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Managing Bias in the Classroom

I talk about race, class, privilege, and inclusiveness A LOT as a blogger. It's my passion, and I am unapologetic about it. If we are to embrace all of our students, we have to converse and reflect on our practices to ensure that our classrooms are affirming and nourishing all of our scholars. I am always reviewing my classroom rules and procedures to double check for blindspots, or assumptions I might be making about my students as a result of a unchecked biases.  As usual, I'd love to know your thoughts too! 

In her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race, Dr. Beverly Tatum notes that we all breathe in smog. In this way she compares smog to racism by noting, “sometimes it is so thick it is visible, other times it is less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in.” WE.ALL.BREATHE.IT. It doesn't mean we are all racist, but rather that none of us are free from bias, and that we are constantly bombarded with negative messages of groups of people, which become internalized. As educators, we have to step back and ensure that our unconscious biases are not causing us to take action that prevents our students from feeling safe and included in our classrooms. Let's think about this through the lens of classroom management. When evaluating your classroom management system, think about how it may unfairly favor one group over another. Below are a few pitfalls that this mindset might lead teachers to as a result of unchecked biases. 

BEHAVIOR CHARTS – These are pretty popular in the lower grades. If you are going to use images of children, think about how the placement of children in the continuum factor into the psyche of your kids. A chart that displays a white child at the top representing the best behavior plays into some of the ongoing negative messages that we all absorb. How would your students of color feel not being “reflected” until the bottom of the chart? When creating a chart like this, consider having multiple children represented throughout the levels, or no children at all. 
TEACHERS VS. STUDENTS – One of my favorite bloggers, Blair Turner recently posted about this "game." In short, be mindful of games that pit students versus the teacher. There are variations in how this game is played, but I encourage teachers to reflect on the message sent regarding power and privilege if the teacher earns a point when the class doesn’t do something. 
HARD WORK GUARANTEES SUCCESS A very nuanced concept, but it’s important to remember that hard work can lead to success, but doesn’t necessarily guarantee success in life. This is a really hard reflection to have, and one that a colleague at my current school brought up because of a line in our core outcomes that read something to the tune of "I know that if I work hard I will achieve my life goals." While we certainly want our students to cultivate a strong drive towards their goals, we don't want to ignore the fact that there are many systems that continue to oppress members of society that share the identity of our students. As a result, hard work will not always be the only determining factor in realizing their goals. #realtalk 

It has been proven time and time again that even our "Kinder-babies" see color and difference (e.g. the "doll test" here, here, here, and here).  Last year, my niece who is five saw a Santa Claus doll in my mother's house and said, "Santa isn't black." Imagine that! She's five and while most of our family members have black Santa Claus figures, somehow she internalized that the real Santa was white based on trips to the mall, TV, and other places. I would argue that we have to think about our youngest scholars just as much, if not more when creating an inclusive classroom. Our students soak up so much from our classrooms that help them make meaning of the world. Our procedures should help students make strong choices and underscore the habits of good community members. Teachers should reflect on whether or not procedures reinforce common stereotypes, or undermine common cultural norms within a group. Below are a few pitfalls that connect to classroom procedures
THE CONTROL EVERYTHING MINDSET  I honestly believe that the overwhelming majority of teachers want what's best for their students. This compelling belief and desire for our kids might cause us to take action that stifles their development. Four years ago I taught at a middle school that demanded straight lines. The problem was that we weren’t truly teaching our students about social intelligence and self awareness, and some students were getting in BIG trouble for… wait for it, not walking in a straight line and/or whispering in the halls. I often wondered about the transferable skills students were learning by walking in straight quiet lines, and to this day have NO EXAMPLES. My school was approximately 98% African American with about 85% qualifying for free or reduced lunch. Our staff was about 70% white. I've since left the school, and they are changing up methods, but I've thought about the impact of our actions on our students. Such strict control and required submissiveness from students takes away their decision making ability, and in my opinion doesn't reflect our highest aspirations for students. I often think about how students conceive power when the majority of their teachers do not share their identity and are enforcing excessive control over them.  
NOT REFLECTING ON CULTURAL NORMS Silent lunch is a practice which may counter the cultural norms of students if not presented in a manner that respects their home environment. For example, if the lunchroom is loud and a teacher yells "stop talking loud like you have no home training." Many cultures have talkative family dinners, which might be loud... and that's awesome. It’s not okay to state that this is wrong, or imply that students are not acting appropriately. The goal here isn't to say that teachers should never have silent lunch, or that it's a practice we should eliminate. I'm just encouraging us to think about how we redirect students towards expectations for school in manner that respectfully recognizes that school and home norms may be different.
THE VERNACULAR - I've heard many arguments for/against students speaking "proper English" in school. The book This is Not a Test  by Jose Luis Vilson includes a powerful line that gets at the gist of HOW we should think about the language(s) students bring to our classrooms. He writes, "... I also see is a symptomatic of the schooling process, which often fails to account for other children's literacy, as if the code that children speak has no value compared to the King's English." Boom!
This is commonly known as colorblindness, and usually comes from a very well intentioned place, but it is wrong. I repeat WRONG. There is no way around it. Being "colorblind" usually allows those from the dominant race to ignore the experiences of others who aren't. The experiences and differences that our students bring to our classrooms are valuable and make them who they are, and if we don't recognize them, we are doing a serious injustice to our classroom culture and students. Check materials for diversity of thought and perspectives, or for curriculum materials that may inadvertently demean certain groups. Below are a few strategies that connect to celebrating all students

NAMES IN MATERIALS – When creating materials, be sure to include diverse names, and double check how people with traditionally diverse names might be engaging in stereotypical actions.  Similarly, you want to have a diverse selection of books, toys and materials regardless of the population you teach. 
PICTURES – This is a personal pet peeve, but when choosing pictures for students, it’s important to remember that different shades of the same clipart picture does not equate diversity. A fellow blogger Jameson over at Lessons With Coffee suggested Illumismart, and I LOVE HER WORK! It captures and celebrates difference!   
This is difficult, and requires us to be hyper vigilant about the decisions we make and to engage in honest reflections about our practices. The stakes are too high not to. 


"The secret in education lies in respecting the student."  - Ralph Waldo Emerson

26 comments:

  1. Thanks for this important article that will be eye-opening to some and a good reminder to many. And thanks for introducing me to Illumismart's clip art. I'm going to pin this so more teachers read it.

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    1. Thanks Korey! We are all in this together!

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  2. Loved reading this post. I hate to admit I've been guilty of one of these but it's so refreshing to read more about ways to incorporate diversity into a classroom. I also love the clip art. I work with really small children ages 3-4 and even though they're young many of them already see differences.

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    1. Don't feel guilty! We all struggle with biases. Thanks for reading!

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    2. Kira!
      OK I love illumismart. She has "kinders" that are really small. I do hope you check her out! Her stuff is great...much more than drawing a white kid and "paintfilling" the face brown.

      Cheers,
      Jamo
      Lessons With Coffee 

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  3. Ugh I'm on my phone and just tappy-tapped away for like a half hour and then erased it accidentally. Womp womp. Sadsville, population Blair. Fingers, don't fail me a second time!

    First, thank you for this post!! These conversations are so important for everyone to have, but especially for us as educators. We can't shy away from subjects that are tough or uncomfortable. Like you said, "the stakes are too high".

    I really appreciate the distinction you made between bias and racism. We ALL have bias. And it doesn't make us racist. I think we all have to fully internalize that point, which you so clearly and eloquently explained, otherwise it's really impossible to move forward.

    That bias affects our decision making in ways we don't intend and often don't realize. I think you did such a great job outlining concrete examples of common classroom practices that are influenced by our biases. It's easy to get caught up in the abstract when talking about "big stuff" like this, and think "oh yeah, I'm doing great!" To quote you again, we have to be "highly vigilant".

    Your examples are helping me to refocus and reflect on all those little things that send messages I don't intend - and that reminder to always try to do and be better is so powerful.

    It occurs to me....

    I'm basically writing a blog post in your comments and I could still yammer for days, so I should probably blog a response! So you gave me something to think about AND something to blog about - yessssssssssssssss.

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    1. Thanks Blair! I can't wait to read your post!

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  4. I am so glad that I read this post! I reach in a 99% minority school and my goal (of course) is to love and teach every one of my students in a way that is engaging, accessible and affirming. Reading this post affirmed some of the practices that I already have, and also gave me a whole lot to think about. Thanks for the real talk and examples/suggestions. This is such an important conversation that many are afraid to participate in.

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    1. Mary, thanks for taking the time to read! We are stronger, together. This is something we all have to constantly think about as educators.

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  5. I am so glad that I read this post! I reach in a 99% minority school and my goal (of course) is to love and teach every one of my students in a way that is engaging, accessible and affirming. Reading this post affirmed some of the practices that I already have, and also gave me a whole lot to think about. Thanks for the real talk and examples/suggestions. This is such an important conversation that many are afraid to participate in.

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  6. This post is amazing. So many things to think about!!

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  7. Yay!
    Let's have tough, difficult, and uncomfortable conversations about race.
    Let's get messy!
    Thank you for this post.
    I spend a considerable time with Mary(above) and Jillian. While we talk about a number of things, RACE is a recurrent conversation we have.
    It's so important to talk about these issues...whether its within a small group, large group, or a wonderful blog post like this!
    Thank you!

    Vera
    The Tutu Teacher

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    1. It is our conversations that push me to do better and be better! Love ya!

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    2. These conversations are so important if we are going to move forward. I'm in the northeast now so we should get together!

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  8. Tanesha, I have read this post about ten times, and I will likely read it another hundred, but first I must comment. It is so important to have these conversations, and I thank you for writing this post so we can. I work hard to examine own my biases, my own white privilege, and how my own assumptions and misconceptions affect my students, but your words continue to push me to do more and do better! Reflecting on our practice is something that should never steer away from even if it makes us uncomfortable or gets messy. These are the critical conversations that will make us better educators for all of our children. Keep it up! THANK YOU for your ideas, and for articulating them so brilliantly!

    Jillian
    The Starr Spangled Planner

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    1. Jillian, we have to push each other. One of my favorite quotes by Dr. King is "I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word." We have to speak the truth and love/push on each other to be better.

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  9. Lots to think about, and affirming some of those little voices in my head that had me questioning situations at school. Maybe it's because my own kids were the minority---even amongst the teachers---as white kids. I want to do the right thing! Thanks for your post.

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    1. Jenny, thanks for reading! We are all trying to do the right thing, which can be hard. My goal is to learn from my mistakes and experiences.

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  10. So excited that I got to meet you this summer and that we will get to have an impact on each others practice going forward! You are braver than I am...but...I will start to borrow your courage and share on this topic in the future. :) XOXO

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    1. Tamara, I'm equally excited that we were able to meet. I look up to you and your enthusiasm. Thanks for stopping by!

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  12. Thank you, thank you. This is an issue I am really starting to explore-starting with me. I am a white woman teaching in one of the most racially and culturally diverse districts in the nation. I love it. I also know I am part of a nation and system, and school system, with racism as part of our history. I want to acknowledge this and reflect on what I have "breathed in" to my psyche. You did a beautiful job of raising this issue in a respectful way that opens up thinking and dialogue, rather than creating defensiveness. I will reread and also share with colleagues. Also wanted to mention an organization I just learned about this summer called Rethinking Schools, which has many books and materials for teachers who want to bring social justice issues into their classrooms. Again, thanks so much!

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  14. ***I was so excited and moved....I forgot to spell check and looked like an idiot. THis is the original comment but with spell check. oops!***

    AH! I finally got to this! I should have read it on Tuesday! As a teacher who identifies as white female I had a fairly blind naivety when I go into creating my classroom. I would create all of these awesome things and even do things like "I'ma going to make sure I have a Black student on this, or an Asian student that. Then my students will know I care about them." Straight up, I think I thought that exact sentence. As an ally, one of the hardest things I have had to come to deal with, is not pointing out when others are being discriminative, biased, or ignorant...it is when I am.

    One of the things that I have learned is just as it is ridiculous for me to walk in decked out like Rihana (although if I was in bang out shape like she is it might help..lol) blaring some Tyler The Creator, it is just as ridiculous for me to assume my students of color are really going to want to conform to my expectations and cultural norms. I can't expect that my students are going to learn the same way I remember learning. I cannot expect that my students are going to respect me for demanding they stay quiet. <---Although honestly...I like them talking and not me. I have a very loud class...but lots of work is getting done. I am telling you...when you let your students talk, share, debate, verbally express...so much more learning is done!

    I am rambling (it is what I do). The point of this comment is not to ramble but to say that as a white educator who teaches students of color (EVEN MORE SO IF YOU ONLY TEACH WHITE STUDENTS...) it is hard to admit when you are being biased, its ok. WE ALL DO IT. What is not ok...is to NOT do anything about it. Thank you for pointing this out to us in a safe way!

    Cheers,
    Jamo
    Lessons With Coffee 

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    1. Jameson, thanks for sharing!!! I wish that more teachers would openly share how their biases come into play and WHAT they do to address it. I'm constantly reminding myself that I have to keep my guard up because as Dr. Tatum points biases are truly like the smog.

      I.CAN.NOT.WAIT until your book study and see what other great things come as a result of having these conversations!!!!!!!! One day we are going to meet each other and it's going to be AWESOME!

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