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May 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 8

Voices: The Teacher / Reality Check

How can concerned, caring adults wake up to the prejudice and hatred that affect our students.

Julio raised his hand and motioned me over to his seat. "Mr. P.," he whispered, "Tyler's been absent all week. What about his patriotic observance?"
Our 5th grade class's patriotic observance program highlighted people whom the students rarely found in their textbooks. Each student researched a notable person and presented a two-minute oral report. After a month of school, Julio and his classmates had read about and reported on the contributions of such individuals as Mourning Dove, Cesar Chavez, Tecumseh, and Fannie Lou Hamer.
"I guess we'll have to find somebody to do it for him," I replied.
"Can I?" Julio asked.
"You bet," I smiled, figuring that Julio, the only African American in our class, wanted to be sure that Jackie Robinson, Tyler's subject, got the credit he deserved.
Julio searched for his subject's name in the electronic encyclopedia. When the photo of Jackie Robinson materialized, Julio jumped out of his seat. "Whoa!" he exclaimed. "He's a black dude!"
My response to his shock was threefold. I was pleased that Julio was primarily concerned with helping his buddy Tyler. I was saddened that our one African American student had never heard of the 20th century's first professional black major league baseball player in the United States (Loewen, 1995). I was surprised that my own buried stereotypes led me to assume that Julio would be some kind of walking lexicon of civil rights knowledge.
Thankfully, Julio had given me a reality check. Had I, at some subconscious level, held a 10-year-old responsible for raising the social awareness of his mostly Anglo classmates? My teaching partner and I try to be aware of the prejudices that our students encounter on a daily basis, but Julio helped me rout some half-buried, vestigial stereotype from within.

Waking Up to Prejudice

Just as we try to help our students look beyond their own experience, my teaching partner and I often look to research to raise our own equity awareness. One such report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that although 52 percent of white students take 8th grade algebra, only 36 percent of African American and 32 percent of Latino students do. The same study reports that only 29 percent of low-income, urban students bring to high school the prerequisites to even sign up for algebra (Ruenzel, 1998). In response to reading this and similar studies, my teaching partner and I spotlight minority scientists and mathematicians in our patriotic observance list. Obviously, an inclusive patriotic observance program won't solve such equity issues, but it may be a starting place.
A USA Today survey reports on another equity issue. For every $3 spent on men's college sports, only $1 is spent on college sports for women (Joplin, 1999). Although the athletes on the 1999 Women's World Cup Championship Soccer Team and in the Women's National Basketball Association are popular heroes among girls, educators too have a responsibility to encourage girls' athletic abilities. We can't expect them to fully recognize their expanding options on their own.
Educators have the opportunity and the responsibility to address such issues as hate and prejudice. As most educators know, our students' ages are not an assurance against perpetrating violence: Brian Levin's studies show that 50 percent of hate offenders are under the age of 22 (Levin, 1998). We owe it to our students to critically listen and watch. How would the casual slur, the offhand comment, or the derogatory body language feel if it vilified someone we love? How would it feel if that kind of hate were aimed at us?
It is untenable to expect our students to confront alone the hate directed at them or at the people they love. Not everyone has the confidence of Joey, a student who told his pals on the playground, "Yeah, I want to play, but I'm not playing if you're calling it 'Smear the Queer.' My uncle's gay, and I'm not making fun of him."
Not only was Joey, a 6th grader, more aware than many teachers, but also he knew how to express his ethics better. A 1993 Massachusetts Governor's Commission found that teachers "rarely respond" to antigay comments and epithets, such as faggot (Massachusetts Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, 1993). A 1999 Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network survey found that high school students across the nation hear an average of 25 homophobic comments every school day (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, 1999). During a six-hour school day, that's an epithet every 14.5 minutes. What kind of reality check do we need to fight something so pervasive?
Sometimes educators are lucky enough to have students such as Joey and Julio offer us a reality check. Sometimes we can look to studies and articles to unearth our own well-hidden stereotypes and simple blindness. If we hope to open our students' eyes, we must first open our own eyes to equity issues that we hadn't considered seriously enough.
Our students' horizons are only as wide as they can imagine. The more we educators critically examine the limits our society puts on its members, the more inclusive a world vision we can present to our students. Such efforts encourage students to imagine grander possibilities for themselves and accept the equally limitless possibilities for the people around them.

Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. (1999). GLSEN's national school climate survey: Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and their experiences in school [On-line]. Available: http://glsen.org/pages/sections/news/natlnews/1999/sep/survey

Joplin, L. (1999). Twenty-five years after Title IX: Women gain in steps, not leaps [On-line]. Available: www.now.org/nnt/05-97/titleix.html

Levin, B. (1998, December 31). Motive matters. In Intelligence Project [On-line]. Available: www.splcenter.org/intelligenceproject/ip-4g6.html

Loewen, J. W. (1995). Lies my teacher told me. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Massachusetts Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth. (1993). Making schools safe for gay and lesbian youth: Education report. Boston: Author.

Ruenzel, D. (1999, April 12). Positive numbers: Math equity programs unlock the gate to algebra and beyond. In Teaching Tolerance [On-line]. Available: www.splcenter.org/teachingtolerance/tt-24.html

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