January 28, 2022 | Abby Hall Choi
This month, following classic Mustard Seed methodology, first grade students conducted research, created drawings, and then built models of their favorite polar habitat animal. Because MSS students operate in a realm without typical barriers to learning, these emerging readers were offered many investigation options for their project. They might read picture books or online sources to gather information on their chosen animal, but they could also watch a YouTube video. In recording their research in their graphic organizers, they might write words in the four question boxes, but they could also draw pictures. Regardless of their reading and writing level, every student in the class gained research and modeling skills with this project.
Identifying and eliminating barriers to learning is a guiding principle of our strategic plan. In another example of this tradition, efforts to remove financial barriers to a private school education have been a primary component of Mustard Seed’s DNA since our founding.
Mustard Seed School leadership, attending to the findings of brain researchers, national policy-makers, and education authorities, have been examining the impact of cultural well-being on cognitive performance for the past several years. Experts tell us that identity-related stress often poses a barrier to learning. “Stress from threats to emotional safety and feelings of belonging, such as stereotype threat, influences a person’s underlying physiology and neural functioning, robbing a person of working memory resources.” (The Aspen Institute, National Commission on Social, Emotional & Academic Development)
Our Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) statement is, in part, our policy response to this important work.
Here is our promise from the new statement:
We commit to being a community of welcome where families of every composition, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, culture, faith tradition, sexual orientation, and gender expression feel they belong and together care for God’s world.
As I stated in my last email, we are aspiring to excellence rather than perfection. When I think of perfection, I think of something that I can cross off a list upon completion. Excellence, on the other hand, is a higher-calling invitation to reflect and do better, reflect and do better, reflect and do better. The call to excellence is an iterative pursuit. We will never be excellent enough. For me, the constant striving towards the goal of excellence is both its frustration and its joy.
With this document, we are committing to action as well as declaring our beliefs.
In last week’s New York Times Book Review of Kendra James’ book, ADMISSIONS A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School, the reviewer relates a narrative in the story of Black students discovering a goose egg on an adventure wandering the Connecticut countryside, and unsuccessfully caring for it while attending the elite boarding school. “. . . the reader holds the loss, which is not about a bird, of course, but about teenagers trying to make a home in a place that has admitted them without extending to them a sense of belonging.” The review is entitled, A Lonely Education. “The work of ‘Admissions’ is laying down, with wit and care, the burden James assumed at 15, that she–or any Black student, or all Black students–would manage the failures of a racially illiterate community.”
With our DEIB statement, we are making a pledge to build cultural literacy and an educational environment that is never lonely or invalidating for any student. To that end, we are expanding our celebration of Black History Month across all grades, and have already reviewed some of the language in our curriculum. Here is a sample of Jessica Smith’s notes for January’s worship theme on Light:
“As we explore themes of light in worship, we want to avoid the racialization of the words ‘light’ and ‘dark.’ In other words, talking about light to be ‘white’ and good, pure, and holy while talking about darkness as being ‘black’ – sinful, evil, and bad. This racialization came years after the Bible was written and was perpetuated by colonization.”
In reviewing our language usage and curriculum to remove cultural barriers to learning for some students, we are also better anticipating the role of all of our students as global citizens.
Who You Learn With Matters
Nathan Johnson’s solution for Lower School worship for the Light theme employed the visual of white lights versus multi-colored lights. The light string of many colors actually better captures the spirit of the Bible and the science of light (as seen in a prism).
In seeking to remove the cultural barriers to learning for identities and group affiliates that may have been marginalized in the past, we are also opening the doors for every student to an enriched light experience. Reimagining a learning practice that embraces cultural competencies prepares all of our students to flourish in an increasingly interconnected and complex world.