After our writing sessions together, Desmond and I always take a few minutes to talk about the movies. He asks me for a couple suggestions (The Lost Boys, Real Genius) and gives me a few of his own (The Lego Movie, Shawshank Redemption). But on this day, for the first time ever, Desmond had an anti-suggestion:
“Whatever you do, Chris, you have to promise me you’ll never see The Notebook.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because it’s too emotional,” he replied. “It’s so emotional it hurts. I’m protecting you.”
While somewhat amusing, Desmond’s concern was also very touching, and more than that, it was illuminating. As a young man on the autism spectrum, Desmond is used to people assuming he lacks emotion and empathy, that he can’t imagine how another’s experience might feel. So-called mindblindness—the inability to anticipate or understand another’s feelings—has become a blanket term that keeps expectations low for people with autism. In a sadly ironic turn, neurotypical people assume those with autism can’t feel or express, an instance of damaging mindblindness which ensures that those on the spectrum aren’t given the opportunity to demonstrate that they do. In my experience, emotions and empathy often overwhelm students like Desmond, flooding them with a depth of feeling that only touches me at the surface.
And feeling isn’t the only thing that people with autism do very deeply. Many possess a terrific sense of humor and can be impressive satirists. When we write poetry together, Desmond is always quick to spot a good pun or unexpectedly twist a belabored cliché in a new direction. Due to the keen attention autistic writers pay to these often overlooked aspects of language, I call them linguistic materialists, and it makes them natural poets.
While someone else might use the phrase “from the bottom of my heart” to help fill out a terrible love song, the autistic writer immediately reinvigorates this tired metaphor, visualizing its profound strangeness. She might picture an elevator heart, rising and falling in relation to sincerity. Or she might conjure a large open space with a stage at its base where people can express pure or true things, a foundation of feeling.
New studies have shown that despite all the well-documented deficits faced by those with autism, there are some undeniable strengths inherent to the autistic brain. Ralph James Savarese charts how right-hemisphere dominance allows the autistic mind a direct route to metaphor. While the left-brained neurotypical is busy parsing all of language for its social import, the autistic thinker remains grounded in a sensual and even synesthetic experience of language—the roots of all poetic expression. As a professor of English and creative writing at Grinnell College, Savarese has spent years trying to steer aspiring neurotypical writers away from vague abstractions and toward the sensory underpinnings of language. But when it comes to Savarese’s own son, DJ Savarese, a gifted non-verbal autistic poet, he found that DJ’s writing began with that hard-won understanding hard-wired into each line: “My son was like some sort of poetic Midas: everything he touched turned to metaphor or metonymy.” 
For Savarese and me, writing poetry is an experience we relish. For DJ and Desmond, thinking poetically is something they do every waking hour of their lives. Unfortunately, thinking poetically doesn’t help one practically navigate the world, and so society has chosen to focus on the difficulties of autism. And while I wouldn’t want to ignore those difficulties, I think we can all agree that the benefits deserve an equal spotlight.
In an after-school writing class I used to teach, I had a very gifted spectrum writer named Ahmed. He utilized a brilliant and idiosyncratic method of punctuation, emblazoning the page with exclamations and asterisks, what others may have called “perseverative thinking.” One day I gave the students a writing exercise that involved “re-mixing” the work of a famous poet. Usually, Ahmed leapt into writing, but this day his pencil hovered over the page tentatively, his brow furrowed with worry. Finally, he raised his hand.
“Yes, Ahmed,” I said.
“Mr. Chris, can I use my imagination on this one?” he asked.
“I would never expect anything less,” I replied.
Let’s give people with autism more opportunities to demonstrate what they feel, what they imagine, what comes naturally to them through humor and the language of sensory experience. As we learn more about autism, let’s not forget to learn from those with autism. There are poets walking among you and they have much to teach.
Martin is a teaching-writer at Unrestricted Interest and the author of three collections of poetry, most recently The Falling Down Dance (Coffee House Press, 2015). He lives in Minneapolis and will be a visiting assistant professor at Carleton College in 2016.
 Ralph James Savarese, Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption, Other Press: New York (2007), 258.
Most states have hundreds of school districts; Hawai'i has only one. That’s one reason we jumped at the chance to work with the Hawai'i Department of Education to study the impact of Perspectives for a Diverse America on the state’s diverse classrooms. The resulting report was released today.
This isn’t the first evaluation we’ve done. Before we launched Perspectives, we piloted the curriculum with teachers in five sites across the country, and engaged educational researcher Kate Shuster to evaluate the effort. Her report showed that teachers saw many possibilities for the texts, tasks and strategies, and observed marked effects on student engagement, literacy development, empathy and behavior.
The Hawaii evaluation looks closely at the ways a small group of teachers used Perspectives learning plans. The resulting case studies support the findings of the first report, and tell some good stories along the way. Take a look and see how teachers used Perspectives to engage students, build literacy skills, develop classroom community and confront challenging issues—all in the same unit.
We hope you'll take a moment to read the report—and to investiagate Perspectives for yourself.
Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance.
Editor’s note: Teaching Tolerance and the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding produced a free, five-part webinar series on religious diversity in school. The complete series and accompanying resources examine how awareness of religious diversity affects global citizenship, and how teaching about religion across grade levels and subject areas can help meet important academic standards.
In the webinar Applications for High School Educators, we offered practical suggestions for teaching about religious diversity in ways that reduce prejudice, promote mutual respect and help students prepare for college and their future careers.
One concern participants expressed was that teaching about faiths other than students’ own faiths would somehow undermine their religious or nonreligious beliefs.
It’s natural to worry that inclusive teaching may be perceived as a threat to some students and families—but the benefits far outweigh the risks. Here are recommendations for maximizing those benefits.
Include Religious Perspectives to Meet Common Core Demands
According to the Common Core State Standards, students who are college and career ready actively seek to understand perspectives and cultures other than their own through reading and listening, and they are able to communicate effectively with people of varied backgrounds. We want our students to evaluate multiple points of view critically and constructively. To reach these goals, curricula need to expose students to a variety of time periods, cultures and worldviews.
The Common Core Speaking and Listening Standards emphasize preparing students to participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners. Lessons that leverage perspectives from diverse religious beliefs and practices are an effective way to meet these standards. Rich, age-appropriate lessons on religion’s role in literature, history, culture, philosophy, politics and current events prepare students for participation in an increasingly diverse workforce and enable them to negotiate worldviews and experiences different from their own.
Include Religious Diversity to Meet Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Demands
When introducing religious and nonreligious belief systems into academic content, consider developing essential questions that focus on individual student identity, the value of diversity, the interaction of religion and justice, and how beliefs can inspire action.
The Teaching Tolerance Anti-bias Framework (ABF) is one way to approach these topics. The ABF allows educators to set social emotional learning goals grounded in 20 anchor standards that can apply to a range of anti-bias, multicultural and social justice issues. The ABF supports prejudice reduction work through the Identity and Diversity domains, and collective action through the Justice and Action domains.
Identity and Diversity
Instruction aligned to the Identity and Diversity domains aims to reduce prejudice and help students—and families—open up to learning about worldviews different from their own without perceiving their beliefs to be under attack.
For example, you can align a question to Identity Standard 5: Students will recognize traits of the dominant culture, their home culture and other cultures and understand how they negotiate their own identity in multiple spaces.
A question to help students think about the world’s diverse belief systems might be: What part do culture and history play in the formation of our individual and collective identities?
This approach will help students position themselves in relation to diverse belief systems without having to rank or justify that position and without feeling their own beliefs are being threatened.
Like the Identity standards in the ABF, the Diversity standards also foster social emotional learning and prejudice reduction.
You may consider aligning a question to Diversity Standard 8: Students will respectfully express curiosity about the history and lived experiences of others and will exchange ideas and beliefs in an open-minded way.
A question to help students think about diverse belief systems using this standard might be: What are the challenges of celebrating what we have in common while also honoring our differences?
Justice and Action
The Justice and Action domains of the ABF also lend themselves well to essential questions that can drive student inquiry about diverse religious worldviews without causing students to feel threatened. These domains recognize that students need the knowledge and skills related to collective action.
The Justice standards aim to build student awareness around individual and systemic bias and injustice. For example, Justice Standard 13 states: Students will analyze the harmful impact of bias and injustice on the world, historically and today.
The Action standards work to build students’ skills and confidence to take a stand against bias and injustice even when it’s not popular or easy. One example is Action Standard 18: Students will speak up with courage and respect when they or someone else has been hurt or wronged by bias.
Communicate With Families
Strong communication between school staff and families is important in any school, and it is especially important in schools committed to anti-bias education. Set a tone of inclusion and respect through early communication and transparency. You can find suggestions for how to make sure communication is culturally sensitive—along with ways to include family and community wisdom, increase connections among families and use local resources—in the Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education guide from Teaching Tolerance.
Instruction grounded in these academic outcomes presents religious and nonreligious voices through a framework of literacy and SEL. These approaches reduce the risk of proselytization and, in turn, help reduce the fear some students and families may feel. They can also make learning about diverse belief systems a positive experience that contextualizes—rather than diminishes—their own beliefs.
Wicht is the senior manager of teaching and learning for Teaching Tolerance.
When I first started teaching, l perceived laughter as a sign that students were "distracted"…"misbehaving." I'd zero in on the laughs, demand that students "get on task." I’m sure this is a common occurrence in schools, especially ones filled with black boys and girls. I can’t tell you how many times I witnessed kids “get in trouble” for laughing—from elementary school, to middle school, to high school (I’m sure many of you received phone calls home for laughing).
But the classroom changed for me when I started co-teaching with a colleague. We told inside jokes. Giggled. Made faces. But most of all, we made the classroom a place where laughter was okay, especially for kids who looked like us.
I remember one morning, a black girl who lived in the country came late to class when everyone was working quietly on their independent work. As soon as she crossed the threshold of the door, she just started laughing uncontrollably and loudly. Red-face-tears-rolling-down-her-cheeks laughter. And after noticing that all eyes were on her, she said in her rural accent, "I don't know what it is. It's just when I come in here, I feel happy and I just can't stop smiling and I just laugh! I laugh!" And she burst back into laughter and the rest of the class did, too.
Schools are often places that children see as the antithesis of freedom. For me, the worst thing to hear as a teacher is a student asking for “free time.” Implicit in this request is that what I’m doing is oppressive. I strive to make my classroom a space where students feel so much joy that they don’t ask to go to the bathroom or leave to get water because they don’t want to miss anything…that even after they graduate and go off to high school, they come back to visit, to seek advice or simply to laugh.
I’m thinking about the Napa Valley Wine Train incident and how similar it is to the various classroom settings I’ve experienced or come across. I’m thinking about all of the black boys and girls pushed out for being “too loud” when they were simply expressing joy or friendship. I’m reminding myself that there’s nothing more beautiful than hearing black boys, black girls or any child laughing in a classroom. How lucky the powers that be should feel that marginalized people can laugh with all this ugliness in the world that otherwise would trigger a violent, more vindictive response.
Fine is a classroom teacher and writer whose work focuses on questions of power and critical thought.
We know you spent much of your summer planning, and we did too! Teaching Tolerance is excited to deliver a brand-new series of LIVE webinars—right to your laptop or tablet.
Register today for our September lineup:
Wednesday, September 16, 4:30 pm CDT
Learn how to respond to biased remarks in a timely manner, and help students speak up as well. You will learn to name different types of biased language you hear at school, identify words that have become colloquial yet are still harmful, understand intent versus impact and gain valuable skills for creating a positive school climate.
Wednesday, September 30, 4:30 pm CDT
Teaching Tolerance’s forthcoming resource, Let’s Talk!, will prepare you to facilitate conversations about race, racism and other forms of oppression. Build your capacity to safely broach uncomfortable topics with your students, and walk away with use-tomorrow strategies.
We hope you’ll join us for the live events, but if you can’t make it, register anyway! We’ll send you the link to the on-demand versions of the webinars so you can watch them at your convenience.
In the meantime, go ahead and get our October webinars on your calendar now:
- Tuesday, October 6—Responding to Hate and Bias
- Tuesday, October 13—Code of Conduct: A Guide to Responsive Discipline
Look for more details in the near future. See you online!