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Is American society trapped forever in the oppressive, racialized education system depicted in Exception to the Rule? Not necessarily. Change to schooling—as we all experienced during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic—is possible, when the political will exists.

The pandemic highlighted some of the basic educational inequalities that persist in America. Overcrowded schools had difficulty reopening due to inadequate space for social distancing. The additional air flow required for safe learning revealed longstanding issues with air quality and ventilation in many buildings, some as simple as having windows that did not open. Shifting to distance learning or “virtual school” posed a problem for the 30% of American schoolchildren who lack internet access or a computing device at home, an issue that was more likely to affect Black, Latinx, Native American, and rural schoolchildren. Without reliable real-time connection to teachers and peers, students were more likely to fall behind or disengage from the learning process.

As students and teachers resume in-person learning amidst this difficult time, fostering an equitable and inclusive school culture is more important than ever. A variety of approaches in classrooms and teacher training are working and spreading in New York City and beyond.

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Culturally Responsive Sustaining Education

America’s formal education system is deeply rooted in the dominant culture of the 19th and 20th centuries: white supremicist, Anglocentric, patriarchal, Protestant, and individualist. Students with these traits are therefore seen as having a higher value, when in reality, there is equal value in the cultural, ethnic, religious, and linguistic backgrounds of all students. Similarly, the curriculum has long focused on a narrow set of subjects and masterworks.

The New York State Education Department recently launched the Culturally Responsive Sustaining Education Framework, which is designed to “help education stakeholders create student-centered learning environments that affirm cultural identities; foster positive academic outcomes; develop students’ abilities to connect across lines of difference; elevate historically marginalized voices; empower students as agents of social change; and contribute to individual student engagement, learning, growth, and achievement through the cultivation of critical thinking.” The goal is to evolve the education system to one that views differences as assets to the learning process and to the community. Read the framework.

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Trauma-Informed Practice

Many people experience trauma (a deeply frightening, dangerous, or life-threatening event one is involved in or witnesses) during childhood. Examples of trauma include child abuse, witnessing violence in the community, homelessness, natural disasters, the death of a close family member, or a serious illness or accident. It’s estimated that up to two-thirds of children in the U.S. have experienced at least one type of serious trauma by age 16. A few of the characters in Exception to the Rule are part of that majority.

Trauma affects the brain in many ways. During traumatic events, stress hormones are released. With repeated traumas, these hormones can shrink the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is responsible for memory, and cause the amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with fear and emotion, to become overactive. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls decision-making and planning, shuts down during traumatic events. All of these changes can make the school environment difficult for students who have experienced trauma.

To address this, many educators today use trauma-informed practices in their classrooms. This does not mean being informed about students’ trauma, but rather recognizing the ways trauma can manifest in classroom behavior and responding accordingly. Trauma-informed practices include focusing on building relationships with students; recognizing that student responses may not be predictable or personal; being transparent about the reasons for classroom rules and including students in developing classroom norms; creating predictable, consistent routines; teaching students strategies for breaking out of anxious or angry thought patterns; and being alert to student triggers and working to mitigate them.

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Restorative Justice

In American schools, implicit bias (the unconscious responses that shape our actions) leads to harsher and more frequent detention and suspension of Black and Latinx students: for example, in 2017-2018, 67% of students in New York City public schools were Black or Latinx, yet they accounted for 90% of students given superintendent's suspensions. 

There are three broad approaches one can take when a rule is broken or a crime has occurred: retributive justice (focused on punishment), rehabilitative justice (focused on personal reform), and restorative justice (focused on repairing the harm caused by the crime). Detention, suspension, and expulsion are forms of retributive justice.

Today, many schools are using restorative justice in place of retributive justice in order to combat the results of implicit bias and to strengthen social bonds among students, their families, faculty, and staff. The goal is to create an inclusive school community in which all feel a sense of belonging and responsibility. Restorative practices include relationship-building circles, in which all participants sit in a circle and have a structured discussion around a topic. In these circles, participants practice listening and communication skills and develop empathy. Circles are non-hierarchical; teachers and staff participate under the same rules as students.

In the restorative justice framework, circles are also used to address harm. Instead of issuing a detention for student behavior, a school sets up a restorative intervention, run by a trained staff member. Those harmed, the offending party, and community members come together to discuss the impact of the action, how to repair the harm that was done, and how to restore the community moving forward. This model can also be used to address conflicts between people outside of a school system.

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Centering Black Voices

Another approach to the problem of oppressive, racialized systems is to create a space for individuals within or outside of problematic institutions. Examples of this include groups like Black Girls Teach, a professional development and support network for Black female educators. When Exception to the Rule was produced at Dave Harris’s alma mater, Yale University, it was the first play produced at Yale with an entire cast and crew of people of color. Harris, then a student, chose to produce the play outside of the Yale Dramat, Yale’s primary undergraduate student-led theatrical producing organization. As Harris told the Yale Daily News in 2016, “We wanted to create our own family and space here with this show, and prize it as our own space like the Dramat is prized as a white space.” In such spaces, shielded from some of the problematic structures of the American education system, Black students can begin to envision a school system that is built to educate rather than control them and develop the confidence to advocate for change.

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Barnum, Matt. “The Pandemic Is Spotlighting Longstanding Issues with America's School Buildings.Chalkbeat, Chalkbeat, 15 Sept. 2020.

Borter, Gabriella. “Exceptions to the Rule.Yale Daily News, 3 Mar. 2016.

Chandra, S., Chang, A., Day, L., Fazlullah, A., Liu, J., McBride, L., Mudalige, T., Weiss, D. "How to Close the K-12 Digital Divide in the Age of Distance Learning." San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media. Boston Consulting Group, 2020.

Children and Trauma: Update for Mental Health Professionals.American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, 2008.

Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework.New York State Education Department, New York State Education Department, 2019.

Foster, Lindsey. “Disproportionality and Punishment.NYU Steinhardt, New York University, 26 Oct. 2020.

Minahan, Jessica. “Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies.ASCD, ASCD, 1 Oct. 2019.

What Are Restorative Practices?Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility.