For seven years my school and our school community have been committed to, "Growing Great Leaders!" Our students, parents, and staff work tirelessly to help our students learn, understand, and experience that success at school and at life is more than just a score on a test. Our students internalize through explicit instruction and modeling that in order to be a "great leader" you must do what is right even when noone else is looking. As part of that work I, the principal, host three Leadership Chats a year for each class and team in the building. The chats are a wonderful opportunity for me to model a few instructional techniques for my teachers and to plant some common language and expectations across the building. At the risk of sounding prideful, I have been told our Leadership Chats have been "transformative," and I can recount example after example of how our chats have made a positive difference at Novi Woods. The title of our most-recent chat was, "Let's Talk About Race."
I am fortunate to have so many supportive and understanding parents in our school. We dialogue, listen, and support each other. Recently I have been having conversations with several parents about race and how we help students deal with the concept of race. We have 430 students in our school. 53% are Asian. 38% are White, and the remaining students are Black or Hispanic. We are a diverse school and district, and we see that as a strength! Some of our students have been experimenting with discussing race. There have been jokes and some hurtful statements. In each account, I have worked with the parents and the students to make sure the students learn what is and is not appropriate.
These experiences have reminded me that our entire society does not talk about race very well. Adults sometimes conveniently ignore race altogether by making statements like, "Oh, I don't see color. I only see what is on the inside." In working with my students, this statement is very confusing for them. Our young people absolutely see differences in colors of skin--just like they see differences in hair styles and shapes of eyes. When they hear adults either ignore or not even notice these characteristics, our students are conditioned that race must be a taboo topic that is bad. To make it even worse, our students are quite savvy and are aware of what is discussed on the news and in the media. It's as if adults unintentionally teach our young people that race is uncomfortable and bad.
Our district openly approaches these topics. We have a pillar in our district plan focused on social justice. There is much to this pillar, and it has opened the door for our school to embark on a two-year journey around culturally relevant teaching. We have partnered with our intermediate school district for more than 40 hours of professional development for our staff over the last two years. Do we have all of the answers? No. Do we see issues about race and its impact on students with new lenses? Absolutely.
The new "lenses" about culture and our role inspired me to take a risk with our Leadership Chat. I researched several resources from Teaching Tolerance, and a parent suggested this book by Julius Lester.
The book reminds its readers that every person in the world has a story to tell. That story is based on our family, when and where we were born, and our likes and dislikes. Race is one part of each person's story, but it is not the only part of the story. We must work to see the "true" story of each person--the entire story.
Our students understand all of these concepts. Whether kindergarteners or fourth graders, students engaged in rich discussions about race and clearly understood that we are more similar than dissimilar. I even pushed each group a few times about comments I sometimes hear in the cafeteria or hallways like, "What are you eating? It looks so weird," or "What are you wearing. That's strange." Calling things weird or strange is not a nice way to find out about something or someone different. Students practiced asking questions like, "What are you eating? We don't eat that in our house." (We also practiced using nice tones in our voices. How we say things is just as important as what we say.)
After comparing our stories to snowflakes (All snowflakes are beautiful and unique, but they also all have 6 sides.), I closed the chat with a final reminder, "It Takes Teamwork to Make the Dream Work!" which has become our school's rallying motto (Yes, from another Leadership Chat.)
In planning the chat, I knew I couldn't end there. It's not enough to just say what you believe. It's not enough to just proclaim to not be racist. I challenged the students with a final question.
Without a bit of hesitation in 20 classes, over 430 students told me time and time again that we must:
- "Tell the mean person to stop."
- "Help the person who is feeling hurt."
- "Go get help."
- "Tell a teacher or our parents to help."
- "Stand up for what is right."
- "Remind everyone about this chat. We're all snowflakes!"
Do I think this Leadership Chat will cure all of the ills in the world? No. Do I hope and pray our young people continue to grow and support each other? Every single day. In 2018 and with the state of our society and some of its leaders, it's not enough to ignore racism. As one wise student in my school told me, "Mr. Ascher, you can't do nothing. You must do something."