Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 12:12 am
Thinking outside the stereotype
District 186 students experience a dynamic cultural awareness program
On Monday and Tuesday, Feb. 6 and 7, at Erin’s Pavilion, Springfield Public School District 186 held a series of unprecedented sessions addressing the subject of “cultural relevance,” popularized by educator Gloria J. Ladson-Billings. Focusing on cultural relevance is thought to enable student success by acknowledging that learning does not happen in a vacuum but rather takes place in the context of culture influences, which can often vary widely within a single classroom.
At Erin’s Pavilion, a visiting presenter addressed hot-button issues such as stereotyping, privilege and educational equity, raising awareness to create a better learning environment in area public schools. This sort of thing is fairly routine for faculty and administrative staff. What made these sessions different was the audience – the presentations were specifically designed for and attended by students from elementary, middle and high schools throughout the district. In effect the sessions represented a first shot across the bow, an initial step toward starting what administrators hope will be a long, productive conversation between administration, faculty and students. The sessions themselves were high-energy affairs, part encounter group and part house party. The kids ate it up.
“Come on, Springfield, make some noise up in here!”
Dexter Floyd knows how to work a crowd – particularly a crowd of middle-school students. Dapper and charismatic with an uncanny ability to maintain a high level of energy along with a sense of order and focus, the former middle school math teacher and current director of RISE Academy in Tyler, Texas, proved an ideal choice to lead young people through sometimes prickly topics such as discrimination and inequality, in a way that was not dry or didactic but rather empowered the students to contribute to the conversation. It isn’t hard to see what motivated District 186 superintendent Jennifer Gill to seek out Floyd’s services after seeing him give his presentation while attending a conference this past summer. “I was blown away,” she said when introducing him to the students on Tuesday.
In near-constant motion, his speech flecked with youthful vernacular, Floyd, 47, commanded the kids’ attention and the enthusiasm he consistently elicited from his young audience was impressive. He began with a simple but challenging icebreaking exercise (“I want you to look around and then introduce yourselves to somebody you do not know”) and quickly moved into a discussion of educational equity. The Center for Public Education draws a line between equality, which they define as being achieved “when students are all treated the same and have access to similar resources,” and equity, which occurs “when all students receive the resources they need so they graduate prepared for success after high school.” The distinction relates to the overarching theme of cultural relevance by acknowledging that these resources can vary from student to student, depending on a variety of factors, including race, religion and economic status.
Floyd began by sounding out the students for their perspectives on the subject, using deceptively simple examples to stimulate the students to examine complex ideas. For instance, early in the session, a single-panel cartoon was projected on an overhead screen, depicting a group of caricatured animals, ranging in size from a squirrel to a horse, each being presented with an identical food bowl. Underneath was the caption, “Everyone gets an equal amount.” At first, many students reflexively defended the idea that each animal was being treated fairly by being given identical portions of food, until Floyd called on a husky eighth-grade boy.
“Do you play football?” asked Floyd. The boy nodded. “I know you do,” Floyd said immediately, evoking laughter from the other kids. “Now tell me – let’s say a second-grader requires half a glass of milk and maybe a fourth of a sandwich and he’s full – does that sound right?” Another nod. “Now, is that same meal going to work for you?” The football player scoffed. “No,” affirmed Floyd, “that ain’t doin’ nothin’ for you but make you mad.” Louder laughter from the crowd. “Think about it – if we all get the same amount, it might be fair – but is it equitable?” This led into an extended group discussion, with frequent contributions from students who seemed to embrace the new idea quickly, often expanding on it.
A similar cartoon depicted an elephant, a monkey and a fish in a bowl all being judged by their tree-climbing ability – a test that would be easily passed by the monkey but is outside of the abilities of the water-bound fish and the large, heavy elephant. This introduced the idea that testing can have its own internal biases and it struck a chord with students. One high-schooler raised her hand during the discussion, making an association between the inequitable example in the cartoon and the way ACT and SAT testing can leave some smart students at a disadvantage.
“There are things we need to learn about how we treat each other,” Floyd said, “how we look at each other, how we respect our differences. It’s important that you understand how you think. We are shaped by the stuff we hear.” Although it was never stated outright, there was an implication that these already important issues may have become more urgent over the last few months as a national uptick in racially motivated incidents has been reported in the wake of the recent presidential election. “A lot of the media has us in a frenzy right now all around the country,” said Floyd. “But we gotta stay focused on what’s important.” Over and over he stressed the importance of students feeling empowered to speak up for themselves about things they see as unjust. “You have a voice,” was a regular refrain.
Floyd did an impressive job of navigating potentially harsh territory while leading an exercise regarding stereotypes. Students were broken into small groups, each assigned to discuss a particular social category – ranging from cheerleaders to Muslims – and then list characteristics commonly associated with each, the clear message being that such stereotyping is unfair to individuals. The ensuing discussion highlighted the idea that stereotyping is undesirable but sometimes difficult to recognize and combat as it happens within each of us.
This concept was driven home in a much more pointed manner in the next section. Floyd gave a short lecture about a mysterious tribe purported to be “invading North America.” Based on a popular satirical 1956 anthropological paper by Horace Miner (the original paper is available to read here:
http://www.ohio.edu/people/thompsoc/Body.html).During the sessions, Floyd described the “Nacirema” as a seemingly warlike and antisocial group who “see the human body as ugly,” regularly practicing “scraping and lacerating of faces and legs with sharp instruments” as well as gathering to watch ritualized violence, among other things. Students were aghast at the description of the tribe, calling them “insane,” “strange” and “morbid.” When asked how she would treat a Nacirema member if one started going to her school, a student replied, “I would be nice to them but I would not be their friend.” A collective gasp went through the group when Floyd revealed that Nacirema was actually “American” spelled backwards and the rituals described were western commonplaces such as shaving and school sporting events. “That which you have talked so bad about,” intoned Floyd with gravity, “is you.” The dramatic lesson – that prejudice is often a simple matter of perspective and we are all susceptible to it and should be mindful to avoid casting judgment – clearly made an impression.
Dexter Floyd is a national consultant for AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), described on the district website as an “in-school academic support program for grades 4-12 that prepares students for college eligibility and success.” It places academically average students in advanced classes and aims to level the playing field for minority, rural, low-income and other students without a college-going tradition in their families. “AVID is for all students,” the website description continues, “but it targets those in the academic middle and is implemented school-wide and district-wide.” The program originated in California in the early 1980s and has been part of the District 186 curriculum since 2005. Cultural awareness sessions like the one at Erin’s Pavilion are conceived as a method of both creating a better learning environment and providing skills for negotiating difficult social terrain both inside and outside of school, including racism and religious intolerance.
Beginning as a professional development tool for faculty designed to “assist educators in creating and integrating culturally relevant teaching practices that create supportive, safe and respectful academic environments for all students” the cultural awareness program is now being applied directly to 186 students participating in the AVID program, who were then charged with making presentations to faculty about ways these ideas can be applied in the classroom to create a more equitable and inclusive learning environment.
“We had a very positive response from the faculty participation,” said Rockford-based AVID program manager George Buss, who helps implement AVID and special programs like these throughout the state. “They were excited to learn about the dialogue the students had.” Buss also met with District 186 administrative staff, including the district’s director of secondary schools and programs, Cheree Morrison, and Shelia Boozer, director of teaching and learning. “We are looking at how the administration can support those conversations,” Buss said. “I was able to meet with Dexter and he was exceedingly complimentary of the students,” he said. “Dexter was impressed with the depth of how they were tackling those issues of equity, their own definitions and their own stereotypes.” Buss pointed out that topics like stereotyping can make for difficult conversations for adults who may have some very ingrained beliefs and stressed the importance of introducing these concepts at a young, more receptive age.
“They are certainly developing thought and philosophy and they are able to express frustration and anger, disbelief,” said Buss. “Dexter was interacting with a lot of students during those sessions and he expressed to me gratitude that the students were coming up and thanking him for the opportunity.”
Students did seem appreciative and energized immediately after the sessions. “It really made me change my mind about how I treat a lot of people,” said Jalen Creager, a student at Grant Middle School. “Even though some things might seem fair,” she said, referring to the exercises with the cartoon animals, “they’re not really fair to everybody.”
“The way I view the world is a lot different now,” said Tally Martin of Franklin Middle School. “Stereotypes are a big thing in society. I’ve judged people before.”
Ashley Farmer, a junior at Lanphier High School, said, “I thought it was very good. It taught you to get outside of the box.” This idea of getting outside of the box came up numerous times during the sessions, referring to breaking unconscious habits of mind which the exercises helped to point out.
Mackie Baal, also of Lanphier, said she found the session empowering. “I think people nowadays are so caught up in the stereotypes that we don’t think we can get out. But I think he proved today that we can and it’s not as hard. I can definitely apply some of the words that he has said and put it to my everyday life.”
Devin Hale of Washington Middle School also enjoyed the session and drew an immediate connection to his own experience. “The whole time I was thinking about how people have a stereotype about Washington Middle School,” he said. “I have gone to school there for three years and stereotypes are strong around Springfield that kids are bad at Washington. But in my thinking that school is perfectly fine, there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s like any other school.”
Scott Faingold can be reached via email@example.com.