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Cultivating the Courage to Listen and the Ability to Hear

Systematically exploring diversity at the International School of Kenya through an an ad hoc Diversity Working Group
By Alexa P. Schmid & Pamela Pappas
Cultivating the Courage to Listen and the Ability to Hear

In its effort to embody and teach diversity, ISK staff grapple with questions such as, whose history are we telling, and what books should we be teaching? (ISK).
In the beginning of the 2017–18 school year, our school community started to grapple with some questions around diversity—diversity in the curriculum, diversity in our staffing, how we support our diverse student population, and how we support professional learning related to cultural proficiency for our community members.
International School Kenya (ISK) is a North American-curriculum school catering to diplomats and other expatriates located in Nairobi, Kenya. Our students comprise over 65 nationalities, including Kenyans, and all the other facets that make up a diverse community: gender, religion, political views, race, cultural practices, sexual orientation, etc.
As we started to dive into the work, we realized that we had more questions than answers, and so we formed an ad hoc Diversity Working Group (DWG) led by our Middle School Principal, Alexa Schmid, and our Communications Manager, Pamela Pappas, for the 2018–19 school year consisting of faculty, administrative staff, parents, and students. As a school administration, we determined the purpose of the group to be exploring and examining diversity at ISK, with expected outcomes being to learn, reflect, explore, and propose ways that ISK can deepen and strengthen our practices related to diversity.
We have used The Appreciative Inquiry Approach (Cooperrider & Srivastva 1987), a strengths-based method of exploring and examining diversity at ISK. We have conducted this exploration through four areas of focus:
1. Global Citizenship and Curriculum: Ensure an evolving curriculum that deepens our understandings of cultures around the world while dispelling some of the myths associated with them.
2. Expand Cultural Proficiency & Sensitivity: Continue to build community through professional learning opportunities that expand our cultural proficiency.
3. Diverse Community: Reflect on how best to support our diverse student body.
4. Diverse Staffing: Continue to seek opportunities to diversify staff while maintaining our standards for exceptional educators who embrace our mission, vision, and educational aims.
Global Citizenship & Curriculum
At ISK, we aim to be intentional about our curriculum development, and this is one area where we believe we have some things to celebrate, but also continued room for growth. “Culturally responsive instruction resides firmly within a pluralist vision of society, recognizing that the cultures of different ethnic groups provide content worthy of inclusion in the curriculum” (Au 2009).
For example, many of our math teachers pull from Engage NY resources that are aligned with the Common Core Math standards. However, our faculty are always looking for ways to adjust the story problems to make them more relevant and to have a stronger context for our students living in East Africa.
When doing science labs, our teachers look for local and relevant data in Kenya. For example, Grade 8 students take a field trip walk to a nearby stream to collect water samples for analysis and study.
Our elementary students explore different aspects of Kenyan history and government, and this also ties into the week-long Kenya InterCultural trips that students enjoy. This study continues into middle and high school, as students take Kenyan Studies class and an African Drumming class in Grade 6. Units on Kenya are also taught in World Civilizations classes offered to Grades 9 and 10. We are still grappling with questions such as: Whose history are we telling? What books do we select in our English classes and why?
“Culturally responsive teachers help students to understand that knowledge has moral and political elements and consequences, which obligate them to take social action to promote freedom, equality, and justice for everyone” (Gay 2002). How are we ensuring that our students develop a spirit of service, global mindedness, and social justice? In what ways are we helping them to think critically about inequities, and empowering them to find solutions? Our mission charges us: “ISK inspires and nurtures passion, creativity, and ambition in pursuit of a better world” (“Mission, Vision & Educational Aims, International School of Kenya,” n.d.).
Expand Cultural Proficiency & Sensitivity
We are committed to ensuring that ISK is a place where everyone loves to come to school. That means that people need to feel safe, and implies that there should be a foundation of trust, openness, and transparency. To support this work, we have had Dr. Fran Prolman visit us two years in a row to conduct a Transforming Schools Workshop with faculty and staff (Prolman 2017). During each of these visits, she has also supported us with meaningful exercises to explore stereotypes, reflect about where we are on the cultural proficiency spectrum, and consider the ways in which we intentionally think about facets of diversity within our curriculum. This has led ISK’s leadership team to continue to implement these ideas in faculty meetings, to organize various community building exercises that help us to build trust, as well as to develop our empathy and understanding of the diversity within our community.
To develop cultural proficiency in our students, our high school has started a new advisory program this year seeking, as stated in the High School Handbook, “to foster positive relationships, communication, trust, global mindedness, and the skills necessary to have a successful school transition into and out of ISK.”
In addition to social-emotional support and development, teachers are seeking opportunities to help students consider alternative perspectives, celebrate our rich diversity, and increase in empathy and cultural sensitivity. Our middle school also has an advisory program, and we have additionally looked for ways to incorporate cultural proficiency training into our student leadership seminars and biweekly assemblies.
Diverse Community
To explore the ways that we support our diverse student population, we hosted a Student Panel. Students recounted some upsetting stories about the discrimination, prejudice, and bullying they have experienced in their lives, and it spurred us to action, looking for further ways to create a culture of respect and inclusion. One step involved bringing focused conversations into our advisory program. Another included watching videos about Othering and Belonging (Santa Fe School, n.d.) in assembly and sparking conversation among students. A few students were inspired by this message and the idea of continuing to ensure that ISK is a safe place for all; as a result, we have created a Student Climate Committee with the purpose of increasing awareness about topics such as LGBTQ and bullying, as well as increasing a sense of inclusion and belonging.
This event took place in October—Bullying Prevention Month—which encouraged us to continue looking for opportunities to provide a supportive and accepting environment for all members of our community.
Diverse Staffing
ISK currently has a faculty of 130+ from 18 different nationalities who bring a vast array of experiences and knowledge to our community. We value diversity and want to ensure that we are looking in the right places for candidates who have the training and qualities that align with our mission, vision, and educational aims. Among the questions we are asking ourselves: What is our ultimate goal related to diversity in our staffing? For example, do we want a certain ratio of male teachers in elementary school? Do we want a certain percentage of our faculty to be people of color? What about representation from the other continents or ethnicities? To what extent should our faculty mirror our student population?
While we are exploring these questions, we are hoping to reflect on our values as a school and continually search for teaching candidates who have a strong connection with our vision and will also support our diverse community, through their attributes and their cultural proficiency.
Looking to the Future
While the work has been uncertain or challenging at times, with conflicting views from various community members and wrenching stories from students, we believe in it. We are inspired to continue these important conversations in our community, as we think with intentionality about how diversity aligns with our school’s mission, vision, and values.
“This working group is an amazing opportunity to see beyond our personal narratives and share our experiences in a respectful and inclusive environment,” stated a member of the Diversity Working Group. “Moving forward, as an elementary school parent and high school teacher, it is my hope that this group will acknowledge as many diverse voices as possible to create and nurture a common positive sense of belonging to the ISK community.”
Alexa P. Schmid is the Middle School Principal at the International School of Kenya. She is currently working on her Doctor of Education degree from Plymouth State University, and was a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia.
Pamela Pappas is Communications Manager at the International School of Kenya.

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06/22/2019 - Jan
Exploring and examining diversity should be first and foremost in all schools in the world. If students do not feel safe and valued, their true educational merit will not be metl What a pity! I think many schools put nurturing diversity on the back burner and focus on improving test scores. It should be the other way around. I applaud Alexa Schmid and Pamela Pappas on THEIR courage to listen and ability to hear!!!



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