Building Equitable Learning Environments in Crisis Mode

By The BELE Network

In September, BELE Network Learning Partners, Camille Farrington of the UChicago Consortium on School Research and Dave Paunesku of PERTS, led a webinar explaining the BELE framework and a discussion on how educators can build equitable learning environments, even during a crisis. They were joined by Maurice Swinney, the Chief Equity Officer at Chicago Public Schools, and D’Andre Weaver, Superintendent at DeSoto ISD, who shared real life examples of how they’re prioritizing equity in schools in their district.

For the full video, as well as a recap of the webinar and key clips, read on.

  1. What is an equitable learning environment from the BELE Network perspective? [3:23–9:51]
  2. What is the BELE Framework? What are its components? [11:01–15:51)
  3. What exactly does an anti-racist learning environment look like, and how can the BELE Framework help someone create one in their school/district? — D’Andre Weaver [16:20–22:36]
  4. How can the BELE framework be used by teachers and school or system-level leaders? — Dr. Maurice Swinney [23:21–24:47]
  5. When you think about remote learning, how do you really center equity during remote learning? And what’s some of the guidance that you would offer up? And again, what is there in the BELE framework that speak to this? What would you say to folks, to your peers watching, what’s most important for people to center now? [26:22–32:00]
  6. What is the role of students and family voice and participation in that process, and how do you bring in students and families in a really meaningful way to shape the work that you do? — D’Andre Weaver [32:42–35:03]
  7. How do you think about meaningfully elevating student voice, including students and families in what you’re doing? — Dr. Maurice Swinney [35:20–38:04]
  8. How do we help staff fully embrace and understand how to build an equitable SEL environment and how it relates to equity? Especially when people are often scared to address these topics, how do you build that buy-in to what can be a tricky conversation? [41:18–45:53]
  9. Can you suggest any resources or publications for those who are interested in learning more about race conscious SEL in particular? [46:22–47:43]

Equitable learning environments are measured by their outcomes, which BELE defines as above. These outcomes emerge when students have certain developmental experiences over time.

These powerful experiences highlighted above can better engage students as learners and help them fulfill their potential. The BELE Network is challenging educators to ask students what they’re experiencing in school and to take systematic steps to ensure that every one of their students gets to experience these conditions.

When schools affirm students’ culture and sense of belonging, student engagement and learning increases, from GPA to attendance.

Over the last four years, the BELE Network collectively developed this framework that centers the student experience. It’s critical not to silo any one part of the learning experience, from teaching and learning, schoolwide systems and structures, family, caregiver, and community partnerships, and district and state policies.

This framework aims to integrate across all of these efforts while acknowledging that student experience is what anchors everything else.

The framework is made up of four domains that impact the student experience. Each of these domains has a set of core commitments and practices that are culled from the best of research on the science of learning and development and best thinking on how to create culturally responsive environments.

The commitments are just as important as the practices, because they can help check your actions and policies to see if they’re aligned with equitable learning practices.

The full list of core practices and commitments start at page 8 of the BELE framework.

  • There are a few principles that DeSoto holds as components for equitable, anti-racist learning environments.
  • The first is cultivating joyous students who enjoy learning and find their connections and passions that can sustain them for the rest of their lives.
  • Every student should have access to the highest quality instruction that leads to deep learning, not surface learning.
  • Transfer is really important and every student should have the opportunity to show mastery and progress at their own place.
  • Every student should be treated as a whole child, and schools should help build their long-term health, safety and agency.
  • Students should feel connected and belong to a community regardless of their mode of learning.
  • Every family should have the flexibility to choose their educational model and be empowered to own learning with their child.
  • Every educator should be able to leverage their greatest strengths and passions.
  • And finally, learning should be intellectually rigorous and coherent, multicultural, social justice oriented, culturally responsive and relevant for all students across all content areas.
  • According to Zaretta Hammond, there are distinctions between multicultural, social justice-oriented, and culturally responsive education. The anti-racist approach lives specifically in the social justice education piece. That’s ensuring that we are elevating the critical consciousness of all of our students to the reality of their environments, and we’re incorporating that into their learning experience. We make sure that they’re learning about the political and social context of their existence, and we’re not shying away from it.
  • This is a touchy subject because it requires educators to do their own personal work with some of their biases, but that’s a part of it.
  • The multicultural education piece is simple — we want to make sure that the materials we use both represent the experiences, the histories of the students we’re serving. This is so students of color or students living in poverty can see themselves in literature, and so that students of privilege can also learn about others that they don’t have context for.
  • Culturally responsive education means making sure that the techniques teachers use are helping our most neediest learners, the students that have been outcasts, that are traditionally not served well in our educational system. When teachers meet students where they are, learning comes alive for them.
  • Finally, there are a bunch of practices that hurt kids — grading and promotion has hurt children traditionally.
  • These are just a few things that add to an anti-racist learning environment.
  • Looking back at the evolution of the BELE Framework and how it has grown, strengthened and incubated between partner organizations, one of the things that everyone had in common was the focus on the student experience, which gets lost in the political frame and in the daily actions of things like trying to meet test scores.
  • If we really want to transform their experience, we need to be really clear on what young people are saying about how they experienced school across cultural differences.
  • And I think one of the phrases that we have adopted from the Framework was: “If you transform the student experience at school, you can change the outcome.”
  • Don’t jump to what will change the outcome without thinking about who is most impacted by what’s already happening and really being clear on how the student experience is directly connected to the teacher practice and the structure and systems in the building. And I think that throughline, I don’t necessarily see in a lot of frameworks, and it’s one that I think really helps to not place the burden of transformation on the shoulders of young people.
Courtesy of Rovonna Baldwin

Dr. Maurice Swinney:

  • I think the student experience is the thing, and the question is, what are the systems around this person that should be working to their benefit? Digital systems, technology supports, food, housing, all of those things that the global pandemic, the racism pandemic, all of those things are impacting the daily life of young people. I’ll be honest, for me, it feels the same. As a Black man in America, all of these things, I’ve never seen the veil of racism lifted in my time, neither did John Lewis and many other people before him. So I feel like I’m always fighting the same fight on behalf of young people.
  • A couple of things that we’ve done in Chicago is to start to remove the barriers for access around technology. So we have Chicago Connected really focused on, how do we look at families in doubled-up housing, students in temporary living situations, high mobility rates? All of those access points, but just to get young people to be in front of a screen. And so hotspots and all of those things, we’ve been very focused on. Making sure that families get food because that’s all a part of the student experience. “I am hungry. I need to be fed. I need to be connected with my classroom and my teacher.” And I think school districts can’t skip over the basic needs of people, and I believe that a lot of districts are stepping up to that.
  • The second thing is teachers are really starting to have more insights into the lives of young people just based on how they’re situated in their homes and in rooms. And one of the things that I’ve been talking with teachers about asking this question, what are you noticing? What are you noticing about young people’s interaction with families? What are you noticing about how young people engage, how they look on the screen? And how do you take that rich information to better understand and connect to the young people you have in front of you?
  • Of the biggest anti-racist practice that a teacher could employ is being connected to young people and really taking some time to really understand how young people are situated. And being honest and reflective about their own biases and having a vulnerability to surface that up. That is a teacher practice that I think impacts the student experience.
  • And I think teachers are also grappling with grading. We’ve been talking about the no case zeros for 1,000 years now. And we know zeros have always disproportionately impacted young people. And when teachers get graded for their ratings, they can’t even earn a zero. So to give a child a zero…The lowest a teacher can get is a one. So it’s like a quarter out of a dollar. So that tells us the inequitable practices exist and we got to learn how to disrupt that because if I am receiving zeros because I have other things going on in my life, I’m losing family members, then that doesn’t motivate me to come back and be connected with you. And it does show young people that we don’t care about them as much as we say we do.

D’Andre Weaver:

  • I would have to agree wholeheartedly. And I’ll echo a few things. Number one, I think we are in a time that we’ve not seen before, and all of the basic stuff that we didn’t get right before this time, we still aren’t getting right, right now. And so we still aren’t very clear about what students need to know, understand, and be able to do that’s meaningful and that’s relevant.
  • We still aren’t clear about the way that we construct our assessments, and that they are appropriate for the students, that they’re honestly engaging what we think they should have learned, understood, and had been able to do. We still don’t create engaging and relevant learning experiences that are project or problem-based. We still aren’t grading students, we aren’t building effective relationships. There are just very basic core components of teaching and learning that we still are not getting right, that we still need to get right, right now. I think what a great time for us to really spend time doing that here at DeSoto.
  • One of the things that we’ve done, specifically connected to the BELE framework, is this idea of cultural, spiritual, and ethnic values and practices; acknowledge, honor, and respect it. Every day, every one of our classrooms starts the day with the 30-minute check-in where we’re trying to figure out students, how are you doing today? What’s going on? We’ve connected with a number of mental health and therapeutic networks and agencies to provide direct support for students. We’re also doing that for adults as well too.
  • And so if we don’t take care of our adults, we don’t take care of our children. So it’s also stopping to check in and see how are our adults in the system doing, and where their minds and hearts are as they are trying to learn a completely different skill set and employ it at the same time. And they’re doing that within multiple crises compounded. It’s almost like inception, and you don’t know what state you’re in.
  • And that’s really the place of education and educators right now. We’re trying to do something in this deeply embedded crisis situation, and no one’s doing well. And I’m actually more concerned about the mental health implications for everybody as we try to come out of this. And not just for our students, but for all of our adults and all our folks that serve students exceptionally well. So those are some of the things that we’re thinking about.
  • And I know Maurice has done this too in CPS, but we have started to conduct a lot of empathy interviews with students and parents and just everybody in our system because it’s really hard to design for people without including them in that process. And shout out to the National Equity Project because many of us have been through that training, this whole liberatory design piece. And so we really believe that, have internalized that, and are trying to be very intentional around that.
  • But this summer, we created a district-wide design team, and we have about 8,000 students in DeSoto, 1,000 employees. We created a design team that included representation from every campus, every department. We had about 90 people work in the summer and they learned. We had National Equity Project come in, they built their capacity, and then we went out and we conducted student empathy interviews. And we use those empathy interviews to design the experience that they’re having right now. So we took their feedback around how they like to experience school, what worked during our first iteration of anytime, anywhere learning from March to May, what didn’t work, what did they value most about their teacher relationship, what do they like to learn?
  • And we had educators coming together to develop units of study that were responsive to students and parents. And the result of that for us has been, I think the very first day that school started, there was a news story online on our local news. And it wasn’t about how horrible school was or the challenges parents had connected to remote learning. It was the direct opposite. It was a smooth transition. Well, why was it smooth? Because we just asked people what they needed and then created based on their feedback. And then subsequently, we’ve identified each aspect of our plan and created a survey for parents and teachers and students to get ongoing bi-weekly feedback as to what’s working, what’s not working, so we can be responsive.
  • Now, we can’t be that agile because of our size, but that’s something that has worked exceptionally well for us. And I’m really excited about the PERTS survey that I just came into acknowledgement of last week. I feel like that’s something that we’re going to implement. That’s one of the ways that we’re trying to engage people in this process.
  • I think for us in the Office of Equity, we talk a lot about windows and mirrors, which you all are familiar with. We hold up the mirror to ourselves as an equity team by having students involved in the creation of our plans, and so when we have continuous improvement sessions, we have students who sit in on those teams with adults in the room to give us better insight on what we think we should be doing. And sometimes, they say yeah, this is a good idea, or actually, we think you should move in this direction. And here’s why. And that helps to keep us very grounded in not only engaging young people, but also helping others to know how to engage young people. In design work, we also went through a liberatory design.
  • [Chief Executive Officer of Chicago Public Schools] Dr. [Janice] Jackson really wanted us to have a strong commitment around engaging students and families throughout the city. And so we did that with the school funding working groups, so figuring out what should budgeting look like? We did that for capital improvements. How do we invest in the schools themselves, the physical infrastructures of all of our schools? And we learned a lot. And then it has helped to create an equity index, which helps to make decisions around where money should go, how it should be distributed within the city. So those are some of the large things.
  • I think at the classroom level and school level, we do have some teachers who are using PERTS, and what we found, it’s one of those things, I’ll give a simple example. I think people like me and they might not. It is one of those of like, oh, I do see differences among race and gender in this class. Students are experiencing me differently.
  • And a part of that is what D’Andre talked about with referring back to the BELE commitments around really respecting and culture. In order to do that, you have to understand it, which means that you have to create space in the classroom for it. And I think people are taking that on and recognizing, using your word, D’Andre, it’s actually fun to do that. School and learning should be fun. And it’s creating this positive energy, and it’s also shifting teacher practices. And I think that piece will flesh out more and more the more we include student voice as the way we do school and not just project-based opportunities.
  • So one of the things that we were doing right before COVID, and we’ve had to make some adjustments, but we created something called LAB Day, Learning and Beyond. And so every other Wednesday, and Maurice will know this because we did it at Brooks and other schools, and a couple of schools in Chicago do this, every other week, we created a half day for everyone in our system. And at the beginning of the half day, students engaged in activities that were about finding their passions and connecting with adults.
  • So it was like, we want to offer a course around learning how to fish, we’re going to offer a course around building bridges, we’re going to offer a course around Pilates or yoga or playing basketball or whatever the case may be.
  • And the point is we want kids to understand that learning is a joyous experience, and that they can find true and meaningful relationships with adults. And so we were doing district-wide, everyone was going to take part in that. As a result of the COVID piece though, we’ve had to shift because we’re all remote right now.
  • But we have currently in our schedule one whole day. So on Fridays, it’s a day where we are completely asynchronous. And so Monday through Thursday, our students have synchronous opportunities, there are some asynchronous components, but on Fridays, we’re completely asynchronous. And what we’re building is that same idea to happen on Friday. So what does a connection with our local…Here in Dallas is the Dallas Black Dance Theater. So we want to try to build a partnership with Dallas Black Dance Theater so that girls in our system, who are interested, can experience Dallas Black Dance from their homes.
  • And so we’re trying to incorporate very meaningfully and thoughtfully and actually redefining what we consider a learning experience. And it’s not just the English, math, science, social science that we do every single day, there has to be more beyond that. And I think that those are meaningful ways.
  • And of course, we traditionally offer music and art, and those things still exist remotely today as a part of our student’s schedule. But what is taking it a step beyond that look like? And I think it’s our LAB day idea.
REUTERS/Brendan O’Brien

D’Andre Weaver:

  • For us, I think, and I know Maurice will also agree with this, it’s all about how do we create ownership and create safe and brave spaces for people to learn? So this idea is we’ve adopted this belief in continuous improvement and that in order for us to be better, we always have to learn. It’s a learning culture. So it’s a learning organization. And so, one, having a belief in value and completely supporting ongoing professional learning for people and allowing them to say, hey, I don’t know how to do that, but here’s an opportunity for me to learn with my peers and I won’t be ridiculed for it.
  • And we’ve done that, one, with our district-wide design team, everybody and anybody could be a part of it. And this summer, we actually paid people to be a part of it. So it wasn’t a free thing. We compensated them for their time, and we keep the open door. And so within that design team structure is where we build in our professional learning. So here is something we’re going to learn about. We’re going to learn, what does it mean to lead for equity? So let’s get the professional learning.
  • Now, what does it mean for you to actually create an equitable environment specifically? And then let’s go to work, and let’s come back, and let’s review what you’ve done, and let’s check it against what it should look like, and let’s make revision. So there’s this constant cycle of learning, getting feedback, doing, coming back, getting feedback, and that’s worked exceptionally well for us. It’s created an environment where people feel like they can be different and explore different ideas and concepts, and where learning is fundamental, is part of the process.

Dr. Maurice Swinney:

  • When I hear that, I think the way I unpack that is, well, first let me say, I feel like classrooms are always social and emotional learning environments. The question is, whose social and emotional identities are prioritized? Whose social and emotional identities are asked to be put away? And so recognizing people are always impacted in these spaces is one thing that we have to be really, really clear about. To D’Andre’s point, schools have to take this up as a way of understanding.
  • I think people are wrestling with more about how do I connect with people across racial lines? How do I connect against gender identity and expression? How do I connect against a class? I would want to deconstruct that more, and I think it will be important for me as a classroom teacher or a principal to think about who are the people I’m serving? What are the differences between me and them? And then how do I take some time to learn about other people? If we take the learner stance, it’ll keep us from making the same mistakes that we’ve done with zero tolerance policies and all of the sort of ways in which discipline and learning and social-emotional things have continued to spiral.
  • It’s like culturally responsive education, at one point, we can say multicultural education, being culturally competent, and then differentiation. There’s something recursive about that, and the question is, what do we keep getting wrong? And I think we have to understand people across differences. And I would want to take the journey of saying, tell me more about your culture. Tell me more about you.
  • What do I need to change about myself so that I could be a better teacher for you? I had four rules in my classroom from early on. It was sometimes painful to have, but there were four things that students could tell me. I’m hungry, I’m tired, I feel like you’re disrespecting me, and I’m bored.
  • And I said, if we could just be honest, now, I got a lot my first couple of years, I was like, that was stupid, but I learned to manage through that. But I was trying to create a space where young people just could be honest about their experience of me, and we have to be open and vulnerable enough for young people to tell us, this is not working for me in this space or in this school or in this district, so that we could learn.
  • When you go out to dinner, they’ll ask you, “Do you have any food allergies. Are you allergic to shellfish?” When you go to the doctor, they’re asking, “Do you have any pains? What are you feeling?” We have to take that same approach to asking people what they need, what are their interests, so that we could serve them better? That’s how I would say approach it.

Dr. Maurice Swinney:

  • Selfishly, the CPS Equity framework, Chicago Beyond, a local organization, has done a lot of work around anti-racism. And on their website, you can find a lot that would help people have conversations in their homes about racism and anti-racist practices.
  • Zaretta Hammond’s work is pretty good. Dr. Chezare who is in Chicago really helps people to understand anti-blackness. I think I will say a good Google search is always helpful. And sometimes, it’s a fun rabbit hole. Paul Gorski is somewhere on Twitter, I don’t know his website, but he has a lot of that work too. So just be open as you continue to find. And I will say, whatever you start to learn, socialize it with somebody who you trust so you can make more meaning from what you’re learning.

D’Andre Weaver:

  • How To Be An Anti-racist is hot right now. And Listening As Leadership, I think is a really good book, and it really centers this ability to listen. And how do we enroll people in these really tough conversations for some people to have about race and identity and differences? Hard work really starts internally. I think those are a couple of books that help out too.

Additional Resources:

We are committed to creating learning environments that equitably support every student — especially students of color and low-income students.