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Tim Salem: From building a school to building character

From left are Max Delahanty, Alysha Rashid, Timothy Salem, and Sabrina Wirth. The three, all 2007 Danbury High graduates, have traveled with Mr. Salem from Michigan to the halls of Congress in D.C. sharing a documentary on Darfur to raise awareness. Now Mr. Salem is working on a new film with a different kind of subject.

With an award-winning documentary and a new school in Darfur, built with funds raised by his Danbury students, Tim Salem, principal of Scott’s Ridge Elementary School, is on to a new and different path.

While he was an administrator at Danbury Hospital, Mr. Salem had gained wide recognition for his Darfur project. For six years he led students in an effort to educate people about the genocide in Darfur, and to raise funds to build a school there. They produced award-winning videos.

Working with a high school in Michigan and the Cartus Corp., they raised more than $100,000 toward construction of the Darfur school by Save the Children. The effort earned Mr. Salem a Spirit of Anne Frank Award.

“When I came to Ridgefield three years ago, I did not want to repeat the humanitarian-type projects that I developed when I was in Danbury,” said Mr. Salem. “I wanted to do something more along the lines of character building. I wanted my students to be able to walk into any location and apply the real-life skills that they had been learning.”

In order to develop these skills, Mr. Salem teamed up with his guidance counselors and social studies teachers to teach a three-week curriculum in self-awareness and respect for others. “Never could I have developed this program without my outstanding team members, as well as my exceptional students, parents and the PTA,” Mr. Salem said.

“Some of the exercises that proved to be the most beneficial were the Self Evaluation, the Bio Sketch, the Cafeteria Scenario, and Self Praise Poem. For Self Evaluation, the students had to come up with at least 15 positive items about themselves. Ideas could also come from parents or peers.”

“We then continued with a Bio Sketch. Here I paired students who did not know each other to see how much more they had in common than how unlike they were,” Mr. Salem said. “These student teams then shared what they learned about each other in Bio Sketches.”

In the Cafeteria Scenario, Mr. Salem advised students to go into the lunchroom and ask their fellows, who were not their friends, to sit with them. “I wanted students to examine what goes on in everyone’s head when this happens. And believe it or not, I have had nothing but positive results with this exercise.”

After reading the evaluation surveys from the students, Mr. Salem decided to film his program so others across the nation could replicate it. With bullying and disrespect so prevalent, schools needed a different alternative. However, getting started on the project was not easy.

Ironically, while at the Cannes Film Festival, attending a viewing of the film The Promise School, about the school his Danbury students helped build in Darfur, Mr. Salem ran into an acquaintance who had graduated the same year as he had from Danbury High School.

John Balis is now a well-known HBO director and producer. The two young men’s lives had taken different paths, but both had a need to tell humanitarian stories in film.

When Mr. Balis heard about Mr. Salem’s idea, he was immediately interested.

“The only problem,” said Mr. Salem, “was that the classroom scenes were just not working. Therefore, I decided to create my own screenplay with actual characters, to get my point across.”

“Tim stayed up all night and wrote the first 20 pages of the script and sent it to me,” Mr. Balis recalled. “For a first-time screenplay writer, I could not believe the brilliance of his work, and told him to keep going.”

In February, a cast will be chosen, including some local celebrities, and readings will begin. In early spring the actual filming will take place, and it is hoped that by next year, an 85-minute film entitled Put It Into Words will emerge and play to movie houses and schools all over the country.

We’ll keep you up to date.

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