Transcript of the episode “Students as experts: Diversity, equity, and inclusion”

Jon M: [00:00:15] Hi, I’m Jon Moscow. 

Amy H-L: [00:00:16] And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Dr. Judith King-Calnek of  the United Nations International School. Dr. King-Calnek has been at UNIS since 1994 as a teacher of anthropology, theory of knowledge, and history; head of the humanities department; president of the staff association; and a UNIS parent. This year, she became the school’s first Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Welcome, Judith!

Judith K-C: [00:00:48] Thank you. It’s nice to be here. Thank you for having me.

Jon M: [00:00:52] What is the United Nations International School? What is its purpose and whom does it serve? 

Judith K-C: [00:00:58] We are an independent school in New York City. Our main campus is in Manhattan, and we have a campus in Queens. In Manhattan we’re pre-K to 12, and in Queens we’re K-8. And about 50% of our students, or a little bit more than 50%, are children of UN staff and the others are a combination of other international families in the New York area and families in the New York area that want their children to have an international education. And our mission is directly aligned with the mission, the goals of the United Nations.

Amy H-L: [00:01:41] You’ve taught social and cultural anthropology at UNIS for many years. How do you encourage students to view different cultures and value systems without condescension?

Judith K-C: [00:01:52] I think I’m really lucky to teach anthropology in general and even luckier to teach it at UNIS because I think our students are almost, by virtue of the lives that they lived, natural anthropologists. Many students are, but in their lives, they cross borders and boundaries so frequently and have so many intersecting identities that they’re very aware of, because they’ve often lived in other countries, other cultures. And one of the things is, part of the ethos of the school is that, um, our job is not to acculturate students to become American citizens; it’s to be global citizens. So it weaves in very nicely with our raison d’etre  and it’s not condescending in that way because it’s just kind of part of who we are, our normal language. I find the wonderful thing about the course that I teach is it gives these kids language for many things that they know and that they experience that they may not have been able to articulate. Otherwise. I think it’s the same for other kids in other schools in many ways, except that because we are an international school and we strive to create global citizens, it’s just part of what we do and who we are. And it lends itself very well to that.

Jon M: [00:03:25] You’ve also taught history. Has the history curriculum become less white and European centered over the years that you’ve been there?

Judith K-C: [00:03:35] Yes and no. In different grades in different years. I’ve taught history in seventh and eighth grade, and I’ve taught history in ninth and 10th grades. And I think when I first arrived, it was much more Eurocentric than it is now in the middle school. In the high school, not quite as much, but still to a large degree. For example, when I began teaching ninth grade history, I was really excited because they already taught the Haitian Revolution and Latin American revolutions in the same year that they were teaching the French Revolution, the American Revolution. So it was sort of Atlantic world revolutions and in the middle school, they looked at so many different societies, the Mongol empire, the Mughal empire, ancient India, all sorts of other civilizations. Of course, they studied the Renaissance also, medieval Europe as well. So they have that too, but they looked at other societies at different places in times. But again, the curriculum has changed a lot over the years. So different times it’s been more or less broad or more or less narrow.

Amy H-L: [00:05:00] In an interview on the UNIS podcast, UniVerses, you said that you’ve tried to push back during your tenure at UNIS. What have you pushed back against and what have been the results?

Judith K-C: [00:05:12] Well, that’s one thing in terms of the way we frame things. One example is in 10th grade history, the unit was called European imperialism and decolonization. And I and a couple of others, but especially me, pushed back and said, rather than decolonization I think they’re independence movements. We just talk about decolonization. It takes away the agency of the people that were colonized and sort of eclipses the long histories that they had before they were colonized by Europe. In those cases, they were specifically looking at Africa and Asia. So that’s one way I’ve pushed back. And even what I teach. Um, when I taught, I don’t teach it anymore, European history, I weave in Africa, I weave in the Middle East. I weave in other places. For example, at one point my students were looking at figures, some mythological and some historical, figures like Richard the Lion-hearted in England. And I said, well, are there lions in England? No. Well, where do those images come from? And, you know, we looked at coins, pictures of coins, gold coins with a lion on them. I said, well, where does the gold come from? And they remembered back that they had studied the empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai and remembered the importance of gold in those places. And knowing that lions are not  only not indigenous to England, but you don’t see them wandering around the streets of England. So making connections and reminding students of trade, and also because we have a global focus, one of the things I, I constantly stress is that this notion of globalization is not new. We’ve had globalization of different sorts for millennia, thousands of years. And now it’s different, of course, because the speed and the rapidity and the breadth of it is so much faster and stronger and forceful, but you know, the Columbian Exchange, globalization is not a new thing. So those are the ways I push back. And when I say perspective, sometimes I’m pushing back against texts. Sometimes I’m pushing back against administrative structures, just different things because we really stress the development of critical thinking. And I think when my students see me questioning things like that, it develops that in them as well. And I, and I tell them to push back against me as well.

Jon M: [00:08:05] What are your priorities as Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion?

Judith K-C: [00:08:11] Wow. I have been thinking a lot about that. One of the first things now is I am in the process of establishing, creating structures and policies. I am in the process right now of writing job descriptions for coordinators. So I have people in place that can help me. Many hands make light work, and this is a huge job, establishing committees, identifying people that I can tap into, that they can work with me. So that’s one of my real priorities. But at the same time I’m doing that, there’s a expectation that things are being done, so I’m doing things at the same time, having meetings, getting student groups active, involved in training, all sorts of training from anti-bias anti-racism training, diversifying the curriculum, restorative circles. So there’s those pieces, sort of, the structure, the culture, and other priorities, increasing representation of underrepresented groups, especially people of African descent in the student body as well as the faculty audience 

Amy H-L: [00:09:26] For our listeners, would you go over what a restorative circle is?

Judith K-C: [00:09:31] Yeah. And it’s not just in terms of DEI work. In our junior school, the elementary school kids, it’s very much a part of it, where they have a peace table, you know, that sort of trains kids, teaches kids how to work through problems and communicate and to come together, sort of like reconciliation in a way. So in terms of diversity, equity, inclusion, my philosophy is that when there’s a transgression, of course there are consequences, but some people look to, “What are you doing? What happens if somebody does this? You have to have a zero tolerance policy.” This is what I hear a lot. And yes, there are consequences, but I really believe that as a school, also, we’re an educational institution. We need to restore our community when there are some transgressions. It’s a learning opportunity for whoever who has done the wrong thing for them to learn. And for the person who has been wronged to feel that they have been seen, that we recognize what happened and that they are able to go forward and that the people, or sometimes they’re not people, sometimes they’re structures, whatever, that there’s some kind of mending. This is really hard. It’s it’s not easy. I think we live in a society that is often focused on punishment, and I believe there should be punishment sometimes, there should be discipline for certain things. But I think punishment is easy to measure, you know, but restoration is harder. So I think it’s something that’s really, really important, but that’s my philosophy in general. And again, sometimes that’s an area I have to push back cause like, you know, people don’t always want to hear that.

Jon M: [00:11:35] Speaking of that and expanding from that, ethical issues come up in schools all the time. You know, teachers and administrators are always having to deal with these situations where usually there’s no right answer. Any answer is going to have negative as well as hopefully some positive outcomes. How do you encourage a culture where people are explicitly thinking about education in an ethical way so that when teachers have these kinds of issues arise, that there’s a community to help frame the answers? Is this something…? We’ve been looking at this a lot. We had an interview with  Meira Levinson who has a website called, where she’s deliberately trying to help schools and teachers deal with these kinds of questions so that it’s not just having to deal with them each time they come up, sort of, from scratch. Is this anything that, that you’ve been involved in and that you have thoughts on?

Judith K-C: [00:12:43] I have a lot of thoughts on it and I haven’t been involved in it formally. And it’s exactly the kind of thing that we’re looking to do. More of it happens in places and spaces. Some people individually sort of incorporate it into the practice. But one of the things that I would very much like to do in this work in diversity, equity, inclusion now, in this new position, is to make it broader, to get more people trained in it. And it’s really transformative. And that’s what I’m trying to do in DEI work. We’re really trying to transform the culture, not just of school, but we’re trying to revolutionize the world.

Jon M: [00:13:33] You’re in a good place to do it since it’s a worldwide school. You’ve spoken about the student DEI committee. What’s that committee doing?

Judith K-C: [00:13:48] Those kids are amazing. They started, well, we have a couple different groups, student groups, the main group is the equity and inclusion board and they sort of started up on their own over the summer in the wake of all of the George Floyd protest, Brianna Taylor protest. And they were spurred on by a group of alumni as well. And they have been involved in writing curriculum. They’re working with our specialist and their faculty advisor on how to deliver modules to other students on  things from microaggressions to LGBTQ things, workshops on pronouns. They just came back from the National Association for Independent Schools student diversity leadership conference. We had a group that went. I just got an email yesterday from the parent of one of them, who said that her daughter was completely amazed and said it was the best experience she ever had and couldn’t wait to share that. So they’re learning how to set up affinity groups. They are holding assemblies. They had the school’s first voter education and registration drive. And they created a couple of videos for that and held assemblies. So they’re doing so much, they’re doing so much that I actually worry about them because I see they send emails and I look at the times of their emails. I’m thinking, why are they sending emails at 11:00 PM on a Saturday night? They’re 16 years old. I’m a little protective of them because one, I want them to make sure they don’t burn out and two, that they don’t neglect their academics. But they’re phenomenal. They’re phenomenal. I was going to write some of them in on the ballot in November, they’re so good. Yeah.

Jon M: [00:15:55] With you mentioning about students writing curriculum, and when we talked earlier, you talked about the idea of recognizing that there are things that the students know in areas that the faculty don’t, and so that you can have a truly interactive kind of exchange. It seems to me that that’s something that would be really interesting for a lot of schools to sort of, you know, try to follow your model because it sort of breaks through that wall between teachers and students. And also, I don’t know if this is happening in terms of parents as well, but could you talk a little bit about how they’ve done that and also what kind of responses are they getting from faculty since obviously some of these areas might be things that teachers would traditionally think of as you know, their turf? I mean, it sounds absolutely fascinating.

Judith K-C: [00:16:49] Yeah. Well, you know, it’s, it’s hard for the adults to be told things by the youth. One thing, what we have them doing now is working with not large groups of faculty at a time, but with a couple of people at a time. So we have, for example, one teacher who coordinates the other mentors or homerooms or advisory groups. It’s called different things in different schools over time, but where they have different sessions so that teacher who coordinates and sets that curriculum is actually working with the students to help set the curriculum. And those students provide three services to them.

One is they give them consultations, where they look at the different modules that are going to be used. And based on their experience with those modules in years past, they give feedback: “This worked, this didn’t work, why we liked this, how you should change this, et cetera, et cetera.” so you have one, consultations.

The other service they give us, they provide the training themselves. And that’s where, like I said, they’re working with the curriculum specialist and their faculty advisor to develop them and get trained in how to deliver the sessions to the other students. And when they’re doing that, the teachers are in the room and the teachers are sort of, not quite students in the process, but they get exposed to that too.

And the third service that they’re providing is where some of their modules are sort of pre-packaged and videotaped or something. So then they can just give those to the teachers, that the teachers can use. So it works well, or it’s so far it’s working well, cause some parts are farther along than others. And again, some teachers love hearing from the students. Again, sometimes it’s a little intimidating. What are these kids going to tell me? And it’s a learning experience for the students because the students don’t fully understand, you know, just what teaching is about sometimes. Some students think, oh, you just hand the teacher a lesson and they just deliver it. And they think – right, that was, that was our response to, we laughed. One student actually said that. And that’s when we said, okay, we need to work with them to help develop this. And again, it takes time, and a lot of people want things done very quickly. And I’m always saying patience, this is a process it’s not a quick fix. It’s not a one-time, not a one off-er. 

Jon M: [00:19:40] When you spoke to middle school students on UN day this year, celebrating, I think, the 75th anniversary of the UN, a student asked about the assassination of the teacher in France because he talked about the picture of the prophet Muhammad and you didn’t get a chance to answer it. How would the school approach an issue like that?

Yeah, and we have a lot of those conversations because every time there’s an event anywhere in the world, we have students and faculty and staff who are directly impacted by it, often on many different perspectives, different sides. So we’ve talked a lot and we realize there may not be any answers. There may not be closure. There’s not necessarily a right answer. But we find ways to, first of all, be informed, drawing on not only what we’ve studied, but also on kids’ and teachers’ own backgrounds and lived experience and look at things from different perspectives. So a lot of times, for example, we’ll take a situation like that in current events, and then look at how it’s reported from different media sources. Also, looking at an incident like that in different places and times. That was a really good example because our students really are keenly aware that, when we look at “the Muslim world” that it’s huge, it’s wide and incredibly diverse, and they can talk quite readily about the different manifestations, different versions, different interpretations, and different restrictions in how different people practice and observe and don’t and how different groups can and have co-existed or not in different times and places.

For example, in the middle school, our students study historically the birth of Islam and the Muslim empire in its growth. And so they tend to be really informed and understand things in a more nuanced way than a group of people maybe that doesn’t know anything about historically geographically, politically let alone, religiously, about Islam and finding common ground. What are the limits? I have one student who is now in 12th grade and she is writing her, it’s called an extended essay, it’s part of the International Baccalaureate and it’s a longer piece of research, a 4,000 word essay, and she is looking at female genital mutilation within the framework of universal human rights versus cultural relativism and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights coming straight from the UN. But then this anthropological notion of cultural relativism, how do you reconcile these two seemingly contradictory conceptual frameworks and looking at this particular example, this particular case? So we grapple with these things all the time. And again, we don’t have answers. We have outrage for things like people being massacred and killed and we express outrage and we, and I say and instead of but, and we also realize that we may not always agree, but how then can we have a conversation? And as long as we keep talking, we usually say, as long as we can keep talking, we’re okay.

You know, thinking about what you’re saying, which sounds amazing. I mean, it sounds like what one would hope to have happen in every school, but unfortunately it doesn’t a lot of times, and it seems as though it would require a very thoghtful and nuanced and collaborative teaching process. Is that something that your staff meetings deal with a lot? I mean, do people, how do you help ensure that all of your teachers understand and fit well within the culture of the school, the pedagogical structure in school? And I’m thinking of this primarily again, for our listeners, many of whom are going to be in a whole variety of schools. How can schools get to the place that you’re either at, or that you’re continuing to work on getting to be at?

Judith K-C: [00:24:35] Yeah, we’re continuing to do this. It never stops. And sometimes we do it much better than other times. Definitely. And it varies. It varies by grade level and by department. Since I’ve worked mostly in the humanities department or social sciences, as most people call it, one of the things in the high school, is just physically, how we’re located. We have a big room and we  all have our desks in there and we have a big yellow table in the middle. And we often come together to that yellow table. And it’s almost like our round table, you know, and we hash things out and we have some of the most lively arguments about, for example, what to include or not to include in the curriculum. We can never agree. And then we agree and then we have a conversation two weeks later and we look at what we decided and we say, oh, how could we have decided that, you know, what were we thinking? And then we meet again two weeks later and we decide something else. And meanwhile, we’re teaching and we’re talking to each other. So the curriculum is allive, and you know, one of the things I find we have to be really constantly in conversation and changing and altering things. And then something happens in the world and we say, Oh, we can’t do this anymore. We have to do that. But what about, that’s not what we’re supposed to teach. We’re supposed to be doing this unit right now. You know, I think sometimes teachers, we get sort of fixated on what we’re supposed to teach, what time, and you know, even if there’s a fire drill. Oh my gosh, that ruined everything. Now I’m off schedule. Yeah. And it’s really so much about, you know, fighting that tendency that many of us have in responding to each other and to our students.

And again, anytime  something happens in the world, we’re affected. I remember years ago there was a kidnapping in Peru and. I was teaching in middle school then, and I had two students who were from Peru. The two students, one of them’s aunt and the other one’s uncle were being held, were being held by the kidnapper at the same time. And I thought, what, what is the likelihood of that? You know, I only have two students from Peru and they both have somebody in their family. Now, each of those people, they were not necessarily always on the same side of the issue, but this issue just hit them and therefore us very personally. So we kind of had to pause because that wasn’t in our curriculum, but it was in the news and they were in the class. So we had to stop and say, what’s going on? What does this mean?

Amy H-L: [00:27:41] In that same UN day presentation that Jon mentioned, you discussed microaggressions, which you described as “death by a thousand cuts.” How do you urge students to deal with microaggressions, especially when they are, more often than not, unintentional?

Judith K-C: [00:28:00] Yeah, we’re working on that. Students and faculty and administrators. We are all working on that. It’s a big chunk of work. And for people who experience them, they understand them much more. For people who don’t experience them, sometimes they don’t get it. So we all have different work. The analogy “death by a thousand cuts” and another analogy I’ve heard is “like a mosquito bite.”  And if you just have one mosquito bite, that just annoying, but if you’re bitten by many mosquitoes nonstop all day long, it’s horrible. So one thing is giving people who experience them the tools to respond, reminding them not to assume malintent, first of all, but ways to respond that helps highlight, educate the person who sort of did them. And then for the people who are on the delivering end, sensitivity one, to what it feels like, because sometimes you don’t know something until you feel it yourself, and then understanding from the other perspective.

For example, I have a colleague who is African-American, her husband is white, and they have kids. And her kids are very, very light and she’s very, very Brown. And she said, I’m so tired when I go out, people say, you know, oh, are those your kids? And so one thing I said, why don’t you just tell them “no, I just found them, you know, I thought they needed walking, so I walk them.” Something so ridiculous that it makes a person one laugh. Humor is often good because that, you know, engages people, but also it shows them, you know, that was really ridiculous question. That was a lot of assumptions in there and was offensive in some ways. And why, you know, just to sort of dig in there. So, you know, it doesn’t always have to be humor, but that’s one way and it’s, it’s disarming in a non-destructive way.

Jon M: [00:30:29] Yeah. Some students at UNIS have engaged in ethnographic studies at the school. What kind of projects have they taken on and what did they learn?

Judith K-C: [00:30:39] Oh man, this, and this is my thing. I love this, the work they’re doing. I have so many things. I had some big, really bold, research. As I mentioned, my student from some years ago, who was from Iran, and she went to Iran in, it was around 2011, 12, 10, 11, 12, 13, I can’t remember, in there, at a time when it was very dangerous to be doing research. And she researched veiling, looking at how veiling sometimes meant many different things to different people in a way that an outsider probably couldn’t have understood or perceived, how sometimes it was an act of rebellion and  sometimes it was an act of complicity. Um, she looked at it through a feminist theory lens with just phenomenal research. I have a student who did ethnographic study in a fifth grade classroom and focused on gender differences in the ways that the students interacted and the way the teacher responded, especially in terms of discipline. And she found a big difference. Um, I’ve had students also do ethnographic work in classrooms and with the little ones with the junior school or not in the classroom, in and about the school and the school lobby and in the playground.

And again, a lot of my students are very interested  in gender studies and looking at how children are very genderized early on, looking at material culture, colors that they have, their clothes and their school bags and things like that. So sometimes they do their studies looking at material culture. Sometimes they focus on symbolism. Those are just a few off the top of my head, but every year they do ethnographic studies. So this year I have a group of 22 anthropology students who are just finishing, writing up their ethnographic work, their limited field work.

Oh, you know what’s really, really fascinating. I had two that did this. They’re looking at rituals and they looked at the 7:00 PM clapping during COVID and looking at the symbolism of the ritual and they looked at it through the lens of Victor Turner’s notion of how collectivism and how we create these rituals to reinforce community ties. So they did a lot of participant observation and they followed up with interviews or surveys to collect data because they have to use at least two different research methods. That was really fascinating. I’m looking forward. They’re, they’re almost finished. They should be turning them into me yesterday, but they’re coming. Everything is different this year because of COVID, these poor kids, you know.

Amy H-L: [00:34:04] Well, is there anything we haven’t discussed that deals with the UN International School and ethics that you’d like to touch on?

Judith K-C: [00:34:16] I can tell you a story about my children when they went there, about one of my sons. My sons are both grown now. They’re, how old are they? Uh, it changes every year. I hate when that happens. They’re 32 and 29, right. So my older son, when he was in 10th grade, came to me and told me he was going to fast for Ramadan. Now we’re not Muslim. We’re actually a very, very secular family. And I said, well, why? And he said, well, I’ve been thinking about it. It’s a time, you know, when you’re supposed to think about those who have less than you, a time of reflection. And, you know, he told me all of the reasons that, you know, you’re supposed to fast and I said, okay, fine. So he got up every morning before dawn and fixed his food and he went all day and he did that throughout high school. And my colleagues who were Muslim, the adults said to me, “oh, you’re so lucky. You know, we, Muslim mothers, we pray our sons are going to fast, and your son is doing it on his own, you don’t have to get after him.” And, and I actually, I thought that was quite impressive. And then when he went away to college during Ramadan, I said, are you fasting? And he said, no. I said, why not? He said, well, I don’t have a community here like I did there. It doesn’t have the same meaning. So it was interesting. And it wasn’t like I wanted him to continue doing it forever. But the way that being in that environment had kind of made him this thoughtful person in a very authentic way that as a mother, I really liked that. 

And then another thing that one of the best compliments my younger son ever gave me when he was in middle school and they were studying, there was, he had been studying India and China and Hinduism and Buddhism. And he said to me, “Mom, are you a Buddhist?” And I said, “no, why?” And he said, “Oh, cause you’re always trying to do the right thing.” Wow. And I, to me that didn’t say so much about me. Of course, I love that as a mother, I’m doing the right thing, but that he was again, had his eyes and his ears open to other ways of being, and doing and looking at them in our lives.

So. Yeah. And I think they both got that from their time at this school. And I am, you know, I have been very critical of the school over the years, but obviously I love it because I’ve stayed there. But I do say, and I thought of taking my sons out of the school at different points in time, but my husband and I made the decision to keep them there. And I really do like the people they have become as adults. And I, I do credit the school for a big part of that. Not just what happens in the class, but outside of the class, those connections with the people and those things are harder to, you know, they happen organically. They’re harder to orchestrate. Some of them are because of extracurricular activities where they connect with people. But I think it’s sort of the spirit that continued beyond the classroom for them.

Amy H-L: [00:37:51] Thank you so much, Dr. Judith King-Calnek of  the United Nations International School.

Judith K-C: [00:37:57] Thank you. I really enjoyed it.

Jon M: [00:38:00] And thank you listeners. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or review. This helps other people to find the show. Check out our website, for more episodes and articles, and subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes. We work with consultants to offer customized SEL programs with a focus on ethics for schools and youth programs in the New York City area.

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