July 8, 2016

The Hardest (And Most Important) Lesson You Will Ever Teach

A few years back, when my husband and I were newlyweds, I was at a family-like event with him and some in-laws. A family member was attempting to introduce me to another family member I had not yet met.

"John, this is Nancy, Frankie's wife."
The man's immediate response was, "Is that a nigger?"
The family member tried again to introduce me with a bit of censure in her tone, "John. This is Nancy. Frankie's wife."
He repeated his question, "Is that a nigger?"

I was a bit stunned, as well as many other emotions. My husband and I both stood there speechless; as did the other family member. In the end, we excused ourselves, went on with our day, and were lucky enough to never be in that man's company again.

It wasn't necessarily the word. You can replace it with many other words (lesbian, Jew, towel head, Bindi, illegal, etc...) and the message would be the same: "I am judging you by the way you look."

Over ten years later, that event rattles around in my brain. And, it has made a permanent impact on how I approach discussions about stereotypes; be it about race, religion, social class, etc...). For a few seconds I had a tiny glimpse into what goes on in a person's brain when they look at me. (Regardless of the accuracy of the information.)

The reality is, stereotypes exist and people process and apply them all the time. Some are better about concealing their thoughts than others. But everybody is thinking them.

So, as educators, what can we do? How can we help turn the tide of stereotypes so that our future generations don't fall into a whirlwind of misguided thoughts that hamstring their ability to relate to people as people? How can we guide young minds to pause when they meet someone, process stereotypes that are more than likely pinging around inside their heads, and give that person an opportunity to represent their true selves?

Well, start talking about it. Intentionally plan and execute lessons that help break down stereotypes. Give students a firmer foundation of what stereotypes are, how to recognize them, and, MOST IMPORTANTLY, what kind of processing they can do within their own brain so that they aren't perpetuating the cycle. Here is a quick and easy lesson I have done in my classroom. It took about 45 minutes and the level of student engagement was 100% the entire time.

Here is what you need:
Sticky Notes (2 colors, if possible)
Video (linked below)

To start, ask students about the word "stereotype". Do they truly know what it means? Even if you have just finished teaching it through literature or content, go back and discuss it. Because, believe me when I tell you, it's very abstract in that context and the definitions/lessons don't stay with them.

Next, give each student a few sticky notes. As they watch this video, have them jot down the words they see written on the students' faces. Stop the video around 1:47 and discuss with the students the different words they wrote down. Discuss the meanings. I was surprised by how many students either didn't know a word or that it was derogatory. My students asked to watch this section twice- they didn't want to miss any information.

The discussion can be tricky. Some people will have difficulty saying or talking about certain words. "Fag" was a tough one in my room. But we got through it. I firmly believe that sugar-coating words and meanings diminishes their impact and the power they can have. It doesn't make sense to have a discussion about words if you can't actually say the word. 

Did you happen to notice I spelled "nigger" without symbols? He didn't say it with symbols or say, "Is that an 'n-word'?" So, why retell it like that? Plus, society won't sugar-coat it when your students hear them in real life. You aren't doing your students any favors by not using the actual words. In fact, I would submit that using them in a controlled, appropriate context can help reduce the shock value of them and help your students process them differently when they do hear others using them in an inappropriate context. I teach fourth grade. You may need to adjust and steer your classroom differently. You know your students and what they can handle. So, use your best judgement. 

After the discussion, have students stand up and place their stickies on their bodies. Talk about how stereotypes can label people even though they may not be accurate. Move different labels around from student to student. Are they any "truer" by moving them to a different person? Nope. Can the same principles apply to groups? Yes. This part of the lesson will help make it tangible for the students- so don't skip this part.

Once you have completed the above, hand out another set of stickies (a different color really helps solidify the different words/categories) and finish the video. What kinds of words did they write down this time? What is the difference between these words and the other set? (These are words that describe people "internally" and cannot be figured out just be looking at someone.)

Lastly, have students write down one stereotype that others may have thought about them or called them and one truth. Have them discuss with each other about the wrong label and why they are better defined by the truth. To really make an impact: have students rip up and throw away their stereotype and place their truth somewhere safe they can refer back to later on. Some of my students had more than two stickies for this part of the lesson.

We need to do more. We can do more. As teachers, we have 180 days of influence that can ripple on for years. Make that influence count. Build a foundation of understanding so deep and so strong that nothing can crack it. Be the force that drives your students to an understanding about themselves and others which will not and cannot be broken by negative influence. Because without that, all the rest is bullshit.

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