Lessons from a Diversity Conference

Update: In June 2018, I left Morocco looking for new challenges and growth opportunities. In July 2018, I began my journey as a Spanish and Social Studies Teacher serving African American middle school girls in southeast Washington, D.C. 

On February 5, five seventh graders and I attended “Be Seen. Be Heard: A Middle School Diversity Conference” at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, MD. In breakout sessions with other teachers, I learned two important lessons. First, it is sometimes necessary to divert from the planned curriculum in order to address timely issues that are important to students; second, the teacher’s and students’ race matters in how students perceive and engage with learning material. Below, I will share these lessons along with my personal experience with the latter.

To promote critical thinking, cultural awareness and empathy, it is necessary to discuss current events in the classroom. As a Social Studies Teacher, I require students to write and present current event reports to the class. However, I learned that it is also beneficial for teachers to bring up a specific current event for discussion in smaller groups, such as advisory groups. In this setting, students may feel more comfortable sharing authentically with the group. To foster fruitful discussion, it may be helpful to initially agree upon a few norms with your students:

  1. Speak from the “I” perspective.
  2. Be authentic.
  3. Be fully present.
  4. Listen to understand, not to judge.
  5. Lean into discomfort.
  6. Disagreement is a learning opportunity.
  7. Honor confidentiality.

These norms are key to creating an environment of mutual respect as students share their perspectives on controversial issues.

One of the most uncomfortable and profound moments of the conference was when the keynote speaker, Dr. Rodney Glasgow, asked us to sit in a “fish bowl” formation, with white teachers forming the inside circle and teachers of color forming the outside circle. Through this exercise, I was forced to acknowledge my white privilege. As I listened to teachers of color express how their white colleagues could be better allies in educating a diverse student body, I reflected on whether I, as a white teacher of African American students, was truly listening to them. Ultimately, this experience led to me delaying and/or scrapping parts of my planned curriculum to focus on black history.

So much of the information that students absorb – whether through smartphones, society or schools – is time-sensitive. In response to current events, or in commemoration of special months or holidays, it may be beneficial for teachers to divert from the planned curriculum to address issues and topics that matter to students. I hope that my lessons learned may be helpful to my fellow teachers as we work together to create meaningful and engaging learning experiences for our students.

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