Caricature or Character

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.

  • jozettemartinez

    We are not superheroes!


    Superheroes have special powers, devices that help them; resources. 

    Teachers do more with less and when we do, we are expected to do it again next year.

    Oh the ideas your piece has sparked in my activism… I simply LOVE this piece! 

    Unconscious bias is still bias! Unintentional racism is still racism! 


  • ReneeMoore

    Individual vs. Systemic

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful piece, Marcia. You make so many points worthy of closer study and application. Two in particular that I’d like to parse out a little.

    First, each one of us has to recognize and acknowledge our own biases, preconceived ideas, stereotypes, and unrealistic expectations of others. We all have them; we can’t be conscious in this life and not develop them. This honest self appraisal is a critical first step. Sadly, some well-meaning souls consider themselves so pure-hearted or progressive minded, they believe they can skip this self-examination. We need this information about ourselves to plan and work with our students, their families, and our colleagues with integrity.

    Likewise, we have to recognize, acknowledge, expose, and oppose the larger, deeply rooted issues of systemic racism. Your example of this was spot on: The state of Iowa jails blacks at 8x the rate of whites (and put that against the backdrop of the relative numbers of black versus whites in the Iowa population). That doesn’t happen because one or two people have racist views; that’s a system designed to target one group while privileging another. Such systems are self-perpetuating and reinforce the individual prejudices in society. Hence, you’ll hear some people actually argue that Black people must be more inclined to be criminals since they get arrested and imprisoned more!

    You are right that by helping our students build stronger, more accurate, and more compassionate cultural understandings, we help build a citizenry that will dismantle such systems.


  • nvtutolo

    Starting With Recognition

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece.  We must first recognize the biases that we have before we ever begin to address them.  Some of the biases that we hold, may honestly come as a surprise to even ourselves.  Once be begin to do the internal work, we can better begin to unpack and address our own bias.  For any real change to be made, this is the first place to start–personal reflection.  




  • Sherrillknezel

    Seeing this visually

    I am heading back into my classroom teach elementary art in a few weeks and your post has me thinking about how I can use caricature vs. character as a drawing prompt for students to introduce themselves or create a self-portrait.  It would be powerful to have students create one of each to share.  Questions that could begin the conversation: What do you think others assume about you based on your physical appearance? What might others assume you value? (caricature) What do you want others to know about you based on what you love or hold dear? Who are you on the inside? (character) Students could share in small groups and then share out experience in large group while one or students graphically record for the class as a takeaway document.  

    • MarciaPowell


      Sherrill, I really like this, and I will add it in to my NOT YET superhero cape board for the beginning of school.  We start with things that we feel good about, as well as things that we don’t necessarily like to share.  We attach different capes to them:

      NOT YETS (um, hitting 3 basketball hoops in a row, becoming an astronaut, dancing a ballet, making flawless croissants, etc.)

      CONFIDENCE HIGH (reading for meaning, test taking)

      TERRIFYING avoidance (skydiving, anyone?)

      Thank you, thank you!