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Antiracism is a Verb: Part One of a Five-part Series on Anti-racism Work at Nueva
Rachel Freeman, communications/website manager


Part 1 – Identity

As activist Leslie Mac said, “Being anti-racist is a verb—and it requires consistent action.” This story is part one of a five-part series exploring the ways in which Nueva is striving to be antir-acist in the classroom. 

 

On any given day, Director of Social Justice and Equity Alegria Barclay might open her inbox to find an email from a faculty member wanting her support in creating a new social justice lesson or hoping to bring in a social justice guest speaker or with an idea for a class field trip centered around social justice.

“Our faculty members have spent countless hours thoughtfully, passionately, and brilliantly reimagining their curricula and pedagogy to better include, celebrate, and critically engage with diverse perspectives, so much so that the thread of anti-racism is present in every grade from PreK through 12,” Alegria said. 

This year, perhaps more than in previous years, this recentering and reimagining of the curricula has become front and center, largely in part to the Black Lives Matter protests that swept across the nation this summer in response to police brutality against Black people. 

Shortly after Lee Fertig joined Nueva as head of school in July, he sent an email, “Elevating Our Commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” to the Nueva community, reaffirming the school’s ongoing commitment to anti-racism. 

“For more than 50 years,” he wrote, “Nueva has demonstrated unwavering commitment and focus—a commitment to gifted learners and a focus on social-emotional learning . . . However, as successful as Nueva has been in embodying these principles in practice, our community is not immune to the effects of racism and marginalization . . . We must be even more intentional and strategic in ensuring equity and accountability in issues specifically pertaining to racial diversity.” 

One of the initiatives Lee identified—which has already shaped and will continue to shape Nueva’s commitment to anti-racism—is “embedding themes of social justice and equity throughout the PreK–12 curriculum.” 

Alegria added, “Much of the work we've done over the last five years at Nueva has been to build a common understanding of racism and its effects on our students and, broadly, our nation.”

“The philosophy in early childhood education is to combine subject areas. We don’t say, ‘This is math time,’ or ’This is writing time.’ We combine many subject areas. I think it’s the same with anti-bias and anti-racist education. We don’t have ‘anti-racist time.’”

— David Robinson, PreK teacher

This understanding begins with explorations of identity, a thread that runs through nearly all grades, building in depth and complexity as students get older.

For sixth-grade humanities teacher Sam Modest, helping students understand identity and positionality are critical to their understanding of history. 

“It’s really important for students to understand their own identities and the identities of the authors we read,” he said. “When we read history, we need to identify the biases of the authors, as well as our own biases. I tell my students, ‘The author wrote this piece and their positionality impacts what they wrote, and our positionality impacts what we take away from it.’” 

PreK teacher David Robinson spent this past summer thinking about anti-bias education and how he could continue to shape his curriculum around anti-biased and anti-racist education. He brought together the PreK through second-grade teaching teams, and they collectively worked with early childhood consultant, Debbie LeeKeenan.

“I wanted to focus more on identity and what that means to young children,” David shared. “I then built in family identity and ethnicity and culture. Identity becomes the foundation for our conversations around equity and justice.”

The key to infusing the curriculum with anti-bias and anti-racist principles, David said, is by weaving in the goals established by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards in their book, Anti-bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves. 

“The philosophy in early childhood education is to combine subject areas. We don’t say, ‘This is math time,’ or ’This is writing time.’ We combine many subject areas. I think it’s the same with anti-bias and anti-racist education. We don’t have ‘anti-racist time.’”

In the upper school, conversations around identity permeate not just the Science of Mind (SEL) curriculum, but a broad range of disciplines and topics. The exploration of identity is a critical component of the 11th grade American Literature class. Through the reading of diverse texts—in genre, author’s background, and era—students explore how American identities are shaped by a multitude of voices, cultures, and actions. 

“Because this course is focused on the interplay between literature and American history, everything we talk about relates to American identity,” English teacher Jen Neubauer said. 

The course has evolved over the last few years because of input that Jen and the other American Literature teachers received from students. 

“We received feedback from students, particularly our Black students, that the curriculum and books we were reading were problematic,” she said. “I think this highlights how we aren’t always going to get it right, and that we are constantly striving to do better. We welcome our students’ perspectives, and we want them to feel represented in the stories they are reading. So as a faculty, we asked ourselves, ‘How do we make sure we are bringing a variety of voices and American narratives into the classroom?’” 

The first year Jen taught this course, 2017–2018, she and the other faculty teaching it added the book Passing by Nella Larson. This modernist text fit into the curriculum well both because of its craft and how it represents the literary movement of its time, Jen said, and in how it looks at the story of race in the United States and race’s impact on identity. This year, the faculty introduced Tommy Orange’s There There, “to bring the Indigenous perspective into American literature.”

“Selecting texts is a challenge we take very seriously, because with every voice that we highlight, there is a voice that we leave out,” Jen acknowledged. “We only have so much time, and we want to make sure students have the knowledge they need to be successful once they leave Nueva. What voices we choose to highlight impacts students’ experiences after Nueva.” 

“For such a long time, our students weren’t able to see themselves in the texts,” said Davion Fleming, associate director of admissions and ninth-grade Science of Mind teacher. “They were often going out into the world—and even navigating Nueva—without an understanding of who they are. If we keep telling the same stories, students miss out on a very key piece of identity work in understanding not just themselves, but also in understanding and having empathy for others. Yes, we are going to be leaving voices out, but by continuing to change and iterate on the perspectives we share, students across PreK through 12th grade will have a profound and nuanced understanding of themselves and of others.” 

 

In Part 2, we explore further how literature and books are used to provide students space to have conversations around racial and social justice.  



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