By Suzanne Gorman, Head of Downtown Campus; Reed Gabhart, Head of Goshen Campus; and Renee Hennessy, Preschool Director

At St. Francis, we are dedicated to lifelong learning. One of the ways we model this dedication is that the faculty and staff engage in summer reading annually just as the students do. At the High School, the entire faculty and staff reads the all-school summer reading book assigned to students, which this year was In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. In addition, the entire faculty and staff – Preschool through High School – reads one of several book options, which we then discuss at our opening faculty/staff meetings. This year we selected four titles, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo; Help for Billy: A Beyond Consequences Approach to Helping Challenging Children in the Classroom by Heather T. Forbes; Good Life Practice: A Quick Start Guide to Mindful Self-Regulation by Dave Mochel; and Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children by Michael Thompson and Catherine Grace.   

We chose these books for several reasons. This year, we are focusing on positive student climate and experience, with four “pillars” that each lead to this in different ways. The pillars are diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work; mindfulness; restorative practices; and trauma-informed teaching. The books generally correlate to one (or more) of these pillars and provided a springboard for the rich professional development sessions the faculty and staff had before the start of school. In addition, Dave Mochel and Michael Thompson, authors of two of the books, will be presenting at the upcoming ISACS Annual Conference in Louisville, which all faculty will attend.  

Here are brief summaries of each book:    

1. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism is a remarkable book written by a white person for a white audience. The premise is that in the U.S., white people are generally protected (somewhat mediated by social class) from race-based stress through cultural representations, media, school currricula, movies, and other dominant institutions and cultural discourses. As a result, the ability to tolerate race-based stress is low, as is the ability to respond in constructive ways and constructively engage across racial divides. This, in essence, is “white fragility” and this state of being unable to tolerate racial stress triggers defensiveness and the need to protect the status quo. White fragility ultimately helps hold racism in place because it makes genuine allyship and social/institutional change difficult. DiAngelo also gently points out that no matter how progressive, liberal, or “woke” a reader may be, the society in which white people have grown up has conditioned them to be blind to the ideologies and privileges that prop up racist beliefs. The book spends most of its pages exposing the dynamics of white fragility and turns in the end to offer some suggestions for white people on how to build their capacity for genuine work toward racial justice.

2. Help for Billy: A Beyond Consequences Approach to Helping Challenging Children in the Classroom applies to all four of our pillars. It describes “Billy” as a challenging student, who has experienced some form(s) of childhood trauma (which can include any number of experiences: divorce, death of a parent, homelessness, parental drug addiction, etc.) and in school is perceived as problematic: a troublemaker, lazy, disrespectful. However, Billy can be a successful student if approached and supported in the right way. There are also lessons here that are applicable to the way we want to approach all students, including a reminder that behavior is almost never about the teacher but rather about what the student is experiencing and feeling, so our response to students needs to always remain objective, loving, and focused on them. 

3. Good Life Practice: A Quick Start Guide to Mindful Self-Regulation is split into two sections, “The Human Condition” and “Good Life Practices.” After an explanation of neuroscience, including the fact that humans are not meant to be happy 24/7, the book focuses on ways to practice Mochel’s four fundamentals of unconditional well-being: Presence (being in the moment with what is happening around you); Purpose (focusing on what matters and accepting responsibility for the consequences of your choices); Cultivation (practicing what you seek and externalizing resources like courage, compassion, and gratitude); and Connection (being of service, seeking to understand, being supportive). He shares various approaches to mindfulness and meditation, including five-minute meditations, breathing exercises, looking for ways to help others (“micro-kindnesses”), listening to others mindfully, and scheduling your time around the priorities that you most value. Part of why we chose this book as an option is to continue the work some of our teachers have already done with mindfulness; about a dozen faculty and staff members on both campuses took a six-week Mindfulness Fundamentals online course from the Mindful Schools organization this summer, and we are considering ways to integrate this practice with our students.

4. Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children is written by clinical psychologists specializing in children and families. It takes us through the developmental stages of friendship and delves deeper into children’s social behaviors from preschool to college. Friendships begin in infancy and as children grow, their friendships become more complicated. As parents, we watch our children experience the emotional difficulties that accompany the need to be included in the “in” crowd and see the difficult realities that some children face in common social situations that involve teasing, name-calling, and even rejection and exclusion. Only a small number of children ultimately are unable to navigate these social “roads and highways.” As difficult as it can be for parents, often the best advice is simply to be present and listen to kids’ stories about school and friendships and let them figure it out for themselves over time. Trying to “fix” all of these ever-changing situations is next to impossible and can even backfire. The book also makes clear that children do not need to have a high number of friends or be very popular; rather, having a few close friends with whom they have close bonds and interests can be just as important. Schools can employ techniques to create healthy, caring environments, many of which SFS already does through strong advisory and lead programs that foster discussions on sharing, being kind to one another, healthy relationships, and issues pertinent to teens as kids move up the developmental ladder. The book offers insight for schools, teachers, and parents alike to support a child’s healthy development in their complex social world.

We recommend all of these books to parents!