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Diversity Equity Inclusion & Belonging at Severn

Signs and Stories To Appreciate Our Differences

Through every part of our curriculum, Lower School teachers strive to expand their students' understanding of the many different ways of being in the world. For our youngest learners, real-life experience is a critical part of developing those understandings. In a recent Zoom visit with high school students from the Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind, first graders in Ms. Cowell and Ms. Wong's classes learned that while communication might not look the same for everyone, a shared love of stories and connection puts us on common ground.

Creating Connections

During their language arts unit about animals and people working together, first graders read "Koko and Penny," a story from Wonders Literature Anthology about a gorilla who learned sign language. Each class talked about different ways to communicate including verbally, with body language, facial expressions, and sign language. They had plenty of experience with the first three, but for most, sign language is a newer concept. Seeing an opportunity to make a memorable connection, Ms. Cowell reached out to her longtime friend and teacher of the Deaf and hard of hearing, Ms. Shellie Shipley, for a Zoom visit with three of her high school students.

Starting With Curiosity

Before the visit, Ms. Cowell and Ms. Wong asked their classes to brainstorm questions they would like to ask. Our first graders' genuine curiosity brought smiles to the high schoolers' faces as they signed their responses to Ms. Jacque Fult, an interpreter, who then relayed their answers verbally. Much of what they said about learning and using sign language could be applied to any language — starting with simpler, more gestural language at a young age followed by formal language development through school.
"It's hard and takes effort, but if you are willing to put in the time, you can do it. It's a lifelong process of always learning new things."

"It takes a lifetime to learn, you are always picking up new words as you grow older."
Severn School first grader asking a question on Zoom.
Zooming from Ms. Wong's class, Penelope '32 asked 'What is the hardest word to sign?'
Severn School first grader asking a question on Zoom.
Zooming from Ms. Cowell's class, Jack '32 asked Ms. Shipley, 'What inspired you to become a teacher for people who are Deaf?'
When 1st grader Keon '32 Zooming from home asked, "How can I say something to a person who is Deaf or hard of hearing if I don't know sign language?" several high schoolers were eager to answer.
"There are so many ways that you can use right now. You can use a piece of paper and write back and forth and communicate that way."

"You can use an interpreter and bring them with you to communicate back and forth. Or you can use a phone and text back and forth."

"You don’t have to use [formal] sign language, you can use gestures back and forth and figure out what each other is saying."

Signing Together

Our first graders also asked how to sign different words and phrases including "Fly Guy" (a favorite book character), "Arizona," and of course, "crab." The high schoolers demonstrated how to make each sign while our first graders followed along.
Severn School first graders in class on a Zoom call with visitors.
Ms. Fult and Ms. Shipley signing along with our first grade classes (the high school students are not pictured to protect their privacy).
Finally, the Arizona students signed a children's book, Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie, while Ms. Fult read their signs aloud and flipped through the pages on screen. As our first graders listened and laughed along with the story, the barriers of language and distance seem to disappear — a reminder that we often have much more in common with others than what you might see at first glance.
Screenshot of the children's book on the Zoom screen.

Building Understanding Every Day

Our teachers commit to incorporating diverse perspectives, materials, and experiences in and out of the classroom. They create unique opportunities for students to learn about and appreciate different cultures, combat bias, and promote genuine understanding and acceptance of others. From reading literature that celebrates diversity and exploring history from varied perspectives to experiences like our Zoom visitors from Arizona, we aim to make diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging part of the fabric of everyday learning at Severn.

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