GREAT BARRINGTON — What difference can 87 sixth-graders make?
If you ask their teachers at Monument Valley Regional Middle School, the answer is "a lot."
On Friday, they will present a check to Community Access to the Arts for $700, a sum raised through a change drive called "Penny Wars" held schoolwide over eight days.
But they didn't just do it for the community; they did it to help some of their own. Each week, CATA teachers bring a music program to the school for the eight students in Monument Valley's ABC (Autism and Behavior Center) program.
Through an "Overcoming Adversity" program, the sixth-graders have been learning and talking about challenges people face in society, then working on a project to help find solutions.
"We decided at the beginning of the year that we wanted to build community and stress the importance of giving back and helping others," said sixth-grade teacher Kimberly Cormier. She works with sixth-grade colleagues Carole Aberdale, Alison McGee, Matt Naventi and Jessica Oakley to help coordinate lessons and community service opportunities for the students.
"Each month or so we have chosen a different cause to support, and the kids have stepped up like nothing I have ever seen," Cormier said.
October turned into the "Socktober" challenge, during which 113 pairs of new, high-quality socks were collected and distributed to local homeless shelters for the start of the cold-weather season. A food drive was held for local food pantries in November, and in December, the class collected and donated dozens of hygiene products for people supported by the Elizabeth Freeman Center, to help them feel healthy during the cold and flu season.
They also have been studying about the civil rights movement and types of nonviolent ways, like boycotts, to make social changes.
While working on their projects, the students have been watching videos, and reading articles and books related to the issues they are addressing.
Before their recent project, students spent a morning with CATA members talking about the challenges of inclusion for people with disabilities. The sixth-graders read the 2012 fiction "Out of My Mind" by Sharon Draper, featuring a fifth-grade protagonist who has cerebral palsy.
They also learned about Temple Grandin's crusade for animal welfare within the slaughterhouse industry, as well as her advocacy for changing stereotypes about people with autism, which she is affected by.
Sixth-grader Quinn Dillon said of the people he learned about: "I think they all had fighting spirits, but they acted like everyone else. They might not fully overcome their disability, but they're still active."
"A lot of people said even if their disability could be changed, they didn't wish that their life would be different in any way," student Ava O'Brien said about what she observed from her research.
"Everyone has something unique about themselves," Manav Mahida said.
"So you don't really have to treat them differently," Ella Watson said.
CATA Executive Director Margaret Keller said developing this understanding is important. She said the population of young people with disabilities has grown in recent years; her organization now works with seven school districts and 150 students with disabilities.
"In this sixth-grade class are young people embracing inclusion. What we have in common is so much more important than our differences," Keller said. "I hope that now they're looking at their peers in a different way in that maybe they're able to see from their peers' perspectives a little more."
While the service projects might bring some instant gratification to the sixth-graders, the students and their teachers think the Overcoming Adversity curriculum might have some lasting, life-changing effects.
As student Kamdin Torrico and his classmates learned about how local people have been affected by poverty or isolation, he said, "... we needed to help these people and thought it was the right thing to do."
The sixth graders-incentivized the Penny Wars among classes with the promise of a pizza party for the class that collected the most change. When the sixth grade won, its members decided to forgo the food and donate to a local food pantry the money they would have spent.
"We just all cared so much," Kamdin said.
Teaching the Overcoming Adversity unit has "changed my perspective immensely," Cormier said. "I think good learning happens when it means something to the kids. We as teachers always talk about how if [students] leave school as better readers and writers, that's a bonus, but to have them leave as better human beings — that's the goal."
Said math teacher Carole Aberdale: "Every year, I feel like students are coming in with a stronger sense of how they're part of the bigger picture."
Sixth-grader Liam McKeon said he feels it, too.
"I think we made a difference this year. A lot of people think because of our age we can't do much, but kids can make a difference. Kids have power," Liam said.