Friday, February 26, 2016

Building a Community of Learners Committed to All Voices

Melitzi Torres and Becky Thibeault, second grade teachers at Blackstone Valley Prep Elementary School 2, share their insights on finding space in everyday lessons to build a community of practice committed to diversity.

Intentional diversity is an organizational priority and a core belief shared across the Blackstone Valley Prep network. Building a community where conversations about equity are held openly and safely requires thorough planning and lots of self-reflection.

Before any of us can embark on such powerful discussions we focus on finding our voice and place in the conversation. Both of us are second grade teachers and while our intentions are the same, our perspectives and experiences are different.

We have a good starting point in the curriculum that BVP’s network team has developed. Our current 2nd grade ELA unit introduces scholars to the true stories of the heroes who catapulted the Civil Rights Movement into America’s consciousness, including Martin Luther King, Jr., the Greensboro Four, Rosa Parks, and Ruby Bridges.  We read biographies and memoirs, investigate photo archives of civil rights protest and segregation, consider the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and spend several days carefully picking apart the original text of the “I Have a Dream” speech. Along the way, we write about Dr. King’s dream and our own for America, and debate whether his dreams have been realized today.   There is so much to work with in this unit to build skills and knowledge and to also encourage our scholars to think critically about the world around them.  Exciting stuff!

Keep reading below for our individual reflections about this collective journey we are taking with our fellow 2nd grade teachers and our amazing scholars.

I admit that looking for my voice in civil rights discussions created an internal sense of nervousness. To host deep discussions about race and equity I needed to first become comfortable with myself and comfortable with uncomfortable conversations. As a white educator in an urban school setting I have come to understand the power that many voices within a classroom holds for closing achievement gaps, resolving inequities, and becoming comfortable with discussing racial issues.

As a first-generation college graduate, and as a Latina, I knew I wanted to be able to discuss topics to build a sense of activism in every scholar. What I wasn’t so sure on was how I could find time to lead these discussions as the second grade math teacher. I decided to introduce historical events in problem solving and create story problems that would have scholars not only dig deep into their math brains, but also be able to relate to the characters in the story problems on an emotional level.

Topics from the ELA curriculum (such as MLK, Ruby Bridges, Rosa Parks, the Little Rock Nine, and more) become the content for math story problems as they are discussed as part of the broader units of study.  The discussions that occur involve real character emotions, and situations while also focusing on the skills we are working on as part of our math units.

After working on this project for a couple of weeks, Becky and I realized that the problem solving block wasn’t enough time.  Our scholars were becoming more and more comfortable and engaged with the discussions.  Now, conversations extend into our community circle/morning meeting time too.

It was important for me that I set up an environment where my scholars felt comfortable speaking about issues related to struggle and to inequities, both in our history and today. To do this it took much reflection and planning in order to facilitate meaningful discussions.

To start off, there are simple rules or norms for discussion in our room: we sit in a circle and make eye contact with each other and listen to each other’s ideas by agreeing, respectfully disagreeing, and adding on to what each other says. Scholars know this culture has been established in our room so that all of our voices are held equal in the conversation.

Establishing these norms were crucial for our success. They have allowed us to really focus on the topics at hand.

So what have we learned?
This work is ongoing. We have begun to foster a culture where important conversations are being held every single day by all of us. This isn’t easy, but it’s not supposed to be. Our hope is that by facilitating opportunities for our scholars we are supporting their growth into citizens that not only care about each other and about the bigger world around them, but also feel educated and empowered to take action. It’s working too.  Just this week, scholars asked if they could write letters to Detroit community leaders after reading about some of the physical conditions of the Detroit public school buildings. Examples like this make us hopeful for our collective future and for their futures--today we learn, tomorrow we lead.

(Scholars working collaboratively to write thank you letters.)

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