And Then Teaching Our Students That The Biases And Stereotypes That We Hold Affect How We Understand What We Read

My students and I spent several weeks looking at how the things we read, and the images that we are surrounded by, affect the biases and stereotypes that we hold. I wrote extensively about that work in THIS PREVIOUS BLOG POST.

After we had established that what we read affects the biases and stereotypes that we hold, I also wanted my students to see that the biases and stereotypes that we hold affect how we understand what we read. I wanted to find a way to show my students that we all bring biases into the texts that we read. And often we, as readers and as humans, are blind to the fact that these biases cause us to read through a lens of our own limited experiences. And this lens, this narrow way of thinking, can actually change the way that we understand a text.

I wanted my students to know this, because I wanted them to stop being so passive, as I have been for too long, in this process. I believe that when we are unaware of how our own biases limit our understanding of what we read, then we are powerless to do anything to change that. However, when we are able to see the limits of our own lenses, then we are able to actively work to push beyond them.

But this idea, it is so hard to pin down. It is so hard to make it all visible. Because so many of us have been raised in a “color doesn’t matter” or “we are all the same inside” kind of world, we lack the experience of seeing that color DOES in fact matter and that while, yes, we are all the same inside, who we are on the outside has a huge impact on how we move through and experience this world. It is hard to see the things that have been staring us in the face for so long, yet have continued to go unexplored out of fear of saying the wrong thing.

So I needed a way to help my students to see how these ways of thinking, these biases we all hold, how they can stop us from fully understanding a text or an idea or another human being or a moment in history.

All of this was unfolding as my fifth grade students were immersed in dress rehearsals for our school musical. The title of this year’s musical was “Go West.” And, as one might expect, the musical told a rather one-sided version of our country’s westward expansion. I sat in several rehearsals and cringed when the Native American character stood next to a Pioneer Man character and spoke of how they worked together side-by-side. And I was so torn. I knew that this script was telling an inaccurate version of history. AND I also was at a loss about what to do about it.

For the past few weeks, my students and I had been learning about how the things that we read can work to either reinforce our stereotypes or push us beyond them. We talked about how important it was to actively work to choose texts that push us beyond the stereotypes we hold. We talked about the importance of choosing not to read the texts that will reinforce the negative and shallow stereotypes that so many of us grow up surrounded by.  And yet here we were, living and breathing this play did everything we just learned to be harmful.

So what do we do?

And that’s when I realized. These harmful representations, they are out there. They are everywhere. As much as I try to ensure that they are no longer found in my classroom library, I cannot control what books they will encounter out in the world beyond our classroom.  Our kids are going to come into contact with harmful representations. Often. I might not be able to protect them from these representations, but I can work to prepare them to deal with them. I can help them to recognize them. I can teach them the processes I hope that they will go through in order to fight against the harmful representations and the historically inaccurate and the horrifically one sided versions of the truth that they will find themselves confronted with. That is something I can do.

So that is what we did.

I began by talking with our incredible music teacher and let her know my concerns. She shared every single one of them. I let her know what I was planning to do. She was grateful for the better understanding that it would lead us to.

So I started by actually photocopying a page from the musical script. The page that contained that inaccurate scene showing everyone working together side by side.  Here is the text: IMG_8666

I asked my students to sit together with me and I displayed this text under the document camera. They were excited to see a page from their script up on our board. I reminded them that we had been talking about and learning about how our biases form and I shared with them that I wanted to take a few days to look at how those biases affect what we understand about a text.

So I told them we would start with a text we knew well. I read the text out loud.  I told them that IF I had been taught, as many students are, that American history is the story of people working together in order to make our country stronger, then I would enter into this text in one way.  So let’s say that was my bias, because of what I had been taught. I then reread the text out loud and stopped to mark down some of the thinking that I might have, if I read this text with that bias in mind.  Here is a bit of what that looked like: FullSizeRender 5

But then I said, that often times, what we have been taught only gives us one side of an issue.  Often, our own limited experiences and perspectives, leave a lot out of our understanding. So I then told them that one of the BEST things that we can do to expand our understanding, is to pull in other resources, especially resources that give us another perspective.

I then handed out two additional texts to my students.

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Both of these texts shared Native American perspectives on Westward Expansion. One was an informational text that described the Trail of Tears and one was from Teaching Tolerance and it described how Chief Standing Bear and the Ponca tribe had to fight to keep the government from stealing their land.  I read these texts out loud to my students and I told them that as I gained additional perspectives, I noticed that my thinking and my biases were starting to change. I was not starting to think in a new way. Now, I was thinking that American history seems to be more the story of people in power taking advantage of those without power in order to grow their own wealth and land.  This new understanding made me see the text from the musical in a very different way.  FullSizeRender

I then handed out copies of the text from the musical script to each student. I asked them to reread the text, now knowing what they know from the other sources we looked at, and I asked them to write down the thoughts they now had as they read this text.  Here is a sample of the amazing thinking they captured:

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I then asked them to share some of the things that they wrote down. The conversations were amazing. Simply amazing. Many of them spoke about how they had read this piece of text SO many times and didn’t really ever stop to think about what was NOT being said.

We also talked about why something like a musical written for young children might chose to leave out many of the horrific tragedies that were a part of this period of time. We discussed our own responsibilities as readers to ensure that we are getting more than what we began to call the majority narrative.  My kids had so much incredible thinking to share.

I tried to capture our conversation in this anchor chart: IMG_8607

But I knew we needed to keep going. This was just one example.

Our final reading unit of the year combines the comprehension skill of determining importance with a study of informational texts and historical fiction and a study of the Civil Rights Movement. It is an incredible unit of study and provided the perfect context for our continued learning.

So I decided to connect our work with bias with our study of the Civil Rights Movement. And I knew the perfect place to start. The place where we all start and the place where far too many of us end, with Martin Luther King Jr. The point that I wanted to make is that many of us believe we know what there is to know about the Civil Rights Movement, when in fact what we have been taught and what we have learned on our own, far too often only scratch the same narrow piece of the surface. In my mind, nothing embodies that more than what so many of my students think they know about Martin Luther King Jr.

So I put together THIS TEXT SET ON MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.. It begins with a very brief biography on Martin Luther King Jr., one that I believe matches much of what my students already know about him.  I began by asking my students to read the first biography and then write down the things they already knew about Martin Luther King Jr. We took some time to share. Many of my students shared similar knowledge including that he believed in peaceful protests, that he gave the I Have a Dream Speech, that he believed in equal rights, that he fought for equal rights for black people, etc.

I told the students that we would now look at four short excerpts from other texts, ones that were not necessarily written just for kids or for the purpose of being used in schools. I asked them to start marking any information that changed or challenged what they thought they knew about Martin Luther King Jr. I asked them to underline any parts of the texts that we were going to read that showed them this man in a different way, that deepened their understanding of who he was.

And then we started to read.

My plan was to read all four texts back-to-back, then give the kids time to write and then open things up for a discussion. However after we read the first texts, the kids were begging to talk to each other. So we talked. And there was SO much to say.  The fact that Martin Luther King Jr. was being described as angry. The fact that he was targeted by the FBI. These were things that my students had never read before.

And then we read the second text. And then the third. And then the fourth. And with each new text came so much conversation. And then I asked them to write. To write about what they learned. To write about what they came to understand. And more importantly, to write about what they now understood our responsibility as readers would be as we worked to read and learn about the Civil Rights Movement.

I was in awe as my students shared with me their ideas on how we could read to learn about a moment in history in a better, more accurate, way. I tried to capture all of their suggestions and ideas on these charts:


And then, as we looked back over the ideas that we captured here, we decided that these would be the ideas and beliefs that would guide us as we worked to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement. We now understood, and saw with our own eyes, how much can remain hidden under the surface. We now understood, and saw with our own eyes, how our limited knowledge and biases can stop us from fully understanding a moment in history or a person who has become a hero. And we also now understood, and saw with our own eyes, how much can be gained by not allowing ourselves to stop after the first thing that we read, but instead working to push beyond the majority narrative and the simplified version of history. We had seen what is so often hidden from us and we had also seen the power that we have to go and seek those hidden stories out.


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