May Professional Development Update: Teachers Learning Together About Racial Diversity and Inclusion

Memories and Messages: An Intergenerational Evening
Wednesday, May 22, 7:15pm – 9:00pm
Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan
Join us for the presentation of a documentary film and book in memory of the Shoah, produced and written by the 8th graders at Schechter Manhattan. Read more details about this powerful project in this week’s column below.  Space for this exclusive, first-time screening and book release is limited. Admission is free to the community.

Professional Development Update: Teachers Learning Together About Racial Diversity and Inclusion
By Reyzl Geselowitz, Middle School Teacher

At the beginning of the school year, a number of my co-workers and I gathered in a classroom for a screening of the film “Little White Lie.” This movie, with its powerful themes about racial and Jewish identity, was the perfect way to kick-off our professional development group on racial diversity and inclusion in Jewish education. Over the summer, we had read “Raising Race Questions: Whiteness and Inquiry in Education” by Ali Michael, and now we were ready to dig deeper into how questions of race, diversity, and inclusion are present in our school, and in our own classrooms.

Our professional development cohort began by diving deeply into questions of our own racial identity, and particularly how it intersects with our Jewish identity. Conversations like these are all too rare in the Jewish community, and the chance to engage in this dialogue with co-workers who were equally invested in this project was empowering.

As the school year continued, we broke into small groups to focus in on a project we found personally engaging and interesting. One group took a look at the various curricula taught throughout our school, from Kindergarten through 8th grade, to find places where our school is already integrating conversations about race, and where additional lessons about race and identity can valuably enrich the existing curricula. In some instances, they found places within the curricula where just a small adjustment or shift in framework helped to bring a conversation about race to light, and in others, they looked at some curricula in depth and thought about the ways to sensitively and tactfully address the issues of race that were either implicitly or explicitly being addressed through the material.  Another group worked on developing initiatives towards our school’s goal of being an anti-racist institution. The initiatives include: choosing reading selections that supports racial awareness and empathy, building staff and students familiarity with techniques for preventing or addressing incidents of racism in school, and bringing in outside consultants and resources for school programs.

A co-worker and I honed in on two questions of particular interest: how to talk about race with very young children, and how to talk about about race in a predominantly White environment. Using an extensive list of resources by the organization B’chol Lashon as a starting point, we read a number of articles about these topics, including “Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn About Race,” by Erin N. Winkler,  and “Debunking the Myths: Talking With Children About Race,” edited by Reena Bernards. Through our research, we came to understand the importance of speaking openly about race with even the youngest children. According to the articles we read, although White parents (and teachers!) are often worried that pointing out racial differences can help create bias, in fact, a study showed that by six years old, the children who showed the least bias were those whose parents had spoken openly about race when they were younger. Based on our research, we want to create an environment in our school where teachers feel empowered and confident to initiate and facilitate conversations about race with all of our students, especially in the earliest grades.

Alongside our work with our small team, we also met frequently with the whole group, to share what we had learned and what we were working on, and to get feedback from the group. In addition, we had the privilege of meeting with and learning from Professor Shira Epstein, a Schechter Manhattan parent who focuses on these issues in her work and who was able to consult with us to help us pinpoint our area of focus and access resources.

As the school year nears its close, I feel privileged to have been able to participate in this group this year, and the research I did and the conversations I had with my coworkers will certainly have an impact on my teaching going forward, as I have a much greater awareness of the importance of speaking openly and explicitly with students about race and diversity. At the same time, more than anything, I am left feeling as if I have barely scratched the surface of this incredibly important topic.


Shabbat Shalom,

Reyzl Geselowitz, Middle School Teacher