How do we start this conversation?

Posted by Jerry Beckman - 02 February, 2017

Jerry Beckman, Associate Head of School for Academic Affairs

 

Prioritizing leadership traits in Middle School Advisory. Photo by Whitney Andrews

 

Some of the stand ups were easy, others were more challenging.

“Stand up if you were born in the Southeast.”

“Stand up if you have ever danced with someone you didn’t want to dance with.”

“Stand up if you have ever heard a biased comment and did nothing.”

These were some of the “stand ups” Erin Beacham, Education Director at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)-Southeast Region, gave students at Community Time on January 23.

Conversations about doing more to promote and support diversity at schools often end with people asking, “How do we start this conversation?”

Ms. Beacham is a person who starts that conversation. She currently leads ADL programs in support of student self-awareness, tolerance, and inclusivity in 250 schools across the Southeast, including all Madison County and Huntsville City Schools.

Upper School Head of English Jennifer Rossuck had heard Ms. Beacham present at a workshop on the Holocaust and urged the School to invite her to speak. Across the divisions, there has been a desire to better support students for who they are and to empower them with the language to stand up for themselves and for others.

While the Lower School already has a social/emotional curriculum in place with Responsive Classroom. Laurel Shockley, Lower School Assistant Head, who met with Ms. Beacham with the Faculty Advisory Committee, was impressed by her presentation on the impact of negative words and behavior.

“Responsive Classroom practices build a strong, safe classroom community and establish rules that guide children toward kind, friendly, inclusive behavior,” says Mrs. Shockley. “When this type of classroom community is in place, bullying behavior has no place.  Responsive Classroom practices help children develop pro-social skills and strategies for knowing what to do when they see mean behaviors.” Inspired by the talk, Mrs. Shockley looked at more resources and ordered a supplemental book, How to Bullyproof Your Classroom, to see if it can provide more language around the topic.

Middle School team members have spoken with students and colleagues about the importance of being understood fully for who you are.
 

In the Middle School, Advisory and community assemblies provide important opportunities to discuss the many differences that young adolescents begin to notice in those around them. “This is a time of increased self-awareness and self-consciousness, when friendships and allegiances can shift dramatically,” says Middle School Head Clay Elliott. “How adults help students navigate this time socially and intellectually matters a great deal. Students need language and a framework to discuss how they perceive themselves and others.”

Mr. Elliott has been working to change the narrative about Middle School from being a period of social pain and instability to one of emergence and opportunity for tremendous personal growth and potential. “We believe that building competencies and skills that will help students navigate the diverse world around them is critical for their success in the world they are growing into,” he says.

In the Upper School, adults often lead conversations within advisory groups that are designed to facilitate dialogue between students who might hold different points of view, but these conversations are often led by adults. There is also an emphasis within the Upper School's culture on students being proactive about the issues that matter to them.

Ms. Beacham works with schools to promote a culture where all students thrive and feel a sense of belonging. This includes understanding the difference between tolerance and acceptance, encouraging respectful dialogue, and providing resources for schools to help students be allies, rather than bystanders. She talked about the impact of stereotypes, bias, and microaggressions, and the importance of students learning to speak up when they hear biased comments.

The week before this presentation, Upper School students had heard from Peggy Wallace Kennedy, the daughter of segregationist Governor George Wallace, about the personal cost of doing nothing in the face of outspoken hatred and racism, or as she put it, “the hazard of running away from a personal commitment to the truth.” Mrs. Kennedy shared with students her own regrets at not speaking out at their age, when she felt moved to do so.

After Community Time, Ms. Beacham met with Faculty Advisory Committee. She also met with Upper School student groups during lunch.

Junior Skye Svehlak is leading a student initiative called the Diversity Project, which she says aims “to raise awareness in the Randolph community about the importance of intercultural dialogue, diversity, and inclusion. In doing so, we hope to improve understanding and cooperation among people from different cultures, background, and beliefs. This also aims to give a voice to students who may feel marginalized by some aspect of their identity. It is also aimed towards helping more students be comfortable discussing topics that may not necessarily affect them, but that certainly affect the greater community.”

Skye helped gather students for two lunchtime meetings with Ms. Beacham. Asked about her biggest takeaway from Mrs. Beacham's presentation, Skye responded, “Now more than ever, schools are in need of a respectful and supportive environment and/or safe space. When she was with us at lunch, she really emphasized the role of the students to change what they view as the problem in the school community. She told us, ‘Adults...don't have all the answers...But you young people need to take a step back from what I just said, understand and process it, then come back ready to fertilize the seed that I just planted.’ I personally feel very hopeful for the future of diversity and conversations about acceptance and respect in Randolph. With my organization launching in a few short weeks, I hope that I will be able to provide the celebrational and educational side of diversity to the community.”

I attended both the Upper School Community Time and the Faculty Advisory Committee meeting with Ms. Beacham, and these meetings affirmed our ongoing commitment to focus on the uniqueness of each individual as a member of our community and the important gifts and talents that they contribute to our overall school culture. I appreciated Ms. Beacham’s comments on the importance of challenging language or behavior that is destructive of others and promoting steps we can take to help our students build supportive relationships. Our overall goal is to create a school culture that values the uniqueness of each individual and aligns with our mission of ‘seeking truth, building character and nurturing all.’

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Topics: Community Time, School Culture, diversity, inclusivity, mission, Responsive Classroom, Upper School


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