Courageous Conversations: Talking (Remotely) About Racial and Social Justice Issues

Posted on Thursday, June 4th, 2020

Over the past several days, our community has been spending time reflecting on the impact of the racial and social injustices that have come to the forefront in our nation. 

The images here and below are drawn from Ms. Konstantine’s lesson

As Head of School Dr. Scott Gaynor said, “We are obviously challenged due to the distance caused by the pandemic, but the essential element of this dialogue is having open conversations regardless of the platform. It’s most important to allow the space and time for our students to discuss their feelings.” 

At Gaynor, we follow an age-appropriate approach — for our younger students, we take the time to respond to their needs and questions as they arise. When necessary, we follow up directly with a student and include the support of our psychology department. 

In our middle school, students have shared their thoughts in morning advisory through writing prompts and discussion. 

Drama Teacher Meredith Akins did a lesson with her Blue Cluster students on the elements of how to have a courageous conversation.

They discussed four elements: 

  • recognize intent does not equal impact, 
  • listen more than you speak and ask for clarifications if you don’t understand something, 
  • honor someone’s experience (if someone says that they have been treated rudely because of their sexual orientation, believe them), 
  • and understand/agree on the term of the issue (i.e. prejudice versus racism).

“It went really well,” Ms. Akins said. “We were working on monologue writing already and prompts to generate ideas. We did a newspaper prompt about a teen conference that discusses race and came up with actions to combat racism.”

She said students then did a character brainstorm of a teen who attended, indicated their emotions using a Mood Meter, and wrote a monologue about their fears/hopes in attending such a conference.

Head Teacher Jenna Konstantine and Assistant Teacher Courtney Smotkin’s Green Cluster class have been discussing a current events lesson about the death of George Floyd over the past couple of days.

“I preface all of this by saying that I am a white educator, and it is my responsibility to be informed about the events in the world, while also doing my own personal work of being anti-racist, and also how to have meaningful discussions without burdening or alienating black students,” she said.

The lesson centered around two key components. The first was the current events lesson, which discussed the idea that this is a big, important event that’s happening in the world, and why students need to be aware. 

The second part of the lesson was a vocabulary lesson about the difference between individual racism and institutionalized racism. 

“We thought it was important for students to have the specific language to describe that concept,” Ms. Konstantine said. “There were a couple of ‘aha’ moments for some of our students — I witnessed a few of my white students come to the realization that the idea of ‘police’ does not always equal safety for everyone.”

She said students also had the opportunity to grapple with, and struggle with, the dissonance between people feeling outraged and unsafe, and how people respond to that outrage and to that unfairness. 

“There are so many resources available, and even though this has been a deeply upsetting and discouraging week, it has been exciting to see educators, parents, and concerned people in general share resources to help young people understand what is going on,” she said. 

Assistant Teacher Miriam Filer’s Yellow Cluster reading group completed a Pop Art presentation about racial equality that was inspired by their reading book King’s Courage (Blast to the Past Book 4) by Rhody Cohon and Stacia Deutsch. 

The book is set during the time of the voting rights protests, and the students have been working on the project for a few weeks. 

Head of School Dr. Scott Gaynor, Co-founder and Director of Education Yvette Siegel, Reading Chair Sloan Shapiro, Orton-Gillingham Fellow Ann Edwards, Photography Teacher Jessica Ressler, Director of the Lower School Donna Logue, and the students’ families attended the rehearsals or final presentations. 

Ms. Logue said everyone was very impressed with the thought and heart that went into the students’ art work and presentations.

“This is a good example of how topics of social justice are embedded in our curriculum, and then can serve as a platform for addressing students’ thoughts about contemporary issues,” she said. “At the end of the presentation, I invited students to display their artwork in a place where others can see it and find support during these turbulent times.”

Head Teacher Katie Kolenda and Assistant Teacher Lauren Weiss’s Silver Cluster class connected the events from the Boston Tea Party to the current day and discussed protesting and activism. 

Ms. Kolenda said this led to a larger conversation around the injustices and race. 

“The students were well-informed coming into the conversation and were mature, reporting facts and remaining emotionally regulated,” she said. “Our class has a lot of angry feelings; they’re wondering why other humans can treat one another in that way.”

A few days after this initial discussion, they continued the conversation, with a moment of silence to remember George Floyd. 

The Mood Meter

They also performed a reflection using the Mood Meter and guiding questions, and they wrote emails to Gaynor faculty of color to show their support and love during these difficult times.

One student wrote, “I know you are troubled about what happened to George Floyd, but do not worry. I support you, and I love you.”

Another wrote, “I hope things will change. I hope one day that people can go outside and not feel scared for their life just because of the color of their skin. I hope one day that we all can feel safe and happy. I hope you are doing ok and I hope you can feel safe again soon.”

Ms. Kolenda said, “Their emails were incredibly heartfelt and beautiful. The purpose was to create a space to talk and feel with appropriate structure.”

For additional resources to discuss racial and social justice issues with your children at home, please consider: