Posts Tagged ‘race’
I could write hundreds of posts about what it means to be a feminist and why feminism is important. For the purpose of this series, consider yourself a feminist if you believe that the economic, social, and political choices women make should not be unduly influenced by existing gender norms. (Not convinced gender matters? Check out this amazing visualization from the New York Times called Why Is Her Paycheck Smaller? for more information about gender-based wage gaps across industries or check out the research links below). My goal is to write one post about this subject per week.
Text, schema, and stereotypes, oh my!
The diversity of characters and social situations in children’s literature has increased over time. Many books tackle issues of diversity in the plot. Other stories feature diverse characters in plots that are not about prejudice. I’ve realized reading these books to students and expecting them to soak up the social norms is not enough. Even in pre-school and Kindergarten, children have ideas about gender, race, class, language, ethnicity, and other things. In this article, I refer to these ideas as schema. Schema are the mental structures people use to organize information they have about the world and create a framework for processing future experiences. A child’s gender schema is the mental framework they use understand how gender works in the world around them – they assign character traits, social position, and other values to people based on this schema.
I see gender and race schemata in action everyday. When I co-taught a 2nd grade class, I had a calm, intellectual discussion with a diverse group of six students about race, language, and gender. A biography of Jackie Robinson sparked the conversation – one of the students asked “Ok….so….these people are white and we are white…..Are you black? What about ______? She’s from Mexico – what is she?”. Without answering, I turned and asked the other students “what do you think?”. From there, the students talked about how they think race changes over time and there are more races than white and black. I told them that I self-identify as a black person. One student asked “why do we have the military if all they do is kill people?”. The other students gave him their ideas and one student started talking about how her mom is in the military. From there, students discussed how gender works in the military (girls do x, boys do x). The conversation could have continued forever. My role in the conversation was asking students to explain their thinking and asking other students to respond. After this experience, I realized no students are blank slates, and that all information we give them about social norms is compared with the schemata they already have.
Yesterday, I ran across research that helped me understand my experiences. In a paper titled Gender Schema and Prejudicial Recall: How Children Misremember, Fabricate, and Distort Gendered Picture Book Information, Frawley writes about the results of a study about how a child’s gender schema influence their reading and retelling of storybooks. Here is a brief summary of the methods and findings:
Elementary school children were presented two Caldecott Award-winning picture books and asked to retell the stories and answer criterion-specific questions related to genderoconsistent/inconsistent information contained in each story. Responses were qualitatively examined and revealed patterns of spurious recall. Children tended to misremember or distort gender-inconsistent story information. Story retellings included wrongful stereotyped interpretation of main character(s) behaviors and emotions. Follow-up interview questions revealed rationales for any misremembrance and generated responses consistent with gender bias.
The researchers noticed children’s scheme has extraordinary power over their ability to recall stories. For example, when first and fourth graders retold Mirette on the Hire Wire, they were more likely to say that the character Bellini (male) did not want to take Mirette (female) on the high wire because of Mirette’s fear. In the story, Bellini has the fear and Mirette persuades him to go on the high wire.
What does this mean for teachers? Not only do teachers have to give students the opportunity to consume literature that gives students access to marginalized voices, and promotes positive norms, they have to teach children to be critical of themselves and the texts. This looks different at all levels but starts with us: we should preview the literature our children read both through our adult lens and their child lens. Then, we need to give students authentic opportunities to discuss these issues with their peers. Our goal is to provide them with experiences that challenge students’ existing schemata.
- I ask for predictions. If I hear a prediction that seems to be based on gender/race/class/etc schema, I ask the student to explain their thinking and invite other students to agree or disagree (verbally or with hand signals). Even if the conversation doesn’t melt away all of the stereotypes, I know what schema my students might use, and can plan appropriate educational experiences.
- Missing narratives: I tell my students history is a story and try to make them aware of marginalized voices using authentic narratives, historical documents, and photographs. Howard Zinn has a history book series called A Young People’s History of the United States that tells history through the perspective of women, indigenous peoples, enslaved peoples, and other marginalized voices (his A People’s History of the United States is a must read). Have students write stories, journal entries, magazines, and newspaper articles from a traditionally marginalized perspective.
How are you a teacher-feminist? Have you noticed the impact of gender, race, and other social schemata in your classroom?
“How would factors such as your background, work and life experiences, special interests, culture, socioeconomic status, race, or ethnicity contribute to the diversity of the entering class, and hence to the experience of your classmates? Please describe these factors and their relevance (700 characters maximum)”. This was the topic of the second essay for my teacher ed program application. The first essay I wrote explained all of my teaching, academic, travel, extra-curricular, and work experiences in detail. In this essay, I had to take a page to describe why my socioeconomic status (SES), blackness, and cultural elements should matter to the university.
I completed this part of the application last – I didn’t want to sound like a race radical/separatist or an “Uncle Tom”. How could I explain how my views on my SES and blackness – views that have developed over the 22 years of my existence – in the space of a page? Why does diversity matter in teacher ed programs (or education institutions in general)? Should I talk about race at all? Has my blackness become a commodity (see commodity fetishism)?
The issue of race commodification in education has bothered me for some time. Elite institutions that lack diversity provide me with financial incentives to endure the environment and create learning experiences for students. On one hand, this is necessary. In most of my classes (from politics and economics to literature and science), I was the only African-American student. These classes discussed many issues pertaining to race, gender, and SES. My input provided students with a POV they had never heard before. On the other hand, am I a human zoo? Do the responsibilities/burdens of being the lone black voice in the room undermine my sense of self?
Here is what I wrote:
As a learning lab for the next generation of teachers, ____ must create an environment where aspiring teachers are aware of issues regarding race and socioeconomic standing. The ultimate goal of teachers will be to create learning environments that are tolerant of many cultures and identities. The ___ classroom must be populated with students who are not afraid to discuss their own identities and explore different cultures. I believe that I would be a discussion leader in the classroom. I know how to create a learning environment where people are not afraid to explore these challenging issues. As an African-American educated in environments that lack diversity, I have learned how to make my diversity a positive learning experience for my peers and myself.
The path of my intellectual development is intertwined with the development of my racial identity. When I was a student in elementary school, I did not consider myself to be a black child. I grew up in a predominately white middle-class suburb. Although African-American students comprised 20% of my elementary and middle schools, I was cloistered from those students. I sat in the front of the classroom and took accelerated classes. I noticed that most African-American students populated special education courses or sat in the back of the classroom. As I grew older, my racial consciousness increased. During middle school, I noticed that my race had a tangible impact on my relationships with teachers and other students. My black peers accused me of “acting white”. They were hostile toward me. My white peers never explicitly ridiculed my “blackness” but their confusion about my identity was implied by their actions. They questioned my academic interests and joked my bad 7th grade basketball tryout. The influence that my race had on my peer relationships was not as troubling as the effect it had on my relationships with teachers. Before teachers knew my name or my level of academic achievement, I was grouped with low-performing students in the back of the classroom and given information about remedial classes. When my teachers realized that I excelled in academics, they paraded my achievements in front of other students of color, as if to say “Candace is black, well-mannered, and talented…Why can’t you measure up?”.
In the 9th grade, I decided to find a social and academic environment that was more sensitive to diversity. I transferred into an all-girls international boarding school. In many ways, the environment was less diverse than public school. Even though most of the student body came from foreign countries and spoke multiple languages, I found that I was still the only black person in the classroom, and one of few people struggling to pay tuition. This environment did not create feelings of isolation because students treated socioeconomic and cultural differences as learning experiences rather than barriers. In the classroom, when we discussed literature, politics, history, or economics, my peers made it clear that they wanted to understand my point of view on issues of race. Their questions led me to explore areas of my identity that I had not explored before. I read academic research about race, politics, and economics; tried to analyze history from a new perspective that questioned popular ideas about race; and worked to create an environment where my peers and I could challenge each other’s ideas about race and class without becoming defensive or resorting to personal attacks.
When I started college, I found that most of my peers had never conversed with a person of color, did not think that race was an issue worthy of discussion or study, or were defensive about the topic. Instead of remaining passive about issues of race and dismissing its importance in my life, I decided to become a discussion leader. When people ask me questions about my racial identity, I take the time to answer their questions and ask them questions about their experiences. I continue to research the topic. If I feel like my peers are being insensitive or using hate speech, I am not afraid to ask questions about their comments, and explain my stance. I believe that my ability to integrate this kind of discussion into classroom activities will create a positive experience for my peers.
What are your thoughts on these issues? Why does diversity matter in teacher ed programs?