"It seems a simple thing," said retired English teacher Sandra Crow, a project cofounder. "But it tells students that their dreams mean something. Just the act of articulating what you want and hope for, that in and of itself is a powerful thing."
So powerful that the Dream Flag Project has become the impetus for school festivals, international education partnerships, exhibits at museums, and art therapy for sick children.
During a three-month period that starts in February, students create dream flags. They write down dreams on letter-size pieces of cloth that can be as personal as wishing for a dog to as global as hoping for an end to war.
Then they decorate the flags with colorful markers or paint. The flags are strung together and hung in a row, connected to each other.
The act of expressing and sharing helps students to "move from vaguely dreaming to being doers and taking action in their lives," said English teacher Jeff Harlan, who cofounded the project.
The initiative began as a student exercise rooted in the dream poetry of Langston Hughes, especially "The Dreamkeeper":
Bring me all of your dreams,
Bring me all your
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world
Then, Harlan and Crow added Buddhist prayer flags as a dimension after a school visit by Anne Keiser, a photographer who formerly worked for the National Geographic Society. Keiser shared the photos she took of Buddhist prayer flags hung across rivers and mountains in Nepal.
"The belief is that the wind blows the good wishes on the flags out into the world," said Crow, who in 2011 traveled to Nepal with Harlan to visit a school participating in the flag project.
Local students gather
The first year, 60 Agnes Irwin students created and hung flags. The next year, after Harlan created a website on a snow day, 26 local schools joined in.
Since then, more than 90,000 dream flags have been created by students all over the world.
Teachers go onto the Dream Flags website to register for online workshops for the project, which begins each year on Feb. 1 (Hughes' birthday). Students work intermittently through April, National Poetry Month, when flags are displayed in classrooms, at assemblies, and at citywide ceremonies.
Locally, area students will gather on April 5 at the National Constitution Center to exhibit more than 2,000 flags and read dream poems. About 700 flags are on display at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Last Friday, students in the Lower Merion School District created dream flags in conjunction with the observance of Martin Luther King's Birthday.
Seventh grader Sara Hammoudeh, 12, chose an anti-bullying message: "I dream a world where people would not judge others by how they look or what they wear."
Schoolmate Lilli Dowdall's flag read, "I dream a world where the less fortunate wake up with shoes on their feet, a place to sleep and food to eat."
"Whenever I'm walking in New York City or in [Philadelphia], it makes me upset me to see people begging for food," Dowdall said.
The Dream Flags project helps students such as Dowdall and Hammoudeh tap into their "intrinsic motivation," an increasingly important educational principal, said Tony Wagner, a Harvard University professor and author of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change The World.
Focus on hopes
Dream Flags prompt students to focus on the hopes and aspirations that are important to them, goals they are much more likely to work toward because of their personal significance, said Wagner, who heard about the flag project from a friend.
Studies show that intrinsic motivation plays a more important role in determining success than IQ or talent, Wagner said. It helps students recover from mistakes, learn self-discipline, and persevere.
A Honduran student whose flag expressed her wish to attend school in Canada achieved it when a benefactor saw her flag and sought her out, Crow said.
In April, 18 Lower Merion students will take the flags created this year to Nepal, where the students are helping to build a school.
In all the project's incarnations, the theme that dreams are important persists.
The project "gives their poems and dreams a safe place," Harlan said. "They don't get ranked or assessed. They get valued, and they are all included."