Dear Runkle School Families,
We are several days removed now from Election Day.  This has been an election campaign unlike any other in my lifetime, one that was filled with unprecedented inflammatory language that reached, in today’s hyperconnected culture, such a large segment of society’s youth.  Many in our community, students and adults alike, have reacted with fear, anger, and confusion to comments regarding Muslims, immigrants, and women during the campaign, and woke up on Wednesday morning to a heightened foreboding of what the future may hold for them.
I met with teachers after school on Wednesday to debrief on the day and we talked together about ways of addressing these issues appropriately and effectively with our students.  We spoke of the communities we have helped build within each of our classrooms, the norms the students have helped establish, both within each classroom, and in our building as a whole, with our “RUNKLE Way” that has Respect, Unity, and Kindness among its central pillars.  Teachers will continue to reinforce these messages each and every day, to strive to create our own ‘more perfect union’ within the walls of Runkle School.  Teachers shared conversations they had with students about the fundamental nature of the U.S. government as laid out in the Constitution, such as the three branches of government (executive, legislative, judicial) and the unique system of checks and balances between these branches, and in a democracy the power of the people to make change, which invariably is the source of celebration for some and concern for others within our country.  I want to thank our teachers and guidance counselors for their conscientious and heart-felt work on what was a sleep-deprived and difficult day for many, and for what they do each and every day on behalf of our students’ social, emotional, and academic well-being.
Tuesday was also the Public Schools of Brookline’s Professional Development Day entitled “Interrupting the Cycle of Racism – What Can I Do?” which featured a keynote address from Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum.  I encourage you to read Superintendent Bott’s comments about this day in his recent Superintendent’s Report to the School Committee. More information from Dr. Tatum’s speech will be shared with the parent community from central administration.  I will simply say that Dr. Tatum’s presentation was powerful, hopeful, and challenge-filled.  It will require us all, as Dr. Tatum said, “to get past our discomfort if we’re going to interrupt the cycle of racism.”
“Implicit Bias” was the primary theme of our building-based work when we returned to Runkle following Dr. Tatum’s presentation and follow-up discussions. The term ‘implicit bias’ gained mainstream traction during the presidential and vice-presidential debates last month, and refers to the often subconscious assumptions and reactions that we make towards other people.  Learning of this concept dovetailed with my own recent thinking around what I call ‘micro-encounters’.  We are probably all familiar with the term ‘micro-aggressions,’ which refers to often verbal comments that, whether purposeful or not, land as indignities on their targets.   By micro-encounters I am thinking of beyond verbal, and beyond interactions per se, and more towards the most elemental, physiological signals we may unintentionally convey to each other as we come into contact with or simply pass each other as we go about our daily lives.  Are we reacting equally or equitably to all, or do we ever-so-briefly ‘hiccup’ or flinch when we come across someone different or unfamiliar.  And if we do, how is that message received on the other end?  The work in the area of Implicit Bias addresses some of these same themes.  The staff read and discussed some of the work of NYU neuroscientist David Amodio, who has devised an “Implicit Association Test” to measure people’s biases based on race, gender, disability and several other categories.  We also learned about the competing roles of the amygdala, the autonomic part of the brain responsible for the “fight or flight” instinct, and the frontal cortex, which governs cognition and rational thought, and the differing speeds at which these two structures of the brain operate.  The staff and I found this work to be helpful in providing greater understanding to the sources and complexities of the biases that may exist in each of us, which can help lead us all as individuals to overcome them.
Also on Tuesday afternoon I talked with the staff as a whole about a situation from the previous week which proved prescient for the work of the day.  A young student, one day the week prior, had worn a shirt throughout the day that featured a depiction of an old Confederate flag on it.  My immediate concern is for any student that may have seen the shirt and been offended by both the image and its seemingly going unchallenged throughout the day.  I am sorry that this happened in our building.  Our Dress Code states that clothing with offensive language or symbols should not be worn, and if it is, then it should be removed or covered up.  We would also then have conversations with student and family.   Unfortunately, it was only the conversational component that occurred in this instant, at the very end of the day, when Matt from RED spoke with the student’s parent.  (As it turned out, neither the young student nor the student’s parent had had any awareness of the racially incendiary and offensive nature of the symbol in today’s society, and the parent was most appreciative of the conversation.)  In situations like this we as a staff need to be more responsive; I hope this incident will lead to greater awareness and empathy for us all going forward.
There is indeed much hard work ahead for all of us.  I feel very fortunate to be part of a community that holds Respect for Human Differences and Educational Equity among its core values, and I look forward to working together towards making an idealized society a reality at Runkle School.
Jim Stoddard
 

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