Shine Bright Like a Diamond: Supporting Students with a Justice Lens
Like many this past year, I suffered the effects of deprivation from proximity – that is to say, I miss humans. It was this dearth of face-to-face interaction that led me, quite fortuitously, to reach out to Brittany Barnett, founder and president of the nonprofit organization Girls Embracing Mothers [GEM] to seek out volunteering opportunities. Renowned criminal justice advocate, decorated corporate lawyer, and best-selling author, Brittany is a force of nature.
After experiencing the incarceration of her mother, Brittany says, “I found this heightened sense of compassion and empathy in me that I never knew toward a group of people we were often taught to stereotype and ignore – people in prison. Her incarceration impacted me deeply.” She was inspired to start the GEM program as a means of connecting girls with their incarcerated mothers through facilitated monthly visits and ongoing systems of support like character cultivation workshops and events. With the COVID shutdown and cessation of prison visits, Brittany and her team have responded by pivoting to a monthly virtual curriculum where the girls are able to connect with one another, process their experience around maternal incarceration, and gain the tools necessary to lead successful and empowered lives.
Much like we at Education Elements help decision-makers in the K-12 sphere reimagine systems of education, Brittany seeks to reimagine systems of justice and, through a multi-pronged approach, to specifically address the following question: “How do we work to really empower girls, especially girls from multi-marginalized communities to embrace their voice, amplify their voice and empower them to soar?”
As schools are thinking about creating more equitable educational spaces that work to proactively elevate all voices, please consider the following three “gems” gleaned from a conversation with Brittany I recently had. Each contains words of wisdom from Brittany and some of the ways we discussed that teachers might translate these ideas into classroom practices.
Three ways to allow our students to thrive in school: Embrace, Amplify and Empower.
Embrace: “In basic terms, get to know your students.”
- Humanize the learning space by dedicating time to share experiences and personal stories - this could be in one-on-one conversations with students or even in writing assignments like an About Me letter exchange, personal narrative, or cultural autobiography
- Create a learner profile where students have a central place to share academic and non-academic information, and set and track personal goals. This will especially help with personalizing learning for your students and supporting competency-based learning initiatives
Amplify: “The first step is knowing that [adverse childhood experiences] are critical issues - being conscious that these are critical issues. Naming it and recognizing that these adverse childhood experiences exist and not just in theory – in the world, impacting real people.”
- Incorporate relevant and student-generated topics into your lessons to give students the language and space to process and grapple with a variety of life experiences
- Include memoirs like A Knock at Midnight into your curriculum to de-stigmatize issues, like maternal incarceration, that impact so many of our students and “clouds their ability to learn”
Empower: “[GEM is] run and operated by women impacted by maternal incarceration who are able to teach our girls real-world skills…beyond the classroom…When you are among people with shared lived experiences as it relates to such a critical adverse childhood experience, such as incarceration, it just, it helps tear down these barriers to learning.”
- Embrace “front door” solutions where you intentionally seek out mentors who share similar experiences as your students in order to create safe spaces for connection, whether it is during class, advisory period, or even in an after school club
- Encourage your students to be leaders by providing them with a forum to explore their passions and own the teaching experience in the classroom, thereby facilitating a collaborative and generative learning experience. Agency and mastery are cornerstones of competency-based education, and this strategy would allow you to delve into both
A vision boarding event sponsored by GEM
As I have gotten to know Brittany, I have learned her prompt response to my initial outreach expressing my desire to connect was not sheer luck; in fact, communication and engagement are guiding tenets of her personal philosophy. One of the essential ideas of her text is her intentional personalizing of the grueling clemency process, where the human at the center of the work can often get lost in the systems and processes. And it was this that had me thinking about the intersectionality of her work and ours here at Education Elements where we help teachers and leaders think through ways to create a more personalized and, ultimately, human experience in schools – spaces where our children are able to soar.
About Elizabeth Lambert
Elizabeth Lambert is a Design Principal on the Design & Implementation team, collaborating with schools to promote innovation in education in order to enhance the classroom experience for teachers and students. Elizabeth spent twenty years as a classroom teacher in a variety of districts, including Boston Public Schools, New York City Public Schools and Fulton County, Georgia. During this time, she served as department chair and instructional coach for developing teachers. Elizabeth has participated in many professional development experiences including presenting at the National Writing Project’s annual conference, serving as a Common Core Fellow in NYC and even traveling to Cuba as a Fund For Teachers grant awardee. She holds a B.A. in English from Georgetown University, an M.A. in Teaching of English from Teachers College, Columbia University, an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from University of Massachusetts, Boston and an Ed.S. degree in Teacher Leadership from Thomas University. While Elizabeth is proud of her New Jersey roots, she currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband, son and two dogs where she lives to hike, read and watch her son shred at the skatepark.