Overcoming Biases and Stereotype Threat to Create a Collaborative Learning Community

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The creation of a classroom community during this school year will be a process like no other that we have experienced. In addition to confronting logistics and figuring out how to adapt known aspects of the school experience, we will also be entering a year when the importance of addressing biases, stereotype threat, and systems of racial oppression are now more important than ever. Educators must be aware and confront their own biases while also helping students overcome theirs. The approach a teacher takes to create the conditions for students to recognize, confront, and overcome their own biases, perspectives and threats of stereotype will be paramount to students’ development of a strong sense of self and their own concepts of equity, inclusion, empathy, and understanding. While addressing these complex social issues in a deep and meaningful way is an ongoing process, there are some small steps we can take to address potential biases and create an inclusive classroom community.

Developing Resilience

The school year we are about to face will undoubtedly test everyone’s resilience. Each person has their own threshold for resilience and will at many times find themselves at a breaking point. Students may struggle to develop resilience for a variety of reasons. This may present itself through a student who hasn’t logged on in a few days to complete school-work, defies social distancing rules to prove a point, or simply checks out. When this is coupled with biases, perception, or threats of stereotype others have placed on them or they have placed on themselves, a student’s reaction to the present stressors can easily turn into a narrative that the student “just doesn’t care.”

Some strategies to try:

Clear and Explicit Directions
When we provide clear directions either in person or via a digital format that breaks down steps into small pieces, it allows students to chunk the information and process each piece at a time. For example, rather than posting an assignment that asks students to read a chapter and write a five-paragraph essay about the topic, break down the tasks so students can work through each piece in doable, workable increments.

Teacher Language
There is power in our words—both verbal and written. Whether we see students in person or communicate digitally, our words can go a long way in supporting students’ resilience.

Envisioning Language
We can foster a sense of hope for students when we help them envision what it will look like, sound like, and feel like to overcome a hurdle. For example, ask students to envision what that hurdle may look like in a week, a month, a year. Envisioning helps students honor the now while also having hope that this growth process will lead to something positive in the future.

Reinforcing Language
In a time when just showing up truly is an accomplishment, it helps to honor, name, and recognize all that has been done. This provides students with the feedback they need to stay motivated.

Fostering Curiosity and Perspective-Taking

Individuals are prone to communicate and cluster with like-minded individuals. When their sense of connectedness is challenged, it can be easy for students to only foster connections with like-minded individuals. With social limitations, students may tend to connect with only one or two classmates. When this happens, students are only given messages that affirm rather than push and advance perspectives, thus making it hard to break the pattern of a dominant norm. Providing students the opportunity to engage in activities that challenge perspectives can be a stepping stone to more complex, courageous conversations.

One thing to keep in mind is that because the issues are systemic, we can first start by examining and altering small parts of the system to address a larger problem.

Some strategies to try:

Morning Meeting and Responsive Advisory Meeting
The sharing component of Morning Meeting and the acknowledgment component of Responsive Advisory Meeting offer powerful vehicles for students to share and gain insight into other perspectives. As students begin to know each other and connect, they can fully understand that each student brings with them a unique perspective.

Interactive Learning Structures and Small Group Learning
Even though students may not be able to sit in close proximity, they can be grouped together and participate in interactive learning structures in ways that will build perspective-taking. This can look like students all drawing their interpretation of a read-aloud and then using a Museum Walk to review and comment on five other pieces of work or engaging in an online Written Duos where students read and respond to a student’s perspective.

Growth Mindset and Equitable Academics

Students who left school in March have all had varying experiences. Some have engaged in intense one-on-one tutoring, some have participated in
the basic requirements and some may have been unable to participate in educational experiences. There is no doubt the disparity in the knowledge gap has widened primarily due to the already existing equity gap. Therefore, as we enter the school year, it is important that students see endless potential rather than fixed skills. In order for this to happen, students need to be exposed to opportunities to both see themselves in the work and see their potential for doing the work. It is hard to convince a student who is reading at a first-grade level that they can become a great reader when time and time again they are faced with a fifth-grade chapter book. It is also hard for this student to continuously do work at a different level than their peers. Left unchecked, our approach to lesson design can further widen the already existing gaps.

Some strategies to try:

Academic Choice
When students are provided with choice, they are able to meet learning objectives in a way that honors rather than exposes their current learning styles and capabilities. This can look like asking students to choose which five math problems they will submit to demonstrate their understanding and why those problems challenged their thinking.

Student Practice
As students are attempting new skills, the opportunity to engage in student practice without the pressure of a graded performance can allow students the opportunity to work through challenges in a nonthreatening way. This can look like engaging students in online practice sessions and holding back formal assessments until they reach a proficiency level through practice.

The challenges educators face are substantial and the issues being faced are complex. One thing to keep in mind is that because the issues are systemic, we can first start by examining and altering small parts of the system to address a larger problem. In that process, it will be equally important for educators to develop their own resilience, foster perspective-taking, and keep a growth mindset.