Pushing the Boundaries of Traditional Classrooms Can Benefit Diverse Learners

Building inclusive campus communities has led independent schools to structurally and symbolically modernize the classroom experience. Two independent K-12 schools in particular have pushed the limits of traditional classrooms to promote student learning, diversity, and inclusion.

[Above: Georgetown Day School]

The Galloway School in Atlanta, Ga., uses an immersion program to introduce diverse cultures and communities. Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C., challenges students to expand their thinking within the boundaries of their own campus. The end goals of both schools are similar: Cultivate empathy, curiosity, and critical thinking.

The Galloway School (Photo by Erin Crews)
The Galloway School (Photo by Erin Crews)

The Galloway School
The classroom at The Galloway School is considered a space for learning that can and should exist beyond the walls of the buildings on campus.

“The world is not a single narrative,” says Anthony Miller, diversity and inclusion specialist at Galloway. “It is much more dynamic. That’s why it is so important for kids to have meaningful experiences [by] going out into the world.”

This type of learning is known as experiential education, defined by The Independent Schools Experiential Education Network as a “pedagogical process by which educators engage students through a cycle of direct experience, reflection, analysis, and experimentation.”

Independent schools such as Galloway embrace experiential education as a tool to promote diversity and inclusion throughout their curricula and school communities. One aspect of Galloway’s programming is “Immersion and Excursion,” which connects children to the world outside by taking them on field trips to places where they can learn about diverse populations, Miller says.

In the Immersion portion of the program, each grade level in Middle Learning, grades five through eight, is assigned a theme — compassion, belonging, advocacy, or courage — that drives the selection of activities and field trips throughout the academic year. Trips can include a spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation center, an apartment complex home to a large population of refugees, or a citywide scavenger hunt that traverses the diverse neighborhoods of Atlanta.

Upper Learning students in grades nine through 12 participate in Excursion, a 12-day period every January when they dig into a topic of their choosing. Some shadow mentors in industries such as botany, fashion design, or public interest law, while others travel outside the country to study culture and language.

“The purpose of [Immersion and Excursion] in many ways is to have meaningful learning,” Miller says. “Students are going out into the world, interacting with people, and learning skills and how to do a deep dive in something, which is especially important in a time when attention spans can be short.”

Galloway brought Miller on board in July 2018 as the first full-time diversity and inclusion staff member. The transition reflected the next phase in the school’s commitment to fostering community and shared values on campus, Miller says.

“Everybody needs exposure,” Miller says. “We so often develop our own narratives about people, groups, and places, and that narrative might be based on reality or might be steeped in uninformed perspectives.”

Miller adds that faculty and staff are careful to ensure experiential learning programs do not devolve into exploitative cultural tourism.

“Students are encouraged to learn from and listen to the people they meet,” Miller says. “They are also asked to do significant reflection on what they’re experiencing to make sure they are in tune with it. Excursions shouldn’t be some sort of traveling museum.”

Georgetown Day School
Experiential learning does not always require a trek across town or international borders. Georgetown Day School (GDS) invites students to study and solve problems on their own campus.

Through a program called Youth-Led Participatory Action Research, high school students explore topics like diversity and inclusion inside the walls of GDS. Last year, they chose to investigate the intersection of socioeconomics and student athletics, says Marlo Thomas, director of diversity and inclusion at GDS.

Students considered the outside costs of school sports in which the participants experience the most financial inequity. They then studied the allocation of school funds to sports teams by gender.

Upon viewing the results, Thomas says, “There was an immediate feeling and thought that there needed to be some action put in place to address financial strain and costs related to student athletics participation.”

They then presented a proposal to the head of school, Russell Shaw, and the Board of Trustees. At the behest of school leadership, Thomas took up the proposal and partnered with the athletic department to develop an implementation plan.

“In the meantime, the head of school has been fully supportive of families and teams that need the support,” Thomas says. “We opened the door for them to come in. Now, all students who would like to fully participate in athletics have the means to do so. Short-term action steps have been taken while we develop our longer-term plan.”

Thomas says when students analyze systemic challenges within the school, they develop the scaffolding and build the skillsets necessary to talk across their differences and engage in difficult conversations about identity and privilege.

This approach prepares them to confront challenges that arise both at school and in the world outside, she says.

“Because of technology, all of our students have a level of exposure, witnessing certain things and hearing certain language,” Thomas says. “None of us are immune to that seeping into our environments. We try to take a proactive stance in getting ahead of those situations as much as possible.”

GDS’ curriculum is infused with diversity and inclusion programming across divisions. From school policies to the spatial layout on campus, diversity and inclusion strengthen the student enrollee’s experience, Thomas says.

“At our high school and lower-middle school locations, we have offices that are central hubs, community spaces,” Thomas says. “They are filled with positive energy every single day.”

Students can use the space as a point of connection to be seen and heard, to build community, and to receive academic and personal support. Providing the physical space for diversity and inclusion offices, as well as dedicated staff to manage the program, provides psychological and emotional reinforcement for them, Thomas says.

“Outside my door,” Thomas says. “is the infectious laughter of a large group of students who represent all aspects of identity, which is a strong indication that they are feeling safe right now at school.” ν

Sarah Edwards is a contributing writer for DiversityIS. This article ran in our Spring 2019 issue.