How DEI is Integrated Into Lessons & Learning

  • Academics
  • Child Development
Jessie Skipwith

This is the beginning of a series of blogs where we hear from various teachers and Directors about how justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI or DEI) are integrated into our lessons and learning. We start this series with Jessie Skipwith, the Director of Elevate & Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Licensed School Counselor at Aspen Academy.

The Vision

Our vision is that Aspen Academy can be a leader in justice for independent schools on a national and international scale. What does that mean in the context of its grandeur? I've broken it down into five areas that need our focus:

  1. Acknowledging that social injustice exists.
  2. Educating ourselves as much and often as possible.
  3. Having as many “courageous conversations” as possible. Talking about DEI, as often as possible, based on what we're learning.
  4. Exploring our curriculum as an organization and evolving to meet current needs.
  5. Reviewing organizational policies and revising where needed, including but not limited to: hiring, professional development, community education, salary equity, employee and student retention, and recruitment.

DEI work at Aspen Academy should start with a mission and vision that supports the mission and vision of the school itself. Our values: “Be kind, do good, work hard and make the world better” also serve as our framework.

JEDI vs. DEI

One aspect of this evolving work is exploring whether it stops with diversity, equity and inclusion. “Justice” is the overarching umbrella and speaks to appreciation of diversity in the context of equitable access or treatment. The act of justice is deeply rooted in theological or philosophical ideals, and this can be tricky, because it can be relative to individuals’ understanding and engagement; so we meet people where they are along this journey. Inclusivity explores the concepts of “Do I feel like this space was made for me and I belong here?” versus “I am in the majority culture space, as the guest and others are doing me a favor as a minority.” versus “We're in this together.” Justice has to be here. It is just to be equitable, to celebrate diversity in a community that is inclusive.

In 2020, we launched our DEI website to provide abundant and evolving resources, so that we can educate ourselves and parents can educate themselves at their own pace. For faculty, we engaged in our annual DEI overview about the importance of DEI in our work as professional educators. It is not a standalone, but it permeates our ethos and reflects our commitment to this imperative in all of our work with students, families and one another.

How Our Work Serves Students & Teachers

We start with helping kids from a place of identity, their self identity. We need to raise awareness, so that kids are competent in acknowledging injustice through their personal lens as global citizens. We evolve students along a path from identity and self awareness to a place of empathy for the other. That's hard; but absolutely doable.

For faculty, we have a DEI Leadership Committee that meets twice a month, and I have frequent one-on-one meetings with teachers to support ongoing engagement. Our teachers are deeply committed to the ongoing exploration and implementation of new and innovative teaching practices that will lead our students to an increased understanding of self, systems and change. As lifelong learners themselves, teachers ask great questions to support this work in their classroom:  “How does this book look?” “What do you think about this lesson?”.

We use Teaching Tolerance and Pollyanna Racial Literacy Curriculum standards as guidelines to inform our DEI work and support with our research-based approach. These curricula provide grade level standards and four content areas of identity, diversity, justice, and action and give developmentally appropriate ideas for lesson plans. Pollyanna is a racial literacy curriculum for grades K through eight. All of our teachers have access to all of these lesson plans and integrate them accordingly into daily lessons.

Curricula is where we focus on resources, materials and a dismantling of the institutionalized, systemic, racially oppressive ideas that have been found in educational materials for years. We assess our curricula while exploring the following:

  • Do they reflect the pedagogy of windows and mirrors?
  • Do kids see representation in the literature and lessons?
  • Are we working to intentionally dismantle the historically colonized education that young Americans have been exposed to through our curriculum?
  • Are we giving students access to teachers that represent them, whether it is people of color, faculty of color, LBGTQ community, socio economic, linguistic, and religious communities?

There are numerous examples where we see DEI showcased in recent lessons:

Maya Pingle, our dance instructor, recently completed a lesson with students where they learned about Diwali. For students and faculty who celebrate this holiday, it allowed others in our community to build awareness of ourselves and build empathy for the other. Students gained an understanding of the history behind the holiday, social justice implications, equity and inclusion aspects of respecting, honoring and celebrating people from different parts of the world and different cultures, and her lessons are truly cross-curricular.

Octavia Betz and Eric Peterson have done a phenomenal job each year working across the regular instruction of lessons, taking an art project and tying it together with literature, history and real-life application. Using culturally representative history, the facts of the history which dismantle the non-representative history, and then putting into an infographic so that students are learning by applying artistic skills to history research and the language they use.

Jake Lovett, our fifth and sixth grade history teacher, facilitates an annual project where students learn about traveling the Oregon Trail. Students engage in understanding many aspects of the trip that were not fair, just or equitable along the Trail (whether it be one’s gender, their station in life, as a woman, or a person of color at that time). Having access to property rights or voting rights were aspects of life that people were not able to influence in their local level communities or on a national level at that time.  Mr. Lovett continues to lead our faculty in the evaluation of our Social Sciences curriculum across all grade levels to evolve to a more representative and reflective place for our school community.

I could go on and on, it's happening, day in and day out across all grades and all teachers.

Why is it important to meet people where they are in this kind of work?

In my experience doing this work in different communities, some members may feel that the pace is too slow and some might feel it is moving too fast. One of the things that I've always been cognizant of in education leadership is that you can’t please all the people all the time. It can be helpful to maintain perspective and patience, and to recognize that no school community is “doing it all” and we can't be apologetic about it. It's very unapologetic work that is mission aligned, and is absolutely necessary as we prepare our students for an inclusive tomorrow.

This is the work of a community and oneself.

This is infinite work, with no final destination. There must be a critical mass that moves it forward, without leaving people behind or allowing others to just run ahead. If this critical mass does not move together, then we lose people. Similar to how we must know our alphabet before we can read. It takes time, a lot of time, and we have to be patient with ourselves. This is work on oneself, and it requires: people to be vulnerable; to lean into discomfort; to be honest with others and themselves. Even if you are informed, or feeling like “you already know all there is to know in DEI work”, there may be days when we're not as informed as the next person, and we all need to be open to growth, relentlessly committed, vulnerable and humble.

This year, continuing with their great work from recent years, teachers bring DEI work into the forefront of their classrooms with both a contemporary and historical perspective.  Students are seeking answers about the Black Lives Matter movement, policy and law review, understanding civil unrest, and more. Students are seeing more clearly a lack of equity and inclusion in a variety of areas: whether it's internet access or access to personal computers for low socio-economic families and communities, clean, safe and affordable housing, quality education, employment opportunities, equitable compensation, to name a few. We’re in a very privileged place where kids largely do have access, so our action begins a little differently. We must ask ourselves, “How do we leverage our own privilege or opportunities and become increasingly aware and mindful of how we pay it forward so people in our immediate and extended communities will have better opportunities themselves?”  Ultimately, can we ask ourselves how we can get creative and get outside of ourselves to raise awareness of social justice or injustice in communities beyond our own.

 

Read more about how this fits into our community here.

Want to hear more from Jessie? See his earlier blog post here.

About the Author

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Jessie Skipwith is the Director of Elevate & Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Licensed School Counselor at Aspen Academy.

Jessie comes to Aspen Academy with over 20 years of experience in educational leadership and student engagement. He has held head of school positions at elementary, middle and high schools, ran an all-school counseling department, provided private practice counseling services for families and individuals, and has served as the executive director of an education non-profit supporting low-income, English language learners from throughout the greater Denver area. He is a voracious reader of books about how students learn, how families and communities support developing young people, as well as books on progressive, innovative and dynamic new solutions to many of today’s life challenges. Jessie loves that Aspen Academy provides families and students with a small, nurturing and safe environment that encourages students to take healthy risks, to push themselves beyond their comfort zones, and that it inspires insatiable curiosity and wonder in students as they pursue their passions to help make the world a better place to live for all people. Outside of work, he loves to spend time with his wife and two children and enjoying Colorado’s great outdoors while hiking, golfing or skiing.