Godwin Heights — It takes West Godwin first grader Arianna Price-Basurto a few minutes to come up with the words that describe why she matters.
“I am a nice friend and I am nice to everyone,” she said. “I am kind because I play with everyone and I am helpful because I give hugs and I help my friends with math.”
For kindergartner Elijah Funk the answer as to why he matters is easy.
“I get my stuff out and ready when (kindergarten teacher) Mrs. (Holly) Vostad isn’t looking,” he said.
According to second-grader Giselle Lara Zepeda, everyone matters.
“Everyone matters because they are special,” Giselle said. “I matter because everyone matters, so I matter too.”
Since November, the students and staff at West Godwin have spent time exploring the unique contributions they bring to their school and community. Everyone at the school, including support staff, read Christian Robinson’s book “You Matter” and then reflected on the phrase “I matter because….”. The goal of the project, according to the school’s instructional specialist, Sonali Deshpande, was to give students the opportunity to express their thoughts while reconnecting to each other.
“When the hints of the COVID pandemic first came in the winter of 2019, no one could have imagined that its impact would continue well into 2022,” Deshpande said, adding the mental health of everyone – students and staff – was being impacted.
“Only the second graders have had any ‘normal’ school and for those students it was only a half a year before they went virtual,” she said. “Two years later, the students still are following protocols, such as wearing masks, to keep them safe.”
The 2020-2021 school year was challenging with the spatial distancing requirements and mask wearing. Classrooms were forced to be separate from one another at lunch and on the playground. Even the teachers could not be close to one another while eating lunch. There has been a disconnect with parents, as parents and volunteers are currently not allowed in the building.
“We were missing the socializations and camaraderie,” Deshpande said. “It has led to students, and staff, having a feeling of being isolated.” Students missed that connection, she explained.
“I wanted to find some way, even a small way, to help remind us why we are at Godwin and feel connected,” Deshpande said. “We are all part of Godwin, we belong in Godwin and what we each bring to the table keeps us connected and together.”
Deshpande began researching children’s literature websites, looking for a text that was visually appealing and had sentences that students and staff could connect to and understand the meaning. She also wanted it to connect to a basic human tenet: wanting to be seen, heard, and valued, which relates to the school’s equity work as well.
Through that research, Deshpande came across author Robinson reading from his book “You Matter,” stopping in places to ask questions or to have the reader reflect on a passage.
“The language that he uses is simple but emotionally rich and powerful,” Deshpande said. “For adults, it has the potential to pull on your heartstrings and make you remember to hold onto the wonder and curiosity that children naturally have.”
Thinking about what is important
Every class read the book and afterwards, each student was given paper to fill in the sentence “I matter because….” This added a writing component – a school focus as writing skills were impacted during virtual learning.
“Writing is such a personal experience and when it is shared publicly or captured within a photo, it goes beyond just yourself,” Deshpande said. “I wanted our students to feel empowered through writing. I want our students to know that their words matter and what they have to say is important.”
Since November, pictures of each class with their “I matter” sheets have been taken and posted in the halls, giving students an opportunity to see the friends that they haven’t been able to interact with because of the pandemic.
“Of course, it is human nature that the first thing you do is look for yourself,” Deshpande said. “They see themselves, they see their teachers and then they see their friends.” She said students enjoyed being able to express themselves and be heard.
“This process gave the students time to be reflective and share some pretty thoughtful responses,” Deshpande said. “It gives them a moment to look at why they are at this school and what they bring to the school.”
According to Deshpande, it did something similar for staff.
“We can be so busy teaching the skills and trying to work with the technical stuff that (doing a project like this) gives you a moment to stop, take a step back and say ‘Oh yeah, I matter too, and here is why.’
“And maybe that is the silver lining of the pandemic: to teach us to slow down and to think about what is important to us.”