Wingman Program builds inclusivity in schools

Photo by Daniel Jackovino
Watsessing fourth-graders in Barbara Nazzareto’s class make ‘Listening Llamas’ with their fingers.

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — An activity encouraging the social and emotional development of Bloomfield public school students was introduced last month and will conclude at the end of the school year. It is called the Wingman Program and was developed by the parent of a victim at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012.

The program is largely student run, with the goal of encouraging pupils to foster bonds of friendship through specialized group activities.

The schools are permitted some control over how the program is conducted. At Watsessing Elementary School, there will be a 40-minute classroom activity on the first Wednesday of each month. At all schools, the second, third and fourth graders are led by two fifth- or sixth-grade Wingman students, while fifth- and sixth-grade classes are led by designated teachers, who are called Wingman teacher champions. All Wingmen leaders, students and teachers, have received special training for the program.

On Wednesday, Feb. 5, the students in Watsessing teacher Barbara Nazzareto’s fourth-grade class, for their activity, were instructed to try out a new twist to rock, paper, scissors. On playgrounds of yore, children would huddle and shake their fists while declaring, “Rock, paper, scissors — shoot!” and then make a fist for a rock or an open hand for paper or spread two fingers for scissors. In this game, rock breaks scissors, scissors cuts paper and paper covers rock. Whoever survives wins, although sometimes more than one round is needed for a winner to emerge. The Wingman Program twist, however, substitutes the word “show” for “shoot”: “rock, paper, scissors — show!” In the program, losers encourage the winner, who goes on to face other winners.

“The Wingman Program is a number of team-bonding and trust-building activities,” said Joseph Milano, a Watsessing special education teacher and a Wingman teacher champion. “It’s goal is to develop social and emotional skills. Each lesson has an underlying theme we hope the students discover. The overall goal of the program is to inspire. The losers of the rock paper scissors game become part of an entourage. They become cheerleaders of the winner.”

Another Wingman activity is called “Ideal School.” For this, students list the attributes of what they would find at a perfect school.

“There’s no right or wrong answer,” Milano said. “This activity gives the student a voice. They have to also understand that some things are not realistic.”

One Watsessing student said an ideal school would have a “chill-out room.” Milano thought this was a good idea and worth considering for Watsessing. The ideal school lists are made by groups of students, he said, so students learn to work together.

All district schools have three Wingman teacher champions, one of whom is the guidance counselor. At Watsessing, guidance counselor Pam Catalano and second-grade teacher Laura Foster are the other two Wingman teacher champions. Watsessing uses 16 Wingman students. They do not lead students of their own grade level, since it was thought they could better maintain order with younger students.

“Wingman may look a little different at other schools,” Milano said. “We have the autonomy to make this program fit the needs of our learners.”

Foster, a Wingman teacher champion, said that on Wingman Wednesday, the students and teachers wear purple. And throughout the school, purple butterflies with students’ names are taped to the walls.

“The program takes the kids out of their cliques and comfort zones,” Foster said. “Without thinking, they’re making new friends. The big message is empathy toward others and full inconclusivity.”

The two Wingman students in Nazzareto’s class were sixth graders Joel Rivera and Fathia Kodalu. Another thing these fourth graders learned was when to quiet down. This was accomplished when Wingman Fathia pressed her fingers together into what looked like a long-snouted creature with its ears picked up. The “creature” is called a Listening Llama and, in silhouette, would probably look like a llama. When the students saw the llama, they quieted down. Foster said using this sign instead of a raised voice gives students who are speaking the opportunity to finish their sentences and thoughts.

As with all district Wingmen, Fathia and Joel will lead activities with the same class for the rest of the school year. Last week, Fathia said Wingman Wednesday went well.

“We thought they were going to be a handful,” she said. “I figured, being fourth graders, they were going to be hyper, but they got into the activities.”