Regenerating Empathy

The lockdown was more challenging than I had imagined.  We all go through drills each month in public schools, practicing one scenario after another.  At SBHS we used to chuckle over the “go buckets” we were supposed to remember to bring outside during a fire (or whatever) drill.  Thengo bucket it actually happened; not a drill but a real lockdown with threats of shooting.   Naturally after some time, some of us needed to ‘go to the bathroom’. Thankfully we had those silly “go buckets” available, which allowed us to drape plastic sheeting around a plastic bucket so people in need could relieve themselves in some privacy. Not much, though.  Imagine being an adolescent having to  relieve oneself in the same room as your peers. Life altering, I suspect.  Just this week a different 18 year old from SB was arrested for spray painting the horrible racist graffiti on our track. As you all know now, we weren’t in real danger, despite the threatening nature of the messages targeting specific teachers and students. Yet the underlying tensions in the community included bigotry, racism and xenophobia.  To be sure, not all who supported keeping the Rebel name harbored such negativity (history is much more complicated than that). However, a shocking lack of empathy emerged.

What lessons can we learn from South Burlington’s experience?  It is complicated.

SB Wolves

New Mascot for SBHS

 Changing a mascot naturally brings strife, and a need to revisit history.  As our community began to recognize that the name “Rebel” was no longer a unifying term, we had to explore what underlay the tension.  News reports indicate that the name developed as a humorous response to breaking away from Burlington when the new South Burlington school was created but evolved over time to become offensive to many. We know that schools need to create a culture of belonging in order for students to succeed.  But how? We can begin by listening to many voices, sometimes coming from surprising places like a novel, sometimes from reliable sources like the Rowland Conference.


Well intentioned friends wondered why I was so affected by the lockdown and the budget defeats, saying, “But, this is Vermont!!”  Exactly.  We feel so safe, so open-minded, so accepting.  Coincidentally, my book group was reading Stranger in the Kingdom by Howard Frank Mosher in April, when the ugliness hit its stride.   This novel, set in the Northeast Kingdom in 1952 is a powerful reminder of hidden intolerance, alive and (un)well in Vermont for decades. Whether we are talking about race, class or gender inequality, schools across the state need to develop ideas to include all learners in our systems.


Reading a recent article in the St. Lawrence University alumnae magazine by Kimberly Flint-Hamilton called “Archaeology and Inclusion” my thinking was prodded.  “It can be very hard to find what you’re not looking for, even if it happens to be right in front of you.”  I am also a trained archaeologist, so the title caught my attention. In an excavation, you tend to find what you are looking for.  The ceramic specialist finds what she is looking for, as does the botanist, the specialist in bones, wood, architecture, and so on. Each of us can observe the same data and come up with different interpretations. To get to the full picture we need to hear all voices, to learn from all perspectives.  The same is true in understanding the complexity of schools in Vermont. We need to challenge the default notions of schools as conserving institutions, often unquestioningly protecting past inequities.

RuhaOne voice we need to hear is Ruha Benjamin at the Rowland Conference on Oct. 26th at UVM. I heard her speak at ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) to a crowd of thousands last year and before I left the auditorium sent a message to Chuck Scranton, Executive Director of the Rowland Foundation, telling him we need to hear her in VT.  Here is a short video with a highlight of her talk  and here is a link to not only the full talk but other media as well. Her topic this year is “Schools as Laboratories for Social Change: Regenerating Empathy at the Heart of Education,” places where we can incubate a better world in the minds and hearts of our students. Last year she said, “Teachers, if actually unified and empowered, can change the direction of history…Educators are cultural workers: either reproducing the world as it is or empowering students to create the world as it can and should be.” If you haven’t already signed up for the conference, gather together a diverse team of eight people who can spend a whole day considering, from diverse perspectives,  how to change build a culture of inclusion in your school.  Conference materials will be mailed to schools in Vermont after Labor Day and registration will then be open at the Rowland Foundation site.


LaurenLauren Kelley Parren is the Technology Integration Coach at South Burlington High School.  She has been a licensed Vermont educator for 41 years, working toward interdisciplinary, proficiency based learning for all students.  A Rowland Fellow in 2012, she is now the Associate for Social Media for the Foundation.  This summer she is cultivating beauty through gardening.


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