Imagination gives first-graders chance to build bridge to diversity

Imagination gives first-graders chance to build bridge to diversity

The most enjoyable part of the ISA program for Yonah Itskowitz was the chance to write stories he could share with kids from other neighborhoods. (Photo provided by Hillel Academy)
The most enjoyable part of the ISA program for Yonah Itskowitz was the chance to write stories he could share with kids from other neighborhoods. (Photo provided by Hillel Academy)

In a kind of “Muppets” meets writing workshop, a weeklong experimental program at Hillel Academy tested the idea that technology — and some fun — could promote inclusivity and develop writing skills among first-graders.

Interactive Story Adventures (ISA), a startup founded by educator Jordan Lippman, ran the Shared Story Adventures program, which saw Lippman and a puppeteer engage students for an hour a day this February. The company’s mission is to “bring together children and families from diverse neighborhood to build connections and understandings.”

The program joined together Hillel students in Squirrel Hill and their peers from local public and charter schools.

The public school, Miller African-Centered Academy, teaches and promotes the history and culture of people of African descent based on seven Swahili principles. It is located in the Hill District and serves pre-K through fifth grade. Miller students were handpicked to participate in the program.

The charter school, Environmental Charter School (ECS), is located at Frick Park and provides a “curriculum that will foster knowledge, love of and respect for the environment and the will to preserve it for future generations.”

It accepts students based on a lottery for kindergarten through eighth grade. ECS offered Shared Story Adventures as an optional, after-school program.

Ella Ziff, Hillel’s K-3 grade level coordinator and its K-12 director of special services, described the program’s goals as “to give the first-graders a writing experience that had a fun, motivating basis,” to teach how to write a story having a beginning, middle and an end and to provide an opportunity to share and interact with students from other neighborhoods and backgrounds.

“The kids really enjoyed that part,” Ziff said of the multicultural element.

Hillel parent Shelly Itskowitz, said that her first-grader, Yonah, “loved it.”

“Every day, he came home ecstatic,” she recalled. “He said sometimes it was hard because he had to listen to another child and remember what they liked or disliked to fill in the stories, but he liked that it was something different in school.”

Lippman and his team initially met with representatives from Hillel to design the program. Using a panoramic camera on loan from Carnegie Mellon University, they came into the first-grade classroom and took 360-degree photos. Next, the ISA team posted the panoramic photo of the classroom and asked children to put post-it notes on the photos at their favorite spot in the classroom and talk about why it was their favorite.

Then, over the course of the week, they used puppet characters to engage the children in creating stories based on what they had to say about their favorite classroom spot. The puppet would model story creation. They allowed “enough time for everybody to be successful,” Ziff said. “The kids loved the puppets the best! That was really motivating for them.”

The ISA team repeated the exercise at each of the three schools.

The children wrote their stories and then were paired up to record their stories on iPads. A pair at Hillel, randomly matched with pairs at the other two schools, watched stories the other students had recorded. On a following day, they video-conferenced with their partners at the other school. During the video conferencing, they could ask each other questions. The iPads, puppets, puppet theaters and other equipment were provided by ISA, which is funded by grants from a number of foundations.

At the end of the week, a final event at the Kingsley Association, a community center in East Liberty, was attended by the ISA team, teachers, administrators, parents and students.

David Knoll, parent of a Hillel first-grader named Avi, thought the program was “fantastic.” He saw it as an opportunity for the “kids to use their imagination to create story lines and they got to interact with other schools, especially kids that they don’t usually interact with.”

Avi loved it, Knoll pointed out. “It was very well run.”

Simone Shapiro can be reached at