So what does an anti-bias classroom look like?? I’ve certainly thrown the idea around a lot. Here in Seattle “anti-bias” is also thrown around quite a bit by schools trying to speak to our increasingly diverse population. It’s become a sort of buzzword in education. Fashionable and trendy. But as I have mentioned before, many schools don’t practice what they preach. In fact, it doesn’t seem they even know how. And I sense from parents a total sense of bewilderment when they stumble across the term. They like the idea. Looks good on paper. But they’re not exactly sure what it is, or how to ask administration/educators about it.
Here are five general anti-bias areas to consider when evaluating a potential educational facility for your child(ren). Please remember this is an introduction and by no means comprehensive. Writing on the subject of anti-bias education is vast. We are scratching the surface and I highly encourage everyone to continue reading and raising awareness on their own (see Books for Grownups).
From Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves by Louise Derman-Sparks & Julie Oslen Edwards:
Demonstrate self-awareness, confidence, family pride, and positive social identities.
Express comfort and joy with human diversity; accurate language for human differences; and deep, caring human connections.
Increasingly recognize unfairness, have language to describe unfairness, and understand that unfairness hurts.
Demonstrate empowerment and the skills to act, with others or alone, against prejudice and/or discriminatory actions.
2. Administration & Faculty
We can’t expect our children to be powerfully aware of bias (and gain anti-bias techniques) if we ourselves are not able to do the same. This is something I see again and again. Everything is run by-the-anti-bias-book – but somehow still ineffective. The school wants to be diverse, but isn’t. Or the school is diverse, but things don’t seem to gel. Parents segregate. Kids segregate. Teachers are frustrated. Why? In all organizations there is a trickle-down effect. The ideas, philosophies and values of management impact the entire whole. Take a look at the administration of the school. Do they seem racially aware and skilled cross-culturally? Are they involved in ongoing diversity training? Do they encourage and support their teachers to do the same? Are people of color represented in management (including PTA and/or board members)? Are there teachers of color? If not, what is the school doing to make sure the needs of families of color (including multiracial families) are met?
3. Student Body
Is the student body diverse? Clearly in some cases, by default, it will be (e.g. South Seattle publicschools). In some cases it may be near impossible (e.g. rural, geographically isolated schools). But it’s a huge red flag if the school is located in a diverse area and does not represent that diversity in its student body. It’s worth asking, why is your school so homogeneous when your neighborhood is not? If you get a stumbly, unclear, awkward or evasive answer – run.
4. Classroom Materials
The more obvious piece here is avoiding classroom materials that are blatantly biased (e.g. Native American “savage” headdress-wearing warrior, or Asian man sitting on a low stool doing somebody else’s laundry). We also want to avoid branding our children because (1) branding is about buying/consuming which doesn’t belong in the classroom, and (2) so many major brands are associated with large corporations and their agendas which often include negative or stereotypical messages about groups of people (ahem, Disney). Plus we all deserve the opportunity to develop our own worldviews which is difficult to do when overshadowed by multi-million/billion dollar companies. So there should be little if any Dora/Diego, Disney princesses, Cars, even Sesame Street, etc. But even more important than what is said, is what is not said. We can never underestimate the power of invisibility. Children should see themselves reflected in their environment. Of course family pictures on clear proud display. But also books,toys, props, etc. that reflect their specific image. For example, there should be brown-skinned dolls and books that depict children from all backgrounds as well as diverse photos and posters on the walls.
5.Curriculum, Conversations & Conflict
It is okay to talk about race, diversity and social justice with children of all ages (in age appropriate ways). Are the teachers doing that? Or do they seem avoidant? Afraid? Maybe it just “doesn’t come up”? Are counter-narratives in constant supply (e.g. adequate explorationof the colors black/brown since both are frequently portrayed as ominous or evil)? Do the teachers regularly weave the children’s home cultures into the classroom? Or do they only explore “being Chinese” by doing a dragon dance on Lunar New Year (known as a “tourist approach” to educational multiculturalism)? Are important people and leaders of color (more than just MLK) discussed frequently? Does the class as a whole not only talk about change but participate in making change (involve the children in volunteering, contributing, activism, etc)? And finally, what happens when there is conflict? What language and actions are used? Are there excessive time-outs? Is it simply, “you have to share” or “give that back”? When a child is attacked, who gets more attention first, the aggressor or victim? Do teachers get down on the children’s level and actively support them in problem-solving with each other using their hearts and their minds?