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From the Dinner Table to School Hallways: Creating Structures that Affirm Identity

  • Date

  • Author

    Priscilla Chan

  • Photo

    Maria Belen Flores (Brooklyn Collaborative, Class of 2020)

It’s one of my most vivid teaching memories: It was September of 2005 and I was greeting students in the hall at the high school in the South Bronx where I was a science teacher, when a student I didn’t know, who was Black, said to me, “Hi, ching chong ching chong.” I was taken aback for a second, but instantly my educator reflexes jumped in. I introduced myself, he did the same, and I asked him what he meant by what he said. He replied: That’s how you people talk, right? That started a great conversation which ended with him telling me that I was the first Chinese person he had ever really spoken to, besides the delivery man, and that he would come talk to me again soon.

As people of color know, it’s not our responsibility to be “patient and polite racial and cultural ambassadors”. However, as an educator and school leader, that is often literally my job! Educators frequently are at the crossroads of “spokesperson and resource library,” forging interracial bonds and building coalitions while constantly teaching toward anti-racism, and I embrace the opportunity.

I am the parent of two Asian-American children. I am also principal of Brooklyn Collaborative Studies (BCS), a wonderful New York City Outward Bound school in Brooklyn, NY. We are an unscreened Title I public school serving 30% students with Individualized Education Plans with an average 90% graduation rate and 100% college acceptance for our seniors. This year, of our 689 students, we are proudly 38% Latinx, 32% Black, 23% White, 4% Asian, and 3% Other. Given the segregated nature of NYC public schools, our diversity is not accidental—it comes from a deep commitment to being an unscreened school that welcomes all learners. As both an AAPI school leader and a parent, I have made leadership decisions and personal decisions that affirm positive Asian American identities under the larger mission of developing a self-reflective anti racist inclusive community. Here are some reflections based on my experience.

Scill with her two daughters Madeleine and Cora

The work of disrupting racism extends into my choices as a parent—what I teach my 7 and 10 year-old children and the experiences I offer them. At our dinner table, it’s equally normal to talk about what happened at recess that day as it is to discuss why the model minority stereotype is part of the White supremacy playbook. We talk constantly about our pride in being Chinese and in our responsibility to build coalitions to uproot racism. My two girls have rehearsed comebacks if you ask them about the slant of their eyes, where they really come from, if they hear a stereotype, if they see a peer being insulted, if someone compares them to another racial group, and other common scenarios that many children of color face. We have weekly Zoom meetings with our extended family where we play games and do activities. In a recent Zoom, we learned about what koi fish represent in Asian culture and did a fish watercolor drawing. In another Zoom, we watched a play about Muhammed Ali and how his experiences impacted his demands for justice. I model for my family that we’re all learning together, all the time. As a parent, I cannot prepare them for everything but they are better armed because we talk head on.

My children painting watercolor fish during our weekly family Zooms to learn more about AAPI history and culture

To support young people in courageously facing their bold realities, I think specifically about models and people they are exposed to. I own my privilege in being able to take my children exploring, not only in NYC but around the world—they are constantly seeing upstanders of all races, meeting models of Asian excellence, interacting with all kinds of people, in all neighborhoods of our city. Additionally, my family is blessed to travel annually to Hong Kong to visit family. There, my children can see an entire city where people who look like them hold every position of power, every ad and TV program features Chinese people, all types of executives/policemen/teachers are Chinese. They see that people are multi-faceted, they have different intersectional identities, and they can counter what author/activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously warns as “the danger of a single story.”

In the same spirit, at BCS, we constantly build in opportunities for students to learn about the humanity of others, to explore our city, and to engage in storytelling practices via circles and restorative practices. Our students listened to Adichie’s TED Talk in both our 2-week school wide opening expedition in September and in our schoolwide Black Lives Matter Crew expedition which began in February. We regularly incorporate fieldwork in our schedule with Expeditionary Thursdays (ETs) so students interact with diverse professionals and institutions in our amazing city. [Although fieldwork was paused by the NYC Department of Education during the pandemic, we continue to bring experts into our Zoom classes.]

Often educators can cite barriers and time as limitations to creating meaningful learning experiences for students. However, the structures of schools reflect what we value as much as the content we teach. The story of how Expeditionary Thursdays started at BCS six years ago shows how a school community can bring about systemic change—to allocate the resources and time to what we value. As our staff began to design fieldwork connections to their curriculum, I set the stage for our staff to collaborate to make this happen schoolwide. I met with our teacher leaders, held a staff Town Hall to gather input and perspectives, and proposed a calendar of Expeditionary Thursdays for every grade/subject that staff could agree to annually. To cement our commitment, I worked with our union representatives to pen a school-based option where the staff voted to embed the ETs into our regular schedule, a vote that is renewed every five years by our staff. Our staff and students have benefited greatly from ETs. Students meet professionals in their workplaces, they see BIPOC individuals in positions of leadership everywhere in our city, and they hear from experts about their educational journeys and obstacles. Moreover, given how often we leave the building for fieldwork, our students regularly interact with other people. We are constantly serving as counterexamples to break stereotypes and open doors to see each other’s humanity—the building blocks for an anti-racist society.

As a school leader, I similarly disrupt status-quo comfort and privilege and have necessary conversations with our staff, students, and families. At BCS, we think proactively about requests that situate White comfort/privilege, such as misunderstanding conflict between peers or asking for a child to be placed with “similar” students. In our public FAQ document (which we discuss at our open houses before students are even enrolled in our school), we specifically state how restorative practices operate in our school, how we do not track students, and how we do not honor parent requests for class changes. We have a racial affinity group for White identified caregivers at BCS led by BCS parents and school staff. We recently held an implicit bias workshop just for parents of color, after we noticed that the initial workshop we offered was attended by mostly White parents. We have a student newspaper, The Collaborative Chronicle, where students have a platform to share their views on topics of concern, including race. As a leader, I model that we need to talk about the things that need to be talked about head on.

Racial Affinity Group for White Identified Caregivers at BCS led by White BCS parents and school staff

In NYC, parents have choices in their schools—there aren’t zoned elementary, middle, high schools that you have to attend because of where you live. Given the power of this parent choice, what are the core values behind the educational decisions I make as a parent? My own parents enrolled me in the Gifted & Talented (G&T) program starting in elementary school and I eventually graduated from Stuyvesant High School (one of the screened specialized high schools in NYC) in 1997. The specialized high schools are important to many Asian American families in NYC (as they were to my own family when I was growing up). However, as an educated adult, I know better and differently than my parents did then that screened schools do more harm than good.

My leadership at BCS over the last 14 years matches the same core values I have as a parent. At BCS, our student outcomes speak volumes. Our staff, students, and families work together so that everyone succeeds—we are crew. Our annual College March trumpets our academic achievements publicly to all—that Black and Latinx and White and Asian students achieve at the highest levels together. My professional life has been in service of posing high quality unscreened school alternatives (like BCS) to screened schools (that have implicitly normalized racism), while deliberately not having my own children test for G&T and keeping them in their unscreened neighborhood schools. We need more leaders and parents who don’t make one kind of educational decision for their own children while proposing other options for our city’s families.

Brooklyn Collaborative students march through our community every year as part of College March, a celebration that 100% of our seniors are college-bound

Even in these reflections, I am humble in accepting there is so much I don’t know and so much more to do to be an even better school leader and parent in pursuit of shared equity goals. Yet, the journey continues and I continue to embrace the daily opportunities. It’s every interaction and decision, from the smallest ones that start in a school hallway or around the dinner table to the bigger ones that change school policies or impact our own children’s schooling, that walk our talk as school leaders and parents.

Author Bio

Priscilla (Scill) Chan is Principal of Brooklyn Collaborative (bcs448.org), a Grades 6-12 NYC Outward Bound School in Brooklyn, NY. She was born and raised in Manhattan’s Chinatown and graduated from NYC public schools. Scill attended Harvard College for undergraduate studies in Environmental Science and Public Policy with a concentration in East Asian Studies. She attended Hunter College for back-to-back Masters in Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences and in Educational Administration. Scill is a proud mom of two daughters and loves going on adventures.

*EL Education is proud to host diverse voices and offer a platform for dialogue on topics impacting educators and students. Views of guest bloggers are their own and may differ from the views of EL Education.