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After reading Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi, Waking up White by Debby Irving, and watching current events that played out during the summer, Ridgefield Academy first grade teacher Audra Cartelli and third grade teacher Samantha Heller were inspired to take a critical look at the school’s social studies curriculum. They saw an opportunity to add a lower school curriculum that would help students in the private kindergarten - grade 8 school appreciate and celebrate individuality and differences, become better listeners, and hopefully grow to be kinder and more empathetic people. Students have been benefiting from their passion and work since September, and Cartelli and Heller have noticed some wonderful classroom outcomes.

“I wanted to make sure that I was doing all I could to help our students understand that they can be change agents; they can create a more inclusive, kinder world,” shared Cartelli. Using the main themes of respect, kindness, empathy, gratitude, growth mindset, responsibility, goal-setting, and conflict resolution, the two teachers shared a curriculum and framework that provides opportunities for every lower school classroom teacher to talk authentically about empathy and inclusion. “Teachers were already implementing lessons focused on social-emotional learning and mindfulness, but we wanted to emphasize teaching empathy as a means to understanding differences,” Cartelli added.

Each week Cartelli and Heller provide kindergarten - grade 3 teachers with turnkey lesson plans related to a monthly theme that include a book to share with the class, a bulletin board exercise, conversation starters, and a writing piece. For the month of November, students are talking about gratitude, gratefulness, being thankful, and how they are unique from their classmates. After sharing what they are grateful for during a recent activity, students paired off to discover what similarities they have with their partner and what makes them unique. Pairs of first grade students provided their findings to the group while classmates eagerly added comments like “I love your curly hair!” and “not many girls like to play Pokemon. That makes you different and unique!” Third graders engaged in an activity centered around ways to make friends and then interviewed a student from the other third grade class to compile one long list of creative ideas on the topic.

After almost three months since implementation of the curriculum, Cartelli and Heller are noticing a difference in the behavior of their students. “The students have so much to say in our discussions,” says Heller. “They want to share their stories and opinions. We ask the students questions like ‘Is there a time when you were talking and someone wasn’t listening to you? How did that make you feel?’ to build empathy and help them become more respectful listeners. And, it’s working! Our students are becoming kinder to their classmates, and in general, more grateful. We have noticed that some of the little conflicts that used to happen in class are no longer happening,” says Cartelli.

Asked if they plan to continue to build on this curriculum, Cartelli and Heller answer with a resounding, “Yes!” “We are privileged to work in a school where we can share our ideas and enthusiasm with our colleagues and share a curriculum that will help give our students the tools they need to live a kinder, more inclusive life,” says Cartelli. “If we have the ability to create a more whole, educated child, then I say, ‘Let’s do it!’”