Open Doors Teaches Young Learners to Look on the Inside, the Outside, and at the World Around Them

Taylor Belo, Severn’s new Open Doors Teacher, can barely contain her excitement when she talks about this signature initiative, what she’s doing to make it fun and engaging, and the connections she sees students making due to the lessons. And her enthusiasm is contagious.
Take, for example, the first trimester lesson: What’s Your Superpower? For maximum impact, Belo donned a superhero mask and cape, striking a powerful pose as she greeted arriving students. Ask her about the book she chose for the second lesson – The Colors We Share – and she is in awe of one particularly striking page and what it revealed. And ask her what she enjoys most about this new role, and she can’t hide her smile when sharing how rewarding it is that the students get excited for the next lesson as soon as she’s finished teaching the current one.

There’s good reason for that excitement. In Belo's debut Open Doors curriculum, she designed an engaging series of lessons that began with students looking within to uncover their personal superpowers. Then, they looked at themselves on the outside to better understand skin tone and how colorful the world really is. In their final lesson, students will look beyond themselves to discover how they can help the world around them.
As Belo – who is also a second-grade teaching assistant at Severn – artfully weaves these lessons together throughout the school year, students are learning skills that go beyond traditional ABCs. They are learning how to be a good friend, act with integrity, be respectful, and have compassion for others. “At its core, Open Doors is all about self-awareness for students, learning from each other’s differences, building empathy, and understanding how we can all learn and grow from one another,” said Belo.

What Is Open Doors?
Open Doors is a signature Lower School initiative under Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB). Through thoughtful lessons that incorporate a diverse selection of literature and resources, Open Doors is designed to educate students about DEIB but also, more generally, to foster an appreciation of others. It has been part of the Lower School programming since 2005.

Once a trimester, library time is dedicated to Open Doors. All Lower School students participate. In addition, kindergarten through fifth-grade students can attend an after-school session that further extends the lesson.
Often, there is a visual component to Open Doors as well – one that brings the whole school together. For "What's Your Superpower?" students wrote down their personal superpowers, and Belo displayed them on a community bulletin board in the hallway. Students’ mini-mes from lesson two became part of the school’s art display.

“Students truly enjoy and appreciate the time they have with Ms. Belo in Open Doors,” said Cathy North, Lower School Head.  “Ms. Belo exudes enthusiasm as she engages students in literature and encourages them to extend their thinking, share their ideas, and reflect upon themselves and the world around them.”  

Lesson One: What’s Your Superpower?
When the kindergarten students arrived for their first Open Doors library time of the school year and came face-to-face with a mysterious masked figure, some shied away, unsure who was behind the mask. Others began chattering excitedly, anxious to share their superhero knowledge even before the topic had been formally introduced.

Belo jumped in, welcoming students and quickly settling them crisscross applesauce-style on the carpet. She then began by guiding the young students through an age-appropriate introduction to the first trimester Open Doors topic, asking students first if they understood what superpowers are and if they could give her some examples. They were quick to share, shouting out things like the ability to fly, to be super-fast and super-strong, or to be like Superman or Ironman. When Belo asked what superpowers they had, one student exclaimed that he had a million superpowers.

With the basic concept established, Belo introduced the class to the book central to her lesson, The Big Book of Superpowers, by Susanna Isern. This beautifully illustrated children’s book contains eighteen stories of kids with everyday superpowers and was a perfect fit for her first lesson.

Belo enthusiastically repeated this process with students in every grade over the week, adjusting the presentation and follow-up activity as needed based on their age.

Interestingly, Belo found the book after hitting upon superpowers  as the theme of her inaugural Open Doors session. The idea was sparked at a conference she attended the previous fall. One of the workshops touched on an interesting question: How does one  get a child to feel that what they offer is important? To illustrate this point, the presenter put up a Superman logo, which got Belo thinking. She decided to design a lesson that would teach students that what they have inside is special and that those qualities they already possess are their own personal superpowers.

Belo was a little nervous about finding a book to match the topic but said, “As it turns out, the perfect book already existed. The Big Book of Superpowers explains it well – from walking the reader through the different character traits to explaining how having these traits is helpful and can connect them to their friends.” The short stories within the book cover traits such as adaptability, storytelling, perseverance, humor, and agility, among others. Music is also a superpower because in the book, when Maria plays music, it puts a smile on everyone’s face, and even animals go still to listen.

Hugh ’31 declared that his superpower is athleticism and that it can be used to help others because playing sports "lets me meet more people and make new friends." It's also a way for him to stay healthy, have a sense of accomplishment, and be happy. "Athleticism can help other people by allowing me to be a friend to those who may not have many friends but like to play sports, like me!" he added.

While the superpower lesson benefited all age groups, Belo found it particularly poignant for fourth and fifth-grade students. “They’ll be in middle school soon, and I want them to have that mindset that who they are is enough and that they don't have to change to fit in,” she said. “Staying true to yourself is something I really hope they understand and embrace.”

During the fifth-grade lesson, Belo pointed out that big changes are coming up for them and that being adaptable will help. “You’re going to be at a new school next year, with new responsibilities and more independence,” she told them. “Tapping into adaptability as a superpower will help you with that transition.”
Belo also reflected on the power of perseverance when things get tough. "Block out those negative thoughts," she implored. "Put earplugs in with positive thoughts. This mindset will guide you through life in all stages. Be persistent. Put in those good earplugs and push forward.”

Lesson Two: The Colors We Share
In the January lesson, kindergarten through fifth-grade students read the book The Colors We Share by Angelica Dass. The book features beautiful portraits that celebrate the diverse beauty of human skin and how wonderfully colorful humans are.

Taking her inspiration from a curriculum shared with her by Lower School leadership, Belo spent time with the book and watched the author's video talk. “Listening to her talk about how this book supports both reading comprehension and building critical thinking skills is what sold me on it,” she said.

Within this lesson, students learned about melanin – what it is and what it does. The book challenged students to think about how assignments of race ascribe to how much – or how little – melanin a person has.
“I was so proud of the students and how they 'got' the second lesson because this topic was a little bit heftier than the first one,” said Belo. “They dug in, analyzed the material, and realized that the world is really, really colorful and that it's much bigger than just what they see. It was inspiring."

Preschool and prekindergarten students read from a different book for this lesson, instead reading The Skin We Live In. The same lessons applied, but this book was a better way to illustrate these ideas to the youngest learners.

In addition to reading one of these books, students all made “mini-me’s" – miniature versions of themselves that they cut out and decorated with felt, yarn, and other materials. They chose from various base colors and then used Colors of The World markers and crayons to further customize their mini-me’s to what they feel they look like on the outside. In the January Open Doors extension activity, students used various paint colors to create their own skin tone.

“I personally thought this was an awesome learning experience for me and my class,” said Janelle ’32. “I really liked learning about the pigmentation in our skin. I thought a lot about it after Open Doors – it kind of opened a new part of my brain.”

Lesson Three: Helping the World Around Us
The final chapter of Open Doors in 2023-24 will look beyond the self and help students think about how they can help the world around them. It will be a lesson in giving and compassion.

Belo is also pleased to see Open Doors lessons expanding to other classes; for example, the Lower School Spanish Teacher, Diana Doroteo, integrated both trimester Open Doors lessons into her teachings by reading the books Spanish is My Superpower and Nuestra Piel. Students learned words like fast, strong, smart, and special in Spanish and colored superheroes to hang in the hallway. Students also learned the word for skin – piel – and discussed how different skin tones come from family heritage. They also learned the Spanish words for melanin and sun, and concluded with an age-based activity where students matched a drawing to their own skin tone. The mini-mes were created in Art Class during the second trimester Open Doors programming—another example of Open Doors expanding beyond library time.

But even when it’s not a formal integration, what the students learn in Open Doors is spilling over into the rest of their classes. Belo shared that during a fourth-grade lesson given by Mrs. Sastry, the presenter was talking about melanin but needed help remembering the word. “She stopped me to tell me that the students knew the word and yelled it out. When she asked how they knew that, they said, ‘We learned it in Open Doors!’”

That feedback is meaningful for Belo, who hopes to continue connecting what the students learn in Open Doors to their general education and personal development. But the most rewarding part is when the students get really excited about what they just learned. “I love seeing them make those connections,” she said. "They're enjoying what they're learning, they're getting it, and they're excited about it. That warms my heart."

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of The Bridge. See the digital version here.

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