meet. The Class of COVID-19 books, available on Amazon, have raised tens of thousands of dollars for scholars and needs-deprived young people, and students have used their experience as writers to work for politicians and gain admission to colleges they might not otherwise have had the chance to attend.
The Class of COVID-19 has been celebrated by news outlets such as NBC News, CNN, People Magazine and The Wall Street Journal, and has been praised at every level of American government right up to President Joe Biden – who sent a letter expressing his gratitude and saying “I look forward to writing the next chapter of the American story with you“. Due to its success, the state of New Jersey has partnered with Shawn to bring similar opportunities to more students throughout the area.
Most recently, Shawn has been hard at work on a fourth collection of student stories called The Helpers, which focuses on people who have transformed the lives of students by helping them to self-actualise. The newest volume will feature stories from over a dozen school districts in New Jersey and New York, collated from over 300 student submissions. This has required partnership, training, and sharing of resources with teachers across the state. Shawn has also been invited to share his knowledge at Columbia University, the NCTE National Conference, and the PLATO National Conference for teachers of philosophy.
If he wins the Global Teacher Prize, Shawn aims to use the experience and acclaim from the aforementioned books to craft a first-of-its-kind memoir collection centered on teenage mental health. Currently, there is no collection of first-hand experiences related to anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses from young people. Funds from the Global Teacher Prize could go to outreach, publicity, and sales of such an endeavour.