Personalized Learning: Enabling Student Voice and Choice Through Projects

Edutopia

Adapt these six tips to bring personalized learning projects into your classroom and build student engagement.

Follow this link for an interesting video

Overview

Addressing four teenagers standing at the front of the classroom, Gary Hook, a history teacher at Nashville Big Picture High School, told them, “I’m going to give you $100,000 for 20 percent equity in the company. I need to know right now, though. I need to know whether you’re in or not.”

A panel of four additional 11th-grade teachers sat beside Hook, and each of them took turns making different investment offers based on the product, potential revenue, and investment request that the students initially pitched.

The power switched into the students’ hands when they chose an offer, and all of their classmates erupted in cheers. They were participating in a two-week Shark Tank project — based on the show of the same name — where entrepreneurs pitch investors to fund their company.

 

 

What began as a classwide math project to learn about the profit function equation and quadratic functions culminated into a grade-level presentation to imitate the show Shark Tank.

Each student was tasked with joining a group to create a fictitious business, which included developing a product and marketing plan, choosing a location and work space, and identifying how much money they would need for startup costs and what the return would be for investors.

“One of the things you hear all the time as a math teacher is, ‘When am I ever going to use this?'” says Derick Richardson, a Nashville Big Picture math teacher. “I try to bridge that. And so through this project, the kids were able to see, ‘Oh, man, we’re talking about stuff that I hear on the news and that I see on this TV show that I like, and it actually makes sense.’ Everybody got involved, even the kids that are not good at math. I’ve never seen these kids get this excited about a math project.”

“When you’re able make learning relevant to a student,” adds Chaerea Snorten, Nashville Big Picture’s principal, “it helps them want to do it and not just because that’s what’s expected. The whole focus of personalized learning is that students see the relevance of what it is that they’re doing. The outcome is students are engaged, and they’re enjoying the learning process.”

If you want to engage your students in personalized learning projects, here are six tips from Nashville Big Picture High School for how you can get started.

How It’s Done

1. Make Your Projects Simple

Not every project has to be a grade-level collaboration like the Shark Tank project. Instead of the traditional paper or PowerPoint presentation, give your students choices in how they show their learning. They may choose to make a video, act out a skit, or create a painting.

Kristin, a Nashville Big Picture junior, was asked to depict slavery in any way that she wanted for her history class. She chose art. Her painting depicted Harriet Tubman and a slave girl against a backdrop of words.

These words — ranging from “kidnapping” to “hope” — depicted a slave’s journey from slavery to emancipation. She appreciated not only being able to choose how she would express her learning, but also the public display of her art — alongside other students’ work — in the school hallways. “My art is a part of me,” shared Kristin, “and so for people to walk by and see a part of me, it feels great.”

When Harley, an alumnus, entered Nashville Big Picture in ninth grade, he was given the choice in how he could approach his first project. “I made a video documentary about myself,” Harley recalls, “and from that assignment, I realized that I loved making movies.” From that moment forward — from his exhibitions to his senior capstone project — Harley expressed his learning through video. “I wouldn’t have put in as much time and effort if I had to write a lot of papers, but by making a bunch of videos, I was able to do awesome work because it was something I cared about,” he says.

Watch Harley’s short video for Edutopia about student voice and choice (and read his four tips on how teachers can engage students).

2. Let Your Students Choose What They Learn (It’s Not as Scary as it Sounds)

In place of a quarterly test, Big Picture history teacher Gary Hook assigned his students a mini-project to research, investigate, and present on a topic within modern U.S. history. He gave them a list of topics from the ‘80s to the present — ranging from movements (like gay rights and Black Lives Matter) to the impact of social media on modern-day society. If there wasn’t a topic on the list that his students wanted to research, he let them choose their own topic as long as it fit within modern U.S. history.

Give your students a list of options from which they can choose, whether it’s a book to read in language arts, a topic to research in history, or a business to create in math. “With project work, I try to give them a menu of options that they can choose from to show their learning,” explains Hook, “as well as a menu of options that they can choose to research. This allows them to operate in a space where they are comfortable.”

3. Give Your Students a Project Framework

Giving your students choice in what they learn and in how they express their learning doesn’t mean that content or standards get thrown out the window. Hook was able to give his students choice while still meeting his content objectives. Nor does giving your students choice mean that your assignments lack structure or planning. “When it comes to personalizing our learning, we have to look at what our content and standards are. We start there,” says Snorten.

“The essence of personalized learning is understanding where the student is and where they want to go, as well as where you need them to go,” adds Hook. Give your students a project brief to make sure that they cover the content and skills you need them to learn. Hook gave his students a project brief outlining the objective, topic options for research, guidance on how they’ll carry out their project (such as working in groups and presenting their topic), and details on what needed to be included in their process.

4. Use Temperature Checks to Assess Your Students’ Work

When assessing personalized learning projects, do one-on-one or group temperature checks with your students. Are they hot or cold? Are they way off or close to grasping what they need to understand? When Richardson’s students were working on the Shark Tank project, he would go from group to group, checking in on their profit functions.

Richardson also checked in on their progress with their product, their marketing campaign, and the elements of their project that were less tied to math. “Sometimes you have a project, but you don’t follow up,” he explains. “You hand out a sheet of paper, they go do it, and that’s it. I really wanted them to get excited about this, be passionate about it, and create something that they really might be able to use outside of the classroom.” Student choice about their project brings relevance to their learning. By showing interest in the whole project, you show interest in their passions and in your students themselves. They’ll become more engaged in their work if they believe that you’re excited and engaged in what they’re doing and in who they are.

5. Get to Know Your Students

“We need to understand who our students are and how they learn,” stresses Richardson. Once you understand your students’ needs, you won’t waste time delivering content in a way that they won’t comprehend. “It saves you a lot of time and effort,” he says.

“Like adults,” adds Courtney Ivy Davis, Big Picture’s school counselor and internship coordinator, “their passion is what drives them. It’s what gives them excitement, and we want them to be excited about their passion and tie that to their education so that they can be successful lifelong learners.” Students don’t walk into your classroom with their passions and interests written on their forehead. You have to uncover these things while giving your students the opportunity to explore and discover their interests for themselves. By offering them choice in what and how they learn, you allow them to figure out how they learn best. Building intentional relationships with your students will allow you to guide them in this discovery. Here are 22 ways that Nashville Big Picture builds intentional relationships with their students. (Note that these strategies are applicable even if you’re at a bigger school.)

6. Ask Your Students What They Want and Need

“Student voice is number one,” emphasizes Snorten. “Hear it, learn it, ask for it. ‘What is it that will help you do better? How can we help you improve? What do you need from us?'” Building personal relationships with each of your students is important, but it also takes time.

If you have a class of 40 students, and want to know their needs and interests now, ask them.

See Related Resources: When We Listen to Students and Student Surveys: Using Student Voice to Improve Teaching and Learning

Help Your Students Figure Out How They Learn Best

Rather than opening a textbook, memorizing steps to an equation, or learning the teacher’s method on how to understand something, personalized learning allows your students to figure out how they learn best. They also get to see how their peers learn best, showing them that there are many ways to problem solve and reach the same solution. “At other schools, they might know one specific way to do things,” explains Richardson, “but our students are prepared to be more creative in how they figure out the solution. They learn how to learn on their own, and they take that into college.”

Missouri School District Eliminates Grades K-6

Neosho students ‘take ownership’ of their education

  • By Ariel Cooley acooley@joplinglobe.com
  • Aug 4, 2016
  • Joplin Globe

NEOSHO, Mo. — When school starts in Neosho in about two weeks, some students won’t have to worry about receiving an “F.”

Kindergarten to sixth-grade classrooms will be implementing a new grading system that is standard based.

The new system breaks down subjects into standards. The students will receive a 1 to 4 for each standard, with “1” meaning the student is “emerging,” but does not yet understand the standard. A “4” means the student is “advanced” and understands the standard completely. Participation and behavior will still be important, but will be evaluated separately from academics.

“Ultimately, the benefit as a school leader is that once you put standards in place and you have a way to assess where a student is,” said Superintendent Dan Decker. “It allows us to tailor make the education for each student.”

Students who master content more quickly than others will be able to move on to more challenging material. Teachers will be able to pinpoint where other students are struggling and help them to move ahead.

Becky Sears, assistant superintendent of curriculum, said the goal is for every student to be at a “3” in each standard by the end of the year.

“It’s all about progress and learning,” she said.

Though Sears said she hopes to implement some of the standard-based grading philosophy at the high school, she doesn’t expect to be able to be able to stray away from the traditional letter-grade system.

“If they have an assignment and do really poorly, but go spend some extra time working on that standard, they could come back and show us they have improved in their learning,” Sears said.

Students and parents will receive detailed explanations of the new grading system, what each number means and how to progress from one number to another.

IN OTHER NEWS: STUDENTS SURPRISE TEACHER WITH KITTENS

“It will really put the ownership of the learning back into the student’s hands,” she said. “They will have so much information and will know how to get to the higher level.”

Students will have ample time to work on each standard. Unlike traditional grading, after the final test on the subject they will still have chances to learn and show their teachers they have mastered the standard.

“It will help to keep us from leaving students behind that really haven’t grasped it yet,” Sears said.

Sears said that eventually they will individualize instruction for each child. This, she said, will require more work and research from the teachers, but a lot of teachers have already started doing this on their own.

A few teachers began using the grading system last year as a sort of test run. Sears said that in those classrooms, students are already “taking ownership of their education and are more motivated and engaged in their learning.”

Eileen Ford, principal at Neosho Middle School, said she is excited about the change.

“With standard-based grading, the number is only what the child knows,” Ford said. “So it actually gives you a more valid picture of their learning level.”

Ford said she thinks parents will like the new system, too. “It will let them know how to help and their child know how to improve to reach that goal and that standard,” she said.

Origin

Some schools adopted a standard-based grading system as early as the 1970s and 1980s. T.H. Bell, the U.S. Secretary of Education at the time, created a task force that wrote “A Nation at Risk” in 1983. The report detailed educational standards and gave recommendations to improve the quality of education in the United States.

How to Deliver an Effective Presentation: Lessons from a Middle School Speech Contest

“Hi, my name is Beckett. You must be Mr. Selover.” He looked me in the eye and held out his hand for a firm handshake. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

As a frequent public speaker, I had been invited by a local charter school to judge a speech contest among their younger students. The school is outside of downtown Orlando, under some shady old-growth trees, with a well-worn parking lot and an unprepossessing entrance. Front door locked, with no attendant. I escaped the Florida sun through a side door and wandered the cool, dark, semi-deserted hallways, unsure of where to go… until I found a little knot of students, the boys in jackets and ties and the girls in dresses. Beckett, who looked to be about 12, saw me first, and stepped forward. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, too,” I said. The ice broken, the others introduced themselves. If you’re reading this, you’re likely an educator who has been surrounded by a crowd of preteens, so you know what that’s like. Their excitement carried me down the hall and into the contest room on a wave of enthusiasm. Speech contest: on.
I’ve been to hundreds of corporate meetings, seminars, and other events over the years. I’ve met and worked with dozens of big-name speakers and high-profile executives. And you’d be surprised at how few of them know to do what Beckett did — reach out, say hello, get things started. We’re all nervous with each other, a little bit shy, even people of great accomplishment. So a greeting, with some energy and a desire to connect behind it, means more than people realize. So does dressing up a little bit. What these students knew, and many adults don’t, is that a speech is an occasion. When you’re up in front of people, taking their time and asking for their attention, you owe it to them to step up and give your best.

The Genius in the Format

The administrator who had invited me to be a judge had found me by looking online. A few years ago, I was fortunate to be asked to speak at the local TED conference, where I talked about a worldwide public speaking series called PechaKucha Night (pronounced puh-CHAW kuh-SHAW). I organize the Orlando version of this event several times a year, not only hosting but coaching the speakers before their performances. PechaKucha is a bit like TED, but on steroids: Each speaker uses PowerPoint, but only 20 slides. The slides run automatically on the computer for 20 seconds each, and the presenter has no control. Unable to pause, go back, digress, or indulge in any of the other bad habits that make an audience squirm, they are onstage for precisely six minutes and 40 seconds, after which they cede to the next speaker.
PechaKucha (a Japanese word that roughly translates as “chatter” or “chitchat”) was invented by architects Mark Dytham and Astrid Klein about 12 years ago. From a small venue in Tokyo where they work and host events, it quickly spread around the world — PechaKucha Nights are now held in about 900 cities.
These nights are a chance to hear a variety of local speakers on any number of fascinating topics, but the real genius is in the format. With only 20 slides, and only about 50 words sayable in 20 seconds, the presenter is forced to not only be brief but also to be concise. It makes a huge difference. The compression of thought and ideas into this tight space causes the same explosion of meaning that’s found in haiku. As Dytham put it once, after all that cutting and pruning “all that’s left in people’s presentations is the poetry.” So a PechaKucha Night has one distinct advantage over any other speaking event, including TED: None of the presentations are boring. Or to put it more precisely, none of them give you that terrible feeling of trudging through a desert of bullet points with no horizon in sight.

The Elements of a Captivating Speech

Back at the speech contest, we were at a more traditional speaking event. There were 15 contestants, all speaking on the topic of the world’s dwindling supply of water and what to do about it. This was (pardon me for saying) a typical academic mistake. You’re putting a student at a terrible disadvantage with a topic like this, something requiring not just expertise that’s way beyond them but a highly developed ability to package that knowledge in a way that resonates with an audience.
I’ve actually had speakers at my events talk about the world’s supply of water, and there is no drier topic. A fair number of the students did what you’d expect — they went to Wikipedia and found a bunch of facts. This, too, is something many adults are guilty of doing. Many people view communication as a conveyor belt: Put a pile of facts on one end and send it off to the audience. But facts are not enough. You need to have a point of view that the facts are in support of, and more than that, you need to convey passion and purpose behind that point of view.
Yet several of the students gave excellent speeches despite the fairly deadly topic they’d been saddled with. During their presentations, they:
  • talked about water in their own lives;
  • gave details about their families and their neighborhoods;
  • shared their feelings and experiences;
  • used the subject as a starting place for a broader discussion;
  • structured their talks with a clear beginning, middle and ending; and
  • made sure that both the start and the finish were dramatic and interesting.
The beauty of a well-done speech is that it doesn’t have to be on a timer. In fact, you’re unaware of the time passing and it’s over too soon. That’s how it was for our three winners, Karmelyn, Cortez and — you guessed it — my friend Beckett, who came in a strong third. Each of them gave the audience a clear sense of themselves and their sensibilities. I share this advice with the speakers I coach: People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.
After the contest, the students and I talked about how all of the above elements make a good presentation. We also discussed the other lessons PechaKucha teaches: Focus on your topic, have a clear goal (what you want the audience to know, to feel, or to do), and organize the presentation clearly around that goal. All good lessons. But when I think back on it, the most memorable lesson of the day was the one I relearned from Beckett. Step forward, hold your hand out, look somebody in the eye. Don’t make a speech — make a connection.
Eddie Selover is a marketing communications professional, a life coach, and an award-winning public speaker. 

Design Thinking and the Deskless Classroom

Edutopia

Back-to-school conjures images of desks in neat rows, and the smells of crayons and glue. Teachers work hard to make warm, inviting learning spaces for students, but let’s take a step back. What does a desk represent? Imagine a classroom that looked less like a traditional classroom and more like an artist’s studio. Our physical environment, as explored in The Third Teacher, tells us what is possible in that space. What if, instead of making our space for our students, we made it with our students? This is what design thinking allows us to do.

Last September, the day before students returned, I looked around my classroom and panicked. Bulletin boards were bare, and there was no furniture. I said to myself, “Parents are going to think I don’t care!” But the opposite was true after I took a risk: instead of me decorating a classroom for my students, we made a learning space together. After all, I work here, but so do they. Design thinking our way through making our own learning space was, hands down, the hardest and best change that I ever made as a classroom teacher.

Why Design Thinking?

Increasing student engagement by taking the leap into a deskless classroom required an introduction to design thinking and the support of my admin. Creating a learning space through design thinking is about fostering student agency from the outset. Students are more engaged in this space. More than an interior design project, rethinking a learning space is about remaking not only the space, but also the learning that happens there. Design thinking is about finding a real-world solution to a real-world problem.

How to Use Design Thinking for a Deskless Classroom

Step 1: Create empathy

Students explored where and how they work best and what might be done in this space if it could be remade in any way that they needed. At first, I had a hard time taking a hands-off approach and letting students own the space. I let go of my ownership by trusting them.

Step 2: Ideate

Brainstorm. To begin, every idea is a good idea. Students brainstormed and shook loose hundreds of ideas on sticky notes and chart paper. A silent gallery walk of all the ideas allowed us pick out the best ones.

Step 3: Prototype

After brainstorming, students sketched. Initial sketches led to the project-based learning where students measured the classroom and created a scale model. They discovered that the limited amount of space meant planning how to make it work best.

Step 4: Test, build, and tell the story

Volunteers helped construct and move furniture, but students were in charge of furniture placement, right down to arrangement of the bulletin boards. Rethinking our space on a limited budget meant that students had to get really creative. They looked around the school for unused furniture, asked for donations, and wrote letters to admin asking for funds. After the build, students reflected in their visual journals about how this space might work for them and what goals they would set for themselves.

Making It Work Day to Day

The deskless classroom looks like a space with no structure, but the opposite is true. In a space where more choice is available, students need to be held more accountable for their behavior and work outcome. This is still a fine balance for children in primary school. Self-regulation is difficult for some (let’s be honest — it’s hard for lots of adults, too). So there must be a balance of choice and self-regulation. Remaking the space means putting students at the center of their learning. Giving them the privilege of choosing where and how to work requires them to take responsibility. And they will.

Many Iterations

Looking back at last September, I remember my feelings when the classroom was done! And then . . . it wasn’t done. Some elements worked, and others actually made me a little twitchy. In the end, every member of the classroom community needs to be comfortable with how it works. Some elements were taken out. Others were added. This space constantly flexes to meet the needs of students.

When is a good time to start creating a deskless classroom? Now! There will always be reasons not to take the risk in learning with students, and honestly, I expected a lot of pushback from parents and admin that just never happened. Students in my classroom don’t have an assigned space, but it’s never been a problem. I know that my room can be confusing for some people first walking in, like substitute teachers or other teachers’ students when we exchange classes. My solution has been careful routine building with students to help them take responsibility for the space.

Taking a leap into something new with students can be scary but also incredibly rewarding as they take ownership not only of the space, but also of the learning. Part of the reason for the space’s success is that it’s not mine. It’s ours. And now that I’ve ditched the desks, I’m sure I’ll never go back!

Whether you’ve visited a deskless classroom, taught in one, or have further questions, please share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

Why Handwriting Is Still Essential in the Keyboard Age

The New York Times

Photo

CreditAnna Parini

Do children in a keyboard world need to learn old-fashioned handwriting?

There is a tendency to dismiss handwriting as a nonessential skill, even though researchers have warned that learning to write may be the key to, well, learning to write.

And beyond the emotional connection adults may feel to the way we learned to write, there is a growing body of research on what the normally developing brain learns by forming letters on the page, in printed or manuscript format as well as in cursive.

In an article this year in The Journal of Learning Disabilities, researchers looked at how oral and written language related to attention and what are called “executive function” skills (like planning) in children in grades four through nine, both with and without learning disabilities.

Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington and the lead author on the study, told me that evidence from this and other studies suggests that “handwriting — forming letters — engages the mind, and that can help children pay attention to written language.”

Last year in an article in The Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, Laura Dinehart, an associate professor of early childhood education at Florida International University, discussed several possible associations between good handwriting and academic achievement: Children with good handwriting may get better grades because their work is more pleasant for teachers to read; children who struggle with writing may find that too much of their attention is consumed by producing the letters, and the content suffers.

But can we actually stimulate children’s brains by helping them form letters with their hands? In a population of low-income children, Dr. Dinehart said, the ones who had good early fine-motor writing skills in prekindergarten did better later on in school. She called for more research on handwriting in the preschool years, and on ways to help young children develop the skills they need for “a complex task” that requires the coordination of cognitive, motor and neuromuscular processes.

“This myth that handwriting is just a motor skill is just plain wrong,” Dr. Berninger said. “We use motor parts of our brain, motor planning, motor control, but what’s very critical is a region of our brain where the visual and language come together, the fusiform gyrus, where visual stimuli actually become letters and written words.” You have to see letters in “the mind’s eye” in order to produce them on the page, she said. Brain imaging shows that the activation of this region is different in children who are having trouble with handwriting.

Functional brain scans of adults show a characteristic brain network that is activated when they read, and it includes areas that relate to motor processes. This suggested to scientists that the cognitive process of reading may be connected to the motor process of forming letters.

Karin James, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, did brain scans on children who did not yet know how to print. “Their brains don’t distinguish letters; they respond to letters the same as to a triangle,” she said.

After the children were taught to print, patterns of brain activation in response to letters showed increased activation of that reading network, including the fusiform gyrus, along with the inferior frontal gyrus and posterior parietal regions of the brain, which adults use for processing written language — even though the children were still at a very early level as writers.

“The letters they produce themselves are very messy and variable, and that’s actually good for how children learn things,” Dr. James said. “That seems to be one big benefit of handwriting.”

Handwriting experts have struggled with the question of whether cursive writing confers special skills and benefits, beyond the benefits that print writing might provide. Dr. Berninger cited a 2015 study that suggested that starting around fourth grade, cursive skills conferred advantages in both spelling and composing, perhaps because the connecting strokes helped children connect letters into words.

For typically developing young children, typing the letters doesn’t seem to generate the same brain activation. As we grow up, of course, most of us transition to keyboard writing, though like many who teach college students, I have struggled with the question of laptops in class, more because I worry about students’ attention wandering than to promote handwriting. Still, studies on note taking have suggested that “college students who are writing on a keyboard are less likely to remember and do well on the content than if writing it by hand,” Dr. Dinehart said.

Dr. Berninger said the research suggests that children need introductory training in printing, then two years of learning and practicing cursive, starting in grade three, and then some systematic attention to touch-typing.

Using a keyboard, and especially learning the positions of the letters without looking at the keys, she said, might well take advantage of the fibers that cross-communicate in the brain, since unlike with handwriting, children will use both hands to type.

“What we’re advocating is teaching children to be hybrid writers,” said Dr. Berninger, “manuscript first for reading — it transfers to better word recognition — then cursive for spelling and for composing. Then, starting in late elementary school, touch-typing.”

As a pediatrician, I think this may be another case where we should be careful that the lure of the digital world doesn’t take away significant experiences that can have real impacts on children’s rapidly developing brains. Mastering handwriting, messy letters and all, is a way of making written language your own, in some profound ways.

“My overarching research focuses on how learning and interacting with the world with our hands has a really significant effect on our cognition,” Dr. James said, “on how writing by hand changes brain function and can change brain development.”

Teaching Young Children About Bias, Diversity, and Social Justice

Edutopia

spiegler-teachyoungchildsocialjust-notstock

When my daughter was three years old, I taught her the word “stereotype.” She was just beginning to string words together into sentences, had determined that pink was definitely not her favorite color, and asked (demanded, actually) why all the “girl stuff” was pink and the “boy stuff” was blue. Because there’s no three-year-old version for a word describing why colors are gendered in our society, I figured that planting the seed might yield fruit soon enough. And somewhat surprisingly, I was correct.

Who’s Different and What’s Fair

As a society and within our educational institutions, discussions about bias, diversity, discrimination, and social justice tend to happen in middle and high schools. We’ve somehow decided that little kids can’t understand these complex topics, or we want to delay exposing them to injustices as long as possible (even though not all children have the luxury of being shielded from injustice).

However, young children have a keen awareness of and passion for fairness. They demand right over wrong, just over unjust. And they notice differences without apology or discomfort.

Racial identity and attitudes begin to develop in children at a young age. Two- and three-year-olds become aware of the differences between boys and girls, may begin noticing obvious physical disabilities, become curious about skin color and hair color/texture, and may also be aware of ethnic identity. By the time they’re five and entering kindergarten, children begin to identify with an ethnic group to which they belong and are able to explore the range of differences within and between racial/ethnic groups. In terms of bias, by age three or four, white children in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Europe show preferences for other white children. Further, current research suggests that children as young as three years old, when exposed to prejudice and racism, tend to embrace and accept it even though they might not understand the feelings.

The good news is that bias can be unlearned or reversed if we’re exposed to diversity in a positive way. Harnessing young children’s desire for fairness and using it as opening to discuss bias and discrimination is not a hard leap, but one that needs to be made explicitly and with instruction. They are also not afraid to comment on observed differences. Decades of research indicate that even if parents and adults are not talking about race or other differences, children still notice differences and prejudice. If we choose not to teach or talk about it, children’s notions about race and differences will go unchecked and likely become further entrenched in their minds.

It’s also important that adults in children’s lives do not perpetuate the idea that we should be “colorblind” to racial differences or shush them when they notice someone with a disability. Sometimes adults do this out of their own discomfort with talking about differences, or because they think noticing differences somehow makes you biased. We want to encourage children to notice differences because they do so naturally, yet at the same time, honor people’s identities without judging or discriminating based on differences. In other words, noticing people’s differences is natural, but when adults assign judgments or value to these differences, bias can develop in young children.

5 Elementary Strategies

Elementary school is a time ripe for these discussions. Provided that teachers have the right tools and resources and use developmentally appropriate language and activities, teaching about these concepts can be rich and engaging for children, laying the groundwork for more sophisticated understanding when they move into the tween and teen years.

Here are five concrete ways of bringing discussions about bias and diversity into the elementary classroom:

1. Use children’s literature.

There’s a wealth of children’s books that can be read aloud and independently to approach the topic of bias, diversity, and social justice. Whether it’s about people who are different than your students (window books), an affirmation of their identity (mirror books), or one that exposes bias or shares stories of people who stood up to injustice, reading books is a core part of the elementary classroom curriculum and therefore a seamless way to address the topic.

2. Use the news media.

Find topics and news stories that bring forth these themes, discuss them in the classroom, and build other reading, writing, social studies, and math lessons around them. Relevant news stories that highlight bias and especially those where someone stood up to it and justice prevailed — like the nine-year-old boy who was banned from bringing his My Little Pony backpack to school because it was the source of bullying, or the story ofMisty Copeland becoming the first African American appointed as a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater in its 75-year history — are terrific teachable moments.

3. Teach anti-bias lessons.

We know that all educators face a plethora of daily demands. But because children’s social and emotional development is a key part of the elementary curriculum and because much of the teasing, name-calling, and bullying is identity-based, it’s helpful for the classroom climate to set aside a time every week for an explicit lesson on this topic. Social and emotional skill development lessons are the foundation, and then teachers can move to lessons on identity, differences, bias, and how bias and bullying can be addressed individually and institutionally.

4. Give familiar examples.

Take advantage of children’s interest in books, TV shows, toys, and video games, and use them as opportunities to explore diversity, bias, and social justice. Whether it’s about toys and gender stereotypes, a New Jersey girlwho was tired of seeing books only about white boys and dogs, or discussing a new line of dolls with disabilities, you can provide openings for children to see how bias takes place in media and the everyday objects that they use.

5. Explore solutions.

Re-think the concept of “helping others” (through service learning projects or other volunteer opportunities) to include discussions with children about the inequities that contribute to the problem and consider actions that can address it. For example, while it’s useful to provide food to homeless people, we want to deepen the conversation to convey a social justice perspective and a wider lens with children. Therefore, discuss the stigma and stereotypes of homeless people, learn about unfair housing policies, and reflect on solutions that will reverse the problem in a lasting way and encourage students to take action.

Start Early

Recently, several prominent national education organizations (including theNEA, AERA, AFT, and NCTE) have called for addressing equity in schools and society, specifically recommending that we need to highlight the “systemic patterns of inequity — racism and educational injustice — that impacts our students,” and that educators and school leaders “receive the tools, training, and support they need to build curricula with substantive exploration of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination.”

We need to begin this process with our youngest hearts and minds in order to have a lasting impact. What are your thoughts? How do you approach social justice issues with elementary students? Please share in the comments section below.

When Black and White Children Grow Apart

The Atlantic
Research shows that interracial friendships decline as kids enter adolescence—and that teachers may play a role.

MELINDA D. ANDERSON JUN 14, 2016

The image of black and white children hand-in-hand is possibly the most well-known and most often quoted line from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Over the years, black and white youngsters playing together has evolved from a civil-rights leader’s vision of racial equality to a clothing retailer’s marketing campaign, and in the process spawned a cultural meme—signaling everything from innocence and hope to a world free of interpersonal racism. Yet black and white childhood friendships, an inspiring notion, rarely happen organically.

According to a new study of elementary- and middle-school students, teacher behaviors may shape how students select and maintain friends and affect the longevity of interracial friendships. The study, led by researchers with New York University’s Steinhardt School, finds that as students move through a single school year, from the fall through the spring semester, their number of cross-racial friendships decreases. What’s more, students’ perceptions of their teachers—who may treat children in the same class differently, for example—influenced the rate of growth in same-race friendships from the fall to the spring.
Elise Cappella, an associate professor of applied psychology at NYU and the study’s lead author, said the group started out with a common understanding, supported by popular wisdom and established research, that as young people approach and enter adolescence, their likelihood of forming friendships across racial and ethnic groups decreases. “We wanted to try to understand what might be influencing that change … and we wanted to go beyond simply understanding the opportunity piece [greater numbers of diverse peers] to understanding what parts of this social process or the teaching practices might make a difference in the changes that occur.”

Access to diversity is only the first step, not the destination.
The research is drawn from a longitudinal study of the school experiences of 553 black and white students in a racially diverse, middle-class, and suburban unidentified district. That study, the Early Adolescent Development Study, collected detailed self-reported surveys during the 1996-97 school year from children ages 8 through 12 in grades three through five: 61 percent white, 39 percent black, with equal numbers of male and female students.

It’s a notable data set for a couple reasons, Cappella said, emphasizing that in the age range studied “children still form most of their friendships in classrooms and in schools. That was the case in 1996, and that’s still the case in 2016.” The data in the Early Adolescent Development Study is also particularly useful for analyzing interracial friendships because it was conducted in a school district that at the time had relatively low levels of tracking and high levels of integration—an unusual combination—facilitating an analysis of factors such as cross-racial friendships. Further, because the composition of the class and the actual teacher didn’t change, “if there were changes in cross- and same-race friendships [during] that year, we can isolate the effect [to] some aspect of that classroom.”

After calculating the racial composition of the students’ classes, the study’s authors used an index to measure how many same-race friendships would be expected if friendships were randomly distributed. Despite the district’s high level of racial integration, researchers found that the number of same-race friends grew for both black and white children over the school year, with white and older students showing the largest increases.
In the fall of the third grade, black students had 15 percent fewer same-race friendships and white students had 2 percent more same-race friends than would be expected by random chance. By the spring, black third-graders had 5 percent fewer same-race friendships than would be expected by random chance and white third-graders had 6 percent more. Among fifth-graders, black students started out with 2 percent more same-race friends than expected, and white students started out with 23 percent more. By year-end, fifth-grade black students had 10 percent more friends of the same race than expected and white students had 33 percent more.

As the argument goes and studies prove, children of all backgrounds benefit from diversified classrooms and schools where they can interact with peers of different races and ethnicities. Teaching Tolerance, an educational project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, concluded in a comprehensive review of research on racial and ethnic diversity in schools that “a racially integrated student body is necessary to obtain cross-racial understanding, which may lead to a reduction of harmful stereotypes and bias.” But access to diversity is only the first step, not the destination, said Cappella, noting that the study points to the need for teachers to create classrooms where interracial friendships can develop and grow.

The influence of teachers on students’ cross-racial bonds manifests itself in two key ways. Researchers found smaller increases in same-race friendships from the fall to the spring in classrooms where student perceptions of teachers’ warmth, respect, and trust—“My teacher pays attention to my feelings” and “My teacher helps children feel good about themselves”— were rated highest. And black children were more likely to make friends with white classmates during the school year in classrooms where teachers received high rankings on differential treatment—the survey asked children to rate their teacher’s behavior toward a hypothetical high- or low-achieving peer.
While the study did not establish that teachers were favoring one racial group over another, researchers theorized based on prior evidence that black children choose to befriend more white peers “as they begin to internalize the higher value their teachers place on the white students.” A study from Johns Hopkins University published in March also confirmed the comparatively low expectations white teachers have for black students.

How parents arrange get-togethers outside of school can “deepen friendships while allowing others to flounder.”
Jennifer Orr, a white elementary-school teacher in northern Virginia, said she was fascinated on a personal and professional level by the study’s analysis. Her oldest daughter, now in seventh grade, attended Annandale Terrace Elementary, a highly diverse school, from grades kindergarten through 5. “Her close circle [of friends] included a Korean girl, a few Latino girls and boys, and at least one girl from the Middle East, [but] she has only kept up with two friends from there: another white girl and a white boy.” As a parent, Orr offered a caveat to the study’s findings, bringing the role of parents into the picture. “The immediate thing that came to my mind … was how much parents may play a role” with race or ethnicity shaping how parents arrange get-togethers outside of school that can “deepen friendships while allowing others to flounder.”

From her vantage point as a former teacher at Annandale Terrace for 16 years, Orr said she strived to create a classroom environment that fostered friendships across races and ethnicities through activities and lessons. When assigning class projects she encouraged diverse groupings of fourth- and fifth-graders to solidify existing friendships, adding “that’s what strikes me the most from this study: The idea that friendships narrow during this age range.” Orr also turned to literature, using books with interracial friendships “to help kids see these friendships as normal and good.”

Keffrelyn Brown, an associate professor of cultural studies in the education college at the University of Texas at Austin, upholds the idea that teachers are fundamental to leveraging the promise of integrated schooling. Brown, who was a classroom teacher before becoming a researcher and teacher educator, stressed that “integration cannot only occur at the surface level. It must be seamlessly found across all [parts] of the … teaching and learning processes.”

The creation of schools with racial and socioeconomic diversity must be complimented by classrooms that affirm all students, Brown said. “It’s about cultivating a community of learners who are invested in the well-being of the community,” she explained, envisioning a learning space that is keenly attentive to issues of justice, fairness, and equity.

As validated by the study, children’s perceptions of teachers’ traits are very important—and unlike curriculum decisions and other pressures, it’s the one aspect that teachers can control. Cappella, the NYU researcher, said it’s the daily interactions that teachers have with their students in the classroom—modeling how you treat one another and how you listen to one another—that can bolster the likelihood of interracial friendships enduring.

“When teachers [show] that everyone is valued … that everyone deserves warmth and support, then that trickles down to the students, particularly at this age,” she said. “Those [actions] are the most salient and potentially the most powerful for influencing students in a more implicit way.”

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