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May 3, 2016

Labeling Behavior, Not People

language graphicWith 28% of students ages 12 – 18 years old currently reporting having been a target of bullying, concerns about bullying in schools have motivated hundreds of books to be written and a wide variety of programs to be designed and implemented with the goal of turning the tide of bullying. Many of these books and programs aim to change the behavior of “bullies.” And herein lies one of the problems that makes it so challenging to change the dynamic of bullying.

First, what is it? Bullying is the repeated actions or threats of action directed toward a person by one or more people who have or are perceived to have more power or status than their target in order to cause fear, distress or harm.

When most people picture a “bully” in their minds, they see someone who is bigger than everyone else and goes around intimidating others. Because of this perception, if you ask a room full of students if they have ever been a “bully,” chances are no one will raise their hand. Ask the same students if they have ever excluded someone, called someone a name, spread rumors or picked on someone because of the way they look, you will find that many hands – if not all – will go up.

This tells us that there is a disconnect between being labeled a “bully” and actually engaging in bullying behavior. As long as that disconnect exists and we continue to use the label “bully,” we will not be able to engage students in real conversations that challenge the social norms around bullying. By identifying bullying as a behavior rather than a label assigned to a person who exhibits the behavior, a few things happen:

  1. Students are able to self-reflect on their actions without fear of judgment;
  2. Students are able to recognize that the different behaviors that people choose play an important role when instances of bias or bullying—whether active or passive occur; and
  3. Students begin to make conscious decisions to respond in particular ways when incidents occur and ultimately, take responsibility for making sure everyone is treated with respect by becoming an ally.

We live in a society that often uses labels to stereotype and simplify people. Unfortunately, bullying is not a simple concept and it is up to educators and families to engage the young people in their lives in better understanding that bullying refers to a behavior and not a person, and that it is a behavior that all people at some time in their lives have engaged in.  Understanding this difference empowers and motivates young people to move from being a bystander to an ally.


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March 15, 2016

Bias, Bullying and Bad Behavior in Politics: What’s the Takeaway for Youth?

Group of Friends SmilingThe political discourse has reached a point where we have to ask ourselves: What should we tell our children? 

Young people watch and emulate what adults say and do. For that reason, many adults—parents, neighbors, teachers, caregivers and yes, even politicians—are role models to children.  These values—using accurate and appropriate language, standing up for one’s beliefs, checking ourselves when it comes to bias and stereotypes, disagreeing without being disagreeable—are imparted  by direct teaching and modeling through words and deeds.  In fact, many would argue that what we do has a much deeper impact than what we say.

The current political climate—which has been permeated with hate-filled language, bias and bullying—is counter to what so many adults are trying to teach young people. We have witnessed stereotyping of many groups including women and immigrants, threats to ban Muslims from living in the country and pronouncements that Islam “hates” America, mocking of disabled people and political candidates attacking one another based on their physical appearance.  Recently, at a campaign event, a supporter, unprovoked, punched a protestor in the face, saying “next time, we might have to kill him.” While this may seem like an isolated incident, it’s the tenth campaign event in which there has been violence.

Things have gotten so heated that one candidate vowed to stop the behavior, relenting that “my kids were embarrassed by it.”

Has this political demagoguery had an impact on young people? Has it trickled down to the youngest among us? Of course it has. Muslim children are expressing fear and sadness, asking their parents if they are going to have to leave the country after the election.  Recently, an Indiana high school basketball game erupted into screaming and insults; the predominately white team yelled at the opposing players and fans, who were a predominately Latino team, chanting “no comprende,” “speak English” and “build the wall” (referring to the proposal that a wall be built on the Mexican border to keep immigrants out).  Latino and other immigrant children worry that they may be deported when there is a new president in the White House.

Election years usually present great opportunities for educators to expose students to civics and the American electoral process. However, this year has left many feeling hesitant and unsure about how to raise the topic; and specifically, how to approach the negative and biased discourse that’s overtaken the current debate. One angle educators can take is to turn the rhetoric into a teachable moment by addressing the following:

  • Understand Language. Provide students with an understanding of the language of bias so they can make sense of what is going on and how to talk about it. This includes understanding the difference between bias (thoughts and attitudes) and discrimination (actions), how stereotyping can lead to bias, and the various forms that bias and discrimination can take (e.g. racism, Islamophobia, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, etc.)—from interpersonal communication to the institutions in our society.
  • Challenge Bias. When biased language and stereotypes are used—in the political debate or elsewhere—point it out and find ways to challenge it.  This sends an important message to young people about not being a bystander to injustice and it also gives you an opening to discuss current events.  This can be done without endorsing or criticizing particular candidates.
  • Think Critically. Help students think critically about what they are hearing and seeing. This means modeling and teaching them to ask questions that get to underlying motives and causes, as well as understanding how perspective shapes points of view. It also includes teaching young people not to take “facts” and information at face value just because adults in positions of power make an assertion. Inspire students to question the facts and do their own research.
  • Be An Ally.  Most importantly, encourage your students to act as an ally when they see bias and bullying by providing examples and helping young people practice the various ways to show allyship.  Showing them that there are many ways to be an ally by modeling it yourself is an important reminder that supporting the target, “standing up,” and not participating in the bias are some of the various ways to do something and not feel powerless.

Politicians and candidates come and go—however, the impact educators can have on students will make a difference with the next generation and beyond.


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March 11, 2016

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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