Teaching children to be inclusive and compassionate is an ongoing mission in the Westwood Public Schools. When educators at the Downey School had the chance to make those principles resonate with the help of technology, a picture book and a dog, they seized the opportunity.
“This all stemmed from our ‘Same and Different’ curriculum, which focuses on inclusion as well as what it means to be a good citizen and a community helper,” said Jennifer Shea, Kindergarten teacher at the Downey School.
As part of that curriculum, last year’s Kindergarten class read “Rescue and Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship,” which tells the real-life story of a special kind of community helper. It is the personal story of Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes — survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing — and their best friend, Rescue, a seeing-eye-dog-trainee turned service dog.
Moved by the picture book, the students appealed to Candlewick Press for a visit from the authors.
“The students wrote letters and shared examples of their own writing about the story, and we created a video asking if the authors could visit,” Shea said. “Jessica, Patrick and illustrator Scott Magoon were on a book tour at the time, but they kept in touch. Ultimately, the publisher contacted us to arrange not just a visit, but this amazing live webcast.”
And the timing could not have been better, falling right after Inclusive Schools Week and just before the holidays—both occasions for kindness, reflection, and gratitude. “We live and breathe inclusion every single day, but this presentation had a little extra meaning to it at this time,” said Downey Principal Debra Gallagher.
A lot of planning went into the live event that would connect thousands of students around the globe.
Downey administrators and teachers, along with district technical staff, had multiple conference calls with Candlewick. Gallagher purchased a copy of the book for every K-5 classroom. Teachers spent time with students reading the book, exploring the illustrations, leading them to create related artwork, and inspiring them to submit questions for the webcast.
Westwood Schools Director of Technology, Learning, and Innovation Steve Ouellette oversaw the technical side of the project. He credits Westwood High School video production teacher MaryAlice Misuta with handling most of the filming logistics and Network Manager Joe Kearns with coordinating the live stream.
“Given the scope of this event, we did a lot of pre-planning and test runs to verify that everything would work as needed,” Ouellette said. “I think we succeeded in creating an environment where our guests felt comfortable addressing the students present in the library, while also providing a quality audio/visual representation for those watching remotely.”
On December 11, everything was in place, including student illustrations that lined the hallways for Kensky, Downes, Magoon, and Rescue’s arrival. “They stopped every step of the way to comment and take pictures of the students’ artwork. It was very heartwarming,” Gallagher said.
During the live webcast, Downes read animatedly from a large format version of the book as Kensky turned the pages. A Q&A session followed with live questions from the handful of Downey students in the library, plus some sent by the remotely participating students in more than 600 schools worldwide. Magoon drew an illustration of Rescue, who sat patiently and even dozed in his doghouse, as the authors and he answered questions. Kensky and Rescue then demonstrated some of the ways the he helps her. The event concluded with Downes asking the students present to talk about their favorite illustrations in the book.
Both Gallagher and Shea said the event could not have gone better. They felt proud of their students and grateful for the experience.
“This was collaboration at its best, from the tech team to Deb and other administrators to my colleagues and our students,” said Shea. “It was a wonderful thing to be part of with a great community feel.”
When the time came for Kensky, Downes, Magoon, and Rescue to leave, the entire student body, which had watched the webcast from their classrooms, “clapped out” their distinguished guests - a salute normally reserved for the annual grade 5 graduation, but one that Shea and Gallagher believed fitting on this very special day.
The archived webcast can be seen by visiting www.YouTube.com and searching for “Rescue & Jessica Webcast.”