The excitement was contagious at the 11th annual Day of Cultural Understanding, June 16, as Grade 6 students at Charles H. Hulse Public School – who are mostly Muslim – welcomed their counterparts from the Ottawa Jewish Community School (OJCS).
The students had spent the school year as pen pals and the Hulse students had visited OJCS earlier in the year to work on a Mitzvah Day project.
The pen pal exchange program was started by Patrick Mascoe, a Hulse teacher, with the goal of teaching his students about the principles of tolerance and responsible citizenship.
The program has been recognized as a groundbreaking initiative and Mascoe was invited to speak at Yad Vashem to politicians and educators from 60 different countries sharing his belief that problems begin to solve themselves when people are allowed the chance to get along and recognize their similarities.
Mascoe emphasized the importance of character education and told the Hulse and OJCS students that “the goal is to think about how we treat each other. If you know something is wrong you speak out.”
OJCS teacher Chelsea Cleveland has been Mascoe’s partner in promoting tolerance and respect for the past four years.
“My Grade 6 curriculum, for the past few years, has dealt with topics of standing up for what’s right, even if you’re the only one,” said Cleveland, who teaches her students that every action can have an impact – both positive and negative.
Cleveland said the program “develops awareness and fosters diversity” by presenting students with opportunities to meet people they wouldn’t normally encounter.
The first part of the day was devoted to a number of fun, team-building activities that encouraged the students to listen to each other and work collectively to develop effective strategies.
OJCS student Gabi Giest appreciated the opportunity to get to know her pen pal, Leila Mueda, in person.
“Writing the letters, you can’t see their personality, see who they really are,” said Giest.
“We’re kind of different, but we’re getting to know each other,” Mueda added.
Sophia Mirzayee, a Hulse alumna who participated in the program nine years ago, now volunteers with the Grade 6 students during the Day of Cultural understanding. She said the program taught her – and her Hillel Academy pen pal – to appreciate each other.
“We grew a lot of respect for each other, not just as individuals, but for our respective backgrounds,” she said.
Now studying human rights at Carleton University, Mirzayee attributes her passion for the subject to Mascoe’s program.
The second part of the Day of Cultural Understanding has traditionally been devoted to hearing Holocaust survivor David Shentow speak about his experiences. However, for the first time in 10 years, Shentow was unable to attend. Instead, Mascoe showed a video of Shentow speaking to Hulse and OJCS students during a previous year.
Mascoe said Shentow speaks to the students, despite his reluctance to talk about his experiences in the Holocaust, because he wants them to understand what hatred is and what happens when it’s allowed to grow.
Mirzayee said Shentow didn’t just inspire her, his story made her determined to take what she’s learned and do something with it. “It sparked something in me.”