EQUITY COMMUNITY CONVERSATION
November 19, 2009
The Equity Committee thanks all members of our community who attended our Community Conversation on Thursday, November 19: Nurturing Equity through Empathy and Respect.
Pat Spector, a founder and long-time chair of the Equity Committee with Kankunda Klingenberg, began the evening with an overview of the history of equity work at St. Patrick’s, including not just the evolution of the Equity Forums and conversations and the development of the Mission Statement and Guiding Principles, as well as equity positions in the Parents Association and Board of Trustees, but also the important changes in practice that have resulted – from potluck dinners held at school rather than private homes, to limits on school activities that highlight socio-economic differences, from establishing affinity groups to encouraging broader afternoon playdates, from sponsoring deliberate professional development in equity to ordering multi-cultural paper and crayons. David Evans then introduced the audience to the concept of empathy and its critical importance. He emphasized that it is a skill that can be taught and must be nurtured. A faculty panel then surveyed the deliberate steps teachers have taken to foster equity and empathy in the class room and beyond.. We offered this as a springboard for group discussions on what we can all do, as parents and educators, to foster empathetic, respectful, and therefore equitable children.
A summary of the panel presentations follows:
Helen showed the ways the nursery teachers nurture equity in the curriculum and in the many teachable moments throughout the day. In the curricular units, all cultures, family structures, genders, and socio-economic backgrounds are represented, respected, and validated. For a unit on Castles, royal residences from all over the world are included. A unit on Homes addresses apartments, as well as houses. The Family unit shows that all kinds of families exist, from single parent to two mommies or two daddies. Some children are adopted. Some families are adopted. A Space unit features books, photographs, and materials with female astronauts and astronauts of color. Both girls and boys are encouraged to be construction workers if a construction site is set up in the play corner. If a boy wants to dress up as a princess during a unit of Fairy Tales, this is accepted and validated by the teachers. Children are cast in non-traditional roles in the Christmas Pageant.
The unit on Self-Portraits supports this recognition and celebration of diversity but also shows the universal attributes that all humans share. The Nursery teachers talk about the various skin tones, eye colors, shapes and sizes we are and how these varying characteristics make us all unique. But they also talk about the fact that we are all human – with flesh, blood, bones, organs, and emotions. If children understand the “human-ness” of all of us, then they can start to develop the empathy that nurtures equity.
Outside of the curriculum, Nursery teachers look for ways to teach empathy in daily interactions. During a dispute between two children, a teacher might say, “Look at Johnny. He’s crying. How do you think he is feeling right now?” On the playground, a teacher might say, “Mary looks like she is looking for a friend to play with. Why don’t you ask her to play with you?” Other deliberate cooperative activities provide opportunities for children to work and play together who might not usually do so. The Nursery motto is, “Can’t say ‘can’t play’.”
Careful language is vital to instilling empathy and equity. Instead of asking, “What did you do over the holidays,” a better question – one that validates the holiday experience of every child – is, “Did you enjoy your time with your family?” Similarly, because all kinds of families exist, teachers deliberately say, “your family” or “your parents,” rather than “your mom and dad.”
Speaking for the Lower School, Erica Thompson stressed similar themes of deliberate instruction and careful alertness to diversity. While teachers make use of countless “teachable moments” on the fly, deliberate instruction provides the terminology for those moments. Erica gave the example of the “crumpled heart,” on which students write down a few of their favorite things and then crumple the heart-shaped paper into a ball. Just as careful smoothing can not recreate that flat piece of paper, a simple apology cannot always repair hurt feelings. An “apology of action” -- understanding what you did wrong and trying to correct that wrong becomes an understandable goal for a child who has the visual image of the crumpled heart. The “Peace Path” – used throughout elementary school – is another piece of deliberate instruction in useful language. In the Peace Path, two children who are in conflict share their feelings with each other. Each child repeats what the other child has said. Then each student offers an apology and a solution. Students then reach an agreement on the solution and shake hands.
Books add to the deliberate instruction, with titles carefully chosen to show diverse perspectives and expose the hurtfulness of teasing and bullying, as well as the rewards of embracing difference. They are also vital to validating each student’s experience – every child should be able to find him or herself reflected in the curriculum.
On top of planned instruction, teachers must always be alert to any activity that exposes differences in a harmful way. School activities that require money or class activities like a family tree that reveals “missing” pieces are two examples.
Alertness and deliberateness come together in “The Responsive Classroom,” a classroom approach all lower school teachers have learned – an approach that believes in the importance of the social curriculum and promotes the idea that we must really know our children individually, culturally, and developmentally, in order to best serve them. At morning meeting, therefore, teachers use care to ensure that sharing time validates every child’s experience, so children share experiences or knowledge rather than new toys or vacation trips.
In Upper School, building respect for difference continues in and out of the classroom, as students become more aware of these differences. Therese Khan listed the areas in which upper school students begin to categorize each other:
* Different learning styles
* Different levels of athleticism
* Different personalities – especially noting those with eccentric personalities different from what is deemed cool
* Different levels of maturity
* Different interests
* Again, an upper school teacher lives equity both within and outside of the curriculum.
In our interactions with the children, upper school teachers insist on mutual respect, not universal love. They help students with learning challenges, such as low patience, find tools and language. They reinforce empathy by reminding students how they would feel if they were excluded from an activity or a lunch table. They remain alert to sudden challenging social situations and deal with them in the moment by listening to everyone’s point of view, analyzing the dynamic, and helping to form solutions to prevent a similar occurrence and to repair any damage. They emphasize personal responsibility in every social situation, thus discouraging the role of “bystander.” Allowing mean behaviour is a form of supporting that mean behaviour, and students are shown the difference between tattling and knowing when to get an adult involved. And, finally, teachers encourage students to be grateful for the privileges they have – whether it’s meeting well-known authors at the book fair or having the right to vote and speak – rights people have historically died for to achieve.
Literature and history provide a safe context for understanding different perspectives, ranging from the experience of Native Americans and migrant workers to the necessity of seeing both sides of a military or political conflict, as well as the pros and cons of any kind of societal or technological progress. The urgency of understanding and respect globally easily translates to the idea that such goals start with individuals.
Grade 6 ends with the Identity Project – a two-to-three week investigation of some aspect of identity, including gender, politics, media, family, and socio-economic status. All the topics ask students to examine themselves, their circumstances, and the situations of others – with an eye toward better understanding themselves and others, thus gaining empathy and respect for those who may live in quite different circumstances.
Middle School, through its study of American History and Ethics, provides nothing but a spring board for equity issues, ranging from the experiences of immigrants to the battle for civil rights. Here, the goal remains for every student to see him or herself in the curriculum and to look hard at the intolerance that has met every “different” group of people that has entered since the British first colonized North America. At the same time, it is essential that students see strength in these mirrors. We learn about the Jim Crow South, not from To Kill a Mockingbird, in which a white male is the hero, but from Black Boy, the memoir of a strong, eloquent black male.
Literature continues to nurture empathy, as students make connections between diverse characters and their own experience – and, it is hoped, learn from the damage done by prejudice.
A large portion of Service Learning and Ethics is devoted to anti-bias – breaking down stereotypes about groups of people the students will serve – whether is it the homeless or senior citizens. And a short story unit in Ethics explores stories of self-discovery by all different kinds of people, in the face of societal and peer pressure – again with the goal of understanding, identification, and empathy.
Outside of the classroom, the middle school has an advisory program that allows for pre-emptive and reactive conversations on any social issues that arise – cliques, bullying, stereotyping, etc. During orientation, a concerted effort is made to show the Creed in action and to start discussions among the students that cross-pollinates the grades and groups of friends. A group of Grade 8 students attends a middle school diversity conference and then presents the information to the rest of the student body. Recent topics have been stereotyping and gender bias.
At the heart of all middle school equity work are the same characteristics so necessary in lower school – consistency, awareness, and deliberate instruction. Building on the education and a system of discipline and honor outlined in the student handbook, we also try to be alert to damaging social issues and then get to the bottom of them, expanding the perspective of all of us in the process.
A description of equity work in our curriculum would not be complete without noting the work in the arts. You need only attend a school concert or walk through the school halls to see and hear the variety of cultures explored and represented.
HERITAGE MONTH DISPLAY
HONORS HISPANIC CULTURES
As part of our ongoing effort to understand and respect the full spectrum of diversity within the St. Patrick's community, we celebrate different heritage and awareness months by creating displays in the Whitehaven Campus Lunch Room. Our first recognition honors the contributions of people of Hispanic heritage. Beginning on September 15, Hispanic Heritage Month marks the anniversary of independence for five Central American countries--Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Further, Mexico declared its independence on September 16, and Chile on September 18.
It is important for us to help our students understand that Hispanic heritage is not limited to Central and South Americans. According the United States census bureau, Hispanic (American) refers to any Spanish-speaking individual in the United States. There are now over 45 million Hispanic-Americans, and the United States has the second largest Hispanic population worldwide. Mexico has the largest with over 108 million citizens. Spain has just over 40 million citizens.
Please watch this space in future editions of the Thursday Bulletin for more information on our heritage and awareness month observations as well as other ways that St. Patrick's celebrates equity and diversity within our community.
COMMUNITY CONVERSATION: ABILITY & SOCIO-ECONOMIC STATUS
“The conversation was a success.”
“I loved the fact that it was completely parent-led!”
“The best equity meeting I have ever attended!”
“I am amazed at how thoughtful some of the comments were.”
These rave reviews came from attendees at our recent Community Conversation, conducted Wednesday, April 1. Despite the rain, over 40 attendees, including an especially strong turnout among parents, participated in a discussion of two social identifiers: Ability and socio-economic status.
Parents read excerpts from: Matt's Story and “How School Taught Me I Was Poor”
We then split into two groups. While it would be impossible in this limited space to capture the insights shared in each group, the following are some of the highlights.
The importance of fostering a culture of embracing differences, recognizing the need to teach children to be able to adapt and make the most of the “cards they were dealt.”
Being careful about the word “celebrating” differences because we would not want to “celebrate” the fact that a student may not be, for example, a good speller.
Suggestion for creating a “working group” of teachers for a student with emotional or other issues.
The importance of teaching empathy.
Opportunities to teach perseverance (e.g. lessons learned from students with physical disabilities).
Emphasizing students’ strengths.
For continuing education for parents, share the summer reading list for faculty and staff in the Thursday Bulletin and/or on website and/or organize book clubs.
Consider a program similar to Nancy White’s Parenting Skills Class but for older students.
Socio-Economic Status Group
To minimize the perceptions of school holiday travel experiences among students, focus on students’ interpersonal experiences, rather than on destinations.
How attentive are students—and parents—to certain brands of clothing and other items?
Perception of lower socio-economic status may presume limitations in other abilities.
Socio-economic status and other factors can affect parents’ availability to help with projects done at home. Excessive parental participation in some instances?
Is there a risk we will make children from wealthier families ashamed of what they have?
Inherent tensions in annual Auction supporting the Financial Aid Program at the same time that Auction opportunities, prizes, and advertising can accentuate differences based on socio-economic status.
Impact of socio-economic differences and perceptions in the realm of playdates and birthday parties.
As the discussion groups ended, applause could be heard coming from the socio-economic status group. Several of us wished we could have split ourselves into two to have been able to participate in both groups. But we can all look forward to the next equity event.
A very special thanks to equity and diversity leaders Kankunda Klingenberg, Pat Spector, and Shavonne Pegues for their invaluable guidance and to the parents who helped lead the program.
JANUARY 2009 EQUITY FORUM HIGHLIGHTS SOCIO-ECONOMIC STATUS AND CLASS
St. Patrick’s parents and teachers have a tradition of gathering together in order to deepen our understanding of difference, foster dialogue, and develop skill in guiding our children. The November Equity Forum, which featured Gene Batiste, Vice President of the National Association of Independent Schools, engaged us in a conversation about what diversity itself means and what diversity and inclusion mean for us an independent school. From this conversation, there seemed to be a desire to spend more time thinking about and discussing the role of socio-economic status and class as it relates to St. Patrick’s and independent school communities generally. Thus, we invited Mr. Batiste back to share his thoughts at our January Forum.
Mr. Batiste opened his presentation, “Socio-economic and Class Diversity: The Assumptions We Make,” with a quote: “Nowhere is there a more intense silence about the reality of class difference than in the educational setting” (bell hooks, 2000). Society’s assumptions about socio-economic and class diversity often include misconceptions, so Mr. Batiste clarified the various dimensions of socio-economic status and class diversity for us. Socio-economic status comprises one’s level of education attained, wealth (whether displayed or not), occupation, social position, and income. Class comprises identity, the groups to which we belong, the common language of our experiences, our political and social views and preferences, aesthetic interests, and consumption patterns. Mr. Batiste shared that biases are more rooted in class than in race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, or other identifiers.
As an independent school, we are confronted with some difficult topics related to socio-economic status and class diversity, many of which seem innocent on first glance. The setting for playdates, gifts to faculty, the kinds of vacations students take, students’ clothing, the availability of weekend and summer homes, and some development and fundraising activities can inadvertently create class divisions that make some feel unsettled in our community. Mr. Batiste urged us to emphasize to our students the values that we share as a community rather than the material items and consumerism so prevalent in society. He recognized that St. Patrick’s has taken great strides as a community in trying to address these issues, but reminded us that they exist in all independent schools and, therefore, must always be in mind as we create and recreate the St. Patrick’s community. Mr. Batiste said that independent schools must create space for children to talk about personal experiences and, furthermore, must use the current economic climate to rethink and restructure our values systems. Children should be told that they all have individual gifts to contribute to society and that who they are is more important than what they have.
Once again, we were thrilled to have so many new faces attending the forum. Thank you to all who attended. Thanks also to the Parents Association, which provided a light supper for attendees. We are ever-grateful for the strong support of the PA, which partners with the school in this important work.
NOVEMBER 2008 EQUITY FORUM A HUGE SUCCESS
On the evening of Thursday, November 20, 2008 a group of approximately 80 parents and faculty gathered in the Upper School Common Room for a conversation about “Building and Sustaining an Inclusive School Community” with Gene Batiste, Vice President of National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), Leadership Education and Diversity.
Gene began the evening with an interactive ice breaker activity in which all participants were given a message and were challenged to find others in the room with the same message. The challenge was that the only method of communication that could be used was humming. Within this activity, participants expressed feelings of isolation, uncertainty, awkwardness, confusion, reassurance, and excitement. Gene related these feelings to the feelings of any student, parent, or adult within the St. Patrick’s community at any given time.
Gene proceeded to discuss what is and what is not diversity, cautioning that diversity is not only about the numbers, nor is it about a conflict between white and black. In fact, diversity refers to an ever-growing list of social identifiers that characterize individuals including, but not limited to, age, ability, race, ethnicity, language, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender, religion, and image. Gene reminded us that it is our community’s goal and intent as epressed in the Mission Statement for Equity and Diversity to acknowledge and affirm everyone’s background.
During the question-and-answer period, Gene addressed questions regarding our role as an Episcopal school in terms of building and sustaining an inclusive school community and next steps as a community to help fulfill our Mission Statement.
ST. PATRICK’S REPRESENTATIVES TRAVEL TO NEW ORLEANS FOR NAIS PEOPLE OF COLOR CONFERENCE 2008
Last week, six teachers and administrators from St. Patrick’s traveled to New Orleans to participate in the 21st annual National Association of Independent School (NAIS) People of Color Conference (PoCC), “Music for Life, Food for Thought, Friendships that Sustain.”
Attending were more than 3,000 educators and students from across the country, approximately half of the participants being students in a parallel conference, the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC). The St. Patrick's representatives spent two days immersed in discussion of the experiences of people of color in independent schools. All six educators returned inspired and renewed in their commitment to St. Patrick’s goals in the areas of equity and diversity.
Among the many highlights of the conference, several speakers stand out. In the opening keynote address, Sir Sidney Portier, legendary civil rights activist, humanitarian, and Academy Award winning actor, director, producer, and best-selling author shared snapshots of his life. Portier illustrated his childhood in the Bahamas as the son of tomato farm workers to his legendary career on the stage and screen to his current passion and interest in the world of philanthropy. Reza Aslan, one of the nation’s most respected experts on Islam and the Middle East explored the interplay between faith, politics, and culture in the United States.
In addition to hearing keynote speakers, the six St. Patrick’s educators who attend PoCC participated in smaller workshops and presentations dealing with a range of topics related to life in independent schools, including conversations about cross-cultural communication, the use of collage to provoke discussions of our multifaceted stories, the implementation of a faculty of color group, and strategies to support the self-esteem of students of color while celebrating their uniqueness and validating their experiences.
Finally, PoCC allowed participants to engage in a full-day community service project. Stacia McFadden volunteered with Habitat for Humanity’s Musicians’ Village. Musicians' Village is providing local musicians and other qualifying partner families the opportunity to own a home in a thriving community of committed individuals and families. Ms. McFadden worked on an outdoor landscape project in conjunction with colleagues and high school students from Packer Collegiate Institute, NY.
The PoCC experience allowed participants to bring back ideas, lessons learned, and enthusiasm to support and rejuvenate the St. Patrick’s community as we search for ways to build and sustain inclusive communities.
Lassiez les bon temps rouler!