Be the Change

Engaging in Reflection, Fostering Community and Belonging, and Inspiring Action on IDEA Day 2022
On January 18, The Country School celebrated its 10th annual IDEA Day, taking a break from the regular academic schedule to engage in a full day of hands-on workshops and activities centered around inclusion, diversity, empathy, and action (or IDEA, as it is known at The Country School). Fittingly, the theme for this year’s 10th anniversary IDEA Day was Reflection, a topic explored by our keynote speaker Gabby Mbeki, who founded IDEA Day when she was a new 5th Grade teacher at The Country School.

In preparation for this year’s IDEA Day, which is held around Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, students and teachers across the grade levels read Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem, the new book by poet Amanda Gorman. An illustrated poem inviting us to join our voices together to create positive change in the world, the book was also a focus of workshops across grade levels. Other workshops included Identity Self-Portraits, StoryCorps, and a Reflection Walk on the trails around campus. 

IDEA Day 2022 began with an All-School Meeting, as members of the IDEA Student Alliance introduced the keynote speaker, whom they had met with in November to brainstorm plans for the day’s events. “We are delighted to welcome Ms. Mbeki to join us as, together, we reflect and celebrate the ways in which inclusion, diversity, empathy, and action are essential, both in our own community and in the broader world,” said Miklosh F., an 8th Grade IDEA Student Alliance member. “Thank you, Ms. Mbeki, for having this amazing IDEA 10 years ago!” 

After the introduction and a greeting from Ms. Mbeki, students in PreSchool-Grade 4 left the larger meeting to attend a special musical kick-off activity while 5th-8th Graders remained for her talk, "Understanding Community Impact." A personal reflection as well as a meditation on the importance of belonging, Ms. Mbeki, now a 5th Grade teacher at Buckingham Browne & Nichols in Boston, began by discussing her childhood as a First Generation American, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, and her years as a young student, first in a diverse community with a large Caribbean population, and then at Kingswood-Oxford, a PreK-12th Grade independent school in West Hartford. 

It was “a big change to go to K-O in 6th Grade,” Ms. Mbeki told her audience. “I learned a lot about inclusion.” Some of her most impactful learning came during a day of workshops Kingswood-Oxford offered on MLK Day, all centered around themes of diversity and inclusion. “For me, going into the school in 6th Grade, that day held such importance because I had never been in an environment where a school would take the time to stop and have conversations that weren’t necessarily centered around the academic curriculum or content that we were focusing on at the time,” she said. Instead, the conversation was about very different subjects: “Let’s talk about what does it mean to be in an environment of belonging, let’s talk about the different aspects of what makes people’s identities, let’s talk about stories, let’s talk about life in a way that wasn’t really being talked about,” she said.

Those memories stayed with her, and when she arrived at The Country School as a new young teacher, she quickly realized that this was a community which might embrace something similar. “We have really wonderful teachers who are doing great work, and [in my classroom] it’s being shown and expressed every day that we have students who want to hear and be involved,” she said, remembering her 5th Graders that first year. “They’re so eager to want to move past just understanding and learning but really put forth action.” 

She pitched her idea for a day of workshops to then-Head of School Laurie Bottiger, who immediately embraced it. Ms. Mbeki’s new colleagues jumped in to join her, planning workshops ranging from Music vs. Politics to What’s Going on with Barbie?, Jackie and the BK Dodgers to Hero or Hotshot. They also arranged for students to read a shared text,  Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water, with the author joining them for a Skype conversation. Guiding the day’s programming was a question Ms. Mbeki posed: “How it is that we, as teachers and as a community, expose each other to what is happening in the world?” 

That first IDEA Day, held for students in Grades 5-8,  was such a success that it was expanded the following year to include all students, PreSchool-Grade 8, and it has been held school-wide every year since, with different guest speakers joining us, ranging from storytellers to artists, musicians to educators. 

As the 10th anniversary approached, members of the IDEA Faculty Alliance (a group which grew out of that original work a decade ago, along with the IDEA Student Alliance and the IDEA Family Alliance), realized that Ms. Mbeki would be a perfect keynote speaker. They held a virtual summer meeting and then an in-person brainstorming session on Alumni Day. Together, alliance members, including our new, and first-ever, IDEA Director Keith Smith, and Ms. Mbeki agreed that Reflection would be a fitting theme for the day’s events.

While preparing for IDEA Day, Ms. Mbeki said she began to think more and more about her own motivations as a new, young teacher fresh out of graduate school. And she started to realize that at the heart of her effort to spearhead IDEA Day was her own desire to belong. “I grew up in the suburbs, near Hartford, and being in Madison felt different for me,” she said. “Being a new teacher felt very different for me, being a Person and a Woman of Color, and in this environment, felt very different…. Sitting back and reflecting on why IDEA Day came to be…  it also came out of a need to feel that I very much belong.”

Ms. Mbeki’s personal reflection parallels some of the changes we have seen take place in the world and at other schools over the last decade. Today there is less talk about simply diversity and inclusion and more about creating a sense of community and belonging (the TEDx talk Ms. Mbeki shared, How to Go Beyond Diversity and Inclusion to Community and Belonging by E'Ula Green, is a perfect example). As Ms. Mbeki said, it’s important that “we move beyond connection to … what have we done to create a community? What does diversity and inclusion look like? What does understanding our own story mean? We’re really pushing forward the narrative of belonging. How do we have folks feel accepted? How do we go about navigating, or help folks navigate, a new space? How do we build this wonderful environment that includes all of our community?”

With all of these questions in mind, students moved on to their workshops. Scroll down for descriptions and photos.

During the Reflection Walk, 5th-8th Graders engaged in a series of stations to reflect on the past, present, and future (younger students will be invited to participate in a similar walk later in the year, with older students leading). One of the stations, at the start of one of the trails, invited students to look in a mirror and reflect on what they saw. They were then asked to continue walking, on their own, through the trail while considering the impact of each of their steps. 

At the end, participants looked at campus through an empty frame hung from the trees. The view inside the frame looked back at campus. Students were asked to consider what they have added - and can continue to add - to the community.
After finishing their solo walks on the trail, students reconvened with their group, collecting at the Brave Space, the new outdoor gathering spot created at the suggestion of the IDEA Student Alliance. Collectively, with each participant taking a line, they read the poem “Invitation to A Brave Space,” which starts with the words, “Together we will create a brave space” and ends with these: “We will not be perfect. It will not always be what we wish it to be. But it will be our brave space together, and we will work on it side by side.”

Students then moved inside to reflect on their experience and to visit a small museum of artifacts collected on campus over the years and reflecting those who were here before them.

In the Identity Self-Portrait workshop, students of all ages created self-portraits to explore perceptions about identity, both their own and others’. Designed to help students understand their own identities, it was also an exercise to help build a space of respect and tolerance for all. Facilitators say the student artwork was profound, heartfelt, and beautiful, and that all participants fully engaged. For students who weren’t able to complete their projects, time is being set aside with IDEA Alliance facilitators to work on them over the next few weeks. 

In the StoryCorps workshop, both Lower and Middle School students discussed the art of active listening, and watched a segment explaining the StoryCorps project. (Click here to watch an animated video interview between StoryCorps founder David Isay and his nephew.) After discussing a specific protocol for listening, pausing, and responding, students in grades 5-8 divided into pairs to record interviews with each other. The pairs took turns answering open-ended questions, including “what’s something about yourself that might surprise me?” And “how has your life changed in the past year or two?” In the Middle School, younger students partnered with older students, creating a unique avenue to understand ourselves and each other through the interview process. 

A few photos of students doing StoryCorps interviews.

In the youngest grades, students participated in some of their own activities, including creating a huge collage, where they enjoyed watching colors spread over a bulletin board in a stunning,  collaborative piece of abstract art. When they were finished, they colored and cut out letters to spell out "We are the change." Teachers say that these have been wonderful layers to add to their Kindness Tree. And, to that end, in the days following IDEA Day, our youngest students have been busy delivering Kindness to the school community. Watch for examples.

Here, 2nd Graders work on an All About Me project.
Finally, students of all ages participated in hands-on workshops inspired by Change Sings, with some of our younger students drawing self-portraits with an idea or thought about what they can do to make the world a better and kinder place. 

In 5th-8th Grade, Change Sings was an in-depth workshop experience. The session began with an exploration of the meaning of the word "anthem" (defined as a piece of music intended to express patriotism, love, or commitment) and a discussion about how Change Sings fits that definition. Participants analyzed the language and the illustrations, considering the emotions conveyed, how the characters express a commitment, and how group dynamics change over the course of the book. From there, they discussed well-known young changemakers, from Greta Thunberg to Amanda Gorman, as well as home-grown Country School changemakers, including Cooper Schwartz '20, founder of Hedgehog Beanies, working to support people who are homeless, Joshua Reichard '21, ambassador for New Haven Climate Movement, and Devan Cowles-Garcia ’11, racial and social justice advocate and one of last year’s Elmore Leadership Teaching Fellows. Participants identified changes they might like to spearhead on campus, in their town, or in our world, and then brainstormed steps they would need to make to bring them to fruition. They identified people they would need to pitch their plans to and designed slogans, using the power of words, and logos to represent their ideas. 

Kristin Liu, one of the teachers leading the session, also shared a message from one of her former students, Joshua Reichard, who graduated last year. Now a freshman at Xavier, Joshua helped lead a ban on plastic bags in Madison when he was in 6th Grade at The Country School. These days, he serves as an ambassador for the New Haven Climate Movement. He recently sent us this comment about his work to address the climate crisis:

I think that if you are interested in something, feel passionate about something, or feel that something that is important to you is not being represented in your government it is important to take action. Finding local groups like this one that are organizing peaceful protests is something that we can do to fix something we feel should be changed. I feel passionately about the environment, and the ongoing climate crisis. It is obvious that not enough is being done to fix this by companies and governments that are supposed to work for the common good. If you feel passionately about something, do something about it. It’s one thing to feel bad, and another thing to actually do something about it. TCS has a focus on advocating for yourself, and what you believe in. These lessons helped me to be where I am now. I am proud that I am able to stand up for what I believe in, and I would not be able to or know how to without TCS.

What a perfect message to cap off IDEA Day Year 10. As one teacher said, this day shows that “Anyone and everyone can make a difference. Even the smallest action can have a huge effect. Use your voice and words to create a positive change in the world. Be the change!” 

Thank you to all Country School students and teachers, PreSchool through Grade 8, for their deep and active engagement in IDEA Day. Thank you to keynote speaker and IDEA Day Founder Gabby Mbeki for her inspiring keynote and for leading us down the IDEA Day road 10 years ago. And thank you to all of our IDEA Alliances (Student, Faculty, and Family) for their leadership and work behind the scenes to make this day so memorable and meaningful. Our IDEA Alliances always welcome new members. If you would like to join the IDEA Student, Family, or Faculty Alliance,  please contact IDEA Director Keith Smith or IDEA Faculty Alliance member Vicki Wepler.  More to come.
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Founded in 1955, The Country School is a coeducational, independent school serving students in PreSchool-Grade 8. The Country School is committed to active, hands-on learning and a vigorous curriculum that engages the whole child.