Click here for the District's current e-newsletter.
A club at John Jay High School is all about creating a community of acceptance and understanding. It's called A World of Difference (AWOD) and it was started a number of years ago through a relationship with the Anti-Defamation League.
Thanks to the work of AWOD and its tenacious president, senior Catherine Troiano, as well as the Special Education PTA (SEPTA) and Kim Piccolino, Assistant Principal of John Jay High School, one of the district’s signature programs at the elementary level—Differences Day—came to John Jay High School on April 5 and 6.
“My dream was to bring Differences Day to the high school before I graduated,” said Trioiano.
Differences Day is a workshop that gives students an opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes. Through activities that simulate physical challenges and learning differences, students discover what it is like to carry a lunch tray while using a wheelchair, participate in sports if you are visually impaired, or answer questions when you have a speech impairment.
“The biggest point of this day is to get students to understand the challenges people with special needs face daily," said Troiano. "Hopefully students can become more understanding and accepting.”
AWOD works with the school community and beyond. Each April the club volunteers at Northeast Rehabilitation Hospital’s program for developmentally disabled teens--making cupcakes and crafts, and doing Zumba together. This work has been profound for Troiano, and is part of her decision to study Therapeutic Recreation at SUNY Cortland in the fall.
"AWOD gives students the opportunity to develop real-world skills that will help them succeed in high school and beyond," said Tina Russo, the club's advisor and technology teacher at John Jay Middle School. "Most importantly, students learn that the work they do in our club can make a real impact in the world."
(Differences Day at John Jay High School on left)
(AWOD members pictured above: Lauren Diack, Natalie Misiano, Izzy Rosen, Catherine Troiano, Rachel Cifarelli, Danielle Meltz, Jaime Schaus. Not pictured: Kayla Brandt, Isabella Weiner, Katrina Weiner, Kate Gallagher, Paris Kicks, Tyler Malave, Lauren Stickler, and club advisor Tina Russo.)
There's a new initiative in the district to nurture positive attitudes to cultural diversity. It's called Diversity Day, and it piloted at Katonah Elementary School (KES) in February.
Nine teens from AWOD visited KES during a Sharing Assembly to talk to the students about diversity and read “Spoon” to the children. The picture book by Amy Krause Rosenthal tells the story of a spoon who feels inadequate and wants to be a fork, or a knife, or chopsticks, but learns how he contributes important things as well.
The teens led hands-on-your-head “Group Membership” games for the whole school, and a small group exercise called “Getting to Know You” with the fourth and fifth graders to help children notice their similarities and differences. Some of them had siblings, or spoke a second language; others played different sports, and were born in countries other than the US.
“Understanding our diversity is the first step towards inclusion," said Jessica Fulton, social worker at KES. “These simple activities help children learn about each other and create a supportive environment.”
KLSD social worker Jessica Fulton invited A World of Difference to a PTO meeting in January to tell parents about their club. They led an activity for the adults called “Planning a Party”—an exercise the club does with seventh graders each year.
A group is instructed to plan a party together—to decide who should be invited, whose house should it be at, who should bring snacks and food. The twist is that each participant is assigned a stereotype.
“The students hand out cards with labels on them—blonde girl, overweight, Asian, Arab-American, Latino, boy in the musical, athlete, learning disabled, hearing impaired, rich, cheerleader,” said Fulton. “Participants can’t see their own label. They have to guess what it is by people’s reactions to them.”
One of parents who participated said, “The person with the label of Arab-American was asked, ‘Are you a terrorist?’. My label was popular. I thought I was a jock or cheerleader because people wanted me to come to the party. It was interesting.”
“This exercise begins a discussion about prejudices that exist subconsciously," said Fulton.
Another club at John Jay is also involved in supporting positive attitudes towards diversity. In mid-March, John Jay Middle School’s Gay/Straight Alliance and John Jay High School’s Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA) collaborated with GLSEN (The Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network) to offer a community program called “Shared Stories, Open Minds” at the Katonah Library.
Students read and discussed age-appropriate books about a same-sex marriage (between penguins!) and a transgender little girl, and did an art project together.
“As society becomes more open and accepting of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, children are encountering these possibilities in their own families and communities,” said Jessica Fulton, KLSD social worker who spearheads diversity initiatives. “Reading and discussing a book containing these themes offers a safe, comfortable way for children and their families to learn and talk about these aspects of diversity in our world.”
The work of AWOD club dovetails with district initiatives that cultivate respect and inclusiveness.
Start with Hello Week at John Jay High School empowers students to create a culture of connectedness.
Mix it Up Day at the elementary schools uses simple games and conversation prompts to encourage students to sit with a different group at lunch and get to know them.