Student-Led Celebrations of Diversity and Identity

Supporting more than 65 nationalities, the International School of Kenya is committed to ensuring that we have created a safe place where a foundation of trust, openness, and transparency prevail. At the same time, we need to continually support the development of cultural competence and have regular conversations to build cultural proficiency in our students and staff.

Last year, a group of students approached me to stress the need to raise awareness with their peers around sexuality and hurtful language, such as “that’s so gay.” Out of that meeting with students came a special day of student-led workshops around different themes related to identity. We suspended all normal classes and hosted our first annual “Proud to Be Me” Day. The workshops that first year were centered around topics of race, gender, LGBTQ identity, and neurodiversity.

This year on February 14th, we hosted our second annual Proud To Be Me Day, with themes around body image, language, neurodiversity, and assumptions/expectations. Our overarching goal was to empower students with knowledge and awareness to stand up in our community as well as promote inclusion and acceptance.

Below is a glimpse into some aspects of the workshops around inclusion, acceptance, and embracing our diverse identities.

Neurodiversity

Students watched a 1.5 minute video to empathize and understand the challenges of a student on the autism spectrum, and they also watched this 1.5 minute Not Special Needs video.

Top tips to be a supportive classmate of neurodiverse students include:

  • Listen and pay attention—both to verbal communication (words) and nonverbal communication (voice quality and body language).
  • Use a calm voice and be reassuring.
  • Keep your manner encouraging rather than correcting.
  • Recognize that others may be sensitive to the tone of your voice.
  • Don’t rush—trust is built slowly.
  • Encourage self-advocacy and opportunities for independence.
  • Treat each person as an individual with talents and abilities deserving of respect and dignity.
  • Give extra time for the person to process what you are saying and to respond.
  • Look for signs of stress or confusion.

Body Image

This session started by defining body image as “a person’s ideas of the attractiveness of their own body. It involves how a person sees themselves, compared to the standards that society sets for us.”

Students watched parts of these videos: Stay Beautiful: Ugly Truth in Beauty Magazines and You’re More Beautiful Than You Think. They then ended the session with writing statements based on the following prompts:

  • I love __________. (a statement about your physical appearance)
  • I love that my body can _________. (a statement about your body’s ability)

Language

In this session, students brainstormed words they hear around school, and then answered the following prompts:

  • Look at each word. Choose one and explain how it makes us feel.
  • Think of an impact that word or another word has on an individual and community.
  • When we use derogatory language, do the words we use really express what we intend to say?
  • What alternatives do we have?
  • Notice that many of the words are directed toward girls and women. How does that make you feel? Girls? Boys, how would you like it if someone said that to a woman in your life (mother, grandma, auntie, sister)?
  • If you could exchange that hurtful word for an empowering word, what word would it be?

As a closing activity, students wrote a hurtful word on one side of a slip of paper and a positive replacement word on the other side. They then videoed each student turning their negative word over to the positive word.

Two videos that complemented this session: How Words Can Hurt, Peter Limthongviratn, Ted Talk and My Language, My Choice.

Assumptions and Expectations

This workshop started with riddles and partial pictures to examine the assumptions we make and our hidden biases. Students then watched this video: Do Your Assumptions Affect How You Treat People?

In closing, students wrote about the following topics:

  • A time someone made an assumption about me.
  • A time that you made an assumption about someone else.

As a part of living in an interconnected world and pluralistic society, it is essential to appreciate diversity, aim for inclusion, and take time to acknowledge and connect with students’ cultures. Educators must help students understand inequities and find ways to redesign social systems and structures that promote unearned privilege in society. This includes understanding white privilege and overturning the systems and structures that suppress marginalized groups, such as people of color and those who identify with the LGBTQ community.

Alexa P. Schmid is the middle level principal at the International School of Kenya and the 2019 U.S. Department of State Office of Overseas Schools Principal of the Year. She is currently working on her doctorate in education from Plymouth State University, where she is studying cultural competency leadership in international schools. She was a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia, and has worked in international schools in Egypt, India, and Kenya.

1 Comment

  • Alexa,

    A wonderful article.

    A trademark of successful teaching is awareness, where appreciation of diversity in the classroom guides us as educators. The strengths and benefits of diversity can only acquired when we accept these differences and learn to appreciate and accept each individual irrelevant of their background. It is not difficult to tailor our classrooms so that no one person feels out of place.

    #Anastasios Koularmanis

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