Children's Day School has built an extraordinary community on the principle of always assuming the best of our members and being able to talk about difficult and complex issues. As members of this community, we know that there are things that we may not agree on, and we value different perspectives and the conversations that arise from disagreement or conflict.
Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, our third grade Pelicans presented their learning about the Ohlone people at Friday assembly. Third graders study the Ohlone who inhabited the Bay Area before the arrival of the missionaries. The presentation was a five-minute synopsis of a rich social studies unit. As is tradition at CDS, the skits were written by students and performed by students. While their intent was to educate our community on the early Ohlone, some members of the CDS community were offended by the presentation.
After an important and open conversation with an offended audience member, third grade teacher Carli Lowe wrote the following post about the intent versus impact of the assembly. Carli is a remarkably thoughtful and gifted teacher and I wanted to share this piece with the whole CDS community. I know that there were strong feelings around this assembly and I think that it’s a great reminder of how important the ongoing work we do around diversity is.
Here is what Carli said:
Dear CDS Families,
I first made it my mission to teach at CDS because of the school’s unique commitment to diversity. Our school not only has a diversity mission statement, which is something included on almost every independent school’s website these days, but at the time that I applied to work here, CDS was the only school that also advertised a thoughtful and specific action plan for creating a more inclusive community. I thought, “Here is a school where diversity and inclusivity are more than just words. This is a school that knows the importance of action, growth and reflection.” Since coming to this school four years ago, I have continued to be grateful for this sense of action, growth and reflection that permeates the way we interact with one another as a community.
Part of creating a diverse and inclusive community means we have created a community with diverse perspectives and opinions. The value in this is that we can challenge each other to learn and grow at a faster rate and higher quality than we would be able to in a homogeneous community. The challenge is that there can be disagreements and misunderstandings.
On November 22nd, my classroom presented at assembly. The Pelicans were very excited to share a piece of what they had been learning about the way the Ohlone people lived before the Spanish arrived in the Bay Area. The students chose their own focus for the assembly, divided the work, planned and practiced what they would say, and created visuals they believed would enhance the impact of what they were trying to teach. Throughout the process they referred to notes they had been keeping throughout our study, as well as books and images on the internet from which they painstakingly did their best to copy accurately images of the landscape and traditional clothing of the early Ohlone communities. We had multiple class discussions about the delicate balance between being accurate, educational and engaging, as well as respectful of the culture we were presenting.
Our school has been doing a lot of work around the concept of Cultural Competency. One of the key skills in Culturally Competency is managing both intent and impact. While I know our class had thoughtful and respectful intentions behind our assembly, the impact was that some members of our community were deeply offended. I am, more than anything, writing this letter to apologize to those we offended, and take responsibility for any negative impact I may have had on the community through this assembly.
Due to the proximity of our assembly presentation to Thanksgiving, some people believed our assembly was meant to be a Thanksgiving presentation. It therefore appeared that we were buying into the Thanksgiving mythology with an assembly about Native American culture. I am sorry I did not consider the possibility of this misunderstanding. The date of the assembly was purely coincidental. We were in no way trying to create a Thanksgiving assembly. Due to the fact that we began our study of the Ohlone with the way the Ohlone lived before the Spanish arrived, it appeared to many who saw the assembly that we teach 3rd graders that Native culture is only a thing of the past. This perception is far from representative of our curriculum.
I believe that when teaching history it is vital to connect the past to the present, and this is especially true when teaching about the Ohlone, who are often spoken of as if they are an extinct culture. One of our goals throughout 3rd grade social studies is that students walk away knowing that the Ohlone are a vibrant culture continuing to live in California, and are active in politics, education and all other aspects of the everyday life of our state. As we continue to learn about the history of San Francisco, we learn that the Ohlone are a continuous presence, not a people who have faded away. To some, the absence of this information from our assembly felt like the “same old story” of Indians who were once here, but no longer exist. If we had included this information, our assembly may have had a very different impact on our audience.
There were other aspects of our assembly that caused offense. Although our intention in creating skits, and wearing hats based on images we had seen of the Ohlone, was to bring what we were teaching to life for our audience, the impact was that to some we appeared to be mocking the culture, or were at least not affording the culture its due respect. For this I am also deeply sorry. More so because our intention was exactly the opposite.
My hope is that our entire community can learn through this experience. That is why I requested to address the community in this letter. One thing I know I will take away from this experience is a better understanding of the areas in which I need to tread more carefully. I do not set out to tread lightly. I want to dig deep to understand, but I hope I will be able to do so with increased care and awareness going forward.
If anyone has questions or concerns, either about the assembly or this letter, I hope that we can talk about it. I want to be part of a community where we can speak directly, openly and honestly with each other. I truly believe this is the best way to learn about and from each other, and if we do not enter the black gates of CDS with the intention to learn a little more every day, then I don’t know why we are here.
I want to sincerely thank those who have taken the time to express their opinions and ideas around these issues of social justice, diversity and inclusion, both this year and in the past. It is through our relationships with each other that we all become more culturally competent, and create a community in which we can have pride and confidence.
I am honored to work with teachers like Carli. I think that there are several important lessons that we as adults in the CDS community can learn from this. First and foremost, when something comes up that you have questions about or want to discuss further, please take your concern to the person closest to the issue, knowing that each individual teacher and staff member very much wants to hear your feedback and thoughts. In this case that person was Carli. Second, let’s remember that our students, whether they are 9-year-old Pelicans or 13-year-old eighth graders, are doing their best to present their learning, and are doing so in age appropriate ways. And lastly, let’s continue to notice when we have responses, and remember that these responses are all part of a learning process and a learning community.
I am grateful to the Pelicans and to Carli for demonstrating the qualities of active, engaged learners and for the work that they put into the Ohlone unit and into their assembly presentation. I am also grateful to be a part of this community.