Monday, November 18, 2013

Claude Steele, Dean of Graduate School of Education at Stanford, and author of Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Issues of Our Times) visited Blake November 5-6th.  In addition to his symposium, he met with faculty, staff and administrators, sharing some very powerful, personal experiences and talking about ways to intervene when we feel people in our community are affected by stereotype threat.  More importantly, he shared strategies to get us thinking about how we will help rid our school of cues that call up stereotypes about certain groups in the first place.

Steele made it clear that in order to create an educational environment where students can succeed, we have to begin by shifting our perspective.  He suggested that as we explore the reasons why students from some groups might be underperforming in our school, we stop looking at the problem from the “observer” perspective where the student is centered in our mind’s eye. This view leads us to a consideration of a student’s skills, abilities, and approach to school and then to findings that are often limited to seeing him/her as the problem to be fixed.

Instead, he suggested we examine the problem from the “actor’s” or student’s perspective, that we stand in his/her shoes, sit in the classroom, walk through the halls, and eat lunch, seeing through his/her eyes.  From this point of view, we see the environment, the school community, the social dynamics, teachers, coaches, and the experiences the student is immersed in and navigating everyday.  If we look carefully, we can then tease out the reality of triggers that might cue stereotype threat at each stop along the way:

  • Does she see herself reflected in the curriculum of her classes, in the teachers, administrators and staff of the school?  
  • Do assemblies, programs and clubs cater to his needs, interests and passions?  
  • Do teachers and coaches see the student’s hard work or is he considered to excel or fail because of who he is, rather than what he does? Do they expect him to succeed or fail?
  • Do people know her, how she learns best, what makes her laugh, engage, shut down?  
  • Does he have friends (who are they?), time in the day to follow his passions, connect with people and things he loves? 
  • What causes her pain, joy, surprise or leads to disconnection in her school encounters?  
  • What is lunch like for him? Homeroom? Recess?  
  • What does he do when he gets home? What language does he speak?
  • Do her parents are guardians feel comfortable and connected in the school community?
  • Does homework engage him?  Is it challenging, meaningful or yet another hurdle to leap?  

Steele shared how the subject’s perspective allows us to understand how in order to perform at one’s highest level, a student needs a sense of well-being, to be seen and supported, to know his teachers and peers expect the best and are not seeing him through the lens of society’s stereotypes. Then, once we actually better understand the student's experience and lens, we can work to create an environment where the student feels known, connected, and challenged, and is then able to fully engage in the learning process.

The observer’s stance is not inessential; however, it's secondary.  Once we truly know the student and have created a safe, connected and fun environment for him to learn, this perspective can allow us to better understand some of the personal hurdles he must be skilled at navigating.  It may also help us recognize the symptoms he shows when dealing with stereotype threat and other challenges in the environment, and as we work to change the systemic triggers, to recognize when we are truly successful.

As I think about the work we must continue to do at Blake, Steele’s visit heartens me because we have already begun this journey—examining and revising our curriculum, creating a more visually diverse environment, working with teachers and administrators to investigate their own perspectives and asking them to look critically at what and how they teach.  Blake has invested in an infrastructure that can help the school implement necessary changes.  We have PK-12 Department Chairs who oversee curriculum and pedagogy and support teacher development.  We have the Office of Equity and Community Engagement which supports the school in living its mission, from its policies and practices, to its teacher training; to the opportunities provided for students and families, to the way in which we interact with the communities we inhabit.  Blake's mission, values and strategic plan also make it clear that diversity and inclusion are at the heart of what we define as academic excellence.  Now, we just have to sustain the work across the institution and find accurate measures of the impact of the changes we are making. 

Monday, September 30, 2013

Talking Princess

I am not a princess, I don't need rescuing.  I am a queen, I got this.  
Michelle Griffin

When talking to my girls about princess, rather then explaining how I detest pink and despise the whole notion of the Disney princess, I learned from a friend to get my daughters thinking rather than resisting by asking instead:  “What do princesses do?”  Then, she said, it was my job to sit back and listen.  

When I posed the question a few years ago, the oldest who was eight at the time was silent and then responded: "They wear pretty dresses.”  

Still trying to be in listening mode, I replied, "Hmm... What else?"  

She continued to think about it, and then added, "Sit around and talk with their friends."   

"Oh, I said.  Is that all?"  "I mean, I guess it's okay, but it doesn't seem like very much fun for make believe.  You girls do so much more already.  What are the things that you all like to do.  I mean for real?"  

Rabi starts listing, and Naima, whose four, pipes in too. They come up with:  play soccer, draw, read, cook, imagine, eat snacks, dance, garden, swim, swing on the monkey bars, tell stories and jokes, make movies, and sing.  We talk about how it is kind of boring to just dress up, sit around and talk; how dresses can easily be hiked up, but that it is hard to run and play in high heels.  We talk about wizards who have magical powers and all the things they can do with those powers. I say, "I mean if you are playing make believe, why not go all the way.  Imagine.  Be daring." I tell them wizards can cast spells, create countries, time travel, and make up crazy delicious candy dishes.  We talk about queens and kings who actually rule countries.  

"What does that mean?" asks Naima.  

"Well, they get to decide the rules, to help the people who live in their country, and make lots of decisions.  They get to lead their people."  Naima's eyes glitter a little. You can tell she is really taking this in.  As the youngest who plays a lot of games with her older sister (who makes up most of the rules), she listens intently.  For Halloween that year, Naima goes as a Queen.

Taking my friend's advice really worked.  Rather than telling my daughters how I think and pushing them to see things my way, asking questions, and getting them to think and talk with me was a much better approach.  It didn't squash their desire to play princess, but it made them think more critically and creatively about it.  They still play princess every now and then, but they are soccer princesses or warrior princesses, not princesses who sit around and look cute.  They dress well, but they are busy doing things.  They talk a lot, but they also dance, garden, rule, run, and create.

I haven’t yet talked to them about what it means to be rescued. Mainly because they are too busy casting spells, making up poems and songs, laughing, reading, chasing each other around the yard, doing cartwheels and backbends, teaching school, making cities and cars.  They are too busy either running or running things to ever be sitting around, looking pretty, and waiting to be rescued.  It's true that Disney princesses almost always get into trouble and need a man to get them out of it.  They are at a loss for how to take off their high heels, lift up their dresses and kick, kick, kick or throw a few punches before they book it out of there.  My daughters though, at least so far, are much more of the Queen or wizard mentally, they take care of business.  

And I just pay attention, keep asking questions and having conversations. 


A fews books and a website to start or continue the conversation about Princesses with young children:

Monday, September 16, 2013

Selling Democratic Values

I was on a 757 last Sunday evening—heading from Atlanta to Minneapolis. For our viewing pleasure, it had little video screens installed in the backs of all the seats in the cabin.  We were able to view the Delta Airlines safety video and several commercials before take off.  The screen was less than a foot away from my face, with two others nearby and several more in my periphery.  The surround sound intensified the experience. Rather than tune into the noisy, glossy ads surrounding me, I retreated to my head space and wondered.  I began thinking about advertising we can’t “opt-out” of as Americans—billboards on the highway, blimps in sports arenas, moving screens in the airport, and so on...

If as a society we used media to grow a healthy, equitable and sustainable democracy, what would these ads look like?  Would there be commercials that challenged us to to stop using plastic bags and paper towels, and to examine how our "throw-away" culture affects the world at large? Would we drive by billboards examining white privilege like those done by the in airports and subways?  Would advertisements challenge us to sit and talk with our neighbors, modeling what it is like to truly listen and learn--across race, gender, class and ideology?

Could media introduce us to ways we could continue to evolve as a species and then suggest we turn off the TV, shut down the computer, put away the phone and get busy doing it? I wondered. 

If you could create an advertisement, what would you sell?  If you had a 3 minute slot to show a video to people trapped in mid-size comfortable seats on an airline where everyone flew first class and was treated equitably (despite their bankroll), what would you screen? 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Invest Yourself in the Blake Village

Yesterday, I hosted the annual Families of Color Picnic, and I was inspired by the growing Blake village.  Though it was close to 100 degrees outside, over 100 folks attended! Families connected, children played, and everyone was well fed. It was an great start to 2013-14!  Below were my remarks to the group.

We're all more connected than we know, more interdependent 
than we realize, more alike than we imagine 
& need each other more than we admit.   
Cory Booker

Blake is a growingly diverse community, and though just choosing to be a part of it illustrates that we all have some things in common, I want to urge you not to ignore our differences, but to instead get to know them because I believe this will make us stronger.

This year I had two experiences that made me think a bit about what it means to be in a community, both were religious rites of passage ceremonies, one Catholic and one Sikh. Each marked the young person’s readiness to embark on a more individual relationship with god or guru and to bring their religious values into their everyday lives.  At both, the children were surrounded by their relatives and religious community. As well as people not from that religion, but from their school or neighborhood or their parents’ workplaces. I felt honored to be at both of these ceremonies and to experience rituals that were hundreds if not thousands of years old. I was reminded of how significant it was for these youth to be held in the history of beliefs and values passed on by people they love and trust, who had cared for them, and helped them arrive at this point safely.

And though they were growing up, they would always be connected and held within this extended community and as well be responsible to it.  These were people that knew them, who would continue to listen and question and offer guidance as they made the challenging journey to adulthood.  The parents of the three understood that though many of us do not share their religious beliefs, we are nonetheless an important part of their children’s village. And so they invited us to learn more about who they worship and why, and how this affects the people their children are becoming. The experience tightened the bond between us.

We belong to each other and are responsible for taking care of each other. And in order to do so well, we’ve got to know about the things that really matter to each of us.  We have to reach beyond the distance our differences can create, to share who we are and to learn that those differences are significant, but don’t have to stop us from learning from and caring for each other, and providing the resources we all need to thrive together.

As so I was inspired to remind us that the connections we make today over dinner and a few fun activities can be sustained over time if we are willing to extend ourselves, invite people into our lives, and let people know what we value. If we are willing to show up when invited and lean in to new and different experiences that teach us about each other. That is the only way that we can continue to build a strong, thriving, village.

And so I invite you to connect and engage and extend yourselves within the Blake community. This school is a part of your family’s village, and its a microcosm of our world community, and if we are--as our mission states—going to help educate global, connected citizens, we’ve got to begin here, together, so that we are then able to reach across and extend ourselves beyond.

So thank you for being, here, for being a part of Blake’s village.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Teaching Racial Identity

"My skin is like Maple Wood."  
"My skin is like an apricot colored crayon, pinkish, whitish, smooth."   
"My skin is like hot chocolate, warm and yummy." 
"My skin is like vanilla ice cream, ready to be eaten."  

For several weeks this year, while waiting for Spring, 2nd graders explored their racial identities.  They played with creative descriptions of their skin and hair, but also learned the correct terms for racial groups in the United States, the language to describe different hairstyles, and how to talk about cultural differences.  They discussed the meaning of words like different and normal, coming to the conclusion that "everyone has their own normal" and that before asking questions or commenting on people's differences, it is important to "think first," about how what you say might affect them.  Students realized that though it is okay to be curious, it is more important to be welcoming and to know that it will take time to get to know a people and allow them to reveal their "inside stories." 

Friday, February 8, 2013

It's going to be okay

It was a lower/middle school parent affinity meeting, and I had asked upper school students of color to speak on a panel about their experiences at Blake.  I had done this many times in the past, but this small group was my most diverse and engaged group of parents to date.  The panel was three, male students spanning 10th - 12th grade.  And as they listened to students, Parents had a hard time taking in the stories.  Though the students shared many positive moments at Blake, named the support of their teachers, dean and programs like Cornerstone, they still shared many frustrating and painful experiences. Being African American, Korean, being an immigrant, or multi-racial were all challenges at Blake.  Students told racist jokes.  Learning about your culture in class was limited if not impossible.  Teachers sometimes had low expectations.  And it was easy to internalize the subtle, but nonetheless negative messages. Though Blake says we are a diverse and inclusive community, we still have a long way to go to create a school where students from all backgrounds can bring their multilayered and complex selves through the door and find a space to study, to connect, and to excel without the added challenge of navigating the rough waters of racism and privilege.

Parents took in the student experiences, realizing that their children, in years to come, might very well be sharing similar stories.  Their weighted sighs and questions, heavy expressions and comments, filled the room.  After much intense discussion, I ended positively:  The students talented, articulate, and engaged and at varying stages of racial identity development, shared honestly with us to provide insight into how we might parent our children effectively at Blake.  Nonetheless, as we slowly separated and filed out of the room and into the night, I wanted to run after each parent and let them know, with a hug or a pat on the shoulder that, with a bit of hard work on all our parts, everything would be okay.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Post Inauguration: We the People

As my children were playing with their friends, I watched the inauguration on my laptop. Barack Obama talked about the legacy of democracy passed on to “we the people” in the constitution, and the weight upon our shoulders to create the free and equal society of which they spoke. Listening to the second term African American president elected in the nation only 60 years out of Jim Crow, I felt pride to be alive at this historic moment. At the same time, I thought about all those upon whose shoulders he stands and realized the work still yet to be done. It was inspiring to hear a president reference the importance of civil rights for all—including people of color, working-class folk and gay Americans. Yet, his words were only that—words, a call to action in order to bring those words to life, and it is “we the people” who must do the work in classrooms, offices, boardrooms; in grocery stores, mosques, courtrooms; in pulpits, gas stations, and neighborhoods, to make this country a place that sees all people as equal and worthy of the freedom to live, love, and prosper.