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Celebrating IDEA Day(s) at The Country School

IDEA=Inclusion Diversity Empathy Action

by Liz Lightfoot '77 P '05 '07 '08 '12, Alumni Relations, Community Outreach, IDEA Parent-Teacher Alliance

Last week The Country School held its 8th annual IDEA Day, taking a break from the regular schedule for a full day of workshops and activities designed to foster empathy and inclusion, help us acknowledge our differences, both visible and invisible, and celebrate our connections. This week, the work of IDEA Day continued with a visit from Sam Drazin, founder and executive director of Changing Perspectives, a nonprofit that engages students in open dialogue and real-world experiences to promote disability awareness and foster inclusive communities. Sam met with students in large and small groups and held an evening parent/educator forum to share the theory behind his work: that if we acknowledge our differences and make connections to help us discover our similarities, we can all grow as empathetic human beings capable of leading and working together in our increasingly complex, interconnected and diverse world. (To understand why experts believe this is critically important, read Why Empathy Holds the Key to Transforming 21st Century Learning.)

Sam Drazin has an informal conversation with 5th Graders.

Held January 21, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, IDEA Day 2020 began with a brilliant and moving talk for students in Grades 1-8 by Liz Peri, a longtime therapist at Grove School and a childhood friend of Nicole Burke, Country School Director of Development and English teacher. Liz is one of the 30,000 Americans living with Cystic Fibrosis, having been diagnosed at age 7. Although you wouldn't know it by looking at her, Liz undergoes extensive treatments every day, sometimes spending as many as six hours per day to clear her lungs, and she has spent countless weeks in the hospital recovering from lung infections (during her talk she spoke about what a gift it is for her to be visited by the Burke-Talmadge family when she is in the hospital; they come bearing her favorite junk food and always lift her spirits). In spite of her illness, Liz is optimistic, grateful, and determined to give back. With Nicole, she started an organization called Outrun 38 to defeat cystic fibrosis. Click here for an article from Yale Medicine about their endeavor.

Liz Peri speaking to students in Grades 1-8 as members of the IDEA Student Alliance look on.

Asked by a student how she has been able to keep going in the face of her challenges, Liz said support from her friends has been invaluable. Or, as she also said, "Empathy is the magic sauce." Asked by another student what was the most important lesson she took away from her experiences living with Cystic Fibrosis, Liz said: "I think that when you grow up knowing that you might not live very long, you have a sense of gratitude for everything that you have in your life. And so I think I've walked through life looking at everything as really beautiful and special."

After hearing from Liz, students engaged in an array of hands-on workshops. All based on the theme of empathy, with students at every grade level using the book We Are All Wonders by R.J. Palacio as a springboard, the workshop activities varied depending on the child's age. For instance, students in Grades 5-8 rotated through a series of workshops including an empathy builders game, unfolding identity, designing adaptations, and one led by Liz Peri focusing on how to talk to people about visible and invisible differences.

Students play an Empathy Building game (left) and design adaptations (right).
Click here for a slideshow depicting other activities throughout the day.

At the end of the day, the entire school came together to reflect on the day's theme. As a closing exercise, they joined their Reading Buddies to respond to a quotation in Palacio's book: "Look with kindness and you will always find wonder." Students were asked to show how they will look, hear, and feel with kindness. Below, (left) one student's response and (right) some Reading Buddies working on their responses.  

One week later, on the 28th, we again took a short break from the regular routine to hear from Sam Drazin, an educator turned non-profit director who shares his personal story to help students gain appreciation for our differences and, ultimately, our similarities. Sam was born with Treacher Collins Syndrome, a congenital disorder resulting in facial anomaly and hearing loss. While working as an elementary school teacher, he was looking for a way to help his students become more empathetic, and he decided the best way to reach them might be to share his own story. He ended up taking the effort on the road, and now his work with Changing Perspectives involves traveling to schools across the country, speaking with students and teachers and leading workshops to raise awareness and inspire empathy.

At The Country School, Sam took his audience through his life story, sharing photos and anecdotes about growing up with a facial difference and hearing loss, both of which required him to undergo multiple surgeries. In a matter-of-fact but gentle and often humorous way, he drew his audience in to his personal experiences, and then found ways to connect with students over things that we all share. He did much the same while visiting with students in Clark House and in smaller, grade level groups across campus, inviting students to try out his hearing aid as a way to "stand in his shoes," for instance. 

A PreSchooler tries out Sam's hearing aid. 

Sam explained his method to parents and teachers in the adult forum that evening. "For learners of all ages to achieve a greater sense of empathy, they must first develop an awareness and appreciation of differences," he said, adding that sometimes we shy away from talking about differences. But being aware of and acknowledging our differences is the first step in allowing students to actually feel what someone else might be experiencing, he said. In the end, the goal is to help all children recognize their uniqueness, including their challenges (because we all have them), and, in so doing, to promote a deeper understanding, respect, and acceptance of all people.  

"Some of our challenges might be more visible or obvious on the outside," he told students during the morning forum, "but we all have things we're trying to get better at — maybe it's a sport we play or we want to be better at doing our chores at home or better at getting along with our brothers and sisters, better at memorizing our multiplication facts, better at remembering to hand in our homework on time. We all have things that we're trying to get a little better at and that's ok. Rather than ignoring people or treating people badly because of their differences, we all need to start thinking about how can we celebrate our differences and talk about our differences so we can start to make connections about our similarities."

Sam answers a question from a 7th Grader.

Sam closed his talk for students with a precept from Palacio's Wonder:

Everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their life because we all overcometh the world.

- Auggie

"What I think this means is that we all deserve a round of applause because we all have challenges we're trying to overcome," Sam said.

We thank Sam and Liz for sharing their stories with us at The Country School, helping us realize that we all face challenges, we all have differences, and that we all can make our world better by being open to differences — both our own and others' — and empathetic and inclusive to everyone. 

A special thanks to the IDEA Student Alliance, the dedicated group of Middle Schoolers who have been meeting regularly with faculty advisors to help plan IDEA Day. During a pizza lunch on Tuesday, Sam asked IDEA Student Alliance members what their plans are for IDEA Day 2.0. The wheels have begun turning. There will be more. Stay tuned!