Learning About Differences

Foster empathy for those who are different with these simple ideas.

By Nancy Mann Jackson
We Are Different
Books about special needs

Hudson Hates School
By Ella Hudson. $16.95.
The hero of this colorful tale isn't very fond of kindergarten until he is diagnosed with dyslexia and learns strategies for coping.

By Elfi Nijssen, illustrated by Eline van Lindenhuizen. $16.95.
A sweet picture book from the perspective of a girl who is hearing impaired.

The Junkyard Wonders
By Patricia Polacco. $17.99.
One of our favorite authors shares a story from her childhood about a class full of children different from the others in their school.

My Brother Charlie
By Holly Robinson Peete and Ryan Elizabeth Peete, illustrated by Shane W. Evans. $16.99.
In this sensitive portrait of autism, Callie narrates what it is like to have a twin brother with the disease.

Stand Straight, Ella Kate
By Kate Klise, illustrated by M. Sarah Klise. $16.99.
"Embrace your differences" is the MO in this true story of a 19th-century woman who grew to be eight feet tall.

Share your skills.
Together, read I Will Teach You Everything You Need to Know by Stephen Kirshblum, published by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, about a father with paralysis and his young son who helps him relearn many tasks. Ask students to think of and illustrate themselves doing something they could teach others to do, such as riding a bike or playing a game. Then allow students to take turns sharing how they would teach someone to do the activities in their pictures.

Walk in my shoes.
Help students understand what it's like to live with visual limitations. Divide the class into two groups and ask one group to leave the room. Have the other group create a winding classroom maze using desks, tables, and chairs. Blindfold the students in the first group, give them walking canes, and ask them to make their way from one end of the classroom to the other. Then switch roles. Together, discuss how it felt to navigate the unknown while visually impaired. Ask how students relied on other senses and resources in the absence of sight, and what strengths they would assume blind people to have.

Celebrate super abilities.
As a class, watch video clips of athletes with physical disabilities competing in the Paralympic Games. (A number of clips are available on YouTube; swimming, running, and basketball are good ones to watch.) Talk about the special abilities these athletes have. Ask each student to research one paralympic sport or athlete to learn about the rigorous training and stiff competition involved (the website usparalympics.org offers a wealth of information). Work together to stage a classroom Paralympic Games celebration where each student can share what he or she learned about their athlete or sport.

Look back.
History is filled with the accomplishments of people with physical disabilities. Divide the class into groups of three or four and assign each group to a historical figure such as Helen Keller, President Franklin Roosevelt, or disability rights activists Ed Roberts and Judy Heumann. Provide the groups with books, videos, and computer resources to learn as much as they can about their assigned person. Then have each group make a presentation to the class to share about the individual's life and accomplishments.

Take an accessibility walk.
The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 to protect Americans with disabilities from discrimination and to allow them to participate in public activities without hindrances. Discuss with your class some of the provisions of the act, especially those pertaining to schools and other public facilities. Then take an "accessibility walk" around your school's campus to see how accessible it is: Count sidewalk ramps and handicapped parking spaces; look for closed captioning on televisions; ask the school's technology director or special education teacher to discuss technological innovations that are available to aid students with disabilities in communication, computer use, and other tasks.

Make a diversity book.
Read Todd Parr's It's Okay to Be Different to your class. Discuss what qualities make each student unique. Using the Create Your Book template from the author's website, ToddParr.com, have each student write and illustrate their own book about what makes them different from others.