Norfolk Academy takes pride in being a close-knit community with small classes, family-style lunch, and traditions like the buddy programs, linking older and younger students. But does it feel like a nurturing environment to every student? Is there more faculty could do?
Norfolk Academy's administrators, teachers, and staff launched into the Year of Family with an interactive presentation from an expert on creating inclusive school communities, where all students feel affirmed and valued.
The presentation by Jonathan Zur, President of the Richmond-based Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, took faculty members through a series of exercises designed to prompt reflection about classroom and school-wide practices that shape an environment in which all students feel fully understood, accepted, and appreciated.
In remarks that framed the importance of Zur’s visit, Headmaster Dennis Manning noted that Norfolk Academy has doubled the diversity of the student population in the past decade; the school is now apprroximately 25 percent students of color. While it is important to approach all students in a caring way, that alone is not sufficient, Manning said. “We need to understand their backgrounds.”
Zur noted that students are most likely to feel included when they “see themselves reflected in the curriculum,” and students are offered a role in “co-creating” the classroom environment. In a simple but compelling exercise, he drew a circle on a large pad and invited faculty to share words that characterize a positive group experience. Words such as trust, compassion, listening, and open-minded ended up inside the circle. Then he flipped the question and requested words for negative group dynamics; words such as manipulative, judgmental, condescending, and dominating were written outside the circle. By doing the exercise with students and posting the resulting diagram in the classroom, the class could be reminded of behaviors that were out of bounds—outside the circle—and those behaviors they had enumerated as shaping the best learning environment.
He also showed a clip of a TED talk by Nigerian novelist Chimanda Adichie, in which she spoke about the dangers of reducing a person or country to a single story. Only by allowing multiple, overlapping stories can any community, including a school, hope to avoid exclusion or misunderstanding. Zur challenged faculty to consider ways to uncover and express the variety of narratives at Norfolk Academy.
Zur’s presentation dovetailed with the faculty’s summer reading of Whistling Vivaldi by social psychologist Claude Steele, which examines the impact of negative stereotypes on performance. Steele’s book compiles evidence, based on numerous academic studies, that performance declines when individuals encounter “stereotype threat,” a situation in which they feel anxious about conforming to negative stereotypes about their social group.
One such stereotype, tested repeatedly in academic studies, is that women cannot compete with men at higher math; when women are subtly reminded of the stereotype—even through oblique, indirect remarks or nonverbal cues—their performance on math tests declines. The fear of confirming the stereotype interferes with functioning. Nearly all groups face some negative stereotypes, but some stereotypes are more pervasive than others, and therefore more likely to impair performance. However, researchers have found that certain actions can limit stereotype threat; if an individual is reminded of positive role models, or if a teacher tells a student that the standards are high, but then expresses confidence that the student can achieve them, stereotype threat can be reduced.
Faculty met in small groups by department and then gathered for a full-faculty discussion of insights, issues, and questions raised by the book and Zur’s presentation. Mr. Manning noted that the exploration of these topics would continue throughout the year.