Henley Middle School’s advancement toward greater cultural responsiveness among its student and teacher population was recently galvanized by a single incident. Late last year, a Henley student was taunted on social media for his cultural background. He subsequently confronted the offending classmate at school, resulting in a discussion with Principal Beth Costa. Rather than treating the situation solely as a conflict management matter, Costa asked for the student’s help.
“What can we do here to ensure that this doesn’t happen to you again, and also not to anyone else?” she asked him.
Henley’s Assistant Principal Latishia Wilson posed the same question within the school’s newly formed Equity Team—a small group of administrators and faculty established this year at every Albemarle County school to learn and share culturally responsive teaching (CRT) strategies. Henley’s team is led by Wilson and C’ta Delaurier, its Diversity Resource Teacher, and includes eight other teachers from various disciplines across the school. The team’s answer—to organize student groups to advise them on cultural concerns—reflects a key CRT theme of connectedness.
Culturally responsive teaching is an area of professional development for teachers that has been gaining traction across the division as a way to increase student achievement. The goal is for teachers to examine their own mindset and cultural influences and to reflect on how those might impact their teaching. By being aware of their own as well as their students’ cultural influences, teachers can adjust their teaching strategies to motivate and engage students more fully.
“It all connects,” said Bernard Hairston, executive director of the Office of Community Engagement in Albemarle County and creator of a new CRT certification program for teachers. “If we motivate students we engage them, and if we engage them we can maximize their achievement,” he said. “The primary focus of CRT is on pedagogy, and the secondary focus is on issues like relationships and understanding culture. At Henley, they have taken it to another level by creating that student voice as part of the process.”
Key to Henley’s approach was that it grew organically from the concerns of the kids themselves. With the support of the original student’s family, Costa worked with other Western feeder pattern principals and their teams and shared ideas. “We said, we have our voice, now we need to get the voice of the students.” At Henley, groups of fifteen students, diverse in terms of gender, religion, and racial and ethnic backgrounds, were randomly invited to be part of half-day workshops to talk about their perspectives.
The workshops featured discussion topics and team-building activities mostly centered on self-reflection. They examined their own values by listing both material and non-material things that were very important to them, and deciding which of those would be easiest and hardest to give up. Questions such as, ‘What do you hold close to you?’ and ‘How do you get to know other people?’ allowed the students to examine their cultural differences in a personal way, while sharing common experiences and strategies.
“It’s really empowering them,” said Costa. “The kids start with themselves, and now it will build. The whole idea is to invite other kids in, invite a kid to the next meeting, so that we build our understanding of each other.” The students found what they discovered in these meetings to be so powerful that the workshops were repeated for the parent-teacher organization and then for the entire faculty. Henley plans to incorporate these kinds of reflective discussions into daily meetings at the Sting level, in groups of 16 to 18 students.
Can the benefits of this program be measured? Costa thinks it’s possible. “We do quarterly surveys that ask the students if they feel safe at school, if they feel that adults here care for them,” she said, and those could reveal a shift upward. “We could measure numbers of discipline referrals, the numbers of kids recommended to counselors for conflict,” in hopes those would decline.
“It’s all about building relationships with students, building a community,” she said, and she revels in the possibilities. “There’s absolutely nothing like the power of bringing these kids together, and out here in the Western schools, there seems to be support everywhere you look.”