Lower School | K-Gr.5
Character Education

Finding Beauty Inside and Out

What is beauty? Is it something we see? Something we feel? Can our actions be beautiful? Last week's Open Doors lessons for grades preschool through five explored the meaning of beauty inside and out through Matt de la Peña's award-winning children's book, Last Stop on Market Street. Part of our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion curriculum, these sessions of Open Doors encouraged students to join a young boy and his grandmother as they travel through the city, finding beauty and positivity in unexpected places.

What Is Open Doors?

For the past ten years, inclusivity advocate and Open Doors teacher Ms. Renee Spears has met with every grade three times each year to engage students in conversations about self-awareness, empathy, kindness, compassion, respect, and more. She creates a variety of fun activities that invite students to explore their identities and place in the world, and that of others around them.
"Open Doors is Severn School‘s student passport to the future! My goal is to touch that future. Listening to students and respecting their responses helps to build a community where each voice and opinion is valued. I want to bring a strong understanding of self. When you are strong in your in your identity and able to empathize with others, you will have a better understanding of other people and cultures." — Ms. Spears
Severn School technology teacher preparing for back to school.
Ms. Spears listens with focused attention as students share, creating an environment that welcomes open dialogue.
This spring, she teamed up with librarian Ms. Kristen Kwisnek to create a week of Open Doors for all grades during April, with another to come in May. With pandemic restrictions in place and students unable to work physically close to one another, Ms. Spears and Ms. Kwisnek brought their students together through discussions about the culturally diverse characters and experiences in de la Peña's book.
"I'm big on the idea of windows and mirrors. I really want students to see themselves in the books they read. But also to provide windows for them to learn about other people's experiences — to look out and see that the world is made of all different kinds of people and to find the common ground between the two." — Ms. Kwisnek

Last Stop On Market Street

Since publishing in 2015, Last Stop on Market Street has won a Caldecott Honor, the Newbery Medal, and the Coretta Scott King Award. Beautifully illustrated, the book tells the story of CJ, a young boy who rides the bus with this grandmother every Sunday to volunteer at the Market Street soup kitchen after church. As CJ and Nana travel to their destination, CJ asks questions about what he sees as Nana, modeling kindness and compassion, remarks on the beauty in everything around them. The book provides many opportunities for discussing inequality, kindness, helping others, and more. Planning for both remote and in-person students with limits on sharing books, Ms. Spears created a read-aloud of the story ahead of time.

Just Right For Every Grade

To begin each session, Ms. Spears and Kwisnek played an introduction by Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Mr. Michael Glasby during which he gave kid-friendly definitions of DEI.

Ms. Spears and Ms. Kwisnek then walked their classes through the different scenes of the book asking thoughtful questions to prompt discussion along the way. For older students, prompts included:
  • Can you use beauty to describe more than just people, places or things?
  • What do you think people mean when they talk about inner beauty?
  • CJ notices a lot of things in the world around him. Why do you think CJ and his Nana don't have a car?
  • CJ and Nana volunteered at a soup kitchen to help feed people meals. How do you think it made CJ feel? Let’s talk about a time when you have helped someone in need. How did that make you feel? Why is it important to give to the community?
For younger students, prompts included:
  • Nana helps CJ see that there is beauty everywhere we look. Let’s think about somewhere outside that we can find beauty and see what beauty we can find around us here, in the classroom or your home.
  • CJ and Nana have a Sunday routine. What is a routine? Do you have a routine on a certain day?
  • I love how positive CJ’s Nana is. How do you think this makes CJ feel? How would it make you feel?
For our 4th and 5th graders, Ms. Spears also talked more directly about the vocabulary that Mr. Glasby introduced, including a discussion about the differences between inequality, inequity, equity, and justice.
Graphic illustrating the difference between inequality, inequity, equity, and justice.
Illustration by artist Tony Ruth based on Shel Silverstein's 'The Giving Tree'

Empathy-Building Activity

In the book, when a blind man boards the bus with his dog, CJ asks, "How come that man can't see?" to which Nana responds, "Boy, what do you know about seeing? Some people watch the world with their ears." Using this scene for a multisensory activity about understanding the experiences of others, Ms. Spears and Ms. Kwisnek asked their classes to close their eyes, listen to and identify a variety of different sounds. As our students "saw" with their ears, they made the connection that with or without sight, someone can use all of their senses to learn about the world.
Severn School technology teacher preparing for back to school.
Our 1st graders' hands flew into the air as they recognized different sounds like raindrops, an airplane cabin, a cat's meow, and more.

Inspiration to Give Back

The last bus stop in the book brings the reader to a soup kitchen where Nana and CJ volunteer. Using this scene to spark a discussion about volunteering and helping others, Ms. Spears and Ms. Kwisnek shared some of their volunteer experience, and asked students to brainstorm how they have helped others and create a list of what they would like to do in the future. They completed this portion of the lesson by watching videos of other young students talking about their volunteer experiences.
Severn School teacher talks to a student in class.
While 3rd graders remained distanced at their desks, Ms. Spears circulated the room to make sure every student felt heard and valued as they shared with the class.

Toward a Culture of Belonging

Open Doors is one of many opportunities for students to learn about and appreciate differences, combat bias, and promote genuine understanding and acceptance of others. As we seek to incorporate a variety of cultures, perspectives, and experiences into everyday instruction, we also set aside time for direct exploration of DEI topics. From reading literature that celebrates diversity and exploring history from varied perspectives to more structured experiences like Open Doors, we aim to make diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging part of the fabric of learning at Severn.
"Open Doors is another opportunity in our Lower School for students to strengthen their ability to engage in courageous conversations, display empathy, promote equity, and celebrate the diverse aspects of their identities and others." — DEI Director Mr. Michael Glasby


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