You have worked at Allen-Stevenson for over 15 years! How has your job evolved into the multi-faceted roles you have today?
Wow! 15 years? When I was first interviewed for my job as a science teacher, I was given a tour of the second floor. There were these beautiful portraits of faculty and staff that lined the wall. I asked about them and was told that when you’ve completed your 15th year at Allen-Stevenson, a picture goes up on the wall. I remember looking at those pictures and thinking, “Who stays in one place for that length of time?” I also shared, nonchalantly, with the person showing me around, that I see myself at A-S for three years, definitely no more than five years. Little did I know that I would fall in love with this community and grow up with this community; they became my family. And you just don’t leave family. This a place where people are willing to collaborate with you; people are willing to help you; people are just good-hearted. So, that’s why I stayed, these almost twenty years.
My job as a science teacher evolved because of my amazing colleagues - colleagues who seek out others and want to build community. There was a mutual reliance and shared vision. After attending a NAIS People of Color Conference (PoCC) my second year at Allen-Stevenson, a few of my colleagues and I started meeting early on Friday mornings in Stephen Warner’s office to discuss ways for Allen-Stevenson to become a place where all students and adults would have a sense of belonging. We wanted each student to have great success academically, socially, and psychologically. That takes intention. During those early morning meetings, we worked and exchanged ideas to propel our school to a place where everyone feels valued. This group evolved into Community Life + Diversity and is a role that I have continued to this day.
When did you first discover your love of science, and what inspired you to bring it into the classroom, specifically the elementary school classroom?
My love of science actually started way back in elementary school. I went to a boarding school for my elementary education in Jamaica, and my science teacher’s lessons were all hands-on. Her name was Mrs. Bennett, and she was really such an incredible person. Even when the head of our school pushed for science to be more reading, writing, studying, and memorizing (this was many years ago), Mrs. Bennett took us outside of the classroom and conducted classes on the beach, by the trees, and in bright sunny spots. I remember that she told us, “When you have data to write down, that is when we will do writing. You can’t sit in the classroom and learn science.”
She was also phenomenal at connecting our learning across subjects. When we studied ancient civilization in history class, she took us outside, and we experimented with the first rudimentary methods of telling time by wedging sticks in the ground and monitoring the movement of the sun’s shadows. We didn’t have fancy materials – we were simply using sticks – but it was incredibly educational. She also collaborated with our physical education teacher during our swimming lessons to teach us about density and buoyancy. We discovered things because we were doing something. All hands-on! She generated such excitement, and each class was an “aha!” moment for the students.
It has been my goal to bring that “aha!” moment to each of my students. These moments aren’t something you can read in a book, and they aren’t anything that I told them. They make their own discoveries, with a little guidance from me. It doesn’t matter how small it is; all that matters is that they found it out on their own. I think that leading my students to these moments empowers them and leaves them with life-long confidence.
The other day in class with my first graders, we were making paper airplanes, and a boy was frustrated that he was on his fourth plane and still hadn’t perfected the design. I told him, “Well, I can’t figure it out either, so when you figure it out, you have to tell me how you got it to move.” So, he played around with the wings, and he got it! He said, “Ms. Vermont-Davis, I know what you were doing wrong all along! You weren’t creasing the paper well. I’m going to give you the steps – look at me carefully. Don’t take your eyes off of me! I’ll show you what to do.” And that was that student’s “aha!” moment. It was so empowering for him.
Passionate learners! This example is what it’s all about! It doesn’t have to be perfect…when the boys are the ones driving their learning, it will be meaningful. Learning science depends not only on the accumulation of facts and concepts but also on developing an identity as a competent learner.
In what ways do you weave social awareness or social justice into the A-S science curriculum?
Science itself offers a great setting for what I consider social justice work. Science already asks questions about our world and explores the impact of those answers that we find.
In my classes, I make sure that the phenomena we are studying are personally compelling and relevant to each child’s unique life. I use a strategy similar to self-documentation. I ask a lot of questions about what my students did over the weekend and their hobbies so I can learn about them. This questioning lets me connect their worlds to their learning. So, if I know a student lives in the Bronx, instead of using Central Park as an example in a lesson, I will instead use a park in the Bronx because it’s relevant, and they can identify with it. It’s also important that they see that I care and that their experiences matter to me.
I provide the space for multiple voices to be heard and explored. I am always, always introducing women scientists – this is important for reducing bias and providing different ways to look at the world. I am very intentional about including the work of women, scientists of color, and indigenous people in my classes. I’m very intentional about showing the worth of all scientists.
For example, Victor Glover just made history as the first African American astronaut to begin a full six-month stint at the International Space Station. I showed the boys a video of him and talked about his life growing up and his journey to becoming an astronaut. After they watched the video, a boy of color in Kindergarten immediately said, “Oh, I want to be an astronaut.” So, representation matters. Science is diverse, but our students will never know if I don’t show and teach that diversity.
You are the Chair of Community Life + Diversity (CL+D). Can you describe what this role entails and why it is important for the faculty, staff and school community?
My role as the Chair of Community Life + Diversity means – in short – learning how to shift from a culture of strategic planning to a culture of strategic intentions. We need to plan strategically and then follow up to make sure it comes to fruition.
My role is to champion and lead in the areas of equity, inclusion, and anti-racism and to make sure we have a consistent lens of equity, inclusion, and justice in every area of the School. It should be the foundation of our school. I am here to be a resource, an advocate and a strategist.
Ultimately, my essential purpose is to support every student to be their best selves. If students do not see themselves reflected in all aspects of school life, including our curriculum, they are less likely to feel ownership of the School community. If we are going to put students out in the world to be global citizens, we need to make sure they are prepared for that and see themselves reflected in school life. We are preparing these boys to be leaders, and they need to be both academically and socially prepared by being educated in anti-racism.
This role is vital for all faculty and staff and the school community because, as a school, there is a moral obligation to reach every learner. So, we have to create an environment that is affirming and inclusive.
What does “community” mean to you?
Community can be defined very simply: love and care. Community is what has kept me here for so many years. When one of my colleagues reminds me to keep a watch on a student because he was not feeling well earlier or says, “Yes, I will cover your class, no worries,” that’s what I call community.
When you love someone, you see and hear them. You strive to make everyone feel included and not to ‘other’ them.
But it is perhaps better said by Lawrence S. Cunningham, the John A. O'Brien Emeritus Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame: “Communities are born and nurtured by those who find a common sense of purpose which is recognized and celebrated. Communities are the natural product of deep convictions that overarch the individual impulses of this or that person. When conviction is felt and expressed, community is born.”
To me, this quote is what community is all about. It’s about the caring things that people do to include and support one another and to see people as a whole.
You facilitate Upper School Boys of Color at Allen-Stevenson (BOCAS) and the Gender & Sexuality Alliance (GSA). How do our boys of color and the rest of our community at Allen-Stevenson benefit from affinity groups like BOCAS and GSA?
These spaces allow students to discuss topics of race, gender, identity, or diversity in a safe space that will enable them to develop their voice and encourage and develop leadership skills. Members can speak for the “I” perspective, knowing they can be their full, authentic selves without judgment.
Affinity groups help to reduce pressure for everyone by giving both students and adults a common language to discuss the program, and larger issues of race and diversity.
All students — not just students of color — must be engaged in examining and clearly understanding the multiple facets of identity; if everyone feels a sense of belonging, the entire community benefits.
With these affinity groups, boys feel they can stick out their chest and own who they are. They can feel good about who they are and feel like they are part of a community. They are able to feel empowered because they are no longer hiding behind what others think of them or what they look like. It lets them participate without feeling marginalized.
This confidence stretches into the classroom for academic success. A confident boy will perform his best. It gives him the confidence to speak up and say what he thinks and feels. This confidence becomes especially important for boys in BOCAS.
You lead our Mentoring Program, along with the help of A-S Alumni. Can you tell me about this program and how it adds to our boys’ A-S experience?
Conversations are powerful. Telling stories is just one of the ways we build community and add to our boys’ experience.
Since the start of school, we have had a weekly conversation series between Alumni Mentors and BOCAS. These conversations are honest and respectful, and the mentors have helped students think deeply and find their voice. And that’s huge. They are able to talk about difficult and sometimes uncomfortable realities – such as inequalities built around race, religion, socio-economic status, gender, and ethnicity. The mentors have helped increase awareness, increase connectedness, and increase the capacity to help others. I am very grateful for the impact they are having on our boys’ lives. The most important thing for me is that our boys are deepening their capacity to be connected, aware, and responsible.
The mentors can remember when they were our students’ age and what life was like at that age. So, they can answer questions candidly. Having a range of ages represented in our mentors has been wonderful. We have mentors in high school who can speak to our students on a peer-to-peer level, sharing advice on experiences that are soon to come in their lives. Then, we have older mentors established in their lives and careers who are eager to give back and share from that perspective.
The mentors take this seriously and are very purposeful about what they say and how they say it. We want these boys to be successful. That is the bottom line. How do you pivot from where you are to where you want to go? What do you need to cultivate now? What challenges might you encounter?
Starting this year, we have adopted the Pollyanna Racial Literacy Curriculum as part of our ongoing efforts to be an anti-racist community. What drew you to this curriculum? How has the rollout been this school year?
I’m definitely feeling optimistic about it. We need to be very intentional in everything we add to the curriculum in each division. Our teachers are working together to come up with the best places to insert the curriculum into our existing curriculum to amplify it. We were already incorporating racial literacy into our curriculum before implementing Pollyanna. So, we are going through all of our existing curricula with a fine-tooth comb to see where we can enhance it, and that takes time.
Pollyanna's Racial Literacy Curriculum is designed to help students gain knowledge about race, as it has been constructed throughout history and in the United States, and aims to help students acquire an awareness of their own racial socialization and skills to engage in productive conversations about race and racism. It is developing a deeper understanding of how to combat systemic inequality. This understanding is integral to building stronger school communities and helping students recognize similarities among their peers along the lines of race while also celebrating perceived differences. It’s an excellent curriculum, and importantly, it’s written at a level to meet boys where they are developmentally.
As Isabel Wilkerson said in her brilliant and transformative book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, “You have to know the history.” This curriculum talks about the history that we all must know.
How do Monday Morning Meeting and Lower School Community Time serve as spaces to advance our equity and inclusion goals?
Another strategic intention on the part of some amazing people! Kudos to Ben Neulander, Aidan Fennelly, Louisa Wells, Sarah Woods, Michelle Demko, Jaison Spain, Ian Taggart, and the Music Department.
The vision of these meetings is to create a space where we see the value in everyone and what each brings to the table. We wanted to create a space where every member of our community feels like they belong because we are not just talking about the same group of people over and over. We wanted it to be a space that speaks equity and inclusion.
At the time of this interview, we are getting ready to celebrate Black History Month in February. Why is it important that we recognize and honor cultural appreciation months like this as a whole school?
We celebrate these months because we want to recognize and celebrate the achievements of folks who have not been seen. If they are not written in books, and we aren’t learning about them, no one will know about their incredible accomplishments. Each month, we celebrate groups who have been marginalized and left out of history. It’s our moral obligation to celebrate these people.
I am so very happy we have been recognizing the achievements and contributions made by African Americans this month! This year has been a challenging one. The country is grappling with concurrent crises that have disproportionately shaken Black Americans and people of color: COVID-19, economic instability, and resurgent racism. But there were some highlights – voters made history with unprecedented turnout at the polls, largely driven by demands to see changes. We will move forward and celebrate every win and continue to fight for change.
We need to be intentional in pushing back on racism with anti-racism. So, how do we move forward? There are challenges, but as a community we talk about being intentional, to work together and think about inclusion and equity. How can we be activists and be mindful of the work we have ahead? Activism means taking action – every action, large or small – to move our country in the right direction. And, importantly, we need to be hopeful!