The teachers at Sidwell Friends School are also lifelong learners—not just in their subject matter, but in how to teach and assess those subjects in the best ways possible. On February 3, the faculty and staff of Sidwell Friends gathered for an afternoon of professional development sessions that focused on skills and techniques that will help the School in its progression toward creating an anti-racist environment.
Christopher Brown ’86, Traci Cohen Dennis ’86, Dax-Devlon Ross ’93, and Endowed Director of Equity, Justice, and Community (EJC) Natalie Randolph ’98 each led panels in their fields of expertise, from reconceiving American history to bias-training in future teaching, in order to help faculty and staff deepen their anti-racist work. The four session leaders, all alumni, had previously worked with the Sidwell Friends community during the School’s study of Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist at the beginning of the 2020/21 academic year.
Brown, a history professor at Columbia University, led a session on “Teaching American Slavery.” Brown shared ways that teachers can place a more informed and deeper examination of the institution of slavery as one of the most powerful forces that shaped American history, thereby making it clear just how much of the culture of the hemisphere is largely dependent on chattel slavery and its aftermath. Brown spoke about the importance of teaching slavery not as a shameful aberration that was limited to the pre–Civil War South, but as a fundamental feature to the world as a whole. Using the Trans-Atlantic Slave Database as a tool, Brown demonstrated the sheer vastness of the slave trade, both in terms of time and in human lives. But Brown cautioned against teaching slavery as a set of data or dates and encouraged using it as a way of introducing students to thinking about how history echoes into the future. “Teaching history,” Brown said, “is about developing an understanding of how to think about this knowledge.”
Cohen Dennis led an interactive session on “The Future is Now: Creating Antiracist Spaces for 2021 and Beyond,” which offered faculty and staff members the tools to develop their own anti-racist protocols, so that they can better weave them into their classroom and professional practices. Attendees completed a “self-interrogation” worksheet in which they examined, among other things, their “bridges, barriers, and blind spots”—bridges to will help them be intentional about promoting an inclusive and nurturing classroom for all students; barriers that may hold them back from doing so; and blind spots they may need to address. At the end, Cohen Dennis asked all in attendance to choose one action item they could commit to as a way of ensuring an anti-racist environment.
Ross, an equity consultant, led a session on “Teaching Hard History,” which encouraged teachers to examine what difficult subjects they may be glossing over, why they may be downplaying certain issues or events, and what they can do to bring those necessary conversations into their classrooms. Ross’s workshop emphasized the need to acknowledge and accept the identities of everyone in a classroom, rather than asking students to leave their core selves behind in the interest of teaching history “objectively”—which often means at the expense of some people’s experiences, particularly historically marginalized people. While Ross applauded efforts to include a more diverse curriculum, he cautioned that it’s not enough to ensure that, for example, each student’s ideas are heard; teachers must go further and examine which ideas, if any, are not being taken as seriously and why.
Finally, Randolph led a session on “Assessment and Grading Equity,” in which attendees explored their own memories of student evaluations and learned how to make assessment a fair, unbiased measuring tool that spurs success. Often, participants noted, assessments are presented as a negative—think of a paper returned with red scrawls all over it and a mysterious grade of C+. Instead, Randolph taught, assessment must be individualized to each student, deliver precise feedback, and be transparent about how the teacher reached the final grade. Empowering feedback, Randolph said, provides motivation, which in turn promotes practice, which will result in a higher skill level.
Professional development that specifically focuses on equity, justice, and community is a cornerstone of the anti-racist community the School has committed to building. Sessions like those held on February 3 support the continuing work of the faculty, staff, and administration in establishing an EJC practice—as described in the recently released EJC Strategic Action Plan—where every student is seen and heard.