So where do you think your school’s position is right now? Where might you be in Sameness or Acceptance stages and where have you truly moved into Valuing all students? Every school is at different points along the continuum depending upon the subject matter, policy or practice and so forth. We all slide back and forth – creating new habits and behaviors and then sliding back into more familiar patterns. Stay aware that good intentions are not enough. Being truly inclusive requires honesty, practice and regular reflection.
Valuing is where we share the center. We make decisions together. Everybody is at the table. It is not just my way and we’ll let in some of your way. No, now it’s our way. And to make it our way, some of the time, those Traditional Insiders who used to occupy the center are going to have to change, too.
Many schools used to be run on a Sameness model. An example of this is when schools would teach students with a strong bias toward the lecture format (the teacher talks and the students listen) with a heavy emphasis on verbal and math skills.
Moving to Acceptance, in some classrooms a teacher would occasionally introduce an art project or a small group discussion. In this way some students who didn’t fit well into the Sameness Model were able to get an “A” in one area such as art or music but D’s and C’s in other traditional subject areas which were still taught in a lecture format emphasizing logic and math skills.
Now, thankfully, in recent years, teachers have been trained in teaching to different learning styles and types of intelligences. The classroom has expanded from trying to fit all students into one mold to welcoming and valuing students’ kinesthetic, aural and visual ways of learning as well as their multiple intelligences.
Notice the teachers did not have to lower standards to make the classroom more inclusive. We have the same high standards in these schools but they are open to more than one way to reach those high standards. Students still need to make the grade, but now there is more than one way of preparing students to get there.
In true valuing, students who were previously left behind don’t have to change to “fit in”. Instead, the classroom changes to fit the students when each student is valued for his or her gifts and unique ways of scholarship.
The interesting thing is that everyone benefits when an institution moves into true valuing. In true valuing, everyone gets to express more of himself or herself in the classroom whether it’s in terms of their type of smarts, their learning and communication styles, their ethnic background as well as any other part of their diverse and unique background.
In a school that is moving toward true Valuing, all the students are having more fun and, therefore, are feeling a sense of belonging in the classroom. More learning goes on for everyone.
Tolerance or Acceptance is where you may even like individual people in a group but you are still wary of or uncomfortable about the group as a whole. You may hear people suggest, “Hey, he or she brings some good energy, but let’s not have too many of them.” It’s as of people are thinking, “We will let in a few exceptions and we’ll decide how and when they get in. We’re still in control.”
For instance, I walked into a drug store and one aisle was marked “Hair Products”, but then up against the wall it said, “Ethnic Hair Products.” This display sent a subtle message. Some people are accepted – we let them in the store – but they are not in the main aisle. They are relegated to the side aisles; they are not mainstream.
The real products, that is the “real” people are the center of the universe. They are the sun. The groups that are being tolerated are satellites or distant planets.
I’ve seen this Acceptance concept displayed in textbooks. More inclusive history books will contain, for example, a chapter entitled “Settlers to the West” and then it will have a special sidebar that says, “Black Settlers.”
Wait a minute! Aren’t they all the settlers? Now, again, the good intention can be to include, but these textbooks are still keeping “Black Settlers” separate, not really part of the mainstream.
It’s similar to ethnic groups who have been Traditional Outsiders being given their special celebration months. When I was going to school, a lot of groups were absent from the curriculum. They weren’t even mentioned. So we can all appreciate the progressive that celebration months connote.
I am a professional storyteller and it’s a joke among those of us who provide school assemblies to talk about “our month” – be it Black, Latino, Women and so on. True valuing would mean the history and culture of each group is embedded throughout the curriculum all year long.
At the Acceptance stage, the “accepted” groups are still not part of the center. And the people in the center hold the ultimate power to define identities and make decisions for themselves plus others.
But truly integrating different groups history, achievements, communication and learning styles and so on is easier said than done. Often staffs are asked to teach things they never learned. In their over busy, demanding lives now they have to go back, study and create new lesson plans. Departments have to fit in tons of meetings to revamp the syllabus, coordinate prerequisites and fit the new classes into common core standards and measurements. Change is not easy even when it’s so desperately needed.
But for those who have done it they will tell you it was worth it to move to true valuing because students who feel seen, heard and valued do better in schools.
NEXT WEEK: How do I know if my school is truly valuing differences?
As we move into August, schools will be readying for the arrival of their students. While there’s still a little time and energy to reflect before the whirlwind begins, consider how you would rate your school on a continuum from promoting sameness to settling for acceptance to truly valuing of differences.
I saw a great cartoon once that perfectly illustrated the concept of ethnocentrism or subtly promoting sameness. It pictured a 50-ish, balding, plump man sitting behind a desk.
Over his head was a sign that read “Personnel”. He was the man who did the hiring for his workplace.
Sitting across from this Personnel man was the exact same plump, balding, 50-ish man. The Personnel man was leaning across his desk saying to this duplicate man who had come to apply for a job, “You are exactly the kind of person we’re looking for.”
That’s ethnocentrism: I relate to people who look like me, sound like me and act like me. Of course, people never promote sameness in so many words. They are more likely to talk about whether a student is a “good fit”.
When I was growing up there was a program in one of the white neighborhoods to bus some Black students in to spend time in this upper middle class neighborhood. Notice this wasn’t an exchange. The white kids didn’t go into the black neighborhoods. It’s astounding to think of it now, but I believe the hidden agenda was: we will show ‘them’ how we live and they will want to be like us and then ‘they’ will change.
Ethnocentrism has a patronizing edge to it. It says, “We will let you in, but don’t worry. In awhile, we will have you in shape – you will be just like us.”
When people say, “I treat everyone the same” or “I don’t see differences”, they mean well. They are trying to express that they do their best to treat everyone with respect. But, all of us need to be on the alert for when this good intention can unwittingly spill into treating someone as “less than” if they are different in any way.
This is never about lowering standards. We always strive for the same high quality education and respectful behaviors. We just need to open our minds to the idea that there is more than “my way” to those high standards.
NEXT WEEK: Is my school an ACCEPTING school that merely TOLERATES differences?
For example, I’ve seen schools hold International Festivals that have the flavor of “look at these unusual foreign people.” When groups of people are seen as exotic or patronizingly precious that are no longer “real” people.
Plus, the people of the world are not only international. They are here. They are Americans, Americans with a wide array of viewpoints and desires. They are people to recognize, appreciate, respectfully disagree with, live with, love with, work with and study with on a day-to-day basis, not just once a year.
Without intending to, we can keep a group of people at arm’s length while, at the same time, giving ourselves the false feeling that we are being inclusive.
We want to remember that as recent as the 1950s, people from other parts of the world as well as African and Native Americans were displayed in the U.S. as if animals in a zoo. The displays were often part of a continuum that ranked groups from apes to real people i.e. Europeans. Without meaning to, our study of other cultures can have a tinge of the same feeling.
It takes more time, thought and true connections with people with whom we’ve had less experience to be able to honor the complexity and variety within other cultures as well as understand our own cultural backgrounds with their unique histories, oddities and perspectives.
We think of “culture” pretty easily when we think of people’s ethnic backgrounds. No matter how disguised, ignored or blended through marriage and time, the fact remains our ethnic backgrounds can give us a great deal of strength, pride and identity.
But, as teachers, we want to expand the definition of culture beyond ethnic backgrounds to include other dimensions of diversity such as geography, gender, language, physical abilities, religious and educational background and so on.
Some of you may have experienced these other categories of culture if, for example, your family changed from living a military life to a civilian life. That’s a real culture shock for many. Or, perhaps, some of you moved to go to school from one part of this country to another. If you moved from rural Omaha to New York City, for example, your whole relationship to time and space could change.
In New York City everything moves faster. You find yourself looking up more rather than looking out onto wide-open spaces. Each region of the country has a distinct feel and set of expectations and, therefore, could be thought of as a “culture”.
So each one of us, no matter the colors of skin before us, are teaching in multicultural classrooms. Some of the challenges our students face are actually problems in cultural interpretation. Our way of teaching – visually, kinetically, aurally, lecture-style and so on – and our references and examples, for instance, just don’t translate for some of our students.
Cultural competence demands that each of us be aware of our own cultural conditioning so that we can evaluate if our classroom is heavily weighted in one cultural style or another. Being an inclusive classroom takes openness plus a lot of thought and flexibility to try different teaching strategies until every child is reached.
One way to identify your prejudices is to think of any group with which you identify – city dweller, country, suburbanite, athlete, theater or certain type of music lover, ethnic group, Republican, Democrat and so on. Then, identify any groups viewed as different from or in actual opposition to your group.
School is a great laboratory for this. The cliques even have names: The jocks, the theater kids, the dropouts, the brainiacs, the popular kids,
Trust me, if any group is seen as opposite or very different from your group, you will have been given some misinformation about them. Catholics have been given misinformation about Protestants and Protestants misinformation about Catholics. Young misunderstand old and old misunderstand young. Smokers think nasty thoughts about non-smokers and non-smokers say negative things about smokers.
What jokes do people tell about a neighboring state to yours? If you live in Minnesota, you know the Wisconsin jokes, but you don’t necessarily know what they say in Montana about people who live in Idaho. It’s almost like sibling rivalry. When you were growing up, you might have mocked your brother or sister because they were in close proximity and you’re were defining yourself against them.
Groups define themselves in part by who they are not. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just when we start to rank who’s cool (us) and who’s not (them) that we get in trouble.
Our prejudices can be endless and take consistent awareness to weed them out.
Because teachers are such thoughtful people who have chosen a profession precisely because they do care, it’s easy to believe we don’t have any prejudices.
Prejudice and discrimination are diseases of the mind and heart. When our thinking becomes faulty, it’s easy to draw assumptions about others that simply aren’t true. When you are not feeling good about yourself, when your own heart is troubled, you can project your negative feelings on other individuals or groups of people.
What happens in your mind and your feelings can make your and other people’s lives easier or harder.
It’s summer break. Finally, we’re away from the daily demands of our students. It’s a great time to reflect: what groups am I the most uncomfortable with or know the least about? What assumptions did I receive from my family, my ethnic and income group and this society that label others as “less than”? How can I dispute these stereotypes and learn more about and experience the complexity of other individuals and cultures?
What happens in your mind and your feelings can make your classroom, and this world, a kinder place.
I never gave it a thought. The Pledge of Allegiance was just how we started each day in our grammar school classrooms. First we faced the crucifix at the front of the room and said our prayers, then we quarter-turned to the flag. The whole room filled with the smell of our newly-sharpened pencils laid to rest in long grooves at the top of our desks. That was how everyday started.
We had our ritual beginning – pencil sharpening, prayers and the Pledge of Allegiance.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized the Pledge of Allegiance wasn’t a mindless activity for many. Americans of color: Japanese-Americans, Latino Americans, African Americans, members of First Nations and others have told me that when the Pledge of Allegiance was recited in their classrooms they stood, but never put their hands to their hearts or said the words. Another colleague described how he crossed his fingers behind his back and mouthed his own words, “And to the Republic for which it lies.”
These friends’ and colleagues’ ancestors had been rounded up and herded onto slave ships or behind barbed wire “camps” or onto “reservations.” The heroes I celebrated without a thought – George Washington, Andrew Jackson or FDR – had kidnapped, tortured, massacred or imprisoned tens of thousands of my friends’ ancestors. When they were growing up, they knew first hand of the discrimination in housing, religion, sports, entertainment and education to name just that their parents faced. Of course, the Pledge of Allegiance meant something different to them. “It’s not that we didn’t love our country,” one storyteller friend told me, “but we were just a whole lot more realistic about how much the U.S. was living up to its promise of ‘freedom and justice for all’.”
It troubled me when I heard my friends’ young protests or awareness had to be hushed and hidden. Is it time that we can admit that this country has and does work better for some than others? Is there room in our American classrooms now for these alternative experiences and, therefore, expressions of anger and frustration?
When I was growing up in the 1950s, we were never taught the full American story and, because of that, our ignorance left us ill equipped to do our part to shape American ideals into American realities. This 4th of July, can we celebrate freedom from our ignorance of the full American story and freedom of expression for all our students?
This is not light summer reading but if you want to understand the injustice people of color still receive today and why some groups are still angry and locked out of the American dream, I strongly suggest two books about the criminal justice system:
On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (Fieldwork Encounters and Discoveries) by Alice Goffman