Embracing Our Diversity

Embracing Our Diversity

Tuesday, February 16, 2021
First graders Carter and Nadia proudly present their class's Black History Month door decorations

As first graders Carter and Nadia stepped in front of their classroom door, older students gathered around to hear what they had to say. "I love my peach skin, curly hair, and brown eyes," Carter said, pointing to a photo of himself on the door. "I love that I'm a tall girl with curly braids," Nadia said about her photo.

The two were presenting their class's door decorations as part of Harlem Academy's Black History Month Showcase. The door's theme? Unapologetically Black. 

This all-school event enabled students to visit every classroom to see how each grade celebrated a Black Lives Matter principle through insightful presentations, artwork, and poems. It's one of the many ways Harlem Academy embraces and celebrates diversity in all parts of our program.

"From the books our students read to the lessons our educators teach, we bring a high level of intention, thought, and meaning to how we celebrate people of color," says Assistant Head of School LaShonda Davis. "We continue to forge those critical connections in our advisory program and community meetings not just during the month of February, but year round."

Adds Head of School Vinny Dotoli: "Our commitment to diversity and inclusiveness in the curriculum is not a complement to rigor and excellence – it is the foundation."

Reading and Representation

In the primary grades, students are exposed early and often to books by and about people of color, such as "Sulwe" by Lupita Nyong’o, "Hair Love" by Matthew A. Cherry, and "Alma and How She Got her Name" by Juana Martinez-Neal. "Read-aloud books like these are focused on self-love, appreciating our unique identities, and respecting our differences," explains Ms. Davis.

By fourth and fifth grade, students are reading books that grapple with weightier issues of race, class, privilege, intersectionality, and justice, including "Harbor Me" by Jacqueline Woodson, "Piecing Me Together" by Renée Watson, and "The Parker Inheritance" by Varian Johnson.

"Not only can students see themselves represented in these books and in even more advanced texts in middle school, but the topics covered are relevant and connected to their lived experiences," says Ms. Davis. "This leads to rich in-class discussions about colorism, how friendships begin to evolve and become more complicated, racism and how it affects where and how people live, and much more."

In-depth conversation and analysis is also driven by our middle school history curriculum, which now incorporates materials from the 1619 Project, a New York Times Magazine initiative that reexamines and reframes America's history. 

"There is a huge, rich heritage among African Americans that began long before slavery, that began in Africa," says middle school history teacher Gwen Kingsberry. "Incorporating the 1619 Project encourages students to take a critical look at the African American experience throughout centuries, especially during Reconstruction, reframing history to include that experience because Black history is American history."

At the 2019 National Book Awards Teen Press Conference, students had the chance to speak with author Randy Ribay, whose novel they'd read in class.

Giving Voice to Identity 

Connecting with these topics in a meaningful way goes beyond the texts we read. Our students are challenged and encouraged to use what they learn to inform their own self-expression in their poetry and biographical writing. 

Each year, during Harlem Academy's sixth and eighth grade poetry performances, audiences of family and friends are inspired by students' original pieces, which tackle topics as powerful as inequality and as poignant as a daughter’s love for her mother. 

The performances not only showcase our students' writing after six weeks of working with visiting poets from the Poetry Society of America, they also give students agency to share their diverse experiences and perspectives. "I liked having the opportunity to express my ideas and insights in that way," says alumna Delali Lyons '18, a junior at Nightingale.

Similarly, eighth graders read the biography "Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice" by Phillip Hoose. Then, modeling Hoose's impactful use of direct quotes to develop a narrative, students interview family members and craft powerful biographical essays.

"All of the final essays are deeply moving," says Head of School Vinny Dotoli. "I remember one in particular about the challenges a student's great-grandmother faced as a Panamanian immigrant in New York in the 1960s. As he so powerfully put it, 'My great-grandmother had expected a paradise, but that is not what she got.' This English unit pushes academic rigor and high-level skill development, and offers opportunities for genuine engagement and deeper understanding of students' real-life stories."

The City as a Resource

New York City offers our students a wealth of unique opportunities to celebrate and examine diversity and bring their explorations of these topics to life.

Last year, for example, middle school students dove deeper into Harlem Renaissance artists, writers, and poets that they study in class during a trip to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

While attending the National Book Awards Teen Press Conference at the 92nd Street Y, they had the chance to meet National Book Award finalist Randy Ribay, author of the Filipino-American coming-of-age story "The Patron Saints of Nothing."

On a visit to Hauser & Wirth gallery with Trustee Ann MacRae, students explored race and representation in an exhibit by artist Amy Sherald, whose portrait of Michelle Obama hangs in the Smithsonian. "I loved that Amy Sherald features African Americans in her artwork," says sixth grader Mariah. "To me, this means that African Americans are special."

Sixth grader Sophie wrote a letter of appreciation to artist Amy Sherald after a class trip to see her exhibition.

Sharing Culture, Sharing Joy 

Community Meetings are a 16-year tradition at Harlem Academy that bring together students, teachers, and families to reflect and engage in meaningful conversations each week, often around issues of culture and community.

At one meeting, several Latinx middle schoolers shared original poems inspired by their backgrounds and taught everyone in attendance how to dance merengue in a joyful celebration of their heritage.

During another meeting, three African American students talked about Black joy – the small, everyday ways happiness is woven into the fabric of the African American community – and led a discussion about what the phrase means to others. "Hearing how other people defined Black joy brought me joy," says alumnus Sen'ari Minnis '18, a sophomore at Peddie, who helped lead the meeting when he was in seventh grade. 

Whether it's literature, community meetings, classroom lessons, field trips, or other components within our evolving program, the goal is the same: to incorporate a celebration of diversity.

"Harlem Academy's curriculum is built on the understanding that knowing people and their backgrounds and cultures is crucial to personal and community growth," explains Trustee Elizabeth McHenry, Ph.D., professor and chair of the English department at New York University. 

"Not only do students become aware and respectful of other peoples' cultures, traditions, and practices," Dr. McHenry continues, "they also gain a sense of pride for the diversity of their own cultures. This, we believe, is key to preparing them to actively and thoughtfully engage in the world around them."

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