As part of a districtwide Racial Literacy initiative, Westfield Public Schools recently welcomed educational consultant David Schwartz, who conducted professional development sessions to provide educators with culturally responsive teaching strategies aimed at enhancing student engagement and creating a respectful community of learners.
“At the beginning of our meetings, I requested that participants stay engaged, dialogue respectfully, and be able to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” says Schwartz, about his sessions for grades K-5 teachers on Nov. 3. “Discussions on race and implicit bias often bring us to uncomfortable places in order to emerge with new learning.”
Schwartz, a former social studies supervisor and teacher, previously worked as a senior program associate for “Facing History and Ourselves,” a program for students and educators that addresses racism, antisemitism, and prejudice at pivotal moments in history. He now trains and supports K-12 and college educators through Creative Options for Progressive Educators (www.co4pe.com) to, among other things, help them “create safe spaces that motivate students to explore and learn, facilitate civil classroom discourse, and honor all student identities and ableness.”
“I was very impressed with the honesty of the participants and their very civil discourse,” Schwartz says, about the Westfield teachers. “I also was impressed with the safety participants felt in this very large Zoom environment. When one participant was overcome with tears, she let everyone into a very personal place. Lots of courage to do that.”
“David’s workshop on racial literacy challenged K-5 teachers to approach this topic from two perspectives; as adult learners and as educators. They were also asked to reflect on their work with students,” says K-12 Supervisor of Social Studies Andrea Brennan. “The workshop was a starting point to examine our implicit bias, the danger of a single story and how we can begin to envision our classrooms as places that incorporate (more fully) many voices, stories, and perspectives.”
Brennan says that, after attending the session, one teacher requested a continued focus on racial literacy at future workshops and meetings. “There is so much that can be shared,” the teacher noted. “The workshop was great and really gave insightful information that can be incorporated into the classroom.”
Schwartz’s workshop, along with administrator-facilitated sessions provided to English and social studies teachers in grades 6-12, are part of a larger district initiative to address racial literacy and to provide developmentally appropriate lessons in and conversations about race and cultural diversity in Westfield Public Schools. During the 2019-2020 school year, Brennan and then-Supervisor of K-12 English Language Arts Dr. Tiffany Jacobson – who is now interim principal of the Lincoln Early Childhood Center – examined classroom libraries in grades K-5 before recommending additional titles that provide a richer and more diverse experience. The two worked together to create the K-12 Racial Literacy Training Proposal.
The initiative was funded by a generous grant from the Westfield Education Fund (westfieldedfund.org), a nonprofit organization that relies on donations from the community to “support innovative projects that strengthen and enrich students’ academic experience but fall beyond the school district budget.”
“We are so grateful for the support from our friends at the Ed Fund,” says Paul Pineiro, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Programs. “With this level of assistance, we can be sure that all of our teachers and administrators will have the support necessary to achieve the objectives of this initiative - to intentionally embed developmentally appropriate lessons in, and conversations about, racial literacy.”
Schwartz says he hopes the educators gained “a good understanding of identity and how identity can affect behavior.” “I also hope they gained a good understanding of implicit biases, microagressions, and how to avoid them,” he adds. “I hope the teachers have created a lens through which they can examine their own beliefs and biases toward creating racially just classroom spaces.”
The district is planning Community Learning Nights in coming months as part of a broader outreach to students, families, and other members of the community. The community is invited and encouraged to complete “Responding to Hate: A Community Survey,” which will be used to gauge important community feedback and to plan future community learning experiences.
These types of community engagement around the topics of race and bigotry are crucial, says Schwartz.
“I consider myself a professional bigotry fighter,” he says, about his 25 years working with educators around the country. “If we are to survive as a nation, it will be because education and understanding have triumphed over hate and ignorance.”