Being teased is not something most kids want to talk about. But last spring, a girl from PS 24 in Brooklyn did a brave thing: As part of one of our "diversity panels" at the school, she traveled to Brooklyn's PS 130 to share her story of being teased.
She told a class full of students about how she had been teased because she was overweight and because she had lived in a homeless shelter. She'd also been teased because she had a learning disability. But then she told the class about one boy at PS 24 who did not tease her: "Instead of laughing at me about how bad my math was, he helped me," she said. And then she offered some advice to the PS 130 students: "Be patient with kids with learning challenges. Be like that boy was to me."
The teacher of the PS 130 class said her students were greatly affected by hearing this message from a peer. It made a difference, especially since the class included some special needs students.
"Sometimes teachers think that their students aren't ready for a discussion about diversity," says Emma Gonzalez, the senior Morningside Center trainer who has been developing our Diversity Panel Program for the past few years. "But then they're shocked, when the discussion actually happens, by how much the kids already understand. It's because kids have experienced these things already, they already know about bias and about being teased. The diversity panel helps them connect the dots. It helps kids who have been teased or excluded to understand that it's not just their personal problem. It breaks the isolation they feel by helping them understand that this is happening to so many of us. And to see that we can do something about it."
The Diversity Panel Program got its start at PS 24, and later spread to PS 130, with support from the Charles Lawrence Keith and Clara Miller Foundation. This year, we aim to bring the program to two additional schools. Panels will make their presentations to coincide with the NYC Department of Education's Respect for All month in February.
Through the program, selected students, like the girl from PS 24, share their experiences of being "different" in some way (related to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, body size, physical ability, language, learning ability, or other attributes), touching on both their experiences of bias and ways they've challenged it. Then, students who have heard the presentation have a chance to share their own experiences of bias and discuss how we can stand up for ourselves and for others who are targeted. The program requires careful preparation and support for both students and teachers, and discussions are gently guided by knowledgeable adults.
'I feel like a free person'
Diversity panels often have a powerful effect on both the panel members and on those who hear their stories. One third-grader at PS 130 broke into tears after hearing a presentation by the PS 24 diversity panel, and had to be escorted to the restroom to wash up. Once he'd returned and calmed down, he said he wanted to tell his own story. He is Latino, and when he had been in first grade, he hadn't spoken English very well. His classmates had made fun of his poor English, and this had left him feeling isolated and lonely for a long time. This was the first time he had ever shared this story with anyone. Now, he said, "I feel like a free person."
So far, the diversity panel program has extended only to elementary schools. But this past spring, another PS 24 panel made its way to a high school - the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies. At first, says Emma, several members of the PS 24 panel said they were afraid to speak in front of high school students. Emma told the panel students it was their decision to make. "It was great to hear the discussion they had about this," said Emma. "One kid said that he was scared. But by the end of the discussion he told me, ‘I want to do it.'"
It turned out to be the right decision. The high school students were "blown away by the courage and articulateness of the kids," said Emma. "We had trouble doing the presentation in a circle format because the high school students kept breaking into applause." The PS 24 students left the school feeling that they had been honored.
See our new video about the Diversity Panel Program, which was made possible with support from the Keith & Miller Foundation. Please contact us if you'd like to consider bringing the Diversity Panel Program to your school.