Considering Bias…

When I think about the probing question, “What is bias?”, I think, “Bias is everywhere,” but to put my definition of bias into words is somewhat more difficult.  Bias in our teaching, texts, and attitudes is a slant: giving favor to a particular group or set of ideas or treating a group or concept differently because of a difference between social norms and ideals. Recognizing bias and correcting bias in our teaching and presentation of materials is difficult regardless of social class, race, sexual orientation, or other diversity factors.  There will always be some degree of bias in the world, but as educators we should strive to overcome bias and teach students to approach things from a caring, critical and just perspective, no matter what.

In my experience, both as a teacher and a learner, I have encountered teachers who I perceive to be “good” teachers and those who I perceive to be “sub-par” teachers.  After completing the readings and discussions and modules, I have realized the difference between the two types of teachers is this: the teachers that I have perceived to be “good” teachers are those with whom I have formed a close bond.  I have no recollection of “skill and drill” or how well I performed on end of the year assessments.  I remember that I did walk away from the course or grade level with a feeling of self-worth and the notion that, although I am one person, I can make a difference. Noddins (2005) suggests that this is a result of the two-way exchange that occurs in relational caring.  As a result of relational caring, the student feels cared for and responds with actions such as confidence, motivation, or gratitude. Teachers who teach using caring relations are able to monitor and adjust instruction based on individual interests and needs.  In addition, teachers who adopt caring relations with their students are more likely to be mindful of bias in curriculum and in his or her actions as a teacher.  In my opinion, the caring relations framework will help to eliminate bias in pedagogical methods and increase meaningful learning in students.

Considering bias and relational teaching are vital to improving literacy instruction because literacy is the basis for all other areas of the curriculum.  Creating a safe classroom environment that is caring and open to all walks of life encourages students to be risk-takers.  Students need to feel comfortable with who they are, regardless of what preconceived notions may exists outside of the classroom about culture, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and family type. Building trust with students and their families begins by considering bias and adopting relational caring in the classroom.  Parents who trust educators are more likely to support their children’s academic endeavors in and out of the classroom and will be more supportive of teachers, their opinions and their choices when educating children (Noddins 2005).

As I examined my own views and actions, I found that I understand that bias can take many forms; even teaching seemingly wholesome fairy tales can sometimes lead to bias (Christensen, 2003, p. 127)!  I thought that, being a woman, I was striving to teach about women’s rights and equality, but often times, women in fairy tales are seen as a lower caste than men.  I still think that these tales have some literary merit; after all, they are a part of our culture.  Now, however, I will use fairy tales to teach about bias and have my students use them to examine bias.

I knew that my teaching has probably always had a touch of bias involved.  I have never been part of a very diverse community before.  I cannot change my past experiences, but I can change my attitude towards those experiences.  I cannot be afraid of “going there” with my students.  I used to find myself avoiding particular questions because they were too controversial.  I thought that middle school and high school age students couldn’t handle certain topics, but I have learned that how students handle sometime is a direct result of the teacher’s approach.   I need to take risks with my teaching and approach bias and controversial topics with thoughtful planning and plenty of opportunities for interaction and discussion in my classroom.

One specific way I can apply this knowledge in my teaching is to get my students outside of the classroom and experience the world around them.  For the particular group I have this year, this means just simply heading out into our community for service learning projects.  I have been amazed, no, shocked this year by the interactions I have had with one particular student and I am left with my questions.  This student is unable to come up with any original ideas for writing activities we do, whether they are teacher directed or free choice, this student has used movie characters, plots, or video game settings for a variety of exercises we have done.  This would not bother me if he were able to add his own twist to the original ideas, but he cannot.  He is truly, “stuck”. The one time I saw a glimmer of voice and personality in his writing was at one of our stops on a mini-writing marathon. This shows that I need to provide this student with experiences outside of the walls of our classroom and his home in order to get him to streeeeetch his thinking and broaden his experiences. Bringing individuals into the classroom with a variety of experiences may also help expand my own teaching.

Another very simply way to apply relational caring to my teaching is to help students practice mindful speaking. Whenever I am reading aloud or doing think-alouds and it is time for students to share their thoughts, they often offer up careless, silly responses without even processing my question.  By modeling proper “think-time”, I can teach them to engage in casual, yet meaningful conversations that will not be intimidating for students.  Students need to feel that their opinions matter and that it is acceptable to “agree to disagree.” Teaching acceptance allows students to feel comfortable in being themselves and eases worries of being “wrong” or different.

Finally, one thing I started this week, is working towards getting my students to speak positively about school and the things we are doing in the classroom.  I want them to remember the community we have formed and hopefully the struggles they have with their classes will be eased as they support each other as learners. Students are invited at the end of the day during clean-up time to write their “pearl” (good part) of the day on an index card and we tape the cards on the door so they can see them as they enter or leave the room during the day.  Even my most shy students are sharing something with the class, since the card is a little less threatening than going around in a circle and speaking out loud. Usually, after students tape up the card, the students pause on their way out for the day to compliment each other on finding the pearl.

Teachers need to uncover pearls, or the ugly grains of sand, for their students.  Students often join our classes unable to distinguish fact from fiction or opinion.  Sometimes the curriculum and materials that we are given contain bias, but we can still teach effectively if we encourage students to read critically and encourage them to support one another in their learning.  My goal is to continue working towards unbiased teaching in my classroom and helping students to see potential, not only in themselves, but also in one another!

 

Christensen, L. (2003). Unlearning the myths that bind us. In L. Christensen & S. Karp (Eds.), Rethinking school reform: views from the classroom (126-137). Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools.

Noddings, N. (2005). Caring in education. Retrieved from http://www.infed.org/biblio/noddings_caring_in_education.htm

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2 responses to “Considering Bias…

  1. I’m interested in this idea as well. I especially love your reference to “ugly grains of sand.” The only part I take issue with is the statement that we can or should uncover these ugly things FOR them. Rather, I think it’s our job as critical teachers to create an environment that is safe enough for students to discuss, debate, and slowly confront their own and society’s biases–to complicate these issues rather than ignore or overly simplify them. I’m currently teaching a class using a text/reader titled Rereading America and, as a result, have decided to focus my qualitative research project around interviewing students based on the guiding question: How are students using (in class discussion and in their writing), interpreting, identifying with, and reacting to texts that challenge their personal world view/opinions/identity. I’ll let you know what (if anything) comes out of it. 🙂 Keep up the great work!

  2. Suzanne Standerford

    Hi Kara,

    Another great, thought-provoking blog. As you note, we all have biases and we see them pop up sometimes when we least expect them. It is okay to acknowledge that we have these lapses and to explain that bias is everywhere. It is in becoming aware of our biases that we can begin to overcome them.

    I like Sarah’s idea of teaching students to uncover their own and others’ biases.

    Suzanne

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