Sharing the Wealth: Corlears Educators Reflect on Sharing Their Work at the NYSAIS Diversity Conference
Being an educator is not only about teaching, but being a lifelong learner. Corlears teachers and staff are constantly working to refine their skills as educators, and to gain more knowledge that they can then use in the classroom to inspire students. With this growth, eventually comes the opportunity to share out, and to teach others valuable lessons and effective methods for teaching young students. This past weekend, a group of four Corlears educators did just that. Presenting on a unique lesson they conducted around voting rights, Kate Culligan, Alex Gelman, Dora Rice and Kelly Tieger secured a coveted workshop spot at the sold-out 2018 NYSAIS Diversity Education and Justice in the Curriculum Conference.
During the fall of the 2016-17 school year, the 8/9s teaching team began their election study. Head teachers Kate and Dora, worked alongside assistant teachers Alex and Kelly to create a classroom experience that would bring the issue of voting rights to life for their students. Kelly reflects:
"As we were designing an election study, we were looking for a lens that could help us raise questions around power, race, and identity in the classroom. We decided that exploring the history of voting rights in America would help us do this. As we looked at groups of people who have not historically had equal access to the vote, we wanted to design an experience for students that would help them to feel the urgency of not having a voice or a vote. It’s one thing to read something on a timeline, but another to think 'wait a minute, people are making decisions about me without my input--this feels unfair!'”
This ultimately took shape in the form of the unique “cube activity.” First, each child in the class was assigned to a particular cube color (red, blue, green, orange or pink). Based on the color assigned, students were given the power to make important decisions throughout the day for themselves and for others. For instance, at the start of the activity, the red cube group was given all the power, and were able to choose snack table seats for themselves as well as all of their classmates. Next red and blue chose independent writing spots, for themselves and the others. As the day progressed, more groups were empowered to make decisions for the whole group, while others were left without a say. Over the course of the day, the number of students with power grew, while the number without shrank. By the end of the lesson, almost every group was given the opportunity to make decisions-- except one group which remained without a say.
So, how does this relate to voting rights? As each cube group gained their “right” to make a decision, it mirrored how different groups in society were given voting rights at different times throughout history. Slowly, more cubes had the opportunity to have their voices heard, just as more groups of people slowly gained this same power through their right to vote. The last group, which never had the option to make a choice, represented those who are still disenfranchised to this day. At the conclusion of the activity, students had strong reactions, some even protested making decisions for others as it was deemed unfair. Ultimately, the lesson proved extremely thought provoking for both students and teachers, and served as a catalyst for the social justice work students continue to do over the next semester and into the following year.
The big reactions felt from students at Corlears proved the lesson was not only effective, but something truly worth sharing. As many schools continue to delve deeper into topics of diversity and social justice, it felt important that this lesson, which proved to be so powerful within Corlears classrooms, was shared with a larger community of educators eager to grow their social justice curriculum. Kate says:
"It was clear in reflecting with our students after the activity [that] they seemed to be able to deeply empathize with marginalized groups of people that have not had a voice in our country’s voting system throughout history and even today. Our kids became so impassioned and empowered, they spent all of last year working to lend their voices to groups and causes that they wanted to support. Our hope in sharing this with other educators was that they could adapt our activity for their spaces so that their students had the opportunity to build empathy through a real-life experience and take action moving forward."
The opportunity to share came with a call for workshop submissions by the NYSAIS Diversity Education and Justice in the Curriculum Conference. Attended by educators from the independent school world, the conference hosts a number of workshops aimed to provide teachers and administrators with tools for exploring themes of diversity, social justice, and creating more inclusive classrooms in their schools. The lesson was submitted and chosen for a presentation slot for the 2018 conference. The workshop, aptly named “Justice, Cubed,” was then designed to explain the activity and follow-up reflections, as well as provide educators with the tools necessary to create their own lesson plans inspired by the work. During the hour long session, the four presenters shared their work in-depth; explaining the rationale behind the lesson, the thoughtful implementation, and the continued work with students that came after the conclusion of the lesson. Later, attendees were given time to craft their own lessons inspired by the cube activity as the presenters answered lingering questions, and engaged with their fellow educators.
While the opportunity to share their knowledge and experience was exciting, it was also nerve wracking for these educators. Though taking on issues of social justice with young students is a priority within the Corlears community, it can still feel risky when sharing out, as both educators and schools may be in different places in their journey toward a more robust social justice curriculum. Unsure of the reaction they would receive from the crowd, what transpired was more positive than they could have anticipated. Dora reflects:
"Many people in attendance at our presentation first and foremost shared how envious they were of the diverse student body we have here at Corlears. As we presented our attendees asked specific questions about the activity roll out -- looking to see how they could adapt the work we did here at Corlears and make it successful in their own spaces. They were impressed by our students’ reflections, the support our administration gave us in exploring new ways to build empathy and contextual understanding with our students in the classroom."
Armed with new information and a lesson plan template, many workshop attendees expressed a desire to implement a similar lesson their classroom -- giving the “cube activity” a life and influence far beyond 15th street.
For these educators, the experience of sharing this important work was both powerful and profound. Not only did their presentation serve as an opportunity to connect with the educational community outside of Corlears, but it brought to light what makes Corlears such a unique learning environment. Alex says that “in sharing about this lesson with other independent school educators, they marveled at some facets of Corlears that I sometimes take for granted: the diversity of our community, the support teachers receive from the administration to try something bold and new in their classrooms, and, above all, the empathy and thoughtfulness of our students.” While workshop attendees may have left feeling inspired, our educators certainly did. As Alex states, his experience at the conference ultimately reminded him “of these facets of Corlears, and what a unique community it is.”