Thursday, March 3, 2016

Pre-Conceived Notions #1CoolThing

All too often we express the little tiny bit of "knowledge" that we know about another person or group of people. We think we "know" something and yet only know such a small fraction. We allow ourselves to enjoy our pre-conceived notions or ideas about others regardless of the extent to which those notions or ideas are grounded in reality. This is where stereotypes come in to play and many times basing our "understandings", our "decisions", and our "actions" on stereotypes can cause significant problems and prejudices down the road.

Far too many of the "-isms" in our world (racism, sexism, ageism, elitism, etc.) are rooted in these stereotypes or pre-conceived notions. Sadly, we often find comfort in continuing to perpetuate those pre-conceived notions. After all, it is much more convenient to allow these stereotypes to continue to dominate our minds rather than delve into the messiness which is inherent in the quest of true education and understanding. Why by accurate in a greater knowledge about others when we can be comforted being our simplistic stereotypes?

Recently, I had an opportunity to help initiate the conversation about pre-conceived notions between my history & geography students at Southmoore High School in Moore, Oklahoma and the literature students of my friend, Amy Besnard, who teaches at Pleasant Valley High School in Chico, California.

Amy and I met during the Teachers for Global Classrooms program sponsored by the U.S. State Department. This program provided 68 teachers from around the U.S. with the opportunity to interact in an eight-week intensive online course, two symposiums/conferences in Washington, DC, and a two-week study tour of one of six different countries which included the opportunity to team-teach with teachers from those countries. Amy and I, along with nine other teachers, traveled to Indonesia during the summer of 2012. Remaining good friends, we recently arranged for me to fly out to California to meet her family and for she and I to take her 11 year old son to an Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Sacramento Kings NBA game. While in Chico, I had the chance to briefly co-teach with Amy in her literature classes.

Prior to my departure, I engaged my students with a question to explore their pre-conceived notions about Californians. My students responded with their "one word" answers using the Poll Eeverywhere remote response set-up. I shared the idea with Amy via texting that night and we agreed to explore the reverse topic with her students as part of our brief co-teaching time. Since my return home and the presentation of a follow-up question with my students, I have formatted all of the responses into word clouds using Wordle.

Question One (2/25/2016) -- Moore, OK students:
"When I think of Californians, I think of _____. (ONE word answer)"

 Question Two (2/29/2016) -- Chico, CA students:
"When I think of Oklahomans, I think of _____. (ONE word answer)"

Question Three (2/29/2016) -- Chico, CA students:
"In ONE word, how would you want outsiders to think of Californians?"

Question Four (3/2/2016) -- Moore, OK students:
"In ONE word, how would you want outsiders to think of Oklahomans?"

When "question two" was posed to the students in Chico it was before they were allowed to see the responses of the students in Moore. Amy and I didn't want to "taint" their initial responses. Upon seeing the responses of the Moore students to "question one", Amy and I talked with her students about their reactions as well as any accuracy of and any important nuances to the words given by my Moore students. Most of her students expressed that even for the words that might be taken as "offensive", their was some level of "truth" to the words. Of course we also discussed the nuance of how some words might be more or less accurate depending upon the region or specific city of California. A similar conversation was held back in Moore as I showed my students the responses offered by the Chico students to "question two".

Amy and I each agree that our favorite part of the activity is the follow-up question offered to each group of students pertaining to how they would want outsiders to think of them. We understand our own personal nuances and complexities as a group of people much better than outsiders might. If we would do a better job of communicating who "we are" it would help. Of course if we want to make sure that the others better understand who "we are" then we should reciprocate by doing our best to learn more about the others.

The lesson is not complete for either group of students, and probably won't ever be fully complete. Learning of the history, the culture, the geography, the literature, the artistic expressions, etc. can give us significant insight in to the others and help correct our pre-conceived notions about them. With regard to that, the lesson for our students in this specific circumstance was far too short. Additionally, such learning is greatly enhanced through in-person interactions. Perhaps Amy and I can work out some caliber of Skype or Facetime opportunity for our students to interact, especially since the logistics of getting all of our students to meet physically in person would be cost prohibitive. Personal encounters are the best way to overcome our pre-conceived notions and the stereotypes (and prejudices) that develop. What a lesson opportunity that would be...