Bringing Together Academics, a Sense of Belonging, and a Commitment to Equity

Picture of Zaretta Hammond and her book "Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain"

On Friday, October 15, Westside staff participated in some inspiring professional development. At the Fall Conference of the Northwest Association of Independent Schools, that I and many of our teachers attended, the keynote speaker was Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Ms. Hammond is a former high school and community college expository writing instructor who is passionate about the places where literacy, equity, and neuroscience meet in education.

Her keynote speech was inspirational on several levels. She explored the intersection of social and emotional learning (SEL) with social justice education, which are areas we focus on at Westside.

Teachers and researchers have known for a long time that students learn best when they have a sense of belonging: when they are seen safe and in a trusting relationship with their teachers and caregivers.

Hammond addressed the symbiotic relationship between SEL wellness and the work we do on diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism (DEIA), and she challenged us, as educators, to think about how are we managing that interconnectedness.

How are we listening to our students and their families who are telling us their experiences and are we making appropriate changes? If we are truly teaching in a culturally responsive way, we should be challenging every student to reach their full potential as good humans, as curious students, and as young adults interested in participating in civic engagement.

There needs to be a commitment from the school to racial equity, and to a sense of belonging, that is not separate from our commitment to academic success. We must strive towards an integrated path towards “whole child equity.”

Hammond described a school’s quest for whole child equity as a quest of student agency – putting students at the center. We, as teachers and school personnel, must build trust with our students, and continually focus on building relationships, which means removing micro-aggressions and creating learning environments where students feel ok feeling vulnerable. How do we create environments so that students can show up as their full selves and where they know their voices count?

Hammond reminded our team about some of the science we know about learning:  we must encourage our students to be creative and curious, “to get messy with learning”, and to allow students to engage in productive struggle. The more teachers are able to help students to grapple with content and big ideas, and focus on open-ended questions over compliance, the more they will succeed.

At Westside, we strive to allow students the opportunity to own their own learning, to think critically, to challenge the status quo, and to build cognitive capacity, resilience, and academic mindset by pushing back on dominant narratives about people of color. We want our children, as psychologist Lev Vygotsky said, to “grow into the intellectual life around them.”

And it is our collective responsibility, school and families, to model that intellectual life. Our goal is to graduate students who are good citizens, who reach their full potential, and who make a difference in the world – so we must create safe learning conditions so that deeper learning takes place. It’s something our teachers do every day by bringing academics, a sense of belonging, and a commitment to equity together.

Picture of Head of School Steve de Beer.

- Steve de Beer, Head of School