A Note from Barbara: Anti-racism at Explorer West

I know you all have been very aware of the work we’ve done this year to adapt to the conditions of COVID-19, to continue providing the highest-quality school experience, safely, to our students. But as we near the end of this extraordinary year, I want to make visible some of the work our faculty, staff, and board of trustees have been doing to grapple with the “double pandemic” of racial injustice and inequity that this health crisis in some ways revealed.

The devastating reality of George Floyd’s murder, the demonstrations that followed all summer, and the disparity of COVID-related outcomes in our country along racial lines, have compelled us to ask ourselves more explicitly what it means to be an antiracist school, to work toward actively dismantling the embedded racial biases and inequities that stand in our way, and to commit in new and more active ways to making Explorer West a place where each person is treasured and empowered to thrive in their full humanity.

Today I want to highlight two important areas where this work took place this year: curriculum content, and faculty and staff development. In future communication, I’m excited to share more about the strategic work happening at the board level around antiracism.

Curriculum Content

This year we began the work of reviewing our curricular content to ensure that the books and subject matter we ask our students to immerse themselves in represent diverse authors and experiences, and allow students to grow in their ability to understand and value multiple perspectives. We have plenty of work still to do in this area, but here are some examples of ways in which our curriculum this year reflected this intentional shift in focus:

  • English classes: Both Anna and Leslie worked to ensure that their students in all grade levels read books written by people of color representing a range of time frames and experiences. This year books by BIPOC authors including Rita Williams-Garcia, Christopher Paul Curtis, Jason Reynolds, and Nnedi Okorofor were introduced into our curriculum.

  • Art classes: Sarah has always worked on exposing students to art and architecture that represents people and cultures around the world, but this year she made sure the balance skewed more heavily toward BIPOC artists, including Elizabeth Catlett, Sargent Johnson, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kehinde Wiley, Amy Sherald, and Faith Ringgold.

  • Social Studies classes: Daniela made sure that the 6th-grade study of ancient civilizations included a further focus on including the stories and achievements of cultures that have not traditionally been spotlighted. Most recently, 6th graders have been learning about how the trade routes along the Silk Road enabled cultural exchange between eastern and western cultural groups. And in 8th grade, for the first time, students investigated different angles of policing reform and worked on persuasive essays.

Faculty and Staff Development

In our August in-service, we worked with an organization called Re-Set Schools to consider how we might developing anti-racist teaching practices at Explorer West. Some of the questions we began to grapple with then were:

  • How does my racial identity show up in my work?
  • What is implicit bias and how does it show up in classrooms?
  • What is systemic racism and how does it show up in schools?
  • How can we commit to anti-racist practices?

One of the outcomes of that training was the formation of a small working group from our faculty and staff called the Antiracism Task Force. We have been meeting weekly to explore ways that faculty and staff can be more intentional in the ways we identify and address racial inequities in our curriculum and in our classroom cultures. The primary goal we set for our first year together is to help the faculty and staff develop more understanding of systemic racism and more facility with discussing race and racism with each other and with students. To that end, we engaged in staff-wide training in Courageous Conversations, and have been spending time in each of our weekly faculty meetings engaging in learning and discussion activities planned and facilitated by the Task Force.

For example, a couple of weeks ago, after watching Race: The Power of an Illusion on our own time, we spent time in small groups at a faculty meeting discussing our takeaways and implications. This week, we are doing a “jigsaw” activity to dive into institutions where the impacts of racism have been prevalent and systemic. Teachers and administrators chose between the topics of healthcare, education, and housing and are currently reading, watching, and/or listening to resources the Task Force provided. At next week’s meeting, we will reconvene in our small groups to share what we’ve learned.

This ongoing work has been so rewarding already and is helping us, as a school, become the educators that our students need us to be, educators that recognize the full humanity and range of experience of each of our students, and that grapple with the difficult complexities of our world and equip our students to do the same.