MERIDEN — School was dismissed for the day Wednesday afternoon. But Symone James and Rachel DiSilvestro still had a classroom full of students seated before them at Roger Sherman Elementary School.
Those 20 fourth- and fifth-grade students are all members of the school’s Equity Ambassadors Club, a group that now meets after school every other week. The new club is centered on the students, allowing the diverse group to learn about themselves and about their peers — with their own voices as the focus.
Wednesday was the club’s third meeting of the year. Teachers at another elementary school, Israel Putnam, started up a similar club at their school.
Roger Sherman, like other Meriden schools, has a schoolwide equity committee. Both James and DiSilvestro are equity leaders in their school and members of that committee. The concept of starting a student equity ambassador club arose from the group’s discussions.
James explained that committee members discussed ways to get students “more involved — so we have them at the center of everything.”
The school’s principal, Anita Gennaro was supportive of the club concept. The club’s early focus has been around identity. For example, during a recent club meeting, students discussed what they knew about their families’ histories and what their names mean.
Wednesday’s discussion was a continuation of that. Students would continue to explore their own families’ histories as they created “Where I’m From” poems. They used a poem with that same title by the writer George Ella Lyon as their reference point. In the first part of that exercise the group reviewed Lyon’s poem.
James and DiSilvestro facilitated that discussion. One of the things that quickly emerged was Lyon’s use of objects, like “clothespins” and the “dirt under the back porch,” as well as food, to describe her origin, as opposed to geographic references.
So the teachers encouraged students similarly to think of objects, food — things that are common in their households and that they treasure — in crafting their own “Where I’m From” poems.
The room became abuzz with chatter, as club members read each others’ poems and discussed them.
Fourth grader Hermishely Robles discussed her poem. Its first stanza contains a line stating, “I am from Crayola crayons.” The nine-year-old said she included that item to convey her love for drawing and for writing.
Other students mentioned similar objects, like colored pencils, books, cat beds in reference to their family pets, and food, like strawberries, in their poems.
The work of Roger Sherman’s equity team and similar teams across the district has been ongoing for a few years. Like other Meriden schools, Roger Sherman’s student body is ethnically and racially diverse. Around two-thirds of all Roger Sherman students identify as Latino, while another 10% of students identify as Black. Less than 15% of students at the school are white.
Lysette Torres, the Meriden Public Schools’ director of equity and instruction, described the equity ambassador club program as part of district officials’ larger ongoing effort to improve equity across all of the district’s schools.
The focus on equity dovetails with a similar effort to address students’ social and emotional learning needs, which educators say will not only help students succeed academically, but will help provide them with the lifelong skills they will need to interact and collaborate with peers in the workplace and in social settings when they become adults.
Part of that effort was training school building level educators to be equity leaders in their own buildings. It started with the city’s high schools and has since worked its way down to the elementary schools. The work that began with equity leaders and committees in each building has broadened to all teachers — so they are trained in how to facilitate classrooms that are culturally responsive. That work includes language, with the knowledge that a significant portion of city students come from multilingual households.
Torres explained a focus for educators is looking at their schools’ culture and at students’ sense of belonging at school, as well as reflecting on what their own past experiences as students were. Educators then “turnkey” those discussions into their classrooms, to create spaces where students of different backgrounds not only learn about each other’s cultural differences and similarities, but learn how to collaborate with their peers.
Torres is encouraged by the work she’s seen by the groups at Roger Sherman and Israel Putnam.
“It’s great to see the students collaborating and being willing to share their stories and share about themselves — and be respectful about what they’re hearing from their peers,” Torres said. “And then pulling in those connections they have, so they see regardless of where they’re coming from they have things they have in common.”
James conveyed a similar point, saying it’s important for students to learn how to value diversity, to learn what they have in common, and to respect and celebrate one another’s differences.
“I think just learning about that, even learning how to talk about that, and having those conversations is really important,” James said.
DiSilvestro observed that fostering those conversations also helps students develop confidence. As a classroom teacher, DiSilvestro said she works with students in kindergarten and first grade through their academic struggles.
“I want them to be happy with who they are and their identity,” DiSilvestro said. “I think having that confidence helps them to be better learners, to engage more with their peers, and to be able to form better relationships with their teachers. So I think it’s very important.”
The teachers have already noticed a shift in their students’ behavior in just a few sessions. Students started out shy.
“But the opportunities where they get to talk with each other and get to know each other helps them to open up,” James said, adding that students are also using not just words to express themselves, but visual arts as well.
“Everything we’re doing connects with different aspects of our curriculum — writing and having discussions, critical thinking… It’s another way to do holistic teaching,” DiSilvestro said.
As educators move forward with the endeavor, they hope to involve students in more in-depth conversations, including helping them develop the language to address situations that may involve culture and conflict.
Gennaro, Roger Sherman’s principal, described education as being a lot more than just teaching students academic subjects. Students must be able to learn how to get along with and collaborate with others.
“I think this is really setting them up for success and hopefully making our building a much stronger place for everybody in it,” Gennaro said. “... I think the students really enjoy it.”
She continued, “They’re trying to figure out who they are as individuals. And how they’re different from one another and respecting those differences, and then, learning to work together. We’re all in this together.”