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East Elementary teacher offers school-wide lesson on diversity

These are some of the leaves "growing" on the East Elementary diversity tree.

The concept of diversity encompasses acceptance and respect. It means understanding that each individual is unique and it recognizes our individual differences.

These can be along the dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs or other ideologies. Diversity is about understanding each other and moving beyond simple tolerance to embrace and celebrate the rich dimensions contained within each individual.

Christina Mitchell, an exceptional children’s (EC) teacher at East Elementary, planned a unit of study for her students about diversity and friendship that transformed into a school-wide project. Mitchell teaches in a classroom of children with autism.

“They are a group of children with many thoughts, ideas, preferences and skills,” she said. “I strive to help everyone understand, just because a person has autism, epilepsy or any other condition, they are still people with thoughts and hopes for the future.”

To begin the unit, Mitchell posted a large bare paper tree trunk in the hall outside her classroom and left it for a week, waiting for passersby to question why the tree was there. While the tree was on the wall outside of her classroom, her students were inside learning about the changes that plants go through in the autumn.

They talked about the differences in types of trees and how the same was true in people; there are many differences in each of us. Mitchell then hung a poem she had written about the tree beside the bare tree and was pleased by the number of students and staff who stopped to admire the tree and its poem.

“Students would ask me, ‘Why doesn’t your tree have any leaves? All trees have leaves,’ ” she said.

Mitchell informed the students that some of them would be invited to join in helping create the tree. “Students from other areas of the school expressed great excitement to be included in the process,” she said.

As the project took form, students from other classes were invited to come into Mitchell’s classroom to enjoy books about diversity, as well as information about the signs of changes in nature during autumn. Following the reading lesson, all the students joined together and created "stained-glass" leaves.

A point was made to express to all students that each leaf was an original. Even leaves that were created using the same colors were different sizes or shapes, or the color displays were in a different pattern. Students were reminded that just like the leaves were original and special, so were they.

"But what about twins, Ms. Mitchell?” asked one student. Mitchell replied, “Twins look alike but even twins are unique in their own way. They have their own thoughts and ideas. Even though they might look alike on the outside, twins are still one of a kind and may like different things.”

Solid colored leaves were distributed to all staff and classrooms, inviting others in the school community to write something about themselves that was special or unique. Leaves came back to Mitchell’s room in mass numbers and the tree flourished, blooming toward the ceiling and away from the wall.

Each leaf on the tree is very special in the message it shares. Classes have been seen stopping in the hall to visit the tree with their teachers to admire the leaves and read things that students have written. This project has helped to increase understanding in students that it’s not only okay to be an original but that they should have confidence in themselves because of their differences. By reading some of the differences that others share, students and staff are learning some interesting facts about their peers.

The week before Thanksgiving was the final week of the diversity unit. The last phase of the tree included "fruits of thankfulness." Pumpkins and acorns created by students were scattered at the base of tree with things written on the acorns for which they are personally thankful.

There were also four three-dimensional acorns hanging from the tree listing things that everyone in the nation should be thankful for: freedom, family, education and love. Just as acorns are the seeds of life for a tree, so are these four things the seeds for who we are and who we become.

The Diversity Tree will be on display at East Elementary School until the beginning of the winter break (mid-December), showing off its leaves in bright colors and styles, each one representing a person that belongs to the collective tree.

This is the second year Mitchell has planned a diversity unit that took on a life of its own school-wide. Last year, her class created a Rainbow Fish and individuals in the school contributed colored fish scales listing unique attributes people wished to share.

Mitchell said she is already thinking about the project for next year. She’s not sure what the next theme will be for her diversity unit, but the school community is looking forward to discovering what it will be and how everyone can learn to further appreciate the differences in one another.

Written by: Christina Mitchell, East Elementary EC teacher, and Lisa Bush, Library Media Coordinator
Posted: Nov 28, 2012 by Deb Coates Bledsoe

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