Conclusion: rethinking the project as a whole

When I was a sixth grader, I would have jumped at the opportunity to discuss socially salient identity. I say this not as some self-validating expression, but because at that age, I really was desperate for anything that would tell me more about myself – especially anything that would help me understand my own identity in relation to others.’ In the earliest conceptions of this project, that was my goal: to offer students the tools to understand themselves and the social forces that mold their identities with the hope that they might be capable of greater self determination in the future.

In many ways, conversations about identity and systemic privilege and oppression are much easier with kids than adults. Younger people are familiar with the attitudes of the larger culture without having as much investment in those attitudes. They are less attached to one specific worldview, because their outlook is always expanding. Many of them have a passion for fairness, and a keen eye for spotting injustice, as I saw when we played my card game.      Continue reading

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Notes on Curriculum: limitations and implications

The lesson plans I developed were created specifically for the class at Miller’s Hill, building off of the classroom’s past and present curriculum, conversations, and issues. If future educators are to use my lesson plans and reflections as a resource, it is essential that they are adapted to the needs and experiences of each group of students. Though ultimately, I think my workshops were well received by Naomi’s class, I faced several challenges in creating and implementing my curriculum. It is my hope that both the strengths and weaknesses of the lessons will prove illuminating for other educators. For me, consistently reflecting on my own positionality, performance, and student reactions to my workshops was essential in developing effective lessons.

In retrospect, I think the biggest shortcoming of my curriculum was a failure to highlight activism or resistance to systemic forces. Naomi and I spent a great deal of time talking with students about the massive power structures which support the oppression of various identities, but comparatively little on ways that they as students – many of which are heavily targeted by these oppressive systems – can resist and dismantle those structures. Faith’s comment during the discussion on lynchings – “I’m staying in my house from now on!” – illustrates the potential of introductory lessons on systemic oppression to backfire. Naomi and I addressed Faith’s comment and the outlook it indicated immediately, but not before it demonstrated the necessity for lessons on oppression to leave students feeling empowered and able to resist, rather than overwhelmed and paralyzed.     Continue reading

In Their Own Words: student writing on identity

I wanted to include a few examples of the student writing that came out of the identity unit. the writing workshops produced a wide range of pieces, both in terms of student skill level and genre. with their permission (and under their chosen pseudonyms), i included a sample of each student’s writing in the print version of the project. here, i’ve included three pieces that stood out to me: a poem on racial identity and self-determination, a detailed narrative on a gendered play experience, and a portrait of home, distant and indelible.

Who I Am

By Faith

Who I am

African American or black

I say I’m black

But society wants to hold me down to just

African American

My race

My thinking

Who I am

Shouldn’t be bound down to just

African American

I’m American

Yes

African

No

Who I am

People of society can’t tell me

I am strong willed

But that doesn’t matter to society

They don’t think it describes

Who I am

Telling me I’m African American

IS NOT

Who I am

Telling me I’m black

IS TELLING ME

Who I am

No one can tell me

Who I am

So I have to tell myself

I am Black

 

Continue reading

“…But what does this have to do with today?” Discussing Race and Systemic Inequality [Part II]

“We’re the rainbow team!” Marcus announces, two days into our section on racism and structural oppression. I have just split the class up into two table groups based on whether or not they are wearing the color red. We are about to play the card game I created to explore systemic discrimination. Previously, I had been calling the groups the “red team” and the “not-wearing red team.” I guess they don’t like being defined by what they are not.

Grinning, I deal in the teams from their respective decks (the red team is privileged with face cards), and then ask the two teams to each send half of their players to the other team’s table, so that everyone is mixed up. “But remember what team you’re on!”

With a sudden eruption of activity, the students begin playing, and the room fills with laughter and the gleeful or dismayed exclamations of fourteen twelve-year-olds. I can’t help but smile as I watch them play; it’s the most alive I’ve seen them outside of recess.

After about five minutes, I ask them to pause. “Okay, everyone count your cards – without looking at them! Who is winning?” Three out of the four students with vastly more cards than their peers are from the red group. “That’s interesting,” I say, “Why do you think most of them are from the red team?”

Faith immediately suggests that the red team was given better cards at the start of the game. “Maybe,” I reply simply, trying to hide my delight.

“Oh, well they also had that rule where they got a card if they couldn’t get back in! We don’t have that,” adds Marcus, looking supremely disappointed.

“You’re right. Ok, so when we start playing in a second, I am going to remove that rule,” I tell them, “Now everyone will have to knock to get back in; no one gets a card from me.”

I start to ask them to resume playing, but Marcus interrupts me. “No, that still won’t be fair,” he says firmly, “They already had that rule for a long time, now you have to give it to us.” I am thoroughly impressed. I had no idea students would be able to make that connection so quickly.

“Well, that’s not how the game works. The rules have to be the same for everyone now.” He continues to frown, but doesn’t protest any further. “But first, is there anyone from the red team who is currently out?” A brilliant and generally shy Indian boy named Ayjay raises his hand, along with Will and Danielle. “From the red team,” I repeat. Everyone but Ayjay lowers their hand, frowning. “Okay, here’s a card – it’s the last one you’ll get from me,” I tell him, dropping a face card onto the table and ignoring the various cries of “that’s not fair!”    Continue reading

Lesson Plans Days 11 & 12: power structures part II, and the final writing piece

Day Eleven: Power Structures, part II

Lesson Development: Building off of yesterday’s lesson on how historic forces have shaped current inequality and landscapes of opportunity in the US, today I wanted to explore how contemporary systemic discrimination and privilege operates. Specifically, I wanted to highlight the concept of white privilege in concrete, accessible ways. To do this, I created a list of white privileges that I thought sixth graders would be able to understand by drawing from and expanding upon the list of white privileges in Peggy McIntosh’s  essay, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Additionally, I felt it was important that students begin thinking about what they can do to change oppressive systems. I wanted them to understand how even speaking out against – and so calling attention to – racist, sexist, etc. comments or actions is essential in an era where people believe racism and sexism are largely things of the past.

 

  • Review yesterdays card game:
  • · What was it? Why did we play it? What were the two main things that made it unfair? What did that represent?
  • How do racism and other forms of systemic discrimination operate today?
  • Physically run through a scenario/skit to illustrate this: Ms. Pierre is working for a corporation that is hiring right now. Everyone in the class needs a job, so we all have to apply. That’s fifteen people all going for the same job! A lot of competition, it’s going to be hard to get that job… But what if Ms. Pierre imposes her prejudice on the job – she decides that someone with brown eyes just isn’t what she’s looking for. She doesn’t make that official – that would be illegal now – so she still lets everyone apply, she just doesn’t seriously consider anyone with brown eyes.
  • · Now how many people are left competing for the same job?
  • · Is it easier or harder for non-brown eyed people to get that job now?
  • · Do the non-brown eyed people even notice?
  • Even though official discrimination is illegal now, when many people in positions of power hold prejudice, it becomes part of a system.      Continue reading

Lesson Plan Day 10: power structures, part I (or, you’d better pull up those bootstraps)

Day Ten: Power Structures, part I

Lesson Development: I created this lesson in an attempt to provide students with an accessible simulation of the real world effects that systemic discrimination – specifically racism – has on society. I wanted to create an easy to play game that would clearly illustrate the way privilege and discrimination make it easier and harder for certain groups to acquire and retain wealth, and to get students thinking about how efforts to redress inequality must take into account how the economic “playing field” is not, and has never been, level.

As readers can see in the structure of the card game below, I specifically designed it with the historic economic experience of African-Americans in mind. However, the parallels the game draws to legal discrimination, as well as the consolidation of wealth, allow the game to provide more general lessons on systemic inequality and privilege. There are also references to specific moments in the history of United States’ racial opportunity structure. Part Two of the game is meant to represent the post-Civil Rights era, where white supremacy is no longer inscribed in law, but de facto white economic privilege remains. At the same time, the second phase of the game also provides one more added “bump” for some players, intended to represent the way the GI Bill, which, only two decades prior to the Civil Rights Movement, provided many white soldiers returning from World War II with privileged access to jobs, education, and housing.

I chose to call the game Bootstraps, referencing the false idea that the socioeconomic structure in the US provides all people with equal economic opportunities, an idea invoked by the old expression, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!”           Continue reading

“…But what does this have to do with today?” Discussing Race and Systemic Inequality [Part I]

“Why did they do that?” Will asks me on the afternoon of my first day at Miller’s Hill. I have just explained how scientists let four hundred black men go with untreated syphilis for nearly half a century in order to study the effects of the disease.

I hesitate, my eyes lingering on his otherwise blank “Tuskegee Experiment” note card. How do you explain the dehumanization of racism to an eleven year old? “Well, the scientists, who were white, thought that they could do whatever they wanted to black people.”

“But why?” He scrunches his brow, genuinely confused.

I continue, “Since white people were in power – and for the most part, they still are – they could do horrible things to black people without consequences. So sometimes, they used them for experiments.”

Will’s eyes suddenly widen. “That’s awful!”

“It is. And the experiment would have continued if the press hadn’t found out about it and made it public in the seventies. Of course by then, many of the subjects had already died from the disease, and the others were very sick.”

Will is suddenly solemn, his mouth opening and closing slightly as his eyes dart from me to the Wikipedia page. Outside of Slavery, it might be the first time he has heard of any state sanctioned atrocities his racial group has perpetrated.

One month later, Naomi and I sit with the class on the carpet for our race and racism lesson. “So, who can tell me the definition of racism?” I ask the class, soliciting the mainstream definition before expanding it into racial prejudice plus institutional power. Surprisingly, students accept this new definition with little contestation.

“So how do people have power in our society?” I continue, “What does that mean?”

“Like, having a lot of money?” offers Sara, a quiet, tall, and tremendously freckled white student.

“Right! Having money is one way people can be powerful in society. What else?” Students consider the question for a moment. When no responses are forthcoming, I direct their attention to the back wall, where we have hung the ads from the gender lesson, under the heading, “What do these images tell us about ourselves?”

“What about those ads and the messages they send? Do you think people who control the media are powerful?” The class offers a collective noise of agreement before we discuss other powerful people in society, like politicians, lawmakers, police, corporate leaders, and education administrators.

“And what race are most of people in these positions?”

Without hesitation – and almost in unison – the class responds, “White.”

Alexis suddenly perks up. “They’re all men, too!” I am increasingly awed by students’ perceptiveness and acceptance of concepts and information so contrary to mainstream messages.

“Being in power is about more than political positions or laws. As we just mentioned, it’s also about the media and who we see.” Naomi tells them, “For example, think about Disney movies. What race are the main characters usually?”

Several students murmur, “White,” Before Jaden, exclaims, “But what about Mulan or Pocahontas? They’re not white!” A few students nod their heads in support.

“That’s true, there are definitely exceptions to the rule,” I say. “But generally, if you can count all the exceptions on one hand, it’s actually proving the rule.” Jaden gawks, and then leads the class in counting off Disney princesses of color one by one.     Continue reading