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 Although this experiment reflects outdated research methods and violates modern human-subjects protocols, the impact of stereotype threat comes into plain view.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. 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.
 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.)
American Library Association: The 2015 State of the America’s Libraries report, released during National Library Week, details trends like which books are most frequently challenged and the continued need for diverse literature.
The Atlantic: Misplaced conversations about what undocumented immigrants “take” from American education overlook the value these students bring to U.S. classrooms.
The Huffington Post: Libraries and library staff can have a transformative impact on the communities they serve. Here are a few inspiring examples—from Ferguson, Missouri, to Atlantic City, New Jersey.
The Huffington Post: In this video, 16-year-old actress Amandla Stenberg discusses cultural appropriation and the history of black hairstyles and hip-hop.
Mic: This must-see video, featuring a gay man who has Down syndrome, explains why the R-word diminishes the dignity and respect of people with developmental disabilities.
The New York Times: There are numerous efforts to recruit teachers of color, but retaining them once they join the education workforce requires attention too.
Richmond Times-Dispatch: Columnist Michael Paul Williams breaks down the far-reaching impact of the school-to-prison pipeline in Virginia—and, by extension, the United States at large.
Young Teachers Collective: Melissa Katz and Molly Tansey write honestly about what it means to be white teachers in a society that favors their identities, arguing that if they are going to truly serve all students—white students and students of color—confronting racism, privilege and injustice must be part of the equation.
If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and put "What We’re Reading This Week" in the subject line.
Tanenbaum and Teaching Tolerance are pleased to invite you to the fifth webinar in our free Religious Diversity in the Classroom series, Applications for High School Educators. This introductory webinar, designed for high school educators of all subjects, will offer practical suggestions for teaching about religious diversity in ways that reduce prejudice, promote mutual respect and help students prepare for college and career. High school students will soon enter a wider world where they will engage with individuals from vastly different religious and cultural backgrounds. This webinar can help you get them ready!
As a participant, you will learn how to:
- Integrate the topic of religion into your subject area by adapting what you are already teaching.
- Expand upon existing lessons about religion to address current events and students’ lived experiences.
- Implement lesson plans that help students recognize and respond to misconceptions and stereotypes about religious and nonreligious beliefs.
- Address student and parent concerns related to teaching about religion in school.
Reserve your space! Register today.
There is no prerequisite for Applications for High School Educators, but you may find it helpful to watch the first two webinars in the Religious Diversity in the Classroom series—What’s Law Got To Do With It? and Fostering a Culture of Respect—beforehand.
We hope to see you on Wednesday or Thursday!
Editor’s note: Kelly Saunders and Mark Schill teamed up to incorporate primary sources into their teaching after Saunders attended the Library of Congress’ Summer Teacher Institute. They shared their experiences in TT and the LOC’s March 2015 webinar, the third in a four-part series on using primary sources to teach about the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
As American Studies teachers who co-plan our units, we decided to assemble the 50 11th-grade students from our respective classes, many of whom didn’t know each other, to begin a conversation about school integration and civil rights. We wanted to combine our classes for another important reason: Traditionally, accelerated courses are mostly made up of white students while regular courses are composed primarily of students of color. We wanted them to discuss these issues of integration together.
For the first activity, we asked students to look at and engage with historical photos, considering who created each source and when. In the process, we encouraged students to think about where their eyes went first, a technique Kelly learned at the Library of Congress’ Summer Teacher Institute. We then asked students to go back to the photos that caught their attention or raised questions for them, and they based their inquiry in observing the document’s purpose, audience and bias. Each student then paired with a classmate who had a similar or related photo; then, they formed a quad with another student pair. Each quad drafted a headline that synthesized their collective thinking and raised three critical questions.
We separated the students into two classrooms, each with the same goal: to use primary sources to interrogate the integration of schools during the modern civil rights era. Students examined photos of James Meredith integrating the University of Mississippi and Ruby Bridges integrating William Frantz Elementary School. We chose these photographs because they are each visually striking and show multiple perspectives for each event. Students synthesized ideas about school integration, proposed new questions and took a closer look at the role of protests in bringing attention to a civil rights issue.
After reviewing and discussing each event, students analyzed a picture of a Ferguson protest taken shortly after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown and applied the knowledge and awareness they gained from our integration discussion. As with the previous activity, we asked the students to generate questions, evaluate multiple perspectives and assess the key stakeholders in the photograph. They then compared and contrasted the information about protests, change, power and privilege that emerged from the civil rights photographs.
We were excited as students’ inquiries became more refined over the course of the school year, as we added more primary sources—news articles, photographs and interviews. They continued to think about current events as they were unfolding and how these events are connected to the complicated history of our nation.
The most effective thing about using primary documents in our classrooms is that they encourage students to think critically and deeply. Primary sources demand that students ask questions—and continue asking questions even if answers are inconvenient or if the questions are unanswerable. Using primary sources helps students develop sophisticated reasoning strategies and incorporate evidence to support their ideas. When we discussed the protests in Ferguson after the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown, students quickly revisited questioning techniques with ease. This showed us that the time invested in building these skills offers transferable, sustained student learning.
We found that beginning this intense dialogue early on has been powerful—and tricky. Students have formed incredible personal connections with each other. They had to identify and discuss bias and privilege in challenging ways, starting on the first day of school. They knew they had our support, and we also worked with parents who were wondering what this was all about and why it was happening. Our conversations with parents became an unforeseen win because many of them engaged in rich and powerful conversations at home because of the work their kids were doing in our classes.
More than any other outcome, primary sources have helped us engage students in vital conversations all year long. Students understand their voices as powerful and that their opinions about critical issues are heard. As one student, Zoe, observed, “I haven’t been in a class that has been this integrated before and that talks about all different topics that have to do with race ... [W]hen you are in a class with all white kids and you are talking about the N-word, all the white kids feel like they have the right to say something but when you are talking with a diverse group that the word actually affects, you can actually break it down and figure it out and learn from each other ... and it’s easy to learn about culture and diversity when you experience it—it’s easy to understand it when you are in it.” Another student, Joel, reflected, “There are no boundaries that keep us from saying what we need to say to figure things out.”
Teaching Tolerance and the Library of Congress invite you to register for the last live webinar, Selecting Primary Sources to Examine the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in our collaborative series, Teaching the Civil Rights Act of 1964. To find out more about Kelly and Mark’s use of primary sources and view the archived webinars in the series, go here.
Saunders and Schill are high school educators in Glendale, Wisconsin.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a month during which communities and classrooms focus on making everyone aware of how prevalent sexual assault is in our society and what we can do to help stop it. Sexual assault—particularly on college campuses—has gotten a lot of media attention lately, as have several political measures meant to target the problem.
April is the perfect month for teachers to: make their students aware of how often sexual violence happens; talk about consent; share safety and prevention strategies; teach students how to identify and stand up to evidence of rape culture when they see and hear it; and learn helpful and compassionate ways to talk to survivors.
As a high school English teacher, I am talking about this in my classroom whenever the opportunity arises, and my afterschool girls’ group, Fearless Females, is using the month of April to host an awareness campaign at the school. The great thing about any of these prevention and intervention measures is that anyone can participate, including male students. In fact, it is vital that male students become involved because their understanding of the issues is essential to changing rape culture.
The following are some of the activities they have planned that can be used in any service club or adapted for classroom use.
Perhaps the most important part of any awareness campaign is education. When students discover how prevalent and underreported sexual assault is, they are often shocked. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center:
- One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives.
- One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old.
- One in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college, and 90 percent of assault victims don't report the assault.
- Rape is the most underreported crime with 63 percent of cases never reported to police.
To create an awareness campaign, students can create flyers to post around the school with these statistics on them. Students who are familiar with technology or who are in technology classes can create a public service announcement video with pictures, music and text sharing these statistics to air over the school news network or in study hall and advisory classes. On any poster or in any public service announcement, be sure to include your local sexual assault support hotline the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) hotline number (1-800-656-HOPE) for people to call if they need help processing or reporting sexual assault or abuse.
Another way educators can make a difference is by helping students learn the language of consent. Even very young children can understand that individuals have the right to exercise control over their own bodies, and that everyone needs to ask before touching another person or crossing their physical boundaries.
Finally, schools and school groups can make a public commitment to spreading awareness and ending sexual violence by adapting the National Sexual Violence Resource Center proclamation and reading it aloud at school and community events.
Once students learn how prevalent sexual assault is, they often want to help. One way to engage students is to create a culture of upstanders to intervene before, during or after a situation in which they see or hear about behaviors that promote sexual violence. If they see or hear something, they should say something and not ignore it. This includes witnessing acts of sexual assault, suspecting an assault is about to occur and hearing dialogue that promotes rape culture.
There are a lot of resources for teachers who wish to engage bystanders. A few important guidelines to emphasize with students are:
- Sexual assault is never the survivor’s fault. Never criticize or question a sexual assault survivor about their behavior leading up to or following the assault.
- Be respectful, direct and honest when intervening in a situation where you suspect a peer is in danger. Do NOT act alone. Contact the police if you do not feel safe.
- Teachers and school personnel are mandatory reporters. If a student contacts a teacher, counselor, dean or anyone else employed by the school, the adult has to report the incident to the authorities.
- Sexual assault against members of the LGBT community is severely under-acknowledged. Students need to understand that this is a problem that affects everyone and be prepared to respond appropriately.
- Local sexual assault centers often offer resources and trainings for advocates and survivors of all ages. Here is a great site to find local resources.
As teachers, one strategy we can build into our practice is encouraging students to stand up against sexually degrading dialogue (e.g., “slut shaming,” victim blaming or double standards about sexual activity). These conversations perpetuate rape culture. When we foster a culture of engaged, aware students, it increases the likelihood that someone will intervene when they hear someone objectify another student or when they hear dialogue that glorifies acts of sexual assault.
Talk With Survivors
During any awareness campaign, it is likely that some survivors will feel empowered to come forward. If you are not qualified to talk with survivors of sexual assault, have someone on hand who is, like a counselor or social worker. It is possible for victims to remain silent for many years after the initial trauma, and they might feel encouraged to come out and report the crime, especially during this month. Treat any survivors gently and respectfully, and get them the help they need, whether by referring them to a counselor or calling the hotline number with them. Be especially careful to reassure them that their experience was not their fault. For more resources about talking to survivors, visit this link.
With thoughtful planning, an awareness campaign at your school can be successful and help students find a way to understand, discuss, report and take action to end sexual violence. The earlier we have these conversations with our students, the more we will be able to foster a culture that is intolerant of sexual assault and rape culture before our students get to college.
Samsa is a freelance writer and teaches high school English in the south suburbs of Chicago.