You can say that again! No matter where I go—scrolling through social media, watching the news, driving to town, or into work—I always come back to that one truth: our world needs more kindness and open-mindedness!
Over the past month or so, we’ve seen more division, hurt, and sorrow than any of us would care to see. My heart aches for our country and for those who are suffering, and I long to see the day where unity is restored and no one is judged, stereotyped, hurt, or killed due to the color of their skin. I realize there is no quick fix to the problem we have in our country, but as someone who is learning more every day, I feel like there is a way to dramatically restore our communities and nation: education.
Education’s Role in Today’s Climate
I will be the first one to admit that because of education, I am the person I am today. My K-12 teachers in Rowan County schools taught me kindness and respect. They taught me how to work and collaborate with people who look different from me or have different perspectives. Unfortunately, it is our nature as human beings to believe what we believe and get kind of stuck in those beliefs. Fortunately, my education at Catawba College made me more aware of that nature and helped me discover my own blind spots or biases (because let’s be real, EVERYONE has them) and how to combat them.
My freshman year as a literature major, I took a class called “African-American Writers.” I quickly fell in love with the literature written by black authors and the varying perspectives I heard from my classmates that I never considered before. I read slave narratives, Langston Hughes poems, and Beloved by Toni Morrison (among many others), and man was my world rocked. I vowed to share those same experiences with my future students by introducing them to authors who looked different from them and never shy away from the difficult conversations. Then, I took a class called “Sounds of Silence” where we analyzed music that served as a voice for oppressed peoples throughout history, and again, I learned about the struggles of those who fought before me and looked different from me, and my mind expanded even more. I traveled to Germany and Poland with a class about genocide and saw the gates of Auschwitz where Elie Wiesel, in his memoir Night, declared he’d never be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation, and I vowed that too. These experiences, among others, taught me kindness and open-mindedness like never before.
Based on what my educational experiences have done for me, I feel very strongly about education’s role in repairing a country that is divided and broken. Since everyone goes to some type of school in their lifetime, this is a pretty easy way to start teaching these values and having these conversations.
To me, all places of education have the responsibility to do the following:
- Actively contribute to a more inclusive environment.
- Try new ways and approaches to advance diversity, inclusion, and equity.
- Listen to the voices and experiences of those impacted and seek to understand where they’re coming from, and teach those experiences to students. (In order to do this, we must introduce our students to people who look different and have different experiences from them!)
- Have the difficult, but necessary conversations.
- Aspire to transform lives and make the world a better place.
Examples in Rowan County
Although we can always improve and do better, here are some examples of what schools and colleges in Rowan County already do to teach kindness, inclusivity, and be more equitable as a whole.
- Many of our schools have clubs that center around kindness and inclusivity.
- “Mix It Up” clubs at Corriher-Lipe Middle School and South Rowan High School, where students strive to create an atmosphere so all students regardless of race, gender, religion, or sexual preference, feel welcome.
- Catawba’s Black Student Union, whose mission is to preserve, advance, and represent the cultural contributions of the African American student body, and serves as a liaison between its members and the administration to express the students’ views concerning academics, cultural arts, and campus life.
- Rowan County Early College’s Cultural Awareness Club, which addresses specific, unique qualities of different cultures and holds events to celebrate all cultures.
- “Sheros,” a club at Salisbury High School, dedicated to including and empowering female students.
- Private schools like Salisbury Academy and Sacred Heart Catholic School focus on different virtues each month that focus on teaching their students important values such as respect, gratitude, kindness, and inclusion.
- The colleges and universities in Rowan County offer many trips, both in the U.S and abroad, that introduce students to places and people much different from them.
- High school students in classrooms across the county read literature from different cultures and about important history such as “I am Prepared to Die” by Nelson Mandela, Night by Elie Wiesel, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou, The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and countless others.
- Students in all grades participate in Socratic seminars, which are student-led discussions, typically centered around a reading, topic, or a time in history, that often lead to the difficult and necessary conversations where everyone’s perspective is heard and respected.
- Last year, North Rowan High School fulfilled a student initiative to start having a pep rally for their CCAC (Care Coordination for Children) students that participate in the Special Olympics. Their theatre program also uses CCAC students in all theater productions!
- Elementary, middle, and high school students are given problems to solve and projects to create that mirror the outside world and encourage collaboration among diverse populations.
- On June 11, Dr. Moody and April Kuhn represented RSS (Rowan-Salisbury Schools) in an Equity Talks webinar through Discovery Education, proving our dedication to equity.
- Obviously, individual teachers play a huge role in these responsibilities. Luckily, we are blessed with some fabulous teachers who love and celebrate ALL kids!
- Bob Johnsen, a Civics and History teacher at Carson High School: “The goal is always to create dialogue and to build trust, but it’s also worth mentioning that as a teacher, that very much so represents the majority in our community, I should always ere on the side of giving too much respect to minority opinions because the majority view is already abundantly manifest. That’s a dedication to bettering myself that I have to continue to commit to. I don’t know what it’s like to be someone else, but I have such a beautiful diversity of cultures that sit in my desks every day. Why not ask them?”
- Sakinah Riley, a Creative Writing and American/British Literature teacher at the Rowan County Early College: “When I first began teaching, I felt most comfortable reaching African American females because they were an image of me; however, I soon realized that I could reach EVERY STUDENT with a reasonable amount of ease. It was simple. I created space for them in my classroom through discussion prompts, student-led presentations, Socratic seminars, project-based assessments, language exploration, critical literacies, music, food, social media, fashion, etc. My students did not have to be African American females to enjoy the kind of diverse instruction that was taking place in my classroom. The students I had been given the charge to teach were just that…students. They wanted to learn. I wanted to teach. I made sure that whatever interests and concerns they had, I addressed; treating humans humanly, themes amongst humanity, and the charge to be good humans, was made easy through literature. The required concepts and content that I was responsible for teaching aligned beautifully with my philosophy for teaching, and allowed students this discovery in how to think and not so much what to think, but how to analyze and create. But most importantly, how to respect that discovery in others. I strive to create a classroom environment where we respect each other’s moments of thought, revelation, inquiry, etc. This is important for our youth as they work through their thoughts in a world that doesn’t often allow them time to think about what they say or how they feel and ultimately how to analyze those thoughts and feelings.”
There are countless examples of every single school/college in Rowan County of how they individually teach kindness and inclusivity to their student population. Unfortunately, because it is summer and many teachers/students are taking a much-deserved break, I was not able to get in touch with all of them…so this is just a small snapshot overview.
Again, I am in no way saying we are perfect. We certainly have work to do. But it gives me hope that there are people and organizations in place in all of our buildings that relentlessly relay these important messages to our future generations and act as positive examples.
What Students Are Saying
It’s one thing to hear that Rowan County schools do this from a teacher in RoCo, but it’s another thing to hear it straight from the kids! What’s that saying? The proof is in the pudding? Here’s what a few students say about their experiences in Rowan County schools.
Alexis Adcock, a junior at Carson High School says, “I would like RoCo readers to know that these tough subjects, though sometimes they make us uncomfortable, have to be taught. They have to be talked about. This generation could change the world. If we do not teach students about the injustice system, racism, and how it affects your students/friends, then this world can never make a change for the better. Don’t be afraid to talk about it. As a student at Carson High School, I’ve never had a teacher exclude me from something or treat me lesser because of my race. I think our school system works hard to not make anyone feel left out.”
Mackenna Clifton, a recent graduate of West Rowan High School says, “Beginning as a transfer student at West Rowan High School, I’ll be the first to admit I was concerned if I would be the “right fit.” That is, before I got involved in West Rowan’s FFA Chapter. I’m aware that a lot of people probably associate the National FFA Organization strictly with farming and “getting your hands dirty,” but in my experience, the FFA does not have a typical member. For example, I’m an Asian-American student who originally had absolutely no agricultural background, but I had a passion for education and making a difference. The FFA took my passion and turned it into action. Students of different backgrounds, with different passions and goals are all able to make this organization a home, just as I did. Being surrounded by FFA members and advisors that all value diversity while actively working towards premiere leadership, personal growth, and career success has not only developed my passion for the industry, but also my character. I am grateful for the selflessness, dedication and love that these wonderful individuals brought to this organization and to me personally.”
Kaliyah, a recent graduate of Livingstone College explains, “I attended Livingstone College on the foundation of family members that matriculated before me. Livingstone provided an educational opportunity when no one else would. The professional leadership staff is diverse in itself as they represent a global conglomerate. The student body is a microcosm of ethnic and cultural diversity with students from Africa, the Caribbean, India, and other countries across the globe. Studying, as well as socializing, was ripe for growth and learning. I will miss the experience and the relationships I made on campus.”
Kerry and Abby Campion, students at Salisbury High School, are proud members of the Sheros club. “Mrs. Whitley, the advisor, is welcoming to all of the girls at SHS no matter the color, size, age, home circumstances, or academic goals. Our club primarily organizes, stocks, and promotes our school’s clothing closet, among other service-related tasks. This club gives females in our school a great avenue to show kindness by devoting time to help fellow classmates.”
Sara Taylor Reddick, an upcoming third grader at Morgan Elementary, says “I love when our school counselors come into our classrooms and talk to us about how to be nice to everyone. When someone isn’t nice to another person, our teachers do a great job of making sure they always say sorry.”
Jordan Darrisaw, a recent graduate of Catawba College explained, “During my time at Catawba, many student leaders, like myself, and professors, made it their obligation to celebrate diversity and spread kindness all across campus. It was our goal to make sure every student felt represented no matter their ethnicity, culture, or interests. Like many others, I do think we have a lot of work to do; however, I think Catawba is off to a great start!”
“If our interest is truly in the investment of our students, then we will celebrate opportunities to grow skill sets that will do just that,” Sakinah says. “The lives and interests of our African American students matter. Their right to live in a society that respects them is just as necessary as the chimney sweepers’ lives in the 1830’s, Jewish lives in the 1940’s, or Latino lives in East Los Angeles during the 1960’s. We fought for them. We stood in solidarity for them. It was the right thing to do for people who were being treated less than others. Right now, more than ever, schools must be the hub for this kind of advocacy. They need to see us model humanness, they need us to model humanity, the need to be culturally aware; they need us.”
Bob Johnsen says many students have reached out to him with questions regarding the Black Lives Matter protests over the past month.
“The questions have been things like, ‘Should I go protest?’ ‘What do you think about all this?’ ‘Are you as mad as I am?’ In particular, one white student wanted to know what he could do to alleviate suffering in black communities. My advice to him was what I try to live myself: ‘Go talk to people. Ask them what they need.’”
I think Bob and Rowan County places of education as a whole are onto something…Teaching students kindness and open-mindedness, so that they grow into adults and mature citizens who teach their children kindness and open-mindedness. It really is a ripple effect.
Spread some love today and every day, friends!