Teaching Tolerance, Empathy and Acceptance
The New York State’s Dignity for All Students Act (The Dignity Act or DASA) seeks to provide all public elementary and secondary school students with a safe and a supportive learning environment free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment, and bullying on school property or at a school function.
To achieve that vision, students must first have a sense of belonging to a world community that includes: different nationalities, religions, religious practices, ethnicities, languages, cultures, histories, governments, body types, mental or physical abilities, sexual orientations, gender identities, and sexes.
Our district curriculum includes many learning experiences and programs that focus on broadening students’ views and that demonstrate the importance of tolerance, empathy, and acceptance in our world. We take great care to tailor our programs to be age-appropriate and impactful at every developmental stage from kindergarten through high school.
Below is a sampling, by school, of the District’s curricula that focuses on these critical issues. Also included at the end of this document is a list of books that are used in our classrooms to engage students in discussions and in assignments around them. Parents may find it useful to read these books to initiate family conversations on sensitive topics such as race, religion, gender, ethnicity, and disabilities.
Our district is dedicated to maintaining a safe learning environment for all our students. As a learning community, educators, parents, and students all play a part in creating a school culture free of bullying, harassment, and discrimination. We appreciate the collaboration with the PTA and AEF in supporting and funding many of these programs. Through the power of our combined efforts, we will continually work to eliminate any behaviors that do not foster kindness, compassion, and acceptance in our students’ lives.
K-12 Social Studies Curriculum: The focus of the curriculum provides students with the opportunity to gain fundamental understandings of history, civics, economics, cultures, geography, and the social sciences. These enable them to develop into responsible citizens who use analytical reasoning and historical thinking to make informed decisions about the issues that face our nation and world today. The curriculum, for example, highlights the consequences of discrimination throughout history.
Wellness Week Fairs and Guest Speakers: An annual event that centers on overall physical and mental health, positive body image, and social issues such as bullying, tolerance, and acceptance. With age-appropriate events at each school, local experts introduce our students to best practices in these areas. This annual event also highlights community resources for social, emotional and mental health and wellness.
A No Place for Hate School: AMS has been recently registered as a No Place For Hate school by the Anti-Defamation League. In order to receive this honor, a school must create a committee and plan a number of student-led events that promote tolerance and acceptance. Since our district already implements many such events, applying for this designation was a natural next step for us. Our middle school students will all sign a No Place for Hate pledge and we will receive a special banner. A number of students may be selected to attend the No Place for Hate conference in NYC, which is a celebration of the work schools have done in their quest to be safe, respectful places. More information on the ADL can be read at this link.
Facts and Chats: This parent program offers educational presentations on various teen topics. This is an opportunity for parents to share and support one another. Presentations have included “Happiness is a Habit” and “Organizing the Disorganized Child.”
Special Student Assemblies and Presentations: Throughout the year each school hosts a variety of special presentations to support our work in teaching tolerance, empathy, and acceptance. This includes:
- Various speakers:
- Scott Fried’s work focuses on the core belief that one must understand the value of one’s own life and hold it sacred, in order to refrain from dangerous behaviors that could lead to HIV infection and other crises. He speaks on a variety of topics including sexual responsibility, abstinence, dating, transmission of HIV, alternative sexuality, eating disorders, body image, self-mutilation, suicide, alcohol and drug misuse, dealing with divorce, broken-heartedness, and intimacy.
- Kevin Wanzer is an international speaker, who focuses on the topics of living an authentic life, making positive choices, personal excellence, student empowerment, building connections, and bullying.
- Matt Bellace is a motivational speaker and stand-up comedian. He has a PhD in clinical neuropsychology, is a member of the National Speakers Association, and is the author of the book, A Better High. In an funny, yet age-appropriate presentation, Bellace focuses on natural highs, emotional resilience, and surrounding yourself with positive people. He personalizes his message by talking about how as a teen he watched what substance abuse did to his brother. He also talks about the importance of having good friends who make healthy choices, stating that you are only as strong as your weakest link in your circle of friends.
- Cyberbullying education was the topic presented by Thomas Grimes, a 20 year veteran detective from the New York City Police Department to our seventh and eighth graders. It focused on internet and social networking safety.
- “New Kid” was a special play production in the middle school that highlighted themes around bullying and being kind.
- A Greenburgh police detective presented on technology safety and social decision making for seventh and eighth graders.
- An annual Holocaust assembly/workshop day for eighth graders.
The Kindness Garden: An outdoor classroom dedicated to the concepts of respect and kindness.
The Buddy Bench: This is a simple idea to encourage inclusion, to eliminate loneliness and to foster friendships on the playground. Students use Buddy Benches as a safe meeting place to either initiate or join a social activity. The program effectively lessens bullying and promotes compassion.
The Environment, Character, Health, and Organization (ECHO) Committee: This committee promotes educational activities that focuses on building character and respecting the environment. The committee organizes events such as an Earth Day assembly, a collection of sneakers for students in Nicaragua, the ROAR Paws program, food collections for holidays, and more. This year’s efforts will include activities promoting tolerance, diversity, and kindness.
International Day: This event brings to life different cultures from around the world through music, food, games, and performances. Students from each grade enter the fair with their passports, a travel bag to collect souvenirs, and participate in a scavenger hunt to find answers to specific questions about world cultures. The activities provide opportunities for our children to explore the differences and the similarities between various ethnic backgrounds helping them become true global citizens.
Light It Up: This lesson is a part of the third grade guidance curriculum that offers students a decision making model. It gives students the skills to effectively find solutions to problems. Using a traffic light as a visual aid, they are guided to use four steps in effective decision making. They work in groups to find solutions to problems such as bullying, teasing, recess issues, and more. The traffic light stays in each classroom throughout the year as a reminder of the skills needed to solve problems. Students also explore mindfulness, how to stay calm, empathy, and tolerance.
Internet Safety: This is a series of fourth grade guidance lessons that explore what it means to be a good citizen when online with others. Students are given lessons on staying safe while using a computer. They are taught about a variety of situations that they may encounter while logged onto their computer. They are given the tools needed to safely navigate many different scenarios, (i.e.; pop-ups, requests for personal information, downloading, etc.) A discussion about cyber-bullying and strategies to deal with situations are also part of these lessons.
Monthly R.O.A.R Assemblies: R.O.A.R. stands for “We are Respectful; Outwardly kind and caring; Always safe; and Responsible.” These important values are promoted at every assembly, and through a variety of activities and programs. Acts of kindness are highlighted on bulletin boards and are celebrated once a week during the morning announcements.
Social Studies Curriculum: The mission of the social studies department is to provide students with the opportunity to develop an understanding of and appreciation for the social sciences. As part of this process, students learn critical and analytical thinking skills that will enable them to become responsible and informed citizens. Some specific middle school units of study that highlight discrimination include: slavery and the slave system, early women’s rights, women on the home front, African-American contributions to society and the discriminations they faced as soldiers, Native American reservation life and assimilation, religious persecution in the colonies, and discrimination (Irish workers, Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment camps). Current events such as the refugee crisis are discussed in all grades.
Health Curriculum: The curriculum spirals through each grade level. It builds on previous instruction through a variety of age-appropriate topics that correlate with the New York State and the National Standards for Health Education. It also addresses specific needs of the Ardsley community. Topics which support the Dignity Act include body image and body types, and violence prevention.
The Holocaust (Grade 8): Each year, this assembly features guest speakers who lived through the Holocaust. This follows discussions in class around the study of Night, Elie Wiesel’s memoir of his imprisonment in a concentration camp as a teenager.
Buddy Club (Grades 7 and 8): This is a club where students who like to help others are trained in how to work with those who have special needs. All seventh and eighth graders are welcome to join and participate in sports such as basketball, softball, and soccer.
ALL (Accept, Learn, Love): The focus of this club is to be a safe haven for all students regardless of their sexual or gender identity, emphasizing the fact that as individuals we are more alike than different. Their goal is to create and to foster friendship and empathy in the middle school. The members create activities, events, and awareness on related topics to engage the AMS community.
Random Acts of Kindness Week (RAK Week): This nationwide initiative highlights the importance of how impactful simple acts of kindness can be in the world. Random acts of kindness happen often, but they are not given the attention that they deserve. This week inspires students to spread kindness in creative and inspiring ways. Students have done projects such as sending over 300 “Valentines” to teachers that have made an impact on their lives at AMS. After watching an inspirational video, a group of seventh graders demonstrated kindness by holding the doors open for their peers as they entered the building. They also gave them high-fives! This tradition began last year and will continue.
Center for Human Rights Leadership Program: Each year, a group of seventh grade students attend the Human Rights Institute for Middle School Leaders sponsored by the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center of White Plains, NY. This leadership experience intends to inspire and to encourage middle school students to be upstanders rather than bystanders. The two main themes of the conference this year are “Respecting the Individual” and “How to Be an Upstander.” Students who attend this conference will bring what they have learned back to the AMS community.
World Language: These classes are about more than learning a language. They connect language and culture with other disciplines and compare cultures throughout the world with our own. Students learn to appreciate different cultural perspectives, practices and products. The curricula celebrates each cultural identity through reading foreign newspapers, watching foreign films, and examining music and lyrics.
Guidance Program: The guidance department's focus is on the individual well-being of students as it relates to their social, emotional, and academic development. This includes helping students with decision making, effective communication, and self management skills. Fifth and sixth grade guidance classes focus on a variety of topics including self-esteem, tolerance, and DASA education through lessons such as: “Hats Off to Tolerance,” “Power Shuffle/Cross the Line,” “Sticks and Stones,” and “Erasing Mean.” Lessons focus on respect for all, on accepting differences, and on teaching conflict resolution.
Social Studies Curriculum: The District’s curricula engages students in a comparative study of history, civics, economics, cultures, and geography. It uses social science techniques and concepts to study the past and to encourage critical thinking about the present and the future. AHS students participate in advanced projects, and essays focused on civil rights, ethnic conflicts, imperialism, immigration, and nationalism.
Health Education Curriculum: The curriculum combines functional knowledge and affective activities with health-enhancing social skills. This knowledge is presented in the context of the potential risks and consequences of various health-related behaviors. Students will also personalize other important information and issues and assess their impact on their own life as well as those around them. Health education skills include decision-making, communication, refusal skills, and relationship and self-management skills that are practiced with the goal of achieving overall health literacy. There is a designated unit to help students recognize and deal with bullying behaviors.
Criminal Justice Curriculum: This examines crime in America, policing, the constitutional rights of citizens, the roles and functions of various agencies, and the processes involved in the administration of justice from various social and historical perspectives. A specific unit examines the effects of race, gender, and religion on our system throughout history.
Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Day of Silence: This is a student-led national event organized in thousands of schools, bringing awareness to the silencing effects of anti-LGBTQ name-calling, bullying, and harassment in schools. Students from middle school to college take a vow of silence in an effort to encourage schools and classmates to address the problem of anti-LGBTQ behavior by illustrating the silencing effect of bullying and harassment on LGBTQ students and those perceived to be LGBTQ.
Asian Society: This club encourages students to have a deeper understanding and knowledge of various Asian cultures. It follows, discusses, and debates significant political, economic, and social developments on the continent. The club raises funds for disasters that have hit Asia, like the Filipino typhoon or the Japanese tsunami. Most recently, the club invited a non-profit that specializes in aiding North Korean refugees to speak to the students.
Amnesty International: This group addresses injustices and global problems around the world like poverty, violence, censorship, the fate of political prisoners, and discrimination against women. Members learn about these various issues, write petition letters, peacefully protest, raise funds for these causes, and promote awareness of these problems.
Poetry Slam and Poetry Slam Club: This event and club share through poetry, the poignant truths and the battles with tough issues directly related to the goals of the Dignity Act. The majority of poems, by both professionals and students, relate directly to issues of identity and suffering in one form or another, as well as the inspirational love and strength that carries us all through those difficulties. Some examples of poems studied are: Sabrina Benaim, “Explaining My Depression to My Mother” (mental illness); Alex Dang, “What Kind of Asian Are You?” (Asian stereotypes); Gina Loring, “Somewhere There is a Poem” (racial injustice); Georgia Me, “Full Figure Potential” (weight issues); Katie Makkai, “Pretty” (expectations of women); Panama Soweto, “I’m taking my ball and going home” (bullying).
Wellness Center: Our student body is offered programs and activities that promote emotional, physical, and social well-being. The Wellness Center is a safe-place where all students can meet, interact and socialize in an inclusive community.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): These weekly individual counseling and skills groups teach mindfulness, distress tolerance skills, emotional regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness. These skills promote the emotional awareness of self and others, as well as effective and respectful communication.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): These weekly individual counseling and skills groups address anxiety, depression, anger management, and school refusal. This evidence-based practice promotes positive problem-solving and social-emotional learning.
Social Skills Groups: These groups that promote prosocial skills and awareness are run weekly. Students are grouped based on similar social skill challenges.
Individual Counseling: Ongoing supportive, individual counseling addresses varied topics such as crisis management, relationship issues, conflict resolution, peer mediation, and bullying.
Transition Meetings and Classroom Presentations: These include specific topics like transitional issues, decision making, stress management, and healthy life choices.
Suggested Book Titles
Below is a list of books that are used in English, social studies, and other classes that focus on various aspects of DASA. We invite parents to read these along with your children to open up family discussions on sensitive topics.
- Esperanza Rising - grade 5
- Henry’s Freedom Box - grade 6
- Locomotion - grade 7
- Zeitoun - grade 9
- Between the World and Me - grade 12
- Harvesting Hope - grade 6
- Watsons Go to Birmingham - grade 6
- To Kill a Mockingbird - grade 9
- Lord of the Flies - grade 10
- Hatchet - grade 5
- Signs of the Beaver - grade 6
- Becoming Joe DiMaggio - grade 7
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian - grade 9
- Bodega Dreams - grade 10
- The Tortilla Curtain - grade 11
- Number the Stars - grade 5
- Twelve Angry Men - grade 7
- The Outsiders - grade 7
- View from Saturday - grade 6
- Zachary Beaver - grade 6
- Night - grade 8
- Wonder - grade 8
- Freak the Mighty - grade 5
- Star Girl - grade 6
- Heartbeat - grade 7
- Of Mice and Men - grade 10
- Frankenstein - grade 12
- The Secret History - grade 12
- Ballot Box Battle - grade 6
- Mama Went to Jail for the Vote - grade 6