Guilderland teachers learn to see their own identities and prejudices to better understand their students — all of them 

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 

Altamont Elementary School Librarian Anne Johnson said she has a student who has decided, with her family, that she will begin to wear the hijab when she turns 12. 

GUILDERLAND — A mother who raised the issue, more than a year ago, of the Guilderland school district’s need for greater tolerance of diversity says she has chosen to stop fighting and moved her family to a more progressive district in another state.

Meanwhile, Guilderland’s superintendent says a number of initiatives are being undertaken in the district’s schools to increase awareness of the value of diversity. Superintendent Marie Wiles said that she personally has learned a lot from Michelle Charles and the professional-development journey she sparked in the district. 

 “This has been a humbling and eye-opening experience and I am thankful for it,” said Wiles. “I wish Mrs. Charles and her family well in their new community.”

Charles tells The Enterprise that in the Boston suburb where she and her family now live, there are still only a few black students in each of her children’s grades — similar to Guilderland — but the atmosphere is very different.

In the Guilderland district, being told that “their hair resembles a Q-tip or their skin is the color of poop” had begun to shape her children’s views of American society in a negative way, Charles wrote in an email to The Enterprise from Massachusetts. In their new school district, Charles wrote, her children have “no issues at all with teachers, bus drivers, students or curriculum.” 

Teachers there are very culturally sensitive, she said, and “really try to make everyone feel like their culture and ethnicity are appreciated.” They are very forthcoming, Charles said, “about if something is missing, addressing it.” 

Meanwhile, the principals of several of Guilderland’s schools outlined changes faculty and staff have begun making over the last year or so, and The Enterprise also spoke with a consultant — Stacy Williams, assistant professor of psychology at Marist College — whom the district has employed on several occasions to speak with faculty about facing their own biases and increasing their cultural sensitivity. 


The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
Fifth-grade teachers Karen Shaffer and Jennifer Gregory talk about diversity with a reporter and with Librarian Anne Johnson and Principal Peter Brabant at Altamont Elementary School in March, before schools closed in response to the novel coronavirus. 


A mother who moved away 

Charles wrote that she had decided she could no longer be a “trailblazer” in Guilderland. 

She referred to an Aug. 1, 2019  Enterprise article about diversity, in which she was featured, and said that quotes in that article from Wiles and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Demian Singleton showed her that the district was “not ready to make deep-rooted sustainable changes” that would keep African-American children, in particular, from feeling “lost in the district and left without much support from peers and adults.” 

Wiles had noted in the article that some neighboring school districts had begun hiring diversity coordinators and had said, “I don’t know if that would be something we would do. We’re not there yet.” 

Singleton had said in that story that he would be in favor of creating a position focused on equality, diversity, and inclusion, and that he had been discussing that idea with Wiles for several months. He explained, though, that it would not be “focused on the needs of one race, ethnicity, or group.”

Charles told the school board in October 2018 that she believes the district needs to hire more faculty and staff of color; there are few teachers of color in the district and none, at the time, at Lynnwood Elementary, the school her children attended. Lynnwood’s principal, Alicia Rizzo, said this week that school psychologist Shelby Samuel, who is an African American, joined the staff in September. 

Charles said her children were sometimes bullied about racial attributes on their school bus or at school and were treated unfairly, especially by substitute teachers. 

She told the school board then that the only person her daughter felt would understand her is a secretary in the elementary school’s main office, who is also an African American; that secretary has left, Rizzo said this week. 

In her recent email, Charles argued that African Americans can sometimes feel overlooked when the focus of diversity initiatives is cultural diversity. 

Charles wrote, “It appears that in the district the ideas of inclusion, diversity and ‘people of color’ seem to be defined more by the new idea of thinking where these terms lend themselves, more so to those of Asian descent rather than … African Americans. I mean, African Americans are still considered the minority and we check the box for race that says ‘black.’ On the other hand, Asians are part of the majority and do check the box that says white.” 

She continued, “I think the paradigm shift for diversity and inclusion in the district, particularly with the new head of the board identified as the first President ‘of color’ is to highlight more so the much faster growing Asian population which is greater in number than the African American.”

(The Enterprise had earlier reported that Seema Rivera was the board’s first president of color but, in fact, Joseph L. Cohen, an African American, had been president of the school board from 1981 to 1983.)

Charles told The Enterprise over the past year-and-a-half that she felt black history, and the accomplishments of black Americans were not being celebrated in the district and in Guilderland’s elementary curriculum. 

“Every year,” she wrote, “Chinese New Year and Diwali were mentioned and celebrated at my kids’ school while Black History Month was abandoned. I will never forget when I asked a teacher if she planned to study or mention anything about History Month upon our return from winter break in February. She stated that she didn’t need to cover Black History Month because she had shown a Brain Pop video about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela.” 

Because of these and other experiences, Charles wrote, she did not feel she could continue to be a trailblazer in the battle to rid the district of implicit bias and culturally insensitive curricula, and that she had asked her husband to check every day for “opportunities in places that seemed more progressive.” 

She wanted to find, she said, “somewhere where our children could function like their peers without being criticized and put down because they were black.” 

Wiles told The Enterprise this week that she appreciated Charles’s willingness to speak out and she believes that Charles “underscored a need for greater awareness of all our biases and helped us to accelerate our work around cultural differences, with a particular focus on our black and brown families.”  

The district has been working on this in many ways, Wiles said: reading and discussing books on the topic, evaluating curriculum materials, working with consultant Stacy Williams, and planning for the goal of increasing the diversity of the district’s workforce.

Guilderland will continue to “focus on understanding and addressing our biases, enriching our curriculum so that it reflects the heritage of all of our students, and whenever possible, hiring employees of color,” Wiles said. 

“None of this can happen overnight,” the superintendent said, “but we owe it to all of our students to persist in this work.  

“I personally learned a lot from Mrs. Charles and from our professional-development journey with Stacy Williams, beginning with how much advantage I have taken for granted in my own life as a white person,” Wiles said.


The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair
Fifth-grade teacher Karen Shaffer came up with the idea for Valentine’s Day, said her colleague Jennifer Gregory, of having students post “compliments” on one another’s lockers. Here, a locker belonging to a student named Juliana contains messages including “Helpful!” and “Your so funny.”


Diversity expert 

Stacy A. S. Williams, Ph.D, NCSP, an assistant professor at Marist College, is the cultural diversity expert hired several times by the Guilderland school district to talk with faculty about increasing their responsiveness around this issue. She does a lot of consulting, social-justice advocacy, and writing designed to better equip school psychologists to work with diverse populations, she said. 

Williams, 44, is licensed and certified as a school psychologist in New York State. At Marist, she is part of the Diversity Council, which advises the college’s president on issues related to diversity, inclusion, and equity.

Williams, a native of Jamaica who came to this country when she was 13, said being an immigrant is “a huge part” of her identity. She enjoys traveling to parts of the world where she does not speak the language and deliberately refraining from buying a data plan there, “and that forces me to connect with people.”


— Photo by David I. Muir. from Stacy Williams
Stacy Williams, a Marist College assistant professor who has been working as a diversity consultant with the Guilderland school district, told The Enterprise, “I have found most white Americans don’t grow up talking about race. Most are raised thinking talking about race is impolite,” Williams said. “Black families,” she said, “have to have these conversations as soon as those kids are able to leave the house.”


She loves listening to people’s stories and putting herself in places that are uncomfortable for her and ”that allow me to grow,” she said. These experiences teach her about being patient and open to people’s individual differences, she said.

She also loves to take “photo walks,” she said, including during her travels, and likes to meet people and talk with them and take their photos. She used to take photographs for money, she said, but eventually realized that that robbed her of her creativity. She writes on her website,, “It is important to have a work/life balance as an academic. Being lost in images is my favorite mental health activity.” 

“The work I’m doing with Guilderland is not specific to a cultural group or an ethnic group,” Williams said, noting that the Guilderland school population has changed over the years, which she attributes partly to the presence of SUNY Poly’s Albany Nanotech Complex nearby. There are also many African-American families moving into the community, she said, because of the school district. 

Williams was asked about Charles’s complaint, that African-American kids’ needs may be getting lost amid the broader focus on cultural diversity. 

“When I come in,” she said, “I don’t advise, ‘Use this strategy for African-American kids; use this strategy for Asian kids.’ That’s the old way of thinking about cultural pedagogy.” One important concept being discussed today, Williams said, is “understanding who we are, and understanding the spaces that we occupy, and the intersectionality of all of our identities.”

She added, “Every individual occupies a privileged identity and a marginalized identity.” 

Listing her own identities, as an example, she said she is a black woman in the United States, perceived as an African American, “with the assumptions that come with that.” The intersectionalities that come with that, she said, are that she is also an immigrant, and educated, and Caribbean. 

People make assumptions about all of those groups, she said. “When I come in, it’s all about understanding our socialization around race issues. If we understand who we are, then we’re better able to understand the students in our classroom.” 

“When you’re in spaces, an individual is negotiating all of these identities,” she said, noting that this kind of negotiation happens more often for those whose identities are more marginalized. “Folks who have privileged identities don’t really think about marginalized identities,” she said. “Like if you’re able-bodied, you won’t think about what it would be like to navigate spaces with a walker.” 

Williams described her first visit to Guilderland’s Farnsworth Middle School, in March 2019, this way: “I did the keynote session, and then afternoon sessions, where we talked about diversifying the curriculum, and I provided faculty members with concrete examples of what that could look like.” 

At that time, she said, she also spoke with the school’s principal, Michael Laster, about creating book clubs for faculty who were interested in building their pedagogy around these issues. 

She recommends to her clients two books, Williams said. One is “Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race,” by Debby Irving. “I have found most white Americans don’t grow up talking about race. Most are raised thinking talking about race is impolite,” Williams said. “Black families,” she said, “have to have these conversations as soon as those kids are able to leave the house.” 

Williams called “Waking Up White” Irving’s “coming-of-age about being white” and described it as “nonconfrontational, honest, raw.” 

Another is “Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race,” by Derald Wing Sue, which Williams said is “more academic” but also “really gets into some of the nuances.” Its last chapter, she said, provides teachers with strategies for having “courageous conversations in the classroom about religion, race, or sexuality.” Avoiding talking about these issues, she said, doesn’t make them go away. 

This book recommends “first understanding who you are in terms of this issue,” Williams said. “I wouldn’t recommend a teacher who hasn’t first explored their own biases to initiate this conversation.” 

Williams also did an intensive two-day session with administrators in July 2019, she said, out of which the administrators created action goals. She had been scheduled — before the coronavirus pandemic closed schools — to come back this past month, in March, to work with the elementary and high schools. She has consulted with the high school about its needs and said the high school is already doing a lot of work around diversity and equity, and that it’s a matter of “pulling that all together to support all their students.” 

Williams talked with The Enterprise about “microaggressions,” a topic she has focused on in some of the talks to Farnsworth Middle School teachers. She said that there can be a difference between intent and impact. 

Williams gave some examples of microaggressions: seeing a tall, black student and asking if he is on the basketball team — “Like you just assume he’s on the basketball team” — or a woman who is “mansplained” at a meeting or whose suggestions are ignored until they are repeated by a man, at which point the suggestions are praised by all. 

Students may sometimes feel they are not being heard, or feel they are being marginalized, Williams said, citing the example of a teacher who had once told her she had been called a racist, but didn’t feel she was a racist. She asked the teacher what had happened after that word was used, and whether she had asked the child’s mother what behaviors the child had reported that gave that impression. The teacher had said no, she hadn’t asked the mother about that. 

The first step, Williams says, is always to listen to people and to try to draw out their stories and their thoughts if, for instance, a student’s parent doesn’t want him or her to read a certain book in school. “Talk to them. Is talking hard?,” she asks, answering her own question: “Definitely.”

Avoiding talking about sensitive topics, or topics that provoke emotion, only “tells them that we don’t see them, and they don’t matter,” Williams said. 

Williams continued, saying, “The first thing we have to do is be able to have a discussion, because many times we engage in behaviors that could come off as being marginalizing, and were not necessarily aware of that.”

Williams has been working, she said, with Guilderland faculty about their interactions with students to “get at some of the reporting of students of color or African-American students that they don’t feel connected, or that they feel marginalized within the district.” 


Initiatives at ​Altamont Elementary 

There is far less diversity within the student body at Altamont Elementary, said Principal Peter Brabant, than there is at the Guilderland or Westmere elementary schools, but in his view that only makes the work of thinking about diversity more crucial.

“If someone were to come here, they might feel like they stand out even more. I want everyone to feel included,” he said, noting that he and the faculty have been working for the last year or so to increase awareness around this issue.  

“Children want to recognize themselves in books,” said Altamont Elementary School Librarian Anne Johnson. 

Johnson has done a great job, said Brabant, of selecting books for the school’s library that reflect diverse experiences. Brabant said Altamont had received some federal money from the district that has allowed it to proactively look at its school library and classroom libraries, to see how well various groups are represented. 

Altamont’s effort has not been heavy-handed, Brabant said, but organic, and reflects the desire to try to “build staff awareness and build our capacity to teach confidently across all cultural groups.” 

Johnson holds up “The Proudest Blue,” a children’s book about a young girl who looks forward to the day when she will begin wearing a hijab — a head-covering worn by Muslim women — every day, like her older sister. It’s a story, says author Ibtihaj Muhammad in an author’s note, “of family, love, and faith.”

Johnson said she has a student who has decided, with her family, that she will begin to wear the hijab when she turns 12. “I think she might like this book,” Johnson said. 

Her job is made easier, Johnson said, because publishers recently have brought out more titles that provide glimpses into a wide array of experiences and include more diverse faces in illustrations, even on books that have nothing to do with diversity. 

As an example, Johnson held up a book called “Fire Safety (Staying Safe!)” by Sarah L. Schuette, the cover of which features a woman in a hijab showing her brown-skinned son how a smoke detector works. 

Brabant said a third-grade teacher at Altamont Elementary had decided to stop using, in her classroom library, a book written 30 years ago by well-known author Eve Bunting, called “Summer Wheels,” that Brabant said otherwise had good themes and representations. She decided to stop using it because of the way it depicts an African-American boy in the story. 

Johnson and Shaffer talked about a graphic-novel memoir called “El Deafo,” by Cece Bell, that features a character with a cochlear implant. Finding that book, Johnson said, “was like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” since Altamont has a student with a cochlear implant. It was valuable for her to “make that connection to that character,” the librarian said. Shaffer added that it also gave other children insight into that student’s experiences. 

Gregory, Shaffer, and Johnson discussed another book, “The Sign of the Beaver,” by Elizabeth George Speare, a historical novel that won a Newbery Honor award. This book, they said, uses offensive phrases to describe Native Americans, such as “savages,” which would have been used by early American settlers. Some classroom teachers had talked with their students about this issue, and asked if they still wanted to read the book, and students said they did. 

Books also provide ways for students to begin to ask questions about and connect to current events, the three said. Johnson showed a book called “Lubna and Pebble,” by Wendy Meddour, about a girl who lives in a refugee camp. The girl, Lubna, has “nothing but this pebble, and her father,” the librarian explained. “She meets a little boy who has nothing, and no one, and winds up giving him the pebble.” 

Books like that are “great conversation starters,” Johnson said. Children “hear snippets on the radio that they might not even understand, and these books give them a chance to ask questions.” 

Gregory said she and her students had talked a lot this year about what “home” is. “Is it a structure?” she asked. “Is it simply being with your family?” 


At Farnsworth Middle School 

Farnsworth Principal Laster told The Enterprise that, about two years ago, the state’s Department of Education issued a “Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework,” and that he used that information to “begin the conversation in this building.” 

This framework says, in part: “For more than a century, education providers throughout the United States have strived and struggled to meet the diverse needs of American children and families. A complex system of biases and structural inequities is at play, deeply rooted in our country’s history, culture, and institutions. This system of inequity — which routinely confers advantage and disadvantage based on linguistic background, gender, skin color, and other characteristics — must be clearly understood, directly challenged, and fundamentally transformed. The New York State Education Department (NYSED) has come to understand that the results we seek for all our children can never be fully achieved without incorporating an equity and inclusion lens in every facet of our work … .” 

In the school year 2018-19, Laster said, that Farnsworth began to include within its cabinet goals the specific idea of serving a diverse student population.  

Laster also said that, right around that same time, Singleton presented figures on just how much more diverse the student body has become over the past two decades: In 1999-2000, twenty years ago, 91 percent of students were white, while in 2018-19, that figure had fallen to just 75 percent. 

Initially in 2018-19, Farnsworth administrators and faculty used resources from a group called Teaching Tolerance, Laster said, and then the district invited Williams, the cultural diversity expert, to speak at the spring superintendent’s day in March 2019.

Williams gave a keynote session, Laster said, and then two breakout sessions, which he described as “more like workshops with teachers so they could dig deeper and think about how to work this into what is already a complex job of teaching.” 

Farnsworth then had Williams come back in November 2019; she spoke to the faculty about “microaggressions” and how they can disrupt teacher-student dynamics and about what culturally responsive planning looks like, Laster said. 

During this academic year, Laster said, the school also had a staff assembly featuring John Robinson, who is the chief executive officer of Our Ability Inc. That organization’s stated mission, according to its website, is to provide “employment and empowerment” for people with disabilities.

Robinson was born without arms or legs and is the author of an autobiography, “Get Off Your Knees: A Story of Faith, Courage, and Determination,” and is the subject of a Public Broadcasting Service documentary, “Get Off Your Knees: The John Robinson Story.” 

The assembly was so powerful, Laster said, that the school invited Robinson back to speak to students. 

Farnsworth has many students, of various races, religions, sexual orientation, abilities, and economic circumstances, Laster said. The school’s job is, he said, to make sure that all of them feel safe in school, have a relationship with a trusted adult, and feel connected with some teachers and students. “We want to make sure all students feel they belong,” he said. 

He plans to do a survey soon of students to get a better sense of how well the school is succeeding in this area. He plans to make the survey required, and not optional, as it was in the fall of 2019; that survey was completed by about 37 percent of kids, Laster said. He has a draft of the survey completed, and just wants to get input, he said, from Williams and from Wiles. 

“Once we have that, we’ll talk to teachers and staff and ask how we can get the most response,” Laster said. 

In 2019, he led a book study among Farnsworth teachers of “Waking Up White, which had been recommended by Williams. The study was so popular that the district later opened it up to teachers outside Farnsworth. 

Laster said, before the coronavirus closures of schools, that he hoped to do another book study for teachers this spring on “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People,” by psychologists Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, a book that was recommended to him by colleagues. Laster called it “a fascinating book on the brain research on how some of our hidden biases become formed over time.” 

The middle school is looking into the possibility of holding its own cultural fair, as the high school does each year, Laster said. Before the novel coronavirus hit, he said, “We’re investigating it. I don’t think we’ll pull it off this year.” 

Finally, two Farnsworth sixth-grade teachers, Emily Mineau and Nancy Clum-Dolan, spoke this year at a national-level conference for middle-level teachers about steps they take to be culturally responsive, Laster said. 


At Lynnwood Elementary 

New school psychologist Shelby Samuel wrote to The Enterprise this week in an email: “I believe that promoting diversity and cultural awareness and competency in faculty and staff is important and requires continued attention in education. Educators need to be inclusive, respectful, and responsive and to continually develop these skills and integrate them into their practices.

“From a national to local level, with thoughtful actions from all stakeholders, I am hopeful that the diversity in our educators will continue to become more reflective of the diversity of our communities.” 

Samuel said, while this is his first year at Lynnwood, it is his fifth in the field. He has found Lynnwood’s families and his colleagues to be “strong advocates for our learners.” He said he has felt welcomed and supported by the school and knows that he and his colleagues both care deeply about Lynnwood’s students and are sensitive to their varied backgrounds and experiences. 

Samuel worked in urban districts during undergraduate school at New York University and graduate school at the State University of New York at Albany. Then, for the four years before starting at Lynnwood, he said, he worked in Bennington, Vermont, which he said was similar to Guilderland in terms of the racial and ethnic diversity of the faculty, but less diverse than Guilderland in terms of the makeup of students and their families. 

“I believe in our school community and I think that continued introspection and growth on how to best support all of our learners is critical for all of us,” Samuel wrote. 

Beverly Beaudette, a teacher of English as a new language, described some of the new activities undertaken at Lynnwood: 

— Mini-lessons in two younger general classrooms were taught this year on the traditions of the Chinese New Year, one offered by a parent and the other taught by Beaudette, who added that students were taught to say “Happy New Year” in Mandarin. She said she may offer a mini-lesson on Ramadan in late April or May;  

— Some of Beaudette’s “pull-out sections” — with ENL students only, in the ENL classroom — have been having a special snack once a week from another place around the world, including Poland, Japan, and Turkey, and have been doing a brief, few-minute lesson about that country after students locate it on a map. Some students “really get into it,” Beaudette said, noting that she has one first-grader who can now identify “almost 15 countries”; 

— During the month of April, one of the school bulletin boards is set to highlight some of Lynnwood’s bilingual students, Beaudette said. Students are working with their parents to write the sentence “Hello, my name is _____” in English and their home language in speech bubbles to appear beside their photos; 

— Speakers from the Regional Bilingual Education Resource Network have come to Lynnwood twice this year to offer professional development on “how to teach linguistically and culturally diverse students,” Beaudette said, adding that they were scheduled to come two more times after classes resume. 

These training sessions are optional and take place after school but are well attended, Beaudette said, estimating that about 40 faculty and staff members came to the first session.

One major change that has taken place at Lynnwood Elementary, said Principal Rizzo this week, is that the fourth-grade tradition of Colonial Day has been replaced this year with a Colonial Kids field trip to the Mabee Farm Historic Site in Rotterdam, which Rizzo said includes learning about slavery and indentured servitude. 

Charles had taken exception to Colonial Day, in which students were asked to dress up as colonial girls or boys and learn what life was like in a colonial classroom. Charles told the Guilderland School Board in May 2019 that this tradition was behind the times and didn’t take into account everyone’s perspective. 

“In the 1700s, African Americans were not allowed to go to school,” Charles had told the board pointedly. 

The first-ever visit to Mabee Farm is scheduled for May 14, said Rizzo.  


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