It’s mid-April. Schools across the country have been busy with testing. Educators have been put to the test, too—continuously this school year. “What’s the test?” you might ask. It’s being a classroom or school leader in the wake of a divisive election that spurred an uptick in bullying and harassment in schools, and contributed to heightened anxieties and concerns for several groups of students, including immigrants and Muslims.
Teaching Tolerance has been looking at how the 2016 presidential campaign and election have affected school climate on a national scale. What we’re seeing is worrisome for the well-being of children, to say the least.
Here are some of our findings:
In a March/April 2016 survey of 2,000 K‑12 educators, 43 percent reported being hesitant to teach about the election. More than half reported an increase in uncivil political discourse at their schools. And more than one-third observed an increase in anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant sentiment.
In an immediate post-election survey of 10,000 K‑12 educators, 46 percent reported being hesitant to discuss the election and post-election season with students. Eight in 10 noted heightened anxiety on the part of marginalized students, including immigrants, Muslims, African Americans and LGBT students. Four in 10 have heard derogatory language directed at students of color, Muslims, immigrants and others based on gender or sexual orientation.
Last week, Education Week shared the results of a February 2017 survey of over 830 educators, gauging “their experiences teaching about controversial topics in a time of division.” Forty-two percent of respondents noted difficulty discussing national politics with students. Sixty-six percent reported seeing a surge in uncivil political discourse at their schools since the presidential campaign season kicked off. And, also related to school climate, 30 percent of educators observed more bullying related to immigration, language, race or ethnicity.
What’s clear is this: For close to a year now, survey findings have shown that a large percentage of K-12 educators—ranging from 40 to 46 percent—are hesitant to teach or discuss a cornerstone of our civic society: national politics and elections. We’re also seeing findings that indicate school climates have taken a hit, with many schools reporting an uptick in bullying and harassment.
We know that students need specific supports this year, as well as ongoing opportunities to engage in civic education. We also know that the stakes are high and that educators are being routinely put to the test. Despite these obstacles, there are opportunities for educators and school communities to rise to the occasion.
Here are some Teaching Tolerance resources that can help, developed in response to this survey data:
These resources are all free and just a click away. We will continue to respond to feedback we hear from educators and to produce the types of resources you need to overcome the obstacles of teaching in 2017—and beyond.
Some good school equity news came out of New Mexico last week: Gov. Susana Martinez put her signature on the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights. This piece of legislation holds schools that receive federal subsidies accountable for providing respectful, equitable lunchroom experiences for all students, even those who may be short on cash or carrying a balance on their lunch account.
The new law is a direct response to reports of lunchroom practices that shame students and draw attention to their situation. Some examples include:
- forcing students who don’t have lunch money to wear a wristband;
- requiring them to work in the lunchroom, wiping tables, mopping floors, etc.;
- throwing away the hot lunch option for students who can’t pay and giving them sandwiches and fruit instead.
In every case, the students involved are stigmatized or punished for circumstances that are more than likely out of their control (family cash flow difficulties, scheduling mishaps, etc.). And, given that students widely report the cafeteria as one of the least-safe places in schools, such experiences can make students vulnerable to bullying and discourage them from eating lunch at all.
Meal debt is not only hard on the kids who come up short at lunch time; it is often heartbreaking for school staff who would rather pay for a child’s meal out of their own pockets than humiliate them in front of their peers or see them go hungry.
Across the country, many school staff are quick to say that the motives behind practices for overdue fees or insufficient funds aren’t malevolent. They note that the loss of revenue that occurs when students don’t pay for their lunches can be an accounting nightmare for districts that must make up for those lost dollars out of other revenue streams. The New Mexico law still allows schools to attempt to collect funds from students’ families, but limits the visible, in-school consequences that stigmatize students.
Lunchroom stigma isn’t only an issue for kids paying for school lunch; it can also harm those who qualify for free-and-reduced lunch. As reported by TT in the past, school lunch practices that identify free-lunch recipients (via different colored tickets or entirely separate meals or lines) can also discourage kids from eating at school for fear their low-income status will make them easy targets.
Educators who care about equity would do well to spend some time in the lunchroom. What can your school take away from this legislative first?
van der Valk is the deputy director for Teaching Tolerance
“I graduated from high school 23 years ago, and this is the same nonsense that made me try so hard to act like the ‘tough guy’ I was not,” I find myself thinking as I grade papers my seniors have written. Twenty-three years have passed and kids are still being taught the same things about behaviors dictated by binary gender norms: Boys and girls have their own lanes, and there is a concrete barrier between the two. Stay on your side.
In preparation for their senior English capstone project, a 10-minute-long speech delivered to their peers in the waning weeks of their high school experience, my seniors have been doing some reflecting about their educational experiences thus far.
Within their reflections, I notice an especially troubling trend regarding what the boys in my class have to say about becoming men. For so many of them, their reflections about what they have learned over the years bear lamentations about being forced into a box of stereotypical masculinity.
One student wrote about his performance in the school play when he was in sixth grade. He loved the process of rehearsals and the bond he formed with his cast-mates. He appreciated digging into a character, pretending to be someone else, telling a story and dressing the part. He liked using his imagination and the creative side of his personality.
Then seventh grade came, and he learned some normative “lessons”: No girl is going to want to be with a guy who acts; only gay kids act; and boys play sports. He could not fully articulate where these messages came from, expressing that the lessons were taught largely by his male peers, but also by the girls in his class, male role models, family and the media. What he was sure of is that he did not try out for the play in junior high despite having the lead in sixth grade. He did what he was told and played sports instead, becoming a good high school athlete. Still, he explained, he always found himself looking at the kids in plays with respect, admiration and a lingering question: “How would my life have been different?”
This has been a recurring theme in these senior reflections for years now. One boy keeps playing baseball despite hating it. Why? Because it is the only way his father tolerates his love for oil pastels. Another boy dumped his girlfriend because his friends had found a poem he wrote to her and ridiculed him for it. Another student who is an athlete bemoans the fact that he never told the guys in his locker room that he was uncomfortable with the way they objectified the girls they talked about. A member of the chamber choir talks about how difficult it was to connect with “more normal” boys.
As a male educator and father of two young boys, I am constantly trying to figure out ways to combat these normative ideals of masculine behavior. I have written before about my own experiences growing up in the Teaching Tolerance article “Pink.” I share stories about learning to tap dance, loving Beyoncé and arranging flowers to show students that activities are just activities. There is no reason they must be assigned to any gender.
The current generation of high school students is still deeply rooted in these beliefs. My two sons are already feeling pressures to conform to outdated gender norms. We, as educators, must constantly challenge them. We must challenge students every time they say a boy does something “like a girl.” We must question media depictions of men as only barrel-chested athletes. We must keep working to show the boys and young men we teach that they should embrace the entirety of their personalities and identities.
Knoll is a writer and English teacher at public school in New Jersey.
The Atlantic: “Learning about the alt-right, for example, is a lesson in political literacy. Teachers should not ask students to decide whether the alt-right is a good thing, but they can teach how it came about and how it has affected the political system.”
Chalkbeat: “The approach focuses on teaching groups of parents to engage their children academically, and encourages them to talk about how their students are performing as a group—not just individually.”
Disability Scoop: “[Ava Neyer, of Rancho Cordova, California,] said she hopes that the growing visibility of people with autism in pop culture will lead to more opportunities for them in the real world.”
Education Week: “While most teachers said that it’s important to talk about these topics in the classroom, 42 percent noted that it was difficult to discuss national politics with students—more so than any other controversial issue.”
The Hechinger Report: “We can’t teach safe sex if kids don’t understand their own and others’ gender identities.”
The Huffington Post: “The [transgender people] who do work in education often have to navigate a sticky web of parents, students and colleagues who have varying levels of acceptance, amid a backdrop of minimal workplace protections.”
The Huffington Post: “The time has long since come for truth, transparency and talks in every sector of society, including media, advertisement and entertainment. We can challenge each other, gain understanding and create a more just, humane, and peaceful world. That is possible and what I am hopeful will transpire as a result of the Pepsi ad.”
National Public Radio: “As President Trump moves to fulfill his campaign promise to deport millions of immigrants who are in the country illegally, they’ll most likely include Mexicans whose children were born in the U.S.. Over half a million of these kids are already in Mexico.”
The New York Times: “[The Union Public Schools district] shows what can be achieved when a public school system takes the time to invest in a culture of high expectations, recruit top-flight professionals and develop ties between schools and the community.”
The Seattle Times: “The rate of black students doing advanced coursework has nearly doubled, to 34 percent, and Federal Way now has better participation among minority and low-income children in gifted programs than any other large, diverse district in the state.”
Teen Vogue: “We really want to be tackling racial literacy for students across America. We wanted to make sure that our stories (in the textbook) were applicable to students all over America.”
The Washington Post: “‘In many cities and states across the country, lesbian and gay workers are being fired because of who they love. But, with this decision, federal law is catching up to public opinion.’”
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.
Editor’s note: This post is part five of a series on teaching and learning how to know in 2017. Find part one, a discussion of key terms from cognitive science and media literacy, here. Find part two, a classroom example of teaching about confirmation bias, here. Find part three, a window into a classroom discussion on trust and knowledge, here. Find part four, a review of how students learn how to know, here.
Teaching students to be skeptical of information sources is an essential part of teaching them how to know. Having students interrogate a source for credibility means they need to be able to determine:
- its authority (what are its sources of expertise?);
- its accuracy (do facts and reasonable premises support its conclusions?);
- and its bias (does it have a slant or is it advancing a particular perspective?).
Recognizing and decoding bias in order to unpack texts and uncover agendas are a key part of critical media literacy—with some practitioners even teaching that all sources are at least somewhat biased. But fine-tuning skepticism is not always easy or free of hurdles. In my experience, students often come to see the detection of bias in a source as a reason to disqualify that source rather than as an invitation to contextualize, analyze and interpret.
In an era of “fake news” and highly partisan media, we should be encouraged when students understand the need for skepticism. Skepticism about accuracy, however, is fundamentally different from skepticism about bias. Without discerning the difference, it can be challenging for students to grasp the expansive gray area that exists between a source so biased that it should be discredited and a source with bias that needs to be noted, understood and evaluated. Moreover, unrefined skepticism—or skepticism too widely applied—can lead students to go so far in their doubt that they believe nothing or are susceptible to extremist views.
The essential question seems to be: How do we calibrate students’ critical skepticism to lead to curiosity, open-mindedness and motivation to learn but not to lead to ease of manipulation, vulnerability to motivated reasoning or conspiracy?
For one, teachers need to be aware of and reflect on how many students get stuck in a relativist mindset, as the previous entry in this series illustrates. In this mindset, students see all sources as equally biased—equally tainted by opinion and ideology—and thus all similarly untrustworthy or, perhaps, credible. In an evaluativist mindset, students are able to separate fact from opinion and comprehend complex relationships. There’s an ability to manage bias, not necessarily using it as a disqualifier but learning to contextualize and learn with and through it. This means approaching information with skepticism but not accepting that a biased source is necessarily unreliable.
With students, it’s important to discuss the word bias itself and plumb its many meanings. Have them try to define bias without consulting a dictionary first. Are there positive and negative connotations of the word? Perhaps the word has more meanings than students might think. Is bias binary (a source is biased or not), or is it more like a spectrum or continuum? Can a source be biased but still credible? Can a source be biased but still accurate? Is it better for authors to acknowledge biases or rely on readers to be able to detect them? How can we improve our ability to recognize bias? What are some implicit biases that would benefit from more careful scrutiny?
Teachers can also invite students to consider the possibility of completely removing bias. Share the famous “They Saw a Game” study from 1954, in which Princeton and Dartmouth students watched footage of the same football game but developed different perceptions of what happened in the game. Discuss the differences between neutrality—in which no sides are taken—and objectivity—in which ideas are assessed from a common set of assumptions about truth and rationality. Is neutrality possible or even desirable? An implicit bias test is a great tool for awakening students to their own biases. Or prompt them to consider that we are capable of making rational decisions in spite of our biased brains.
Certainly, bias-as-prejudice needs to be deliberately and purposefully addressed by well-designed curricula, and we want students to recognize and work to shed the negative assumptions they make or hold about others. Students also need opportunities to understand the differences—and, at times, the overlaps—among prejudice, bias, perspective, viewpoint and slant. Not all bias is disqualifying, and bias needs to be the object of study, interrogation and critique in classrooms.
If the premise is that biases will always be present, our only option is to practice being aware of where and how we see bias. We can learn to scrutinize and evaluate it—and learn more about how we know in the process.
Gold is a seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. You can reach him on Twitter @jonnyskoal.