Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials are putting a lot of effort into trying to make all classrooms equitable, meaning not just giving students the same resources, but ones that fit their particular needs. On Friday, more than 150 teachers gathered at the Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture to attend a two-day workshop on equity and how they can use the arts to better meet the needs of students of all cultures.
The packed room at the Gantt Center was filled with a diverse group of teachers, who said they were excited to learn more about using the arts and other methods to make their classrooms more equitable. Carla Lopez is a teacher at Whitewater Middle School in Northwest Charlotte.
“The more I teach, and this is my fourth year of teaching, the more I’m interested in creating an equitable classroom,” Lopez said. “As we progress and take a look at public schools becoming more segregated, we have to take on that responsibility as educators to see how we can truly even the playing field.”
The Gantt Teaching Institute has been in the making for five years, according to museum CEO David Taylor. Joined by CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, they explained the concept behind the project.
“How can we help our teachers build equitable classrooms and how can we be a resource to them,” Taylor said. “Our Gantt teacher institute will engage our exhibits and artists around powerful conversations around equity, unconscious biases and injustices across our community.”
“We’re going to look at how the world of art can influence some of the conversations we must have today,” Wilcox said. “We must talk about institutional racism, privilege, implicit bias but we have to do that through a lens of equity, fairness and social responsibility.”
One of the many facilitators for the workshop is Dena Simmons, the assistant director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She also teaches at Teachers College, Columbia University. She’s from the Bronx, but for a time attended a predominately white boarding school in Connecticut, where she didn’t think she was accepted by her peers and teachers.
“A teacher once instructed me in the hallway, saying, ‘Dena, it’s not axing, like you’re running around with an ax, come on that’s silly,” Simmons said. “My classmates snickered of course and she continued. ‘Break the word into ask and king and put them two together. There are other moments that reminded me that I did not belong."
Simmons says she told stories like this to let teachers know how some of their students may be feeling. Students of color makeup about 70 percent of CMS’ enrollment but only about a third of the teachers are of color.
Simmons encouraged them to get to know their students and their families; to discuss issues of race, culture and privilege and to look at how they treat students who don’t look like them in terms of expectations, opportunities, instruction, and also punishment, so they can feel good about themselves and want to learn.
“There is emotional damage done when kids can’t be themselves and are forced to edit who they are to be accepted. If you have me in your space, you’ve got to take my stories, trauma, you’ve got to welcome our folks and not just include them to foster equity,” Simmons said.
The teachers listened intently and were given various topics to discuss in groups at times. They also let the facilitators know that the messages were getting through, such as Betty Garcia, a Spanish teacher at Randall Middle School.
“We discussed not to wait until we hear a story but reach out to them before we hear it so we can help them deal with what they’re going through, taking the proactive approach,” Garcia said.
The teachers will also spend time exploring the various exhibits at the Gantt. The will talk with the curators, artists and education experts about the racial, economic, housing and other issues represented in the artwork. They will be given tools to use in translating what they experience to the classroom, to be shared with other teachers at their schools.
“It’s great to have people of color and people who are Caucasian to understand the differences we have in our classes here,” said Juvon Suber, a counselor at West Charlotte High, who said the sessions were on point. “The classroom is very diverse and becoming more black and brown and these practices that we’re learning today will eventually help us in the process.”
Creating learning spaces where all students are heard and have access to the resources they need is what Superintendent Wilcox says equity is about. He says the Gantt workshops are perfectly timed.
“Because we’re talking about moving from a Eurocentric dominated curriculum, so we’re rebirthing all of our curriculum now to give teachers another set of tools. We’ve also launched a more widespread teaching of African-American and Latino studies and hope teachers will use this training right now to make those classes stronger.
Wilcox says equity is a top priority for him and he plans to continue working with Gantt officials in professional development for teachers.