Recently, Phoenix*, a middle school student I’ve worked with for three years, said, “Miss, I hate when people are fake.”
I asked Phoenix to define what they meant by this, and they said, “You know, when they act one way when they’re with one group of people and another way when it’s just you and them.”
Phoenix was referring to a longtime friend. They described the ways in which the friend acted at the afterschool program where I work, compared to how this friend acted when they were hanging out in the neighborhood, just the two of them.
“Do you act the same way in class as you do in our program?” I asked.
Phoenix shook their head.
I asked why that was, and Phoenix said there were different expectations in class, compared to in the afterschool program. At the program—a drop-in center—youth have a fair amount of freedom to make choices about what they want to do. In class, Phoenix articulated, they were expected to learn specific things so they could pass the end-of-year tests.
I nodded. “Do you act the same around all your groups of friends?”
Phoenix shook their head again.
The complicated thing about growing up, I said to Phoenix, is that people try on different personalities. They try and figure out who they are—separate from their families, separate perhaps from friends they’ve had forever and maybe even separate from the place they grow up. Usually, I said, it’s not even that people aren’t being true to themselves—it’s that they’re trying to figure out which parts of themselves fit best.
Since being authentic with the youth I work with is so critical to building trust with them, I spoke about my own experience. I talked about how, when I was in high school, most of my school friends listened to rap, and so did I. And most of my non-school friends listened to late ’90s alt-rock, and so did I. This was the influence of two different groups, and I enjoyed both types of music (and others). Neither situation was me “posing” or being fake. It was just different aspects of me.
I pointed out to Phoenix how different aspects of me are noticeable when I facilitate a permaculture activity—the activity, in fact, we were engaged in while having this conversation—compared to when I facilitate a game for the kindergarteners and first-graders. In permaculture, the side of me that is incredibly interested in science and the environment comes out. When I facilitate games with the younger children, the side of me that’s goofier and will collapse to the floor to act like a dead worm or a frog or a duck comes out.
“Do you think either of those is me being fake?” I asked.
Phoenix shook their head. “I guess sometimes it’s just hard to tell when I can trust someone if they act one way when we’re alone and another way when we’re with the group,” they said.
I affirmed this strongly and reminded Phoenix of something we’d covered in an empowerment class two years earlier: If someone makes you feel bad about yourself or demeans you, they’re doing it to build themselves up and it’s not something you have to—or should—tolerate.
“And sometimes,” I said, “friends grow apart. That hurts a lot. And sometimes it’s forever and sometimes it’s not, and it’s nearly impossible to tell at the time which way things will eventually turn out. But if you choose to let a friendship go, it’s also important to remember that person is still human—still has faults, still has positive qualities. When we forget people’s humanity, that’s when we become our worst selves.”
*Student’s name has been changed. This student’s preferred pronoun is their/they.
Clift provides informal education to youth in Denver, Colorado, and volunteers with several organizations that work on food justice issues.
If you asked young children to draw a picture of a hero, what do you think their drawings would depict? Would their drawings suggest that heroes wear armor and carry weapons? Would their figures have fisted hands ready to fight? Such images in children’s drawings would not be a surprise, as those are the kinds of heroes they see in movies, video games and toys.
But not all heroes fight with fists and swords; this is a message worth sending to young children. Left unchallenged, the image of a hero as a warrior or fighter is likely to stay with them throughout their childhood years. A poll conducted by the Barron Prize for Young Heroes team several years ago indicated that U.S. teenagers recognized Superman and Spiderman as heroes more often than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln. This same poll suggested that young people tend to confuse celebrity—even imaginary celebrity—with real-life sacrifice and leadership when it comes to identifying heroes.
Carefully selected books can be used to give young children a broader view of what constitutes a hero. My favorite in the “hero category” is Swimmy by Leo Lionni. Some teachers think of Swimmy as a science book for young children. Others use it to introduce or reinforce the ideas of teamwork and cooperation. I like to think of Swimmy as a hero book for young children.
Swimmy, the main character in the story, is a small fish who never engages in a fight, yet he becomes a real hero to other small fish in the sea. His “weapon”—or power source—is an idea that he introduces to the group. Swimmy’s idea is to have the little fish swim together in formation to present an image of being the biggest fish in the sea. This idea—along with teamwork and cooperation—is what saves the smaller fish from being eaten by the bigger fish.
The etymology of the word hero reveals meanings like “protector” and “defender,” and that’s exactly what Swimmy is for the other small fish. In trying to keep others safe, Swimmy works for a cause greater than himself; he works to help others in need. Some might wonder if young children can understand this concept, as we tend to think of them as being egocentric. But even children at self-centered stages of development can be sensitive to the needs of others. As reported by the Greater Good Science Center, even very young children have altruistic tendencies—and these tendencies can be promoted.
Use these steps to broaden young children’s understanding of Swimmy and what it means to be a hero.
- Before reading the story, have the children draw pictures of heroes. Give them an opportunity to talk about their pictures.
- Introduce the book by telling the children that you’re going to read a story about another kind of hero. Ask them to listen carefully to find out why Swimmy is a hero.
- Read the story, and then ask the children to talk about what Swimmy did that helped others.
- Also ask, “Was Swimmy brave? What did he do that showed he was brave?”
- Continue the discussion by asking the children to complete this sentence: “A hero is someone who …” If they say something like “kills the bad guys,” you can ask if Swimmy had to kill anyone to protect the little fish. Help the children understand that a hero is someone who helps others when they need it. Explain that some people in their own communities are heroes. Give some examples, such as people working for the environment or people helping those who are homeless. Invite the children to give some additional examples.
- Finally, ask the children, “Could you be a hero?” Reinforce the idea that a hero is someone who helps others who need it. Use puppets or cut-outs to narrate a story about someone telling a bully to stop hurting someone else.
- Ask the children to think of something they can do to help others in their homes, communities or school, and then have them draw pictures of themselves engaged in that activity.
To emphasize the idea that not all heroes fight, you may also wish to share some other carefully chosen books with children. Discussing what makes a hero versus a superhero can help children identify character traits associated with heroic behaviors. According to Education Oasis, some universally accepted hero-related character traits include personal courage, caring for others, perseverance, resourcefulness, a belief in oneself, optimism and being an inspiration to others. Examples of children’s books reflecting one or more of these traits include the following:
- 26 BIG Things Small Hands Do by Coleen Paratore, illustrated by Mike Reed
- A Bus Called Heaven by Bob Graham
- Bullies Never Win by Margery Cuyler, illustrated by Arthur Howard
- Harvesting Hope: The Story of César Chávez by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Yuyi Morales
- Mahavira: The Hero of Nonviolence by Manoj Jain, illustrated by Demi
- Nobody Knew What to Do: A Story About Bullying by Becky Ray McCain, illustrated by Todd Leonardo
- Wings by Christopher Myers
Wilson is an educational consultant and curriculum writer.
The Atlantic: "She took a personal interest in all the kids. That’s the one thing we noticed about her and the reason we stayed there. Her thing was always the kids. She listened to them."
The Atlantic: "To be a black student in America’s public schools is to know stunning discrimination from an early age. To be a transgender or gender non-conforming student is to face staggering bias and intolerance from peers and teachers."
Capital City Free Press: "As a starting point, parents should be reminded that teaching about religions in public schools – as contrasted with religious indoctrination – is not only constitutional, but also necessary if students are to be properly educated about history, literature, art, music and other subjects. Such teaching must be objective, academic and age appropriate."
GLAAD: "As part of Transgender Awareness Week, GLAAD created a photo essay to highlight the more subtle forms of oppression trans people experience - often called micro aggressions."
National Public Radio: "Ask yourself this question: Were you aware of inequality growing up? Your answer may depend in part on where you went to high school. Students at racially diverse schools, particularly black and Hispanic students, are more tuned in to injustice than students going to school mostly with kids that look like them."
PBS Newshour: "Microaggressions really are reflections of world views of inclusion, exclusion, superiority, inferiority, and they come out in ways that are outside the level of conscious awareness of an individual."
This Is Africa: "Haben Girma was born deaf-blind but she had access to opportunities afforded by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Girma is Harvard Law School’s first deaf-blind graduate and her academic achievements have catapulted her advocacy career, fighting for the rights of people with disabilities."
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.
“Eww!” Jenny shrieks when she looks at the photo. “I hate that!”
“Why?” I ask.
“You can see the muscles and my legs look like Hulk legs. Delete it.”
My ears perk up immediately. As a female distance runner (with admittedly big, muscular thighs that I have learned to love), I’m pretty sensitive to these comments. When adults, especially men, make them, I tend to engage in a conversation or get onto my soapbox. I can argue with grown-ups about feminism, athletics and the body. I can bring up the male gaze, use pathos and even chastise about how a woman’s body, in all its muscular or curvy glory, does not have to be about aesthetics but athletics.
But Jenny is not an adult. She’s a 15-year-old girl in my yearbook class. She is sweet and funny, and her gangly body is mostly built on smoothies, Taco Bell’s Mexican Pizzas and softball. It breaks my heart a little when I hear her say these things about herself. She shouldn’t be worried that her legs have muscle. She should celebrate it—but we are still in a world where everything around her tells her to be “feminine” and that that means “thin.”
“Jenny,” I say quickly and without thinking, “your legs can have cellulite, or they can have muscle. I’ve had both. Trust me: Muscle is better.”
She laughs, nods her head and turns back to the picture.
The next night, the moment haunts me. Teachers spend a lot of time reflecting: What can I do better? How can I make that lesson more interesting? How can I give my kids more agency?
That evening’s question though: Had I done more harm than good to Jenny’s body image—and those of my other female students?
In retrospect, I hate the answer that I gave. Cellulite is not bad. I certainly have it all over. Most women have it. The last thing I want her to think is that she needs to be this super-fit-cellulite-free being that does not exist.
Fitness is good, health is good, but there is always a good middle ground we should all seek. All I want for her and for all my students is to be healthy, do what they love, know they are beautiful and say, “Screw you” to anyone who doesn’t also believe that.
The problem is: I don’t even know how to do that myself. I still measure and weigh myself every morning, despite my better judgment. While I try my best to encourage other women to love their bodies as they are, I often beat up on my own. I judge my runs when I do not meet my goal pace. I get angry if I can’t do as many reps as I want. I make myself feel guilty when I eat too much ice cream and sprint for miles after to “make up for it,” instead of figuring out how to eat healthier the next day.
This is not behavior I am proud of.
So how do I teach kids to love their bodies when I am still barely learning to love my own? If I lack the balance between fitness-extremist and unhealthy in my own mind, how the heck am I going to help my students achieve this balance?
I have often found that the best way to give my students anything is to be honest with them. I try my best to tell them about my experiences, to be vulnerable when I struggle, to show them I am open to learning from them.
So maybe that’s the next step of the process. The next time one of my students brings up her body, I will listen. I’ll honestly tell her about the struggles I have with my own body. I will try to give her as much validation as I would want someone to give me—that she is beautiful and loved. Hopefully, being open about what I want to give myself will be what I need to give my students.
Torres is a seventh- and ninth-grade English teacher in Honolulu, Hawaii.
In “Rewriting History—for the Better,” a recent story for Teaching Tolerance magazine, writer Dave Constantin states, “American Indians have been largely erased from mainstream social studies curricula. A few states are leading the way toward making history instruction more inclusive—and more accurate.” This trend prompted me to reach out to Sarah Shear, an assistant professor at Penn State University-Altoona. Her research focuses on the representation of indigenous peoples in social studies standards and education.
Can you tell me about your background and how you became interested in indigenous studies?
I am often asked this, particularly because I'm not indigenous. Going to school in Connecticut, I grew up between the Mohegan Nation and the Mashantucket Pequot Nation. I was interested in their histories. I also I remember not learning about those cultures in school. This transformed into more complex thinking about American history, colonialism and the power of imperialism as I grew older. Now, I've transitioned into thinking about how young people learn about indigenous cultures. I’m interested in how our formal curriculum, standards and textbooks make opportunities while also erasing much of what we should talk about when we learn about indigenous peoples.
You've recently published a paper that examines the way that state standards represent indigenous peoples. Can you summarize your findings?
I worked with colleagues at the University of Missouri to examine state standards from 2011 to 2013. We found a tremendous decline in coverage of indigenous peoples and perspectives after the year 1900. About 87 percent of the standards that specifically included indigenous peoples and cultures were pre-1900. That erases indigenous peoples from current history.
That's incredibly problematic because indigenous peoples are across the country and the world right now. They are culturally prosperous, revitalizing languages, continuing efforts for sovereignty and treaty rights, and making big strides economically and environmentally. If we go strictly by the standards, students will not learn any of these things.
The standards present indigenous peoples as outside of the Euro-American experience—in conflict with the development of the United States. Indigenous peoples are generally pitted against colonialists as the enemy. This starts out as a very simplistic and problematic story of cooperation with the coming of the Mayflower and the Thanksgiving story. Then that cooperation turns into conflict.
That is the narrative that's presented throughout the standards leading up to the 1900s. After you get to the Louisiana Purchase, the Homestead Act, Westward Expansion and the reservation system, everything is settled and gone. This story implies that indigenous peoples were "dealt with” as they moved to their reservations. The standards (Washington excepted) do not use the word genocide regarding indigenous peoples. Some states mention events like the Trail of Tears, the Navajo Long Walk, Wounded Knee and Sand Creek. But these are not presented as genocide. The standards do not give students a complex opportunity to learn about settler colonialism or the lasting impact on indigenous peoples.
However, there is great work coming out of Montana and Washington to address these gaps. We’re at a time where it’s possible to change.
Why do you think it's important for all students in all states to have access to this history?
It's really important to include indigenous peoples in every aspect of our teaching and curriculum. We should present materials to students across the country no matter where they live to learn about the rich, complex histories and cultures of indigenous peoples. We should also learn about their contributions and fights for sovereignty and treaty rights and broader contributions to the United States. I’m often asked the question, "Did Native Americans ever live here in [insert state]?” That’s where we start. It’s really important that the entire nation have this conversation.
There was not a blank map when the Europeans came. There were hundreds of complex societies here from coast to coast, north and south. Students need to understand the impact that colonialism had historically and in the present. It's not just Washington, Oklahoma, Florida or Alaska. It's everywhere.
What should teachers do to become activists on this issue so they can, themselves, advocate for reform of curricula and state standards?
Silences are repressive. Teachers should talk about where we see the silences in our curriculum. Where are the voices that are left out? We all have to unlearn what we were taught. That’s especially true this month with Thanksgiving. I think it's really important that teachers ask themselves, "What is the standard?" or "What is this textbook promoting me to teach?" They should ask, “Is there something that's missing? Is there a voice missing? Is there something in this material that is problematic?” These are difficult conversations to engage because you're talking about the foundation of the American system, which is in colonialism.
I ask that teachers with questions to contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org and @SBShear) … to learn to create meaningful learning experiences for our students that do not recycle the problematic lessons that we learned as children. These conversations are really important.
There’s some debate about how we talk about indigenous peoples. Why do you choose the language you use?
[T]here is not a consensus on which terms to use or not use. This is complicated further with Europeanized names. For example, we say Navajo instead of saying Dine, the traditional name, or Sioux instead of Lakota or Iroquois instead of Haudenosaunee.
We should be conscious about the names that we use. I use the term indigenous when I'm talking about the larger group of nations and peoples and cultures that were here before the arrival of the Europeans. That comes from my reading of the work of two prominent indigenous scholars: Cornel Pewewardy and Linda Tuhiwai Smith. They say the term indigenous is both positive and troubling. Like Native American, it is a very broad way of incorporating hundreds of very unique nations and cultures. To me, the term indigenous gives credence to the current struggle. It acknowledges that these cultures and peoples were here before the Europeans came.
Terms like Indian are always linked to the conversation about Columbus—also an important conversation. We can talk about these terms in productive ways, especially when we see a debate arising over sports mascots. I encourage teachers to talk with students about why we use certain names. It’s a great learning opportunity.
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Shuster is an independent education researcher and evaluator who has worked on multiple studies assessing curricular and co-curricular reforms.