When left unchecked, racial and cultural biases in a classroom can be damaging.
“It’s not just about being nice to your students—it’s about equity and justice. And there are consequences if you’re not culturally relevant and if you discipline based on unexamined biases,” said Patricia Capellan, a master’s student in the Graduate School of Education who co-presented an anti-racism workshop, “What We Teach and How We Teach It Matters: Creating and Implementing an Anti-Racist Curriculum,” on Sept. 21.
Capellan, an English language arts teacher-in-training, and Jane Bolgatz, Ph.D., associate dean for academic affairs and associate professor of curriculum and teaching at GSE, showed educators how to face their own biases and develop anti-racism initiatives and curriculum in their classrooms during the hour-long Zoom session. About 35 participants, ranging from current educators to teachers-in-training at GSE, tuned in for the workshop.
To set the stage for a sensitive conversation, the group established ground rules. They agreed to speak from their own experiences and to remember that people see things differently. They agreed to assume goodwill, but also attend to the impact of their words and actions. Finally, they agreed to practice patience and vulnerability, and that the anecdotes shared in the virtual space would remain private, but they would use the workshop lessons to make a difference in their own classrooms.
“You interact with students every day. They might be from completely different backgrounds from you, so it is important that you’re open to learning more about them,” Capellan, who co-designed the workshop with Bolgatz, said to the Zoom audience.
Acknowledging Personal Biases and Stereotypes
At the beginning of the workshop, participants debated several scenarios where cultural differences between students and educators created conflict in the classroom. In one scenario, a student told her teacher about the time her family smashed her cousin’s face into his birthday cake. The student said it was a fun family tradition, but her teacher called it “nasty” and “not very nice.”
This lack of cultural proficiency can lead to more serious consequences. According to 2017-2018 data from New York City schools, Black and Latinx students are more likely to be suspended than their white peers because of “inappropriate” behavior, ranging from being “too loud” to “aggressive,” said Capellan. But some students may behave “too” loudly because they belong to a culture that thrives on energetic social and family interaction, like Dominican culture, said one participant who identified as Dominican.
“It’s important that we acknowledge those implicit biases,” the participant said. “Once we can acknowledge these, I feel that these [disproportionate suspension]rates will go down because there will be teachers who can advocate for these students who may be misunderstood.”
The participants sat in silence for a minute as they examined their own stereotypes. Then they discussed how people have created damaging stereotypes—for example, about intelligence. When slaves were brought to the U.S., white people had to convince each other that Black people were less than human, said Bolgatz, so they argued that Black people were not intelligent.
“That stereotype was historically constructed and reinforced. It’s a really strong stereotype that you have to push against, and having a growth mindset is really going to help that,” said Bolgatz, who researches race and challenging racism in schools. “Fixed mindset is the idea that people are just born smart or not smart, whereas a growth mindset is that everybody, with a little help, can learn. We have to practice and make mistakes.”
Challenging Racism in the Classroom
Towards the end of the workshop, the participants addressed how they could challenge racism as teachers. They spoke about how color blindness fails to acknowledge the existence of white privilege and the struggles of people of color. They considered how biases could make an educator more likely to check whether a Black or brown student had plagiarized an assignment versus a white or Asian student, and how to combat those biases, including asking students to submit typed assignments with their personal ID number, rather than an easily identifiable name.
Just before the workshop ended, GSE students typed their final reflections into the Zoom chat box. One student decided to create a class census at the start of the school year where students could state how they identify. Another promised to practice withholding gut reactions and to consider the impact of their actions first.
“I will commit myself to learning about my students’ backgrounds, cultures and interests. I will always talk about subtle microaggressions or other forms of racism in my class, without making any student feel like they are being attacked for saying these things. I think incorporating these moments as learning lessons within the classroom is important and I appreciate Professor Bolgatz modeling that for us,” wrote one student. “As an ELA teacher I hope to include novels from different cultures in my class that aren’t strictly white-centered to allow students to hear and learn from other voices.”