Transformational Teaching and Learning

Presenting at the NAIS People of Color Conference

by Kristin Peck, 2nd Grade Teacher
This year, April Greene, Tasha Jackson-Jones, and I were extremely fortunate educators. Not only were we able to share our teams’ work around identity, social justice, and activism with colleagues at the NAIS People of Color Conference (a national conference that draws educators from all over the country), but we had the opportunity to spend priceless hours together discussing our curriculum, comparing our experiences, and strengthening our bond as educators at this remarkable school—remarkable not just because it is Lowell, but remarkable because of the community’s active work around identity, equity, and inclusion.
When April and I attended the POCC in 2015 and when Tasha had attended previous conferences, we were eager to find resources for K–2 teachers who were engaging in identity work with young children. Our conversations with diversity practitioners and K–2 colleagues had reinforced our personal beliefs in the need to explicitly teach about identity to young children. After all, our youngest children do notice difference; they are constantly comparing themselves to others and internalizing the biases that we, as adults, intentionally and unintentionally model.

We firmly believe that we cannot expect children to engage in fluent conversations around identity, equity, and inclusion if these topics are, in any way, “off limits” for young children. Instead, we believe that if we normalize difference and teach children how to share and appreciate difference, the groundwork for equity and inclusion conversations will be that much more firmly laid.
When we looked for workshops specific to K–2, we found a few. There are colleagues across the country who are doing amazing work. However, identity, social justice, and activism did not appear to be heavily represented topics in the younger grades. Why?
We were determined to beef up curriculum at Lowell and began working with our teams to create our own resources and units. Teaching Tolerance provided invaluable resources, and we realized that there are enough resources out there to create solid identity, social justice, and activism units for young children.

The Presentation: A brilliant and terrifying plan

We were desperate to return to POCC. It really is that life-changing of an experience! April came up with a brilliant and terrifying plan—to submit a proposal to be presenters at the conference. We asked Tasha if she would be willing to collaborate with us, and holding our breaths, we took a leap of faith. So many questions raced through our heads—Are our units solidly integrated? Are we truly doing the work in a transformative way? Can we really offer anything new to the conversation? How do we put together a PowerPoint presentation in Google Drive? None of us had presented at a national conference before.

The process of putting together this presentation was, truly, a labor of love amidst a sea of unknowns. It was, also, transformative. As colleagues, we met weekly to look through our curriculums and discuss what we do at each grade level to explicitly teach identity, social justice, and activism. We discovered components of each others’ curriculums that we never knew existed, even though we had been teaching together for more than three years. We also realized that the work we do at Lowell in Kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grade aligns incredibly well. Sure, there are some overlaps. But each year, children in Kindergarten through 2nd grade receive explicit and intentional instruction around understanding who they are, talking about who they are, and learning to value identity and perspective. We also discovered that our social justice and activism work has all of the right bricks. At each grade level, we are teaching children to draw on their innate insistence on social justice and understand what it takes to be an activist who works for equity and change. Our job, now, is to put those bricks together to lay an even stronger road for our social justice and activism work in Kindergarten through 2nd grade.

Standing Room Only

After weeks of meeting, analyzing, prepping, filming, and practicing, the day of the conference arrived. I wish I could say that we left for Anaheim feeling completely prepared. The reality is that we worked right up until the beginning of the presentation to make sure that we reflected exactly what we wanted to share about our work at Lowell. Anyone who has ever presented knows that you think and tweak and worry until you have no other option but to begin. Our presentation was in the first strand on the very first day of the conference. We expected 50-100 people to show up. When approximately 50 people settled into their seats, we figured we had reached capacity and began. After two introductory slides, we looked up from our notes and saw that 50 people had turned into roughly 100. Then, another slide later, 100 people turned into 150. A few minutes later, the seating space was at capacity, and we saw people beginning to fill the sides and back of the room. About five minutes later, the sides, back, and front of the room were filled to capacity, and the fire marshal closed the presentation to further attendees. There were still about 30 people outside waiting to get in.

What we learned from this experience is that independent teachers in K–2 classrooms are eager to do this work, and to do it well. Our colleagues in that presentation room hung on to every slide. They nodded heads, took pictures. They gave us their email addresses at the end of the presentation asking for our presentation and for our resources, thanking us for sharing so much of our work and for giving them new ideas and motivation. Our curriculum is a work in progress—nearly all curriculums are. However, our takeaway from this experience is that the most important thing is to start. 
Take risks with your kids; ask the hard questions; invite the hard conversations. Document what you do so that you can share ideas with others. Ask, How can we make this more relevant and impactful for children?

The Community Behind Us

In hindsight, the very process of getting this presentation up in front of hundreds of people was a direct reflection of Lowell’s commitment to the importance of this work. Debbie supported our work from the very beginning. Our grade-level team members helped us gather resources, allowed us to interview their kids, and analyzed their projects even when they weren’t confident that they had delivered the “absolute best” lessons. Vicki Steinwurtzel took time out of her schedule to interview countless children and then spent countless hours editing and revising the videos—even up to the day before the presentation. Dawn Smith allowed us to videotape her and use her ideas on cultivating a culture of social justice to promote service learning and activism work. Brian Stark helped us turn our Google Slides presentation into a PowerPoint presentation the night before the conference when it dawned on us that internet connectivity in the Anaheim Conference Center during a national conference might not be as consistent as we expected. Jason Novak, Dawn Smith, and Michelle Belton helped us edit and revise our presentation numerous times, asking hard questions and giving honest feedback about our content and message.

April, Tasha, and I had the opportunity to stand up and publicly share work that we all do here at Lowell. We had the privilege of being representatives of our much larger Lowell community, comprised of faculty, staff, and administrators who are actively working to create a culture of inclusivity and equity. We were honored to have had the opportunity to share our school’s work, and we continue to be inspired by all the members of our community, both here at Lowell and at independent schools across the country, who are committed to this work on behalf of children.

About PoCC

The People of Color Conference began in 1986 as a rejuvenating common-ground experience for people of color to come together, find safe haven, and connect around the shared experience of working at predominantly white institutions—institutions in which they do not see themselves represented as fully and completely as their white colleagues. It is a dynamic, life-changing experience.