I started my teaching career in the fall of 1991 at Foxcroft School, a boarding and day school for girls in Northern Virginia. The early 1990s were particularly interesting years to work at an all-girls school. We were at the forefront of a burgeoning movement to understand how girls learn, and my colleagues and I were tasked with implementing new methodologies and curricula in our classes to reflect this research.
As a new teacher, I had lots of questions as I tried to find my way through this work. Some of my colleagues argued, “The canon is the canon.” Neither race, nor gender, nor any other type of identity could take away from a classic curriculum. Others were not convinced. They argued that 14-18 year-old women should see themselves in our curriculum and that re-considering our approach in light of what we now knew about girls’ education was a long needed step in the right direction. I came to believe the latter, and the more I learned, the more convinced I was that curricular and pedagogical change was critical if we were going to reach our students more effectively.
During the previous Spring, Foxcroft School welcomed poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou who inspired a generation of students and teachers to think differently, and certainly more broadly, about race and gender. Even though I was not on the faculty then, I felt the profound effects of her visit through the experiences of those who had been in her presence. In particular, our students of color found inspiration and strength through powerful and proudly delivered recitations of Ms. Angelou’s poems. I get goosebumps to this day when I remember watching performances of Still I Rise. The power of Ms. Angelou’s words combined with the conviction of their delivery helped me better understand the students’ experiences as young, African American women in a world wholly dominated by male whiteness, including my own.
I share this with you because I am asking Boulder Country Day’s teachers and staff to adopt a similar mindset regarding anti-bias education. The reasons are many. Last spring the Association of Colorado Independent Schools conducted a deep dive into its accreditation standards; they are requiring member schools to review their diversity, equity, and inclusion practices as part of their accreditation process. Our vision states clearly that we teach our children to think critically, question bravely, and act responsibly. Doing so requires an inclusive approach, opening hearts and minds to ideas and possibilities that may have been previously overlooked. Schools that focus on anti-bias education have a greater chance at creating a true sense of belonging where all community members feel known and valued. School communities where all members feel known and valued are communities where student learning is maximized, and such communities draw evermore interest amongst families of all backgrounds because of that felt and known sense of belonging.
With this in mind, our professional development work this year focuses on gaining familiarity with the underpinning foundations of the Learning for Justice (formerly called Teaching Tolerance) Social Justice Standards, and how to utilize the Standards in developing curriculum. The Standards have four key domains – Identity: I know and like who I am, Diversity: I know how I am similar to and different from others, Justice: I know unfairness when I see it, and Action: I think I can change the world.
At their core, the Standards provide a framework for teachers to support students in engaging in dialogue and learning around all aspects of human identity, building self-awareness and pride, and developing the skills to advocate for themselves and others in respectful and effective ways. If you consider these Standards alongside our school’s mission, vision, motto – and of course the Portrait of a Graduate – you’ll no doubt recognize the complementary nature between them, and why they were decidedly the chosen framework for enhancing our work when it comes to anti-bias education at BCD.
If you were to visit the Learning for Justice website today, you’d see curriculum honoring and supporting Dr. Martin Luther King on the front page. You’d see resources for classroom teachers to facilitate classroom discussions to “offer a fuller account of King, his peers and the ongoing legacy of their shared dreams and actions.” This is just one example of how to explore a specific topic or aspect of culture through an inclusive lens that allows our children to recognize the various ways in which people exist in the world, and to understand and respect people across both similarities and differences.
You’ll likely begin to notice examples of how these Standards are being incorporated from your own children’s experiences as we continue to live into this work. As always, our students remain at the center of our practice. Our partnership in these efforts is essential if we are to raise culturally literate children who are well prepared to navigate our increasingly diverse world. I urge you to join us in fulfilling our vision – thinking critically, questioning bravely, and acting responsibly. We’ll surely make mistakes along the way, but we are committed to the journey.
Thirty years ago I began to learn about an approach to education that benefitted all of the students I taught at Foxcroft. I was inspired by those students to write my Master’s thesis on developing a course in International Relations specifically designed specifically for high school girls. Today, I am equally optimistic. As I think about the “action” domain of the Social Justice Standards, I know that “world changing” is hard work. It’s intense, reflective, and produces moments of joy and pain. But with strength, purpose, and partnership we can achieve this goal if we approach it one step at a time.