Editor’s note: This post is the second in a series of blogs on teachable moments from the 2016 Summer Olympics. Find the first here.
This TIME.com headline ran with an article that explains the reason: A few of Phelps’ friends from back home were loudly paying homage to their hometown Baltimore Orioles.
Hours before, when Gabby Douglas stood on the gold-medal podium, she didn’t laugh; she just stood at attention. She also didn’t put her hand over her heart—and the world of social media roared. Many people didn’t find her behavior as endearing.
Douglas was called “disrespectful” and “unpatriotic.” Phelps, on the other hand, was considered adorable as he giggled with his friends. His behavior will make you “smile.” Hers was enough to send social media into a frenzy of trolling and bullying, to the point that she had to make a statement.
Putting aside the problems with call-out culture in general, we should consider why Douglas and Phelps were treated differently.
Phelps’ public persona is rooted in being one of the greatest swimmers of all time—but his maleness and whiteness factor into that identity as well. He is “the boy next door,” laughing during the anthem with other boys next door who came to see him swim. He is the Opie to the American Dream perpetrated during the “simpler” time of The Andy Griffith Show—a time when women couldn’t get credit cards and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had just been enacted.
Douglas may be the girl next door for many Americans, but not in the version of the American Dream that privileges whiteness. And her visible identities—black, female—put her under different scrutiny. The fact that her behavior is perceived as disrespectful and Phelps’ behavior is seen as cute exposes structural racism and sexism.
I have already written about how the media does not know how to speak about female athletes, but to speak about black female athletes is another, even more complicated discussion that needs to happen online and in our classrooms.
To cultivate cultural literacy about the ways we talk about people of different identities—and to help students see the importance of intersectional analysis—we can use a comparison of the treatment of Phelps and Douglas. Their similarities are specific and parallel, and the differences are so tremendous they cannot be ignored.
To foster critical thinking, we can ask our students first to compare the situations. Once they have observed that the treatment of Douglas differed from that of Phelps, we can ask them the bigger questions:
- Why do you think the response was different?
- Do you think this situation is a one-off, or do you think it is part of a structural problem?
- How does gender matter here (see the comparisons between Phelps and Katie Ledecky)?
- How does race factor in here (see the difference in response to Douglas and McKayla Maroney)?
- How does the intersection of gender identity and racial identity play into this discussion?
The rhetoric used by this summer’s Olympic media has given educators many rich examples that we can use in the classroom to introduce students to intersectionality. We can use these events in popular culture to help our students investigate larger societal issues.
Clemens is the associate professor of non-Western literatures and director of Women's and Gender Studies at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.
It was the last day of classes this past June, and I hadn’t felt this level of anxiety since my initial job interview at Moses Brown School 10 years ago. With my heart beating out of my chest, I nervously sipped water and mumbled to myself between repeated trips to the bathroom. I turned around to smile at my wife, who had left work early to attend the middle school talent show.
In February, in a fit of inspired bravado, I had emailed my teaching partner and fellow history nerd, Graham Holland, and our school’s drama teacher, Steve Kidd, about staging a surprise performance at the talent show. The three of us, it turned out, shared a mutual love for and deep obsession with the musical Hamilton, and I had suggested we try out the rap battle scenes. Graham and I both teach seventh-grade American history and had spent the whole year working Hamilton references into our classes and conversations. It felt like a fitting, thrilling way to end the school year.
It would also be the first time I’d ever performed a musical number outside of my car or the shower. I am not a comfortable performer even though I spend all day on a “stage,” and my nerves had been mounting all week. I was shaking with anxiety as the student performers offered their songs and dances. And then it was our turn.
Steve stood first, riffing on the fact that, in spite of its popularity, no songs from Hamilton had been performed at the talent show. Meanwhile, three of our colleagues set up their instruments. As the trio began laying down the recognizable beat of “Cabinet Battle #1,” Steve made his transition into George Washington, and Graham and I donned our Colonial-era coats and took the stage as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, respectively. Those students in the “Ham fam” realized what was about to happen, and those who didn’t know the musical teetered with uncertain excitement.
Graham (Jefferson), tall, stately and confident, dominated the stage, rhyming about the founding principles of our republic and the dangers of Hamilton’s financial plan with enviable ease. I thought my heart might fall out of my chest as Steve (Washington) handed me the floor. I took a deep breath, did some weird pivot dance move that I had never seen myself do and began rapping—loudly, aggressively, brashly—in front of a crowd of some 200 screaming students and adults. My chosen verses addressed the necessity of uniting the newly liberated Colonies around a plan to relieve the country’s debt, calling out the South’s reliance on slavery.
We worked our way through the two numbers, trading barbs and rapping excitedly about the dangers of too much capitalism and the perils of aiding the French in their post-revolutionary war with Britain. And then, just like that, it was over. The applause was raucous, especially as we punctuated our performance with a Cam Newton-inspired “dab.”
For me, it was a highlight of the year. This was a major stretch for me, and it was a reminder of how important it is to cultivate a culture of risk taking and boundary pushing in any learning environment. That anxious, heart-beating-out-of-my-chest feeling happens to our students all the time, and it was the encouragement of my peers and the thrill of trying something new that pushed me to rise up to the experience. For students, modeling that behavior can be inspiring. They need to see us pushing ourselves, embracing productive discomfort and exploring new activities.
Another aspect of this experience that I hadn’t expected was that we needed to practice! Everyone else in our ensemble is a seasoned performer and knew that we needed rehearsals to get our timing, staging and flow down. I thought it would be enough just to know the words, but the process of rehearsing (in secret) and fine-tuning reminded me of the importance of careful planning. I was ready to try this new experience because I had prepared, which is another great lesson for students.
Most important, however, was that in spite of my nerves and the rehearsing, it was fun. It was the kind of energetic fun often missing from school. Hamilton—with its incredible artistic, intellectual and story-telling qualities—is a great vehicle for students to learn about the past. And I know how important it is for our students to see us, as educators, enjoying ourselves, laughing with our colleagues and genuinely bringing our whole selves into our work. We get only so many chances to make a positive impression on our students; don’t throw away your shot!
Gold is a seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island.
When my daughter, who is on the autism spectrum, entered high school, her special education teachers were not sure that her taking French was a good idea. After all, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is primarily a communication disorder, so wouldn’t taking a foreign language be the last thing someone with ASD would want to do? Many students with ASD process language slowly and receive speech and language services, so studying a foreign language would seem to fly in the face of common sense.
My daughter, however, really wanted to learn a foreign language, so against the advice of her teachers, we signed her up.
“It will be OK,” I reassured her teachers. “She’s got this language stuff down.”
And she did. Six years later, my daughter has almost finished her minor in French at her university. She took another full year of a second foreign language, Spanish, at the university level and will be taking linguistics this fall. She loves studying foreign languages, and she’s good at it. A conventional understanding of ASD might label my daughter’s ability as quirky or exceptional. But I don’t think so.
As a person with ASD, my daughter tends to focus on the details rather than the big picture, and foreign language study, especially at the elementary level, is extremely detail-oriented. The meanings of individual vocabulary words must be learned. Spellings and the placement of accents must be memorized. The genders of nouns and their appropriate articles must be remembered. Details, details and more details! In addition, studying a foreign language at the elementary level is a very concrete, black-and-white process, which can be comforting for someone with ASD who has difficulty with judgments and interpretations. When you study a foreign language, there are grammar rules; right and wrong ways of conjugating verbs and ordering sentence elements; and very few occasions for inferences, interpretations or judgments.
But more than being an academic area in which students with ASD might excel, foreign language study can also have psychological benefits for students on the autism spectrum. Research suggests, for example, that it can increase any person’s ability to focus.¹ Because people on the spectrum have difficulty filtering out images and sounds—the many sensory perceptions we all experience every moment of every day—they often find concentration more difficult than neurotypical learners. Studying a second language can make overall concentration an easier task, however, because of the way foreign language study trains the brain to attend to auditory stimuli. A big part of learning a second language is listening to how sounds are put together and analyzing how the sounds produced in one language are different from those produced in another language. In a 2013 study, researchers in Scotland found that people who know two languages are better at ignoring irrelevant auditory stimuli—something that students with ASD often have difficulty with—perhaps because they have trained their brains to focus on minute discriminations in language sounds.²
Another way that studying a foreign language might benefit students on the autism spectrum is that it can make the brain more flexible; that is, it can make the brain better at shifting from one task to another or even focusing on more than one task at a time.³ This is because people who speak more than one language must shift between the vocabulary and grammar of one language and those of another language. Doing so can be good for students on the spectrum because many have trouble transitioning, whether it’s from summer vacation to the academic school year or from art class to math. But when you study a foreign language, this kind of “brain shifting” happens all the time. Making the brain juggle between two languages may help students on the spectrum become better at juggling between other aspects of their lives.
When my daughter was writing a college research paper on the benefits of studying foreign languages, she said to me something like, “Mom, the research shows that people who know more than one language are better able to concentrate and to multitask, but I still have a lot of problems doing those things, even though I speak French and Spanish.”
“You still have some problems focusing and multitasking,” I replied, “but think of how much easier these skills have become for you since you began foreign language study.”
Studying a foreign language may not be right for every student on the autism spectrum, especially when we consider the complexity of ASD and the uniqueness of every human being. Foreign language study may also not create noticeable educational and psychological benefits in the short term. Many students with autism, however, may benefit academically, personally, socially and psychologically, so let’s not assume they can’t do foreign language because we have a misguided and simplistic understanding of autism. Instead, let’s keep an open mind.
For my daughter, studying French was not only one of the few classes she had no trouble with, but the subtle and incremental psychological changes that have accrued were worth the effort—even if she can’t always see them at this point. For her, the benefits will last a lifetime.
Wendorff is a professor of English, ethnic studies and women and gender studies at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
1. See Viorica Marian and Anthony Shook, “Cerebrum.” The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual. The Dana Foundation, 2012.
2. See Christopher Wanjek, “Learning a New Language at Any Age Helps the Brain.” Livescience. June 2014.
3. See Jeffrey Kluger, “The Power of the Bilingual Brain.” Time 182:5 (2013): 42.
The Atlantic: “While many see the creation of safe spaces for black students, LGBT students, and other minorities as a positive step toward helping them navigate campus, others see it as resegregation and a step backward.”
Education Dive: “As many as one in 14 children has had a parent serve time in prison or jail.”
Governing: “Financial figures published by the U.S. Census Bureau depict wide variation in [public school] spending across states, regions and individual districts. “
The Huffington Post: “The onus is on communities, schools and parents to do more to foster a safe environment for queer youth.”
The Huffington Post: “Our obligation is not to maintain some abstract form of ‘balance’ in the classroom, but to help students become critical thinkers who learn to listen to others, evaluate their statements carefully and respectfully, and support conclusions with evidence.”
The José Vilson: “I hadn’t considered how, previously, I was contributing to the systemic racism that downplays the professionalism of people of color in mostly white institutions.”
National Public Radio: “What happens if a teacher’s attitude towards race unconsciously clouds [their] judgment?”
National Public Radio: “White people really are much less likely to talk about racial issues on social media.”
Heart of a Teacher: “For many years, Indigenous people’s voices were silenced due to the impacts of assimilation policies. Considering this, we need to ensure that Indigenous people have a place where their voices are at the centre of this conversation.”
TueNight: “Here’s the problem: Schools are ill-equipped to tackle issues of race because many don’t want to address the bias surrounding why Black and Latino students get the bulk of disciplinary consequences.”
The Week: “Out-of-school suspension doesn’t prevent bad choices, and worse, it leads to lost learning for those who may need it most.”
If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to email@example.com, and put “What We’re Reading This Week” in the subject line.
Say it with me: "LGBTQ Muslims exist." Say it again: "LGBTQ Muslims exist."
I know it may sound flippant to start a post with this seemingly obvious statement, but members of our citizenry have a hard time grappling with the fact that "Muslim" and "LGBTQ" are not dichotomous identities. This misunderstanding has been amplified in the wake of the mass shooting at Pulse, a gay club in Orlando. The rhetoric some people use has pit LGBTQ people against Muslims at large, while ignoring the reality that many people occupy both identity groups.
In fact, Imam Daayiee Abdullah has emerged as the United States’ first openly gay imam. Broader conversations about Muslim identities and LGBTQ rights are ongoing, influenced by events such as the Obergefell decision and the Pulse tragedy. We need to have these conversations within our classrooms and our larger dialogue about schools and education. There is a growing call for an intersectional analysis to pedagogy, discipline and education policy. It's now time for educators to give more credence to the intersection between the identities of Muslim and LGBTQ.
Consider these classroom materials. Sara Farizan, a young adult author, provides two powerful texts for exploring the voices of LGBTQ Muslims in her novels, Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel and If You Could Be Mine. Both novels would make powerful additions to any secondary library as they deal with issues of family, religion, sexual orientation, gender expression and cultural and gendered expectations. I use both books in literature circles in my ninth-grade English class and have found that students consistently rank the texts as their favorites at the end of the year.
In addition to selecting intersectional texts, teachers can create units on LGBTQ rights movements from around the world, such as the annual pride parade in Istanbul, within any world cultures class. Documentaries such as the acclaimed Jihad for Love and A Sinner in Mecca are powerful tools for high school teachers to incorporate into their curricula. Faisal Alam’s important lecture, “Hidden Voices: The Lives of LGBT Muslims,” is informative and moving.
These are just a few examples. At a minimum, teachers should ask themselves: Am I allowing for a diverse representation when Muslim stories are in the curriculum? Am I perpetuating a single story of what it means to be LGBTQ?
Remember, we send an equally powerful message with what we include in our curricula as well as what we exclude. Not discussing the reality of LGBTQ Muslims is just as much of a political move as including the voices of LGBTQ Muslims. We all want our students to be empathic and critical thinkers. By including the voices of all people and teaching about intersectionality, we support our students’ abilities to grow as people and cultivate kindness.
Miller teaches ninth-grade English Language Arts at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, the University of Florida’s affiliated K-12 laboratory school. He is also a recipient of the 2016 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching.