Greens Farms Academy is a PreK-12, coed school in Westport, CT

Fostering a Culture of Belonging

From the winter 2021 issue of GFA Magazine:

“The distance and isolation brought on by the pandemic have reminded us of the immense value of togetherness. It seems obvious now, but it bears repeating: Children need to spend time with each other and their teachers to feel connected. And it is precisely the sense of belonging that grows out of those connections that makes their learning possible.”

— Victor Llanque, Ph.D. Associate Head of School

The national movement for racial justice this past summer prompted many members of the GFA community — current students and alumni of color — to come forward with personal accounts of painful experiences they had in their time here, ranging from distasteful attempts at humor at their expense to blatant acts of racism against them. At their core, these stories captured moments in which peers or faculty — intentionally or unintentionally — undermined students’ sense of belonging to the community.   

Since those stories came to the school’s attention over the summer, administrators and faculty have engaged in a series of conversations about how they can foster a culture of belonging in school. The starting point for these efforts has been the school’s mission and core values: GFA is a school that aspires to be an inclusive community in which every student feels personally accepted, respected, and supported.

Fostering a sense of belonging

Director of Equity and Inclusion Shanelle Henry defines belonging as, “When individuals feel like they can bring their full selves to school and not feel like they’re a different person at GFA than in their home community.” She asks, “Do you feel seen and heard? Do you feel valued? Do you feel like you should be here? Do you feel like your presence and perspectives matter?” Answers to these questions, says Henry, “contributes to one’s sense of belonging within a community.”

Delivering on that element of the school’s mission requires hard work both in and outside of the classroom. It also calls for a coherent framework to guide each step towards a common goal. Despite the demands of operating the school in a pandemic, divisional leaders assembled committees of faculty and staff to think about what it means for students to feel a sense of belonging and what the school can do to make sure every child knows they belong in and to this community. 

Llanque described the initiative as an “effort to engender student trust in the community so that they feel comfortable talking about their experiences — as painful as they may have been. The topic of racism is divisive, and people often avoid it for fear of saying something wrong. Our goal is to create the necessary conditions for students to have frank conversations about how they feel and what they think, so they can learn from their experiences and one another. Ultimately, it’s about engaging them as partners in their learning.” 

For faculty in the Lower School, the conversations about belonging have reaffirmed their efforts to support students’ social and emotional learning. For the past two years, the Lower School faculty have incorporated the RULER approach from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence into their pedagogy to support students’ capacity to develop healthy relationships (See story on p. 32). Faculty work with students early in the year to identify behaviors that contribute to a positive learning environment. They formalize those ideas into a charter that the students promise to uphold throughout the year. They also use the “Mood Meter” to acquire the vocabulary they need to name and talk about how they feel — an essential skill for addressing conflict or hurtful behavior. 

As they look ahead, the Lower School faculty hope to build on their success and incorporate a broader range of strategies to help students learn how to respond in situations where they see someone being treated unfairly. Jane Verlin hopes to leverage the “Speak Up at School” toolkit from Teaching Tolerance, a non-profit that helps schools educate children to be active participants in a diverse democracy. The toolkit guides students and faculty alike to respond to everyday biases by equipping them with phrases and questions that nudge them to think about situations from new perspectives.  

The Committee on Belonging in the Middle School celebrated its past successes while also reevaluating central elements of its culture. The Middle School’s motto, “Dare to be different. Dare to be yourself,” has long guided the division’s efforts to engage with students in the process of identity formation.

However, this year the Middle School faculty are also emphasizing that it is up to all students to welcome differences in their classmates because students who feel a sense of belonging are much more able to be themselves  among peers. “We believe that all students should feel comfortable being who they are,” Drew Meyer, Head of Middle School, said in a statement that summarized the committee’s work. 

Similarly, the Upper School faculty and staff engaged in conversations about the conditions that promote a sense of belonging and those that undermine it. According to Andrew Jones, Head of Upper School, his team discussed ways of “creating connections among students, between students and adults, and among adults to model the way, inspire trust and confidence in our students, and set students up for success in confronting exclusion or unkindness.”

Taking a page out of the Middle School playbook, the Upper School has expanded its advisory program to increase opportunities for students and faculty to form enduring connections. Through daily interactions with their advisees, advisors keep an eye on how students feel and can offer support when needed. They can also set the table for conversations about what it means to be part of a pluralistic community in which people have diverse experiences and perspectives.  

Equally important have been student-led clubs and initiatives that actively promote a sense of belonging in the Upper School community. For example, the school’s annual Unity Day was created in 2018 by now-senior Charles Kolin to prevent bullying. The American Sign Language Club, the Jewish Student Association, and LEAD (Learning and Educating About Diversity), among many others, are also clubs that contribute to a more inclusive culture at GFA. 

Another example of student leadership in this area is The Forum.  In the lead-up to the elections, seniors Will Magrone and Giavanna Bravo revived this club, inviting students to share their thoughts on politics in the form of a productive conversation rather than a debate. Inspired by Coyle Scholar John Wood, who spoke to Middle and Upper School students this fall, Magrone and Bravo wanted to emphasize the club’s focus on promoting civil discourse (See page 10). Bravo explained that she and Magrone wanted their peers to gain, “the ability to understand different viewpoints and understand how to have a productive conversation—to just talk to someone, and hear the perspective of someone you usually wouldn’t talk to.”

The Study of Race in the Curriculum 

In addition to the three divisional committees on belonging, Henry and Llanque co-chair a fourth committee on the study of race in the curriculum. Faculty and staff have met in this group several times in the fall to catalog where students explore questions related to race within the context of their GFA classes.

“So much of the information that students consume about race dehumanizes the individual and creates division,” Llanque said. “At GFA, faculty take seriously their responsibility to provide students with many opportunities to develop a deeper understanding of race and its significance in their own lives and in society as a whole. GFA doesn’t have a narrow and prescriptive curriculum on race. To engage students as partners, and when we recognize the wide range of perspectives they bring to the classroom, we can’t simply lecture about race. We need to embrace curiosity: if students come up with ideas, we should ask for more information — not to condone, not to condemn, but to understand — and in that process, we position ourselves as learners.”

Across the divisions and departments, students engage, in age-appropriate ways, with questions like: Who am I? What is race? How does race impact people’s lives? What is racial justice? 

For example, Sarah Fincke’s eighth-grade class reads “Master Harold”… and the Boys, a play written by Athol Fugard in 1982 that focuses on institutional racism in apartheid-era South Africa. “This text was added in an effort to provide students with continued opportunities to explore the complicated relationship between characters, interwoven with themes of identity connected to race and racism, injustice, privilege, power, and coming of age,” Fincke said. 

In seventh grade, Iman Rasti and Meggan Ruppel teach The Hate You Give, a 2017 young-adult novel by Angie Thomas that explores topics related to race relations and police brutality. Rasti explained, “Through this book, we can not only bring an important national conversation to the foreground of what we teach in the Middle School, but we can also incorporate the theme of identity, which is the cornerstone of the seventh-grade English curriculum.”  

Many other courses in the Middle and Upper School give students opportunities to grapple with the complexity of race relations in the United States. In the History and Global Studies department, students study race in American history. Bob Guffin, who has taught the junior year US history course for over two decades, frames his work as an effort to “teach students how to think, not what to think.”

“Given the polarization of our contemporary world, our history program seeks to inculcate the critical thinking skills necessary to distinguish between polemics and nuanced and complicated historical realities,” Guffin said. “In pursuit of that goal, we teach history from a variety of perspectives and encourage students to test all interpretations against the available evidence.”

Outside the humanities, science and math teachers have considered how they can best teach students about race and make sure they can all believe in their ability to excel in science and mathematics. Some of this work involves weaving in stories of scientists from diverse racial backgrounds. It also means creating an environment where students have practice making mistakes and learning from them. That combats stereotypes and stereotype threats, or other negative messages that children can absorb about their abilities, and sends a powerful message to students that they can learn.  

Looking back on the work the faculty has already done, Llanque said, “I feel inspired and energized by the creativity and commitment to purpose that I see at GFA. We can see that we have a responsibility to teach about race and position ourselves to be able to do it in a supportive way, yet walking the talk is harder than it looks. I admire the skill and the love with which faculty are engaging in this work at GFA.”