Rodeph Sholom School Goes to the Dogs

Actually, the dog came to us! Special guests visit our Grade 1 and 5 Buddies during Jewish Disability Awareness Month.
To teach our students in Grades 1 and 5 how people overcome the challenges of a physical disability, Dinka, a Yellow Labrador Retriever from the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind, visited Rodeph Sholom School on Wednesday, February 25, 2015. Dinka's Israeli owner and seeing partner, Bracha, and the Center's Executive Director, Mike Leventhal, brought Dinka to our students and led age-appropriate conversations with them at our 83rd and 79th Street locations.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month, and RSS responded to the call to foster inclusion of people with disabilities in Jewish communities by incorporating it in our curriculum.
"Israel Guide Dog is the only organization of its kind in Israel and we jumped at the chance to support its work. At the same time, Mike, Bracha and Dinka helped our students develop a deeper understanding of Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, and gave our students insight into how best to help everyone live fully integrated, fulfilling lives," said Cory Schneider, the Middle School Service Learning Coordinator who has connected with Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind to share the organization's work with RSS students.
For first graders, the visit is part of a social studies unit. With the furry animal being an irresistible focus for that age group, the Center’s presentation focused on "how the dog is important to the visually impaired person in solving problems encountered on a daily basis," said Director of Studies Laurie Piette. 
The exposure to Dinka and her owner is just one of the ways the younger children will see how life is for people who are differently abled. In other lessons during the social studies unit, the students will be asked to wear mittens and then try to button a shirt or tie shoelaces to see what it feels like to have limited use of their hands. They'll also learn some sign language: how to say the Sh'ma, for example; and how to ask for a snack or to leave the classroom as if they could not hear or speak. They will also read picture books that RSS Elementary Division Librarian Helen Singer specially selected for the unit, such as Different Just Like MeRolling Along: The Story of Taylor and His WheelchairLet's Hear It for Almigal, and Looking Out for Sarah.
“The idea is to help the students understand how to deal with differences by experiencing them themselves in various ways," said Ms. Piette. 
After Dinka’s visit, the first graders worked together with their “Buddies” in the 5th Grade to make cards for the Center's trainers, whose hard work preparing the dogs for service often goes unrecognized. This activity was part of the year-long Buddies program that connects students across our Elementary and Middle School Divisions and introduces them to the idea of service learning.
"For older students," Ms. Piette said, "the focus of the visit was on the organization. The fifth graders will get to know how Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind supports people in the community, and as an organization that they might want to work with later for their family B'nai Mitzvah project or for our 7th Grade Philanthropy project."
At RSS, service learning and learning about socially responsible organizations is an important part of the curriculum throughout the school. Starting in the Twos, students are encouraged to contribute to tzedakah boxes in their classrooms on a weekly basis. The collections are then donated, at least twice per year, to organizations whose work is related to their studies.  
In 7th Grade, service learning and philanthropy is taken to another level. In lieu of exchanging B'Nai Mitzvah gifts, RSS families are encouraged to donate to a special fund, the B'nai Mitzvah Philanthropic Initiative. Seventh grade students identify social issues they wish to support, then work in groups to research organizations that work to address these issues. At the end of the year, they select one or more of the researched organizations to receive their donations. Last year, for example, the Class of 2015 B'nai Mitzvah Philanthropic Initiative donated nearly $57,000 to 13 charities, including $7,000 to The Center for Urban Community Services to support New York City's homeless population.
These various activities illustrate the kinds of innovative strategies that our faculty members have developed to help our students understand the values of community and service learning.

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