Over the next month, teachers will be taking part in a social justice roundtable discussion in the CTQ Collaboratory and on Twitter with #CTQCollab.

As a teacher, one of the joys of each new year is meeting new students, and learning from those kids’ experiences.  I especially enjoy working with the exchange students.  They come to America, and English often is not their first language.  In their minds they carry a caricature of the average American, a mental model that helps them to organize what they know in advance.  Common exchange student expectations include everyone carrying a gun, especially to McDonald’s for our nightly meal.  The students worry about getting fat since our diet includes overly processed cheese food, Pop Tarts and pizza as a healthy diet.  Our head is covered with a backwards ball cap  and our first response to conflict is to start fighting.  Am I kidding?  No, that’s been shared so often that it’s become an expectation on my part.

Never experienced that? Ok,  think of a really smart kid in a movie. Did you imagine someone who

  • was slight in frame, with straight hair
  • male
  • had glasses and a calculator
  • avoided sports but liked science and math
  • was likely to be bullied, called a nerd or a geek

Now, that description is patently unfair. We all have students who are gifted academically, in athletics or music or leadership  regardless of color, height, gender, or geekiness.  But there, again, the mental model can displace what we know because of unconscious bias.  Here’s one last moment for you to consider.  Quick, describe a teacher in the movie. Did you think of someone who was female, in front of a group of elementary kids near a chalkboard, was calling on a kid with his or her hand raised, in an environment where there were rows and books?  Was the teacher a superhero who saves kids in spite of themselves?  That’s how clip art often pictures teachers….Google it if you are wondering.


What does this have to do with social justice?  Good question. Caricatures, those pictorial representations of stereotypes, exaggerate what is different among all of us. As a visual we can call up when we are unsure or uncomfortable, they carry along emotions. Even if we haven’t talked recently with a police officer, or a person who is transgender, or a person with a chemical addition, we have seen images of these people in the movies.  Good or bad, they reflect our understanding.  Here are three ideas we can consider as teachers to counter such flat representations of human beings.

1.  Mental models are powerful.   By activating prior knowledge regularly through intentional classroom design, educators have a powerful opportunity to engage with students regarding current events, individuals of note in the content we teach, and descriptions we find in textual evidence.  We must have conversations with our students to help develop these models into rich exemplars that reflect both good and bad, but err on the side of understanding, rather than fearfulness.  Takeaway:  build mental model recognition into your classroom.

2. Unconscious bias is real.  While this nation reels from tragedies involving mental health and access to guns, racial disparity, and polarization over the current election, I have hope in our future. It is not my job right now to form new governmental policy, but it absolutely is my job to work with others to share the idea of unconscious bias. From the time a child declares that one color is a favorite over another, a choice has been made.  IF these choices are innocuous, that’s one thing, but through lack of awareness, such a bias becomes dangerous. This is the rationale that lets us make wide brush strokes and create caricatures in the first place.  That result can range from racial profiling traffic stops to unjust incarceration of individuals of color at rates many times that of white people; this is a personal stain on the American conscience that requires hard work and conversations.  No one is immune; my own state, Iowa, ranks worst, jailing blacks at 8x the rate of whites in terms of percentage.  Takeaway:  Research unconscious bias and discuss it frequently in the conversations about other topics in your classroom.

3. We are not superheroes.  It is tempting in such a situations to see yourself as a superhero who will ‘fix’ the social justice problems in America; resist that temptation.  Leadership is not about saving others, but about empowering others to take up a cause for self and others.  We can teach students using logic, nonviolence, the Golden Rule, standing up against bigotry of all types.  That’s characterand that’s working as an informed citizen to make this world better.  That’s not easy, and it’s not perfect.  Martin Luther King was jailed.  Malala was shot.  And an Ash Whitaker in Kenosha was asked to wear an identification bracelet in regards to his bathroom needs.  Active struggle, then, is part of the journey as we go through the walk for social justice.   By empowering others, we change the vector for our own children and the look of the future.  Takeaway:  It’s our job to work with students to help them solve problems and build strong cultural understandings.

Moving from caricature to character, then, is really about the difference in your own heart as an individual and the strategies you employ in your room as an educator.  To paraphrase John F. Kennedy,  “there is much to be done, there’s a job for everyone.” As we get ready for the new year, let’s work on this, together.

In July and August, #CTQCollab is focusing on the need for social justice in America.  You can join us and share your thoughts and solutions at the Center for Teaching Quality.

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