“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete” http://on.ted.com/BEav (link to interesting TED Talk)
Last week, I had a few spare moments to work on culture-building with my homeroom, and I ended up having a very intriguing conversation with one of my boys. The boy, L, shared with me a personal anecdote about his sister, which used to support his claim that all cheerleaders were sluts. Like me at his age, he was expressing his frustration that being smart didn’t seem to have as much clout as being pretty or “cool.” When I challenged his notion that all girls in college just want to be in a sorority and be known for being pretty, he initially claimed that “Harvard was different.” At that point, I thought: “okay, let me switch gears and not be too quick to judge- there’s something else at play here, so let’s dig deeper.”
I shared with L that I didn’t like cheerleaders when I was in middle school mainly because they got in my way when I played basketball. I told him I mostly agreed with his feelings and didn’t want my little sister to become cheerleader. At the same time, I told him that my opinion changed when I attended a cheering competition in 8th Grade and by supporting the girls while seeing a different side of their effort, I truly gained new respect for them. Then, turning back to science, I informed L that even if I was biased against a certain group, I need to have multiple sources of evidence and I can’t “hate on” an entire group based on one person or a single bad experience. After all, there are many cheerleaders who are funny, nice, intelligent and talented- in fact, most of them are and he should try to get to know where they are coming from.
We also had a good discussion about race, too; particularly the difference between “white private schools” and “black public schools.” He had observed that students can have cell phones in private schools and wondered why we couldn’t have them at our school. We talked about what had happened in the past when people texted via cell phones in order to meet up for illicit activities or to jump other students and when combined with students stealing phones, we simply couldn’t create a safe, orderly atmosphere.
The most interesting part of our conversation was when we explored whether “the man” set black children up to fail by making the state tests more rigorous, which he brought up. Given that this student expressed a desire to attend Princeton in the future, I used this ambition as a teachable moment to explain the significance of national standards. I explained that at Princeton, he would meet students from all over the country as well as the world. In New York, for example, they may have a more rigorous curriculum and tougher tests, so getting all A’s and scoring proficicient in Mississippi would equal being a C student in New York. L was able to relate when I explained that I push him to go above and beyond because he’s intelligent but if he goes through school unchallenged, he’ll be behind his classmates in college.
L agreed that this dynamic didn’t seem fair. I explained that I decided to teach in large part because I didn’t think it was fair that low-income, bright students end up behind because they don’t have the same access as there wealthier peers due to money, connections, or geography; this relative lack of capital and lack of exposure is a disservice.
Moral of the story: don’t form prejudice opinions of people until you have multiple sources of evidence, and ask your teachers to challenge you!