After writing recently about conference speakers, I hadn’t planned on returning again to the subject so soon. But after hearing Nikole Hannah-Jones, a MacArthur Fellow, and best-selling author Jason Reynolds speak powerfully last week to this moment of opportunity in independent schools, I had to share their thoughts.
Both addressed the 2021 National Association of Independent Schools’ Annual Conference as keynote speakers on its final day. Their remarks were nothing less than a call to action for educators.
Hannah-Jones, a journalist, created the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project for the New York Times, marking the 400th anniversary of African slaves being delivered to what would become the United States. In the months since its publication, the 1619 Project has inspired a school curriculum that examines facets of American history long unexplored.
“We can only build the society we want by telling the truth,” Hannah-Jones said. “Until we reckon with our founding sin, our original sin, we will never be the country we claim to be. When we are not taught the intentionality of exclusionary practices, we don’t know how to correct them.”
“We can’t pick and choose what parts of history we agree with,” she added.
Hannah-Jones also nodded to the history of independent schools, noting that, in many cases, they began “as white-flight schools, and sometimes in response to desegregation.
“What are the goals for independent schools now? What does integration at independent schools look like now? How does integration really work in schools that are built to serve elite families?”
Hannah-Jones built on these questions to challenge her audience. “Do we see diversity as an abstract notion or a reality that we have to build in independent schools? In an increasingly diverse nation, it will become a liability to receive an education that doesn’t address that.”
Reynolds is the author of more than 10 books for young readers, including his latest, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, which was co-written last year with Ibram X. Kendi.
Reynolds alluded to the myriad effects of the pandemic when he said, “An unprecedented time with precedented results feels silly. We should be teaching with unprecedented methods.
“This is the time to teach in unprecedented ways, to rethink what education is supposed to be. … You are independent schools. You have the audacity to do things differently.”
Reynolds also talked about the role school-assigned books can play for young people, either for good or, as in his case, for ill.
“I didn’t hate to read; I hated to be bored,” he said. “The books that were given to me in school never connected with me,” citing such titles as Moby Dick and To Kill a Mockingbird.
What would connect with him, though, was rap music. “I remember reading the liner notes on a Queen Latifah cassette and realizing, this was poetry,” Reynolds said. “Rap music saved my life. It was telling truths.” He began writing poems himself, a creative outlet that would lead him eventually to his adult career.
Having access to a novel-in-verse like Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover “would have been a game-changer for me at 13,” he said. As it was, though, “I felt like there was … a screen between me and the teacher — a barrier that prevented me from connecting.”
What others learned
- Nancy Mugele, the head of Kent School in Maryland, was also inspired by Reynolds. On her personal blog, she wrote that she is lingering on a different question of Reynolds: “How are we keeping our children whole?”
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