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Social Justice Week: #DoOneThing to #MakeThingsBetter

At Park School, we commit ourselves to thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion each day. Our teachers include texts, discussions, morning conversations and writing exercises about identity and diversity.

But, during Social Justice Week at Park School, we challenged our community to think beyond diversity. We asked our community to think deeply about social Screen Shot 2016-02-27 at 8.41.47 AMjustice and to actually DO something to make things better.

In our morning presentations at Park, I have shared that diversity is who we are. We are a community representing a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and gender identity, socioeconomic status, family structure and configuration, and more. But, if diversity is who we are, then social justice is what we do so that all of these diverse identities and experiences have access to success, opportunities and belonging at Park School. Social justice calls us to action. Social justice requires that we change our structures and practices.

I have often heard that “children are too young to think about social justice.” That belief certainly is not the case at Park School. Here, we engage in conversations as early as Pre-K (4-year olds) about what we can all do to shape a better community. As a school, each grade level team was asked to think about what they could do to commit to social justice. Here are a few examples of our questions:

  • What is one thing you can do to make Park School more accessible?
  • What is one thing you can do to make our relationship better at Park School?
  • What is one thing you can do to make someone smile at Park School?
  • What is one thing you can do to make our Park School community better?
  • What is one thing you can do to make things more equitable?

During social justice week, our Middle (grades 3-5) and Lower Divisions (grades PreK-2) came together to show us what they had discovered about our communities and presented solutions to make Park School better. These action based items ranged from exploring a more accessible playground, giving thanks to the dedicated and caring staff who provide healthy meals for us in the dining room, and standing up for people’s rights.

During the week, we were incredibly fortunate to have a visit from artist Bren Bataclan, who has spent the last 13 years leaving free paintings all around the world12795556_1285567931460170_1970979692824729262_n with the payment of “You can keep this painting as long as you do something to make someone smile today.” Our Grade I students (who then inspired so many people around the school!) created drawings and left these around Park for others to find.

But, how is making one person smile social justice? How does leaving a painting or drawing shape structures that allow for access and equity? Great question (I’m assuming you might be thinking this). Making one person smile is about connection. It is about giving others the opportunity to see that the world is bigger than just us, as individuals. It’s about inspiring others to seek out the humanity within another person. It’s about extending that humanity to our world. I have long believed that in order for us to believe in social justice’s action, we must first believe that there is worth in that action. We must first see that connection is a source of action. Does making someone smile fix structural inequity? Maybe not right away. But, I have been around long enough to see the power of connection and the results that come from someone seeing beyond themselves.

How might you inspire others to #DoOneThing? Screen Shot 2016-02-27 at 8.42.11 AM

We ended our Upper Division meeting by showing this great video about taking 30 days to do something different. My challenge to our community is to take the next 30 days and focus on social justice. Make it a habit. Make it a commitment. It will be difficult, if it’s new to you. But, let’s try, as a community, to take these next 30 days to #MakeThingsBetter.

Peace and Park,

Ms. Talusan


Book discussion: Between the World and Me

9780812993547There seems to be a fair warning going around school these days: “If you walk into Ms. Talusan’s office with an idea, be prepared to follow through and put that idea into action!” 

A few months ago, Ms. Siverls (K teacher), peeked into the office and asked if I had read the book, Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Indeed, I had. And, just a week prior, I had a conversation with Mr. Porter (library) about the book. And, the week before that, I had a conversation with a few teachers and parents about the book.

“I was just wondering,” she began, “if this would be a good book for people to talk about at Park School.”

Before Ms. Siverls left, we had all but set a date for the book discussion.

This evening, amidst the delicious smells of home-cooked food, 17 faculty and staff gathered in the conference room to talk about their experiences with race, with reading the book, and with their hopes and aspirations. 

“It was both beautiful and difficult,” said one participant. “Coates juxtaposes this brutality of body with the ethereal nature of the mind,” commented another. 

In just four chapters, Coates creates not just a letter to his own son, but he creates a dialogue outside of the two covers of the book. 

How do you feel in conversations about race? “I guess it depends on where I am.”

In a group of people who had chosen to read a book as provocative and honest as Between the World and Me, there are some short cuts that we can take. We can trust that people there had read the book out of interest. They had read the book because they already had a curiosity about issues of race. And, they had read the book because they were prepared to engage in a conversation. Yet, as we shared our own feelings about conversations about race, participants noted that the conversation about race was largely informed by the conversations within and between race. “I feel some discomfort when having conversations about race not with my own people,” shared one participant which prompted a great deal of affirmation. “So, how do you feel here, right now, in this mixed group of people?” A little uncomfortable.

Over the course of the evening, participants chose key quotes or passages that struck them in a particular way. And, as each person shared, each quote seemed familiar to others in the room.

As we closed, the group was asked to respond to the question: “If YOU were to write a letter to someone, who would you write that letter to?” Family. My children. My son. My students. My daughter’s teacher. My mother. My friends. My self. 

One person responded, “I don’t think I would write a letter. Instead, I think this needs to be a conversation. I need to talk with people and go back and forth about these issues.” 

Curious about the book? Check out this piece in The Atlantic. 

I continue to be in such gratitude for the Park community and for the people who choose to walk bravely towards these difficult conversations. 

Peace and Park,

Ms. Talusan


Talking about Class and Culture

In the landscape of identity issues such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender and gender identity, family structure, religion, and ability/disAbility, I often hear from colleagues, teachers, students and school leaders that there is one topic that seems almost too difficult and taboo to address: socioeconomic status.

The other day, a teacher emailed me to ask how to be proactive in setting up a classroom environment that honors and respects the diverse socioeconomic spectrum. Her concern, much like of other teachers, is that we are about to go on Spring Break. For some of our families, Spring Break is a time of travel and leisure. Some of our families will travel internationally to see family, friends, or to return to a favorite vacation spot or home. Some of our families will stay home, be cared for by family or extended family, or be engaged in a camp or day-care learning environment. And, some of our families will find creative ways to get through two full weeks of vacation by taking turns off from work, bringing children to their work place, finding sitters here and there, or setting up play dates during the work hours so their children will not be home alone. This range of experiences exists at Park School, and this also exists at many other schools in our country. 

This teacher was wondering: “How do I engage the students, in an age appropriate way, to be excited about the break from school while also danny-shanahan-before-i-read-about-my-summer-vacation-i-d-like-to-ask-that-all-pagers-new-yorker-cartoonacknowledging that this is a conversation about privilege and access?” 

Truth is, I stared at her email from about five minutes. I began to draft an email. Then I deleted it. I tried again. Then I highlighted whole sections and cut them out. Before I knew it, twenty minutes had passed and I was still down to “Dear ____, what a great question.”

To buy myself some time allow myself the space to respond thoughtfully, I promised this teacher a blog post. 

Truth is, I have stared at this blank screen for about fifteen minutes. I began to draft a post. Then I deleted it. I tried again. Then I highlighted whole sections and … well… 

You get the picture.

To me, just like race, ethnicity, religion, faith, sexual orientation — class is an identity. Class isn’t just about how much or how little we have; class is also about how we understand money, how we learn about money and wealth, what our relationship is to money and wealth, and what those factors mean to us. Class is about how we behave, how we relate to, and how we manage conversations about ourselves and our earliest messages about class and identity. Like other cultural identifiers, these conversations can be difficult for some, easy for others. But, once I began to understand class as a cultural experience, talking about it made much more sense to me. I became more open to learning about the experiences of people from socioeconomic backgrounds both of my own and outside of my own. I became more open to asking questions about what they learned, what they saw, what they shared and what they felt. And, I became more open about sharing my own, too. 

I can tell you how I deal with conversations about class in my own family. Not long after school started, my children began to tell me about the new friends they had met. They told me about how nice their peers were. They told me how a friend showed them around when they got lost. They told me how they learned the culture of the school — where to put your backpacks, what to wear to a school dance, and what kind of activities people sign up for after school. They also told me about the ways in which their new friends spent their summer vacations: traveling around Europe; spending the summer in Hawai’i; upgrading to the new iPhone. 

I knew what I had walked into. My children were sharing aspects of class. Of culture. Of socioeconomics in a way they have not experienced themselves. I admit, the reaction in my heart was of sadness. Between the lines, I could hear the question, “Why don’t we do those types of things?” in their voices. I could hear them teetering on adolescent jealousy. I wanted to say something that would help them feel better. I wanted to give them something that they could share when the topic of summer vacations or long weekends came up.

Instead, I did the opposite.

I told them that those experiences sounded really interesting. I asked them if they had good questions for their new friends — what could they learn from their adventures. I asked them, “So, did they tell you what they saw in Europe or what they learned?” or “Did they feel any different being outside of the United States?” or “How did they describe the food in Hawai’i? Was it good? Ask them what they thought tasted the best!” or “Ask them what they enjoy most about the apps on their new iPhone or what kind of music they like to listen to in their playlists. Which songs on their playlist make them dance? Make them laugh? Make them cry? Make them sing out loud like no one is listening?”

I want to teach my children to develop a sense of wonder and of curiosity about other people. I want them to see that it wasn’t about what their friends did or what we did, or what they had and what we had; rather, it was about what we could all learn from each other’s experiences. How could we open our own hearts and minds to the experiences of others? How do we develop humility? How can we model asking about experiences and developing a real sense of curiosity for each other’s lives?

When I travel to different schools and this topic of socioeconomics comes up, I often find that teachers turn to the “just don’t talk about it” approach. They tell me that they never ask the students, “How was your weekend?” or “What did you do this weekend?” But, they then get caught in this bind of, “But am I teaching children to be ashamed of their experiences? How can I nurture this sharing without making people feel badly about themselves for having too much or not having as much as others?”

For our younger students (and, of course, all our students!), there are ways in which we can frame questions or prompts to guide their learning and sharing. Below are some prompts you might put up during your morning circle time or in your warm-up for the day. Do these questions and prompts solve our tension and apprehension about socioeconomic status? No. Of course not. Do they help us get closer to teaching and modeling curiosity, wonder and respect for each other’s experiences? Possibly. Maybe. Do they help us start our journey towards finding what works for our classrooms, our age groups and our Selves? I hope so — would love to hear how these worked out, if you try some of them!

“During this vacation/long weekend, …”

  • I felt happy when __________.
  • I felt proud when ____________.
  • I noticed that ____________.
  • I learned that _______________.
  • I was interested in _____________.
  • I was curious about ____________.
  • I wondered why ______________.
  • I read ____________.
  • I heard __________.
  • I listened to _____________.
  • I shared _____________.

In our lower division, I have often snuck into morning circle and closing circle (it’s my favorite time of day!). Brilliantly, teachers have set up structures for all students to feel heard and affirmed. I can imagine, after this activity, each student simply saying ‘Thank you, Carly” or ‘Thank you, Alan” after each statement. This acknowledges that the contribution of each student is important in our classrooms. 

Will this work on the playground or the lunch room or the free-period in between classes? Likely not. But, it does help equip our students will the skills to talk about their vacations or long weekends in a way that shifts from “what I have and where I went” to “what I experienced and what I can share.”

I’d love to hear about the strategies and ideas you have used at home or at school, too! Feel free to send me an email and let me know!

Also, while this post was about personal and relational engagement about class, our friends over at Shady Hill School spent a whole year talking about institutional approaches to discussing socioeconomic issues. Check out this great article by Head of School, Mark Stanek about this issue. 

Peace and Park, 

Ms. Talusan




To Stir the Conscience

What do you think about when it is silent?

I started my teaching career at a Quaker school in Long Island, NY. I had made the transition from working in higher education; had moved from Connecticut to New York; and was getting ready to marry my sweetheart. New job, new place, new friends, new life. 

Though those were major transitions, for sure, I was not prepared for a different transition. I was not ready for silence. 

As a Quaker school in a wealthy, suburban community, we did our best to uphold values of simplicity and honesty; humility and service; and kindness in the

Quaker Meeting House

Quaker Meeting House

light of each other. While we sometimes fell short of those ideals, one thing we did well was silence. Every week, our community came together and gathered in the Meeting House. 

In my own upbringing, I was raised Catholic and actively practicing. I was used to the singing, prayers, recitations and even, what we joyfully refer to as, Catholic aerobics — the up-down-sit-stand-kneel-stand routine that occurs in a 60-minute Mass. 

But, Meeting for Worship was different. Meeting for Worship meant we walked into a wooden shelter, walked into the space in silence, and sat. We just sat. At first, I was so uncomfortable. I kept looking around at others. I kept twiddling my thumbs. My eyes darted back and forth from row to row and seat to seat. I kept looking at my watch and wondering how much longer I had to sit on this uncomfortable, rickety, wooden bench. Only 2 minutes had passed since the last time I looked. I felt awkward when members of the Facing Bench, a small group of elders or community leaders, were sitting across from the rest of the gathering. I didn’t know whether to look at them, past them, away from them, or down at the floor. 

I remember the day that Meeting for Worship changed for me. I was feeling particularly unsettled and just wanted to go home, curl up on my couch and watch television. I filed in silently with the rest of the school. I sat on the bench. And, I took in a deep breath. I began to feel a wave of warmth come over me. I felt my heart racing. And, I took in another deep breath. Then, I felt my body settle into the silence. In that moment, a deep sense of peace came over me. My mind was open; my heart was filling listening to the words of community members who were moved to speak; and I felt my body lighten as my own tensions eased away.

I spent four years in the practice of attending Meeting for Worship. After I left Friends Academy, I continued some of the practices I had learned. I started each meeting with a moment of silence. I taught my students to end each workshop in silent reflection, speaking when so moved. 

But, time slips away and my life returned to the busy day-to-day world. Before I knew it, nearly 12 years had passed since I worked at a Quaker school.

Speed Dialogue Activity

Last night, I had the privilege of delivering the keynote address to the Quaker Youth Leadership Conference. And, after I gave my address and facilitated an activity, I could leave the conference and begin the long drive home. As I began to pack up my computer and grab my jacket, the conference organizers announced that it was time for Meeting for Worship. And, I felt that same sense of deep peace — just at the mention of the phase Meeting for Worship — and sat down.

For the next 40 minutes, I allowed my mind to settle. I gave myself over to silence. I listened to the words of community members who were moved to speak. And, I felt my body lighten as my own tensions eased away. 

I reflected on the theme of the conference: (In)Equity, Past, Present and Future. I reflected on my own activism, my collective roll in this world. I reflected on my own stereotypes, biases, and powerful messages that I received about (M)yself and about (O)thers. 

And, in that silence, I began to think about what stirred my conscience. I began to think about the power behind my own words and ideas. I began to think about the power behind the systems I am a part of and the ways I treat others. 

What stirred my conscience is that silence is not the absence of noise; it is the presence of peace. 

A wonderful friend and student from FA

A wonderful friend and student from FA

Peace and Park, 

Ms. Talusan



Meet Mr. Porter: The Purple Backpack

Don’t have favorites. That’s the advice we get as parents (referring to our children). But, is it possible to have favorites among adults?

IMG_3102It is! And, Mr. Porter is one of my favorites. 

Let me be clear: When I was growing up, I did not like going to the library. Unlike my sister who got lost in libraries, taking her imagination from historic battlefields to fantastic journeys to outer space to Victorian era parties, I pretty much just got lost in libraries. Literally (pun intended). I was the kid who went to the library and who kept getting up to go to the bathroom, only to get absolutely lost because, let’s face it, every single stack, row and column looked exactly the same. But, my sister never noticed I was lost. You guessed it, she was busy reading.

In college, I was the one who went to the library to hang out.

In grad school, I went to the library ….  I never went to the library.

By the time I was in my doctoral studies, “the library” was online.

Now, as a parent, when I want to spend time with the children, we go to the movies or an amusement park or head to the playground. When my sister spends time with the children, they go to the library.

As a teacher and educator at Park School, the library is at the heart of the building. Within just a few days of school starting, Mr. Porter told me that he had lots and lots of books for me to read. “Picture books,” he clarified. “They are just really interesting and I thought you should know about them.” It took me three weeks to get through those picture books.

Since Mr. Porter’s first special delivery of books, he occasionally pops in and shares new books with me. And, because of my work, these books usually address a cultural identifier: race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, family structure, ability.

Mr. Porter has so much wonderful insight into books, identity-conscious literature, and ways to engage families. But, one comment stood out to me early on; Mr. Porter told me that “There is a trend in the type of books that never get checked out of the library. Those usually have pictures of children of color on the front.” GaspReally? This was so difficult to understand because the general rule in my own home is that books must have characters from diverse backgrounds.

Over time, Mr. Porter, along with his awesome colleagues, have been intentional about providing culturally engaging literature. But, only today did I learn about a special program he runs: The Purple Backpacks.

About once a month, Mr. Porter selects a special book for each kindergartner. Sometimes, these books have a theme (e.g., Black issues or characters during Black History Month; books about gender during Women’s History Month) and sometimes these are just fun books. He also created a family-fun opportunity — the students can only open the backpacks when they get home and do a big reveal!

I love this idea.

If you are reading this post, and not lucky enough to have a “Mr. Porter” at your school, you certainly can create a similar program in your own family or school:

  • Pick up a different book each week or month.
  • Ask a staff member at your library to recommend a “great book that doesn’t always get checked out.”
  • Get ideas by looking up “national heritage months” or “awareness weeks” and discussing these themes with your family.
  • Do a “big reveal” with your own family to create some excitement!

Keep up the great work, Mr. Porter!

Peace and Park,

Ms. Talusan