Photo courtesy Gateways
By Gary Alpert
Recently, as I was concluding a Jewish day school visit, I noticed an entire class of 5th grade students giving high-fives to a 1st grader as they passed one another in the hallway. Though I’ve spent more than 30 years as a speaker, educator and after-school director in elementary schools, this is not a sight I see often. As I watched the students warmly greeting one another, I reflected back to the morning’s Gateways/Understanding Our Differences 5th grade classroom curriculum presentation.
Gateways is a Boston-based organization that works to ensure that students of all abilities have access to a Jewish education, and we have teamed up with the Ruderman Family Foundation and Understanding Our Differences (UOD), which has developed an award winning, interactive disability awareness curriculum, to teach children to “see the person and not the disability.” Students learn about a range of disabilities through PowerPoint presentations and hands-on activities. At the end of each unit, a guest with that particular disability speaks to the class about his or her experience. While the presentations and activities are compelling and informative for the students, the guest speaker is, in my experience, always a highlight of the units. This particular day was no exception.
In this unit, the 5th graders had been learning about diabetes: how sugar affects the body, how to balance a meal with exercise and insulin and how to live with the disease. Their guest speaker was not an adult who had lived with diabetes for decades – instead, it was an excited 1st grader who had recently been diagnosed with the condition. This student was asked if he would be willing speak to the 5th grade about his experience with diabetes, and with help from his parents and teachers, he worked hard on creating a speech to present.
The 5th graders were crammed into chairs, draped over desks and sprawled out on the carpet as they waited patiently for the 1st grader to start speaking. I joined his teachers and parents at the back of the room and watched him collect the notes he had been practicing for weeks. He took a deep breath and, his voice shaking, started speaking about his experience with diabetes: how his parents found out he had the disease, what it had meant for his family, the countless visits to hospitals and doctors. He told the class about how his parents woke him several times each night to check his blood and make sure he had enough insulin. The 5th graders watched, wide-eyed and captivated, as he took out his insulin pump, projected it onto the big screen and explained how the device worked.