Several years ago, I would have said that I did not hold any biases. That I did not let my own biases impact the decisions that I made. That I was not affected by my own biases. Thankfully, my ignorance ended as I widened the circle of people that influenced my thinking. You see, it is really hard to see how your own biases affect the way you interact with others when everyone around you looks just like you and lives just like you live and is from a similar place than you are from. When everyone you interact with on a daily basis is mostly just like you, it is really easy to think that you do not hold biases, when the truth is that you just don’t hold negative biases about people who look just like you.
But when you start to widen these social circles, when you start to at least read more and listen more to the stories of others who are not just like you, then you notice that your thinking is starting to change. And for me, when I realized that my thinking about entire groups of people was starting to change, THAT is when I first started to notice that I had been holding biases for a as long as I can remember and I was absolutely allowing them to impact the way that I interacted with the world.
And this confronting of our own biases, it can be so unsettling. It can make us question so much of who we thought we were. For so long I was raised to spout out how I would never judge a person based on how they looked. I was taught to say that color didn’t matter. I was led to believe that being colorblind somehow absolved me of having to do the hard work, the heartbreaking work, of really confronting my own biases and the biases of the world that we are a part of. And while this keeps us at a distance from discomfort, it really only digs us further into the hole of racism and prejudice and all that allows our world to continue along unchanged.
I wish I did not wait until I was in my mid-thirties before I finally confronted my own biases and began to move myself beyond them.
Now I hope that my students will not be allowed to wait as long as I waited. I want to help them confront their own biases now so that they can begin to do the hard work to move beyond them. Because the truth is that we ALL hold biases. All of us. We have all grown up and lived in a world that surrounds us with images. And often those images that we are inundated with tell us one single story (to borrow the brilliant words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) of an entire group of people. So if we are not careful, we can begin to believe this single story and our biases start to form around those stories.
I think these dangers are made even worse for those of us who have the disadvantage of living in areas where that lack diversity. Where many, many, many groups of people are not represented. Where everyone around us looks just one way. Then, if we are lazy about it (which I have been until recently) all that we have to fill in the gaps of our personal knowledge are the biased images that are thrown at us by the media and the books we read and the news we hear and the things we hear other people say.
I want to help my students to interrupt this way of thinking. I want to help my students to learn how to seek out diverse stories of diverse people. I want to help my students learn how to learn by listening to others, especially to others whose lives are vastly different than their own.
But before we do this work, I have to help my students to recognize their own biases. I have to help them to see the biases that they hold and recognize what an impact they have on the way that they interact with the world.
And so, last year, I began using the covers of picture books to help my students confront their own biases. This then led us to a study of how what we read impact our biases. I believe that when we can confront and understand our biases, we become more aware of them and then we are able to actively work to stop allowing them to hold as much power of our thoughts and actions.
When my students returned from spring break this past week, I told them that we would be starting a new unit in reading. We would be looking at how we use clues from texts in order to infer messages. I purposely left our work vague and I made sure not to mention anything about biases or stereotypes. I told them that we would begin with just the covers of picture books. I told them that we would not even be using the words on the covers, but just the images. I explained that I would be showing them the images on the covers of two picture books at a time. Then I would give them two summaries and their job would be to use the clues on the covers of the books to match the summaries with the books they believed they were describing.
Again, at first, I made sure not to mention anything at all about biases and stereotypes. This was important because I wanted my students to make decisions in a way that they would normally make decisions. Now when I paired the books together and when I wrote out the summaries, I purposely played on the biases that I believe my students hold. Not to trick them or to catch them using stereotypes, but instead to truly help them to see how their biases affect their decision making.
I also wanted to make this work fairly anonymous so that no one was getting called out individually. So I did not want kids just raising their hands. Instead, I used THIS GOOGLE FORM to have them look at the summaries while I held up the two picture books. What is great about Google Forms is that I can look at the responses as simple pie charts that give me the percentage of students who chose each book without listing out anyone’s name individually.
So after explaining to my students what we would be doing. I held up two picture books at a time. I used construction paper to cover up any words on the book covers, so all they would be seeing were the images. Here are pictures of the pairs of books:
If you are interested, HERE IS A LIST OF THE BOOK TITLES AND AUTHORS AND THE SUMMARIES I USED FOR EACH.
As I held up each pair of books, all of my students had their own computers open to THE FOLLOWING GOOGLE FORM. As I held each pair of books up, I read the two summaries and the kids chose which book they believed matched the given summary. I asked the kids to do all of this without talking so that we were sure they were all making their own decisions.
Once we had gone through all of the books, I had the kids put away their computers and we looked at the responses. Here are some screen shots of how our responses looked:
We started to go through the results one pair at a time. I learned a few things from last year and I learned that I needed to wait to tell my students the correct answers until AFTER we talked about what clues they used to make their guesses. So we started with the first set of books.
The first two sets of books actually surprised me. My students didn’t really allow biases to impact their decisions. In the first set, many students shared that they thought the characters in book 1 looked like they didn’t have a lot of money because their house looked like it wasn’t very nice. And for the second set of books, many of them said that they thought book 4 was about an artist, but not because it was a woman on the cover (which is what I thought would influence them), but because it was a painting and the other book was a photograph (my mistake there!).
At first, I thought maybe our work with the danger of a single story earlier in the year, had made a huge impact and this group of students was not as easily influenced by their own biases and stereotypes. And then we got to the third set of books.
Here again were the covers of book 5 and book 6:
And here were the results of how they voted (along with the summaries they were given):
Before revealing which book was correct (in truth, almost everyone guessed this set wrong), I asked my students what clues from the cover led them to make their guesses. A lot of my students mentioned that the girl on the cover of book 6 looked lonelier (though both girls were alone on the cover). One student said, “I am not trying to be racist, but a lot of times the books that we read with African American characters are about those characters being made fun of or not treated nicely.” Now please remember. This child is 10. This student has been read books by her teachers that have led her to this assumption. And this student was not alone.
And then I told them that most of them had guessed wrong. And they were shocked. I didn’t say much at this point, but I said we would come back and talk about what led so many of us to guess incorrectly.
Then we moved on to the fourth set. Again, here were the books in this set:
And here were the results and the summaries the students were given:
Once again, most students guessed incorrectly. But before I revealed that they were mostly wrong, I again asked them to tell me what clues they used. And again, many students spoke about how the woman on the cover of book 7 looked sad (despite the fact that she is very clearly smiling).
And again, I told them that they were mostly wrong.
And then the whopper of the last set. Here are the covers:
And here were the results and summaries:
By the time we arrived at the last set. I was amazed to see that the students were starting to ask if they could change their answer. They were starting to see what was going on. I knew that we were really getting somewhere when a student raised his hand before I revealed that everyone had gotten this one wrong and he said, “Can I change my answer? I first thought that book 10 was about the struggle for equal rights, but now I see that the people on the cover are all smiling. I don’t that book is really about struggle.”
And then I told them that I was wrong.
And then I asked them to think about what was going on here. Why were so many of us guessing wrong for the last three sets of books. And slowly a most incredible conversation started to unfold. I was so amazed by what they were saying, that I stopped to write down some of their comments. As they talked, I did start to offer in some of my own comments and I certainly helped to guide the conversation towards the idea of bias. But many of their ideas were completely unprompted. Here are some of the things that my kids said:
“This shows us how our own stereotypes get in our way.”
“I don’t know about anyone else, but I let my assumptions about the people on the covers of these books determine how I guessed what the book was about.”
“I guess what this is telling us is that you can’t make a judgment about one book, or one person, because of the stereotypes that you have about a whole group of people. You have to look at the individual book or the individual person in front of you.”
“The color of the person’s skin made us ignore the details, like the smile on the woman’s face.”
“We assumed that because someone lived in a poorer place, or a place that is not like where we live, any story about them must be about struggle and sadness.”
“When we read books, we assume that the characters are going to be caucasian and when they aren’t then we think they are going to be mistreated because of that.”
“I wonder what kids who were in first or second grade would say because they have fewer stereotypes than we do because they seen the images that we have seen for fewer years.”
And that is when I told them that our next reading unit, was indeed about how we used clues to infer messages, but that the messages that we would be looking at were not the lessons of a story or the message the author was TRYING to send. Instead, we would be looking at the unintended messages that we often receive from the things that we read and see and hear and listen to.
And my students were quiet for a minute. And then their amazing conversations started right back up.
Because here is the thing about kids. They are so brave. It is unbelievable. They are honest and brave and so willing to accept that they have biases. And this makes them the perfect human beings to do this work because while the adults around them might have wanted to argue against the fact that they could possibly hold biases that affect the decisions that they make, these kids were ready and willing to jump right in and find a way to deal with the biases that they now realized that they had.
And we talked a lot about how these biases alone, they do not make someone a bad person. They simply make us people who have grown up surrounded by biased images and stories. What becomes problematic, however is when we become unwilling to admit that we have biases and refuse to confront them in order to move beyond them.
But, we said, this is not what we were going to do. This was the beginning of us getting ready to confront our own biases and work to understand where they come from. Because I believe that once we are aware of our biases, we have more power to interrupt them and remove some of the power that they hold over our thoughts and actions.
I summarized that major points of discussion on this anchor chart:
And that final question. That will guide our work over the next few weeks.
The question itself inspires me. But it does not even come close to inspiring me as much as my students did during these conversations. I often sit in awe of my students and their bravery, but their willingness to accept responsibility for their own biases, I truly think that it gives all of us somethign to strive for.