Every student. Every classroom. Every day. These are the words you’ll find on the cover of the strategic plan for Seattle Public Schools and throughout the district on countless posters. These are not empty words; they are an inspiration for staff and teachers alike as the district strives to eliminate opportunity gaps and provide high-quality instruction.
With those goals in mind, the district held a teach-in event on Saturday, February 11 on the topic of “Identity Safety.” Identity Safety refers to the practice of making classrooms safe and inclusive for students with a variety of social identities. An identity-safe classroom is one in which teachers strive to help students feel that their identities are an asset rather than a barrier to academic success. (See also our recent story on substitute teachers and culturally responsive teaching.)
Saturday’s event was held at Garfield High School. Its first-floor commons area was packed with over 150 educators using their day off to learn how to better serve students. The 6-hour event, hosted by Dr. Concie Pedroza and Dr. Laura VanDerPloeg of Seattle Public Schools, opened with a welcome by Cuc Vu, Director of the City of Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. An immigrant herself, Vu explained that “people are afraid” and because of that “the mayor has made it clear he wants to support public school students. We look forward to working with you on that.” Following Vu was a greeting and performance by Willard Bill Jr., Cultural Director for the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, and members of the Muckleshoot Canoe Family.
The highlight of the morning portion of the teach-in was a panel of students from a variety of backgrounds testifying to their experiences in and out of classrooms. Muslim, gay, transgender, immigrant/refugee, Native American, Latino/a, and other students of color shared what it was like to be the objects of stereotyping, ignorance and hostility. Without exception, they explained how their experiences negatively impacted their time in school and sometimes even made them fear for their safety. They also shared their ideas about what principals, teachers and school staff could do to create safer learning environments that support and value student identities.
“I am finding a lot of information that I can take back to my teachers, and I have a few teachers here,” said Principal Monique Manuel of Van Asselt Elementary School. “I’m at a school that is 97 percent students of color and 41 percent ELL, so my Somali students are scared, my Hispanic students are scared. They don’t know what’s going to happen, so being able to be there for them and have their teachers understand that part of it, is what I’m looking for and taking away from this.”
Leading up to the student panel, Dr. Kyle Kinoshita, Chief of Curriculum, Assessment and Instruction for Seattle Public Schools reminded attendees of the impact of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order 9066, which led to the mass internment of U.S. citizens in Washington state on the basis of their Japanese ancestry, had on our community including hundreds of Seattle students. He contrasted the response from that time, where the district was silent on the impact of the past executive order, with today’s response, where Seattle Public Schools stood in support of students at risk. This was followed by Dr. Wayne Au from UW Bothell, who spoke to the purpose of the teach-in: to help educators self-reflect, better understand the needs of students and form positive relationships that promote student success.
With the day’s purpose defined, the keynote speaker, Dr. Daudi Abe of Seattle Central College, took the microphone. "Your relationships are so critical; in a way, even more than curriculum,” said Abe. He went on to lead the gathering through a tour of the racial history of Seattle. Dr. Abe showed news stories of events from past decades that mirrored current events and challenged the audience to reflect on how Seattle can address racial equity moving forward.
The afternoon featured 10 different break-out sessions exploring a range of issues related to serving youth who are Muslim, gay, transgender, English language learners, Native American and other students of color. “I teach at Franklin High School, which is a very diverse school and I’m always looking for opportunities for professional development offered through the district that are specific to my classroom makeup,” said Stacy Schierholz. “I loved how there was a variety of workshops and I liked how they were speaking to issues around diversity and making all students feel included.”
Seattle Public Schools serve a diverse student body who come to class with lofty aspirations and great potential. Making classrooms feel safe and inclusive will help them flourish. Armed with knowledge, historical perspective and practical strategies, the teachers and school leaders who participated in the Identity Safety Teach-In are now better able to work against racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia and other barriers to providing supportive, culturally responsive environments for teaching and learning.
Learn more about identity safety.
See photos from the teach-in: