Lowell — In teacher Tara DeRuiter’s classroom at Cherry Creek Elementary, second-grader Nora Wu struggled to read a word out loud.
Luckily, she had Lowell High sophomore Leah Schwinkendorf nearby to help her sound it out.
“Min-is-ter,” Nora said. “Minister! Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a minister.”
Leah applauded her efforts, and the two continued to read through a reading comprehension worksheet about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy.
Leah and several other members of the Lowell High School Diversity Council visit DeRuiter’s class and teacher Lisa Camfferman’s fourth-graders at Cherry Creek once a month for a themed learning activity based on diversity, equity and inclusion.
‘It’s a way to help and a way to have a voice in a community where I think everybody needs a voice.’— sophomore Leah Schwinkendorf
Sarah Ellis, who teaches art and Spanish and is the council’s adviser, said each month’s project is based on the district’s recognized months.
Students read books about Native Americans for Native American Heritage Month, made dreidels for Hanukkah and colored individual pieces of a mural to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this month.
When DeRuiter’s students finished coloring and cutting out their mural pieces, they sat in a circle on the floor with their high-school friends to put them together.
“It actually looks kind of good,” Nora said after seeing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s face became clearer. “He’s so colorful, it’s like a rainbow Dr. Martin Luther King.”
Encouraging Diversity, Belonging
The Diversity Council was started four years ago by a student who saw a need to come together to address concerns around a lack of diversity in the school. About 90 percent of students at the high school are white, according to 2022-2023 MI School Data. The council has grown to encompass other activities and initiatives.
“I felt (joining the council) was something I wanted to do for a while, and now that I get the opportunity to do it, I realize how important it is to me,” said sophomore Leah Schwinkendorf. “It’s a way to help and a way to have a voice in a community where I think everybody needs a voice.”
The students’ work with elementary students ties to a global studies initiative with which the council’s adviser, Sarah Ellis, an art and Spanish teacher, is involved. She received a scholarship from the Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms Program, and is completing a 10-week immersive course that includes a focus on global education and awareness.
Thinking Local, Acting Local
A key part of her studies includes incorporating at a local level the 17 sustainable development goals established by the United Nations in 2015. Goals include reduced inequalities, gender equality, no poverty and zero hunger.
Working on those goals with her students involves 170 daily actions. One is reading to children.
“We started to talk about these things in a broader sense of how they are incorporated with our mission for the Diversity Council,” Ellis said. “The group has really started to think about diversity in education in a more holistic way of realizing what we can do, and some students have started to come up with their own plans.
“It’s giving the power back to the students and saying, ‘You are the change.’ These are ideas on how to be that change.”
Ellis, who is still completing the Fulbright program, will soon attend a three-day training in Washington D.C, and then embark on a two- to three-week field experience in Uruguay.
“Diversity helps everything, and understanding that it is something to celebrate and it is also something to be able to have a better understanding of so we can all be better citizens of the world in a globalized society,” she said. “We want to be able to have our students have some sense of that so they can be successful. Without that, it is going to be a really bland existence.”
Sophomore Andrea Plantz, who is Mexican, said the council discusses topics like fitting in and being different.
“You definitely do notice when there are all of the same people and you kind of stick out and you’re different,” Andrea said. “It’s hard sometimes.”
Leah, who is Black, said it’s nice to be part of a group that has students from different backgrounds.
“It’s really liberating in a way,” Leah said. “I feel better about myself and better about being myself. We can all be ourselves and feel more at home.”
At Cherry Creek, council member junior Calla Swazye noted the little ones’ insight. “They’re so funny; they say the funniest things, it makes my day better. They have such a unique perspective.”
Council member junior Q Gonzalez agreed.
“I really enjoy connecting and hearing what they think about serious issues.
“I feel like it helps us be more open to conversing with people who don’t know a lot about the topics. Talking to kids about it refreshes my view and gets me thinking about it from a younger level.”
Reporter Erin Albanese contributed to this article.
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