“That’s called racism!” a wise 5th grader recently stated during a whole-class conversation this December. “Yeah, isn’t that called racial profiling?” said another. Their amazing teacher, Ms. J, and I, a guest collaborator, researcher, and friend of the class, looked at one another, eyes wide and nodding at one another with the acknowledgment that: yep, they got there. Her students are the best. The absolute best. And really, of course, her kids would get there with their thinking. Here’s why: kids are beautifully capable of always getting there with their thinking when the conditions of possibility are created that enable them to explore big ideas with one another in mindfully respectful ways and their voices are amplified and centered by honoring their thinking space and decentering the space that adults occupy in the room. Plainly: when adult bodies get out of the way of kid spaces and adult voices take a back seat to the brilliance of kid thinking during class conversations exploring big social topics that need to be tackled with children of every age.
For sixteen months, Ms. J and I have been engaged in work with her fifth-graders at her Title 1 school in our big city, tackling critical conversations exploring ideas that center around privilege, power, oppression, identity, racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and ableism. Much of our work together has been documented on this blog, and for those of you who have followed along with our work; thank you for engaging with us; I hope our journey has become a part of your own activist journey with children in the spaces you occupy. This thought piece is a reflection of something poignant that happened just recently in her room, as we continue our critical work of trusting in her kids, as they continue to grow in awareness and compassion around these big conversations, because you know what friends, kids can, and have always been able, to do this big work. Always.
A few truths I hold, truths that are under no dispute in my world: kids are wise, insightful, and notice how things work in our eternally complicated world. And this, too: assumptions are dangerous, especially assumptions about people’s myriad identities. Not only are assumptions often the reasons for the distance we feel toward one another as humans, but they can also lead to violence and death. A bit of context for you and then a synthesis centering her students’ brilliance, because, at the end of the day, children are our future and will be the ones that artfully dig us out of this complicatedly unjust world adults have created.
At the end of November, I attended the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Annual Convention in St. Louis. I chose sessions to attend that would speak to the work around inclusive classrooms, centering justice, and equity in our school settings. One session I attended, a panel created by Heinemann Fellow and New York City public school teacher, Tiana Silvas, was breathtaking, as it centered actions educators must take to push back against the narrative of silence, a shameful reality that inhabits the culture of so many schools across this nation. Namely, taking action as teachers built upon the values and beliefs we hold true: that all children deserve to see themselves in our school spaces, that children deserve to be honored and trusted to tackle big topics in their classrooms, and that they are capable of engaging in ideas that center pushing back against systems that lead to oppressive realities for much of our youth across this nation. A critical notion, that we must engage in anti-oppressive work with young children and take a stand against the kind of silence we see in schools that often robs children of their very personhood.
The session was truly a transformational experience. During one part of it, specifically, another incredible educator, Heinemann Fellow Anna Osborn, shared a video with us. As I watched it, I grew increasingly unsettled. By the end, I was struck by a feeling of rage. Anna provided a moment for us to process the video with a partner at our table. I processed my thinking with a fellow activist educator and expressed to her just how enraged I felt at the injustice of what I was witnessing while watching the video, an injustice that reflects the shameful reality of our nation for so many youth. As the annual convention continued into the weekend, the video sat with me, on my mind and in my heart. The feeling of rage around the injustice of the content in the video and its reflection of the reality within which our nation finds itself continued to also sit with me. So I can build background knowledge for you, here’s a link to the video, entitled “Silent Beats.” Have a view of it, a few times perhaps, and then come on back to continue on the journey in Ms. J’s room that follows below. When Ms. J watched the video for the first time back in our home town, she had this reaction: “I felt sad. I felt sad because it is so much the reality of the world and it is so ingrained. I felt guilty of the same assumptions. I felt curious about what the kids would say. Curious about what they would walk away with.” It is with rage, and sadness, and curiosity that we went into the latest work with her students recently.
I knew Ms. J and I needed to incorporate this video into our work with her fifth graders and our exploration around assumptions and identity work grounded in critical literacy tenants. We’ve lately been using digital texts, short video clips specifically, layered into our work. It’s been masterfully engaging for her students, to be sure.
To provide context for her fifth graders, we wrote this question on the board for them to ponder before we jumped into viewing the video: Why might assumptions be dangerous? We hoped her students would link this video to the larger work we were engaged in across this school year. Ms. J also suggested they note-take during the viewing, to capture their thinking to support processing their ideas, both with partners after the first viewing and in preparation for a whole class conversation, at the end of the second viewing. Many of her students created a space in their reading workshop notebooks to capture their overall thinking, and specifically, their thinking about the three folks in the video: the boy, the man, and the lady. We also layered in the possibility of considering what assumptions they were possibly making as they viewed the video and asked them to consider what they might do if they were in the store at the same time this happened. (If this context feels confusing, please go watch the video if you haven’t already; it’s really critical you see it). We wanted to leave this experience as open-ended as possible, as we always strive to, to create possibilities of expansive thinking in any direction her students’ minds and hearts took them.
After the first viewing and while Ms. J and I listened in to their first partnership conversations, it was clear to us that some of the filmmaker’s craft moves, using flashback to illustrate both character’s assumptions as well as their memories, was causing much confusion for many of her students. So, we spoke into the idea of why writers use flashbacks and were able to clarify the times in the video when the flashbacks denoted real memories and the times the flashbacks denoted character assumptions about the other characters, assumptions that were often built off of stereotypes based on identities the characters inhabited.
Some initial reflections from her students, as they processed what they were witnessing in the video, that really stood out to Ms. J and me, that led to a really powerful whole-class conversation mostly student-led, as we tried to decenter our voices and just sit back and listen to where they went follows:
“Why did the man assume he [the boy] was gonna steal just because of the color of his skin? He didn’t do anything!”
“That’s my point! Why would they think the boy was bad when the lady stole the chocolate?”
This led Ms. J to ask: “While you were watching the film, what assumptions were you making while watching?” And here is where the brilliance of kid thinking while tackling big ideas in conversations that honestly, some adults are too fearful to engage in themselves, shone so brightly:
“I was assuming the man was racist because he assumed the Black boy was a criminal.”
“I assumed he [the boy] was a criminal in the beginning because of the images [of the fake mug shot] but I revised my thinking.”
“I assumed the man thought the boy was a suspect.”
We wanted to probe into where her students were getting their thinking a bit further, so Ms. J interjected for a quick moment, to explore this line of thinking by asking her students this pointed question: What do you feel their assumptions were based on?
Here’s the list they came up with to describe why they thought the man and lady thought the young boy was a criminal:
- His race; he’s a Black kid
- His clothes
- His age
- His facial expressions
- His movements
- His appearance
In my pursuit to understand where they were connecting these descriptors to the idea of identity, I asked her students this question: Why do all these identities you listed denote a criminal; why did these parts of his identity make the man and the lady assume he was a criminal?
And, here’s where their wise, insightful kid thinking just centered exactly where our racist, patriarchal, sexist, homophobic, transphobic nation finds itself today:
“That’s called racism!”
“It’s all based on identity and people make fun of different races, ages, clothes they wear.”
“Isn’t that called racial profiling?”
“He [the man] isn’t paying attention to her [the lady’s] race [white], he’s paying attention to the boy because he was Black.”
“They probably thought he was gang-related.”
“I think assumptions are based on experiences, based on his race.”
Ms. J’s students were able to astutely process and synthesize what they were seeing in this video, combining it with the reality they see in the community and world around them, to come to big realizations that reflect the state of our country today, that which many adults remain silent about: namely, the racism that surrounds us in all communities, in all contexts, in all spaces. Kids see it all, they see how the world operates around them and what is happening. The more we refuse, as adults, to engage in trusting kids’ ability to engage in this big work of tackling big conversations about the world around us and then coming up with ideas about how to work against this current narrative, the more we choose the side of silence, the more we are part of the problem, friends. Ms. J’s students are currently following up their thinking on this video with a reflective write about this notion, “Why might assumptions be dangerous, both in this video and in life…?”
Assumptions Are Dangerous, We Must Do Better.
As we await Ms. J’s students’ thoughts about why they feel assumptions can often be dangerous, I will take a moment to name a few ideas we’ve been contemplating for some time now and taking action upon.
Dangerous Cycle of Assumptions. From Ms. J: “Assumptions are so dangerous because they are so easy. It makes me think of Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. Something that stood out to me in his writing was how society/media/images have such a powerful grasp on our thinking that we are even afraid of our own people. Assumptions are made in a millisecond and that is what is so dangerous. It is hard to back out of assumptions fast enough to do right. Assumptions are dangerous because they leave out so much. I love teaching through the lens of assumption because it teaches children daily that they don’t have all the information they need to make harsh judgments; or judgments at all for that matter. The practice of mindfulness and the work around assumptions go hand in hand. As we get more “control” over our natural desire to react and respond, as we become more present, we are able to slow ourselves down and be more mindful of our outward reactions. It will take some major deconstructing over a long period of time to stop that blink of an eye gut reaction, but being in the moment allows one to carefully process their initial reaction and move forward with more care and consciousness. The danger of assumptions is when we begin to live by them. Accepting that our narrow view or our narrow span of information is gold, we close ourselves off to all the possibilities. The stereotypes and the oppression just continue in their cycle as long as we continue to base our knowledge on assumptions. On the other hand, not trusting that gut feeling, that blink of an eye reaction, can be dangerous, too. We have that in our bodies to protect us. It is primal. This animal response was not meant, however, to pass judgment and generate stereotypes; it is in us for survival. No one needs to judge another to survive. This is what we need to teach children (and ourselves!). We need to teach them that to assume is human, but what we do with our assumptions, whether we stop or seek more information, is key. One must keep looking, keep asking, and consider other options, so as not to perpetuate the cycle.” Ms. J’s thinking and stance as a human being inspire me daily; as an educator, mama, and human being traveling this path alongside her.
Violence of Assumptions. Assumptions based on a person’s perceived identities is dangerous and often leads to violence and sometimes death, both self-inflicted and upon others. As a mother of a young transgender child myself, the assumptions made about the trans community by folks that have little information or center their reactions out of fear and hatred, has led to murders, assaults to personhood, and countless daily bullying and discriminatory actions toward trans youth across this nation, both by peers and by adults. It terrifies me to think about the country we’ve created that one day our children will inhabit as adults. What brings me hope is the action I see so many mindful adults, specifically revolutionary educators, taking to work against this scary reality. If you’re an educator, speak up about what you see around you on your school campus and in your community. Seek the support of your local LGBTQ center or other resources to support your efforts of creating a more inclusive school campus for all your students. Work against identity-based bullying and take action to ensure that all of your students feel safe. While I cannot speak to the myriad identities we all inhabit, I can boldly speak up traveling alongside a child who is just trying to grow up and thrive in his childhood whilst feeling the oppressive nature of being his authentic self visibly in all the spaces he occupies. We’ve big work to do here, friends.
Distance Created By Assumptions. Assumptions we make toward one another, within even five minutes of meeting, often create distance between us. If we are to truly know one another, we must take the time to put aside preconceived notions of who we think one another are based on the identity stereotypes that come to mind, and truly take the time to hear one another; to know one another’s stories; to know one another’s layers. This is one way we break down fences that divide us, we choose to engage with one another. Assumptions based on identity get in the way all too often. If I truly know you and you truly know me, how can you wish me harm and I you? I think the first step is prioritizing hearing one another, with expansive minds and open hearts. It’s a start, one that can begin with us as educators, with the very students in our shared spaces daily. Do you truly know the children in your shared spaces? What can you do to take action toward truly knowing their authentic selves? My first step, hearing youth more while talking less.
If I may, my ask of you at this point in my thinking, trying to process the brilliance of kid thinking, the notions that we explore in Ms. J’s classroom with her students on a weekly basis, and the reflections rolling around in my head and my heart. I’m inspired by your action and the ways you are stepping up on behalf of the youth in your communities. They deserve our best. If you’re an educator, you’re among a movement of educators who’ve been working steadfastly on creating anti-oppressive educational spaces for children to inhabit in inclusive, just, equitable classrooms for a long time now, a movement I’m humbled to be welcomed into and be an active part of. I am nothing if not for the mentors and steadfast activist educators and thought leaders who’ve come long before me. I am eternally grateful for them in this world. If you’re a parent, you have the power to support your children as they tackle the big ideas in life, with eyes wide, minds expansive, and hearts open. If you’re an adult in the care of children in any capacity, I urge you to find your place in this work; there is room for everyone to stand up, speak up, and work toward educational justice for ALL our children.
I want to send you off with a lingering thought from my synthesis of sentiment that two inspiring educators whose work I follow closely, Tiana Silvas and Aeriale Johnson, recently made on a breathtaking podcast produced through Heinemann as Heinemann Fellows (you can find a link here. Please have a listen; it’s a critical conversation). Tiana speaks to the notion that empathy is not enough, we are working toward compassion with one another. “Empathy is feeling for someone, but compassion is the action behind it, to bear the burden, to carry the weight, to lay your life down for another person, where your heart is in it.” She challenges us to consider what part of our comfort zone we are willing to give up for the humanity of us all. I can not agree more with the brilliance of these two thought leaders. Educator friends, what are you willing to give up, to center the work of creating just educational spaces for ALL our children where we tackle the big topics of life, support student thinking in expansive ways, work toward anti-oppressive inclusive learning spaces, and break down the danger that assumptions create for one another? This is no longer about contemplation, study, and talk; it’s about action, in all the realms of your life. The lives of children depend on your action. Please choose to live a life of compassion and action with us.
Published with permission from two educators and parents in our advocacy network. All rights to classroom images reserved with the two educators. -C