Mrs. Ryan's Class

A Digital Learning Hub for students and parents

Image and Stereotypes

on October 1, 2015

In some ways, I believe that profiling is a natural part of being human. In order to make sense of unknown situations, we lump people into categories that we know. On the flip side, we make assumptions about what people should look like based on the category they are in (I alluded to this in my last discussion about the image of a typical teacher.)

At what point does this profiling become damaging? What are the indicators that we analyze to make these judgements? Do we have the right to make these judgements at all?

In an educational setting, profiling can become harmful to both adults and students. Professionals can be quick to mentally put people into categories based on their level of education and appearance. Students can put themselves in boxes based on their perceptions of themselves, and what societal categories they fit into. This leads to close-mindedness and for students, limits the possibilities that they see for themselves.

To illustrate my point, I did a little experiment with my 3rd graders. Here is a glimpse into the minds of my eight year old students, particularly their view of a scientist.

As you can see from this video, aside from a few of my female students, most of my class views a scientist as a an older male, usually with glasses and crazy hair. Although their depictions of a scientist are adorable, find the limited view of a scientist to be problematic, not only for my girls but also all students who might not fit with the appearance/image of a scientist.

The majority of my students have the image of what me might call a “mad scientist”, instead of the reality of diversity in both race and gender in the sciences. If students don’t see themselves fitting into the “normal” image of a scientist, they will be less likely to consider this as an option for their futures. I consider myself privileged to have the opportunity to challenge this type of thinking in my students when they are still young, to hopefully reduce the likelihood that they take on more damaging and limiting perceptions in their futures.

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Dana Robertson

Students also have perceptions of teachers, and make judgements based on their perception of credibility. The video “Teaching Reading 3-5: Close Reading for Understanding” is a good example of a teacher trying to connect to a student population that has a different racial background. The teacher Dana Robertson is a white male, and is depicted talking to his racially diverse students about poverty, and his experiences living in a city while connecting to a text about a homeless family. This teacher is a picture of “professionalism” in his clothing and mannerisms.

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Rick Kleine

In another video about teaching reading, “Rick’s Reading Workshop” from The Teaching Channel, a different teacher is depicted working with a racially diverse student population, but his efforts to connect to the students seem to be based more on the student experience rather than his own. His appearance is much more relaxed and casual, and his class seems a bit more informal.

It would be easy to judge Rick Kleine based on his appearance alone. In contrast to the buttoned-up Dana Robertson, Kleine is seen wearing facial hair, a long earring, and a cut-off tank top. Some might assume he is unprofessional, not serious, or lacking rigor and order in his classroom. However, when you watch the video, it is clear that students are being challenged, and there is structure and differentiation in his classroom. All students are engaged in personally meaningful and relevant work, and I was engaged as an audience member. I teach reading workshop in the same way, and can attest that student achievement skyrockets when they are given this type of personal and relevant academic instruction.

Perhaps we are also influenced by Rick Kleine’s mannerisms, and his body language. This teacher exudes a strong and engaging presence, in part due to his welcoming and open body language. Amy Cuddy would certainly notice his outgoing and confident body language, and might argue that this makes him appear confident and in control. It is clear that his students connect to him, and have probably dispelled any initial negative assumptions about his ability as a teacher based on his appearance.

A snap judgement based on the visual appearance of these two men would be a harmful, unfair, and inaccurate representation of their teaching. Moreover, this type of judgement in general presents a limited understanding of the complex nature of identity and ability. Instead of judging based on visual cues, we need to see “what people are made of” before making decisions or assumptions.

This type of acceptance can be applied to our American identity as well. Some people argue that a purpose of public education is to learn how to become an American. I agree that it is critical to teach students about community, and important landmark events in US history. I also believe that students need to be taught about what is means to be American focusing on the reality that everyone aside from Native Americans are descendants of immigrants.

Photo Credit: geneticliteracyproject.org

Photo Credit: geneticliteracyproject.org

There is no mold, there is no identity that could possibly apply to all Americans. Cultural identity changes based not only country of origin, but also the region, state, city, and even neighborhood a person lives in. We cannot define an identity for others, but should rather step back to give individuals the control to define their own identity.

In fact, the American identity shouldn’t really be a physical identity at all. I think it can be better understood as a state of mind about freedom and equality (though I would argue that we have work to do in both of those areas). Some people believe that the notion of an American identity is outdated and no longer relevant; they advocate for a more global view of identity. This viewpoint is expressed in Dennis Prager’s article “Is National Identity Necessary in Modern America?” 

If we adopt a more global and accepting perception of identity and experience, we would avoid situations in schools in which students from the non-dominant culture share experiences and language that are not valued in the same was as students who fit neatly into the social norms and cultural model of a school community. Gee discusses an example of this scenario in Social Linguistic and Literacies through his analysis of a teacher’s interactions with two students, Leona and Mindy. He writes that Leona’s stories about her experiences “failed at school” because of the teacher’s inability to affirm and acknowledge the significance and meaning of her experiences. Mindy’s story, in contrast, was “in sync” with the resources of the sorts of school-based social practices” and thus her story was more well received by her teacher.  If we take on a more global view of American identity and expected social behavior based on our collective and diverse culture, then all students’ experiences could be affirmed and accepted.

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*Note on the media used to create this response:

I chose to design this response in a blog format because of the flexibility to embed different types of media into my response. I wanted to incorporate the video of my teaching and the slideshow of my students’ work to both share the image of my professional visual identity in school, and also the assumptions of identity held by my students. Had I chosen a traditional written, video, or podcast format I would not have the same flexibility to embed media directly into the narrative that I was granted here.

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One response to “Image and Stereotypes

  1. keelygarden says:

    Great idea to do a scientist! The gender inequality is very telling!

    Like

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