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How to help your youngest students talk about and navigate differences

A profile of Bank Street School for Children

June 23, 2021

Bank Street School for Children is a beacon of innovation when it comes to empowering students with the knowledge, language, and skills to navigate and lead in a complex, changing world. The School for Children, a N-8 New York City independent school, enrolls approximately 50 percent students of color and is explicit about their social justice mission and credo.

“Social justice” can carry different connotations. Director of diversity and equity Coy Dailey defines social justice as “understanding how our society functions so we can understand who’s been marginalized and how we can help shift their experience…making sure everybody feels included.” In addition to integrating this lens into the daily classroom experiences of all its students, the School for Children has created a specific racial justice and advocacy curriculum that starts with the younger students, beginning in 1st grade.


What is the Racial Justice and Advocacy (RJA) curriculum?

Research points out that children develop racial biases at an early age, but these can be unlearned. At age five or six, children may not know how to define race, explains Dailey, but they are aware of differences in physical characteristics of identity such as skin tone. The Racial Justice and Advocacy (RJA) curriculum equips students with the language to talk about these differences and counter racial stereotypes.

RJA, which comprises weekly, 45-minute lessons over 10 to 12 weeks, is aimed at students in grades 1-4. Four to five RJA lessons incorporate cross-grade affinity groups, in which students in grades 1 and 2 and grades 3 and 4 are mixed and divided into groups of a minimum of 10. This grouping provides a few benefits: it promotes cross-grade community, increases student engagement with the curriculum, and allows older students to serve as role models in sharing personal experiences in a new environment.

At the beginning of the RJA curriculum, teachers send a form to parents where they indicate how their child identifies racially. Parents provide permission for their child to participate in race-based affinity groups. In both affinity spaces—those who identify as students of color and those who identify as white—students receive the exact same lessons. However, the content of student-generated questions and discussion varies depending on students’ lived experiences. Lesson themes include exterior characteristics (e.g., skin tone, hair texture, eye color) and hidden characteristics of identity (e.g., gender, family structures) and how people may form assumptions about others based on these characteristics.

While curriculum themes remain constant from year to year, faculty regularly update materials and lessons. Dailey works with grade-specific teaching teams and division heads to revise and refine in three, hour-long meetings prior to curriculum launch.

During curriculum implementation, teachers incorporate student interest and current events into the lessons. For example, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, teachers framed the event as an entry point to RJA concepts such as racial stereotypes, the history of disproportionate use of force against Black people, and justice. Dailey sums up the emergent nature of the RJA curriculum as this: “there’s a plan, but we have space to incorporate student questioning, concerns and interest in that plan. Our curriculum allows students the space to be part of that journey.”

  • Mission statement of RJA curriculum

    “The curriculum nurtures in young children a positive self-image and supports all children’s racial identity development. We strive to inspire all children to develop anti-bias ideals and to become advocates who actively promote an anti-racist society. The curriculum is designed to empower children to work together for social justice in their own classrooms and communities, and in the larger society.”

History of RJA curriculum development

1990s: Faculty want to better understand the experiences of students of color, especially regarding participation and performance. Faculty and school leaders research racial identity development in children and the experiences of students of color in predominantly white schools.

1996: The affinity group, Educators of Color, advocates for creating a similar space for students of color. The school establishes one “Kids of Color” (KOC) affinity group for seventh and eighth grade students and another KOC group for fifth and sixth grade students.

2004: Inspired by the positive experiences of upper school students in KOC, the diversity coordinator, middle school faculty (grades 1-4), and middle school division head develop the “Kids of Color and Advocacy” curriculum for middle school students. The curriculum, which includes an affinity group component, is aimed at all students in grades 1-4.

2013 and on: In response to these recommendations, the school shifts its curriculum from a multi-cultural awareness approach to a more explicit focus on race and whiteness, as well as advocacy. This curricular shift is marked by a change in the curriculum’s name—to “Racial Justice and Advocacy,” colloquially referred to as RJA today.

2012: The School for Children partners with three expert consultants to review the curriculum. The consultants conduct comprehensive observations and gather information from faculty, students, and parents. Expert recommendations include the following:

  • Strengthen faculty training
  • Improve communication with families regarding the curriculum
  • Integrate explorations of whiteness and social justice into the curriculum

What does the RJA curriculum look like in the classroom?

Why does RJA focus on grades 1-4?

In the early 2000s, when faculty were developing RJA, social justice was already integrated into the upper school curriculum. RJA was created to extend the social justice curricular lens into the lower grades.

How does the School for Children determine what is developmentally appropriate for each grade?

Faculty draw upon existing curricular materials and research-backed frameworks, such as from the Anti-Defamation League and Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves by early childhood education expert Louise Derman-Sparks. Most RJA lessons are modeled off these two resources.
During curriculum implementation, Dailey meets with teachers on a weekly basis to reflect on how specific lessons were received by students. These weekly, 45-minute check-ins serve as an opportunity to refine lessons as needed.

How does the School for Children train teachers to navigate conversations on race and identity?

In previous years, all new faculty members would participate in the 2.5-day-workshop “Undoing Racism” provided by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. For the 2020-2021 school year, the School for Children partnered with the Center for Racial Justice in Education to deliver the workshop “Talking About Race in the Classroom” for all new faculty.

To promote capacity-building among faculty during the year, school leaders have started to dedicate a few mandatory, weekly faculty meetings to affinity groups: Educators of Color and the White Anti-Racist Group. The White Anti-Racist Group engaged in shared readings for individual and collective development, such as analyzing specific chapters in Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility”; the Educators of Color group has provided support to its participants and strategized on professional development opportunities in social justice (e.g., guest speakers, conferences).

How do school leaders and faculty communicate the RJA curriculum to parents?

At the start of the RJA curriculum, parents receive an email that includes definitions for words such as “race” and “ethnicity” as well as an overview of the curriculum and its goals. In addition, school leaders host an evening event where faculty walk parents through sample RJA lessons. For example, parents experience a third-grade lesson focused on race as a social construct, through studying the U.S. Census. Parents also experience a lesson on the intersectionality of identities.

During curriculum implementation, a weekly update that summarizes the RJA lesson from the week is sent to families.

How does the School for Children communicate the value of race-based affinity groups to parents who might push back?

Parents learn about the school’s social justice commitment and RJA curriculum during the admissions process, and the faculty and leadership are responsive to questions that arise once parents become part of the community.

The school highlights that affinity spaces provide students of color “an opportunity to experience being in a majority setting in order to voice their feelings and share experiences about being a kid of color; feel embraced to become active participants in their classrooms and larger community; and develop confidence to take risks in social and academic settings in a dedicated space.”

Dailey adds, “at this school, we are committed to fully affirming everyone. Affinity groups provide a space for kids to see themselves reflected, to be in community, to feel like they can be their whole selves.”

Why isn’t there RJA for students in grades 5-8?

The School for Children does not have a standalone social justice curriculum at the upper school (i.e., grades 5-8). Instead, the principles of social justice are integrated into the traditional academic areas and curriculum connected to human growth and development. RJA equips students in grades 1-4 with the language to engage in these principles at a deeper level and across disciplines.

For example, students in grade 6 participate in a humanities unit called “Loudness in the Library” where they investigate the implicit and explicit messages on race and gender in book covers. Students hear from a representative from a publishing company on how book covers are made and who provides input into the process. In addition, students analyze representation in protagonists across popular books in recent circulation.

In math, sixth grade students learn about decimals, fractions, and percentages through a household budget project. As part of the project, students analyze job trends by zip code and discuss how the pandemic has impacted the jobs of essential workers.

What’s next for RJA at the School for Children?

The School for Children has a few goals for the future. First, Dailey would like to extend the curriculum across more of the school year. As a start, teachers could extend each RJA lesson to span two lessons. Next, school leaders aim to invest more time and resources into ongoing training for faculty beyond affinity groups and the workshop that all new faculty experience.

Finally, Dailey also discussed creating stronger messaging around the social justice aspect of RJA. “When we do talk about gender, ability, body type, sexual orientation, etc., people ask how it falls into RJA,” he notes. Dailey explains that while RJA has historically focused on the impact of race and racism, the curriculum broadly encompasses social justice and affirming all marginalized groups in society.

If you are interested in connecting with the School for Children, please reach out to your dedicated advisor.

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