Category Archives: Uncategorized

Teaching Bias: Where Do You Stand?

Last week, I posted about students taking the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) in my classroom. A common question I got in response to this post was, “what did you do to set up your students so they could participate in this activity successfully?”

The big answer is that SLA does a lot to make students comfortable with tough moments and difficult conversations. The small answer is that we did several activities in the days leading up to the IAT that primed students to be open and vulnerable.

On day one, I asked them to simply define bias, prejudice, and stereotype, and then  create a poster that visually clarified the differences between these terms — without perpetuating any of the stereotypes or myths that get tossed around these days.

This set a valuable precedent: we can mention common prejudices and stereotypes, but proceed with caution, because the way we talk can impact how people are affected by these ideas, even if they are not being presented as true.

On day two, we played one of my favorite games, which I call “Where Do You Stand?” The room gets cleared, and I project a series of prompts on the board. If you agree with the statement, you move to the window side of the room. If you disagree, you move to the wall.

The prompts, as you can see below, move from more personal and straight-up qualitative statements to more nuanced and complicated aspects of our society.

Once students have picked a side (and no, I don’t let them stand in the middle), it’s time to go back and forth and have folks try and convince their peers to come to their side. Students can switch at any time. One of my favorite scenarios is where just one or two students pick the less popular side of an argument–but by the end they’ve got more people thinking their way.

I think it’s also important to mention that, as the teacher, I hardly say anything during this discussion. Apart from reading the prompts, and an occasional “tell us more” nudge, I am just listening. Because everybody is an active participant, everybody has a stake in the outcome — and the fact that people can move at any time keeps interest up as the debate unfolds.

This game is consistently cited by my students as one of their favorite activities in my class. It consistently gets students who rarely speak to open up, sometimes because it gives them a concrete action they can describe (“Hey [student], why did you switch sides?”). In a class with lopsided participation, requiring everybody to comment once before somebody can speak again can work.

Do you play similar games in your classroom? What’s your experience with them?


Teaching Bias: The IAT Test

It’s a regular occurrence in my 10th grade English class that we spend some time talking about bias, prejudice and stereotypes. Phase one is graduating kids out of the blanket “these things are bad” attitude that can shut down potentially useful discussion about what’s actually going on.

After we have spent some time exploring our beliefs on what role these forces play in our society, it’s time to take the Harvard Implicit Attitude Tests.

If you wish, you can impress your students by showing this Buzzfeed video, and pausing it for some notes, and making a disclaimer for the out-of-context comments spliced together at the end of the clip (which unfortunately conflate bias, implicit attitudes, and racism).

After that viewing, kids are excited to take the test. In fact, about half of my students already have.  Then I tell them that I will take the test in front of them, projected on the screen  — and I want them to predict what they think my results will be.

This typically leads to nervous laughter, or dead silence, or a gasp, or sometimes even applause. Kids who want to make an educated guess try and ask some clarifying questions (“Who are your friends?” “What are you, again?”) and then they write down what they think.

I won’t reveal their predictions or my typical results, but I will say that this is the most nerve-racking thing I do in class all year, to the point where I make jokes during the first half of the test, and then say I’m going to shut up because I think it might skew the results.

Here’s what else I tell them: nobody has zero bias in this world.

After they see me do it, we’re off to the races: kids take one or two tests, journal about how their results turned out, and then brainstorm one or two “tough questions” that they want to bring to the whole class for a closing discussion.

Here are a few questions that got posed today:

  • How did you react if you got a result that was the opposite of what you expected?
  • How did it feel when the test was asking you to associate negative terms or ideas to a particular group of people?
  • Did you use any mental “tricks” to try and be less biased while taking the tests?

And then, the one we talked about the most:

  • For the test that asks you to specifically test your bias for or against Arab Muslims, do you think that your sympathy or pity for Muslims might have made you more biased towards them?

I am paraphrasing that last question, but that was the gist of how it was worded. That particular exam (“This IAT requires the ability to distinguish names that are likely to belong to Arab-Muslims versus people of other nationalities or religions”) was taken by several students… and several additional students confessed that they purposefully avoided that test, because they were too nervous about what their results might be.

“I have Muslim friends,” one girl pleaded. “I don’t want to find out that I’m biased against them.”

We scratched the surface of this issue with some reports about attitudes towards Muslims in the United States (making sure to pull from both Fox News and The Nation, naturally). Looking at multiple research studies, we tentatively concluded that knowing a group of people doesn’t necessarily increase your comfort level with them, but not having any direct contact with them seems to definitely decrease your tolerance and acceptance.

A small part of me wishes I could say we came to a big conclusion here, because it would make a nice kicker to this blog post. We didn’t. A bigger part of me wishes I could say, “my Muslim students felt better about their place in America after this conversation.” I have no idea whether that’s true (although I’ll follow up on that).

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned since I started working at SLA: A successful class is not about finding the answer, it’s about asking the questions together.


Note: At a school that’s ranked as one of the most diverse in the nation, that’s harder in some ways, but easier in others, because students cannot automatically assume that they are in the majority, or the group that they’re talking about is not in the room. If you work in a more homogeneous environment, I will be interested to hear how these activities play in your classroom.

Day 1 Activity: Who gets to inherit our intellectual traditions?

In the many dinner table conversations we have around education, my husband and I like to parse out what lasting impressions our different high schools left on us.

My husband attended one of the region’s prominent Quaker schools, so he knows how to sit and reflect and reach consensus. In terms of the humanities, teachers also clearly communicated to him — explicitly and implicitly — that there was a direct line between the great thinkers and doers of eras past and their own classroom.

Now, there are plenty elitist reasons why private schools naturally impart this message, and some aspects of their structure (small seminar-style classes, courses in Greek and Latin) that reinforce it.

And yet — in talking to him, I realized that while I believe my own students are equal inheritors of the global intellectual tradition, that fact is not something I do a great job of communicating in my classroom. And as a result, perhaps my kids were missing out on the empowered mindset that helps us grow into (and trouble, and challenge, and blow up) the adult world of thought.

So, today I made sure my first-day slide show included some explicit discussion about the tradition of writing, reading, and thinking that exists in our world — examples of the people that got together and hashed out some insightful, important, and entertaining documents that have shaped the course of literature and history.

Here’s a few examples.

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And here’s the prompt that lead to our first-day sticky-note activity:

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Phase two was “How did this work impact your life?” Phase three will come later, and will lead to the generation of new topics and ideas for writing.

Day 1 and we already have a rich collection of suggested reading for the class, and themes that can serve as a springboard for writing. And it all came from sharing our own positions in the larger tradition of reading and writing.

Summer Thoughts and Check-In

Here’s just a few professional things I am up to this summer:

On a more personal note, I am also interested in sitting on beaches, swimming in the ocean (and, in a new one for me, pools), eating watermelon, and playing skee ball on the boardwalk. Gotten to all but that last one so far.

Lastly, if you are in the Philadelphia area, you should already be signed up for the Caucus of Working Educators’ Summer Reading Series. In its second year there are ten books with twenty-plus facilitators, who are all among the best and the brightest in our fair city. Each book connects to the topic of structural racism. You do NOT have to have read the book in advance (that’s the point), nor do you have to attend every meeting of your book club. I will be out of town for several meetings of The New Jim Crow, but that didn’t stop me from signing up and thinking yes, yes, yes when I read the first page today:


View Now: “Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age”

Last week I conducted a webinar for ASCD members. I’m thrilled to share the recorded version, which is available to everybody!

The presentation is full of images and examples from SLA. If you’re reading the book and are wondering “what this stuff looks like,” this talk is for you.

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I’m having a banner week.

The book is currently sold out on Thanks everybody! It will be restocked soon, so keep ordering! Tell your friends! Read the sample chapter here!

On Saturday, I found out that I passed the National Boards for Teaching. I actually feel a little bashful about it, because it was my second time around — didn’t quite nail it the first year, and re-did one section last year, which just barely bumped me to a passing score. There’s definitely a deep lesson in there about being the teacher getting reminded of the joys of academic failure.

I would write that blog post, but I’m too busy preparing for Wednesday, when I will be a panelist at the Future Ready Superintendent Summit, organized by the Department of Education and hosted by the White House. So I can technically now say “I’ve been invited to speak at the White House,” although it has nothing to do with the White House directly, and everything to do with somebody who I used to talk to a lot on the school telephone, between our classrooms.

And on Thursday, I’ll be doing a members-only webinar for ASCD on a topic related to the book.

(…did I mention that my surgery recovery is not over? Somebody tell my muscles to get with the program here.)


We’re Trying to Work Over Here

AuthenticLearningCoverSo, for the last couple of weeks I have been thinking about how to best promote my new book on this blog. Here’s my pitch:

If you’ve ever been curious about SLA, this is THE text for you. If you’re a little worried that our model of teaching and learning couldn’t work for you, don’t be — because this book has detailed “making the shift” sections that will help you transition your current practices as much or as little as your environment allows. And if you know somebody who would never consider trying to do what we do, well, order the book for them anyway and watch them get converted a little bit.

If you’re an ASCD member, congratulations, because Authentic Learning in the Digital Age is the book of the month, and you’ll be receiving your copy in early November!

For the rest of you, the book’s official release is November 4th — go ahead and pre-order now. 100% of the profits go directly to SLA, so you can feel good about the purchase.

What I also want and need to say here is that the book celebrates every one of my colleagues, who continue to do the noble work of teaching in the face of crushing inequality, an ongoing attack on their livelihoods, and the sinking feeling that we are the last thing standing between our students and the forces that would like to see public education dismantled entirely. I extend this compliment not only to teachers at SLA, but at schools across Philadelphia.

In the last few weeks, months, and years, many of us educators have chosen to defend our students and our schools on a larger stage. We have written letters, built websites, held creative protests, started a new union caucus, and spoken out anywhere and everywhere about the plight of the School District of Philadelphia.

But let’s be entirely clear: We don’t do these things because we love it. We do them to save the thing we love, because we are just trying to do our jobs as best we can, and right now that includes defending the very structure that allows us to educate our students.

So, in addition to being a regular interviewee on Newsworks and commenter on Twitter, Andrew Saltz also dresses up as a wizard to encourage the academic motivation of his students. Amy Roat finds time to talk to The New York TImes and publish accounts of material shortages at her school alongside her teaching and prep work. And at Penn on Saturday, Matthew Kay delivers a six-minute keynote address that fires back those who “paint us as the enemy” while also talking about his classroom practice:

So yes, as long as we keep getting compared to bad apples, and our employer throws out our contract like yesterday’s news, and the Mayor asks on Twitter whether we need toilet paper, we will continue to speak out in defense of our schools and our students.

But let’s be clear: we’d much rather that you just gave us full fair funding. Because we’d rather be in our classrooms, teaching.

I wrote a book.

Back in January, I announced on this blog that I was in charge of a new book about SLA.

I’m happy to say that the project is in its final rounds of editing, and will be published in November. The title is Authentic Learning in the Digital Age: Engaging Students Through Inquiry.

I say that I’m “in charge of” the book because yes, technically I wrote it, but the project really belongs to all of the members of the SLA community, who work every day to build and maintain our learning environment. My job was just to share their stories and methods. We already encourage collaboration and cross-visiting of classrooms, but I’m happy to say that this project took that to a whole new level for me. Studying the work of my colleagues and our students was a real pleasure.

Another pleasure was sharing my writing process with my students. Like many of us English teachers, I resolve each year to do more writing alongside my students, and then an avalanche of grading comes along and sweeps away that plan. Sharing the project with them — especially the editor comments in the margins, that looked not-too-different from the feedback I give them — put us all in the same boat. Good stuff.

I am especially excited to share the book in Philadelphia, where there appears to be a rare opportunity for teachers to take the lead in redesigning their own school environments. The book is very much a framework that can be adopted and adapted by teachers themselves, instead of a rigid set of directives or scripts handed down from above. I look forward to working with anyone who’s interested in using the book at their school!

How to unpack the “Invisible Knapsack” in high school.

How do you talk about privilege in the classroom?

In a lot of schools, the unfortunate answer is: you don’t. But if you’re reading this, you likely have some interest in the topic. You want to expose your students to the concepts and practices of a culture of power, systemic racism, and unacknowledged privilege.

Of course, you also know the potential range of reactions that it will elicit in your students, depending on their viewpoint: anger, despair, denial, frustration, shock, guilt. These are not the kinds of emotions that are typically lauded as the signs of “successful classroom management.”

And yet. Here’s a series of activities to get the (hard) conversation started. We did them in two days, but they can be managed in one.

We started simply enough: “Time to play a game!” Students were already familiar with “where do you stand?” — A statement is presented, and students must move to one side of the room according to whether they agree or disagree.

These were adapted from and inspired by Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack,” but we didn’t tell them that. We just told them they were personal statements that would make them think.

We spent nearly a full class period sharing responses. This activity relied on students being comfortable with sharing their viewpoints, and seeing each other as individuals, not tokens representative of their racial and ethnic background. As a result, they were willing to share unique cultural knowledge, whether it’s eating halal, living on “colored people time,” or being mistaken for any number of identities due to your skin color. [1]

The next day, we moved on to reading McIntosh’s essay. We started by reading the first page as a class, and gave students time to summarize that intro in one sentence. I then invited them to read the rest of the piece on their own, and then respond to the following prompts:

1. Choose two items off of her list, copy and paste them, and explain you agree or disagree with those statements (as they relate to white people) and why. (It would be most interesting to hear one you agree with and one you disagree with.) 

2. Ask a meaningful question based on the last few pages of her essay. If you finish this before the time is up, refresh the forum in your browser and you can begin to comment on what other people have written.

Before they dive in, I point out that this essay was written in 1988. Do they think that some of these statements might have changed since then? I emphasize that they have the right to disagree with Peggy McIntosh, but that they should be reading to understand, not simply to accept or reject her theory.

Here are some questions that were generated this year:

  • Why does society avoid the subject of race?
  • If privilege is to be fully realized, should it be eradicated completely? Are their instances in which privilege isn’t harmful?
  • Has she gone out and tested these theories in places where there are less white people and more minorities?
  • Do you think it is truly possible to distress about and admonish a privilege if you fit into the category of people that has that privilege?

Did we answer all these questions? Of course not. We barely scratched the surface in the follow-up discussion. But, we got to a place where we could at least start the conversation.

The “Where do you stand” activity was essential to setting the stage for this, because it simply illustrates that everyone is a participant in this complicated system of privilege–but also that your role goes beyond the simple binary of being a victim or a beneficiary, the oppressor or the oppressed.

Another key is to give students adequate space to approach the essay on their own terms. Personally, I’m 100% aligned with McIntosh, even if I think some her items on the list are a bit outdated. However, I avoided trumpeting this viewpoint in class, for fear of cultivating that accept/reject mindset among students who would possibly be facing a major paradigm shift as a result of the reading. The downside: I had to trust that students who needed reassurance that I actually believe this stuff would intuit that from the fact that I chose to teach the essay in the fist place. You may want to choose differently.

So, there you have it. We read this in conjunction with the student book clubs for “Passing” and “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” You probably already have an idea of what text or theme you could connect it to.

Give it a try.

This seems as good as any to mention that I’ll be co-moderating the #wellrED book club with Zac Chase and Jose Vilson. We’re (re)reading Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children – join us on Gooreads!

1. Working at a diverse public school in Philadelphia, my students come from a wide range of backgrounds, which naturally leads to a multitude of responses to the prompts. In a more homogenous setting, student responses to these slides might not make as much room for student sharing, but would still serve as conversation starters: Why is there nobody on that side of the room? Who do we know that does belong there? Why aren’t they represented in our classroom?

Crash Course in Project Based Learning

Today I’m thrilled to be doing a PBL “crash course” for teachers at Olney Charter High School. This post is a landing page for that session, but it’s also a summary of the Project-Based Learning Inquiry to Action Group that I facilitated last February.

We started with the PBL introductory video, and then identified units (either already existing or planned for the future) that we would like to make project-based.

Here are the main categories we talked about, with the corresponding pages that have more resources:

Unit Design

Session 1: A review of the basic expectations of PBL, as well as an introduction to writing essential questions and the Understanding by Design framework from Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe.

Session 2: A discussion of facilitating inquiry in the classroom and getting kids to ask relevant questions, with a detailed Q&A with English Teacher Matt Kay.

Project Design

 Session 3:  Some of the basics of project design.

 Session 4: Includes sample project write-ups and rubrics for math class, with a detailed Q&A about how to facilitate collaboration and group work on projects.

Assessment Design

Session 5: A review of project-write ups and rubrics for science classes, with a detailed Q&A on how to present projects to students and what common roadblocks you might encounter.

And for good measure, here’s the short video that I *wanted* to show at the start of the session. (It seems that YouTube itself, and not the school’s filters, got the best of me today.)