Partnership with Wee The People Brings Antiracist Focus to Teaching

in Summer 2021 by

This fall, when Park launched its comprehensive Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Implementation Plan, the School committed to evaluating every aspect of our community and culture – including our curriculum.

As a school that places students at the center of everything we do, we commit to creating curriculum and programs that deliver academic excellence to every child. It is our responsibility to create an environment of justice and learning for all students, and to prepare our students to be active citizens in the world we aspire to create. Social and racial justice and action are the foundation of our work and drive the design of our curriculum and program.

To support this effort, and in consideration of the pandemic, all professional development in the 2020-21 academic year was defined by these two important questions: How can we do better work as teachers in COVID? and How can Park become an antiracist institution? 

For faculty and staff, this work began in the summer of 2019, when Park engaged VISIONS, Inc., consultants who specialize in diversity and inclusion, to lead a series of professional development workshops for the year. Since March of 2020, these have shifted to a virtual format, with set groups of 20 meeting via Zoom to engage in topics related to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) for two hour sessions led by VISIONS’ staff. Connie Yepez, Director of DEI, explains, “Our work with the VISIONS organization is an important foundational piece of the DEI and anti-racist mission of the School. The ongoing work and periodic meetings with VISIONS’ staff provides an opportunity for all of the adults to be in community together as we talk about race.”

The Library Connection

Inspired by the School’s investment in this DEI-related professional development, Lower Division Librarian Christian Porter and Library Director Tory Lane saw an opportunity to pilot an intentional social justice curriculum in the Lower Division. They approached Connie, Tina Fox (Assistant Lower Division Head), and Katie Carr (Literacy Specialist) to create a team that would join DEI, social-emotional learning (SEL), and Library resources through literacy work in grades PreK-4. Christian says, “In addition to suggesting books for students, teaching research, literacy, and technology skills in weekly library classes, Park’s librarians work hand-in-hand with classroom teachers to provide all sorts of resources to support the curriculum. When we began this social justice effort, we said ‘let’s look at what you’re doing in your class and make a connection.’”

Last year, while reviewing the work that different grades were doing, Christian wanted to find a way to advance the work in PreK. He turned to the Boston-based racial justice project Wee The People. “I had heard about Wee The People (WTP) and was curious about their work,” he says. “I reached out to them because I thought they might be a good resource and perhaps they could run a workshop for PreK in the spring.” Serendipitously, the PA DEI Committee had also scheduled a workshop for parents with WTP for the spring of 2020! Of course, COVID put those plans on hold until the 2020-21 school year.

As the Library team, which includes Christian, Tory, Elyse Seltzer, and Mari Powell, considered how social distancing would impact their work this year, it became clear that author visits would not be possible, so they  reallocated those funds towards a WTP workshop. That’s when the Christian and Tory approached Kimberly Formisano to share their idea about offering a workshop for the entire Lower Division faculty. “Christian and Tory were so excited about the possibility of establishing a common parlance and focus among Lower Division teachers,” Kimberly remembers. “I was happy to be able to support the initiative financially from the Lower Division budget.” 

About Wee The People

Launched in 2015 by two Black mothers, Francie Latour and Tanya Nixon-Silberg, Wee The People was born in the wake of the deaths of Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, and Sandra Bland. Both mothers felt an urgent need to respond. “That was just devastating, the back-to-back-to-back taking of Black lives and police violence,” Francie recalls. “As parents, we were still figuring out how to ‘get it right’ with our own race-conscious parenting at home. But we needed to do something — something out in the world. We had no idea what that could look like. And we thought, other parents must be feeling this.”

Parents were feeling it, as were  teachers, librarians, clinicians, clergy, museum educators, and many other groups WTP has come to serve. From its inaugural event, a one-off Freedom March for Kids, WTP’s work has expanded to some two dozen programs for K-8 students, antiracism workshops for adults, and consulting for schools and museums.

“There’s a thing we’ve heard all our lives: We have to have ‘The Conversation About Race’,” Francie says. “But most people don’t have the tools. Meanwhile, research tells us kids start noticing skin color and assigning value to it at age 2 or 3. That’s more true for white kids than for any other kids. So part of the work is intervening with kids early and wiring their brains for justice. The other part is rewiring the brains of adults who see a chair, and think the chair can’t be any other way. They think the chair is a tree. That it grew that way from the ground. But chairs aren’t trees. Chairs are made by people, who make choices about how and for whom the chair will work.

“Ignoring or accepting how the chair is made because it works for you, that’s also a choice. But we can choose to radically remake it, and introduce our kids to a much, much better chair. Doing that means seeing the chair for what it is, learning to use the tools, and then choosing to use them.”

ABCs of Racism for Educators

In October, every Lower Division teacher participated in WTP’s “ABCs of Racism for Educators” workshop to foster conversations about race and justice with students. “Because Francie is so thoughtful about this work,” Christian says, “she first held workshops for all the Lower Division teachers to provide a consistent framework, approach, and vocabulary. Then, when she held workshops for first and second graders, the faculty was familiar with the content and could respond to the students’ questions.” Elyse explains, “everyone who teaches Lower Division students now has the same tools for addressing racism in their classes – it’s a big step.”

Thanks to Elyse Seltzer who serves as the Upper Division Librarian as well as one of Park’s two DEI Coordinators, the work with Francie and WTP has expanded way beyond the Lower Division. “We met with Francie over summer and went through every grade and identified aspects of the curriculum that lend itself to a DEI lens,” she explains. With each grade level, the team would ask “what is the most responsible way of teaching this content?” and “Are we unknowingly perpetuating stereotypes?” Elyse says, “It was really valuable to have an outside educator come and look at the way we were framing and presenting these units and ask how different kids are responding to these materials.” Connie recognized that extending this work throughout the whole school would result in an immediate positive impact for students and offered additional funding from the DEI Office to support the larger scope of work. Soon, Elyse had mapped out a schedule of dedicated “consultation hours” where grade level and department teams could meet with Francie to brainstorm and problem solve about a challenging aspect of their curriculum

“This model of working in small teams around shared concerns felt really rich,” Francie says. “Learning how to look at curriculum through an antiracist lens can feel like pushing a bus you’re inside of. In a small group, you have to show up in that space. And you have to contend with not just the curriculum, but an awareness of how limited you are inside that bus. For highly trained teachers, that’s uncomfortable.”   

 

A Sampling of WTP’s Workshops at Park:

Grade 1
Following the “ABCs of Racism for Educators” workshop, Francie then held workshops with every first grade class called “What is Racism?” which broke “down the fundamental concepts of skin color, race, racism, and injustice, kids will learn how they can help to notice and disrupt racist systems.” First grade teacher Madeline Welty described how her class worked with Francie and learned about racism in an age-appropriate way. “She talked about racism being like a tangled and knotted up bunch of yarn. We thought about ways that we could ‘pull it apart’ and ‘untangle the mess.’ She encouraged students to be detectives and look out for racism, which is sometimes obvious and sometimes hard to spot.” In sharing this description with families, Madeline also suggested a few questions that parents could use to continue the conversation at home: What do you notice about race at school? and Tell me how you think our family identifies racially. 

Grade 2
Second graders also participated in the “What is Racism?” workshops with Francie directly. Before those took place, the Grade 2 teachers identified two aspects of the curriculum to discuss: in their yearlong study of the daily lives of children in five countries: Mexico, India, Colombia, China, and South Africa, how should they address current events like immigration and what impact would that have on the other four countries; and, when teaching nonfiction biographies, is it developmentally appropriate to teach slavery? Prior to meeting with Francie, the Grade 2 team met with Connie and determined that that yes, they could teach slavery in a developmentally appropriate way and then passed the baton over to Francie who helped identify tools on how to do that during their consultation. They are also meeting regularly with Christian to identify biographies within the Library’s collection to feature throughout their changemakers unit.

“The book we use in What Is Racism? is called Milo’s Museum,” Francie says of the workshop. “It’s about a Black girl named Milo who goes on a class trip to a museum. And the challenge for students is, is there any racism in this book? You tell me. Because no one is mean to Milo. There are no separate water fountains, which for some reason is a thing white kids really latch onto to define racism. Milo just has an experience: She goes into the museum excited, and she comes out feeling deeply that something is not right. What happened?” 

Grade 4
Francie worked with the fourth grade team on how their historical fiction unit could help disrupt the typical narrative of the Great Depression using the book Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis. To give students context on how the story of the Depression has traditionally been “white washed” and BIPOC voices have been eliminated, and how to trace the thread of Black resistance through American history, Francie recommended a range of primary sources, including looking at how efforts to organize the Pullman Porters helped elevate them economically and laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s.

Grade 6 – English and Social Studies
First, Elyse met with Chris Beeson, social studies department head, to identify parts of the Grade 6 English/Social Studies curriculum that deal directly with race and DEI issues. “Our initial list was very long,” Chris explained, “since sixth graders engage in a yearlong study of Africa. That focus raises many questions about teaching social studies while considering the effects of the slave trade and colonialism. Knowing that we only had a single session with Wee The People, we tried to narrow the focus a bit and look at the characters in the books we read with Grade 6.”

In February, Elyse and Francie held a two-and-a-half hour session with sixth grade teachers Alice Lucey and Merrill Hawkins. “At Park, the curriculum is not static; teachers are always fiddling with their curriculum and changing books,” Alice says. “Our Wee The People session was incredibly helpful – providing a dedicated time and space to talk about which books we would want to tweak. Elyse and Francie began by asking us where are these books set? Are the characters relatable for 12-year-olds in terms of time, location, and age?” Books that were written in the 1900s seem ancient to today’s students just as those set in the South make racism seem distant. “And most importantly,” says Merrill, “Are the main characters given agency? Are they making the change themselves or is there a ‘savior’?”

Looking Ahead

“What’s fantastic about this partnership with WTP is that it puts the concepts we’re discussing in our VISIONS work into action!”
– Tory Lane, Library Department Head

By all accounts, engaging in professional development with Francie and Wee The People has been incredibly valuable. “‘Outside’ consultants alleviate bandwidth issues and bring real attention to this work, bringing a clarity and focus that in-house conversations just can’t provide. Francie is a skilled facilitator and is able to break down obstacles, lean into our vulnerabilities, and keep everyone on task,” Kimberly says. “Bringing a Black woman with a very effective format and method to the front of classrooms is a huge asset for both students and teachers,” Connie adds. Through VISIONS, faculty and staff are exploring race and the prevailing white supremicist culture and the workshops with WTP are working to implement an antiracist practice within the classroom. “We are already looking at the curriculum and places that we missed this year to implement in the 2021-22 academic year!”