MILLBURN, NJ - It is 9:00 a.m. in the Wyoming School classroom of Melissa Schwartz, and her third grade students are just settling in to talk to their counterparts from Ghana.
Schwartz is one of several teachers in the district using the Empatico program, which allows students to connect with classrooms all over the world.
Via a video uplink, Millburn students can connect with other children their age, an exercise that helps them to better understand the cultures, traditions and ways of life for other groups, whether they are on the west coast or in the western hemisphere.
For Wyoming School principal Kristin Mueller, bringing the Empatico program to schools was a no-brainer, and was mostly thanks to the efforts of Schwartz.
"The reason why Empatico was brought was because Melissa Schwartz was one of the founding teachers," Mueller said. "She was a fellow with Empatico and she had done exchanges prior, and then she came, and she presented to the staff. We saw it, we thought it was an awesome idea, and then we stepped on board as a whole school."
Mueller also said that a grant had been provided by the Kind foundation, that would work in conjunction with the Empatico program, and was commensurate to the amount of teachers using it. The grant will allow the school to do things to enhance kindness and show empathy in the building among the student body.
This particular session focused on Thanksgiving. With the holiday less than a week away, students told their Ghanaian counterparts all about the history and traditions of the holiday. In exchange, they learned about Damba, a holiday celebrated in Ghana.
As Schwartz noted, the program is helpful for her students, as it allows them to be exposed to other cultures well outside the normal scope of what they would see in Millburn.
"[With Empatico] they can be a little bit more worldly at this age," Schwartz said. "They're very into who they are right here right now, and they need to understand that these celebrations do happen around the world and that a lot of the cultural things are very similar.
"So the feasts and the celebrations and getting the new clothes and celebrating with family, and it's important that they see that it's very similar around the world."
As for Devin Wong, one of Schwartz's students, he said that he enjoys the program, because it allows him and his classmates to find out more about other kids and how they celebrate and live their lives.
"It was really interesting, just to find out more about other countries traditions and not just ours." Wong said. "They may have some different traditions, they may eat different foods, and they talk differently, so it's just really interesting."
To find out more about the Empatico program, check out the following link: https://empatico.org/how-it-works