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Kids Learn About Differences from A Walk in Your Shoes

Curriculum CenterA Walk in Your Shoes, a show on the cable station Noggin, helps kids learn about cultural, religious, and geographical differences by watching youngsters from different backgrounds switch places for a few days.

Imagine being 11 years old, playing basketball with your friends in the playground one day and trying to navigate your wheelchair into a school bathroom the next.

Think about going from a camp where you are one of 600 Jewish kids to a camp for Roman Catholic kids where you are the only one wearing a Star of David pendant.

Youngsters across the country now are able to watch their peers experience new surroundings and people in a reality-type show called A Walk in Your Shoes, which airs on Noggin and Nickelodeon. The National Association of Elementary School Principals formed a partnership with Noggin to develop the program. The show's goals also correlate with the curriculum standards of the National Council for the Social Studies.

The two-year-old cable television station is a joint venture of Nickelodeon and Sesame Workshop. Noggin features commercial-free programming for children ages 6 to 14. Teachers can get lesson plans related to Noggin shows at www.teachers.nick.com.

"Our mission is about educating kids through media," Thomas Ascheim, Noggin's general manager, told Education World. "The question was how to take on the heady topics of diversity and tolerance and be entertaining. We decided to put it in the hands of the children."

KIDS AS TEACHERS

A Walk in Your Shoes aims to promote tolerance and diversity by documenting the experiences of kids from very different backgrounds who switch places for several days. Noggin plans to film about 13 episodes a year. In the episode scheduled to air Sunday, December 17, at 6 p.m. (EST/PT), viewers can see what happened when Meredith, 14, a Jewish girl from Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Lauren, 15, a Catholic girl from Lansdale, Pennsylvania, who both attended summer religious camps, switched camps for four days.

In the episode, each girl attends religious services at the other's camp and notes how they are similar and different. Both girls said that the kids at the camps they visited were welcoming and asked a lot of questions. Lauren, who attends Catholic school, said that she had never met a Jewish person before going to Meredith's camp and initially felt like an outsider when the kids prayed or sang in Hebrew. After attending a Sabbath service, where all the campers were singing and dancing, Lauren changed her view. She said it was "awesome. There was so much energy. I didn't feel like an outsider anymore."

Meredith said she recently had transferred to public school from a Hebrew school, where she met Catholic kids for the first time. She knew little about their religion. After her stay at camp, Meredith said, she felt like she knew her Catholic friends better and respected them more.

Following the show, viewers can participate in an online chat with the girls on www.noggin.com at 7 p.m.

In one of the first episodes, videotapes of which were mailed to members of the NAESP, Jake, 11, who has never met anyone in a wheelchair before, spends two days with Jared, 10, who has used a wheelchair his whole life. Jake agrees to use a wheelchair while visiting Jared and has to learn to do almost everything differently, from getting out of bed to opening a door. Jake also learns that people in wheelchairs can do many of the same things he does, such as play basketball.

During A Walk in Your Shoes, kids discuss what they learned from each other and reflect on their differences, which they often realize are not as dramatic as they originally thought. "In each episode, you watch some kids go on their own voyages of discovery," Ascheim said. "It's a good example of how kids can be better teachers than adults."

ADMINISTRATORS APPLAUD SERIES

Members of the NAESP were pleased by the proposal for the series and how it has developed, according to Margaret Evans, assistant executive director of community and student services for the NAESP.

"We thought it was an exciting opportunity to teach kids about diversity and respect for others," Evans told Education World. Before becoming partners with Noggin, though, focus groups made up of principals talked about the series and provided input for its development, she said. "We wanted to make sure [the show] met the needs of students and educators." The focus groups are continuing to meet to discuss aspects of the program and suggest potential "switches," Evans added.

One focus group member, Lynn Langton, an elementary school principal in Loveland, Colorado, said that fourth- and fifth-grade teachers in her school have shown the episode with Jake and Jared to their classes.

"The kids buy into it," Langton told Education World. "They are interested in it and have good discussions afterwards."

Some of the students talked about people they knew in wheelchairs. Others asked how people who used wheelchairs could get around their school building, which has many steps, and brainstormed possible remedies, Langton said.

PLANNING SWITCHES

Although the format of A Walk in Your Shoes may be popular in part because of reality-based shows such as Survivor, Noggin staff members drafted their proposal before the other shows hit the airwaves, Ascheim said. In developing episodes, a production company first proposes a topic for a switch, and then staff members begin to research it and to look for children for the show, said Ascheim. "We try to find kids who seem natural and talk easily."

For the episode with Lauren and Meredith, interfaith experts Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Tom Hartman, a Catholic priest, commentators known as "The God Squad," served as consultants for the show. A religious consultant was onsite for all of the filming, Ascheim said.

Other switches have included a boy who attends military school trading places with one who lives in a commune and a girl from Hawaii trading places with one in Alaska.

The fact that viewers are watching real youngsters in real situations seems to be compelling for kids, Ascheim said. "Reality is less expensive and also can be more valuable. We're entertainment for thought acquisition."

Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World

12/12/2000