When his middle school team comes together to examine how they are enabling students to demonstrate respect for and affirm their own and others’ differences, sixth grade Social Studies teacher Brian Nichol is humbled, surprised and energized by the experience. The team’s responses to checklist/questionnaire tools on “communicating care and high expectations” and “examining assumptions” provide opportunity for reflection and positive changes.
Like many of his colleagues, veteran Social Studies teacher Brian Nichol has spent countless workshop hours considering methods to best engage all of his students equally in the classroom, despite their differences. He works hard to draw on the interests of his diverse students and is conscientious about checking classroom activities for possible biases or insensitivity toward students’ backgrounds, gender, and family structures. While Brian prides himself on skills such as using language that is inclusive of all kinds of students, he admits to hitting a “chord of discomfort” when gathering with his middle school team to explore assumptions and how to best communicate care and high expectations to all students. When asked if they “use texts that are free of stereotypes and misrepresentations of people of color, women, working class people and other social groups?” and if they “engage students in critiquing texts that may contain such stereotypes and misrepresentations,” Brian admits this an area of concern, but one that he doesn’t feel he has ever addressed satisfactorily. He admits to growing “used to” the sixth grade history textbook and feels wary of the time it might take away from “getting through” the geography if he slows down to examine the possible stereotypes that lurk in what is present (and what is excluded) in the book. That said, with colleagues now focused on the discussion with him, Brian is eager to connect and find out if they too have felt discomfort in the overrepresentation of animals in the section on Africa. With the few pages on Africa highlighting social and cultural representations of non-representative groups, Brian worries that his students are largely exposed to stereotypical views of Africans that are fragmented pieces of a much richer whole. With “entertainment media” perpetuating negative images that are further stereotypical, Brian and his colleagues realize that in order to show respect for all students and cultures (and have them learn to respect themselves and each other), they must model and teach how to view textbooks and social messages with a more critical lens.
The middle school team spends time brainstorming how they will address using the current textbook (consider alternatives? supplement with other materials and lead students to think critically about content), and also how they can assess the assumptions that students have about differences before they even enter the classroom. A newer teacher in the group offers up a valuable tool/website (from her graduate program) on teaching about Africa* that reinforces this need to assess students’ understandings and misconceptions before even entering a study of different cultures. It seems a perfect segue to explore another tool brought forward for the middle school team’s meeting: a set of questions that asks them to examine their own assumptions so that they can better understand how their cultural and social identities inform their beliefs, practices, and interactions with students. The teachers agree to reflect on a prompt to examine how their own schooling experiences affect their teaching and how they interact with students. While their experiences varied, Brian shares positive memories of his white, suburban school history. In fact, it was his success in school (bolstered by the support of parents, coaches, and teachers) that led him into the teaching world twenty years ago. With a mix of successful and struggling students under his helm, Brian admits that it has always been easier for him to identify with his more motivated students. Despite his ongoing efforts to create opportunity and support for all of his students to reach their potentials, Brian wonders if this comfort with students who are more “like him” might be impacting his choices and interactions? Despite being known as a fair and challenging teacher to all, Brian realizes how important it is to consider the subtle ways that his own biases might influence his teaching. He looks forward to the next middle school meeting where the teachers will gather to discuss newfound observations/reflections from their classrooms that are inspired by raised awareness from this meeting.
- This set of three tools organized around “Affirming attitudes towards students from culturally diverse backgrounds” could be helpful for individual and group reflection. The introductory page offers links to three tools:
1) A checklist of questions that addresses “Communicating care and high expectations” by asking about student opportunities/accessibilities in the classroom and teacher behavior/expectations/awareness of their own choices/actions.
2) A grid that offers teachers the opportunity to provide evidence and an action plan for various choices/behaviors that show an affirming attitude toward students from culturally diverse backgrounds.
3) A list of reflection questions that help teachers think about how their cultural and social identities shape the way they interact with students and how they teach.
- In this curriculum entitled: “Why Study Africa?” the significance of exploring what students know and don’t know before beginning a study unit is presented along with general strategies for addressing stereotypes, misrepresentation, and lack of representation.