Earlier this year, first graders noticed the chairlift at the front entrance to McKelvey Hall. First grade teacher Anusheh Hashim observed their interest and began engaging her students in a discussion about why it was important to have buildings designed for people with all abilities and how difficult it must be for people with physical disabilities to navigate New York City. When it came time for the first graders to begin their study of Central Park, Ms. Hashim seized the opportunity to change the traditional curriculum, harnessing her students’ interest by learning about Central Park through the eyes of the elderly or disabled.
As they learned about the challenges some New Yorkers face when navigating the park, students immersed themselves in a thoughtful study of their city. They began to notice the accessibility of places they visited with their families, built wheelchair-accessible block castles featuring ramps and elevators, and designed blueprints of accessible play spaces. They learned from Hewitt parent architects about the Americans with Disabilities Act and about why and how we design buildings that are accessible and worked with NYC Kids Project, an advocacy organization whose goal is to build empathy and awareness, to deepen their understanding of people with different abilities.
Knowing about the transformative power of listening to others’ stories, Ms. Hashim invited to the classroom a Hewitt administrator’s mother, who contracted polio as a child and who has walked with leg brace since she was fourteen years old. The girls gathered around her and were invited to touch her brace, cane, and leg as they asked many questions. Ms. Hashim said, “This was probably my favorite part of the whole project because the girls were able to talk to someone directly about something that we are generally encouraged to stay quiet about.”
After examining a TripAdvisor post in which someone wanted advice about how to her get her wheelchair-bound father around Central Park, the girls eagerly got to work, studying and taking notes on Central Park locations, eventually developing this interactive map featuring videos in which first graders advise viewers on the accessibility of various spots around Central Park. This is empathy muscle building—Hewitt first grade style.