Teachers create community microcosms in Howard County classrooms

Kate Magill
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

The walls in Reservoir High School teacher Jennifer Coker’s classroom are covered in large white posters.

Created by her Reservoir High students, each poster includes a definition of community and norms for group discussions as established by her classes.

“Community: A group or organization of people who work together or have something in common and build a bond/relationship,” wrote her sixth period ninth-grade class.

The posters are one of many ways Coker said she aims to create “microcosms” of society based around a strong community in each class.

Examples of those community efforts are apparent throughout a class period in Coker’s room. Students call on one another to answer questions and stay engaged, and desks are arranged in clusters of three to allow for optimal small group discussion.

Classrooms throughout the county, like Coker’s, are using curriculum and strategies that foster inclusivity and community among teachers and students.

The focus is part of Superintendent Michael Martirano’s strategy to build a school system centered around student equity.

Changes to classroom curriculum are being led by Ebony Langford-Brown, the school system’s executive director of school improvement and curricular programs. While diversity and inclusion efforts have been a part of the curriculum office’s work for years, Langford-Brown said there has been an increased focus on the work under Martirano.

“One of the things we are doing now is making sure we have common language around it, common practice around it, and are able to articulate exactly what it is we are doing,” she said.

Langford-Brown said the goal is to craft lessons that amplify these ideas, beginning in pre-kindergarten and continuing through 12th grade. Amy Raymond, an instructional facilitator for early childhood programs, emphasized the importance of creating “windows and mirrors” for students in their lessons, so that they “see themselves reflected in the curriculum, but they also get windows into others that think differently from them, that have different perspectives.”

Ninth-grader Jesse Wilcox, 14, is a student in Coker’s sixth period U.S. history class; for her the posters are a way to “remind ourselves throughout the day” of the importance of community. Wilcox’s own definition of community is simple: “A group of people who support each other and help each other through hard times.”

Wilcox said that environment is one she feels inside Coker’s class.

“It’s nice to have people to talk to [and] where you feel safe,” she said. “I know they’re not going to judge me.”

Embracing equity lessons

Over the summer, curriculum staff developed a rubric to assess the diversity and inclusivity qualities of classroom lesson plans.

The rubric outlines five equity areas that each rank lesson plans on a five-part scale on how ideas are incorporated into classroom content. The areas highlight how to bring multiple cultures and perspectives into the content and how to show students the value of such diversity.

Curriculum staff has also given teachers lesson “seeds” for examples of ways to bring this material into the classroom.

In one lesson seed for middle and high school math classes, students conduct a statistical assessment of health disparities in their community. They also develop positive solutions for how to lessen these disparities, and teachers close the lesson by leading students in a discussion about equity in the United States.

Lessons like this were particularly used at the beginning of the school year, when Martirano required teachers to focus on lessons and activities in the first week of school to build strong classroom communities that promote equity.

Coker said she and her students spent time that week crafting their posters for community norms.

“It was kind of nice to begin our school year very purposefully,” she said.

Coker said being more purposeful and explicit in promoting the importance of community has made a difference in the classroom dynamic.

“[It’s] critical to engaging students, making them feel connected to the school and curriculum,” Coker said. “Bringing in those pieces like the definition of community, it makes it all the more clear to the students that they are part of this learning environment.”

Students have plenty to say about inclusive lessons as well. At several high schools in the county, including Mount Hebron and Long Reach, there are student groups focused specifically on promoting diversity and inclusion in the school and curriculum.

At Long Reach, the group One Voice met recently with Langford-Brown and curriculum staff Raymond and Terry Eberhardt to hear about the curriculum changes and offer their feedback. Students responded with several ideas for how to improve classroom environments, ranging from the greater promotion of cultural heritage months to holding weekly class round tables for students and teachers to get to know one another better.

“One thing that I really took away from the teachers that impacted my life was the attention to individual students and helping students find their individuality,” said junior Rakshita Balaji, 17. “And those teachers are the ones that you feel really comfortable with.”

Several students spoke about the need for teachers to include lessons that show minority groups unrelated to their historical oppression. Students criticized past lessons for failing to show minority groups’ full contributions to society, and the need to include more minority voices in lessons.

“There needs to be representation, and it needs to be accurate and informed and written by people who understand it,” said senior Alia Shields, 17. “It’s about representing minority groups as more than just their oppression. … You acknowledge the culture, and you say ‘I know this happened to you, and it matters, but also you are a fully realized being, you have dimensions.”

Students pressed staff on the timeline for implementing all of the proposed ideas into classrooms. Langford-Brown said the current plan includes a three- to five-year timeline, although some ideas will be implemented immediately.

Circles of community

A second set of changes coming to classrooms under Martirano’s leadership is the widespread implementation of restorative justice practices for disciplining students and improving behavior.

An alternative to more traditional punitive punishment, restorative justice is based on the importance of building relationships and trust, and repairing relationships that are harmed by bad behavior, said Kevin Gilbert, director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the school system. This is done through discussions between perpetrators and victims.

Gilbert is leading this implementation with Rosanne Wilson, the school system’s specialist for positive behavior supports and anti-bullying. Wilson works with staff and students to identify and encourage positive environments in schools, whether through interventions, training or other strategies.

Wilson and Gilbert have spent the last several months assessing the county’s current discipline practices, and will present a report to the Board of Education this month about the state of restorative practices in schools, Gilbert said.

Wider implementation of restorative justice could help change the county’s current disparity in suspensions and expulsions among students. In 2016, black students accounted for 60.3 percent of the county’s 2,360 suspensions and expulsions, despite making up only 22.8 percent of the student population. White students make up 39.1 percent of the school system population, but accounted for only 18.7 percent of suspensions and expulsions, according to state data.

Wilson said the new practices are not meant to “fix” past problems, but should help to “level the playing field” across students.

“This work is designed to help deal with the disparities in the data,” Gilbert said. “It’s designed to provide a new approach, it’s designed to help build an effective culture and climate that supports the learning environment we would like to see here in Howard County.”

Thirty-four schools, mostly middle and high schools, have already begun implementing restorative practices, and Gilbert said the goal is to begin implementing the practices in the other 42 schools next year.

Howard County is one of 11 school systems in the state to “universally” support restorative practices, according to the state board of education, which in 2014 changed its school discipline policies to emphasize rehabilitation over expulsion or suspension to address racial disparities.

“There’s no greater connection in terms of honoring and valuing and respecting each other, the differences that we have and valuing the input and needs than through a restorative process,” Gilbert said. “That’s one of the key elements of the restorative process, is that we’re all equal.”

One of the schools leading the charge for implementing restorative practices is the Homewood Center, which has been using the approach since 2012.

Every class at the center, which is designed to help teach students who have not performed as well in traditional classroom settings, is required to hold community-building circles at least once a week; some teachers hold the circles daily, said Homewood assistant principal Christina Krabitz. Circles at the school can come in three forms, Krabitz said, as a way to teach content, build community or for disciplinary intervention.

Carolyn Colon, a 12th grade English teacher at Homewood, said that while it can be difficult initially to get students to “buy in” to the idea of the circles, over time it helps build better connections among students and teachers.

In geometry teacher Stephen Nesmith’s class, a group of sophomore and junior boys recently engaged in a community-building circle with Nesmith and teacher Anthony Bell, discussing positive and negative labels that have been associated with them.

While at first some students began the circle quietly, as the discussion went on and questions slowly became more thought-provoking, each spoke about their experiences. Tenth-grader James Mitchell, 15, spoke about how being told he was respectful and outspoken made him feel “as though somebody is watching [and] recognizes you.”

“People look up to you,” he said. “It makes me want to lead by example.”

Like the changes in curriculum, restorative practices at Homewood and throughout the county are focused on strengthening communities, and give teachers and students a chance to “delve into their lives,” Nesmith said.

“It works because of the trust,” Nesmith said. “It allows students to have their voices heard.”

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