If we agree that what we teach in the classroom must have relevance in the lives of our students outside of our four walls, when we teach kids to analyze characters in the books we read, without acknowledging and naming the work we’re doing as that of creating assumptions, are we essentially weaponizing children with the skills to label, judge, and profile others based on a set of character traits filtered through their own personal biases, and as a result, to falsely think they ultimately have the power or right to do this to people in their lives?
The concept of assumptions has been on my mind for many days now. This word is deceptively simple, with infinitely complex layers in need of unpacking. While the nuances of the definition and the myriad synonyms have many connotations in our vernacular, for me, the concept of assumptions is a dangerous one. Here’s why: when we make assumptions about other people in our shared spaces and presume to feel the power over them to make these assumptions of them based on a set of characteristics that we’ve deemed relevant from our own biased perspectives, we have the power to cause more harm than good. You might agree? Consider this for a moment. By looking at me, you’d presume I’m a woman. Your assumption would be based on a few cursory characteristics you’d have used to make this assertion: my physical appearance, the sound of my voice, my expressive mannerisms, my choice of dress, my given name, perhaps even my way with words. You’d unconsciously and quite quickly put these particular set of characteristics together, determine you think I’m a woman, label me as such, and categorize me in that way in your mind’s memory. By looking at my child, you’d presume he was a young boy. Your assumptions would also be based on this same set of cursory characteristics, like his physical appearance, expression, name, and perhaps some of the affinities you observe he engages in (e.g. gaming guru) or things he talks about (e.g. gaming!). Your assumptions in both cases would be built upon your skilled ability to size us both up based on a set of criteria or traits you’re used to using to categorize things you see in the life unfolding around you.
I’d assert the ability to analyze and categorize and label and assume we’ve figured out folks around us is a learned ability, cultivated over time. Often, implicitly socialized in our culture, but also explicitly taught, especially in our classrooms. As an educator for nearly two decades and having experience in both elementary and middle school settings, it strikes me as so prevalent that through the grades, we teach our students to analyze characters year after year, in both the reading work and writing work we engage in with them. In nearly every grade level beginning in transitional kindergarten and all the way up, we spend much time in fictional reading and writing units teaching into the skills of character analysis and character development. This work is good, oftentimes, it’s incredibly profound. I engaged in this work with my students every year I was in the classroom and now, I see the teachers I work alongside, doing it every year with their students. And, to be clear, this is a good thing, it anchors readers’ ability to make sense of narrative texts and writers to develop layered characters in their stories. But, the concept of teaching children to create these assumptions about characters needs some re-examining; some major reconsideration, really. And here’s why: if we are teaching children to become expert character analyzers without regard for what we’re really teaching them to do, namely, become expert profilers, while simultaneously not naming with clarity what it is we are doing and the dangers of profiling people in our lives outside the four walls of our classroom, we are engaging in some of the most subversively dangerous work with children, without even being aware of it ourselves. That’s a scary thought, indeed.
A bit of context, a tough question I’ve been asking myself, and some ideas about pathways forward.
During a read-aloud of Jaqueline Woodson’s beautiful picture book The Other Side a few days ago, a young fifth-grade reader said something very pointed and it has lingered on my mind ever since. As the teacher, Ms. J, read aloud the beginning of the story, she paused to ask her students what they had noticed about the characters so far: how their identities were alike or not alike. One young reader stated that the two young characters were of different races; one was Black, the other, white. Another reader stated they exhibited different actions in the story so far. And then, this young reader raised his hand and stated with some sense of certainty, “The two girls are from different families.” He saw two little girls with different skin color and had concluded they must be from different families. The moment he stated this, I looked at Ms. J’s face. She was taken back. I was thinking deeply about why he had made this statement. I turned to Ms. J and she expressed how this page represented her actual family, as she has a white mother and Black father; one of her brothers looks exactly like she does and her other brother is white, as he has a different father than her. She said much of her childhood was spent with people assuming she and her older brother were not related because of their skin color. That’s when I said to Ms. J, “Your student is making an assumption that because their skin color is different, they must not be in the same family.”
And that’s when it hit both of us like a ton of bricks: what we were asking readers to do when diving deep into character analysis work, was to make all sorts of assumptions about characters. We were having them look at the identities they saw characters inhabit based on textual evidence, create an assertion about that character, and make a statement that seemed awfully definitive: “I think…” “My hunch is…” “My growing theory is…” “I notice…based on evidence from the text…” All of the language we modeled in our work with students around character analysis created the impression to her students that our job as readers (humans) was about:
- Using a set of criteria or character (people) traits that, if used systematically, could lead us to label and categorize characters (people)
- That it’s our right to do this work of labeling and categories characters (people) into these boxed identities based on our notions of the world of story (real world)
- That this work is encouraged because as teachers, we ask of our student to do it year after year, so where we spend our time must be important, and kids notice this
What are we as educators leaving out of our work with students around character analysis? I’d assert we’re failing to frame this work as assumption-making (perhaps we know this in our minds, but do we ever explicitly communicate this to our students?) and that making assumptions is a dangerous engagement. Even more problematic is the notion that when we transfer this work of assumption-making with the characters in our books to the people in our lives, as we hope the work of the classroom is the work of life, it’s a slippery slope into labeling, categorizing, and ultimately, often making judgments of others based on our assumptions.
Dangerous. So very dangerous.
Why? Because, we are often so very wrong.
A Tough Question.
If we revisit the previous notion that if you met me and spoke with me at any length, you’d assume I’m a woman and meeting my child, you’d assume he was a young boy. You’d be wrong, so very wrong, indeed. Your perspective, your expectations based on a set of preconceived criteria on what it means in our society to be a woman or to be a boy, would frame your assumption that we were as you assumed. You’d probably even find comfort in the notion that you were able to fit us each into some sort of box in your mind that was neatly filed away under woman and boy. But, what if you were wrong? What if your expert ability, socialized over your years on the planet and sharpened over years in the schooling system that explicitly taught you how to analyze characters based on traits, lead you to make incorrect assumptions? And, imagine if these assumptions you made lead you to label us, and then judge us based on these assumptions? And, just what if the judgments you made of us were not positive and your overt actions towards us were unkind or dismissive or oppressive?
This. This is what happens, is happening. The current state of our nation.
You see it; I know you do.
Example; oppressive discrimination and violence based on racial profiling.
Example; oppressive discrimination and violence based on religious profiling.
Example; oppressive discrimination and violence based on gender identity profiling.
Example; oppressive discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation profiling.
Example; oppressive discrimination and violence based on gender expression profiling.
Example; oppressive discrimination and violence based on socialized norms of gender.
Example; oppressive discrimination and violence based on ability.
Example; oppressive discrimination and violence based on class.
I could continue to list more and more aspects that work in concert to create the complex identities we all wear. I won’t; you understand my train of thought.
As educators, though, we’ve ways to combat this, to shift this narrative, and to create pathways of empathy with our students. Here are a few of my initial thoughts based on some adjustments Ms. J and I tried this week after we realized just how profound this work of character analysis and identity study is with her students.
Name it. We began to name what it truly means to do the work of analyzing characters. We said these were assumptions based on our world view, on our set of preconceived notions of what particular identities meant in our lives, based on our growing understandings of these identities. We began to offer language to frame the work of character analysis as we continued with our read alouds this week: “I assume…” “I can assume…” “I’m assuming…” Ms. J relayed some of our developing thinking with her primary grade colleagues and they also began to rethink the language they were using with their young readers. They created language to use, too: “It is possible that…” and “Maybe…” “It could be that…, but not necessarily…” felt like complementary language for younger readers when talking about assumptions; it felt less definitive and final, just as assumptions are not truth.
Model it. As we began to use this language more in our work during read aloud and point to it on the board near the meeting area, Ms. J’s students began to work this new language into their conversations, too. We heard them both use the language in their moments of turn and talk with their partners as well as in sharing out thinking with the whole class. As we know that language shapes thinking, we suspect as we all continue to use the language of assumptions more and more, that her student’s thinking will also shift: that our work of analyzing characters is based on a set of assumptions, but that those assumptions may not be and often are not truth. This notion is one we’re delving deeper into in the coming weeks.
Contextualize it. Creating a framework for learners to tuck new learning into is incredibly important. Helping students to understand that when we name our assumptions about characters, even if they are based on textual evidence and seem so very true, that they are still only based on our perspectives and biases and experiences with text and with the world around us is vital for students to understand. We need to be so very mindful of the assumptions we make of characters and even more critically aware of the assumptions we make of those around us in our lives. Furthermore, we need to teach children that it’s not our right to declare what another person’s identity is; the only person who holds the power to declare who one really is, is the person themselves. We need to take care to communicate this essential truth to our students. We need to also communicate that it is paramount that we do not take action toward others based on assumptions we may have developed about them, especially when these assumptions have the potential of being oppressive in nature. This is a strand of thinking we’re following with her students as well in the coming weeks.
If we seek for students to transfer the work of the classroom to the work of life, we need to be explicit about how we might mindfully go about doing this and when the work of the classroom creates spaces of unsafety in our world, our work as educators become even more critical. Assumptions around character work in the classroom is one example of these critical spaces to reconsider. And it’s a big one because it’s so pervasive in our curriculum. When unnamed and unchecked, the skilled ability to use assumptions to profile others can lead us down a path toward divisiveness and violence in our lives. We must work against this reality, especially if we are to hope for a future where people are safe to know one another in authentically transparent and compassionate ways.
Oh and if you were still wondering, yes, I self-identify as a woman; my son, self-identifies as a transgender boy. And why this matters? Because, it’s our right to identify ourselves in the ways we see best define our authentic selves and your right to respect and love us for that. Our children can do this work of building broad minds and deep hearts and not making assumptions that lead us to tear one another down. Rather, children have the power to build one another up. I hope that as adults, we can do this work, too.
Published with permission from two educators in our advocacy network. -C