Avoiding Assumptions

It’s interesting to me how I can preach to a group of young adults about how important it is to avoid making assumptions about other people while at the same time forming my own assumptions about the exact group of people to whom I’m preaching. For example, I have been guilty, on occasion, of making an assumption about the level of knowledge or experience my students have with a certain topic or skill set. I may assume they will require a good amount of teaching and practice in that area, when it turns out I end up learning more from them about it than the other way around. Or, as in the case of last week, I make the wrong assumption that they have more knowledge or experience in a certain area than they actually do.

It is difficult to explain, but spending so much time with a group of middle school students, setting the highest of expectations and watching them continually deliver on those expectations, laughing with them daily … I sometimes forget they’re kids. I feel somewhat embarrassed to admit it, but I was surprised last week by how many students were so unaware of the stereotypes and prejudices that surround them from day to day – many that come out of their own mouths! I guess I assumed they knew and understood. The current quarter project my 6th and 7th graders are doing requires them to take a close look at subliminal messages being sent in pop culture media.

During my first class last Wednesday, we talked about what a stereotype is, shared some examples of stereotypes we have heard used about various groups of people, and discussed what it is that makes it a stereotype. Several common examples came up right away – A woman should take care of the house and kids. Blondes are dumb. Tall people play basketball. Once one example was shared, tons were thrown into the ring. However, when I asked about what kinds of stereotypes exist related to race, the room went quiet. Uncomfortable looks were passed between students. I even heard one person whisper to another, “That’s racist.” Wow. When I asked why everyone got quiet, a few responses included, “I don’t want to be offensive,” and, “It’s uncomfortable.” Cue Ms. McMahon’s passionate sermon about how critical it is to have these conversations BECAUSE they’re uncomfortable. We wonder why this topic remains so sensitive – let’s talk about it!

We viewed numerous examples of ads that, intentional or not, perpetuate certain stereotypes. Then we viewed several who are deliberately working to break down existing stereotypes. One example ad we watched was an Always commercial that confronts the phrase “like a girl.” Take a gander at the following link if you haven’t seen it. Warning – having tissues nearby would not be the worst idea.

Here’s where my false assumptions reminded me how important these conversations are. After watching this video, they were invigorated. One student, who is incredibly motivated and seems to have a really good grasp of his surroundings said, “Whao. That totally made me completely rethink that phrase!” That shocked me, and I’m not sure why. How could I assume he and his classmates understood the gravity of some of the phrases they/we all use in everyday conversation? Isn’t that how stereotypes are perpetuated??? This is exactly why this project is so important.

Later that day, a group of boys came to me to get some feedback on a project they are fine-tuning. We had been talking for a few minutes. I had offered some suggestions, and now the conversation had turned a bit more lighthearted where we were making a few jokes about this and that. At one point, one of the boys said, “You’d have to be a girl to …” He stopped mid-sentence, paused, and finished with, “Never mind.”

Change. One conversation at a time.

Fast forward to this week, when we shifted our conversation to the idea of representation in the media – who is represented and how they are represented. We first looked at how well- or underrepresented certain groups of people are and how that could affect a person who identifies with one of those groups. Then we looked at how families are often represented, specifically in advertising. Five different examples showed five happy families including a mother and father with their children. All looked healthy and fit, while details within each image implied that they were also financially comfortable. Many of my students also noticed that, though numerous colors were represented from family to family, all families were of the same color.

Following a brief discussion of how unrealistic these representations of what a family looks like is, I wanted to prove the point further by revealing how just how many differences exist from one family composition to another within our own classroom walls. I led a version of what is often called a “privilege walk.” In my version, I have all students stand shoulder to shoulder in a straight line facing me. I read a statement, and if that statement relates to any students, those students are to take one step forward. I thank them, and they step back into line with the others. I preface the activity with an admission that some of the statements might be uncomfortable and that this is a choice activity. They always have the option to not step forward.

The statements I chose to read this time around all related to family dynamics. Some examples include:

If your family owns your home…
If your family has ever had to move because you couldn’t afford rent…
If you live in a single-parent household…
If your parents are married…
If your family takes at least one vacation a year…
If you have ever had to skip a meal because your family didn’t have food in the house…
If your family owns two or more vehicles…
If your parents are not of the same race…

Like I said, not all of them are fun or comfortable. Each time I do this activity, it seems that similar things happen. First, I am often surprised by who steps forward when, as are others. Second, though it absolutely hurts my heart, it also fills it with pride to see the strength and resilience in the young adults standing before me. Third, there is always hesitancy for some at the very start of the activity, but as they look around and see others stepping forward, it is as if the reins are removed and suddenly it becomes a badge of honor to show others in the room a glimpse into their lives.

I waited this long in the year to bring this activity in because it was critical to establish a space in which students feel safe and free of judgment. I believe I accomplished my goals with it this time around. I want my students to recognize how different each of them are while also realizing they are not alone. Many of them admitted how surprised they were when they saw others step forward with them. I want my students to know their stories do not define who they are while also remembering that everyone has their own story – to be careful with how quickly they pass judgment on others. And, swinging back to the original lesson, I want my students to use a very critical eye when viewing things in the media because what is represented all around them does not capture the reality in which we live.



One thought on “Avoiding Assumptions

  1. I found this very refreshing and hopeful. It is easy to get mired in the cynicism of today. Issue of prejudice and inequality can feel overwhelming and insurmountable. It’s hard to know what can be done, but reading about change one conversation at a time gave me a sense of hope. It gave me a real sense of how to improve the world around me. I really enjoyed reading this. You have a lovely style that flows effortlessly from one topic to the next. You take the reader on a journey through your class.


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