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March 11, 2016 1

Turning Current Events Instruction Into Social Justice Teaching

Jin­nie Spiegler
Direc­tor of Cur­ricu­lum, Anti-Defamation League

This blog orig­i­nally appeared on Edutopia

Mar­riage equal­ity, refugees seek­ing safety in Europe, the Con­fed­er­ate flag, police shoot­ings of black and Latino men, the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Cait­lyn Jen­ner, ISIS, and immi­gra­tion are just a few of the news sto­ries that inhab­ited the head­lines this year on our phones, lap­tops, and news­pa­pers. Unlike 20 years ago when teach­ers and par­ents had to inten­tion­ally raise cur­rent events top­ics with young peo­ple, nowa­days stu­dents are already part of the con­ver­sa­tion. Through their smart­phones, social media out­lets, and over­heard con­ver­sa­tions, they know what is hap­pen­ing. And yet, do stu­dents really under­stand the head­lines they see? Do they have the chance to grap­ple with the infor­ma­tion, or is it sim­ply seep­ing into their psy­che with no oppor­tu­nity to ask ques­tions, dig deeper, or explore how they feel about it?

Most edu­ca­tors feel a sense of respon­si­bil­ity to talk with their stu­dents about what’s going on in soci­ety and the world. Indeed, it’s the rea­son that many decided to become teach­ers in the first place. With top­ics both large and small — from the Supreme Court rul­ing on mar­riage equal­ity to the lack of diver­sity in the Acad­emy Awards, from racism in polic­ing to the school dress codes con­tro­versy — teach­ing about cur­rent events has enor­mous ben­e­fits for stu­dents. And it almost always has a social jus­tice lens with which to learn, ana­lyze, and discover.

Whether teach­ers have a few min­utes, one class period, or an entire unit to spend on a cur­rent event topic, the oppor­tu­nity is ripe with learn­ing poten­tial. Stu­dents’ high inter­est and moti­va­tion lay the ground­work for being an informed cit­i­zen and talk­ing at home with par­ents and fam­ily mem­bers. Cur­rent events dis­cus­sions offer ample oppor­tu­nity for skill build­ing (e.g. vocab­u­lary devel­op­ment, read­ing and writ­ing infor­ma­tional and ana­lyt­i­cal text, oral expres­sion, crit­i­cal analy­sis — all part of the ELA Com­mon Core Learn­ing Stan­dards). Stu­dents can build and prac­tice their social and emo­tional skills, and these top­ics often present an oppor­tu­nity to con­nect the present with the past. Finally, because so many cur­rent events top­ics shed light on human and civil rights, teach­ers have an excel­lent con­ver­sa­tional bridge as well as a lens for address­ing equity and jus­tice, a topic that so many young peo­ple are hun­gry to discuss.

As you reflect on what and how to bring cur­rent events top­ics into your class­room, con­sider the following:

1. Thought­fully con­sider who is in your classroom.

All cur­rent events top­ics have the poten­tial to raise sen­si­tive issues for stu­dents, espe­cially around iden­tity. Whether the topic brings up race, reli­gion, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, immi­gra­tion, etc., think about the com­po­si­tion of your stu­dents. The young peo­ple who might iden­tify with the topic per­son­ally will likely have a range of thoughts and feel­ings about dis­cussing the topic: relief, embar­rass­ment, annoy­ance, pride, excite­ment, or noth­ing at all. Do not assume that all of the stu­dents in that iden­tity group know about or are inter­ested in talk­ing about the topic at hand, and be care­ful not to put those stu­dents in the posi­tion of being the “author­ity” or main pos­ses­sor of knowl­edge on the topic. Do not ask or expect them to speak for all stu­dents in this iden­tity group. If you antic­i­pate that the topic could be very emo­tional for some stu­dents, con­sider speak­ing with them prior to the lesson.

2. Explore opin­ions and perspective.

Most news top­ics raise con­tro­ver­sial issues with dif­fer­ent points of view. Use the topic as an open­ing to help stu­dents under­stand what they believe and why they believe it. Pro­vide oppor­tu­ni­ties to talk about and write their opin­ions on the issue. Engage them in read­ing about and lis­ten­ing to the opin­ions of oth­ers — their class­mates as well as op-ed colum­nists and sub­ject mat­ter experts. This can and should com­pli­cate their think­ing and pro­pel them to ques­tion, change, and/or sharpen their points of view, and artic­u­late those posi­tions with evi­dence. Dis­cus­sion, debate and dia­logue should be foun­da­tions for these conversations.

3. Make the anti-bias, social jus­tice theme explicit and clear.

What­ever the sub­ject is, bring to the cen­ter of the dis­cus­sion the spe­cific aspect of diver­sity, bias, or injus­tice that it raises. For exam­ple, when dis­cussing home­less­ness, explore the stigma and stereo­types of home­less peo­ple in the U.S. You may also need to pro­vide some foun­da­tional skill devel­op­ment in under­stand­ing the lan­guage of bias, or give back­ground infor­ma­tion in order for stu­dents to under­stand a cur­rent con­tro­versy (e.g. under­stand the his­tory of and dis­crim­i­na­tion against Native Amer­i­can peo­ple, includ­ing the his­tory of mas­cots and sym­bols in sports, in order to make sense of the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins’ name controversy).

4. Make the les­son inter­ac­tive and use technology.

As much as pos­si­ble, cre­ate inter­ac­tive and engag­ing activ­i­ties that also develop skills and expand knowl­edge. This could take the form of debates, mock tri­als, stu­dent sur­veys or inter­views, small-group dis­cus­sions, role plays, teach-ins, or a sim­pler activ­ity. Take advan­tage of stu­dents’ inter­est and acu­men in the dig­i­tal world by inte­grat­ing stu­dent blogs, pho­tog­ra­phy and video, and social media plat­forms, and by fol­low­ing spe­cific hash­tags, info­graph­ics, and analy­sis of how social media has helped to facil­i­tate cur­rent activist efforts.

5. Do something.

Top­ics in the news can eas­ily lead to despair, anger, and hope­less­ness. Espe­cially for young peo­ple, it is crit­i­cal that we give them the per­spec­tive and tools to do some­thing about the injus­tice they see in the world. Expos­ing stu­dents to the wide range of responses to injus­tice, includ­ing activism strate­gies both past and present, goes a long way toward their turn­ing these neg­a­tive emo­tions into pos­i­tive actions. If pos­si­ble, work together on a class project, and encour­age stu­dents to get involved in larger efforts on issues that are impor­tant to them.

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June 19, 2015 0

Murders in Charleston Again Demonstrate the Tragic Impact of Hate Violence

The hor­ri­ble mur­ders of nine parish­ioners dur­ing a June 17 evening prayer meet­ing at the his­toric Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Car­olina seem like a night­mare.  But they were real – hor­rific and sense­less.  And they were hate crimes.  The nature of the shoot­ings, the spe­cific loca­tion, the tar­geted vic­tims, state­ments allegedly made by the sus­pect, and a Face­book pro­file of the sus­pect wear­ing white suprema­cist sym­bols all indi­cate this tragedy was moti­vated by racial bias.

It is note­wor­thy that these race-based mur­ders hap­pened in one of only five states that has yet to enact a hate crimes law.  The time has come for that to change.

AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton

AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton

Obvi­ously, con­victed mur­der­ers already face the most severe penal­ties under the law in every state.    But hate crimes laws have a sig­nif­i­cance that extends beyond the tougher sen­tences they per­mit.  They are a strong soci­etal response to crimes specif­i­cally intended to intim­i­date the vic­tim and mem­bers of the victim’s com­mu­nity.  By mak­ing mem­bers of minor­ity com­mu­ni­ties fear­ful, angry, and sus­pi­cious of other groups – and of the power struc­ture that is sup­posed to pro­tect them – these mes­sage crimes can dam­age the fab­ric of our soci­ety and frag­ment communities.

The FBI and law enforce­ment offi­cials rec­og­nize the spe­cial impact of hate crimes.  The FBI has been col­lect­ing hate crime data from the 18,000 police agen­cies across the coun­try since 1990.   In 2013, the most recent FBI data avail­able, almost 6,000 hate crimes were reported by over 15,000 police depart­ments – almost one every 90 min­utes of every day.  Race-based hate crimes were most fre­quent, crimes com­mit­ted against gay men and les­bians sec­ond, and religion-based crimes were third most fre­quent, with anti-Jewish crimes a dis­turb­ing 61% of all reported religion-based crimes.

Fed­eral and state hate crime laws are an impor­tant demon­stra­tion that our soci­ety rec­og­nizes the unique impact of hate vio­lence.  45 states and the Dis­trict of Colum­bia now have enacted hate crime laws, many based on the ADL Model Law drafted in 1981.  The only five states with­out a penalty-enhancing hate crime law are Arkansas, Indi­ana, Geor­gia, Wyoming – and South Carolina.

Attor­ney Gen­eral Lynch has announced that the Depart­ment of Jus­tice has opened its own hate crime inves­ti­ga­tion of this ter­ri­ble crime – under fed­eral crim­i­nal civil rights laws, includ­ing the Matthew Shep­ard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Pre­ven­tion Act.  That essen­tial fed­eral statute is an impor­tant bul­wark, but it is not a sub­sti­tute for state hate crimes laws.   South Car­olina is in mourn­ing now, as we all are.  One of the most con­struc­tive ways for the state to move for­ward would be to join 45 other states who already have hate crimes laws.

We need to be real­is­tic.  We can­not leg­is­late, reg­u­late, or tab­u­late an end to racism, anti-Semitism, or big­otry.  Com­ple­ment­ing fed­eral and state hate crime laws and pre­ven­tion ini­tia­tives, gov­ern­ments must pro­mote early learn­ing and con­tin­u­ing edu­ca­tion against bias and dis­crim­i­na­tion in schools and the com­mu­nity.   Strong, inclu­sive laws, and effec­tive responses to hate vio­lence by pub­lic offi­cials and law enforce­ment author­i­ties, how­ever, are essen­tial com­po­nents in deter­ring and pre­vent­ing these crimes.  

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June 19, 2015 0

The Rachel Dolezal Teachable Moment

Abstract Colorful Group Of People Or Workers Or Employees - ConcRachel Dolezal, Pres­i­dent of the Spokane, Wash­ing­ton chap­ter of the NAACP  (National Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple), made head­lines and became the top trend­ing item on Twit­ter last week when it was dis­cov­ered that she had been pos­ing as Black for many years. In her inter­view on the Today Show, she con­tin­ued to assert: “I iden­tify as Black.” These events have sparked strong emotions—anger, con­fu­sion, sym­pa­thy, shock, curiosity—and have fueled a lively pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion about Black­ness, iden­tity, cul­tural appro­pri­a­tion and what it means to be an ally.  All of these con­cepts are ones we address in anti-bias edu­ca­tion work.

Iden­tity is an extremely impor­tant con­cept for peo­ple to under­stand and grap­ple with, start­ing at a young age. Know­ing who you are, what groups you belong to (race, gen­der and gen­der iden­tity, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, reli­gion, etc.), your his­tory and how your fam­ily makes mean­ing of the mul­ti­fac­eted nature of your iden­tity are crit­i­cal for self-esteem devel­op­ment. When we know who we are, we can build bridges with oth­ers with whom we are both sim­i­lar and dif­fer­ent.  The con­cept of race is largely under­stood as socially con­structed rather than solely based on genet­ics and biol­ogy. The racial group to which one belongs is a com­plex set of fac­tors includ­ing phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics, fam­ily lin­eage and ethnic/cultural upbring­ing. Rachel Dolezal did not grow up Black even though she claims to be Black.

The term cul­tural appro­pri­a­tion has been raised quite a bit in this con­ver­sa­tion. Some peo­ple say that Rachel Dolezal is appro­pri­at­ing Black cul­ture because of her hair style, com­plex­ion, life choices and insis­tence that she’s Black. Cul­tural appro­pri­a­tion is when peo­ple use spe­cific ele­ments of a cul­ture (e.g. ideas, sym­bols, styles) with­out regard for the impact to that cul­ture and it usu­ally hap­pens when a per­son or group exploits the cul­ture of another group, often with lit­tle under­stand­ing of the group’s his­tory, expe­ri­ence and cul­tural norms. Accord­ing to Maisha John­son, it is prob­lem­atic for a vari­ety of rea­sons includ­ing triv­i­al­iz­ing his­tor­i­cal racial oppres­sion, per­pet­u­at­ing stereo­types and let­ting priv­i­leged groups ben­e­fit or profit by using other people’s cul­ture. Is Rachel Dolezal appro­pri­at­ing Black cul­ture or is some­thing else operating?

Based on her pro­fes­sional inter­ests and choices, it seems clear that Rachel Dolezal has a pas­sion for social jus­tice and could have been an ally as a white woman.  There have been exam­ples through­out his­tory of peo­ple out­side a par­tic­u­lar iden­tity group being allies to oth­ers. Count­less white peo­ple have been allies to African Amer­i­cans in the civil rights strug­gles of the 1960’s and today–some even died for the cause.  Dur­ing the Holo­caust, non-Jews helped Jews escape at tremen­dous risk to them­selves. GLSEN spon­sors Ally Week in which straight allies make com­mit­ments to equal­ity for LGBTQ peo­ple.  For more than 10 years, ADL has edu­cated youth and adults across the coun­try to become bet­ter allies and still more works to be done. We need to teach our chil­dren that it is an impor­tant to be an ally, no mat­ter who you are.

What can we learn from this dia­logue and how can we turn it into a teach­able moment for young peo­ple?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Edu­cate youth to explore who they are cul­tur­ally and racially and in all of their com­plex­ity, affirm­ing their iden­tity through books, cur­ricu­lum and all that we expose them to.
  • Point out when you see cul­tural appro­pri­a­tion and high­light why it’s wrong; at the same time. pro­vide young peo­ple with real cul­tural expe­ri­ences with peo­ple from dif­fer­ent groups.
  • Pro­vide exam­ples for and encour­age young peo­ple to use respect­ful ally behav­ior and chal­lenge ally behav­ior that crosses the line into dis­re­spect­ful or unhelpful.
  • Show youth that the world would not have changed with­out allies and that being an ally is a skill devel­oped through prac­tice and hard work.

 

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