8 Empowering Middle Grade Novels for Kids Interested in Social Justice

Barnes & Noble

As the United States watches a new administration take over the White House after a contentious election year, a wave of social and political activism has swept the country. For generations, young people all over the world have taken an interest in social justice and found the courage to fight for their own rights and the rights of others. Here are eight inspiring middle grade books that prove you’re never too young to stand up for what you believe in and make a difference.

The Breadwinner Trilogy

Paperback $13.81 | $18.95

The Breadwinner Trilogy, by Deborah Ellis
This series follows 11-year-old Parvana, who lives under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. When her father is arrested and her family is left without someone who can work or even shop for food, Parvana, forbidden to earn money as a girl, disguises herself as a boy to help her family survive. The Breadwinner is an empowering tale with a sharp and brave heroine.

Stella by Starlight

Paperback $7.99

Stella by Starlight, by Sharon M. Draper
Stella lives in the segregated south in 1932. Out, late one night, wandering around, Stella and her brother witness a Klu Klux Klan activity, starting an unwelcome chain of events in her otherwise sleepy town. With a compelling and courageous voice, Stella tells the story of how she and her community ban together against racism and injustice.

A Little Piece of Ground

Paperback $9.95

A Little Piece of Groundby Elizabeth Laird
Living in occupied Palestine, twelve-year-old Karim is trapped in his home by a strict curfew. Wanting to play football with his friends, he decides to clear a rocky plot of land for a soccer field. When Karim is found outside during the next curfew, tensions rise, and his survival is at stake.

One Crazy Summer

Paperback $7.99

One Crazy Summerby Rita Williams Garcia
Set against the backdrop of the Black Panther movement, Delphine and her sisters visit their estranged mother in California, attend a Black Panther day camp, and discover their mother’s dedication to social justice issues. A moving, funny novel with a captivating voice, the sisters learn about their family and their country during one truly crazy summer.

Sylvia & Aki

Paperback $6.99

Sylvia & Akiby Winifred Conkling
Sylvia and Aki never expected to know one another, until their lives intersect on a Southern California farm and change the country forever. Based on true events, this book reveals the remarkable story of Mendez vs. Westminster School District, the California court case that desegregated schools for Latino children.

Operation Redwood

Paperback $9.95

Operation Redwood, by S. Terrell French
When Julian is sent to stay with his disinterested aunt and uncle for four months, he discovers that his Uncle’s corporation plans to cut down a group of redwood trees at Big Tree Grove and decides to take a stand to save the trees. Perfect for the young environmentalists in your life, Operation Redwood is an adventurous and gripping tale as Julian and his friends hatch scheme after scheme to save these giants of nature.

I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced

Paperback $7.31 | $12.00

I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, by Nujood Ali with Dephine Mainoui
For more mature readers, this unforgettable autobiography tells the true story of Nujood Ali, a ten-year-old Yemeni girl married off at a young age, who decides to resist her abusive husband and get a divorce. A moving tale of tragedy, triumph, and courage, Nujood’s brave defiance has inspired generations of women and young girls.

Return to Sender

Paperback $6.99

Return to Sender, by Julia Alverez
After Tyler’s father is injured in a tractor accident, his family hires migrant workers from Mexico to save his Vermont farm. Tyler bonds with one of the worker’s daughters and navigates complicated moral choices in this award-winning novel about friendship, cooperation, and understanding.

 

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How Diversity Makes Us Smarter

Scientific American

Being around people who are different from us makes us more creative, more diligent and harder-working

Credit: Edel Rodriguez

IN BRIEF

  • Decades of research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers show that socially diverse groups (that is, those with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation) are more innovative than homogeneous groups.
  • It seems obvious that a group of people with diverse individual expertise would be better than a homogeneous group at solving complex, nonroutine problems. It is less obvious that social diversity should work in the same way—yet the science shows that it does.
  • This is not only because people with different backgrounds bring new information. Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.

(Editor’s note (1/30/16): In response to President Donald Trump’s immigration order to close U.S. borders to refugees and visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries, which has impacted scientists and students, we are republishing the following article from or 2014 special report on how diversity powers science and innovation.)

The first thing to acknowledge about diversity is that it can be difficult. In the U.S., where the dialogue of inclusion is relatively advanced, even the mention of the word “diversity” can lead to anxiety and conflict. Supreme Court justices disagree on the virtues of diversity and the means for achieving it. Corporations spend billions of dollars to attract and manage diversity both internally and externally, yet they still face discrimination lawsuits, and the leadership ranks of the business world remain predominantly white and male.

It is reasonable to ask what good diversity does us. Diversity of expertise confers benefits that are obvious—you would not think of building a new car without engineers, designers and quality-control experts—but what about social diversity? What good comes from diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation? Research has shown that social diversity in a group can cause discomfort, rougher interactions, a lack of trust, greater perceived interpersonal conflict, lower communication, less cohesion, more concern about disrespect, and other problems. So what is the upside?

The fact is that if you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity. Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving. Diversity can improve the bottom line of companies and lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations. Even simply being exposed to diversity can change the way you think. This is not just wishful thinking: it is the conclusion I draw from decades of research from organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers.

INFORMATION AND INNOVATION

The key to understanding the positive influence of diversity is the concept of informational diversity. When people are brought together to solve problems in groups, they bring different information, opinions and perspectives. This makes obvious sense when we talk about diversity of disciplinary backgrounds—think again of the interdisciplinary team building a car. The same logic applies to social diversity. People who are different from one another in race, gender and other dimensions bring unique information and experiences to bear on the task at hand. A male and a female engineer might have perspectives as different from one another as an engineer and a physicist—and that is a good thing.

Research on large, innovative organizations has shown repeatedly that this is the case. For example, business professors Cristian Deszö of the University of Maryland and David Ross of Columbia University studied the effect of gender diversity on the top firms in Standard & Poor’s Composite 1500 list, a group designed to reflect the overall U.S. equity market. First, they examined the size and gender composition of firms’ top management teams from 1992 through 2006. Then they looked at the financial performance of the firms. In their words, they found that, on average, “female representation in top management leads to an increase of $42 million in firm value.” They also measured the firms’ “innovation intensity” through the ratio of research and development expenses to assets. They found that companies that prioritized innovation saw greater financial gains when women were part of the top leadership ranks.

Racial diversity can deliver the same kinds of benefits. In a study conducted in 2003, Orlando Richard, a professor of management at the University of Texas at Dallas, and his colleagues surveyed executives at 177 national banks in the U.S., then put together a database comparing financial performance, racial diversity and the emphasis the bank presidents put on innovation. For innovation-focused banks, increases in racial diversity were clearly related to enhanced financial performance.

Evidence for the benefits of diversity can be found well beyond the U.S. In August 2012 a team of researchers at the Credit Suisse Research Institute issued a report in which they examined 2,360 companies globally from 2005 to 2011, looking for a relationship between gender diversity on corporate management boards and financial performance. Sure enough, the researchers found that companies with one or more women on the board delivered higher average returns on equity, lower gearing (that is, net debt to equity) and better average growth.

HOW DIVERSITY PROVOKES THOUGHT

Large data-set studies have an obvious limitation: they only show that diversity is correlated with better performance, not that it causes better performance. Research on racial diversity in small groups, however, makes it possible to draw some causal conclusions. Again, the findings are clear: for groups that value innovation and new ideas, diversity helps.

In 2006 Margaret Neale of Stanford University, Gregory Northcraft of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and I set out to examine the impact of racial diversity on small decision-making groups in an experiment where sharing information was a requirement for success. Our subjects were undergraduate students taking business courses at the University of Illinois. We put together three-person groups—some consisting of all white members, others with two whites and one nonwhite member—and had them perform a murder mystery exercise. We made sure that all group members shared a common set of information, but we also gave each member important clues that only he or she knew. To find out who committed the murder, the group members would have to share all the information they collectively possessed during discussion. The groups with racial diversity significantly outperformed the groups with no racial diversity. Being with similar others leads us to think we all hold the same information and share the same perspective. This perspective, which stopped the all-white groups from effectively processing the information, is what hinders creativity and innovation.

Other researchers have found similar results. In 2004 Anthony Lising Antonio, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, collaborated with five colleagues from the University of California, Los Angeles, and other institutions to examine the influence of racial and opinion composition in small group discussions. More than 350 students from three universities participated in the study. Group members were asked to discuss a prevailing social issue (either child labor practices or the death penalty) for 15 minutes. The researchers wrote dissenting opinions and had both black and white members deliver them to their groups. When a black person presented a dissenting perspective to a group of whites, the perspective was perceived as more novel and led to broader thinking and consideration of alternatives than when a white person introduced that same dissenting perspective. The lesson: when we hear dissent from someone who is different from us, it provokes more thought than when it comes from someone who looks like us.

This effect is not limited to race. For example, last year professors of management Denise Lewin Loyd of the University of Illinois, Cynthia Wang of Oklahoma State University, Robert B. Lount, Jr., of Ohio State University and I asked 186 people whether they identified as a Democrat or a Republican, then had them read a murder mystery and decide who they thought committed the crime. Next, we asked the subjects to prepare for a meeting with another group member by writing an essay communicating their perspective. More important, in all cases, we told the participants that their partner disagreed with their opinion but that they would need to come to an agreement with the other person. Everyone was told to prepare to convince their meeting partner to come around to their side; half of the subjects, however, were told to prepare to make their case to a member of the opposing political party, and half were told to make their case to a member of their own party.

The result: Democrats who were told that a fellow Democrat disagreed with them prepared less well for the discussion than Democrats who were told that a Republican disagreed with them. Republicans showed the same pattern. When disagreement comes from a socially different person, we are prompted to work harder. Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not.

For this reason, diversity appears to lead to higher-quality scientific research. This year Richard Freeman, an economics professor at Harvard University and director of the Science and Engineering Workforce Project at the National Bureau of Economic Research, along with Wei Huang, a Harvard economics Ph.D. candidate, examined the ethnic identity of the authors of 1.5 million scientific papers written between 1985 and 2008 using Thomson Reuters’s Web of Science, a comprehensive database of published research. They found that papers written by diverse groups receive more citations and have higher impact factors than papers written by people from the same ethnic group. Moreover, they found that stronger papers were associated with a greater number of author addresses; geographical diversity, and a larger number of references, is a reflection of more intellectual diversity.

THE POWER OF ANTICIPATION

Diversity is not only about bringing different perspectives to the table. Simply adding social diversity to a group makes people believe that differences of perspective might exist among them and that belief makes people change their behavior.

Members of a homogeneous group rest somewhat assured that they will agree with one another; that they will understand one another’s perspectives and beliefs; that they will be able to easily come to a consensus. But when members of a group notice that they are socially different from one another, they change their expectations. They anticipate differences of opinion and perspective. They assume they will need to work harder to come to a consensus. This logic helps to explain both the upside and the downside of social diversity: people work harder in diverse environments both cognitively and socially. They might not like it, but the hard work can lead to better outcomes.

In a 2006 study of jury decision making, social psychologist Samuel Sommers of Tufts University found that racially diverse groups exchanged a wider range of information during deliberation about a sexual assault case than all-white groups did. In collaboration with judges and jury administrators in a Michigan courtroom, Sommers conducted mock jury trials with a group of real selected jurors. Although the participants knew the mock jury was a court-sponsored experiment, they did not know that the true purpose of the research was to study the impact of racial diversity on jury decision making.

Sommers composed the six-person juries with either all white jurors or four white and two black jurors. As you might expect, the diverse juries were better at considering case facts, made fewer errors recalling relevant information and displayed a greater openness to discussing the role of race in the case. These improvements did not necessarily happen because the black jurors brought new information to the group—they happened because white jurors changed their behavior in the presence of the black jurors. In the presence of diversity, they were more diligent and open-minded.

GROUP EXERCISE

Consider the following scenario: You are writing up a section of a paper for presentation at an upcoming conference. You are anticipating some disagreement and potential difficulty communicating because your collaborator is American and you are Chinese. Because of one social distinction, you may focus on other differences between yourself and that person, such as her or his culture, upbringing and experiences—differences that you would not expect from another Chinese collaborator. How do you prepare for the meeting? In all likelihood, you will work harder on explaining your rationale and anticipating alternatives than you would have otherwise.

This is how diversity works: by promoting hard work and creativity; by encouraging the consideration of alternatives even before any interpersonal interaction takes place. The pain associated with diversity can be thought of as the pain of exercise. You have to push yourself to grow your muscles. The pain, as the old saw goes, produces the gain. In just the same way, we need diversity—in teams, organizations and society as a whole—if we are to change, grow and innovate.

Letter Grades Deserve an ‘F’

The Atlantic

The adoption of the Common Core could usher in a new era of standards-based grading.

Pesky Library/Flickr
Letter grades are a tradition in our educational system, and we accept them as fair and objective measures of academic success. However, if the purpose of academic grading is to communicate accurate and specific information about learning, letter, or points-based grades, are a woefully blunt and inadequate instrument. Worse, points-based grading undermines learning and creativity, rewards cheating, damages students’ peer relationships and trust in their teachers, encourages students to avoid challenging work, and teaches students to value grades over knowledge.

Letter grades communicate precious little about the process of learning a given subject. When a child earns a ‘B’ in Algebra I, what does that ‘B’ represent? That ‘B’ may represent hundreds of points-based assignments, arranged and calculated in categories of varying weights and relative significance depending on the a teacher’s training or habit. But that ‘B’ says nothing about the specific skills John has (or has not) learned in a given class, or if he can apply that learning to other contexts. Even when paired with a narrative comment such as, “John is a pleasure to have in class,” parents, students, and even colleges are left to guess at precisely which Algebra I skills John has learned and will be able to apply to Algebra II.

 

As a teacher, I struggled with the fuzzy logic of grading every term. I was invested in all those points I totaled and calculated, in categories I devised and weighted on assessments I wrote. I considered their relative value, their worth as a measure of learning, their objectivity and subjectivity. Did I grade that first paper, the one I graded just after dinner, when I was fresh, full, and in a good mood, on the same relative scale as that last paper, when I was exhausted, and just wanted to get to bed? Did the midterm test comprehension or rote memorization? I agonized over these details as if they were my final and unequivocal communication of educational truth.

I realized that the current system of points-based grading is highly subjective. As Alfie Kohn has written, “what grades offer is spurious precision—a subjective rating masquerading as an objective evaluation.” A few years ago, I told my students about a study I’d read that showed judges rule more favorably after breaks, so from then on, students left snacks in my office and reminded me to take breaks when they knew I would be grading their work. If the purpose of grading is to objectively evaluate student learning and achievement, surely my work breaks and snacking habits should prove irrelevant in their calculation.

 

Teachers are trapped in a Catch-22. We are asked to assess our students precisely (many grading programs track scores to the hundredths place) and with the appearance of objectivity while using an inherently subjective process. Teachers are then asked to present their calculations on official documents and defend those numbers at parent-teacher conferences as if they are objective measures of student learning. For all the effort, time, and best intentions teachers invest in those reams of grade reports, we are lying to ourselves and to our students’ parents, cheating our students out of clear and accurate feedback on their academic process, and contributing to the greater illusion that grades are an accurate reflection of skill mastery.

Teachers have struggled for years with the calculation and purpose of grades. The evolution of the grading system we use today reflects that search for a valid system of evaluation and assessment. In 1913, I. E. Finkelstein sought to find answers to a few basic questions about grading in his book The Marking System in Theory and Practice:

What should the mark really represent? Should the mark be based upon ability or performance, or even upon zeal and enthusiasm? What is the best set of symbols to represent ability or achievement?

At the heart of his book is the question of what a grade ought to represent. In the early days of American education, teachers used all sorts of distinctions in order to evaluate and differentiate students for the convenience of the teacher and the institution. As former Harvard University president Charles William Eliot explained in his book Harvard Memories, 18th-century Harvard students were arranged “in an order determined by the occupational standing of their parents.” As colleges moved toward a more academically relevant measure of distinction, Yale was the first institution to use a system of evaluating achievement, first with a series of descriptive adjectives, and later with a numerical scale of 1 to 4, which probably led to the 4.0 scale we use today. In 1877, Harvard began using academic “divisions” and a system of “classes” to rank students. Finally, in 1897, Mount Holyoke College adopted the familiar system of A-D and F for grading students.

 

Recently, a few schools have recognized the many drawbacks to points-based letter grades and have moved to a more informative and logical approach to evaluating students’ learning. This approach is known as standards-based grading. It is a system of evaluation that is formative, meaning it shapes instruction in order to fill in knowledge gaps, and measures mastery based on a set of course objectives, standards or skills.

Veteran high-school math teacher Patricia Scriffiny, who has been using standards-based grading at her high school for a few years, uses the example of homework to illustrate why standards-based grading is a better tool than points-based grading. She wrote in an article a few years back:

Many notions I had at the beginning of my career about grading didn’t stand up to real scrutiny. The thorny issue of homework is one example of how the status quo needed to change. I once thought it was essential to award points to students simply for completing homework. I didn’t believe students would do homework unless it was graded. And yet, in my classroom, students who were clearly learning sometimes earned low grades because of missing work. Conversely, some students actually learned very little but were good at “playing school.” Despite dismal test scores, these students earned decent grades by turning in homework and doing extra credit. They would often go on to struggle in later courses, while their parents watched and worried.

The answer for Scriffany was to stop awarding points-based grades and switch to standards-based grading. The goal in her classroom is no longer points or grades, but mastery. Students are held accountable not for the maximum points total assigned to a homework set, but for mastery of the concepts it contains.

Consequently, her grade book is much more informative and useful in that it clearly shows which skills need more work as a class and where each student stands in their individual journey toward mastery of those skills. Here’s an illustration of the difference:

In a points-based grade book, the student at the top, Zoe, might assume she’s doing great, but according to the standards-based grade book, she (and the teacher) can see that Zoe is not proficient in an essential skill she needs to move forward in her writing education. Conversely, Pierce’s points-based grade would be lower than Zoe’s due to that lost homework assignment, but in reality, he is already proficient in the skill that assignment was designed to reinforce.

 

 

Identity, Affinity, Reality

NAIS

Winter 2012

“I hate it when we talk about Martin Luther King and everybody stares at me,” a second grader said.

These words weren’t shared in a classroom. The girl who experienced this emotion revealed her feelings to students who knew firsthand what it meant to be a child of color in a predominantly white school. In the safe zone of her affinity group, she shed light on a classroom dynamic that might otherwise have remained hidden.

Even in the most progressive independent schools, issues of race often lie just below the surface of children’s daily experiences. In the relative security of an affinity group, these realities come to life. Affinity groups are places where students build connections and process “ouch” moments from their classes. Children talk about the isolation they sometimes feel. The relationships students gain through race-based affinity groups enable them to feel less alone with their emotions and help them build a stronger sense of self. At the same time, faculty facilitators gain valuable insights into ways their school’s curriculum and culture can support children on the road to identity development.

So, why isn’t every school clamoring to promote affinity groups?

When Do Children See Race?
I (Kimberly) am the director of diversity and multicultural practice at the Gordon School (Rhode Island). One early May morning, a faculty member of color walked into my office. Her son, who happens to be one of the few African-American children in his kindergarten class, was told by a classmate that he wasn’t invited to a party because he is brown.

The boy’s teacher handled the interaction between the children with gentleness and care, using it as a learning opportunity for both students. Nonetheless, the encounter stirred worries for the boy’s mother, stemming from her own childhood and school memories attached to race. She had hoped her son would not have to hear those words of rejection so early in his school journey, if at all.

I remember the stinging feeling of such an event. When my own daughter was in third grade at another independent school, she shared how it felt to hear another classmate say, “I hope I can dance with a normal white boy,” as her class was preparing for a colonial day re-enactment.

These are not isolated events.

Many adults believe that children see race only when it is pointed out. But as Beverly Daniel Tatum makes clear in her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, children as young as three years old notice physical differences such as skin color, hair texture, and the shape of facial features. The research shows that, even in infancy, children demonstrate in-group preference. Consider the experiment conducted by Rebecca Bigler at the University of Texas.1 Bigler randomly gave four- and five-year-old children red or blue T-shirts. She observed them while they played with each other freely at recess. Afterwards, when she asked children in red T-shirts, “How many reds are nice?” they said, “All.” When children in red T-shirts were asked how many students in blue T-shirts are nice, they said only “some” are nice, but other blues are dumb or mean. Bigler noted that children “form these preferences on their own and naturally categorize everything, and the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible.”

Racial identity is being shaped from the outside and constructed inside, meaning that children struggle to understand the connection between their external experiences and their internal feelings and reactions they have to observed differences.

The physical features that children see — such as eye shape, skin color, and hair texture — are connected to our society’s description of race. In their book, Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards describe this physical recognition as children’s first encounter with racial differences. They conclude that racial identity is “being shaped from the outside and constructed inside, meaning that children struggle to understand the connection between their external experiences and their internal feelings and reactions they have to observed differences.” The authors describe four interacting factors that affect children’s racial understanding: the larger society in which they live, their families and other significant people, their individual life experiences, and their stage of cognitive development.

A longitudinal study entitled “Race and Sex as Factors in Children’s Classroom Friendship Choices” further supports this notion of preferences.2 A friendship nomination questionnaire was given to 80 boys and 65 girls in grades one through four and six. The results showed that race played a significant role (though less pervasive than gender) in children’s friendship choices, particularly when considering same-sex friendships.

Identity and Success in the Independent School
How does current research inform us about the experiences of children of color in schools where the dominant racial culture is white? A 2003 study by Edith Arrington, Diane Hall, and Howard Stevenson examined the variables that lead to success for African-American students in independent schools.3 Of the students interviewed, 75 percent reported making a special effort to fit into their school communities, 82 percent reported that they had negative school experiences, and 40 percent did not believe the school treated all students the same. The authors concluded that, “for black students, success is best defined by a strong sense of connection to the school community; a positive sense of self across contexts, but especially in the school; social and emotional health; and a racial identity that would serve as a resource as they develop, but particularly when students encounter racism.”

Another Independent School article by Michael Thompson and Kathy Schultz (2003), focusing on the “Psychological Experiences of Students of Color in Independent Schools,” highlights the fact that students of color, because they are in predominantly white schools, often experience intense social loneliness.

In Can We Talk About Race?, Beverly Daniel Tatum writes that it is essential for schools to actively address the “continuing significance of race and racial identity in ways that empower and motivate students to transcend the legacy of racism in our society.” She defines the ABCs of creating and maintaining an inclusive learning environment: A is for affirming identity; B is for building community; and C is for cultivating leadership. In this article, we emphasize “affirming identity” because we believe that one’s racial identity — reflected in the curriculum, faculty and staff, and/or classmates — helps to avoid what Tatum describes as “invisibility or marginality that can undermine student success.”

Facing the Tough Questions
The research is there. The need is there. So why do many schools hesitate to establish affinity groups? It’s mostly a matter of institutional will — and a willingness to take on critics and skeptics.

For any independent school that makes an effort to establish affinity groups — whether your school is deeply invested in multicultural education or just starting to examine the possibilities for your institution — you are bound to encounter resistance. At the Gordon School, which earned the Leading Edge award from the National Association of Independent Schools in 2004 for its work in equity and justice, one board member anticipated the response from the community when learning of the need for affinity groups. She knew it would be difficult for all school constituents “to come to the understanding that children of color can still be hurt in our school, even after we have done what feels like so much incredible work on diversity and multicultural practice.”

Introduce affinity groups and, on cue, some concerned parent will say, “I can’t believe you’re promoting segregation at our school, in this decade, in this post-racialized country. For goodness sake, we have a black president!”

You may even be accused of segregation or reverse racism. “My child tells me she wants to participate,” says a parent. “She thinks it’s not fair because white kids can’t join. My white student is being denied this opportunity.”

Undoubtedly, some of the most complex questions about affinity groups will be presented to you in the hallway or at pick up time. Sixty seconds, surrounded by other students or parents, simply isn’t enough time, nor is it the place, to consider these issues thoughtfully. However, this is a good opportunity to tell the parent that it is normal for a young child to question race in this manner, and to commend the parent for having a dialogue about race with his or her child. The latter point is important because too many in our culture avoid the topic, as if they believe it’s incendiary.

You can validate parents’ concerns by confirming that, yes, sometimes things do feel unfair, especially in the eyes of a seven-year-old. Make a plan with the parent to continue the conversation with you when everybody has more time to talk. Get the voices of dissension through the door, because if you don’t, those voices will go underground and undermine your efforts to create affinity groups.

Building relationships with skeptics is an essential step in the process of creating affinity groups. A bit of listening and friendly discussion goes a long way. If you can help parents understand racial identity development and clearly express the goals of your affinity groups, you may in fact create newly empowered allies.

Research indicates that starting a program in the younger grades can allieviate some of this peer pressure while providing the opportunity for students to practice discussions about race.

How do you define racial identity development? Tatum describes it as “the process of defining for oneself the personal significance and social meaning of belonging to a particular racial group.” Children internalize aspects of racial identity from the adults and peers around them. For students of color in predominately white independent schools, resisting negative stereotypes and affirming carefully considered definitions of themselves are critical to counterbalance the limited number of role models who mirror them racially.

Over time, in our experience, more members of the school community will come to understand that well-facilitated, racial affinity groups are gatherings that facilitate positive identity exploration, where people can pose questions and process issues. As a learning base, affinity groups offer affirmation of identity, empowerment of the individual, and empowerment of the group within the learning community — all things worth fighting for.

Planting the Seeds of Change
Nearly a decade ago, Gordon School developed a Strategic Plan for Racial Diversity and committed itself to multicultural and anti-bias education. Two adult race-based affinity groups developed at this time: Parents of Students of Color (POSOC) and Faculty and Staff of Color. POSOC began meeting in the evening, with childcare provided. The informal get-togethers in the childcare area became the first school-supported opportunity where children of color from nursery to eighth grades could gather — even though the primary meeting was for adults. Children who participated began asking their families when the next POSOC night would be and demanding to go to childcare “so they can be with their friends.” The desire for students of color to gather and play in a majority experience did not go unnoticed.

In 2004, the school’s diversity committee created a task force to research student affinity groups in school settings. Committee members visited exemplary elementary school affinity group programs at Shady Hill School (Massachusetts), Nashoba Brooks School (Massachusetts), and The Orchard School (Indiana), as well as programs located at independent secondary schools and colleges. At the same time, Gordon also embarked on its first Racial Climate Assessment — “racial climate” defined as the current perceptions, attitudes, and expectations that inform the educational experience of various racial/ethnic groups at an institution.

The assessment included data from division directors and middle school students. Broadly, perceptions of the students’ needs and experiences were as follows:

• Students live in two worlds, both of which are critical of them.

• Students of color continue to sit alone within some classrooms.

• Middle school students were asking for affinity group meetings.

• Students of color felt an affinity with each other already.

• On their own initiative, students of color sought out faculty of color for support.

• The curriculum was driving some racially linked feelings.

• Students of color reported feeling socially lonely, isolated, and devalued.

• Race was used as one element in creating classroom groupings and cross-grade “buddy” pairs.

In 2006, based on these findings, Gordon created Common Ground, a race-based affinity group for the lower school (grades one to four). The task force decided to start with lower school students because the research reveals that it could be difficult starting affinity groups in middle school, especially an affinity group that can point directly to difference. Developmentally, middle school students feel the pressure to “blend in,” and middle school programs in other schools found it a challenge to recruit students based on this fact.

Research indicates that starting a program in the younger grades can alleviate some of this peer pressure while providing the opportunity for students to practice discussions about race. The hope is that, when they reach middle school, the students who have participated in an affinity group in elementary school will feel more empowered and positively informed about their racial identity.

Common Ground met for one hour, once a week, after school, for eight sessions a season. It was a free and voluntary program for families of color. The school decided it would not be appropriate to charge for a program that exists because the greater institution was, in effect, broken.

Although participants included children of various races and ethnicities, and they belonged to several different social circles, they found commonality when they discussed their experiences as minorities in the school. During the first few years, nearly 50 percent of eligible families participated.

Learning from Experience
While working as a Spanish teacher at an independent school in the early 1990s, Zenaida Muslin observed a peculiar phenomenon. Her school would admit intellectually talented students of color, but by the end of the school year, academically, they would fall to the bottom of their classes. She concluded that her school was not prepared to support students who are linguistically, racially, and socioeconomically different from the majority. This realization inspired her first effort to create affinity groups for students of color.

Can a White Teacher Facilitate an Affinity Group of Color?

When Gordon School launched its Common Ground affinity group, there were no teachers of color in the lower school, due to maternity leaves. This presented a dilemma. Could a white teacher facilitate an affinity group for students of color?

After some deliberation, I volunteered to co-lead the affinity group with a fifth grade faculty member of color. My logic was simple: I didn’t think that all diversity work should be on the backs of faculty of color, and I thought it would be beneficial for students in Common Ground to have a white adult ally they could identify with.

Like other affinity group facilitators, I participated in ongoing identity development. I also had some experience leading a white affinity group among interested faculty in my school. I engaged in dialogue and activity on numerous occasions at the White Privilege Conference and took part in a weeklong dialogue at the Social Justice Training Institute.

Six years later, I’m still at it. Common Ground now serves over 70 percent of Gordon’s students of color, who comprise approximately 30 percent of the student body. The program is facilitated by four women — one who is white and two who are faculty members of color.

White teachers who are thinking about leading race-based affinity groups in their schools need to think deeply and ask themselves some difficult questions, such as:

• What do I understand about my racial identity as a white teacher/person?
• How do I feel about issues of race as they relate to children’s school experiences?
• What issues are unresolved around my racial identity?
• How does my racial identity affect the way I relate to my students and colleagues within and outside of my school community?
• How do I help children of color find their voices to express their school experiences?

There is no perfect pathway or map to arrive at the answers to these questions, but it is important that we engage in conversation and collaborate with colleagues, administrators, parents, and board members to think about ways to address, affirm, and support all students around racial identity development. — Julie Parsons

In 2000, Muslin moved to the Bank Street School for Children (New York), where she serves as diversity coordinator. Here, she founded lower school race-based affinity groups that start in first grade and meet once a month for 45 minutes, facilitated by two teachers of color. At the same time that students of color work in their affinity groups, white children also discuss issues of race and identity. A follow-up lesson for the full class takes place during the same week of the affinity group meeting, allowing for cross-racial dialogue. The majority of students of color participate in the affinity groups, which encompass 70 to 80 percent of their student-of-color population.

Muslin describes experiencing “push back” from a handful of parents — primarily white parents, but also from those who have children of color, and from a smaller number of parents of color — but she also notes the value of the program.

“Our families need to be more forward thinking,” says Muslin, “and realize that race continues to be an issue in the 21st century and is a part of our human condition — and that our children need to understand the importance of this fact.”

Several schools have been doing this work for 10 years or more with clear success. Randolph Carter, a diversity consultant and director of the Eastern Educational Resource Collaborative, started a lower school affinity group at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School (Virginia) in 1999. Carter’s group initially started in kindergarten, but he soon felt that second grade was a better starting point, as children of this age could understand the purpose of the group. The program ran from September until May during the lunch period, when he met with students by grade, once weekly. Eventually, the groups morphed into what he described as “multiracial groups,” as students were allowed to bring friends. Carter recognized the need for white children to engage in dialogue about race. He emphasizes, however, that racial affinity groups alone are no substitute for the broad institutional change that needs to take place in schools.

Even after 10 years of diversity and inclusion work at their schools, Elizabeth Denevi of Georgetown Day School (Washington) and Sandra Chapman of the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School (New York) indicate that they still experience pushback from some parents around the issue of race-based affinity groups, but they also see the clear value for students.

Chapman encourages parents and colleagues to recognize that the white members of their community already spend much of their time surrounded by other white people. “For families of color, the affinity group experience can be profound,” says Chapman. “It creates that safe space inside the school building.”

Both Chapman’s and Denevi’s schools begin affinity work in lower school with informal meetings of children while their parents participate in parents of color meetings. More formal affinity groups for children begin in fifth grade.

Schools considering affinity groups can explore approaches taken by schools in various stages of race-based affinity work by visiting the websites of Shady Hill School (Massachusetts), Friends School in Baltimore (Maryland), The Hamlin School (California), The Village Community School (New York), and The Orchard School (Indiana). Even better, see if you can visit these schools to observe the positive impact of affinity groups on the entire school community.

Where to Begin
Schools interested in launching affinity groups for elementary age students of color can draw from the experiences of those who have been traveling this path now for several years. Although every school may bring unique challenges to the table, this short list of goals can guide educators in their program development.

• Conduct a Racial Climate Assessment to obtain useful data about students’ school experiences.

• Facilitate positive identity exploration, self-awareness, pride, and self-esteem through books, games, discussion, and structured play activities that connect students to each other.

• Provide students with the opportunity to discuss topics of race, identity, and diversity in a safe space that will enable students of color to develop their voice.

• Encourage and develop leadership skills.

• Develop accurate language and vocabulary to describe themselves and others.

• Increase the school’s ability to recruit and retain families and teachers of color.

• The purpose of the affinity group is to provide a majority experience for students regularly who are in the minority at school.

At Gordon, we have also learned to be flexible with regard to each student’s needs and the group’s desires. We want Common Ground to stay dynamic and to be fun. Ours is essentially a play-based program. Our third and fourth grade students receive more formalized programming around race and identity.

Some schools choose to focus on a theme for each season. Fall can be a time for building a sense of group identity and community. Winter weather makes a good time for projects such as scrapbooks, dance, and cooking that provide opportunity for more in-depth identity work. Spring is a good time to focus on closure, on celebrating what you’ve learned.

Every group creates its own traditions, whether it’s celebrating the graduation of our fourth graders into middle school or sharing our goodbyes to our friends moving into new schools. Many resources exist to help facilitators with social and emotional learning activities, including Open Circle (www.open-circle.org); Tribes Learning Community (www.tribes.com), the Roots and Wings Foundation (www.rootsandwingsnj.org), and various education and diversity-related websites.

Past participants are another valuable resource. These middle school mentors can have a profound effect on the developing identity of an elementary school child.

Supporting Adults
As we worked to establish our lower school affinity group at Gordon, we had board approval, and also met with lower school faculty to educate them about the nature of the affinity group structure. We encouraged faculty to connect with the facilitators about the experiences of students of color in the classroom. In addition, we shared strategies with teachers that aid in addressing parents’ concerns and questions about the purpose of the program. We have since learned that it is not a one-shot deal, but that we need to be continuously engaged with school personnel about how to talk about common ground with students and parents. Children will have developmentally appropriate questions and teachers need to respond accordingly. In 2008, Gordon School provided a forum for the school community to learn about Common Ground and voice questions. Voices of dissension were welcomed. In Spring 2012, we will be having a panel discussion about the value of affinity-group programming in elementary school.

Building a Common Language
First graders may not fully understand why they join an affinity group. By third or fourth grade, however, students often can articulate what the affinity group means to them and why it’s important.

This confidence becomes especially important when they feel scrutinized by other students who want to know what they’re “doing in there.” Affinity groups help to reduce the pressure on these children by giving both students and adults in the school community a common language in which to discuss not only the program, but also larger issues of race and diversity. Affinity groups are a present-day Band-Aid for the conditions and experiences children of color are having in predominately white affluent schools. In the larger context, schools must be prepared to examine systemic changes in their institutions to provide a more equitable space for all students. All students — not just students of color — must be engaged in examining and clearly understanding the multiple facets of identity.

Eventually, “positive racial identity development” may become a standard element in the school lexicon, fitting seamlessly along terms like “developmentally appropriate” or “academically rigorous.”

Julie Parsons is a kindergarten teacher and affinity group facilitator at the Gordon School (Rhode Island). Kimberly Ridley is director of diversity and multicultural practice at the Gordon School. The authors wish to thank writer Cindy Elder, a parent of two children at the Gordon School, for her generous assistance in editing this article. For more information about the Gordon School’s affinity groups, visit www.gordonschool.org.

Notes

1. Bigler, Rebecca, 2009. “See Baby Discriminate,” Newsweek, September 2009.

2. Graham, James A., Robert Cohen, Susan M. Zbikowski, and Mary E. Secrist, 1998. “A Longitudinal Investigation of Race and Sex as Factors in Children’s Classroom Friendship Choices,” Child Study Journal, v28, n4, 1998.

3. Arrington, Edith G., Diane M. Hall, Howard C. Stevenson, 2003. “The Success of African-American Students in Independent Schools,” Independent School, Summer 2003.

Technology and Teen Sleep Deprivation

Independent School Management

Vol. 16 No. 2 1/24/17

PSN eletter vol15 no2 slee

For the past few years, there has been notable research on how technology (e.g., digital devices, laptops, television) disrupts student sleep patterns—and student success (or not) in school. A recent meta-analysis of 20 studies, Association Between Portable Screen-Based Media Device Access or Use and Sleep Outcomes, published by JAMA Pediatrics, sheds more light on this “major public-health concern” for students. Attention-stealing devices like televisions, computers, MP3 players, and cell phones are largely to blame.

The study, covering more than 125,000 children, determined there was a “strong and consistent association between bedtime media-device use and inadequate sleep quantity, poor sleep quality, and excessive daytime sleepiness.” Almost 90% of teens have at least one device in their bedrooms, and most use those devices in the hour before going to bed. Such children are twice as likely to not sleep enough and 40% report poor sleep quality, compared to children who have no access to those devices at bedtime. Students who had access or used media devices before bedtime were also more than twice as likely to experience excessive sleepiness in school.

According to another study from the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), 95% of those surveyed reported using electronic devices just before sleep. People under the age of 30 are the worst offenders—especially teenagers aged 13 to 18. Texting an hour before sleeping is prevalent, for example. While Baby Boomers on average read, send, or receive five texts in the hour before sleep, Gen-Zers typically text 56 times in that hour. Many students feel a sense of attachment to their phones and other digital devices, and view technology as a lifeline that they can’t live without. Unfortunately, when using such devices disrupts their sleep, this leads to anxiety, depression, and other maladies.

Another problem reported by researches is that exposure late at night to the “blue light” created by computer and other screens causes sleep-phase delay. The lit screens impact (via the retina) the portion of the brain that controls the body’s circadian cycle, sending the message that it’s not time for sleep yet. A study in the Journal of Applied Physiology suggested that performing “exciting” computer activities, like a playing a video game, may suppress melatonin production, the so-called “sleep hormone.”

The NSF recommends that teens get 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep every night of the week. However, the average teen gets about 7.5 hours of sleep each night; 62% of 9th–12th graders report inadequate amounts of sleep.

Sleep deprivation is of particular concern to schools. As mentioned above, research shows that a lack of sleep leads to:

  • poorer school performance (lower grades),
  • inattention,
  • negative moods,
  • health risk behaviors (e.g., substance abuse, thoughts of suicide), and
  • increased incidents of adolescent-related car accidents.

Academic leaders must be aware of these problems and educate parents about the impact of sleep deprivation on their children.

The NSF and other sleep experts make the following recommendations for parents.

  • Take technology out of the bedroom. For example, mandate that all cell phones in the house are recharged at night in a room other than the bedroom. Don’t allow a TV, laptop, or other device in a teenager’s bedroom after a certain hour.
  • Reserve the last hour before bed for nighttime rituals like brushing teeth, showering, etc. Pleasure reading is also a wonderful way to unwind as well.
  • Make your child understand that the lack of sleep can cause them to be less creative, forgetful, do poorly on assignments, and fall asleep in the classroom. Sleep deprivation has also shown to cause acne, weight gain, and other health problems.
  • Establish a consistent sleep schedule, every day of the week. Don’t let teenagers stay up late nights or “sleep in” on the weekends.
  • Make sure your child gets enough exercise. An hour of playing tennis, for example, is far better than an hour in bed playing video games.
  • Monitor your child’s schedule. Is he or she overwhelmed with school responsibilities, sports, clubs, perhaps a part-time job at the expense of sleep? Perhaps lessening the number of these activities can rectify the situation.

The dynamics around sleep, student performance, student well-being, and the student’s evening time are complex. Talk with parents to ensure that your students receive an adequate amount of quality sleep—and a better experience at your school.

A Tale of Two Perspectives: My Experience Starting with a Clean Slate

In my 10 years of teaching the ninth grade, I, as have many of my colleagues, have struggled with a certain category of students – the low performers. These are the boys and girls who walk into our classes on the first day of school expecting to fail. They know nothing about us, but we represent every adult that has ever failed them in the past. These kids have a legacy of failure. One so deeply instilled into their own self-image that the prophecy is undeniably self-fulfilling.

For 9 years, I tried a multitude of strategies, all with negligible results. But last year, I tried a very specific strategy that went against everything I was told to do as a teacher. Yet, it completely changed the atmosphere of my classroom and the way these “low performers” saw my class. What’s most amazing is that this entire strategy took place on one single day – the first day of school.

I’m first going to walk through my standard first day of school prep from a teacher’s perspective. During the week leading up to the first day, as my new rosters of students were being made available for me, I would focus on every bit of data I could possibly acquire about them. Wanting to get to know their strengths and weaknesses early, I valued and appreciated everything. First and foremost, there were the legal documents for my Special Education kids (IEPs, BIPs, etc). Then, I’d focus on my district’s tools to access all previous state assessment, district assessment and cognitive testing scores. I’d then work diligently to establish a seating chart with a focus on heterogeneous grouping. For each group of four, I’d place one high student, one low student, and two middle students together. I’d work especially hard to make sure my Special Education kids were separated and in the front groups. This way, from the first day, my kids could learn from each other, develop strong relationships, and grow as a group.

Sounds great, right? Everything I’ve ever been told about the first day of school supports this idea. However, things always seemed to go south after just a few days. My high kids seemed annoyed, my low kids seemed annoyed, and my middle kids seemed completely apathetic. What makes so much sense in theory was crashing and burning in practice, and I couldn’t figure out why.

Now, let’s consider this same first day from the perspective of the low performer:

“I’m so nervous about going back to school. It brings nothing but negative emotions to mind, and I always feel so dumb. My teacher’s going to hate me because I’m so dumb and the smart kids are gonna laugh at me.”

“But maybe this year will be different! Maybe, if I try hard from the start, I can change things! Maybe it won’t be so bad!”

Walking in on the first day:

“There’s a seating chart. Okay, wait a minute. I’m in the front. Looking at my group, one kid’s super smart and gets everything right. The other two are good students, too. I’m obviously the dumb one. All the super smart kids are split up one per group. All my SpEd friends are split up, too, and we’re all in the front. I’m stupid to think things could ever change. This is my role. This is what I’ll always be.”

Last year, on the first day of school, I tried something completely different, and I told my kids all about it when they walked in. There was a seating chart, as I wanted to establish some basic norms, but it was alphabetical and backwards, with my Zs at the front and As in the back (because I figured the Zs were tired of always being in the back). The kids walked in and sat down. I then proceeded to blow their minds:

“I want to talk to you a bit about your seats. I want to make it very clear that I have purposely avoided learning anything about you except your names, and I promise not to look up anything about you for the first two weeks of school. This way, any ideas or thoughts I have about you will be based on our face-to face interactions every day. Today, in my class, all of you start with a clean slate. I don’t care how successful or unsuccessful you’ve been in the past, because in this class, it doesn’t matter. How you perform this year is based entirely on how much effort, excitement and motivation you show in this class every single day. I’m so excited to start this journey with you, and I can’t wait to see how far we’ll move together.”

Of course, I did the legal stuff. I paid attention to any required accommodations and quietly made them available, but I didn’t let those Special Education kids know that I knew. I let every one of my students develop whatever persona they wanted. I developed relationships with every one of my kids that were sincere, honest and mutually respectful. Then, the two-week mark passed. As a homage to everyone that has ever told me how valuable data is, I looked up my kids… and was completely shocked! Kids I clearly would have pegged as GT were not. Those with horrible assessment scores were many of my group leaders. The low socioeconomic status kids were actively engaged with smiles on their faces.

My kids honestly felt as if they were equals, both with each other and with me. We continued our journey together for the rest of the year, and my “low performer” group was nonexistent. My kids always knew I saw them for exactly who they were and not what their stats said about them. They knew I had no preconceived ideas about them, no stereotypes. They knew I cared about them because I took the time to truly get to know them.

A new school year is starting soon, and I know exactly how I’m going to prepare my student background analysis… I’m not.

I Hate Homework. I Assign It Anyway.

The New York Times

I hate — hate — homework.

I hated homework when I was a student, I hate the battle of wills I have with my second-grader and I hate seeing my middle-school-age son miss out on the afternoons of his childhood.

But most of all, I hate being a hypocrite. So it’s time to come clean: I am a teacher, and I assign homework.

I have always assigned homework because that is what teachers do; if I didn’t, word would get around that I am a pushover, or don’t care enough about my students to engage their every waking moment with academics. When I first started teaching, I assigned homework liberally and without question, and scoffed at my students’ complaints about their workload. I expected them to keep quiet, buck up and let me do my job.

But 13 years later, I find myself at a crossroads. My son Ben is in middle school, and homework is no longer an abstract concept. I can’t just assign it and forget it, and I will no longer sacrifice my students’ right to their childhood so easily.

I am not the only parent — or teacher, for that matter — questioning the value of homework. It’s the subject of heated debate in school meetings and Internet chat rooms across the country. Even elite private schools in New York City are vowing to lighten their homework load.

The popular media tempest surrounding homework formed in 2006 with the publication of two books on the subject: “The Homework Myth,” by Alfie Kohn, and “The Case Against Homework,” by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, followed by Time Magazine’s The Myth About Homework by Claudia Wallis. Last year, Vicki Abeles’s documentary “Race to Nowhere” joined the fray. In her film, Ms. Abeles claims that today’s untenable and increasing homework load drives students to cheating, mental illness and suicide.

So is homework worth it or not? I went directly to the source. I asked my students whether, if homework were to completely disappear, they would be able achieve the same mastery of the material. The answer was a unanimous — if reluctant — “No.”

Most echoed my son Ben’s sentiments: “If I didn’t have homework, I don’t think I’d do very well. It’s practice for what we learn in school.” But, they all stressed, that’s only true of some homework. “Bad” homework — busy work and assignments that don’t do anything but eat up precious evening hours, is (as one of my more opinionated students put it) “a stupid waste of my time.”

Fair enough. If my students feel that quality homework is worth the effort, I’m keeping it. With one caveat. All assignments must pass the “Ben” test. If an assignment is not worthy of my own son’s time, I’m dumping it. Based on a quick look at my assignment book from last year, about a quarter of my assignments won’t make the cut.

Children need time to be quiet, play, read and imagine. Teachers who sacrifice these vital elements of childhood for anything less than the most valuable homework assignments are being derelict in their duty to their students and the teaching profession.