Katherine Dinh: Teaching by Talking

September 29, 2016


Earlier this month I co-facilitated an online discussion, convened by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), to speak with other school heads about the issues we are facing within the context of the nation’s political and social climate. My fellow facilitators were Caroline Blackwell, NAIS VP for Equity and Justice, and Bryan Garman, Head of Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.

The forum, which was open to the first 100 heads who registered, sold out in three days, indicating the clear need that school leaders across the country are trying to sort through what to teach our students during these difficult times. Our goal was to share our concerns, and to gather ideas for engaging our students in developmentally appropriate and positive ways.

In particular, we focused on the political climate and the lack of civility that has been pervasive in the run-up to the presidential election, and how our school cultures have been negatively impacted. In every corner of the country my peers in other schools, regardless of their demographic make-up or geographic location, affirmed what we have also seen at Prospect Sierra: incidents that were tied to negative media stories about politics or race that led to fear or misunderstandings among our students. Adults in our community have also expressed their worries about how to talk about what’s happening in the world.

This summer the faculty and staff read Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson together, the story of an African-American lawyer in Alabama who is working against all odds to defend the rights of the most underprivileged people caught in our country’s legal system. While most of Stephenson’s stories are heartbreaking, they also gave our faculty and staff the inspiration and hope to lean into the reality of our country’s injustices, rather than to turn away. We have gathered resources and spent time in faculty meetings sharing ideas on how to teach about current events and politics, while also ensuring that all of our students feel safe, regardless of their family’s background or political leanings.

Together we decided that:

  • As a faculty and staff we will strive not to provide personal opinions of the political candidates; however, we will firmly disagree and prohibit any language or behavior that is disrespectful, prejudiced, exclusionary, or in any way antithetical to our school’s mission and values.
  • We will engage our students intellectually and provide opportunities for critical thinking so that they can be discerning consumers of the media stories that they hear.
  • We will provide ground rules for discussion, reminding students to practice active listening skills and consider the perspective of others.
  • We will include parents in the conversation so that we can support one another in the best interests of our children.

If you’re looking for resources, here are a few that we have found to be helpful.


Educational resources


Parent resources


I have felt the burden and the responsibility of educating for a better world, one in which people treat others with respect and fairness, and where diversity and inclusion are celebrated. This is the mission of Prospect Sierra, after all. Obviously none of us can do this work alone, and I invite you to join me for coffee and conversation on Thursday, October 27 at 6:30 p.m. in the Avis Library to discuss Just Mercy or to just share what’s on your mind and heart. I look forward to partnering with you to ensure that, despite the turbulence in our world, Prospect Sierra continues to be a safe, inclusive environment in which everyone can learn, grow, and thrive.