Helping SCH children learn about diversity, race, identity

by Karen Tracy
Posted 11/18/20

We all need the reminder to take a deep breath, especially in today’s world. Taking a moment to breathe and reflect is the driving impetus behind BREATHE, a new program in Springside Chestnut …

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Helping SCH children learn about diversity, race, identity


We all need the reminder to take a deep breath, especially in today’s world. Taking a moment to breathe and reflect is the driving impetus behind BREATHE, a new program in Springside Chestnut Hill Academy(SCH)’s Lower School. BREATHE: Be Ready to Embrace All Through Hope and Equality, was developed by Laura Cortes, Auxiliary Programs Coordinator & Summerside Director, and Lower School teachers.

It is designed to provide SCH's youngest children with the tools they need to grapple with issues of race, identity, gender, family and more. The program has been in the works for over a year and kicked off at the start of this school year. (As of right now, SCH Lower School is in-person, not online.)

The goal of the program is to assist faculty in having challenging conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion when situations arise that require discussion and understanding. Over 30 original lessons have been organized by topic and are instantly available online with a stated goal, lesson plan, recommended books, movies and materials.

Cortes told us last week, “The BREATHE program really focuses on helping teachers embrace everyday teachable moments in the classroom in hopes of creating a safe place for students, help overcome the biases that seep into our society and work with our youth to embrace all.”

Books on the BREATHE cart have been purchased through the Germantown black-owned business, Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books. Uncle Bobbie's is powered by Bookshop, an online bookstore with a mission to financially support local, independent bookstores.

"Developing this has been a true labor of love,” said Cortes. “In my work with students, it became clear that they could benefit from those teachable, breathable moments we experience in schools. The activities have been designed to help address issues students might experience on the playground or at lunch. Our goal is to engage right away with a conversation or activity that allows teachers and students to approach uncomfortable but important discussions in a safe space.“

In a recent BREATHE lesson, students constructed self-portraits after reading “Hair Love,” by Matthew Cherry. This activity is designed to create a safe environment to talk about the differences in skin and hair type within the 2nd grade classroom. After the lesson, the students had an open dialogue about Disney princesses and their “classic” portrayal vs. the more recent Disney movies, pointing out features that they then used in their own portraits and what beauty feels like to them.

A 2nd grade class participated in the “kindness rocks” project, where they painted rocks beautiful colors and inscribed words of kindness. Students handed out rocks to some teachers as well as planted them in places around the campus to be stumbled upon by all. Students focused on how words are meaningful and that kindness wins over hate.

According to Head of Lower School Douglas Wainwright, “Since BREATHE activities have the flexibility of being taught in the moment, we can catch a hurt feeling, wronged action or microaggression before it festers and becomes a bigger moment.”

Also, the BREATHE team — Laura Cortes, Deidra McRae, Gerri Allen, Julian McFadden, Kevin Engleman and Peggy Grady — hosts monthly meetings for faculty to discuss issues and topics related to their work as educators. “Learning not only how to communicate but how to listen is an important part of being a thoughtful member of our community and helping build a world of love, not hate,” said Cortes.

The BREATHE program was created for grades PK to 4th grade, but Cortes said, “I have had Early Childhood parents and Middle School parents ask me if I could look into making it available to their students also. Others may not have said anything, but I have noticed our BREATHE stickers on the backs of cars, on ID tags or on water bottles, which shows me they too are ready to embrace all through hope and equality and are committed to bettering our community here at SCH.”

Laura Cortes, 33, lives in Chestnut Hill with her husband (who graduated from CHA ’05) and their two children, who also attend SCH. Cortes is a SCH alumna (class of ’06) who graduated from the College of Charleston with a BS in Business Administration. She received her teaching certification through Eastern University. More information at

Karen Tracy is director of communications at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.


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