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I need some validation. Is it just me, or are the tensions, frustrations, anger, and divisiveness in our society being played out in the classroom? Although my class was held via Zoom this week, I could see it and feel it. And so could the students. In fact, I got an apology e-mail the day after class from one student who labeled her own behavior as disrespectful and dismissive.
I know my students want to talk about what’s happening in the world and how it’s impacting them but these conversations can be difficult dialogues that necessitate empathy, respect, and an acceptance of diverse lived experiences, ideas, values, forms of expression, and ways of being. Are my students ready for that? And an even bigger question, am I? Can I facilitate these conversations without harming anyone?
I’ve been reading, reflecting, and talking to my colleagues about how to create a safe space to address important issues of diversity and multiculturalism. I’ve decided to start small. First, I think it’s important to help students build self-awareness about their own unconscious biases. This can be a springboard for conversations about how biases develop and how they can lead to stereotypes, microaggressions, and discrimination. Second, I think it’s important for students to get to know each other on a deeper level and listen to each other’s stories. This can build empathy and respect and, hopefully, tolerance for differences.
To build self-awareness, I think it can be helpful to introduce the idea that we all have thoughts and feelings outside our conscious awareness and control (hidden biases). Project Implicit is a non-profit organization created by researchers at the University of Washington, Harvard University, and the University of Virginia. They provide an online Implicit Association Test with feedback (see https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html). This can be a great in-class or out-of-class activity to prompt reflection and discussion. After taking the test, you can have students describe their own self-understanding of the attitude or stereotype that the test measures. You can then introduce the concepts of stereotypes, microaggressions, and discrimination.
Another activity to help students think about their stereotypes and biases of others is to complete the “How Comfortable Am I?” worksheet (pgs. 8-9 of the “Diversity Activities Resource Guide” https://www.uh.edu/cdi/diversity_education/resources/activities/pdf/diversity%20activities-resource-...). This guide was compiled by the University of Houston, Center for Diversity and Inclusion and includes activities from the tolerance.org website. I’ve had students complete this worksheet and break into small groups to discuss how comfort level might relate to biases or stereotypes, then brainstorm ways to better understand and challenge those beliefs.
One of my doctoral students who taught a “Strategies for College Success” course for international students designed a really wonderful assignment for helping students get to know each other yet also build empathy and respect for differences. She called it the “Twelve Statements Project” and said she learned about the activity in a book by psychologist Sam Gosling titled Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You. For the assignment, students are asked to describe themselves with 12 photographs or images they feel comfortable sharing – each on their own PowerPoint slide. They then present these images to the class in a 10-minute slideshow. Every course evaluation of this instructor reflected the meaningfulness of this particular assignment. So much so, that I encourage all my instructors to incorporate this activity into their courses.
Finally, there is a very popular and powerful TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” (https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?utm_campaign=tedspre...) that can be used to validate cultural misunderstandings and our sometimes limited perspectives of other people. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie uses her own personal experience growing up in Nigeria as well as her experience in America to explain how “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story the only story.” Adichie is funny, vulnerable, and calls us to action to seek out alternative stories. Following the Ted Talk, students can be encouraged to reflect on examples of “single stories” in their personal life, in their education, or even in the news.
I hope these ideas are helpful or even spark other ideas for how you can create a safe space in your classroom to address diversity and promote tolerance and inclusion.
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