The Learning Curve

Welcome to The Learning Curve - insightful educational commentary from Dr. Bob Bowman, Assistant Head of School for Upper School.

 

Inclusion: Belonging at Wardlaw+Hartridge

Over the last couple of decades or so, the words diversity and inclusion frequently appear together. Yet I am not sure many of us have taken the time to parse their meanings and understand the important distinction between the two. My colleagues in the English Department will not be pleased that I am starting my blog with a definition, but in this case I will throw best writing practices to the wind and give you definitions presented by Amanda Hagley from the Verb website in an article entitled Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace. These definitions are similar to those found across platforms.

Diversity: The range of human differences, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, social class, physical ability or attributes, religious or ethical values system, national origin, and political beliefs. 

Inclusion: Involvement and empowerment, where the inherent worth and dignity of all people are recognized. An inclusive workplace promotes and sustains a sense of belonging; it values and practices respect for the talents, beliefs, backgrounds, and ways of living of its members.

In our case we replace the word workplace with school, but in doing so we need to be careful. In public education, an “inclusive school” is one that welcomes learners of all intellectual abilities and every student with special needs. This is not the type of inclusivity that is typically found in independent schools like Wardlaw+Hartridge.

Let us start with a simple question: Is the Upper School at W+H diverse? If we are speaking about the student body, the answer is a resounding yes. I would venture that we are one of the most diverse high schools in New Jersey. Diversity in other aspects of our community is also of paramount importance, but it is the students that bring our worlds together, so that will be the emphasis of this piece.

Inclusion is a much harder thing to quantify. For my purposes, I am going to focus on the concepts of involvement and belonging. Through that lens, the following question is much more challenging to answer: Do students in the Upper School experience a sense of inclusion? As a former practicing scientist, the answer is quite disturbing: It depends where you look. Let me explain.

The level of academic involvement and collaborative classroom work taking place in our Upper School demonstrates a high level of inclusiveness. Much of this is a result of intentional pedagogical approaches utilized by our teachers. Through designated seating, thoughtfully constructed pre-assigned groups, and clear communication of shared expectations, students work with a variety of folks in almost every class. Our W+H high schoolers organically learn from and about others whose lives are often significantly different. Students have similar experiences in athletics, the performing arts, clubs and other activities throughout our numerous extracurricular programs.

Is this true when students are given the choice to gather in social groups of their own choosing? Where do they feel comfortable? Where do they belong? Lunchtime is an excellent place to explore these questions. In 1997 a must-read book for teachers (and really everyone) burst onto the scene, Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria (A 20-year update was released in 2017). This was one of several seminal titles that set the stage for the challenging, but extremely important work of discussing identity and racism in schools and beyond. More than 20 years later, have we moved beyond this paradigm? Frustratingly, the answer is not straightforward.

The lunchroom tables are filled with social groups that mirror the diversity of our school. The common interests that draw students to want to share free time are likely no different than when you attended high school. Sports, music, art, academic passion, local geography and even social media (e.g. Tik Tok) create fascinating cohorts. And there is a certain amount of fluidity to the groups. We are a small school; our students know each other through numerous contexts and feel comfortable expressing multiple interests as they choose their seat. But there is one group that is reminiscent of Dr. Tatum’s cafeteria thesis: our international students (IS) from China.

On any given day, with a few exceptions, international students sit together at lunch. These relationships are also seen before and after school. While international students participate and lead in academics and in all aspects of school life outside the classroom, when completely free of obligations, they choose each other’s company. Dr. Tatum provides a thoughtful analysis of this common behavioral dynamic, providing reasons which include maintaining identity, common life experience, and safety. Additionally, the familiarity and comfort of speaking Mandarin adds another basis for IS making these choices. We are so very proud of our IS, half a world away from home, and I certainly respect and honor their choices.

So back to the question: Do our international students feel they belong? I believe they do given their level of engagement, happiness and success. Should we be doing more to create opportunities for all students to socialize and share experiences? Yes. Ideally, would we like to see completely heterogeneous groups during students’ free time? Absolutely. A sea change of this magnitude and complexity is deeply connected to and dependent on engaging the entire school in the challenges of understanding identity. Like the world in which we live, the work of diversity and inclusion is demanding and messy. It involves people’s authentic, sometimes painful, experiences and requires each of us to recognize that we all have a great deal to learn about ourselves and about each other.

As a responsible and ethical school, we at W+H realize the privilege we have to work in our wonderfully diverse school and the imperative we have to help our students engage in addressing possibly the most important questions in their lives: Who am I? What is my place in the world? 

So do Upper School students experience a sense of inclusion? Like most institutions learning to thrive in our global society the answer is: Yes, but we still have more road to travel. And heavens, is it amazing to have the opportunity to share this journey with our incredible W+H community.

Posted by bbowman on Thursday February, 20 at 10:55AM

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Edison, NJ 08820
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The Wardlaw + Hartridge School is a top private and college prep school in Edison, New Jersey, which provides an independent, pioneering educational experience at the early childhood, kindergarten, elementary, middle, and high school levels.
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