Fairfield Now - Summer 2007
A Mile in Less Comfortable Shoes
By Alejandra Navarro
|Jimmy Rotondo starts filling his tray as he goes through the "lunch line," while graduate student Michelle Alfonso (back) watches Joey Stein navigate a tight turn.|
As the adage goes, you never really know a person until you walk a mile in his or her shoes.
For Laurel Bailey, a fourth-grade student at Mohegan School in Shelton, it took sitting in a person's seat - specifically a wheelchair - to get a taste of what her physically challenged peers undertake every day. During her school's Diversity Day, Bailey maneuvered awkwardly through an obstacle course of ordinary daily tasks in a wheelchair. Holding a lunch tray and carrying books became balancing acts of new proportions. Shooting a basketball seemed like a completely different challenge, given the distance from her seated position to the basket.
"Riding in a wheelchair was fun," Bailey said of the initial excitement of the challenge. "But if you had to use it your whole life, that would be hard." Many of her classmates nodded in agreement during a post-activity discussion back in her classroom with Dr. Paula Gill Lopez, director of Fairfield's School Psychology program in the Graduate School of Education and Allied Professions (GSEAP), who, with her graduate students, organized the event for a second year.
Building understanding, compassion, and respect for people who may be different is a goal of Diversity Day, which was again sponsored by Mohegan's PTA and supported by local businesses that donated breakfast and lunch. This year, fourth- and sixth-grade students spent an hour completing a series of eight activities set up at distinct stations in the school's gym. Each activity was meant to illustrate what it feels like to have a difference, such as a physical limitation, a learning disability, or to be from a different race or economic class.
|Wearing eyeglasses that replicate impaired vision, Emma Floberg crawls under an obstacle cours.|
One station allowed students to see what it feels like to have difficulties with depth perception. Wearing special glasses, they tried to crawl through a maze and catch ball. In another station, students played a game in which each was assigned an allergy. Students proceeded based on whether they could be in a situation with the allergy. One student was not pleased with his environmental allergy, which would prevent him from doing some outdoor activities. "If I couldn't go camping with my family, that wouldn't be fun," the student said.
"It's a good time to catch them," says Nicole Fanell, a fourth-grade teacher at Mohegan. Like many teachers, she enjoys having a devoted time to cover important issues like diversity, she says. "There's a lot of social development going on at this age."
"This is a critical age for these students," agrees Dr. Gill Lopez, noting the prevalence of bullying in these grades and the ease with which the students are influenced. "This is just about the time when they need to have these discussions and experiences."
In the training of future school psychologists at GSEAP, Diversity Day is not only a service-learning component of the coursework, but also provides a research opportunity in a critical area of child development. Thus, the elementary school does allow the master's candidates to survey the children to determine the impact of the program.
|Using a board game she helped design, school psychology graduate student Danielle Terranova (right) and Krista Horne guide middle-school students as they "play" their way through tough social situation.|
Dr. Gill Lopez got the idea for the event from a former student, school psychologist Eileen Montgomery, GSEAP'01, who brought Diversity Day from another school to her own. The learning began well before the January 2007 event, when Dr. Gill Lopez and her graduate students taught a lesson on diversity to every class in the school. On the event day, the team held pre- and post-activity discussions with fourth- and sixth-graders to answer their questions and talk about their experiences as well as to administer the survey being used to collect data.
Danielle Terranova, M.A.'07, who also participated in the first Diversity Day last year, expects that the program's long-term effects will be positive. At first, she wasn't sure the activities would actually change the children's attitudes. "After experiencing the day, it really became clear to me that through this kind of learning, these students begin to understand," she says.
Terranova helped create a social skills board game, which she based on real scenarios she heard from students while a teaching assistant. The game poses hypothetical situations and the players must decide the best course of action. "It gets the children to think about what they might do in a tough situation," Terranova explains. "It's a lot easier for kids to understand a situation if they are part of a story. Having a non-threatening way in which to explore these scenarios is really helpful. We hope to give the kids tools to make a decision they feel is right for them."
In April, Terranova was part of a graduate student team that joined Dr. Gill Lopez and her colleague, Dr. Faith-Anne Dohm, director of GSEAP's applied psychology program, to present their preliminary findings at the National Association of School Psychologists in New York City. In addition to Terranova, the graduate student team included Melissa Koval, Tom Brant, and Matt Cesaroni. Dr. Gill Lopez expects to continue collecting data from future Diversity Days to gauge the long-term effects of planting seeds of acceptance in the children.
Teaching kids how to handle a situation is an important follow-up piece of a successful Diversity Day, says Montgomery, who has been hosting the event for five years at Jennings School in Fairfield. "When they have strategies to use, they will know how to interact with children who have language challenges or physical challenges," she explains. "When they learn to engage with their peers, that's when I feel we've accomplished something."
|Dr. Paula Gill Lopez, director of GSEAP's school psychology program, invites Mohegan School students to share their reactions.|
Change of behavior comes over time and Montgomery has seen a real difference in her students following Diversity Day. "After Diversity Day, there seems to be this heightened awareness of differences and an appreciation of those differences. It's a program that really promotes understanding and tolerance."
Her students used to ask questions about their peers who had trouble with fine motor skills, such as eating. Now, with activities that alter their perspectives, the children can experience how difficult it would be to eat every day with these limitations. "It gets them to accept these children for who they are: children who happen to be different," she says.
Montgomery is pleased to know that Dr. Gill master's students are conducting research related to Diversity Day. According to Gill Lopez, comments gathered in the post-event discussions suggest that the students are learning to embrace diversity. "However," she says, "the data the team has collected can't measure the wattage of the light bulbs going on over some kids' heads."
Clearly, that excitement will be tough to translate to paper. "It's that ‘wow' factor," Montgomery explains. "How do you measure the look of understanding, when you can see that the children get it?"