“What if we reimagined the word privilege?” said Natalie Krayenvenger, fourth grade teacher at St. Paul’s Pre and Lower School. “Instead of looking at it as a negative thing, we defined it as having the opportunity to use our voice for those that can’t?”
While diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have always been a part of education at The St. Paul’s Schools, recent events locally and nationally have sparked fervor to do more. There is now a coordinated approach across all schools on campus in an effort to support students’ social and emotional wellbeing from preschool through graduation.
It’s hard work, requiring teachers to identify their own biases while diving into uncharted pedagogical waters; but it’s work that they are embracing.
It all starts in the Pre and Lower School by building a strong sense of self while not just identifying and celebrating difference — but normalizing it.
In the Pre and Lower School, faculty aim to ensure that there are “mirrors, windows, and doors” for students. In other words, they want students to see themselves reflected in the materials, understand difference, and be able to put themselves in another’s shoes. The identity work begins in the toddler classroom, increasing in complexity each year.
Andy Benton, kindergarten teacher and Pre and Lower School DEI chair, said that the school’s overall goal for this year is to have more courageous conversations. Using the framework developed by Glenn E. Singleton and the Pacific Educational Group, teachers have been exploring how to have engaging, sustaining, and deepening interracial dialogue between themselves, with their students, and with parents. That framework has been integrated into the citizenship and character work that has been the foundation of a St. Paul’s education from the school’s inception. The Pre and Lower School focuses on five pillars of good character: hardworking, kind, inclusive, respectful, honest.
In Andy’s kindergarten classroom, those conversations start with “I Am.” Based on Derrick Barnes’ popular book “I Am Every Good Thing,” Andy helps her students understand that they are everything—and that even their failures and mistakes help make them the person that they are. Not only do students identify their own creativity, bravery, intelligence, sense of humor, and kindness, but they learn to see those things in others as well.
But identity conversations don’t stop when students exit the classroom. Campus-wide affinity groups invite all St. Paul’s families to be a part of a community investment in DEI. Andy often reaches out to Pre and Lower School families to invite them to be a part of the schools’ interfaith, LGBTQ+, and BIPOC groups. Growth and involvement in these groups has identified another driving force furthering DEI work on campus: St. Paul’s parents.
“Now more than ever, parents are holding us accountable,” said Andy. “The parents are on board. We need to have these tough conversations.”
Perhaps even more important is that the students are ready for it.
DEI work in Natalie Krayenvenger’s fourth grade classroom starts before the first day of school. Natalie makes a video each year that introduces herself to the class, showing them where she lives, her family, what she likes and dislikes, and more. When students arrive on the first day, they start their identity notebooks. They brainstorm “what is identity?” as a class and talk about things that you can outwardly see that identify a person and things that you’d need to get to know a person in order to identify. Most importantly, Natalie said, is that students come to understand that no one can speak for them.
Over the course of the school year, that identity work expands into more complicated concepts such as wealth inequality. Recently, Natalie’s fourth graders were asked to create a monthly budget based on a post-tax annual income. Groups were randomly assigned different income levels and then after their budgets were created, they received “life event cards.” Students discovered how those life events such as “had a baby” or “lost a job” significantly affected their budgets. During the exercise, some students had to make decisions between paying an electric bill or eating. They then were assigned different income levels so that they could see how access to money—or limited access—impacted an individual experiencing those same life events.
“For some of our students, this was not an uncommon experience,” said Natalie. “But for many, it was truly eye opening.”
Preschool DEI co-chairs Mary Stone Eddins and Christin Savage have started crafting a monthly newsletter for their preschool colleagues. Their goal? To take what can be a heavy and nuanced subject area and break it down for teachers so that they become enthusiastic, not apprehensive, about incorporating DEI into their classroom spaces. Each newsletter centers around a point of interest and contains information, suggested classroom activities, and resources. For instance, their October newsletter talked about el Dia de los Muertos, gave ideas for classroom celebrations, and included information about Tito Puente, the “King of Latin Music.”
“Research shows that by two years of age, a child will develop implicit bias,” said Mary Stone, who is also a co-lead teacher in one of the toddler rooms. At the preschool level, that means normalizing difference. It’s important to Mary Stone that her group of 18-month-old to 36-month-old children see a variety of faces on the classroom walls and in the books that they read. A new book favorite? “Eyes That Kiss in the Corners,” released earlier this month. Mary Stone couldn’t wait to get the book — which is about learning to love and celebrate almond-shaped eyes — on her classroom bookshelf.
“Most importantly, when we set the stage for diversity, equity, and inclusion at the preschool level—the idea that this is a lot of ‘love work,’ that this is about love for your neighbor and classmate—we set the tone for so much more success at the next level,” said Mary Stone. “Not just that these kids will be able to speak up for themselves, but that they’ll be able to speak up for those that are marginalized, too.”