Gabby Mbeki: A Great IDEA for Students
Gabby Mbeki, a West Hartford resident in her first year as a 5th-grade teacher at Madison’s The Country School, has wasted no time making her mark.
Inspired by an activity from her own middle-school days at Kingswood-Oxford School in West Hartford, Gabby came up with The Country School’s newest event: IDEA Day, a day of workshop-based activities focusing on race, diversity, and identity. IDEA stands for Interpreting Diversity Education through Action.
“We’re a big school on acronyms,” Gabby says with a smile.
A few months after she started, Gabby approached Head of School Dr. Laurie Bottiger.
“I sat down with her and told her I felt the school would benefit from having a particular day not really focused highly on academics, but more on self, community, and understanding the world around them,” Gabby says.
She explained that students at her alma mater in West Hartford don’t have Martin Luther King Day off. Instead, to honor the day, students and teachers engage in workshops centered around the idea of diversity.
“I still remember the event,” Gabby says. “I remember thinking it was awesome that we were taking time out of our everyday academic life to focus on something that isn’t normally always focused on...I teach 5th grade, so I felt that the 5th graders were comfortable enough to join in some of it, but it was definitely geared more for middle school.”
Once the idea was approved, the next task was making the day a reality.
Gabby recalls, “I was fortunate enough right away to have a kindred spirit in Vicki Wepler, who’s our music teacher...She and I basically sat down and came up with the overall plan of how the day was going to work, coming up with ideas and how to organize it.”
Another facet of IDEA Day involved the book A Long Walk to Water, based on a true story about a young man and a girl in Sudan, by Korean-American author Linda Sue Park. Park also wrote the 2002 Newbery Award-winner A Single Shard and several other children’s books, including two from the popular 39 Clues series.
“I wanted to break up the day,” Gabby explains. “I didn’t want it to be all workshops, so at first Vicki and I threw around the idea of watching a movie and having a discussion, but it’s kind of hard to find a lot of movies in context for such a young group like this. A lot of them are geared toward high school, which is understandable. So we had a hard time finding a movie and figured, ‘Why don’t we do a book?’”
Gabby’s co-teacher, Kerri Kelly, mentioned A Long Walk to Water. Gabby read it, loved it, and thought it was very appropriate for her students.
“The 5th graders could read it and really enjoy it, but it still has a really strong message,” she says.
Gabby contacted Park through her website, and they coordinated a Skype chat between Park and the students, who read her book over their two-week winter break.
“Her Skype chat was amazing,” Gabby says. “She started with her childhood and growing up Korean-American. Then she explained the different details of the book—what was fiction and what wasn’t fiction—and then from there she talked to the kids.”
Other workshops focused on the messages and influence of political or protest music from the 1920s through the turn of the century, and topics like Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers and the resulting effects on sports and baseball today, and highlighting differences between the Barbie doll and the American Girl dolls. Gabby also led a workshop on picture books for the 4th and 5th graders.
“The 4th graders study the Civil Rights movement,” Gabby say, “so it felt timely to include them.”
The inaugural IDEA Day, which Gabby hopes will become an annual event, was a success. But Gabby acknowledges that the event will likely evolve. She wants to include every grade with activities that strike the right balance of age-appropriateness.
“Finding age-appropriate activities on diversity for the whole school is hard since we go from Pre-K through 8th grade,” she comments.
Gabby also hopes that eventually the students will take over the planning and execution of IDEA Day, which will teach them about leadership.
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