Seema Meloni, one of the NEF’s co-presidents, recently spoke with Christopher Dancy, 6th grade science teacher at High Rock School, about his experience completing Cornell’s Diversity and Inclusion Certificate Program – professional development funded through an NEF grant. Here are some of the highlights from their conversation:
Q: For those unfamiliar with Cornell’s Diversity and Inclusion Certificate Program, could you please briefly explain the goals of the program and why you felt so compelled to enroll in the courses?
A: This certificate program represents a proactive response in addressing some of the inequities and tensions around xenophobia, homophobia, and racism that have been identified within NPS. While there has been a strong administrative response to these problems, NPS needs staff who have DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) expertise grounded in best practices and not solely personal experience. While Cornell’s D&I program in itself is not a solution to these problems, the completion of this certificate program represents a great first step in gaining expertise in a field that is so necessary to the health of Needham Public Schools. I’m thrilled to have completed it and am proud to identify myself as a professional who is skilled in the pedagogy of the DEI space.
Q: How does DEI work best?
A: I am proud to have partnered with the NEF in order to further conversations regarding equity within the district. In the public schools, DEI work is implemented with the youngest of minds in moments of the day which are not publicized, visible, or recorded. DEI work happens in private and small group conversations, teachable moments, and as direct responses to student questions. DEI work is most successful when there is mutual trust, mutual respect, and engagement in the process. The true value of this grant is not based on quantitative outcomes, but instead its value is a lasting investment in the culture of the classroom and the larger school community. For that, I am deeply grateful.
Q: How can we address current events through a DEI lens?
A: What’s particularly interesting about the completion and implementation of this grant, is the timing. The first six months of 2020 have proven to be historically unprecedented. During this time the world has been gripped by pandemic, remote teaching and learning over Zoom has become a reality, while our fellow Americans protest as a response to racism and the murder of George Floyd.
Still, as teachers, we’ve continued to teach daily in this new remote paradigm.
Through a DEI lens, the themes of equity, access, healthcare, employment, family dynamics, as well as school-based support structures for our most fragile students (ELL, Needham students of color, LGBTIAQ+) have all been highlighted during this time in the most personal and profound of ways.
While I have always engaged headfirst into conversations associated with the DEI space, I left Cornell’s Diversity and Inclusion program with a more honed set of skills, especially in the areas of engagement and inclusion. For some of my students, there was rage and fear as they grasped for understanding about the reasons why George Floyd was murdered. For others, there were questions about why neighbors, classmates, and the public were supporting BLM in the streets. For a few, we engaged in developmentally appropriate conversations regarding how their own opinions and beliefs were contrary to an inclusive culture.
Q: Now that you have completed this Certificate Program, what’s next?
A: As we look ahead towards the last half of 2020, our tasks ahead do not look any easier. A few of our considerations are: DESE’s recommendations for schools reopening in the fall, surging cases of COVID-19 across the country, continued BLM protests in response to police brutality, and what will prove to be a very divisive Presidential election. This year, more than ever, we will need DEI-trained teachers in order to develop culturally responsive classrooms. I am up to the challenge and am grateful for the opportunity to be a more effective partner in service of our students.
Cooking With Kids was approved during the Fall 2019 Grant Cycle to fund the purchase of ingredients for a weekly cooking activity. The goal was for students to learn life skills in early learning classrooms. The cooking activity provided opportunities for various service providers to collaborate, and serves as a chance for reverse inclusion in which ELC general education peers can help with the activity and provide appropriate peer modeling.
While the current school year didn’t unfold as expected, we are thrilled to see that the weekly cooking activity for Sunita Williams ELC students has continued virtually! Each week, a cooking project provides an opportunity for students to work on a range of skills while continuing to stay connected.
This Fall 2018 grant funded a collaborative, school-wide art installation that visibly and functionally represents the mission to promote equity within Needham High School. The creation and installation of this structure will allow students and staff to explore important topics and have challenging conversations about race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, language, socioeconomic strata, immigration status, etc.
The NEF is very proud to have funded this grant at Needham High School to help students and staff continue their work on equity and inclusion.
This February, all eighth grade students at Pollard Middle School experienced the immersive living history performance of “A Revolution of Her Own! The Life of Deborah Sampson.” Judith Kalaora, founder of History at Play, wrote, directed, and performed the piece. This particular performance was selected in collaboration with the League of Women Voters in Needham to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the 19th amendment, which officially granted women the right to vote.
The intimate setting allowed students to be involved not only in watching, but also in interacting with the performer as Deborah Sampson. After the performance, students engaged in discussions about the messaging of gender roles in Revolutionary times and connected to the complexity of identity and gender in the current day. Many students found the performance powerful in its representation of a strong female character and appreciated being exposed to a different medium of history (i.e., a living history/oral history mode).
Teachers noted that the performance highlighted and breathed life into the voice of women from the Revolutionary War period, a voice that has been challenging to include. They also noted that students paid close attention and were engaged in the entire performance and subsequent discussions.
Jen Deaderick, author and Equal Rights Amendment activist, came and spoke to high school students in February during the ‘NHS One Day’ workshops – focusing on the theme of community. Jen discussed the history of the women’s rights movement and its impact, as well as the community of women forged in the process. In addition, she read excerpts from her book, She the People, and answered questions from the students. Her appearance was made possible through a grant from the NEF.
Students at High Rock have benefited from the expansion of Spanish-language and Latino-experience literature at the High Rock library. With funds from a Spring 2019 NEF grant, Spanish language learners can read authentic language materials targeted to their language level. In addition, the grant has provided grade level literature for native Spanish speakers.
Assistant Principal Maggie Charron commented, “Our goal for the Spanish program is to foster biliteracy,” and the literature collection afforded by this grant contributes to this goal. She continues to say, “Being biliterate can increase multicultural understanding, ….. and can increase a student’s ability to communicate with others.”
This Fall 2019 grant was awarded at Broadmeadow to incorporate pedometers into the school day for all 2nd graders. Students will use the data from the pedometers for understanding math and distance concepts.
Through a Spring 2019 NEF Grant, several robots were ordered for teachers and students at High Rock to explore in order to determine how they could fit into future curriculum. In the fall, a Robot Exploration Day was held for all staff at High Rock and technology specialists from across the district. Many ideas surfaced that day, including the integration of the robots into math, science, music, and social/emotional learning curriculum. Students were introduced to the robots in small groups.
After lots of exploration by teachers, administrators, and students, the Sphero Bolt and Root were determined to be most useful in the Middle School classroom.
The Sphero Bolt is easily connected to the coding curriculum at High Rock and teachers noted that they can see it being used in the math curriculum (angles and graphing) and the science curriculum (waves, graphing, and sensing). The Sphero also comes with pre-made lessons connecting the Social Studies units on Egypt and Hieroglyphics to coding!
The Root is an all-around robot that works nicely with the coding curriculum, but can be used in other areas such as music, art, science, and even ELA. This robot offers 3 levels of coding, making it useful for both beginners and advanced users.
The existing robots will continue to impact students in small groups and after school, and will be available to be checked out by technology specialists at other schools. At High Rock, they plan to recommend the district purchase a class set of the Sphero Bolt, and to begin integration of the robots into the curriculum starting in the fall.
Grant recipient Erin Mack noted, “Teachers were inspired to think outside of the box while exploring these robots and I can’t wait to see what they can do once a class set is purchased.” During the exploration day a teacher reflected, “I liked the fact that it could be controlled manually or by coding and could be used to create artwork.”
Funded by a small grant from the NEF last spring, the Far From a Tree screening was held on November 6th at Mitchell Elementary School. There was a great turn out for the event and attendees found the panel discussion thoughtful and informative.
The panelists included Tracy McKay, Liza d’Hemecourt, Laurie Davis and Sarah Burton.
Funded by a large grant from the NEF, the Low-Ropes Challenge Course at Pollard features seven elements presenting meaningful physical and mental challenges to help students develop social and emotional skills.
Grant writer, Michael Marcojohn is excited to see this grant come to life. He wrote, “I have always had the dream to build a course and provide students with the same positive experience I once had. I cannot wait to provide students with such a different and unique experience. Students have been asking me since the first day of school about when they will be allowed to enjoy the course.”
On October 3, Pollard teachers were trained and certified on the low-ropes course. Students at Pollard will now be able to use the course to help create an inclusive and cooperative team atmosphere.