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Eastover’s Celebrating Differences Day 

Eastover’s Celebrating Differences Day 

“I learned that even though you’re different, that doesn’t mean you’re not still important,” shares 2nd grade Eastover student Yuna Kang, reflecting on the school’s recent “Celebrating Differences Day.” Coordinated by a team of six Eastover faculty members called the “Celebrating Differences Crew,” this new day-long event is a beautiful celebration of the many ways that students learn. Beginning with classroom chalk talks to inspire students to think about kindness and inclusion, the learning continued with three half-hour presentations by speakers, on different topics for each grade level. High school students trained in restorative circles led students in talks after lunch, an assembly by the Swingset Mamas inspired children with music, and the day concluded with reflective craft, including a puzzle piece drawing; the PTO will create a giant puzzle called “One Eastover” out of all the student pieces. The first of many Celebrating Differences Days at Eastover was a massive success! 

Amanda Melymuka, a 2nd grade teacher and one of the “Celebrating Differences Crew” faculty members who coordinated the activities, explains the evolution of the day: “In our Global Education Team, we’ve been talking about this for a long time. It was a big picture idea that we had last year, and we realized it would be a great opportunity to highlight all the diversity we have here at Eastover. These students see kids who have physical impairments, autism, ADHD, deafness, and blindness. We thought it would be a great way for Kindergarten through 3rd graders to understand what that is, if their peers explain that to them. We use different modes of learning, where the high schoolers will come in and show everybody what they’ve been trained in, and hold a restorative circle. We wanted it to be interactive and fun for the kids too.”

As for the day’s structure, Melymuka explains, “this morning, there are four Friendship Circle volunteers running sessions, and Friendship Circle also put us in touch with the Swingset Mamas, who are providing the musical assembly at 2 pm. Some of the sessions are Friendship Circle led, and the other sessions are either led by teachers who have experience with their topic, or students who are leading the sessions. For the Kindergarten session that is titled “Physically Impaired,” one Eastover 1st grader and one 6th grader (a former Eastover student) are presenting. Xander is leading the session on “Adaptive Tools,” because he is a student who cannot speak; he is showing the kids his tools and how he speaks. We wanted to build awareness, so kids can learn to empathize and understand each other. It’s kind of an un-talked about thing. Kids understand that they see different things, but they don’t know the “why.” Knowing the why is so important to them.”

2nd grade teacher Devon Broderick, and also one of the “Celebrating Differences Crew,” shares, “We really needed a day like this. We have so many unique programs in our building, so every session represents at least one student in our building. Over the years, students will get all twelve of these topics, if they’re starting in Kindergarten.”

Topics covered throughout the morning sessions include Deafness, Blindness, and Physical Differences for Kindergarten classes; Autism, Life-Threatening Allergies, and Cognitive Impairment for 1st graders; Learning Differences/Dyslexia, ADHD, and Adaptive Tools for 2nd graders; and finally, Down Syndrome, Chronic Illness, and Anxiety/Depression for 3rd grade students.

Broderick continues, “We knew going in that it would be a lot of work, but we didn’t realize how much support we would have from our building principal and the entire district. Our team had a few more volunteers in the early stages - parent volunteer Lauren Dalgleish, and Bloomfield Hills High School teachers Marlowe B’Sheart, Karen Twomey, and Nick Riggs. We also consulted with East Hills DHH teacher Kelley Parrish regarding making the day accessible for our deaf students and staff. We have a couple of staff members presenting on challenges that are very personal to them. Dr. Jennifer Flowers is presenting on chronic illness to 3rd graders. Heather Hoisington is one of our DHH teachers, and she works with students who are blind, so she’s presenting on visual impairments. Diana Campbell is one of our deaf staff at this building, so she’s the presenter on deafness. Camille Davis is one of our Special Education teachers, and she’s presenting on learning differences and dyslexia. Kelly Hooton is presenting on autism, and many of our students in this building have autism and have her for the Academic Resource Program. It was an amazing experience for these students to learn from these presenters with their incredible expertise. We also have our paraprofessionals helping: Bridget is paired with Xander; Jennifer is Maya’s para and followed her up to East Hills, and Ghazal’s para is Liza Wade.”

Katie Bramos, another “Celebrating Differences Crew” member adds, “I feel like this is really great; we’ve all been through Global Champions and Restorative Circle training, and this event is making that vision come to life. I think it’s awesome that Eastover is piloting this. We’re hoping to make this a yearly tradition. We felt like there are so many ways that children learn these days, and getting them to understand it, and taking the day to get them to understand it, basing it off their levels, and moving forward throughout the years, they’re going to see different perspectives.”

Jodie Jacobs, one of the speakers for a 2nd grade session on ADHD, was a visitor from Friendship Circle. For Jacobs, the connection was personal: “My friend Hayley Snyder is a teacher here, and our kids are buddies, so she asked me to be here today. I’m going to introduce what ADHD is, what it looks like, and have the kids take a look at a couple of videos. One is of a child on YouTube that is her first hand experience with ADHD, and the other is a video of my daughter two years ago on her birthday. The kids can learn to differentiate what they’re doing. I just think it’s great that we’re starting at an early age, getting the kids introduced to all the differences that kids have. Even if they take away just one thing, that’s great.”

It’s also personal for Verena Farr, mother of Xander, a 3rd grade student at Eastover who shared a presentation on Adaptive Tools with 2nd grade students. Farr shares, “Xander was born with a muscle weakness; the condition is nemaline myopathy, which is a rare myopathy, meaning a muscle disease. It’s caused by a mutation in a gene responsible for muscle contractions. It doesn’t affect his mind; it affects his skeletal muscle systems, any muscle that attaches to the spine. That’s why he can’t speak clearly and eat food via his mouth. He has the muscles, but they’re not strong enough to do the actions.”

As for what Xander shared with students on this special day celebrating differences, Farr explains, “Xander started using an iPad when they came out, when he was 18 months old. He couldn’t play with regular toys, but his fine motor skills weren’t affected, so technology was something he immediately became friends with. He could educate himself and entertain himself, and play normally. As he entered the school system, the teachers started talking to us about assisted technology. He uses Proloquo2go - a system of pictures and words, and it’s customizable, so Xander can have conversations and do school work. It has associated words and pictures. So he knows it well; he's been using it since he was 3, and he’s now 10. He likes to try to speak, and expects people to understand him. He wants to speak normally. Assistive technology has always been a huge part of him going to school. For his presentation today, he worked with Bridget Roach, his paraprofessional. Bridget said that he wrote pretty much all the content in the presentation. They’re all his answers, and he knows how to capture clips off the web and embed them into the presentation. He was teaching his class, two years ago, how to use Google Maps.”

Farr reflects, “I think today is really special. It’s something that we never had in my generation when we went to school. If there was a child who wasn’t exactly like you, children didn’t know how to behave, and they usually didn’t behave very nicely. With my son’s generation, it’s completely different, the level of awareness around differences and disability. By being more specific about the differences and about how kids live with their disabilities and how they do exactly the same things as other kids, just brings down those barriers. As these children grow up they’re going to be a lot more accepting, and there will be fewer barriers for kids like mine to lead productive and effective lives. I think today is incredibly important, especially at this age. It starts young, and it’ll just get better and better.”

Eastover students shared some powerful reflections on the day. 2nd grade student Alhasan Aldoori notes, “my favorite thing about today is the puzzle piece, and the band assembly. We’re making a puzzle, and sticking it together. All of us are a puzzle, and we all fit together.” Grace Erbaggio reflects, “I learned how people do stuff if they’re different, and that a lot of people are different, but they’re still like us in some ways.” And Kayla Holt shares, “I learned that everybody is different and it doesn’t matter how different they are, they’re still the same as you. I learned that some people talk with their hands, and some people wear hearing aids because they can’t hear, and some people need a walker or a wheelchair.”

Many thanks to the “Celebrating Differences Crew” faculty: Katie Bramos, Devon Broderick, Kelly Hooton, Amanda Melymuka, Anne Musson, and Hayley Snyder, for creating such a meaningful and successful Celebrating Differences Day at Eastover Elementary!