The Impact of Ambassadors for Inclusion in Boston-Area Day Schools

Torah Academy, Jewish Community Day School, Maimonides, and Epstein Hillel share their reflections on the AFI program in their schools

Torah Academy

By Dina Feldman, General Studies Principal, Girls’ Division and Director of Student Support Services

Girl and boy in classroom using braille machineAt the elementary school level, students’ primary occupation is learning about themselves, their community and the world around them.  As they learn, each of their experiences molds their outlook on life, and this becomes the schema through which they connect future information and learning. That is why the Ambassadors for Inclusion/Understanding Our Differences Program is such an integral part of the educational experience we offer at Torah Academy.  It exposes our students to people who seem different than they are, and yet they soon come to realize that they are very much the same.  When disabilities are presented to them in an open, honest, engaging and hands-on fashion, our students are able to shape the way they will interact with those with disabilities for the rest of their lives.  And they are deepening understanding about themselves too.

In third grade, the Ambassadors for Inclusion/Understanding Our Differences Program teaches our students about deafness and visual impairments.  When learning firsthand about the challenges individuals face with these disabilities and after partaking in activities that simulate the disabilities, they develop an awareness of how complex these senses are and, in turn, develop a fuller appreciation of their own intact senses.  Because they are still young, children have not had the chance to develop skeptical associations with individuals with disabilities.  And because the guest speakers are candid, kind, and personable, students learn that they are more the same than different.

Take, for example, a Torah Academy fifth grade girl’s reflection after she heard from a woman with intellectual disabilities.  When asked, “What did you learn from her about people with intellectual disabilities?” she responded, “Their small differences do not affect their inside.”  Small. Inside. Given this particular student’s first exposure to people with intellectual disabilities, she has now developed an understanding that these differences are small.  And these differences are external.  She has been gifted with the perspective that we should all accept people on their inside and not judge them by their small differences.  When another student was asked whether or not she would play with someone with autism, with a look of bewilderment, she answered, “Why not?” 

Clearly, the Ambassadors for Inclusion/Understanding Our Differences program has done such a wonderful job of breaking down barriers and providing tools with which our students can interact with individuals with disabilities that this question doesn’t even make sense to them. After all, we are more the same than different. 

 

Jewish Community Day School and Maimonides School

By Pete Sperber, Social Worker, Jewish Community Day School and Katie Hillman, Social Worker, Maimonides School

Our day schools are exciting, innovative and engaging places. Yet, as educators, we are constantly pushing ourselves to ensure we provide as rich and well-rounded an education as we can in an effort to nurture our students’ thirst for knowledge.

As social workers in two of these day schools, we often challenge our students to look beyond themselves to be able to see and welcome everyone in our communities—both in school and beyond. Enter the Ambassadors for Inclusion/Understanding Our Differences program, through which we are able to introduce and expose our students to people living and working in their communities with physical, intellectual or other differences about which we are learning in our academic classes. For the student, it is a chance to not only learn about something, rather to learn from someone.

In a relatively short guided lesson, our students gain relatable, pertinent information, participate in hands-on experiences and have the opportunity to hear from and engage in conversation with a member of the broader community who lives with the differences they are learning about. Learning about blindness, for example, is no longer a topic that might seem removed from what students experience in their own lives, and becomes about a specific person and his/her capabilities, challenges and strategies for success.

There is little that piques a student’s interest more than a hands-on, personal experience, and there is no better way for an individual to truly understand our differences than through the AFI/UOD program. Without exception, our students eagerly await each unit and speak of the individuals they met for months and years afterwards. The AFI/UOD program has become one of the highlights of our year, and we are better schools and raise better graduates through providing and bearing witness to these experiences each year.
 

Epstein Hillel School

By Sarah Boland, Fourth Grade Teacher and Lea Winkler, Third Grade Teacher

Epstein Hillel School welcomed the Gateways program this fall for its second year.  Last year, Gateways came once to teach the third graders about deafness. This year it has expanded to four visits to our third through fifth graders.  Students have enjoyed sessions about deafness, physical disabilities and learning disabilities, and are looking forward to learning about blindness in January.  During the deafness program, students learned about the parts of the ear, had a chance to practice finger spelling and lip reading, and learned about assistive technology.  During the physical disabilities program, students tried to complete daily tasks with different limitations and practiced using a non-verbal communication board. During the learning disabilities program, students experienced what it is like having difficulties organizing, processing and remembering information.

Each of the visits ties directly to the curriculum we’re teaching at Epstein Hillel School.  The third graders are learning about sound and light in science, and the fourth and fifth graders read the book Wonder by R.J. Palacio, a book whose theme is embracing differences.  In our social curriculum, we spend time teaching about empathy.  Students learn how their own actions affect other people and how to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. This also connects to our Judaic studies curriculum, where students learn about different ways Judaism teaches us to treat each other. 

The visits from Gateways allow students to apply what they’ve been learning in class and expand their understanding.  It gives them a chance to think about real life implications through participating in hands-on activities and hearing from guest speakers.  The speakers allow students to ask questions in a safe environment.  In the real world, children will often have questions about people who are different , and these sessions offer a forum where they can gain information in ways that heighten their sensitivity to the feelings of others.

Based on their pre-and post-surveys, students’  views on disabilities definitely changed from experiencing differences as something unknown and different to something they can understand and to which they can connect. Based on this snapshot, these sessions have achieved one of our main goals: enabling  our students to see beyond a person’s differences. We feel very lucky to benefit from partnering with Gateways to enrich our students’ educational and emotional learning experiences.

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