Practicing Empathy, Caring, and Gratitude for Better World Day
Geoff Schutte, Beth Smith, Chris Dolgos
Geoff Schutte, a 12th grade English teacher from Tapestry Charter School in Buffalo, NY, Beth Smith, A K-1 teacher at Frank Elementary School in Kenosha, WI, and Chris Dolgos, a 6th grade teacher at Genesee Community Charter School in Rochester, NY, are the team captains for the the Building Inclusive and Equitable Communities team for EL Education’s Better World Day project. As the Covid-19 crisis closed schools around the country, the team reflected on the project's shift to the Better World Day Connections, helping kids stay connected to their communities, and how the need to build inclusive and equitable communities has never been so clear.
Notions of equity and inclusion within our schools are always complicated, and schools under normal circumstances struggle to provide for all students while challenging and supporting them in fair and equitable ways. That has always been a focus, both within this Better World Day and among the larger work of the caring schools within our network. This shift to online learning reveals the economic, physical, and psychological strains it unequally places on some members of our community.
We see the news and read the stories about our medical personnel being overwhelmed, especially in facilities serving our most at-risk populations as well in neighborhoods that are often home to that other set of “essential workers”—our food service and transportation workers, caretakers of the elderly and infirm, and building services personnel. These are the parents, grandparents, and siblings of our students—in some cases, the students themselves—who have been asked to continue working on our behalf for low wages, meager benefits, and inconsistent hours and protection. There is a huge debt to be repaid to these folks and we need to support them now and when this crisis finally abates.
Schools across the EL Education network are pivoting from their original, school-based projects, and collaborating on a national level. All four Better World Day teams—Building Inclusive and Equitable Communities; Environmental Stewardship; Literacy for All; and Hunger, Housing, and Homlessness—have seen how the current health crisis impacts each of these areas, mostly for worse. But we also recognize that we can empower students, elevate their voices, and create engagement to support the Better World Day Connections campaign.
In Kenosha, WI, the schools are collaborating on the theme “It All Starts With Hello.” The shift to Better World Day Connections means supporting students as they work on writing cards and inspirational messages that will be given to those receiving food from our local food pantry. Finding their student voice and creating connections that can comfort and support community members who may be feeling anxious can be inspirational to both our kid writers and those that receive the cards. Ma’Quan, 1st grader at Frank Elementary, says “It All Starts with Hello can help to build equitable communities. I think it means that we need to put our phones down and talk to each other. It doesn’t matter what is going on all around us when we are with our families. It is important that we talk to each other and not talk on our phones. I am excited to put signs up at restaurants to let people know it does all start with hello.” As teachers, volunteers, and service providers are helping to get food and resources to the greater community they have seen anxiety and stress levels on the rise. Students are excited to help make people feel better and spread joy and happiness by writing and decorating cards that will be included in food pantry distributions.
At Genesee Community Charter School (GCCS), the school community adopted Foodlink, a regional food bank serving Rochester and its ten-county metro area, as the recipients of Better World Connections. Even alumni participated in making sure all 104 employees of Foodlink were recognized for their efforts. Judah, a fifth-grader at GCCS, said “It feels impressive that the whole country can come together on one single project.” Natalia, an alumna now in 8th grade, said “I think that it brings joy to people when kids like us are part of Better World Day. Everyone needs to know they are appreciated and can use some extra joy in tough times. It feels special to know that kids in my community and across America are all taking time to try to make a difference.”
At Tapestry Charter School in Buffalo, NY, the entire community is rallying around its food service team—an incredibly dedicated group that continues to produce hundreds of meals a day—over 21,000 since schools moved online, for students and families within (and outside) of our community. “How can we not lift them up?” explains Rachael Becker, one of the organizers. On Better World Day, staff, students, and families will be swinging by the school to drop off words of celebration, notes of thanks, and small tokens of appreciation to this essential team of workers. What was an intricate part of the school before has now become a lifeline for families and students attempting to navigate these challenging times.
EL Education students across the country come from schools steeped in the importance of character and the value or rigorous and purposeful work. Better World Day Connections is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate collaboration, practice empathy and caring, and show gratitude to those members of our community risking so much to keep us all safe.