Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Transition and the Merry Month of May

“It’s May.” This statement has been uttered around campus in a variety of tones—joyful, worried, exhausted, tense, anticipatory, even surprised (How did it happen so fast?).  Our middle school students are anticipating the upcoming transition with a mix of emotions. Transitions require more energy than those seemingly steady times of year, and the prospect of change can bring a new and complex set of feelings. At home, parents see this played out in brief conversations and during mealtimes—a mix of worry and excitement. At school, we see an increase in relational conflicts.

The rites and rituals of school life can help anchor the mix of emotions surfacing at this time of year. Since the beginnings of Bosque School, there have been meaningful traditions that have guided students, their families, and teachers though this exciting and challenging time. May marks the 8th grade Writer’s Cafe, Service Learning preschool buddy visits, 8th grade backpacking trip, Senior Colloquium, All-School Concert on the quad, Middle School Ceremony, and Senior Commencement, to name a few. Our calendars are full of events marking this important transition.

Next Monday, our students head out into the New Mexican wilderness for the time-honored 8th grade backpacking experience. Their middle school experience, which began in the cabins of the Manzano Mountains, culminates with the students carrying their belongings on their backs and sleeping in the wilderness. Parents, there will be plenty of worries and “what ifs” prior to the trip, but the rewards of confidence, independence, and strengthened relationships always rise above the pre-trip worries. Each year, I love welcoming the teams back—tired, but proud.

Then next Thursday, we host the Middle School Ceremony, formerly called the 8th Grade Ceremony. This year, many of the cherished parts of the ritual remain—the setting under the beautiful cottonwoods, students dressed in their best attire, well wishes from teachers, student speeches, poetry readings, and the reading of students’ names. In addition, we have added several new elements to mark the day for our younger students: 6th graders will officially “move up” to 7th grade, and 7th graders will officially move up to 8th grade. We are excited to invite our 6th and 7th grade parents to attend the Middle School Ceremony this year. (We have also invited our incoming 6th grade students; most are still in school, but we hope that some will be able to attend.)  It will be held on Thursday, May 26 at 9:30 a.m. in Sanchez Park. We hope you will enjoy this time-honored ritual and the new elements of the ceremony.

Rituals can help us all be mindful of change—what has passed and what is ahead. These rites provide a space for students to reflect on all they have accomplished and help them to develop a vision for their future.

Coincidentally, I did some thinking about transitions at the start of the year. Please see my  August 2015 blogpost for ways parents can support their children during transitions. I have summarized the ideas below:

1. Routines and rituals are important for children of all ages. Though routines and rituals change over time, they still provide a sense of safety, predictability, and stability while other parts of their lives are in flux. Yet, often during a transition, routines and rituals are the first things to fly out the window, so to speak. Keep those home rites and rituals that matter to your children.

2. Be okay acknowledging uncomfortable feelings. It’s okay if the dominant feeling during a transition is not excitement. Last summer’s Pixar film Inside Out illustrates the complexity of feelings during a transition. In the film, the protagonist, 11-year-old Riley, moves with her family from Minnesota to San Francisco. The move generates a lot of emotions, which the parents feel ill-equipped to handle. They also are adjusting to new jobs and a new home. In response to Riley’s sadness, they say things like,  “Where’s our happy girl?”  Her altered state has them confused and unsure how to approach her. Instead, to sit with the discomfort allows parents to understand more of what their child is feeling and helps forge strong connections. Children want to be understood; being okay with the discomfort of what they might be feeling or the ambiguity of the situation allows them to feel understood and connected. Life can feel messy at times, and this is okay.

3. Remember the biological. Transitions take a lot of energy, in general, and a school day usually requires more social, physical, intellectual, and emotional energy than is used during the summer months. Couple that with puberty—when the gray matter in a child’s brain is growing at the same rate as when they were two years old— and you have a situation that requires both nutrition and sleep as top priorities. I am always grateful for the advice of my child’s pediatrician, whose “Remember the biological first” mantra helps me move away from questioning, “Is my child ever going to be able to be empathetic?” to “Has she had enough sleep?” and “When did she last eat?” As state-based creatures, our brains, particularly as teenagers, are in need of these biological necessities in order to function at their best.

In the midst of end-of-year transitions, the rites and rituals of school life can help our children (and all of us) reflect on the past and envision what is ahead. “It’s May,” but as Dame Julian of Norwich once wrote, “And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.” 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Fighting the Good Fight

“If you both thought the same way, there would be no need for one of you.” 
~Marjorie Farmer, my nana

For many, conflict evokes negative memories or images—biting words, slamming doors, the ending of things. For others conflict is to be avoided at all costs—silence and giving in is easier than feeling the tension or discomfort that accompanies conflict. Given the cultural negativity around difference and conflict, is there a way to think of conflict as essential, even constructive, to the development of any relationship, including the one between parents and their children? Is there a way to have conflict in the home that is healthy and recognizes that differing perspectives are needed?

Before winterim, I read Lisa Damour's article, “The Best Way to Fight with a Teenager,” which suggests that the family dynamic around conflict in the home influences how children engage in conflict in the friend and love relationships they will have over the course of their lifetimes.  Home is where we hope they learn how to have a “good” fight. The paradigms of conflict they learn in the home are paradigms that they will most likely use (or find it difficult to disentangle from) for the rest of their lives.

Not surprisingly, much of my work as Head of Middle School is linked with some sort of conflict and has afforded me the opportunity to observe how different people, both children and adults, respond when differences arise. Do we engage by attacking the other? Sending a “screamer” email or shutting down a conversation over dinner? Do we refuse to engage and just leave with the door slamming behind us? Do we give in with a “Nevermind” or “Forget it”?  Damour suggests that children who observe and employ the first two modes of conflict —attacking and withdrawing—have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and delinquency; while those who favor compliance, who simply give into a strong parent’s wishes, have higher rates of mood disorder.

To risk stating the obvious, children have different beliefs, opinions, life experiences, and perceptions than their parents. These differences become more pronounced as children develop and prepare for independence and responsibility. Our eighth-grade students are four short years away from leaving our homes for college and creating their own communities. During this developmental maturation, differences between parents and teenagers can, and arguably should, be more pronounced to ensure a healthy, safe lift-off.

So what is the key to having a “good” fight? Damour suggests it is the act of perspective-taking. She suggests that teenagers are successful when they are able to see disagreements from multiple perspectives. She writes: "Conveniently, the intellectual ability to consider multiple outlooks blossoms in the teenage years. While younger children lack the neurological capacity to fully understand someone else’s point of view, adolescence sparks rapid development in the parts of the brain associated with abstract reasoning. This leads to dramatic gains in the ability to regard situations from competing viewpoints."

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” 
― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Her parental advice is to model this type of perspective-taking during conflict; in other words, to activate your inner Atticus Finch. Damour writes, "We also have evidence that parents can make the most of their teenagers’ evolving neurobiology by being good role models for taking another person’s perspective. Adults who are willing to walk around in their teenagers’ mental shoes tend to raise teenagers who return the favor."

Finally, she reiterates the  importance of an apology or a second chance in the midst of conflict. It's easy in the course of a conflict to shut it down. Your children tell you about their weekend plans, and you respond with an “Absolutely not!”  They sulk away or move into attack mode. It is helpful, after taking a breath and finding some calm, to go back, apologize, listen to their perspective, and share your own. In these moments of difference, it is great to find a core belief on which you both can agree. In this case, most likely you both agree that they should have new experiences with friends that are safe and healthy even though you both might disagree on the immediate plans.

In many ways, this conflict engagement is also ensuring that your child grows up learning to be okay with discomfort, and that they don’t see conflict as solely negative. As Damour writes, "The balance of research suggests that garden-variety disagreements offer the opportunity to help young people better understand themselves and others, building in them the lifelong skill of finding room for civility in the midst of discord. No parent looks forward to fighting with his or her teenage child. But the friction that comes with raising adolescents might be easier to take when we see it as an opening, not an obstacle."

We are wired with the habitual patterns we grew up with, so it is often difficult, when triggered by conflict, to develop new patterns. As a culture that cares for the health and well-being of young people, we can empower young men and women to successfully deal with conflict by teaching them to have a more conscious awareness and an intention to consider and respect another’s perspective. For me, this means remembering Nana’s words— if we all thought the same way, how boring would that be?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Mastery Project Inspiration

In the span of one hour, the audience collected at Bosque School to hear design solutions for many of our current challenges—a solar-powered car design to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a dual wall designed to mediate flooding on the Mississippi, and an Earthquake Reducing Device (ERD) which employs a regenerative shock absorber to reduce the destruction from earthquake shockwaves.
There were also projects that addressed social and cultural challenges. Students proposed ways to increase racial diversity at Bosque School, and another team created a campaign to address destructive posts on social media.Their campaign, “Think Before You Post,” included marketing materials, a petition, and informational educational flyers sent to five Albuquerque dual-language schools. A culmination of several weeks of student exploration, research, design, and creation, the umbrella theme of Rising to Challenge guided students’ work.  Sixth-grade classrooms were full of parents, grandparents, middle schoolers, and upper schoolers learning about projects, asking questions, and getting inspired by our intrepid students.
What was palpable in the demonstrations was the students’ passion for their project and excitement for the research behind the solution they created. A few weeks ago, I wandered into a 6th grade class and found Enrique, who excitedly talked with me about his research. “Did you know about the big earthquake that happened in Haiti?” He was speaking of the 2010 quake and the lives lost, the community devastation, the effect on the economy, and the years spent trying to recover. Enrique and his partners, Aiden and Luc, presented their design challenge, the ERD, to captive audiences.  Learning environments that evoke this type of excitement and engagement are ones where students and their ideas are central to the process.

The Mastery Project was launched on Leap Day (February 29) by students skyping with Thomas Nicols, a Bosque alum and U.S. Air Force pilot stationed in Korea. When Thomas was a 6th grader, the growing beaver population was endangering the local cottonwood trees. Thomas created an “economical solution to the problem, which preserved the cottonwoods as well as the beaver populations,” said Mastery Project leader, Sky Jenkins. The solution, wrapping the young cottonwoods with chicken wire, is one students still use today. During his time at Bosque, Nicols not only spoke to various community groups about his work, but also received national recognition for the design he created. Students were able to interview Thomas, hear about his work during middle school, and get inspired about their own design challenges.

Student groups connected with community experts for many of their projects. Bosque Ecosystem Monitoring Project (BEMP) director Dan Shaw was approached by the 6th grade team of Elena, Jeanmarie, and Jadyn for insight into porcupine habitats on the Bosque. Mr. Shaw assisted in their investigation of the challenges encountered between domesticated animals, like dogs, and undomesticated critters, such as porcupines, in the bosque habitat. As a visitor to Bosque at any time in the last several weeks, you would see groups of engaged middler schoolers explaining their latest research to a teacher-guide and interviewing an expert on or off campus —veterinarians, energy experts, scientists, and communication and marketing directors.

This type of work, called project-based learning, positions students at the center of the learning process. Students are encouraged to find a project at the intersection of a community need and their own personal passion. Their inquiry question is central, and teachers work to guide the process and  provide support  with suggestions, connections, and resources. Students design, create, and iterate on a solution to a problem. The approach is interdisciplinary; multiple disciplines—math, language, and science, for example - are used to solve a problem.

Several student groups focused on the health concerns related to chair designs and created a chair that addressed these needs. The process that began with a question, “Can chairs support student health?” included researching, interpreting health data, surveying the middle school community, interpreting survey data, creating charts to visualize the data, and finally building their design—a backless chair with memory foam and holders for supplies and a water bottle.

One couldn’t help leaving the demonstrations buoyed by a great sense of optimism. If a community of twelve-year-olds is able to analyze problems and create solutions in this way, then the global community is in good hands.  

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Necessity of Entrepreneurial Learning

Quinn C., one of the programmers for the 8th grade Lego Robotics team, is walking me through the missions they are perfecting for their upcoming regional competition on January 30. The First Lego League theme is ”Trash Trek” and students have built and programmed robots to fulfill a number of specific missions—picking up and returning compost, removing trash from a demolition site, and sorting different sizes of recyclables. In one mission, the robot is programmed to spin the wheel, and the structure built by students uses a pulley system to sort various sizes of lego blocks, a.k.a., “recyclables.” It is pretty impressive to see in action. Quinn is surrounded by team members who are either building with legos or programming. There is a lot of “Why isn’t this working?” and “Try this.” In the same space, three 7th graders are using littleBits, which are tiny electronic circuits, to make a sound machine. Depending upon how they link the circuits, the sound changes. The sequence they are currently testing sounds like it would be at home in a Star Wars movie. Think:droid music. The space is lively, and I wonder if the students will remember to head to lunch.

Junior Jennifer B. is designing  a robot. She is excited that the two new infrared sensors she ordered have just arrived. The sensors will transmit a signal allowing her robot to sense objects and navigate accordingly. Her three-wheel design (with a pivoting upper wheel) will allow for maximum navigational flexibility. She talks about the types of learning she’s experienced while working on this project—the challenge of coming up with an idea and materializing it—the big vision and the small details. Lots of trying and revising work here. She is also honing options for an internal power source, so that the robot doesn’t require a human controller to operate. To add another layer, Jennifer’s Upper School Coding course is currently working on a top-secret classified project that they do not want to be written about at this time (despite the number of times I asked permission). One hint: space.

Bosque middle and upper schoolers are launching the year with innovation, design, and creation as a central practice. Coming up this January 22-24 is the third annual Teen StartupWeekend at Epicenter ABQ—a whirlwind of a weekend where students connect, pitch, and create small businesses. Last week in middle school morning meeting, former Bosque student and Teen Startup founder, Taylor C., encouraged middle schoolers to sign up for the experience. Students watched this video to give them a sense of the scope of Teen Startup and the multiple ways they could be involved in this unique teen experience. Not only is this an experience for Bosque students, but Bosque’s Teen Startup service learning group has invited students from all Albuquerque area schools. Currently we have over 30 teens registered to attend.

In this age of invention and entrepreneurialism, students are poised to be both consumers and creators. We get the consumer part: think of the two-year-old in the restaurant with an iPhone.  Children can navigate the system, but they don’t know why it works in the way it does. So why is it so valuable for students to learn the codes that undergird their own smart technology devices, to make things or pitch new inventions? Whether it is a sound machine, a lego recyclable sorter, or an improved way of handling e-waste, this type of creation allows students, who for much of their lives have consumed technology, to engage in a new relationship to it. In an interview with Wired magazine, the creator of littleBits, Ayah Bdeir, compares the engineers in our age to the clergy of the Middle Ages, who have outsized influence because of their ability to control literacy, in this case, technological literacy. Bdeir says, “I created littleBits because I think everyone—kids especially—should be able to create technology. If you can create the technology you want, you can create the future you want, too.”

From a technological literacy perspective, positioning students as creators allows them to design the processes that will influence our daily lives, the big and small parts of our futures. In addition, this type of work—this try, fail, revise, repeat—affords them great problem-solving strategies. And the focus on process, rather than perfection, allows students flexibility of thinking that they can bring to bear on a number of challenges, small and large. Problems —even failures —become opportunities for creative thinking. Designing, building, and creating robots, solutions to e-waste, and new business ventures takes a lot of mental effort. Perhaps our work as adults is just to remind them not to forget about lunch. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

I Love Math. Why You Should Too.

What kind of mathematical thinking have you done this past week? I bet you do a lot more than you realize. For me, a humanities major, I do a fair amount of math in my job and my life. Just this past week, I was looking at our school enrollment data for advanced math and science courses and analyzing the percentages of students of color and females enrolled—part of the work of the Middle School Diversity Task Force. I also spent some time with our middle school education budget, analyzing where we are relative to the fiscal year.  And, if I’m reading about my favorite subjects—students and learning—I usually find myself enmeshed in the statistics of various research articles. Then on Thanksgiving, the recipe for my dinner contribution, a pecan tart, needed to be cut in half in order to accommodate my 11”x 4” tart pan, not the 11”x 8” the recipe called for; and I generally help (if invited and, truth be told, even if not) when my daughter is working on a Dreambox math sequence.

In short, I love mathematical thinking. How about you? Interestingly, in our culture it is quite common to hear any one of the following comments: “I'm horrible at math; I hate math; I’m a humanities person”—all of which speak to our country’s uneasiness with the subject. In fact, a new research study out of University of Chicago, IntergenerationalEffects of Parents’ Math Anxiety on Children’s Math Achievement and Anxietydiscusses just that: the ways math anxiety in parents, particularly those who help with homework, affects student math achievement. In fact, if we were to substitute “reading” for “math” in the above, oft-repeated phrases, we’d have statements that are less culturally acceptable. Few people, despite how they might regard their reading abilities, would find it okay to to say (aloud), “I’m horrible at reading” or “I don’t read, I do math.” So, while I would like to campaign for an end to disparaging comments about our personal mathematical abilities (imagine clever bumper stickers and campaign slogans), what I’d really like to suggest, in the space of this blog, is that our children need to  learn math differently than we did. (If this is causing you math anxiety, please take a few moments of deep breathing).

This summer, Bosque middle school math teachers took an online Stanford course taught by Jo Boaler, who has written an article, “The Stereotypes That Distort How Americans Teach and Learn Math,” in November 2013’s Atlantic. Decidedly pro-Common Core mathematics (not as the be-all and end-all, but for the direction that it is moving the field), Boaler summarizes her years of research by arguing that student mathematical achievement is higher and more equitable when “broad mathematics” is taught, not math as the execution of a procedure, but as a means of “problem solving, reasoning, representing ideas in multiple forms, and question asking.” Not only does this type of math teaching strengthen mathematical thinking, but, according to Boaler it does two things: First, it makes math more engaging for students, who are not simply following a procedure to solve a problem, but are engaging in different modes of thinking—mathematical, connected and creative problem solving. Second, it makes students feel as if their contribution is valued. Boaler writes that while “some students are good at procedure execution, [some] may be less good at connecting methods, explaining their thinking, or representing ideas visually. All of these ways of working are critical in mathematical work and when they are taught and valued, many more students contribute, leading to higher achievement.”

Broader mathematical thinking may be an unusual concept for our new Bosque students. When asked to solve the same problem using a different method or asked to explain their thinking visually, many protest, “But I got the problem right!” I understand their frustration—the goal post has been moved!  However, the advent of technology has rendered the "right answer” less important than the type of thinking it requires. Our mathematics teachers want to develop students’ mathematical thinking —to be sure it is strong and to ensure that students are adept at applied math problems. As Boaler writes, “In our new tech world, employers do not need people who can calculate correctly or fast, they need people who can reason about best approaches.” Practically speaking, given that with the innovation of WolframAlpha, which is able to calculate the answer to any mathematical problem, one’s ability to calculate an algebra problem is less important than one’s ability to understand the thinking behind it and apply it to real-world applications.

In order to ensure greater levels of math achievement nationally, Boaler calls for an end to the mathematical stereotyping that separates the “math people” from the “non-math people.” This sort of binary thinking is not scientifically accurate and can do a lot of harm. She writes, “The idea that math is hard, uninteresting, and accessible only to ‘nerds’ persists.  This idea is made even more damaging by harsh stereotypical thinking—mathematics is for select racial groups and men. This thinking, as well as the teaching practices that go with it, has provided the perfect conditions for the creation of a math underclass. Narrow mathematics teaching combined with low and stereotypical expectations for students are the two main reasons that the U.S. is in dire mathematical straits.”

In closing, I’d humbly like to ask that you refrain from disparaging remarks about your own mathematical thinking. Remember that the research on brain plasticity suggests that you can still make great advances as an adult!  And, of course, I will let you know when my math campaign bumper stickers are ready! In the meantime, I’m going to do some minor calculations to see if I can make it out to the movie theater and back with only one bar on my gas gauge. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Malala and Middle School: What Experiences Help Students Develop a Sense of Purpose?

In a recent morning meeting, Ms. Davis, Director of Middle School Student Development, showed students the trailer for the documentary, He Named Me Malala. The film tells the story of Malala Yousafzai, the youngest recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize, and her work in advocating for girls’ education across the globe. Malala is now a junior in high school, and the film tells the story of her advocacy for girls’ education; her life-threatening experience on the way to her own Pakistani girls’ school, when she was shot by members of the Taliban; and her subsequent work, still as a teenager, advocating for schooling for girls. (In The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof’s article on Malala’s continuing fight estimates that of girls between the ages of 5 and 15 worldwide, 63 million are not enrolled in school.) If you haven’t seen the film, I highly encourage you to take your middle schooler. Malala’s story is inspiring in many ways, but what I find particularly fascinating is the narrative thread of a young girl who has found her life’s passion and purpose.

The film begs this question: What experiences help teens and tweens develop a sense of purpose?

Because of advances in neuroscience, we now understand that teenagers’ neurobiological development helps support their discovery of a sense of purpose. Dan Siegel’s book Brainstorm discusses an important trait of teenagers—they seek novel experiences. Dr. Siegel suggests that “novelty seeking emerges from an increased drive for rewards in the circuits of the adolescent brain that creates the inner motivation to try something new and feel life more fully, creating more engagement in life.”

Psychologically, a sense of purpose can guide a teen in her pursuits; give her a sense of happiness, identity and fulfillment; and help her discover one of many possible directions for her life. Bill Damon, researcher on purpose and adolescence at Stanford, writes, “The biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress, it’s meaninglessness.” In an e-newsletter article from UC, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, Patrick Cook-Deegan, poses these questions: “What experiences transform people? And in turn, what experiences help people, particularly young people, discover their purpose in life?” He characterizes meaningful experiences as important life events, where one is serving others in a meaningful way and/or experiences that change one’s life circumstances. Malala’s experience as a schoolgirl in Pakistan ignited her personal and political passions, and the subsequent shooting by the Taliban only served to strengthen her purpose and globalize her message.

Over the past ten years, Deegan has interviewed peers, social change leaders, and others— people of various racial, gender, and socioeconomic identities—who have found their sense of purpose. He identified four common experiences that were the catalyst for developing the interviewees’ sense of purpose. I’m curious about what experiences you’ve noticed from Deegan’s list that have enlivened your child:

1)    Traveling–What family trips have inspired your child? What piqued your child’s interest in this year’s Winterim catalog, which includes over 30 different experiential classes? Each of these provides the possibility of a purpose-finding experience.  (Remember that each junior at Bosque School is able to register for a traveling Winterim, which is paid for by the school.)
2)    Spending time in the natural world–Is your child talking about the small mammal trapping on the bosque with BEMP? Or the streamflow data he collected at Battleship Rock?
3)    Getting involved in a social change project–Has your child told you about the first trip to meet her preschool reading buddy in service learning? Have you heard about a recent discussion in service learning about food scarcity in New Mexico, or last Thursday’s morning meeting presentation with ABC News correspondent, John QuiƱones, or her project for Robotics club?
4)    Establishing a contemplative practice–Is your child rejuvenated by his contemplative or religious tradition or experience?

Who are the family members or the national or international figures that your child speaks about with excitement? What gives you your sense of purpose? Does your child see you engaging in what you are passionate about with persistence, joy, and fulfillment?

We want to know what aspects of school life have sparked your child’s sense of purpose. Please take a moment to e-mail me about any aspect of school life that has enlivened your child, awakened a curiosity, or instilled a sense of purpose.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Dinner Table Conversations: Where Does Race Fit In?

During my middle school years, I lived in a racially diverse, mostly working-class neighborhood in Dayton, Ohio, an area south of downtown known as “Five Oaks.” In the 1980s, the area was racially divided by blocks—mostly black residents in one block, mostly white in another. The dinner table conversations in my immediate family did not include race or racial issues specific to our geographical region or neighborhood location. While we discussed many issues—political, religious, educational—this was not one. My family believed in fairness and equality, but our approach to discussions about race was to be quiet. Reflecting back on this silence, I imagine it was influenced by the prevailing idea of the need to be color-blind (i.e., talking about race is bad; it affirms that people are different, and people who are different are treated badly in society). The logic of this cultural belief makes sense, only in the way something you did habitually just made sense at the time—a logic unto itself. It has unraveled for me with age.

Naturally, I felt discomfort when the topic of race emerged in discussions in undergraduate and graduate school, and I felt ill-equipped to participate in these discussions. This childhood silence followed by young adult discomfort in discussions about race is quite a common experience among white children. It highlights one of the “privileges” of being white in the Midwest: one’s racial experience is not an issue that white children have to explain, describe, defend, and analyze on a daily basis, in a way that children of color often do. In an article published in Independent School (a publication of the National Association of Independent Schools), “What White Children Need to Know About Race,” authors Ali Michael and Eleonora Bartoli discuss the experience of being a young adult in the suburban Midwest where race was not discussed in the context of the family. Michael and Bartoli discuss the two functions of this cultural silence: a lack of competency to participate in conversations on race and the larger message that “race was on a very short list of topics that polite people do not discuss.”

In fact, the article moves on to discuss what we’ve learned from research in the field of racial socialization. Namely, that my experience and those of the authors are not atypical. White people are often silent on the topic of race, not out of malice, but “for fear of perpetuating racial misunderstandings, being seen as a racist, making children feel badly, or simply not knowing what to say.” The common solution of the era was to tell children “that people are all the same and that they should not see racial differences.”

There are a host of important principles from the article. Here are a few:
1)    Talking about race is not racist. It’s OK — and important. In the context of the family and the school, these conversations can help children develop a positive racial identity. In fact, they meet the needs of 11–14 year olds who are interested in talking about current events and issues of justice and fairness in their classes. 
2)    Race is an essential part of one’s identity. For many white children, because of their socialization, words like “race” and “culture” imply “non-white.” In other words, being white means not having a race or culture, when, in fact, whiteness has its own many, varied, and embedded cultural norms. 
3)    Understand systemic racism.  What is essential is moving the conversation beyond one of individual blaming to an understanding of the larger systems we operate in: political, social, educational, and economic. Understanding how systems of racial stratification have emerged historically, and how we are influenced by these systems, moves the conversation beyond simply one of “individual culpability.” Children in middle school are interested in the current events of the day, and the deaths of black men this past year—in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and New York City, to name a few — make it especially important for white children to understand larger systems of racism.
4)    Develop authentic relationships with peers of color and other white students. In order for children to develop authentic interracial relationships, the authors highlight the skill of “learning to connect with peers of all different races with an understanding of the racialized context within which those relationships take place” with the goal for children to be able to talk about race “in all its facets (both enriching and problematic).”   

As an adult, I come to this conversation with the belief that talking about race is important, and my own racial socialization plays a part in how I navigate these discussions. In contrast to the color-blind approach, conversations about race, particularly in a school community, not only contribute to a healthier school, they also help children develop their own positive racial identities.

On Wednesday, October 14th at 6 p.m., Bosque School will hold its first 2015-2016 All-School Parent Coffee. The topic, Dinner Table Conversations: Where Does Race Fit In?  will be hosted by Tamisha Williams, Bosque School Director of Diversity Initiatives. We will be discussing the article mentioned in this blog, “What White Children Need to Know About Race.” Tamisha will also be providing tips for engaging in discussions about race at home. We’d love for you to join the conversation.