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Mark Honeyman: Breaking Barriers Visit to NYC

Mark Honeyman, 8th grade Language Arts teacher at West Hills, was recently honored with an extraordinary opportunity. He was selected, among all the teachers in the nation, because of his and his students' continual involvement and exceptional success in the Breaking Barriers Writing Contest.  Breaking Barriers is run by Scholastic, and inspired by Jackie Robinson's life and legacy.  Each year, Honeyman's 8th grade students write and submit their essays, and over the years, several of Honeyman's students have placed as top winners.  Honeyman was recently invited to New York City, and took part in a day of memorable events, including a breakfast with Sharon Robinson, who is Jackie Robinson's daughter; a live Facebook symposium featuring Honeyman and Robinson; and a black-tie event at the Museum of the City of New York, celebrating the upcoming opening of a new museum in May dedicated solely to Jackie Robinson.

"I got an email from the Public Relations contact for Sharon Robinson, Jackie Robinson's daughter," shares Honeyman, reflecting on how he found out about the honor.  "It explained that January 31 is the 100th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's birth.  Major League Baseball, Sharon Robinson, and Scholastic all wanted to do a major celebration of his life and legacy.  One of the cornerstones of this event, for Sharon, is talking about the Breaking Barriers writing contest, and how much it has empowered students and honored her father's legacy.  Sharon wanted a teacher to sit by her side and talk about the contest, and what it has meant to her father's legacy and to the younger generation. She asked me to be that teacher, and it was one of the most incredible honors of my lifetime."

One of the highlights was a memorable breakfast.  Mark shares, "We had a conference room with just my wife Mary, Sharon Robinson and me, and we had a beautiful talk for an hour.  We talked about racism, about trying to change the world, and using words to empower students.  It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my lifetime."

The main event was the symposium, hosted at Scholastic, which was recorded and is still available through Facebook.  A moderator posed questions to Sharon Robinson and Mark Honeyman, with the two often tag-teaming their answers.  Honeyman reflects, "it was such a profound celebration of the contest, how it empowers students, and lets them see that they have so much more strength than they realize, by looking at some hurdle that they've overcome, and how they've overcome it.  Sharon and I felt very at ease with one another, and at the end, the moderator gave a couple of questions that had come in from the live feed.  It was a really magical hour, and such an honor to share that stage with her and to talk about her dad and what he accomplished. I got to look at the live feed afterwards, and all the comments that were popping up.  A number of my students who were watching caught that I used a vocabulary word in the beginning.  I did that purposefully, because I wanted them to know that I was thinking about them, that I had taken them on the trip with me, that they were there with me in spirit.  Some of them shared the most gracious, loving comments about being in my class.  I felt lifted up by my students."

That night was the black-tie event where they did the dedication for the Museum of the City of New York, and it was in preparation for the opening of a museum solely dedicated to Jackie Robinson's legacy, in May.  One part of the Museum of the City of New York was sectioned off, with part of the exhibit that will be on display in a couple of months.  One exhibit was a home movie of him playing baseball in his backyard with his kids and their friends from the neighborhood.  There were a lot of unseen pictures and videos, giving a behind the scenes look at things that have never been seen by the public.  Jackie Robinson's wife is still alive; she's around 94 years old.  She said, "I don't just want a bunch of adulation for my husband; I want this museum and the Jackie Robinson Foundation to really move people, and to make a difference in the world."

When asked to reflect on why Honeyman was the sole teacher from across the nation chosen to share the Scholastic stage with Sharon Robinson, Honeyman explains, "we had two national winners within the span of just a few years.  Erin Walker won seven years ago, and Debra Moraitis won five years ago.  Sharon Robinson visited both times to give them the prizes.  And when I was talking to her assistant, he explained that they were thinking about teachers whose students had done well, but also thinking about somebody with a passion for children and an energy for being wholly invested in students' lives.  I was thrilled that they thought of me."   West Hills Middle School Principal Rob Durecka adds, "Having worked closely with Mark for several years, I have come to know that he is one of those special people who forms deep, meaningful relationships with his students.  He instills in them a belief in themselves and the power their words have to change the world.  Mark is a difference maker for students, who extends his influence outside the school day.  By establishing partnerships like the one with Scholastics, Mark ensures students have an authentic audience beyond the classroom to share their thinking."

Reflecting on first meeting Sharon Robinson years ago, Honeyman shared that the experience was unforgettable.  She spent as much time with the students who didn't win as she did with the students who won.  She would invite one student at a time, and she spoke with them deeply, personally, for several minutes.  He recalls one student's reaction, "Mr. Honeyman, she made me feel like the most important person on the planet."  And another student said, "Me too!  She asked me about my dreams for the future, and gave me advice."  She is a transcendent spirit, a truly remarkable human being.

The Breaking Barriers essay contest begins with a powerful prompt: Write an essay about a barrier that you have faced.  Then explain how you used one or more of Jackie Robinson's Nine Values to face this barrier: Citizenship; Commitment; Courage; Determination; Excellence; Integrity; Justice; Persistence; Teamwork.  Honeyman's 8th grade students will begin work on the essay in the next couple of weeks, and every 8th grader submits the paper to the contest.  Scholastic receives about 70,000 entries nationwide.  Honeyman explains, "Scholastic shared that even in the years where we haven't had a national finalist win, our students have done exceptionally well.  That thrills me, because they work hard on those papers.  Beyond the art of writing is the amount of risk-taking that the students exhibit.  They often write about things that have been at the core of the most painful things that they've faced in their lives.  They put it on paper, and put it out into the public eye, and grapple with it.  I'm so honored and privileged to look at those papers."

Many congratulations to Mark Honeyman for this incredible and well-deserved honor!

To see the Facebook Symposium featuring Mark Honeyman and Sharon Robinson, click here.