Perspectives are changing at Shelburne Community School and other schools throughout the state. At least, that is the intention of a disability awareness program–Changing Perspectives. On Feb. 21, an event will be held at SCS through a partnership with the not-for-profit group.
Shelburne Community School Differences Awareness Day is the culmination of studies that students have been engaged in over the past several weeks. The event is in partnership with the not-for-profit group Changing Perspectives—a group founded in 2015 by Sam Drazin after he had positive feedback on a Differences Awareness Day he ran at a school where he was teaching.
The group offers schools resources to assist with disability awareness. The curriculum is divided into three parts: learning, experience and reflection. This is the second year that SCS has used the curriculum. Guidance counselors Rachel Petraska and Katie Tyler taught the curriculum, and teacher Natalie Lodge organized the Differences Awareness Day.
Tuesday’s event will run throughout the morning. It will feature three panels and a variety of simulations. The overall program, Drazin said, is designed to help students more authentically understand what it is like to have a disability.
Although SCS participated in the program last year, things have become even more cohesive with this years’ experience. “Last year was fantastic, but we did a bit of scrambling learning how the program worked and putting on our first ever disability awareness event. After we implemented the curriculum last year, my colleague, Vasanthi Meyette and I, requested a grant through the SCS PTO to pay for an additional year of the Changing Perspectives Curriculum. We thought it would be powerful to reach even more students and decided to expand from fourth and fifth grade (what we did during the 2015-2016 school year) to third-eighth grade for the 2016-2017 school year,” Lodge said.
That led to a summer professional day last June for Lodge, Meyette and teachers who were interested in continuing the work with the program. During that time, they laid out plans for how the curriculum would be delivered and how they would organize the Disability Awareness Day.
“We changed the name from ‘Disability Awareness Day’ to ‘Differences Awareness Day’ to reflect the fact that we all have differences,” Lodge said. “We will begin our Differences Awareness Day by having three different panels occurring simultaneously. We invited community members living with differences to come and speak about their experiences. I sent the panelists the questions ahead of time, and students will be asking the questions during the panels. After the panel discussions, the fifth-grade students will be hosting simulations in our classrooms. Third- and fourth-grade students will come through and get to experience what it might be like to live with a disability/differences. We chose the fifth-graders to host the simulations because they participated in the same simulations last year, and we thought it would be powerful for them to lead their schoolmates through the same powerful experience they themselves had.”
Drazin said that the group hopes that their work goes beyond disability awareness, too. With the curriculum, he said, it helps to provide a framework for larger conversations about other issues such as gender identity, LQBT, etc.
At the end of the day, the hope is that students will gain greater empathy for others. “My hope is always for students to walk away with a greater understanding of the lives of other people—empathy. I believe that we often fear what we do not understand, and by providing students with the opportunity to hear from people living with disabilities and to experience a simulation I believe that we take a small part of the mystery away. I also hope to shift the paradigm from looking at people’s challenges, to their strengths. While someone with autism might experience many challenges, they also have incredible gifts because of their challenges,” Lodge said.