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Defeating Classroom Prejudice: Teaching Students to Find Common Ground

by Monica Fuglei Defeating Prejudice in Your Classroom

Most, if not all, teachers have experienced a moment when prejudice, discrimination, or unfiltered racism rears its head in their classroom. Students expressing prejudice can be difficult to handle as an educator. Class members might be repeating things they’ve heard before or expressing themselves in a way they don’t realize is offensive.

How to respond to prejudice in the classroom: Proven strategies

Although discrimination and prejudice in the classroom might not be deliberate, it must be addressed directly. The Anti-Defamation League’s recommendations for reducing classroom prejudice include ensuring all students are aware of your expectations, responding immediately to insensitivity when it is found, and conveying a respect for differences when they present themselves.

Other suggestions for preventing prejudice include creating a classroom or school with inclusive educational materials, posters, and textbooks, and directly addressing discrimination or prejudice with students if they encounter it in educational materials.

New research: Shared passions reduce prejudice and help students connect with each other

Interestingly, new studies show that shared experiences, passions, or even shared birthdays can decrease prejudice among students. In a recent NPR piece, journalist Nancy Shute reported on a Stanford experiment that tested whether having a shared interest could result in a decrease in prejudice between students of different races.

In the experiment, Caucasian or Asian students were paired with a Latina researcher who posed as a fellow student to complete a music video project. The researcher had been briefed on subject (such as a film or book) each student was passionate about, and brought it up in passing as a common interest.

After meeting their “partner,” the students were given an opportunity to choose between a song by a Canadian rock band or the Mexican band Camila for the video. All of the students in the study chose the song by Camila for the video, and those who worked with the Latina student (researcher) reported decreased levels of anti-Latino prejudice, despite the experiment’s relatively short duration.

The power of intrinsic social connections

This experiment shows that social connections must be intrinsically motivated rather than required. When researchers changed the experiment slightly by requiring that students create a video for the band Camila, they did not note similar decreases in anti-Latino prejudice. Overall findings showed that the students who were allowed their choice of songs reported less prejudice and increased interest in Mexican culture over those who were not given a choice.

What does this mean for students? According to the lead researcher on the study, Tiffany Brannon, multicultural activities in the classroom can “feel forced;” students might think, “I’m doing this because I have to, rather than it’s something I’m interested in.”

This can lead to pushback, as seen in the study’s design. Allowing diversity lessons to spring forth from personal connection and experiences in a positive classroom culture is more likely than a multicultural lesson plan to enact lasting change among students.

Classroom activities designed to find common ground

One way to help students connect with each other might mean simply allowing them to find the time to discover their commonalities and cultural histories like the Stanford study did. Ice-breaker games such as bingo with entries like “share a birthday” or “have the same favorite food” can help students relate to each other in unexpected ways. 

Allowing relationships to build in the classroom can trigger further respect and understanding. Group projects that include cultural expression — similar to the music video creation in the experiment — offer opportunities for students to bring their distinct cultural histories into play after having established emotional connections with their classmates.

Given opportunities to create a positive classroom culture, decreased prejudice and discrimination may simply be one of the many side benefits of these relationships. Cooperative and collaborative learning offers a wide variety of payoffs outside of the ability to articulate unique cultural perspectives. Students also become increasingly able to express personal differences, work on their interpersonal skills, and actively engage with their learning as well as their classmates. 

 

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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