This Black History Month, we’re talking with Black school leaders about how their schools celebrate Black excellence during February and all year round.
BES recently talked with Kalyn Breeding, 2020 LENS leader and 4th-grade team lead at Ethos Classical, founded by BES Fellow Emily Castillo León in Atlanta, GA. Kalyn described how she honors the experiences of Black scholars in her work, and how fellow educators can do the same.
What do you love about serving the scholars/community of Atlanta?
It takes a village to raise a child, and there are many villages in the city of Atlanta that are diverse and unique. If you drive 10 minutes in any direction, you will encounter different types of people and cultures and you will have a distinct experience with each.
The scholars at Ethos reflect the city in that manner; they are proud of and embrace their uniqueness. Most of all, they are relationship-oriented, eager to know as much about their teachers as possible. They want to take part in making their school successful, a place where people are happy and proud to be. This mirrors our experience with the surrounding community. We consistently have families and community stakeholders working to help make our mission a reality.
How does Ethos uplift and honor the experiences of scholars of color, and Black scholars in particular? How do you make this a focus in your work?
From the beginning, Ethos has made culture the center of everything that we do. Our school leader made it very clear that almost all of our scholars would be Black. So, as a staff, we had conversations about the experiences of Black scholars in schools across our nation. Black staff members were offered a space to be vulnerable and share personal hardships we faced growing up, and all staff were allowed to share their beliefs and ask questions. Although Black people have a lot in common, our individual experiences are unique and can differ drastically, and this is also true of our scholars.
Some of the ways our team strives to uplift and honor our Black scholars include:
Culturally relevant curriculum. For example, when our scholars choose a book for independent reading, they see and read about characters who look like them whose stories they can relate to.
Celebration of Black excellence. When deciding our homeroom names, we chose artists, authors, and musicians of color, which expose our scholars to talented figures who are a reflection of them – people such as Basquiat, Kehinde Wiliey, Nella Larsen, and Marcus Garvey. Our teachers regularly create mini-lessons to inform scholars of these prominent figures. Scholars take great pride in the names of their homerooms, especially during cipher competitions, which are a part of Black culture.
Equitable learning experience coupled with high expectations. At Ethos, we understand that all scholars do not learn the same. We provide small group instruction in our classrooms, allowing scholars to receive intimate learning for both literacy and arithmetic. We consistently motivate scholars to commit to our True Blue values (Tenacity, Respect, Urgency, Eagerness) and use these values to help scholars develop and maintain strong character.
Celebrating scholars. We find ways to celebrate scholars every chance we get! We recognize scholars who have shown leadership in the classroom and we celebrate classes who are collectively displaying our values. We also have a regular Stepping Up ceremony where scholars are pinned and recognized for their STEP literacy growth.
In my experience, one of the most impactful ways to honor Black scholars is to help them build strong character that can lead to a positive, choice-filled life. Each scholar needs something different and it is my duty to go beyond academics and ensure each scholar feels seen, heard, and most importantly, knows they are loved.
How can schools celebrate Black scholars outside of Black History Month? Where are schools falling short on this and how can leaders do better?
Many schools fully embrace Black History Month with décor, centering conversations around the Black experience, and utilizing enrichment classes to create Black history plays and events. While each of these can be beneficial, most of the time it ends as a 28-day experience. Instead, celebrating Black history should last throughout the school year. Black history is everywhere: in the arts, entertainment, inventions, math, science, literacy, and leadership. There is so much to be learned that even 365 days is still not enough time.
The first step is for educators to acknowledge that there is significant room for improvement with the celebration of Black people. A “sky’s the limit” mentality is not enough. Scholars still do not see enough representation of themselves in content classes. Seeing is believing – our Black scholars need to see themselves in all professions to believe that they, too, can continue the legacy that has been put before them.
As a Black educator for majority Black scholars, it is HARD knowing that no matter how well I execute a lesson, build strong character, or teach scholars that they are worthy of a choice-filled life, I cannot protect them from a world that still disvalues them because of their skin color.
What scares me the most is that we live in a time where Black oppression is being minimized and marginalized with the struggles of other groups that cannot be compared. On Martin Luther King Day, I asked scholars if they felt that life had gotten better for Black people after the civil rights movement. When we zoomed in on the unemployment rate, income averages, business ownership, and homeownership percentages for Black people, it was plain enough for third graders to see that there is a lot of improvement to be made. Every day, I attempt to make school a safe space for scholars to be themselves and have conversations to remind them of the greatness from which they come.
How has LENS helped you to lead with equity?
This year, LENS introduced me to best practices that have developed me into a leader who not only provides equitable learning experiences for scholars, but also for our classroom teachers.
Providing an equitable learning experience for students has been a primary focus for classroom teachers for the past several years. Teachers come into the field with different experiences and need intentional coaching and feedback models to ensure they are equipped with the tools necessary to best serve our scholars. During our initial LENS training last summer, we were placed in small groups where I was able to connect with leaders across the country and have conversations about our personal experiences and learn from one another. The coaching we receive from LENS is grounded in research and texts that have helped many schools become trailblazers in education.
One of my favorite experiences with LENS is the 1:1 monthly coaching where we review projects and problem-solve around different obstacles we face as leaders. LENS is preparing me to be an effective leader and I am confident that the skills I have obtained thus far will be applicable in any educational setting.