As an educator, I have always felt that August offers the kind of renewal and restart that so many others seek to find in January. This August feels especially ripe with opportunities to tip everything on it’s head and to address what’s broken, to actively change what has been exacerbating inequities in our education system and in our country for too long. This is exciting, energizing work, but it is also challenging. Challenging because it requires taking a long look at myself in the mirror to see how my own biases and privilege have blinded me to my own racism.
As a first step in tackling my racism, I found a wonderful teaching resource, Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension by Sara K. Ahmed, that offers explicit ways to help build a community of active learners and listeners within your classroom. She recommends trying the lessons described in her book with colleagues before doing them with students, so that’s just what I did.
I chose an activity that Ahmed designed to help begin the conversation around bias with students. Once my peers agreed to give this a go with me, I asked them to either grab a paper and sketch or close their eyes and imagine one of the following with as much specificity and detail as 2 minutes would allow: a scientist, a doctor, an athlete, a pilot, a teacher. I assured them no one would have to show their drawing.
We put our images aside and took a moment to collect our current thoughts and understandings of the term bias. After about five minutes of discussion, we revisited our images.
I first asked people to raise a hand to identify which profession they pictured/drew. Then I went back and requested, “Raise your hand if you chose a scientist. Now keep your hand up if your scientist is female.” All hands came down. The same happened with athlete, doctor, and pilot. I said, “Raise your hand if you chose a teacher. Keep your hand up if your teacher is female.” Hands stayed up.
We discussed this and made hypotheses about why. We also discussed if anyone pictured someone who was not white. Only an athlete. Anyone differently abled? No.
It was eye opening! None of us admitted to being surprised, but we were unhappy with what this revealed about our bias. It became clear that we need to actively work on our own biases and we need to support even our youngest students by cultivating texts and experiences that help build full stories of representation.
This felt like a powerful first step into the resolutions of August. What changes do I need to make so that my students might picture a female athlete with limb difference, a male teacher of color, or a Black female pilot? Let’s be sure to read and share stories about people like Lieutenant Swegle or Carson Pickett.
What do you picture when you close your eyes and think of a scientist, pilot, athlete, doctor, and teacher? What stories do you need to seek out to start shifting your picture? What stories do you wish you had when you were younger? It’s August. Start now.