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Upper School Fall Semester | Pathways to Creating a More Just, Equitable, & Sustainable World

This week, Bush Upper School students are finishing up fall semester, having completed this term's offerings from a robust course catalog often said to more closely resemble the curriculum at a small liberal arts college than a traditional high school.
 Two of these courses – Literature and Disability and Global Women’s Issues – sparked in Bush Upper School students a desire to find new pathways to create a more just, equitable, and sustainable world. Rachana Agarwal and Nancy Bowman, the teachers of these two courses, are part of a long tradition of Bush teachers who believe that education must encourage the active participation of students in their learning, communities, and the world by elevating marginalized voices and human rights.
"It's so important for our students to look at the world from different perspectives and think deeply about how people's lived experiences impact those perspectives,” Upper School Director Matt Lai said. “Classes like Literature and Disability and Global Women’s Issues really allow our students to gain a more critical and thorough understanding of the world around them."
Literature and Disability
Upper School English Teacher Rachana Agarwal has always held a passion for giving attention to marginalized voices. After reading literature on the disabled community, her desire to continue learning and teaching about this community was too strong to ignore. 
“This was a community I didn’t know much about, and I really came with a curiosity and desire to learn more about it,” Rachana said. “I started reading the literature, and I grew really involved. I felt like this had to be a course.” 

Through that unwavering desire, the course, Literature and Disability was developed as an English elective. The course focused on human rights, highlighting the American Disabilities Act (ADA). It explores how people with disabilities have been marginalized from mainstream society, and challenges this status quo by centering firsthand accounts of people with disabilities. Rachana shared that throughout the course students read texts, engaged in discussions, and approached essay writing through a lens of empathy. 

“What does learning about people with disabilities teach us about what it means to be human and be compassionate regardless of disability or other differences? As a woman of color, I wanted to focus a lot on diversity, disability, visibility, and reclaiming literature of marginalized voices within the disabled communities,” Rachana said. 

The course was able to focus on the lived experiences of individuals with disabilities in a variety of units and narratives ranging from but not limited to: Perceptions and Paradigms — examining definitions and models of disability, and differentiate between emic (insider) and etic (outsider) representations of people with disabilities; Advocacy and Activism; and a unit on Embodied Beauty, where the class read experts of Chloé Cooper Jones’ memoir, Easy Beauty. The range of text and topics was a way to strive to better understand the diversity of disabilities. 

“I’ve actually found it quite impressive how compassionate they’ve been,” Rachana said of the students who took the course this past fall. “We had a class of twelve students, and it seemed we didn’t have enough time to get through the material. The course elevates a set of voices that haven’t been represented in our curriculum. Based on this course, I feel that core classes like English 9 and English 10 need to have anchor texts that support these voices.”

Another highlight was having Bush’s Director of Intercultural Affairs Kimberlee Williams speak to students of  her own personal story to the class as Black woman with a disability.

“Coming in to speak with Rachana’s class was the first time I spoke publicly in detail about my journey as someone living with a physical disability,” Kimberlee said. “There were moments of curiosity, wonder, laughter, and tears. The two things I will always take with me from the discussion is being able to model courage and vulnerability for students, including a student that thanked me for talking about invisible disabilities because they live with one every day too. Priceless experience for students and even more valuable for me.”

“Having Kimberlee Williams come in really brought it home, what it means to be a disabled person at Bush,” Rachana said. 

Global Women’s Issues
While Global Women’s Issues was not a new offering for Upper School students, History Teacher Nancy Bowman put her own spin on the course. Similar to the Literature and Disability elective, the philosophy of emphasizing awareness, empathy, and understanding around global current events was a primary focus on the experience of women. 
“The goal was that they (students) are able to work with the nuance of what’s happening around the world and not just stick with the generalizations that we might have of different parts of the world,” Nancy said.  
This past fall term the students took a deep dive into the United Nations World Conference on Women, Plenary Session in Beijing, China in 1995. During this conference, First Lady Hilary Clinton’s speech made world-wide waves as she declared, “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, it is that human rights are women's rights - and women's rights are human rights.” 
Through the lens of this historic summit, students examined women’s rights and roles. Where had there been progress over the past twenty-seven years? Where did things still look the same? Students looked at particular countries, selecting one of the twelve focus areas identified at the conference including human rights, education, women’s health care and more. The course ended with students presenting their findings in their own summit to classmates. 
The course also focused on the idea of understanding the contemporary situation of "average" women in "lean," non-western regions: North Africa, the Middle East and the broader Arab world, India, China, and Latin America. Students learned about the impact of western imperialism on those regions and on the experience of indigenous women. 
“Students last year and this year were glad to be looking outside their own bubble and American perspective exclusively,” Nancy said. “I think they really welcomed the opportunity to look outside that lens.” 
The ability to compare, contrast, and make connections among the experiences of women in different regions of the world was also a focus. This was demonstrated through looking closely at the protests coming out of Iran. 
“As students were doing reading on their assigned countries, they were realizing, ‘Oh, women in my country are protesting this, and women are protesting this.’ This sense of common cause, common interest, and common humanity around what are just basic rights that we take for granted,” Nancy said. “And I think for a lot of the students recognizing that they have been taking these same rights for granted is really powerful.”
-by Mary Albl, Communications Manager 
The Bush School is an independent, coeducational day school located in Seattle, WA enrolling 710 students in grades K–12. The mission of The Bush School is to spark in students of diverse backgrounds and talents a passion for learning, accomplishment, and contribution to their communities.

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