The Foundation for a Meaningful Life
Kindergarten - Grade 9 in Southborough, MA

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Exploring Differences, Finding Common Ground: Building Cultural Competence

by Daintry Duffy Zaterka '88
A look at how faculty help Fay students develop cultural competency as they learn to explore multiple perspectives and encounter differences with thoughtfulness and respect.
What do Fay’s third graders and the third graders at Hmong American Peace Academy in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, have in common? At first glance, not much. In the small Hmong community of immigrants from Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos, the families are large, and multiple generations often live together under one roof. Many students speak a different language at home than at school, and their classroom with 29 students dwarfs Fay’s two small third grade classrooms of 11 students each.

As the Fay students continue their pen pal 
partnership with the Hmong classroom this year, they will start to see the many similarities they share. Already, the pen pals have been delighted to discover that they play many of the same games and that the uniform the Hmong students wear to school is not all that different from the Fay dress code. “The students love writing letters and receiving letters in return,” says third grade teacher Katie Buteau, “and they are beyond excited when they discover something that they have in common.”

Fay’s global student body is a unique asset for an elementary and middle school community. With 26 countries represented in this year’s student body, from Afghanistan and Australia to Russia and Vietnam, the authentic opportunities to learn from one another and consider new perspectives add a special richness to the academic experience and daily life at Fay.

The faculty also continue to look outside of Fay for projects and service learning opportunities where students can engage with the wider world. “We devote a particular focus to helping our students develop empathy by stepping outside themselves to consider the perspec- tives of others with openness and generosity of spirit,” says Head of School Rob Gustavson. As our students move into an increasingly interconnected world, the cultural competency they have developed here at Fay will enable them to become engaged citizens who encounter differences with thoughtfulness and respect.

PRIMARY SCHOOL: "This is my role in the community."

In Primary School, students explore their own identities and start to see themselves as part of a larger community at Fay. This fall, kindergarteners started the year by reading several books celebrating diversity and inclusion. One of these was The Colors of Us by Karen Katz, which tells the story of a girl who explores the many shades of skin color she sees around her, such as cinnamon, chocolate, peach, and honey. After reading the book, students used oil pastels and watercolors to paint their own self-portraits, blending the colors to create their unique skin tones and writing flavorful descriptions, such as “tan-ish and peach-ish” or “golden french toast with a little maple syrup.” Head of School Rob Gustavson also visited Kindergarten to read All are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold, about a school community where children of diverse traditions learn from one another and gather as a community to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

In grades one and two, the meaning of community expands to include the history and traditions of its members. Second graders look at the heritage of their own families, interviewing family members to learn about family traditions and sharing the results of their research—which include family stories, artifacts, and recipes—as a presentation for their classmates. 
Second graders also explore the history and community of the Wampanoag, an indigenous people that originally lived in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The students learn that each member of the Wampanoag had a special role that contributed to the success of the tribe, and students are assigned a role to explore and write about in their journals.

The Primary School community is further enriched by its close relationship with students from Upper School who help out in their classes and coordinate special projects throughout the year. This past September, for 
example, Upper Schoolers from China visited Primary School to share their celebration of the Chinese Moon Festival, a harvest celebration to give thanks for family and for nature’s abundance.

“Through these projects, the children practice listening to and understanding the perspectives of others,” says Head of Primary School Katie Knuppel. “We hope to widen their lens and deepen their understanding of one another so that we can form a supportive, more inclusive school community.”

LOWER SCHOOL: "We are all unique."

When third graders give their first speeches at Fay, this milestone represents a larger journey that each student undertakes throughout Lower School to find his or her own voice and express a unique perspective about the world.

“The best way to write a speech is to write something personal,” says Head of Lower School Lainie Schuster. Fay students embrace that challenge by candidly sharing their stories, memories, successes, and failures in their own carefully crafted words. “Through writing our speeches and listening to one another, we learn so much about the members of our community,” notes Lainie.

The Lower School’s annual One School, One Book reading event is another important opportunity to spark deliberate conversations about perspective. Two years ago, Lower School students, teachers, and parents read
Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin, a story about a child with high-functioning autism. “By the end of the book, we understood so much about the character of Rose and her life that everyone was able to put their opinions aside and see what a smart, sensitive kid she was,” says Lainie. “What better way is there to consider different lifestyles and worlds than through the lens of a book?”

To knit the Lower School community closer together, teachers Lara Gleason and Emily Samperi have created a community-building curriculum. They kicked off the program in September with an activity where each student was challenged to list all the different communities to which he or she belongs: for example, one student’s list might include the soccer-playing community, the Jewish community, the Hispanic community, and the Gleason homevisory community. Once each student completed the list, students were tasked with finding another member of one of their communities to connect with until the entire Lower School was linked. “The concrete act of linking ourselves together helped students to see how everyone here at Fay has a place in our community and a connection to someone,” says Emily.

“This is how I connect with the world.”

In Upper School, students continue to explore their identities, connect their ideas about identity to their academic work, and consider new perspectives as they interact with the world outside of Fay. This fall, the students in Craig Ferraro’s Extended Topics in Algebra class were challenged to explore their identities through mathematics. Following the “iceberg model,” students identified the aspects of their identity that are visible to the community as well as those that may be hidden beneath the surface. Students distilled that information into a single image that they translated, line-by-line, into algebraic equations; then, they plugged these equations into Desmos, an online graphin calculator, which recreated the image. The designs, according to Craig, ranged from cityscapes and scenes from nature to flags from students’ home countries and renderings of hobbies. At the end of the project, students filmed themselves in front of the green screen explaining the origins of their identity design. “It’s been cool for them to connect math to their sense of who they are,” notes Craig.

With a truly global student population in Upper School, class discussions are infused with a variety of perspectives and experiences. One student might be able to read a Japanese poem to the class in his native language so that peers can hear the flow of the language. Another might be able to describe Moscow so that her classmates can better understand
the setting of a story. At the beginning of the year, English Department Chair Paul Abeln read William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say,” to his ninth grade students. It’s a poem that has been translated into hundreds of languages. Each student studied the translation in his or her native language and then explained to classmates the cultural nuances behind the translator’s choice of language. The variety of perspectives made it “a rich and interesting conversation,” notes Paul.

For international students who are developing fluency in English, sharing cultural traditions can be a wonderful way to connect with the Fay community. Last spring, students in Sarah Ripton’s ELP (English Language Program) Literature 
and Composition class took legends and myths from their home cultures and translated them into English, creating elaborate illustrations to accompany each story. When the projects were complete, the ELP students visited Primary School to share their stories with the Kindergarten and second grade classes. “The younger students loved it!” says Sarah. “They were making connections to fairy tales and other stories that they already knew, asking questions, and making the Upper Schoolers retell parts of the story,” says Sarah. “It was a great conversation.”

Outside of class, there are additional opportunities for students to engage with perspectives and experiences that may be very different from their own. Each year, a delegation of students and faculty attends the National Association of Independent Schools’ People of Color Conference (PoCC) and the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC), which give educators and students an opportunity to focus on issues of diversity and inclusion in their school communities. Back on campus, many Fay students also opt to participate in Community Connections, an evening discussion group that meets every few weeks where students explore these issues in more depth.

The week-long service trips in the Upper School are another important way to consider new ideas and points of view: seventh graders focus on food scarcity and volunteer at local farms and food banks; eighth graders head to New York City to volunteer in food pantries, community gardens, and homeless shelters; and ninth graders visit the Dominican Republic, where they teach English to schoolchildren and learn more about the history and culture of the area.

Of all the ways that Fay supports the development of cultural competence, perhaps the most beloved is the tradition of Taste of Nations. Since 1989, students, faculty, and families have gathered each year to prepare and share dishes representing their home countries and family traditions at an all-school buffet dinner in Harlow Gym. It is a celebration of our community’s rich diversity, and each year more than 40 countries are represented. “Taste of Nations is a great opportunity not just for our international students to celebrate who they are and where they come from, but for all the members of our community to celebrate the diversity of our stories and experiences,” says Head of Upper School Sarah Remsberg. “It's just a wonderful experience for all.”


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