Education » ADL Blogs
September 18, 2015 6

What Ahmed Mohamed Can Teach Us About Having ‘A Wrong Impression’

Ahmed MohamedOn Mon­day, Ahmed Mohamed, a four­teen year old high school fresh­man with a tal­ent for tin­ker­ing and tech­nol­ogy, brought a home­made dig­i­tal clock he con­structed to school to show his teach­ers. His engi­neer­ing teacher was impressed but later in the day when it beeped dur­ing Eng­lish class, Ahmed’s trou­bles began. He showed the device to his Eng­lish teacher who noti­fied school offi­cials who then noti­fied the police. “She thought it was a threat to her,” Ahmed said, “so it was really sad that she took a wrong impres­sion of it.”

The clock was con­fis­cated and Ahmed was sus­pended from school for three days. After being ques­tioned at school by police offi­cers, Ahmed was put into hand­cuffs and brought to a juve­nile deten­tion cen­ter where he was fin­ger­printed and had his mug shot taken. Since that time, the charges have been dropped.

Ahmed’s story quickly pre­cip­i­tated a national out­cry on social media where mes­sages of sup­port came from Mark Zucker­berg, Sec­re­tary of State Hillary Clin­ton and Pres­i­dent Obama, who extended a spe­cial invi­ta­tion to Ahmed to the White House for Astron­omy Night in Octo­ber. White House press sec­re­tary Josh Earnest said, “This episode is a good illus­tra­tion of how per­ni­cious stereo­types can pre­vent even good-hearted peo­ple who have ded­i­cated their lives to edu­cat­ing young peo­ple from doing the good work that they set out to do.” Con­versely, Irv­ing Police Chief Boyd said this mat­ter was not caused by stereo­types and “would have been the same regard­less” of his religion.

While we were not on the ground at MacArthur High School on Mon­day, we acknowl­edge that school secu­rity is crit­i­cal and school vio­lence is always on the minds of school staff, whose job it is to remain vig­i­lant. In addi­tion, this inci­dent raises ques­tions about stereo­types and the pos­si­bil­ity of implicit bias. It is also very impor­tant that school staff get to know stu­dents to pre­vent mak­ing assump­tions or form­ing “wrong impres­sions,” as Ahmed aptly put it. He is obvi­ously a young per­son who loves tech­nol­ogy and mak­ing things. The ques­tion for us to pon­der is: Are all stu­dents regarded as threat­en­ing because they make a quirky clock or can a student’s gen­der, reli­gion and national ori­gin be a fac­tor in our own eval­u­a­tion of what feels threatening?

The school year in Irv­ing began on August 24 so this week marks the fourth week of school, ample time to see what every­one else is see­ing now—that Ahmed appears to be a bright and inquis­i­tive teenager with a pas­sion for STEM (Sci­ence, Tech­nol­ogy, Engi­neer­ing and Math­e­mat­ics). He nobly stated that he wants to use this moment to “try my best not just to help me but to help every other kid in the entire world that has a prob­lem like this.” He’s talk­ing about stereo­typ­ing, and he’s right.

Whether this was a sit­u­a­tion of mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion, bias or some­thing else, edu­ca­tors should be mind­ful that con­text is impor­tant. Mus­lims are reg­u­larly marked by the stereo­type of “ter­ror­ist” which has impli­ca­tions for how wel­come or unwel­come Mus­lims often feel in their com­mu­ni­ties and on school cam­puses. For edu­ca­tors com­mit­ted to their role as lead­ers in build­ing respect­ful learn­ing envi­ron­ments , com­bat­ing bias and proac­tively teach­ing about race and racism, this con­text should be con­sid­ered and man­aged in a way that meets mul­ti­ple goals: safety and inclusion.

As we start the new school year, Ahmed’s story is an impor­tant reminder to explic­itly teach about stereo­types, bias and dis­crim­i­na­tion, that uncon­scious bias can seep into all of our interactions—both large and small and that implicit bias can shape our assump­tions and expec­ta­tions about oth­ers. Most impor­tantly, cre­at­ing an anti-bias learn­ing envi­ron­ment and inte­grat­ing cul­tur­ally respon­sive teach­ing prac­tices goes a long way toward assist­ing edu­ca­tors in know­ing their stu­dents and treat­ing them with respect.

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June 30, 2015 2

The Time Is Now: Bringing LGBT Topics into the Classroom

Wikicommons/InSapphoWeTrust from Los Angeles, California, USA

Wikicommons/InSapphoWeTrust from Los Ange­les, Cal­i­for­nia, USA

Over the past few years, our coun­try has made enor­mous strides on mar­riage equal­ity and as of June 26, 2015, mar­riage equal­ity is the law of the land in all 50 states. On that day, the Supreme Court of the United States held that that the 14th Amend­ment requires a state to license a mar­riage between two peo­ple of the same sex and to rec­og­nize mar­riages law­fully per­formed in other juris­dic­tions. Sixty-one per­cent of Amer­i­cans sup­port mar­riage equality.

Has our coun­try reached the tip­ping point?  Are we ready to bring LGBT top­ics into our cur­ricu­lum and classrooms?

Con­sider the num­bers. Accord­ing to the 2010 Cen­sus, there are approx­i­mately 594,000 same-sex cou­ple house­holds liv­ing in the U.S. and more than 125,000 of those house­holds include nearly 220,000 chil­dren under age 18.  Fur­ther, there are as many as 6 mil­lion Amer­i­can chil­dren and adults who have an LGBT par­ent. With the Supreme Court rul­ing, all U.S. res­i­dents live in a state with mar­riage equality.

In addi­tion to the chil­dren of same-sex cou­ples attend­ing our schools, there are stu­dents who them­selves iden­tify as les­bian, gay, trans­gen­der and bisex­ual and/or who don’t con­form to tra­di­tional gen­der norms. Many of these stu­dents suf­fer teas­ing, bul­ly­ing, harass­ment, vio­lence and inter­nal­ized oppres­sion that can lead to risky behav­ior and even sui­cide. Almost half of all ele­men­tary stu­dents say they hear com­ments like “that’s so gay” or “you’re so gay” from other kids at school and 75% of LGBT mid­dle and high school stu­dents report being ver­bally harassed because of their sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion. The good news is that these stu­dents also report bet­ter school expe­ri­ences when pro-active sup­ports and resources are in place.

There are gay and les­bian edu­ca­tors in our schools but many don’t feel safe to be “out” to their stu­dents and the school com­mu­nity. LGBT teach­ers do not have the same priv­i­lege that het­ero­sex­ual teach­ers have to talk about their partners/spouses and other core aspects of their lives and the school cli­mate can be down­right hos­tile towards them. There have been recent cases of teach­ers get­ting fired because of their sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion. Some states have laws that pro­hibit dis­crim­i­na­tion on the basis of sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der iden­tity but most do not. Fed­eral leg­is­la­tion (ENDA) has been pro­posed to address this prob­lem but it has stalled in Con­gress. Even teach­ers in states with legal pro­tec­tions aren’t nec­es­sar­ily com­fort­able com­ing out because admin­is­tra­tors can find ways to fire them.

For chil­dren and teenagers, just know­ing a gay teacher can be a pow­er­ful expe­ri­ence; it gives them the oppor­tu­nity to know, admire and care about some­one who is LGBT.

Given that our schools are pop­u­lated with chil­dren of same-sex fam­ily house­holds, LGBT stu­dents and gay and les­bian teach­ers, it is time to bring this topic into our nation’s schools and class­rooms in a com­pre­hen­sive way.  It is an oppor­tu­nity to expand young people’s con­cepts of fam­ily, dis­cuss mar­riage equal­ity, infuse the cur­ricu­lum with LGBT peo­ple and their his­tory and accom­plish­ments and address bias-based bul­ly­ing for kids who iden­tify as LGBT or are per­ceived as such.

For young chil­dren, fam­ily is cen­tral to the cur­ricu­lum; there­fore, dis­cussing same-sex house­hold fam­i­lies should be inte­gral to the con­ver­sa­tion. This “nor­mal­izes” instead of mar­gin­al­izes chil­dren in same-sex house­holds.  Chil­dren in those fam­i­lies need to feel com­fort­able talk­ing about their own fam­i­lies and when those fam­i­lies are not rep­re­sented in class­rooms, teach­ers can share their sto­ries through children’s books and discussions.

As chil­dren move into upper ele­men­tary and mid­dle school, teach­ers can incor­po­rate con­ver­sa­tions about gen­der, gen­der norms, kinds of fam­i­lies and LGBT peo­ple and iden­tity. Stu­dents can be taught about mar­riage equal­ity and the road to the Supreme Court ruling.

Bul­ly­ing, espe­cially identity-based bul­ly­ing for LGBT or gen­der non-conforming stu­dents, should be dis­cussed not only when an inci­dent occurs but reg­u­larly. Children’s lit­er­a­ture con­tin­ues to be a pos­i­tive way to under­stand and empathize with LGBT peo­ple and families.

In the mid­dle and high school years as stu­dents emerge into ado­les­cence, the con­ver­sa­tions about iden­tity can con­tinue and sto­ries of LGBT peo­ple can be explored and infused into the every­day teach­ing and learn­ing. Read­ing young adult books with LGBT char­ac­ters and inte­grat­ing the accom­plish­ments of LGBT peo­ple into social stud­ies are encour­aged. Dur­ing the teen years, bul­ly­ing around sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion can be bru­tal and teach­ers should max­i­mize oppor­tu­ni­ties to dis­cuss it directly.

In 2011 Cal­i­for­nia passed a law requir­ing edu­ca­tors to teach gay and les­bian his­tory. On the other side, eight states cur­rently have “no promo homo” laws which for­bid teach­ers from dis­cussing LGBT peo­ple and issues in a pos­i­tive light and some pro­hibit dis­cussing the topic at all. Because schools are cen­tral to any com­mu­nity, address­ing LGBT top­ics will make our schools safer and more inclu­sive and will begin to curb the mar­gin­al­iza­tion of LGBT peo­ple for the present and for future generations.





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June 22, 2015 1

What Should We Tell Our Children About Charleston?

Credit: Stephen Melkisethian / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Credit: Stephen Melkisethian / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As we grieve, protest and fur­ther inves­ti­gate the hor­rific mur­der of nine African Amer­i­can parish­ioners at the his­toric Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, many peo­ple are ask­ing: What should we tell the children?

Par­ents, fam­ily mem­bers and oth­ers are some­times uneasy about dis­cussing issues of vio­lence and injus­tice with chil­dren because they want to pro­tect them from ter­ri­ble and scary top­ics. How­ever, it is impor­tant that chil­dren have a lan­guage for dis­cussing the unfair­ness and injus­tice they see in the world and that as adults, we model that these con­ver­sa­tions are ones we are will­ing to engage in as we assure them that we are work­ing to coun­ter­act injustice.

Except for very young chil­dren, it is impor­tant to raise the issue with chil­dren. It is likely that with online access and the 24/7 hour news cycle, many young peo­ple have already heard about it and may be look­ing for an oppor­tu­nity to learn more. In talk­ing with chil­dren about emo­tion­ally chal­leng­ing top­ics, remem­ber to:

  • Give them the time and space to express their feel­ings (what­ever those feel­ings are) and actively lis­ten with empa­thy and compassion.
  • Find out what they already know, clar­ify any mis­in­for­ma­tion they have and answer their ques­tions. If you don’t know the answer, be hon­est about that and find out the answer together.
  • In an age-appropriate way and using lan­guage they can under­stand, share your own thoughts, feel­ings and spe­cific val­ues about the topic.
  • Give youth infor­ma­tion about what is being done to make things safe and what actions are tak­ing place to coun­ter­act the injustice.

Here are spe­cific talk­ing points you may want to cover with young people:

Words and sym­bols matter

We have heard that the alleged shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, told racist jokes and spewed biased ide­ol­ogy. A con­tem­po­rary of Roof’s said “He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don’t really take them seri­ously like that.” Hate has the poten­tial to esca­late and the Pyra­mid of Hate illus­trates how biased behav­iors and attitudes—when left unchallenged—can lead to more seri­ous acts of dis­crim­i­na­tion and bias-motivated vio­lence such as the one per­pe­trated in Charleston. If those atti­tudes, beliefs and behav­iors were ques­tioned and addressed, per­haps there would have been dif­fer­ent out­comes and those nine lives would not have been taken.

Sym­bols are forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that con­vey impor­tant mes­sages to chil­dren about what we value, what is impor­tant and what kind of soci­ety we want to cre­ate. Hate sym­bols, espe­cially when dis­sem­i­nated and per­va­sive, com­mu­ni­cate that hate and bias are accept­able. Roof had patches on his jacket of flags of regimes in South African and Rhode­sia that enforced the vio­lent white minor­ity rule. He was also seen in sev­eral pho­tos with a Con­fed­er­ate flag, which has come to sym­bol­ize racial hatred and big­otry. Iron­i­cally, the flag is still dis­played in South Carolina’s state­house grounds in Colum­bia and activists and elected offi­cials have been press­ing for its removal for years.

Racism is sys­temic and can be overcome

While Roof was not a for­mal mem­ber of a white suprema­cist orga­ni­za­tion, he espoused white supremacy ide­ol­ogy that is preva­lent, online and world­wide. In address­ing this topic with young peo­ple, we need to give them hope and inspi­ra­tion by show­ing them that we have come a long way on issues of race and other social jus­tice issues by push­ing for leg­is­la­tion, edu­cat­ing peo­ple and tak­ing action. At the same time, it is also impor­tant that we con­nect the dots so that young peo­ple under­stand that issues such as school seg­re­ga­tion, racial dis­par­i­ties in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and vot­ing rights are not indi­vid­ual acts but are part of a larger sys­tem and that if soci­etal change is going to take place, the solu­tions also need to be systemic.

Activism makes a difference

Since the mur­ders last week, there have been protests across the coun­try and in Charleston and Colum­bia, SC specif­i­cally call­ing pub­lic offi­cials to take down the Con­fed­er­ate flag as a first step. On Sun­day, in a mov­ing demon­stra­tion of empa­thy and con­nec­tion, church bells across Charleston tolled for nine min­utes to sym­bol­ize the nine vic­tims. We know that our nation has a long his­tory of activism that has brought about sig­nif­i­cant social change–from mar­riage equal­ity to immi­gra­tion reform and the recent “Black Lives Mat­ter” move­ment. One of the most impor­tant prin­ci­ples we can con­vey to our chil­dren is that their voices and actions make a dif­fer­ence and will help to build a bet­ter world.

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