‘Girl lover’ taunt spurs SW parents to create diversity curriculum

Started at Windom, now used in 12 metro schools by 4,000 students

Looking through a stack of birthday cards made by her daughter's 2nd-grade classmates at Windom Open School seven years ago, Terese Pritschet saw that one child had scrawled "I hate you girl lover" on a card.

Pritschet, an active volunteer in her daughter's classroom, took immediate action. She spoke to the teacher, found the boy, and talked to him about what he had written. Her daughter never found out, and the boy apologized, but Pritschet wasn't satisfied that the problem was solved. "I talked to [the boy who wrote the letter] and he was petrified," said Pritschet. "He had no idea why he wrote it. To me it was a statement that it wasn't his problem, it was our problem. This is a problem for adults around kids."

Pritschet and a group of Windom parents wanted to teach kids that it is never OK to make someone feel bad because they are different. They began a pilot program in Windom where parents read books about diverse families, then kids discussed the book's theme and how it related to their lives.

Today, the parents have a non-profit group, aMAZE, and have published a curriculum guide, "Families All Matter." Twelve metro schools use the curriculum in varying degrees, three of them--Barton Open, Ramsey International Fine Arts, and Windom Open--in Southwest. In all, 200 classrooms, with 4,000 students, have gone through the 10-week curriculum with the help of 200 volunteers.

The 10 weeks are divided into 10 themes: family diversity, including race/ethnicity, divorce/break-ups, lesbian and gay family members, socio-economics, immigration, adoption, disability, aging and religion.

Pritschet said the point is to help kids feel comfortable about their families and themselves so that they can focus on school, instead of feeling anxious and different. "The kids who don't feel that sense of belonging, who feel alienated, are less invested in the classroom, they spend too much of their emotional energy compensating for their sense of security, instead of their academics," she said.

Teachers must fulfill many state-mandated reading, writing and critical-thinking requirements, so the aMAZE program was designed to integrate into the classroom reading standards.

The teachers and students who have used the curriculum say that the stories and the discussions help to create a safer classroom atmosphere. Claire Loman, a 3rd- and 4th-grade teacher at Barton Open, who also taught at Windom Open, uses the curriculum in her current classroom and is surprised how much it resonates with the kids. "The interesting thing is you talk about it all year long. The kids will reference a book we read months ago," she said.

Pritschet said the program really makes a difference over the long term. "After the program had been taught in a classroom for a number of years, a new boy came in and frequently said the word 'fag,'" she recalled. "The kids noticed it and asked him to stop, but he didn't. So, they tallied the number of times he said it in a day and gave the tally to their teacher. The teacher spoke to him, and he stopped. Not only did he stop, but he was heard later telling another kid not to use the word."

Want "Families All Matter" in your kids' classroom? Call aMAZE at 824-6080 or www.amazeworks.org.