'Perspectives': We Did Our Homework!

Perspectives for a Diverse America, Teaching Tolerance’s K-12 anti-bias, literacy-based curriculum, is the culmination of three years of hard work—including the curation of nearly 300 readings covering a variety of social justice topics. Needless to say, we’re proud to have it in the hands of educators around the country, but we’re not stopping there. In addition to continually adding new texts, we strive to improve the usability of the curriculum so educators and students can get the most out of it. We started with a pilot study to determine its impact in classrooms.

During the 2013-2014 school year, 74 teachers across five sites (Alabama, Idaho, Illinois, New Mexico and Wisconsin) participated the Perspectives pilot study. The group represented a tremendous range of educators: They taught grades K through 12 in urban, rural and suburban settings, and worked in dual-language, special education and gifted classrooms. The task? Use two Perspectives texts in the classroom and complete an integrated learning plan (more on that next week!).

Here’s just a snippet of what we learned.

Did the scope and nature of the Perspectives curriculum meet teachers’ needs?

In a word, yes. Perspectives’ strategies and tasks were grade-appropriate, challenging and useful. Teachers found a sufficient array of strategies and favorably cited the accompanying rubrics and guides. The curriculum met teachers’ needs for challenging texts, vocabulary instruction, oral language development and challenging writing assignments. Here are some key findings:

  • Almost all teachers (99 percent) agreed that the texts they chose allowed them to introduce important topics into conversations with their students.
  • Almost all teachers (97 percent) agreed that Perspectives strategies engaged their students.
  • Almost all teachers (95 percent) agreed that Perspectives strategies helped students build reading comprehension skills.

Did Perspectives improve teacher capacity in implementing the Common Core State Standards and the goals of anti-bias education?

The study shows that Perspectives has the potential to significantly improve teacher capacity in implementing the Common Core. Almost all of the teachers (97 percent) said the strategies helped their students make progress toward mastery of the CCSS, and 90 percent said the strategies helped the teachers themselves to understand and apply the CCSS.

Perspectives is a promising vehicle for encouraging the wider adoption of high-quality anti-bias education. Pilot teachers reported that the curriculum allowed them to have new and meaningful discussions about identity, diversity, justice and action in their classrooms. Plus, the curriculum made teachers feel comfortable and confident discussing issues relevant to their students’ lives and communities, even when those issues were controversial. Teachers’ experiences with Perspectives were so meaningful that many encouraged colleagues in their buildings or professional networks to use the curriculum.

What effects of using Perspectives did teachers see in their classrooms?

Pilot teachers reported substantial effects in five major areas: literacy development, student engagement, empathy, classroom culture and student behavior. All the teachers said the curriculum built students’ literacy skills in all of the dimensions measured, and the evaluation found that teachers were pleased with students’ high levels of engagement. This engagement contributed to productive discussions and student enthusiasm for subject material and culminating tasks. Key findings included:

  • Almost all teachers (97 percent) said Perspectives texts engaged their students.
  • Almost all teachers (98 percent) said that Perspectives texts helped make classroom discussions more productive.
  • Almost all teachers (97 percent) said the culminating task brought their students closer together.

Teachers also reported that the curriculum helped them build classroom community and engaged students with their communities in new ways. Teachers saw connections between the use of Perspectives and fewer student conflicts as well as greater tolerance for differences.

How did findings relate to the research informing the Perspectives design?

One of the major theories underlying Perspectives is the idea that texts can generate empathy in readers, building understanding and awareness of diverse experiences. Pilot teachers observed this in their classrooms across grade levels and subject material, whether they were in diverse or relatively homogenous classrooms. Two other concepts were robustly supported by the findings:

  • Complex and relevant texts can increase student engagement.
  • Appropriate curricular design can promote collective action.

This evaluation shows that exposure to Perspectives’ central texts created motivated learners. This is in line with research demonstrating that text selection matters tremendously for academic, social and emotional outcomes. Longitudinal use of Perspectives materials may help educators see real results in improved school and community climates. Finally, Perspectives shows promise for promoting an integrated instructional approach that moves teaching and learning from prejudice reduction to collective action.

Read the full report on the pilot study here.

Agree to (Respectfully) Disagree

Most educators would agree that it’s important for students to respect classmates with different religious or nonreligious beliefs. But what if the doctrine or practices of the belief system in question contradict students’ values or marginalize or limit their identity group? Or what if a student has experienced microaggressions or harassment from peers of a different religious tradition? How do you respond when a student asks, “They don’t respect me, so why should I respect them?”

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) individuals make up one identity group that has experienced unequal treatment within certain religious traditions. According to a 2013 survey of LGBT Americans by the Pew Research Center, a vast majority describe Islam (84 percent), the Mormon Church (83 percent), the Catholic Church (79 percent) and evangelical churches (73 percent) as unfriendly toward them. This perception is corroborated by another Pew survey of the general American public. Although support for gay marriage continues to increase (just over half of Americans favor it), “opposition to gay marriage—and to societal acceptance of homosexuality more generally—is rooted in religious attitudes, such as the belief that engaging in homosexual behavior is a sin.”

If your students feel excluded or offended by faith-based rules and opinions, you can still encourage respectful conversations on religious diversity. Here’s how.

Distinguish People From Doctrines and Practices

Rather than asking your students to respect all belief systems, ask them to practice respecting all people, regardless of their belief system. Students don’t need to agree with their classmates’ religious or nonreligious beliefs, but they should be expected to interact with them in ways that are constructive and civil. In a previous blog post, we highlighted the multiple facets of a person’s identity. Pointing out similarities in some facets amidst differences in others can help students engage in these positive interactions.

Avoid Assumptions Based on Religious Identity

Just because an individual belongs to a particular belief system doesn’t necessarily mean he or she agrees with all of its tenets and practices. In fact, in some cases, a majority of adherents disagree with decisions of the leadership. For instance, a survey by Univision found that 59 percent of Catholics in the United States think the church should let women become priests, a belief that contradicts the current decision of church leadership. 

Within Islam, vocal and active feminist movements aim to counteract misogynistic interpretations of Islamic texts by male imams. Rather than abandoning their faith in the quest for gender equality, many Muslim women combat oppression by appealing to Islamic texts and laws. For example, one of Tanenbaum’s Peacemakers in Action, Jamila Afghani, created the first holistic gender-sensitive imam training program in Kabul, Afghanistan.

By exposing your students to diverse perspectives within a particular faith, you help diminish the likelihood that they’ll incorrectly attribute specific attitudes and opinions to all individual members of a religion.

Keep in Mind That Emotional Reactions Have a History

Prior to walking into your classroom, students may have experienced bullying or negative comments about themselves and the belief systems to which they belong. In extreme cases, teachers have even made questionable or inappropriate comments to students about their religious traditions. An awareness of this potential history will put students’ emotional reactions into context and underscore the importance of creating inclusive, respectful learning environments where students are encouraged to abide by established rules of engagement.

Provide Tools for Respectful Disagreement

Educators can give students tools to respectfully disagree with people of different faiths, even if those in marginalized groups are the ones being disrespectful. By sharing these tools ahead of time, before conflicts based on religious identity arise, you will be better prepared to address and resolve such conflicts in the moment. You can refer back to what was already discussed, rather than having to come up with a response on the fly.

One tool that establishes a firm foundation for respectful disagreement is Tanenbaum’s Respecting Each Other lesson plan, which asks students to define what respect looks, feels and sounds like, and then to create their own rules of respect. If you spot any behavior that breaks these rules, you can correct it with greater credibility than if you had made up the rules yourself. Students can—and often do—take on the role of enforcer, holding each other accountable for honoring the agreements they’ve made together.

Krister Stendahl, an accomplished theologian, created another helpful tool that’s specific to religious differences. Here are his Three Rules of Religious Understanding:

  1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  2. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for “holy envy.” (By this, Stendahl means that you should be willing to recognize elements that you admire in the other religious tradition or faith and that you wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.)

If everyone obeyed these rules, what a more peaceful world it would be! The unfortunate reality is that, in spite of an individual’s best efforts to follow guidelines for respect, the reactions of others may be angry and intolerant. When a student asks, “They don’t respect me, so why should I respect them?” remind him to distinguish people from tenets and practices, avoid assumptions, consider the emotional history and remember the tools of respectful disagreement.

Fasciano is an education program associate at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.

What We're Reading This Week: February 27

GOOD: As members of the Ferguson community attempt to heal, the Truth Telling Project is creating safe spaces for people to speak their truths and ultimately help relieve their trauma.

The Washington Post: High school students in Maryland created a video to capture their experiences as minorities on campus. It opened up a conversation about how to foster a more welcoming and inclusive school climate. 

The Washington Post: Juveniles tried as adults are more likely than youth tried as juveniles to return to prison. A book club called Free Minds works against this trend by supporting youth who are charged and incarcerated as adults in Washington, D.C.

The Civil Rights Project: A recent report from UCLA raises concerns about “egregious disparities” found in suspension rates across race and ability groups.

Education Week: Meet Superintendent Richard A. Carranza, an educator with first-hand knowledge of what it means to navigate the education system as an English language learner. 

Disability Scoop: A mother's two-year legal battle with the Broward County School Board in Florida recently ended when  a U.S. district judge ruled that her son can be accompanied at school by his service dog.

Marketplace Learning Curve: In this series of four articles, Learning Curve explores the ways in which technology can impact education for juveniles who are locked up.

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

What Is Your American Flag?

When Frederick Douglass was asked to speak at an 1852 event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, his hosts probably didn’t expect the speech he gave them, which included this famous gem:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity … There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Douglass’ speech that day was a biting attack on the hypocrisy of a nation—and the systems within it—that professed the inherent equality among people (well, men) while holding millions of them in bondage.

Today, African Americans might ask a similar question: “What, to the African American, is your American flag?” This question occurred to me a couple of months ago when two drastically different images of the American flag appeared: on the shield of Marvel Comics’ Samuel Wilson, a new African-American character who now dons the stars and stripes as Captain America; and in the painting New Age of Slavery, an image of the flag that calls out systemic racialized violence against African Americans. Each of these powerful, cultural images speaks volumes about the state of race relations in this country—and the healing it so sorely needs.

The new Captain America reflects an exciting time in the world of comic books, a time in which characters are becoming increasingly diverse. With a female Thor, Muslim Ms. Marvel and other changes, Marvel Comics is making a point to feature characters that represent the broad range of its readers’ identities.

As Captain America, Samuel Wilson can lead children’s imaginations in numerous directions. Not only can an African American become president of the United States; he or she can fight for the common good as the consummate American superhero, clad head to toe in red, white and blue.

Patrick Campbell’s painting New Age of Slavery presents a completely different perspective on the American flag and what it represents. Going viral the first week of December 2014, the painting depicts hanging bodies in the red stripes of the flag. In the field of blue, some of the stars are cracked, and some are figures of men engaged in violent acts like shooting and striking. Still others are victims of those acts.

Campbell was inspired by story after story of African Americans dying pointless deaths at the hands of authority figures, but Eric Garner’s death was a tipping point. “It seems that African-Americans have been targeted in our own state and in our own country. I cannot stress that enough. IT IS OUR OWN COUNTRY,” he told The Grio.

Many have criticized the painting as disrespectful, to which Campbell agrees, adding that “it’s grounded on hard truths.” The violence illustrated in his flag is typical in many American communities—even the children in these communities know as much. It’s their reality.

These two manifestations of the flag reveal two facets of the U.S. conversation surrounding race: aspiration and reality. It is true we have a black president—but it is also true that African-American students are more likely to be suspended than their white peers for the same violations and that African-American teens are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than their white peers. These types of lopsided statistics are not true only for African Americans but also for Latinos, American Indians, LGBT individuals and people with disabilities.

Think your students don’t know these facts? They do. Think they’re not talking about them? They are—and you should too. Talking about the systemic oppression that students of color experience isn’t racist. On the contrary, such conversation opens the door to a different future, a different country that shuns the hypocrisy Douglass spoke about 150 years ago.

If more people can accept and respect an African American proudly wrapped in the American flag, then maybe fewer of our students will identify with stripes that represent loss of life and oppression.

Bell is a writer and associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.

What’s Your Favorite 'Perspectives' Reading?

Last week, Teaching Tolerance highlighted the process that guided the selection of the nearly 300 readings, images and video and audio clips in Perspectives for a Diverse America, our K-12 literacy-based curriculum. Our staff handpicked each and every title in the Central Text Anthology to equip anti-bias educators with a free, high-quality curriculum; a few have become staff favorites. Read about the readings that are especially near and dear to TT staff and see if your favorite is listed among them.

 “An Open Letter to Ann Coulter” by John Franklin Stephens 

Grade level: Sixth grade
Text type: Informational
Lens: Ability
Themes: Individual and society, membership and solidarity
Anti-bias domains: Identity, Justice

After Ann Coulter called President Obama a “retard” in a tweet about the 2012 presidential debates, athlete John Franklin Stephens offered a rebuttal on the Special Olympics blog. Stephens, a man with Down syndrome, tackles Coulter’s insinuation that Obama should feel belittled by the word, by being associated with people with disabilities. Instead, Stephens believes that the association should be a “badge of honor” because people with disabilities overcome a great deal.

Writing with humor and grace, Stephens reminds us that our language matters. It can be hurtful or it can show great compassion. Choosing the latter, Stephens invites Coulter to visit the Special Olympics and extends his friendship to her. “An Open Letter to Ann Coulter” is a wonderful demonstration of loving ourselves and appreciating others. 

Margaret Sasser, fellow

“Harlem” by Langston Hughes

Grade level: Seventh grade
Text type: Literature
Lenses: Class, race and ethnicity
Themes: Individual and society, power and privilege, struggle and progress
Anti-bias domains: Justice, Action

In this poem, Langston Hughes asks what happens to a dream deferred and discusses some of the outcomes. Published during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, this poem is truly one of our American gems. Notably, a line in “Harlem” became the title of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.

The message “Harlem” conveys remains important as dreams and opportunities continue to be pushed out of reach, and only so many avenues offer recourse. It’s one of my favorite Perspectives texts because students will identity with the question “What happens to a dream deferred?” as they reflect on their own experiences and aspirations.

June Christian, teaching and learning specialist

“I Am Tired of Learning New Languages” from I Learn America

Grade level: 6-12
Text type: Multimedia
Lens: Immigration
Theme: Struggle and progress
Anti-bias domains: Identity, Diversity

“I Am Tired of Learning New Languages,” a segment from the documentary I Learn America, centers on a teenager named Sing who has lived in enough countries to learn six different languages. In this video, we watch Sing publicly read from his personal essay about struggling to learn each new language.

This is one of my favorite texts because it highlights an important difficultly faced by English language leaners, something native English speakers take for granted: the ability to communicate with English words. We get insight into Sing’s perseverance, as well as the pride he feels—and the affirmation he receives—after sharing his story in English. 

Monita Bell, writer/associate editor

“A Girl and a Word” by Laura Linn 

Grade level: Fourth grade
Text type: Informational
Lens: Ability
Themes: Individual and society, power and privilege
Anti-bias domains: Justice, Action

Originally written for the Spring 2011 issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine, “A Girl and a Word” is about a young girl named Rosa Marcellino with Down syndrome who is tired of being referred to as “mentally retarded” by her school. Rosa and her family decide to work together to ban schools from using the phrase on official records. Starting with lawmakers in Maryland, they were able to get “Rosa’s Law” signed by President Obama, which keeps “mentally retarded” off official documents.

“A Girl and a Word” is one of my favorite Perspectives texts because the action was sparked by an individual child’s feelings of not being treated with respect and dignity. The text illustrates that individuals can do something and make a difference.

Sara Wicht, senior manager of teaching and learning

Sikh Eyechart for America” by Vishavjit Singh

Grade level: K-12
Text type: Visual
Lens: Religion
Themes: Individual and society, struggle and progress
Anti-bias domains: Identity, Diversity, Justice

“Sikh Eyechart for America” stylistically resembles an optometrist’s eye chart and begins with this bold statement: “I am not what you think.” Written and published in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, cartoonist Vishavjit Singh reflects on how there is more to him than meets the eye. As a bearded and turbaned Sikh American, Singh captures the wave of hate and prejudice directed at Muslim Americans, Arabs and other minorities such as himself—who is neither Muslim nor Arab—following 9/11.

I just love “Sikh Eyechart for America.” It’s a smart and simultaneously intimate portrayal of how currents of intolerance and prejudice in U.S. society resurfaced in full force in the wake of a national tragedy and relegated members our society to the margins. Be sure to check out this interview with Singh in the latest issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine.

Maya Lindberg, writer/associate editor

What is your favorite Perspectives text? Let us know which one and why in the comments section below.

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