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When Youth Get to Be Teachers

This year, I frequently ask the youth I work with what skills they can share with others. I believe this is a way of helping youth recognize their power. When necessary, we brainstorm their strengths together—if they’re good at football or reading or crocheting, for instance—and plan opportunities for them to share their skills with other members of our afterschool program.

As the year has progressed, I’ve seen the youth become more open to sharing their skills and to asking others to help them learn new ones. There’s been less bullying about skills-specific things, and when youth get to act as teachers, they become more charitable to the students they’re teaching, both in the moment and after the teaching experience is over.

One youth, who is a skilled soccer player, has been helping others learn the proper ways to pass and dribble the ball. Another patiently teaches other students how to get enough spin on a Frisbee so it doesn’t wobble, and he says encouraging things almost every time someone tries to throw it. That same youth has been more open to asking classmates for help with spelling words, and those he’s helped with Frisbee have been kinder to him when he struggles to spell words they find easy. A youth who enjoys poetry has encouraged four others to take up spoken word. They will perform at the end of the year and have become closer friends over the course of the last semester.

To me, this work is a necessary and critical part of working with youth outside of the school day. I have the opportunity to help them feel empowered and to build the confidence of youth who are less able to recognize their talents. Additionally, I know from talking to them and their teachers that the relationships we work to develop in our afterschool program carry over into the school day.

It’s also critical for helping youth discover their best selves and for reducing shame at what they might perceive as their weaknesses. My co-teacher and I repeatedly talk to youth about how we can’t be great at everything, but the good thing is that we can usually find someone who’s better than we are who can help us improve if there’s a skill we want to work on. We also emphasize that not everyone has to like or be good at everything they try and that we should accept that about others. As a result, we have noticed that youth are encouraging each other without shaming each other, and we have fewer emotional and social flare-ups in our group. It may take time and effort to structure these interactions, but the tremendous value that stems from encouraging students to step into the role of teacher makes it more than worth it.

Clift works in an after-school program for youth and as the communications intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

What We're Reading This Week: April 24

Bright: An educator in the Bronx reflects on the value of restorative justice and the crucial need for long-term, multi-faceted tools and support.

BuzzFeed: Hundreds of teenagers in Texas, the majority African-American and Latino, have been sent to jail because they were not able to pay court fines stemming from truancy.

Juvenile Justice Information Exchange: Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets launched in 2011 in New York to train teenagers to organize in their neighborhoods and "reverse trends in gun violence."

Media Matters for America: This week, NBC News aired a series of pieces centered on parents raising transgender children and refuting misconceptions about gender identity.

National Public Radio: In this NPR interview, H. Richard Millner—director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh—offers tips and strategies for educators on how to engage in what can be uncomfortable conversations about the intersections of race and poverty.

NBC News: When Alicia Hadley’s 4-year-old daughter lamented, "I just can't be a princess because I have braids in my hair," Hadley and her husband were inspired to create the representation that’s lacking in children’s books, films and television programming.

The New York Times: Parents of children attending Success Academy Charter Schools hold an array of opinions about the network and its policies. Their reflections shed light on the larger conversation about no-excuses charters. 

School Library Journal: The SLJ just revealed it will celebrate the freedom to read during Banned Books Week by focusing on controversial books about teens and how librarians and book lovers can keep these beloved titles on the shelves.

If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to editor@tolerance.org, and put "What We’re Reading This Week" in the subject line.

When Third-Graders Are Advocates

Most classrooms begin the school year by creating a general set of principles, rules or guidelines to which everyone can agree. An understanding of our shared rights and responsibilities is fundamental to building a peaceful and cooperative learning community and sets the tone for the year ahead. It can also serve as a foundation for important conversations about equity, accessibility and other aspects of social justice.

In my third-grade classroom, identifying what constitutes a right starts with a thoughtful examination of the difference between what we, as individuals, want and what we truly need. Our World, Our Rights: Teaching about Rights and Responsibilities in the Elementary School, published by Amnesty International, has been a tremendous resource for helping us clarify and differentiate among the terms wants, needs, rights and privileges. Thinking with my students about our wants and needs for our own classroom leads to discussions about basic needs that all humans share and the idea that everyone is entitled to rights—and should have them met.

For the past several years, this conversation has included a look at the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). This document, recognized as the most widely ratified human-rights treaty in history, focuses specifically on identifying and seeking to ensure the fundamental rights of children under the age of 18. Discussion about the rights of children—what children should be allowed to have, do and be protected from—brings these global concerns very close to home for young students in U.S. classrooms.

The picture book I Have the Right to Be a Child is an excellent introduction to the CRC, distilling the essence of the convention’s articles into age-appropriate language and images. I Have the Right to Be a Child also provides a brief history of the CRC and a list of the 193 countries that have ratified the convention. It is a list from which the United States is conspicuously absent.

To my class of predominantly affluent and privileged children, the rights articulated in the CRC seemed obvious. “Of course everyone should have access to medical care.” “Of course everyone should have a home and someone to care for them.” “Of course everyone needs food and water—and a name.” Learning that our country has yet to officially endorse these guidelines since they were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly 25 years ago was shocking to my students. Angered and incredulous, they were eager to speak up for the rights of children everywhere and voice their concern about what they saw as our country’s disregard for their well-being.

Our classroom guidelines became a lens through which we could examine human rights and responsibilities on a larger scale. My students had determined that, in our classroom, everyone had the right to feel safe, to feel included, to learn, to be respected and to have fun. These are, essentially, not unlike the rights proposed in the CRC. Don’t all children deserve these rights? So began our campaign.

The students created posters and wrote letters to other classrooms about the importance of the CRC and the need for U.S. ratification. Through homework assignments and posts on our classroom blog, students shared information about the CRC and online petitions with their families and friends. We posted photographs on Instagram and on our school’s website, and students collaborated to write letters to our senators and President Obama.

Our culminating event was a rally during which the third-graders taught fellow students and teachers about the CRC, helped them create posters and buttons, and encouraged them to join the campaign by signing petitions and posting comments and pictures using #ratifythecrc

When asked what has meant most to them about our work with the CRC, my students consistently name the feeling of empowerment they experienced when others joined their efforts. Their voices were heard, affirmed and amplified. This has continued over the past several months as we received written responses from both of our senators and the president.

These children see themselves as activists, as making a difference. If they are our future, I believe we’re in good hands.

Walters teaches third grade at the Gordon School in East Providence, Rhode Island, where she has taught for the past nine years.

Congrats to the 104 Mix It Up Model Schools!

“If we did this all the time, we would have a million friends!” That’s what a fifth-grader from Animas Valley Elementary School exclaimed after her school’s Mix It Up at Lunch event this year. Animas Valley is one of 104 Mix It Up Model Schools (including two outside the United States) that we’re recognizing today for fostering respect and understanding among students and throughout campus during the 2014-15 school year.

Not familiar with Mix It Up at Lunch Day? The program began in 2002 and seeks to break down social barriers by encouraging students to sit with someone new at lunch. Educators and students tell us that exclusionary social cliques can lead to conflicts, bullying and harassment, and that these cliques are extra visible in the lunchroom. During Mix It Up at Lunch Day, schools plan fun activities to help reduce the power of lunchroom divisions.

So, what’s a Model School? These schools participated in Mix It Up at Lunch Day and followed up with additional events that promote kindness and friendship and encourage students to be more inclusive throughout the school year. How did they do it? Cruise over to the Mix It Up Model Schools page and check out all 104 schools. They’ll be posted there all year as examples to help other schools plan similar barrier-busting activities.

There’s Forest Hills Central Woodlands 5/6, where students were treated like rock stars and got to walk a red carpet. Then there’s Imagine School at Broward, which hosted a decades-themed event complete with a “dress as your time period” contest. At the Tucker Adult Transition Program, participants enjoyed dancing to Stevie Wonder, Cat Stevens and the Gypsy Kings. And the folks at Woodland Middle School competed in a full-body rock-paper-scissors tournament!

These and all 104 Model Schools utilized the talents of diverse individuals and groups from the school community in the planning and implementation of the event. They also took a multimedia approach to publicity and reported that students enjoyed the day.

The 2015 Mix It Up at Lunch Day will be held on Oct. 27. We offer an array of free online resources to help school groups and teachers explore the issue of social divisions and plan their event. Each school sets its own agenda and chooses its own theme.

Register for Mix 2015 now and join the fun. And congratulations again to all our 2014-15 Model Schools!

Identity-Safe Classrooms and Schools

Editor’s Note: This blog is the third in a three-part series that links three important ideas—implicit bias, stereotype threat and identity safety—all backed by research.

When you hear the words identity safety, you might immediately think it has something to do with “identity theft.” Identity theft refers to when someone steals your name and financial identity, so you can no longer use your credit cards or fully function as yourself. How would it affect you psychologically to have your identity stolen? Uncertain, defensive, afraid to trust?

That is exactly what happens when individuals must function in an environment where their identities are not respectfully acknowledged—when negative stereotypes are used to define them or when they must give up or hide parts of themselves to be accepted. By understanding the concept of identity safety, educators can help students feel secure in their identities and free to be who they are and thrive at school.

Many teachers have seen the film The Eye of the Storm (called A Class Divided on the PBS website) about an Iowa teacher who conducted a “blue eyes, brown eyes” classroom experiment. Although this experiment reflects outdated research methods and violates modern human-subjects protocols, the impact of stereotype threat comes into plain view. The teacher told her students that having blue eyes meant they were inferior. She had them wear collars in class. The next day she told students that she made a mistake; the brown-eyed children were inferior, and she had them wear collars. And the brown-eyed children wearing the collars performed worse on a spelling test than they had the day before.

When asked why, one student said, “It’s those collars.” The immediate power of stigma was made visible. Because of a long history of race and racism in this country, the social identities of some racial and ethnic groups are linked to academic success while others are linked to school failure. Identity-safe teaching serves as an antidote to that stereotype threat and stigma.

An identity-safe environment values diversity by creating belonging and validating each person’s background and the multiple components of social identity (age, race, gender, culture, language). It’s an evidence-based model; researchers from the Stanford Integrated Schools Project observed 84 elementary classrooms and have found a link between identity-safe teaching and enhanced student performance. Students in identity-safe classrooms performed at higher levels on standardized tests and felt a greater sense of belonging and inclusion.

Identity-safe teaching includes a whole constellation of practices: the arrangement of students and materials, the nature of the relationships, the types of questions directed toward students, cooperative learning activities, student autonomy and non-punitive approaches to dealing with misbehavior. Diverse materials and activities are used as resources for teaching, rather than the colorblind approach that ignores student differences. Research has found that these components, woven together, create the sense of identity safety in students. 

To build identity safety in classrooms and schools, educators can draw on the practices spelled out below, organized into four domains[1]:

1. Child-centered teaching promotes autonomy, cooperation and student voice.

  • Listening for student voices ensures that each student can contribute to and shape classroom life.
  • Teaching for understanding assures students learn new knowledge and incorporate it into what they know.
  • Focusing on cooperation rather than competition encourages students to learn from and help others.
  • Classroom autonomy promotes responsibility and belonging in each student.

2. Cultivating diversity as a resource provides challenging curriculum and high expectations for all students in the context of the regular and authentic use of diverse materials, ideas and teaching activities.

  • Using diversity as a resource for teaching draws from all students’ lives as part of the curriculum and daily life in the classroom.
  • High expectations and academic rigor support all students in learning to analyze, synthesize, evaluate and strive to grow intellectually at every academic level.
  • Challenging curriculum motivates students with meaningful, purposeful learning as opposed to rote teaching and remediation.

3. Classroom relationships are based on trusting, positive interactions with the teacher and among the students.

  • Teacher warmth and availability to support learning builds a trusting, encouraging relationship with each student based on belief that he or she can succeed and achieve at high levels.
  • Positive student relationships promote interpersonal understanding and caring among students in a climate free of bullying and social cruelty.

4. Caring classroom environments are ones where social skills are taught and practiced help students care for one another in an emotionally and physically safe classroom.

  • Teacher skill is the capacity to establish an orderly, purposeful classroom that facilitates student learning.
  • Emotional and physical comfort are crucial so that each student feels safe and attached to school and to other students.
  • Attention to prosocial development incorporates social and emotional learning (SEL) into all aspects of daily life, teaching students how to live with one another, feel empathy for one another and solve problems with respect and care for others.

Identity safety is an approach that works not only for children but also for educators and society at large. As we come to create not only identity-safe classrooms but also identity-safe schools and communities, we will all feel a greater sense of belonging and compassion and ultimately reduce the prejudice, implicit bias and stereotype threat that causes so much harm and hurt in our world.

Cohn-Vargas is director of Not in Our School and coauthor of Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn.

[1] Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn, Cohn-Vargas and Steele. (This book offers an array of ways educators can create identity safety in their classrooms and schools.)

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