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Diversity & Inclusion at World of Inquiry: Part 1

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    April Hattori

Diversity & Inclusion at World of Inquiry, Part 1 

World of Inquiry School #58 (WOIS) is an EL Education school in Rochester, NY. Led by Principal Sheelarani Webster, WOIS has been part of the EL Education network since 2002. According to, the district school, serving grades K through 12, has more than 800 students: 70% African-American, 14% Latino, 12% White, and 3% Asian. Seventy-four percent of students participate in the free and reduced lunch program, compared to state average of 53%. 

We asked three accomplished WOIS teachers to share their thoughts about diversity and inclusion in the classroom. They had so many insightful things to say that we’re turning their comments into a two-part series. Part Two will be featured in our January newsletter. We’re pleased to introduce to you to: 

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Gina Porretta-Baker, Kerry Robertson and Rebecca O'Connor

Rebecca O’Connor (RO) is a 26-year veteran teacher who has been teaching at WOIS teacher for three years. She has taught Chemistry, Earth Science, Living Environment, Global studies and U.S. History and Government in integrated and self-contained classroom settings.

Gina Porretta-Baker (GPB) has taught high school English for 13 years. Prior to teaching, she was an executive at USA Today in Washington, DC. She has been with the WOIS Crew since 2012.

Kerry Robertson (KR) has been a teacher at WOIS for 18 years. After 14 years in the classroom, evenly divided between third and sixth grade, she moved into her current role as an Instructional Coach. “World of Inquiry truly has always been my home away from home, my second family. So much so, my oldest son actually went to school here from kindergarten to fifth grade,” she says.

How do your students view diversity and inclusion at school and in the community?

GPB: I believe our students are very aware of the diversity within WOIS; more importantly, they are accepting of the diversity. One of our students petitioned for a Hijab Day at the school, for which our principal gave her full support. When the media became aware of our school’s involvement with Hijab Day, there was a great deal of backlash from the community. I was very impressed by the level-headedness of our students to support this diversity, and provide their insight about why it is important to be aware of the practices and beliefs of all people.

Our classes are populated with students having IEPs, diverse gender preferences, 504 plans, ESOL needs, and socio-economic hardships. To watch our students interact with one another, work together in groups, take the time to listen to each other, is truly the best part of my job. In the classroom, students accept and honor each other.

Does Crew play a role in providing a forum to discuss issues of diversity and inclusion?

GPB: Our school is continually working toward the role that Crew plays in the daily lives of our students. We have introduced the Peace Circles in our Crews, and when students fully participate, it demonstrates their ability to listen and discuss difficult topics.

RO: We regularly use Crew time to touch base and discuss hot button issues — these conversations often lead to new perspectives and deeper understanding (treatment of women, racial tension- specifically the kneeling by our boys’ soccer team during the national anthem that has been frequently in the local news).

Are you incorporating discussion of the recent presidential election in your curriculum?If so, how?

GPB: In my AP class, students were assigned specific issues of both of the presidential candidates. They had to research these issues, and then participate in a debate about the key components of that issue. The class took part in a voting exercise based on which candidate won each of the debatable issues. Once the election was decided, there were a number of students who were visibly upset by the results, specifically many of our refugees. Their fear of having to be sent back to their country was an issue that we discussed in class. In my English III class, we are studying The Crucible, and students have been making a number of connections between the play, McCarthyism, and the Red Scare. We talk about our rights as citizens, the importance of voting, and the role that fear plays and why it is important to record and document history as it happens. We have also discussed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as our own Bill of Rights.

RO: An example of processing the election is work I did with my Crew the day after the election. A number of my students had significant concerns regarding their immigration status (they are here legally), their religious freedom, and their safety on the streets. We, as a crew, decided that instead of embracing fear, we would be proactive. The students decided to write a letter to President-elect Trump, expressing their concerns and what they would like to see from his presidency. They intend to write on a regular basis and are reaching out to the school for their input.

Can you share an example of how you created an inclusive lesson or experience for your students?

(GPB): In an 11th grade English class case study, “Rise to Grace,” students read complex texts, both fiction and nonfiction, of authors who gave a voice to the types of experiences our students may have familiarity with [Click the ”Download” button in the header above]. While accessing these texts to create written responses that would mirror the writing structures of the English Regents (statewide standardized examinations in core high school subjects in New York State), students also participated in Kemetic Seminars (also known as Socratic Seminars – but named Kemetic due to the fact that Socrates learned this strategy from the ancient Kemets of Egypt), journaling, chalk talks, back to back/face to face discussions, and poetic writing to deepen their understanding of heritage knowledge. Students created silhouettes, which illustrated the juxtaposition of society’s views (their own ideas as well as those presented in the texts) to their own personal attributes of how they and their elders saw them (what society may/may not believe to be true about our diverse students).

To further their knowledge of artists during the Harlem Renaissance, students created a Wiki Page (a work in progress), to introduce artists and authors of African descent in an effort to provide our students with an appreciation and pride for their rich heritage. Upon completion of the Wiki Page, students chose three of the people to write about in an essay that further developed their understanding of heritage knowledge.

As a culminating assessment, students interviewed elders of mostly African-American descent to understand the empowerment of knowing one’s heritage. The elders were inspired by the experience, noting that it was one of the most intimate, compelling, and authentic experiences they have ever had with students.

At this link, scroll over the different icons to learn about each of the elders on student panel (select “full screen” to use the roll over tool). This link introduces the texts that students reviewed at the beginning of their study.

RO: This year I have a class of students who are on the autism spectrum and have intellectual delays. They read at K-2nd grade level. They are enrolled in Regents Living Environment biology class. I organize the class using that framework to do global case studies that incorporate core points of the curriculum. The first case study was focused around a Russian Tortoise that is our class pet named Travis. They created a playpen for Travis because they worried he didn’t get enough opportunities to explore outside of his enclosure.

The students coach each other on how to interact with Travis and ensure students who are less aware maintain a safe environment in the classroom. They are very nurturing with Travis, keeping track of how often he is eating, how often he poops, and monitor his environment to ensure the heat and humidity are optimal.

The students have learned about anatomy, habitats and biodiversity by taking care of Travis. Due to their concerns about his having food for the winter they started a straw bale garden and cold frame to create a food source over the winter. They have researched other tortoises, turtle and terrapin species and biomes. They are now experts on the tortoise and have written books and created games to share this information with younger students in our school.They created an informational storybook and a game board and questions that go with the book. An elementary level class has created “turtle rap.” The kids will share their books with younger students and take them to see their outdoor garden, explaining why some things are growing during the winter and others are not.

KR: As an instructional leader, part of my role is to help teachers understand the importance of building the whole child through varied engaging experiences that lead to enduring understanding and supportive relationships. In doing so, we build our professional development for teachers around the instructional best practices that we encourage them to use with their students. As a school, we are using more Restorative Practices in our classrooms on a daily basis. Teachers are using Academic Circles to facilitate whole group discussions about content.

Recently, I used a Socratic Circle in our grade-level band meetings to initiate a discussion around a local controversial event centered around diversity and inclusion. The Socratic Circle included learning targets created using the Social Studies practices of demonstrating respect for people and the norms while participating in a conversation, regardless of your own viewpoint.

At times there are past or present issues we want to talk about with our students that we just aren’t sure how to discuss. Using a Socratic Circle with teachers can be one way to do that. Our Boys Varsity Soccer team decided to kneel during the National Anthem before one of their soccer games this past September. This made headlines in the news, eliciting different reactions within the school and broader community. Facilitating a Socratic Circle among teachers allowed them to have a safe and respectful courageous conversation with each other. Teachers left the discussion understanding how the right questions can lead a student conversation that focuses on a text. The conversation helped us express our thoughts while being grounded in text. This experience also helped teachers understand how they too could have these important and meaningful discussions with their classes.

Teachers understand that math, reading, and written expression are important and spend the majority of their time creating lessons around their content and skills. Diversity and inclusion are just as important. When students feel accepted and are embraced for who they are and supported to become better people, then their ability to learn the other content and skills is much easier to accomplish.

In Part Two, Gina, Kerry and Rebecca will share their advice on creating curricula that is diverse and inclusive.