writings and Reflections

Taking Advantage of Teachable Moments
Tara Christie Kinsey

Two weeks ago today, on the eve of the Senate vote confirming the appointment of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, I sat in a packed gymnasium at Princeton University with over 3,000 alumni to listen to a live conversation between Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, two of the three sitting female justices. During the conversation, Justices Kagan and Sotomayor expressed their concerns that widespread polarization in the country’s political environment could affect public perceptions of the Supreme Court’s legitimacy.

During the discussion, Justice Kagan said: “This is a really divided time….Part of the court’s strength and part of the court’s legitimacy depends on people not seeing the court in the way that people see the rest of the governing structures of this country now….In other words, people thinking of the court as not politically divided in the same way, as not an extension of politics, but instead somehow above the fray.” Justice Sotomayor added: “We have to rise above partisanship in our personal relationships. We have to treat each other with respect and dignity and with a sense of amicability that the rest of the world doesn't often share.”

At Hewitt, we embrace the goal of treating each other with respect and dignity and modeling civil discourse even–and especially–when we discuss difficult and challenging topics. In ways that are readily apparent to our students, our society continues to wrestle with the complicated intersection of gender, race, power, and politics. At Hewitt, we have a framework that facilitates and promotes constructive discussions on these topics. I write today to share why and how we guide our educators to take advantage of teachable moments that arise through current events and, in the spirit of our home-school partnership, to direct families to resources that they might consider using as they facilitate conscious conversations with their children at home.

Inevitably, when complex, controversial topics arise in our local, national, or global discourse, they often find their way into the classroom. How educators handle these teachable moments is critically important to whether or not learning feels relevant to students’ lives. Because research indicates that engagement in learning increases significantly when school work has a clear and purposeful tie to everyday life, we support our teachers taking time–and at times adjusting their lesson plans midstream–in order to engage students in questions that are of genuine interest to them, and to create a space where issues outside the classroom are brought inside the classroom. Our teachers meet students where they are and tune into how they view the world. At Hewitt, we believe in the power of taking advantage of opportunities for girls and young women to engage in developmentally-appropriate discourse and to develop critical thinking skills about societal structures and how those structures inform the way each of us shows up as members of this community. Hewitt faculty respond to genuine student inquiry and take advantage of teachable moments in a way that teaches students how to think, not what to think.

As one would expect, the way that such topics find their way into a third grade classroom looks different than in an eighth grade classroom or a twelfth grade classroom. In lower school, faculty and staff are prepared with age-appropriate language and resources to use when such topics arise. In middle and upper school, we leverage the expertise of faculty members, our health and wellness team, and our director of diversity and inclusivity as the topic warrants. Our educators gather resources, decide when to confer with outside experts, and prepare classroom discussions in a way that is responsive to students’ questions and interests, informed by ongoing research, and grounded in our diversity and inclusivity statement, which calls for us to “embrace multiple points of view, to engage others with empathy and integrity, and to champion equity and justice in all areas of our lives.”

To support conversations at home, The Hewitt School maintains a list of resources called Talking with Your Daughters. We are grateful to our families for their partnership as together we engage our girls and young women in a way that is both developmentally appropriate and aligned with Hewitt’s mission to empower girls and young women to “lead lives of consequence with character, compassion, and conviction,” and to use their voice and their power to make a positive difference in their world.

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