(How Can I Help Overcome These Cultural Biases?)

Scapegoating, ridiculing and persecuting people based on their race/culture, gender or sexual identity, or bullying individuals based on ethnicity, religion, nationality, national origin or because they have a disability or a perceived weakness, has a long history not only in the United States but around the world.  How can we as teachers begin to interrupt and change a tradition which is so ingrained in our society that it can truthfully be called “as American as apple pie”?

It will take much more than admonitions such as “Stop that!”  “Leave her alone!”  “That’s not nice!”  “We should all be friends.”  And ignoring hurtful remarks is akin to aiding and abetting negative behavior that damages perpetrator and victim.

The best way to create an environment where personal attacks are minimized is where an entire school’s philosophy and actions are dedicated to creating a safe, respectful and caring environment, and where it is clear to all what kind of behavior is expected of teachers and students.

When something goes wrong, the goal is not to shame, blame, punish, suspend or expel, but to work together to find out why it happened and how it can be prevented in the future.

Two books that clearly and quickly explain this humane approach were published by Good Books in 2005:

The Little Book of Restorative Discipline for Schools; Teaching responsibility; creating caring climates, by Lorraine S. Amstutz and Judy H. Mullet.

The Little Book of Circle Processes, a New/Old Approach to Peacemaking by Kay Pranis

Reading helpful books such as these can give teaching staff effective guidance, policies and practices that will create schools with lower levels of stress, frustration and teacher burnout – places where students, teachers and administration actually enjoy coming to school knowing that challenging situations will be handled in positive, not punitive ways.

Another crucial source of support can be found by joining coalitions such as Teacher Activist Groups or TAG: https://teacheractivists.org/   Its education platform, under the heading “School Climate that Empowers and Liberates Students,” states on the TAG website:

“TAG believes in working for school discipline policies and a school climate where students and teachers can thrive.  Schools must be institutions that support the holistic social and emotional needs of all students, help equip young people with empathy and conflict resolution skills, and work to interrupt and transform oppressive dynamics that threaten the safety of the whole school community.

“We support ending the practice of and reliance on punitive discipline strategies that push students out of school and into the military or prisons.  Schools should remove zero tolerance policies, institute restorative practices and restorative justice models, and create time in the curriculum for community-building practices and social/emotional supports.”

A related organization is the Dignity in Schools Campaign, http://dignityinschools.org/   which calls for “a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions and the adoption of more constructive disciplinary policies.”

The Positive Peace Warriors Network bases its approach on the philosophy, life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King which they call Kingian Nonviolence.  It has had great success in transforming alienation and violence in middle schools and high schools to supportive and caring environments.  Their longest partner, Chicago’s North Laundale College Prep High School, has seen a 90% reduction in violence since 2009.  A detailed description of how this was achieved is in the article “Chicago’s Peace Warriors” by Kazu Haga in Rethinking Schools, Winter 2011-2012, Vol. 26, #2.

Educators who become active in organizations with goals such as these will be more likely to have success in creating more peaceful, respectful schools than by going it alone.

Examples of three peaceful and respectful schools I have written about can be found on my website:

A Middle School Based on Love

Willow School – A Model of Ecological, Educational and Social Excellence 

Dr. Mindy Garber’s K-5 School-Wide Discipline Plan , including her creative and humane approach to dealing with emotionally disturbed children.

Bully-Prevention Programs – Are They Effective?

The U.S. government has a website:  https://www.stopbullying.gov/   It defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.  The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.  Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems.”

This website goes into detail on how to detect bullying and how to address the problem including:  types of bullying and cyber-bullying, their effects, relationship between bullying and suicide and how to develop school policies that, if implemented, would lead to a more peaceful and accepting environment.  It stresses the importance of adults being role models for kindness and respect because “kids are watching how adults manage stress and conflict, as well as how they treat their friends, colleagues and families.” (I explore this in Chapter 3: “Watching Our Own Behavior.”)

In addition, the website encourages schools to reach out to parents and the wider community and provides information on approaches that can lead to success. It lists many forms of harassment based on race, gender, homophobia, ethnicity, national origin, religion, and  categories called “verbal,” “social,” and “physical bullying.”

According to Lyn Michel Brown, co-founder of the non-profit Hardy Girls, Healthy Women, https://hghw.org/  we need to be careful not to label all forms of harassment under the general title “bullying.”  In her on-line article “10 Ways to Move Beyond Bully-Prevention (and why we should),” she states that there is no “one-size-fits-all” strategy to prevent bullying:  that “the U.S. has a diversity of race, ethnicity, language, and inequalities between schools, and bully-prevention efforts here need to address that reality.”  She warns us that “Bully-Prevention has become a huge for-profit industry. Let’s not let the steady stream of training sessions, rules, policies, consequence charts, and no-bullying posters keep us from listening well, thinking critically and creating approaches that meet the unique needs of our schools and communities.”

Whether or not your school has an overall plan to address various types of racism, sexism, homophobia, and bullying, there is a lot that teachers can do in their own classrooms to help students become non-judgmental and supportive of one another.  You will find ideas in this chapter that include information and approaches that may prove helpful to you.  These are not recipes for success.  They are examples of how to deal with uncomfortable situations with compassion and creativity that may inspire your own creative ideas to solve problems peacefully, with self-respect and respect for your students

If we do our tasks well, our students will be more willing as adults to be non-judgmental and supportive of one another, thus making possible more positive and gratifying human relationships. Adults who do not belittle or scapegoat others are more likely to work more harmoniously with their neighbors or within organizations to create a better block, community, city and country.

A creative way one teacher transformed a 9-year old social and physical bully:  See  Giving Back  by Jennifer Christiansen on my website

Personal Attacks Based on Race

An epithet or act that ridicules a child’s race is particularly hurtful.  Not only is the child put down, but his or her entire race.  It’s a double blow.  We should never let even one racial remark, no matter how minor, pass unaddressed. Even if you think the intended victims didn’t hear it, you should speak to the victimizers and explain why what they did was unacceptable.

For your classroom to be a place where everyone is affirmed and has a chance to blossom, students must know that they cannot, under any circumstances, say or do anything that makes fun of anyone’s race.

There are a number of books that can give you ideas on how to raise your students’ consciousness on this issue.  Two useful ones are Rethinking Schools Publications:  Open Minds to Equality, A Sourcebook of Learning Activities to Affirm Diversity and Promote Equity, 4th edition, 2014, by Nancy Schniedewind and Ellen Davidson and Rethinking Multicultural Education, Teaching for racial and cultural justice, Wayne Au, editor, 2009.

What follows are a few examples of how I dealt with hostile remarks and acts related to race in my classes.


“Teacher!  Teacher!  She call me black!”

Eight-year-old Lionel was from Haiti, spoke very little English, but that day in my small English as a Second Language Class, he had mustered all he remembered to tell me angrily of the humiliation he had just suffered.

As the other children listened, I explained to him in very simple English that he was black, a beautiful color; that people are all different colors, and all the colors are beautiful.  We compared our arms and saw that we had almost every shade from light to dark. I showed them the many-colored plastic flowers we had in our room and compared their variety of size, color and shape with those of people.

We decided to take a picture of the flowers in a bouquet with the children’s hands all around.  I stood on a chair to take a picture of this from above.  The result was a beautiful slide which we projected on a screen.  An enlarged print was made as well for a bulletin board display.  The whole episode seemed to make Lionel more confident.

This lesson was not only for Lionel and my other black students, but for the rest of the children as well.  It was only a first step, however, because racial prejudice is more than a matter of skin color.

Later in the year, we studied aspects of black history and culture, which further helped to improve human relations in the class.

Soon after this incident, I was passing a bookstore which advertised Black is Beautiful by Ann McGovern, a book of photographs with short, sensitive poems describing black in admiring terms.  I bought the book and read it to my class.  One little girl was so excited that after the first few poems she exclaimed, “That’s beautiful,” clapping her hands, and everyone else joined in.  The applause was repeated after each poem.

The following poem on the same subject was also favorably received.  We made a large display of it, illustrated with pastel drawings, and put it up in the hall:

A Real Bouquet

by Edith Segal 1

Everybody has two eyes,
Bright as stars they shine,
But their color may not be
Just the same as mine.
Brown or blue, grey or green,
What difference does it make?
As long as you can see the sun
Shining when you wake.
Some folks’ hair is very black,
Some have blond or brown,
Whatever color it may be,
It’s a pretty crown.
Flowers have so many shades,
And I’m sure you know
Many lovely gardens
Where such flowers grow.
Children in this great big world
Are flowers in a way,
Some are light and some are dark,
Like a real bouquet.
Did you ever stop to think
How awful it would be
If everybody looked the same?
Who would know you from me?



Among the many daily interactions we have with our students, there are the difficult ones that we may pride ourselves in having handled well.  But did we?  There is so little time to reflect, to consult with our colleagues, to decide whether an incident could have been resolved in a better way.

I wish I had made time to think more deeply about a situation that arose in a 4th-grade that I visited regularly as a “Title One Cultural Enrichment Teacher.”  My job was to prepare elementary school classrooms for special assembly programs, in this case a performance that would include songs of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.

The lesson began with a discussion of what they had learned so far about the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  All of the children were African American as was their teacher. Suddenly, Roger said loudly, “I don’t listen to white ladies.”  All eyes shifted from Roger to me.

I decided on the spot to address the class: “I’m sorry to hear that Roger feels this way. How would it sound to say ‘I don’t listen to Black ladies?’”  The children’s comments seemed to agree that condemning all white or all Black women was not fair.  I concluded this short discussion by stressing that you can find good and bad people in all races and by saying “I hope Roger will come to understand this.”

The lesson proceeded;  I took out my guitar and taught the class “If you miss me from the back of the bus” which continues “and you can’t find me nowhere, come on up to the front of the bus, I’ll be riding up there…”  I chose Roger to give out the words to the song in his row, and he accepted. Soon he joined in singing with everyone else.

In subsequent visits, Roger was cooperative. I assumed it was due to the way I responded to his remark: I was matter-of-fact, did not tell him to leave the group nor give a long, boring speech, and no one had made fun of him. I had invited the class to comment on his remark, his view appeared outnumbered, and I did not hold a grudge.

I assumed that his teacher would have talked with me if I had done something wrong, but she didn’t.  I therefore thought my response was acceptable. However, I should not have assumed she agreed with my interaction with Roger and the class. After all, she was their teacher 5 days a week, and I only for 1-½ hours once a week. She was African American as was her entire class, and I was not. She could have provided insight on Roger’s comment and how she would have handled it.

I also should not have assumed everyone in the class agreed with my comments just because no one publicly sided with Roger. As their teacher, I was in a position of authority, and anyone who may have agreed with Roger may not have wanted to speak up. An alternative to challenging Roger directly would have been to say, “I can understand why you feel like that, Roger, but I do hope that you will listen to me today, and maybe you and I can talk later about this.” Why?

For me as a white teacher, the point of saying this would have been to show Roger that I was interested in his opinions. After the lesson, I could have asked the teacher if talking privately with Roger was a good idea.  If she said yes, I could have learned something interesting about his life and outlook which could have helped me see racial relationships through his eyes.  Whether or not Roger and I actually talked, a private discussion with his teacher could have helped me in planning future lessons (with her input) that could have benefited him and others in his class, especially on matters of race relations.


Mee was from Hong Kong, a very intelligent girl who came to my third-grade class speaking no English but she picked it up quickly.  Several times, I noticed some of the children trying to get a laugh from their friends by pulling their eyes back in order to slant them and speaking in broken English.  These children were not specifically directing this “joke” at Mee; it was just one of the ways they had learned to be “funny.”

Noticing Mee’s distress and embarrassment at such behavior, I had to do something to combat this prejudice. I told the class about some Chinese cultural and historical achievements, showed pictures of their art work and described how difficult the Chinese language was to read and write, but that Mee could do it!  I had her give a demonstration of how to write a Chinese word.  Everyone was impressed with how deftly she drew the complicated characters.  When asked if she would teach us how to write a few words, she eagerly agreed.  The children were proud to be able to write in another language.

We went on from this to develop a chart showing words in Chinese and English, with Mee teaching us how to pronounce the Chinese symbols.  Then Spanish-speaking children showed their classmates how to speak and write equivalent words in their language.

These activities helped to develop among the children more respect for each other and each other’s languages.

I do regret one thing about how I handled this problem.  I never shared this experience with the faculty of my school.  I know that the remarks my students had made were not peculiar to my class.  In fact, Mee knew that too.

One day we were going on a trip, and Mee’s parents did not want her to go.  When I suggested she sit in another class for the day, she refused, saying, “If I go into another class, the children will say, ‘There goes a Chinese girl’, and I don’t want to hear that.”

I didn’t think to bring any of this up with other teachers because in general, most teachers are not encouraged by their administrators to share successes with each other.  And we are so busy with everyday classroom matters that we don’t make enough time to meet and strategize on how we can improve on what we are doing.

Bringing in Science

In other classes when children had negative comments on skin color or Asian eyes, I realized that lessons were in order to show why eyes and skin color are different.  If you can show survival reasons for physical traits, then it makes it easier to look upon them as just different – not superior or inferior.

I would explain that skin color was related to the amount of melanin in a person’s cells; that scientists think melanin developed long ago to protect people in hot climates from overexposure to the sun’s rays; that people in cool climates developed lighter skins because the sun’s rays were weaker, and the protection of large amounts of melanin was not necessary.

I also brought in the vitamin D factor – that the sun helps create vitamin D which leads to strong bones. Too much vitamin D is unhealthy and too little can give a person rickets. Long ago in the northern parts of the earth (before vitamin pills and fortified milk) people had to have light skin to let in enough sun to create vitamin D thus avoiding rickets.  People with dark skin would have died out in cooler climates (lack of vitamin D would have led to rickets, making a person less able to provide food and care for their families.)

Any light-skinned people would have died out in hot climates because to hunt in the hot sun would expose them to severe sunburn and heat stroke.  In these climates, the darker you were the better.  Your greater stamina and endurance made you a good hunter and provider.

To explain the evolution of Asian eyes, I began by saying that Asians can see as well as anyone else; it’s just a matter of another fold of skin over the eye; that scientists think this extra layer of skin developed in very cold climates to protect eyes from freezing and people going blind. It is also thought to have developed in desert and dry areas where sand and dirt blew frequently.  If your eyes were more insulated and didn’t open very wide, you had more protection and greater chance of survival.

Children are fascinated by these theories.  Viewing skin color and eye shape in this straight-forward way takes the mystery and strangeness out of these differences and helps children see them as natural adaptations to varied environments.

I realize that if our students are to grow up open-minded and prejudice-free toward all races, it will take much more than handling effectively a racial incident, occasionally discussing a famous person of color or a science lesson. Ideally, what is needed is a comprehensive approach in the curriculum and textbooks showing the many significant contributions by African-Americans and other people of color to our country’s history, as well as the achievements of Native Americans, Latin American, Asian and African civilizations.

Then this history can be related to the present by addressing such questions as “What can we learn from this person or historical event that will help us today?”  “How can we follow in the footsteps of ______?” The teacher and class can develop an activity or project to improve the class, school or wider community as a tribute to the person or event studied.

Studying/Discussing Race and Racism in Adult Literacy and High School Classes

One semester when I was teaching a beginning reading adult literacy class, Nelson Mandela was freed after 27 years imprisonment in South Africa and soon after became its first black president.  After we studied about his life and conditions in South Africa, I asked students to write on this topic: “How the Freeing of Nelson Mandela has Affected My Life.” They enthusiastically wrote two or more paragraphs committing themselves to fighting the drug epidemic in their communities, volunteering in a hospital or a homeless shelter, helping the elderly in their community and more.

They agreed with Kenneth who wrote, “If Nelson Mandela can make a sacrifice like going to prison for his people, then who am I to sit back and don’t do nothing?”

We made a booklet of all of their writing and over two days, they read their essays to one another.  It was quite inspiring and helped strengthen classroom ties.

There were instances of racial and cultural biases over the years which I never let pass uncommented on if I was aware that they had happened.  Here are two examples:

Bias Incident #1

Maria (casually to her literacy class of African American, Latina and Caucasian students):  I’ve noticed that Blacks are much lazier than Puerto Ricans.

Ms. Califf:  What evidence do you have?

Maria:  Oh, I’ve just noticed.

Ms. Califf:  Does anyone else feel this way?

Class:  (varied responses)

Ms. Califf:  I’d like to put something on the board.  (I wrote a long list of Black civil rights organizations and stirring events that Black people were an important part of.  I pointed out the incredible role played by Black domestic workers in helping their families survive and contributing to the higher education of their children and relatives. I continued by saying “A similar list could be made for Puerto Ricans” and that there are no lazy races, only some lazy people within all the races.)

A student then summed everything up by saying, “I guess Maria was wrong on that one.”  Maria didn’t say anything, but at least she listened.

Bias Incident #2

Sharon, from the island of Jamaica, had a history of making derogatory remarks to others. Each time I made a comment about how that was inappropriate.  The worst incident occurred when she got mad one day at Marie from Haiti whom she called “an ignorant Haitian” in the middle of a heated argument.  This was disruptive of the class, but Sharon wouldn’t stop.  Marie was in tears.  I told Sharon to leave the room.  I spoke to Marie who said she would never accept an apology from Sharon and would never speak to her again.

I then went out into the hall, and the following conversation took place:

Ms. Califf: In this class we have agreed to respect one another; no one can call anyone ignorant.

Sharon: But what she said was so stupid.

Ms. Califf:  What will happen in our class if people start calling each other names?

Sharon:  (silence)

Ms. Califf:  Everyone will get nervous thinking they might be next.  People can’t learn in that type of environment.  To call Marie ignorant was bad enough, but to call her an “ignorant Haitian” is much worse.  How would you like someone to call you an “ignorant Jamaican”?

Sharon:  I wouldn’t like that.

Ms. Califf: What’s the difference between telling someone she is ignorant and telling her she is an ignorant Jamaican?

Sharon:  It makes Jamaicans look bad.

Ms. Califf:  So you not only told Marie she was ignorant, but that Haitians are ignorant.  How many Haitians do you know?

Sharon:  Some.

Ms. Califf:  There are millions of Haitians.  You couldn’t make a statement like that unless you checked out all of them and found they were all ignorant which is impossible. Remember how badly you told me you felt when family members called you dummy because you couldn’t read?  To call someone “ignorant Haitian” is a double blow. I would never allow any class member to call you a name.

What could you have said to Marie instead?  (A short discussion led her to say “I don’t agree with you.”)

I told her that she could return to the class, but that if she ever said anything deprecating again, she would be dropped from the course. (We had the freedom to do this because it was an adult literacy program.)  Sharon was willing to apologize, but Marie was not interested.

This was such a sobering experience for Sharon that she never again made any put downs in class.

I followed up this incident with a study of stereotypes.  Months later, Sharon informed the class that she had heard a stereotyped remark that day. “I was in a taxicab and another car almost crashed into us.  My cab driver yelled, “That’s a Haitian driver!”

In addition to this heightened consciousness, Sharon wrote an essay after all of this, not meant for her teacher’s eyes: “I have one of the most beautiful teachers.  She is kind loving and understanding and patience.  I think all my class mate love hers very very much.  We all can depend on her.  And we will not let her down.  God Bless her.”

A Different Approach to Studying Stereotypes

The students in the Frederick Douglass Center were ages 17 – 21, with reading levels from 0 to 5th-grade.  They were the push-outs and drop-outs of Brooklyn, N.Y., almost all African American as well as immigrants from English and Spanish speaking Caribbean nations. In my class students were reading at about a 4th-grade level; my job was to raise their reading levels to at least 6th grade, so they could join a GED program in another school.

Our school gave teachers a lot of flexibility in creating lessons to achieve this goal.  One term I introduced a study of stereotypes as a result of hearing students’ stories of being mistreated by the public and police.

I began by putting on the board the question “What is a stereotype?”  Since no one knew, we looked it up in our dictionaries.  The definition we decided on was:

“A stereotyped idea is an unfair opinion about a group of people you don’t really know.  It means jumping to conclusions about who someone is before you really know the person.  Stereotyping someone or a group can result in pain and suffering.”

I said “Some of you have told us about how as teenagers and young people you have been looked upon with suspicion, fear and been physically beaten by police for no reason.  Why do you think this is?  Their answers included: “If we are standing on the corner with friends, the police assume we are drug dealers.” “I was followed in the store because the owner thought I might be a thief.”

Gilbert reminded us how the police had stopped him while he was driving his new van, drew their guns, patted him down and beat him before taking him to the local jail.  (He was released without charges after they determined it was his van.  Our class was going to explore how to protest this, but because he was in the country illegally, to protest would have subjected him to deportation.)

From here we learned about stereotypes of African American people in general, Native Americans, Asians, Jews (as a Jew, I addressed this) and Italians (An Italian colleague came in to help dispel myths about his ethnicity.)

The class and I decided to make a small booklet of personal experiences with stereotyping (which would include ways they could have been handled differently) and short essays on some of what they learned. Waterways, a wonderful, modestly-funded organization, printed up enough copies for the class.

We also decided to take our stories to the other nine classes in the school.  To get ready, they role-played their presentation and read their own stories.  We discussed the best way to do this, i.e., stand up straight with pride, look up now and then, read slowly, don’t sway back and forth.  They were all open to suggestions because of our rigid class rule that forbid any put-downs.  (See Chapter 1, Effective Communication for details on how this and other rules were created.)

They each took turns in groups of three (for moral support) going to classes, writing the word “stereotype” on the board, asking for a definition and then writing down our class definition.  This was followed by each one reading their short essay. In conclusion, they asked the class if anyone had personal or other experiences with stereotypes.

The teachers all reported that the presentations went well, and their classes were attentive.  My students were happy about the applause they usually got, but were disappointed that very few students had spoken up in answer to their questions.  However, I told them that their own message was so important that I was sure they made many in the audience begin to think in new ways.

This project created more support among my students as they gave each other helpful suggestions throughout the process and courage to stand up and read in front of their peers on a topic that had meaning to them.

Here are excerpts of their writing:

Curtis: “Last week I was speaking to one of my friends on the phone and he told me that he was on the elevator when a woman got on with him.  When she saw him, she started to hold her bag and pocketbook and looked at him funny.  So, he started to look back at her funny.  He got off the elevator when it got to his floor and went on his way.”

Marlon: “Here is a situation that could have happened:  One day a woman and I were standing in the elevator.  She grabbed her bag, so I grabbed my bag too, and I looked at her.  She was on one side of the elevator, and I was on the other.  She then asked me my name as she introduced herself to me. I think this is one way to stop stereotypes.”

Randal: “One day I went to the store to buy a soda.  I stepped in and opened the door.  Two men watched me like I was going to take something. I walked up to one of them and asked him the cost.  He said a dollar.  I said OK.  Then he asked me did I take something and I said ‘no’!  And I walked out of the store.  I was angry and upset.

“If I had it to do over, I would have walked straight back to the store and said, ‘Sir, you are wrong.  You are a stereotyping person who jumps to conclusions.”

Davon, Andre, Shervin and Phenton collaborated on solutions: “You can make things better only if you talk to somebody as a friend and give them respect.  We should stand together as Nubian children, sisters and brothers to avoid any kind of stereotype. For example, don’t make fun of someone’s race.

“We could try to communicate with each other and help each other in struggle no matter if the person is Black or white, Chinese, Puerto Rican.  It doesn’t matter what race.  All men and women must be treated equally.

“The way to end stereotyping is to stop judging people for what they got or who they are.”

Patrick’s poem:

Heal the World

Don’t jump to conclusions
From one person’s ideas.
To stereotype is not the answer.
As the sun passes you by
See the vision of the light.
We are all human beings
With different colors
Different states of mind.
Let’s stop the discrimination
We are all beautiful from within and out.
Let’s stop stereotyping
Live as a family.
Stop the segregation
And unite as one.

An amazing transformation occurred in Anthony during the project.  He changed from a non-participatory, seemingly uninterested student with very poor reading and writing skills into a vibrant member of the class. When the project was completed, he told me he had written to Lisa Evers, the host of his favorite radio program, Street Warriors, and told her that his class had written an important booklet that she should tell her listeners about.

I was sure that he would be disappointed, especially because he had not asked me to look over what he had written for spelling and punctuation corrections.  However, I was wrong.  She contacted him and invited him and a few classmates to come to the studio to talk about stereotypes and to take calls from NY City listeners!

I was invited to be part of the conversation, but it was the holiday season in December and I was out-of-town. Ms. Evers arranged for a phone connection.  I explained the project, students read their essays and many people called in with their stories, expressing gratitude for the program.

As teachers, we don’t always know what will help an alienated student become an engaged one.  However, an accepting, non-judgmental classroom atmosphere with a curriculum that is interesting and relevant to most of the class is an important ingredient to the solution of this common problem.

Personal Attacks Based on Sexism

Sexual harassment is part of everyday life in middle and high schools according to a 2011 report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) entitled “Crossing the Line, Sexual Harassment at School.”  This conclusion was reached after a nationally representative survey of 1,965 students in grades 7 – 12 conducted in May and June 2011.

The Executive Summary of the survey states:

  • Nearly half (48%) of the students surveyed experienced some form of sexual harassment in the 2010 – 2011 school year and the majority of those students (87%) said it had a negative effect on them.
  • Verbal harassment (unwelcome sexual comments, jokes or gestures) made up the bulk of the incidents, but physical harassment was far too common.
  • Girls were more likely than boys to be sexually harassed by a significant margin (56% vs. 40%).
  • Girls were more likely than boys to say sexual harassment caused them to have trouble sleeping…, not want to go to school…, and change the way they went home from school…
  • These negative emotional effects take a toll on students’ and especially girls’ education, resulting in decreased productivity and increased absenteeism from school.
  • The prevalence of sexual harassment in grades 7 – 12 comes as a surprise to many, in part because it is rarely reported.

Later on, in this chapter, solutions to this crisis will be offered.  But first, we will begin with a foundation of respect between boys and girls that elementary school teachers can build that can help prevent sexist and abusive behavior at higher levels.

Here are experiences other teachers and I have had showing opportunities we took to promote positive relationships between boys and girls and to expand their concepts of what their options are – whether they are male or female.

(For a focus on middle school and high school levels, see later in this chapter)

Who Should Play With Dolls?

Once, as a substitute in a kindergarten class, I decided to raise the question of who should play with dolls:  girls and/or boys.  I wanted to find out if 5-year olds could seriously discuss a sex role issue such as this one.  I read the story “William’s Doll” by Charlotte Zolotow.  This is about a boy who wants a doll to play with along with his basketball, train set and other toys.  His parents refuse, but his grandmother gets him one, so he can “practice being a father.”

I asked the children whether or not William’s grandmother should have given him a doll.  They had many comments.  One girl thought it was a bad idea.  “If he plays with a doll,” she said, “he will be a tomgirl.”  I asked if anyone else agreed with her.  A serious-looking boy volunteered, “I play with my sisters and their dolls.  They are all I have and I am all they have.”

Other children expressed opinions pro and con.  They were divided.  We ended the discussion with a comment from a girl who hadn’t seemed to be paying any attention; “I think children should play with whatever toys they want to play with.”

I think I helped her arrive at that decision by posing a question earlier in the lesson:  “Most girls play a lot with dolls, and in this way they get to practice taking care of children.  The more you practice, the better you get at something, so if they become mothers, they will be more able to be good ones. If boys never get to play with dolls, how will they have a chance to practice being a good father so that they will know how when they grow up?”

I was surprised that these kindergarteners were able to discuss this issue so intelligently.  And with a substitute too!  It just proved to me again how often adults underestimate children’s capabilities.

The issue of whether or not boys should play with dolls was not resolved once and for all, but the free flow of opinions opened up a lot of possibilities.  Allowing children to present their views without permitting ridicule of any opinion is crucial to their finding a more positive way to listen and relate to each other.

Sexist Attitudes Challenged in a 5th-Grade Class

One term I was assigned to teach a 5th-grade class once a week for an hour.  During this time, we were doing a study of pantomime to prepare for a mime performance that was coming to the school.

This was a difficult class with a number of hostile boys.  When I asked for volunteers to pantomime an action, only boys volunteered.  I took a few girls aside and asked why they didn’t want to try, and they replied, “We don’t want the boys to laugh at us.”

I asked, “If I can guarantee that no boys will laugh, will you try?”  They agreed and four girls volunteered.  Then I picked two well-behaved boys and two boys with behavior problems to meet with me in the hall.  We all sat down, and I said, “Boys, we have a problem.  The girls want to pantomime, but they are afraid some boys will make fun of them.  I’m sure it would be fun to see what they can do, but they won’t do it unless everyone is polite.  What should we do?”

After a discussion, the four boys decided that they would position themselves around the room, and if any boy began to laugh, they would look at them and say quietly, “Shhhh” or “Be quiet!”  I told them that this was a great idea and that I was counting on them.  I thanked them ahead of time for their cooperation and suggestions.

Why did I include two behavior problems in this discussion?  If I had only picked boys who were cooperative, it would have been obvious which children I thought I couldn’t trust, and their poor behavior would have continued no matter what ideas the well-behaved boys came up with.  By including two disruptive boys, I gave them a chance to be positive leaders (they would have the most influence over their friends), and to get the attention they craved by doing something good.

Their teacher agreed to let me take all of the girls out of the class for half an hour.  Then I said, “Ella, Judy, Mary and Dianne want to pantomime, but they don’t want to do it alone.  What can they do together?”  It wasn’t long before everyone agreed upon a scene at a supermarket checkout counter.

The four girls practiced, and the other girls offered suggestions.  Finally, they were ready.  I explained that four boys had formed a committee to see that no one laughed.

They took their places in front of the class and rearranged some desks for their supermarket scene.  The boys stationed themselves around the room.  I introduced the performance.  “Now we will see something new – a group pantomime.  See if you can guess where they are and what they are doing.”

The girls began.  As soon as one boy made a derogatory sound, the guards sprang into action.  “Shhhhh,” “Be quiet!”  After a few of these incidents, all was calm as the girls carried off their mime without a hitch.  When they finished, and someone had guessed what they were portraying, I led the class in clapping our appreciation.  I also thanked the boys for helping to make their effort a success.  Before I knew what had happened, these formerly shy girls and some others ran out of the room and disappeared.

When their teacher returned, I went out searching and found them in a kindergarten class. The teacher said they had come in and asked if they could put on their skit!

I was very proud of these children, and they were proud too.  They had taken responsibility for each other, and helped one another break out of harmful ruts.  Boys began to see that they should respect the right of girls to participate freely in class activities without fear of negative comments.  Girls began to feel their power to achieve more than they thought they could.

As the teacher, I had played a crucial role, but I couldn’t have had such a successful lesson without the creativity and cooperation of the children.

If you anticipate that a problem will arise, and then involve part or all of your class in figuring out what to do before it happens, very often a serious incident can be avoided.  I can’t underline enough how much more successful I was in preventing serious discipline problems when I invited the students to help me create a safe and supportive environment for learning.

Other Ways to Challenge Gender Stereotyping (Some are appropriate for elementary and others for middle and high school)

There are innumerable opportunities in everyday classroom activities to build better relationships between boys and girls.  Here are some more ideas:

  1. Don’t have a boys’ and girls’ line, just have two lines. I found that when boys or girls stood in the “wrong” line, they were subjected to ridicule. It was worse, however, for a boy to stand in the girls’ line than vice versa.  He was called names like “sissy” or “You’re a girl.”  The boys’ line was obviously a higher status line than the girls’ line.

Since my students sat at tables, I would say, “Table l, line up in front of the room.  Table 2 at the side,” and so on.  At first there was protest, but I just said that it was better for boys and girls to stand in the same lines and not to be separate.  No other class in my school did this, and children noticed.  I simply said, “Well, we just do it differently.”  Eventually they got used to it, and girls and boys began talking with each other more.

  1. When a monitor is needed to go on an errand, pick a boy and girl to go together.
  2. When children are playing a game or working on a project, make sure that some of the time only girls work together. In the report by the A.A.U.W. mentioned earlier, the authors discovered several studies that girls often learn better in single gender environments.  It suggested that teachers include all-girl workgroups in their classroom planning.
  3. In early childhood classes, be careful how you name and arrange the play areas. Herbert Kohl found that in his K-l class, the art and the cooking/dress-up areas were played in by girls; boys took over the shop (a workbench, saws and hammers) and the science center (experiments with electricity and magnetism).

He slowly got boys and girls to play in different areas by renaming the centers and activities. The cooking/dress-up area became “The Haunted House,” “Fantasy House,” or “The Theater.”  The library corner which had been used primarily by a few girls was renamed “The Bookmaking Center” with appropriate materials added.

He changed the location of classroom resources:  blocks and toy cars were kept with the dolls; paints and crayons put in the science center; fancy men’s clothes added to the dress-up area.  These changes made it possible for boys and girls to begin playing more with each other and to play with materials they had previously ignored.2

  1. Be alert for any sexist remarks and deal with them immediately. Here is what one teacher, Chuck Esser, did:

“There was a lot of talk in my class about how girls can’t play on the jungle gym, and so forth.  I had told the girls and boys that the things in the classroom were for everyone to use, that girls were as strong as boys.  Then I decided to read to the class some books with girls as strong stars.  I read The Magic Hat and Mommies at Work. The next day I heard one of the boys saying, ‘They can too play here.  You know they can be sailors just like in Mommies at Work.’” 3

  1. On a regular basis, include reading material, give lessons and hang up posters that celebrate achievements of women working alone and in organizations.

One source of lesson ideas, posters, books, CDs and DVDs is the National Women’s History Project, https://nationalwomenshistoryalliance.org/

Combating Sexism and Gender-Based Violence and Harassment at the Middle School and High School Levels

The 2011 AAUW report mentioned previously includes a section on recommendations on how to make preventing sexual harassment a priority in middle school and high school.  Their suggestions are crucial since only 12% of students felt their school did a good job of addressing this issue.

The most effective anti-harassment programs are those where school administrators take them seriously through strong leadership via actions that include:

  • a designated coordinator to handle official sexual harassment complaints and other violations of Title IX (a comprehensive federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity);
  • time to train the coordinator, staff and students and to provide resources to handle the complaints and other gender equity issues;
  • a way to anonymously report sexual harassment problems;
  • teaching all students that sexual harassment is not funny. While both boys and girls can be harassers, boys are most often the harassers of both girls and boys. Male harassers claimed they were just being funny. Teaching kids that sexual harassment crosses the line and is not humorous is a crucial lesson.
  • posting or distributing information on sexual harassment, i.e., what it is, what the school policy is and what students can do if they experience or witness it;
  • organizing a school assembly and involving students in the planning and implementation;
  • inviting students to create posters;
  • using the American Civil Liberties Union’s fact sheet “Gender-Based Violence and Harassment: Your School, Your Rights.”
  • providing students with assertiveness and self-defense training that could empower and equip them to challenge the behavior of harassers and stand up for each other.

The report has a section on what educators can do when students report sexual harassment:

  • Listen carefully and respectfully without judgment or blaming the victim.
  • Help find answers to any questions you don’t know the answers to and share with the student.
  • Advise student to record the incident in writing.
  • Advise students about their rights and options.
  • Assist or check up on students as they take the next steps.

In addition, suggestions are given on what educators can do if they observe sexual harassment:

  • Name the behavior and state that it must stop immediately.
  • Use the incident to talk to students about what sexual harassment is and why it is not okay.
  • Follow the school policy.
  • If necessary, send person to the principal or guidance counselor and notify families of the students involved.
  • Work to develop a culture of respect in your classroom as a prevention method. “One way to do this is by promoting activities that encourage friendship, cooperation, and sharing among all students, particularly among those who may not otherwise interact.  Students are less likely to sexually harass people they respect, and they will be more likely to stand up for someone they know and like.” (AAUW report, chapter 4, p. 34, quoting Sandler and Stonehill, 2005)

A key to success in this effort is to “incorporate subjects that encourage respect and tolerance for all individuals, such as studying the contributions of women and various racial, ethnic and sexual-orientation identity groups.” (AAUW report, Chapter 4, p. 34 – 35)

Personal Attacks Based On Homophobia

Picture yourself.  You take pride in being a teacher who doesn’t allow put-downs in your classroom. You are careful to speak out against racist and sexist remarks, and to prepare lessons to counteract them.  But what do you do when you hear a student call another “gay,” “queer,” “homo” or “faggot”?  Many of us are not sure what to do.  We feel uncomfortable with the whole subject of homosexuality, so we might say to the name-caller “Stop that!,” or we might ignore the remark hoping that this type of name-calling won’t happen again.  However, neither of these solutions works.  They don’t help students understand why these epithets are as hurtful as any slur against a racial or ethnic group.

In 1983, the Council on Interracial Books for Children (CIBC)4 published an issue of its Bulletin entitled “Homophobia and Education, How to Deal With Name-Calling” which is still relevant today.   In this ground-breaking work to which classroom teachers, authors, librarians and a theologian contributed, the editors explained why they decided to devote an entire issue to this subject:

“First, homophobia oppresses at least one-tenth of our population, and we feel that education should be a vehicle for counteracting all forms of oppression.  Second, homophobia is the ultimate weapon in reinforcing rigid sex-role conformity, and we believe that sex-role conformity oppresses all females and limits male options as well.  Third, young people are generally appallingly misinformed about homosexuality, whereas education should provide accurate information about realities in this world.” 5

CIBC explained that statistical evidence indicated that there are probably homosexual children in almost every classroom or children who have gay or lesbian parents.  However, such children usually have little support or guidance.

CIBC discussed the effect that homophobia can have on all boys and girls:

“Boys who fail to display prescribed ‘masculine’ traits are called ‘sissy’ – even before kindergarten, and any child will define a sissy as someone who is fearful, a crybaby or who ‘acts like a girl’.  Later they’re called a ‘fag.’  The fear of such name-calling makes boys toe the gender line and refrain from any display of caring and nurturing emotions.  That fear also encourages them to develop aggressive, domineering behaviors.

“Similarly, name-calling – from “tomboy” to “lezzie” – inhibits girls from developing their strengths or acting as equals to boys.  Homophobia thus prevents the broadening of sex-role options.  In fact, the women’s movement is frequently attacked as ‘just a bunch of lesbians.’  This attack is calculated to make women toe the gender line.  Until such time as non-gay people defend the rights and humanity of gay people and learn to shrug off homophobic labels, such name-calling will continue to oppress and inhibit everyone.” 6

Luckily, today, there are a number of national organizations that can give guidance on how teachers and administrators can address homophobia in their classrooms and schools.

Here are some of them and examples of their publications:

Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network:  Their “Safe Space Kit” increases teachers’ knowledge and skills regarding issues faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

Hardy Girls, Healthy Women:  A resource – “Ugly Ducklings:  A National Campaign to Reduce Bullying and Harassment of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) Youth.”

American Civil Liberties Union: a 2 page handout: “Know Your Rights, LGBT High School Students.”

Human Rights Campaign: “Growing Up LGBT in America,” a survey of 10,000 LGBT-identified youth ages 13-17.

Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality,  Edited by Annika Butler-Wall, Kim Cosier, Rachel Harper, Jeff Sapp, Jody Sokolower, and Melissa Bollow Tempel, (Milwaukee: A Rethinking Schools Publication, 2016)

AND a film produced by New Day Films: “It’s Elementary, Talking About Gay  Issues in School,” includes a Viewing Guide that outlines why gay issues are appropriate for discussion at all grade levels, provides tips on how to use the film for in-service trainings, and addresses concerns that parents and educators may have about how this topic is handled at school.

Discussing Homosexuality with Very Young Children

At a meeting of a pro-equality, multi-racial network of educators and parents in New York City, the following question was asked: “Don’t you think first grade is too young to explain homosexuality to children; don’t you have to explain homosexual sex to children for them to understand about gay and lesbian people?”

Answer: “It is never too young for there to be an environment of acceptance of the diversity of human kind.  You do not have to talk about sex for children to understand that two people can love each other.  Young children understand mothers’ and fathers’ love for each other without knowing about heterosexual sex. Yes, two men or two women can love each other and want to live together. They also sometimes raise children together.”7

Jaki (Williams) Florsheim, a friend of mine, was a kindergarten teacher who chose to confront the issue.  It developed naturally one year because one of her pupils had two mothers.  Since she wanted Mark to be an accepted class member, she invited his parents to come to school.  One of them read the book “Heather Has Two Mommies” aloud.  The children listened matter-of-factly and asked questions that the parents easily answered. It was clear that these two women were loving and conscientious parents.  The children simply accepted Mark’s family.  When one of the mothers came to school to pick him up, the children said, “There’s Mark’s other mommy.”

Subsequently, a child brought up the following:

Child:  There are two men who are living together upstairs and my parents don’t like them.

Ms. Florsheim:  How do you feel?

Child:  I like them.

Ms. Florsheim:  So you disagree.

And she left it at that.

Ms. Florsheim believed that it is much healthier to have these issues out in the open so that children don’t sublimate negative feelings about homosexuality which may surface in later years as self-hatred or as irrational hatred and even violence against gay people.

Once at a P.T.A. meeting, a parent criticized Ms. Florsheim publicly because she was “teaching homosexuality.”  Ms. Florsheim justified herself saying that teaching homosexuality is not her goal.  She just wanted all of her students to be validated and varied life styles respected.  Other parents stood up at the meeting and said, “We are glad Ms. Florsheim is doing this.  We want our children to learn tolerance.”8

Indeed, a number of classes in Ms. Florsheim’s school had a chance to engage in a public discussion of intolerance against homosexuals when one morning a teacher found “Mr. ______ is a faggot” written on his door. He offered to speak before an assembly of older children who knew this had happened, and the administrator and teachers agreed.

He spoke about his life and how he had at a certain point realized he was gay.  He said he was proud of who he was and glad to be a teacher.  However, he explained that it was hurtful for that sentence to be on his door.  He invited the person who wrote it to come and speak with him because it seemed the person was angry, and he wanted to hear their grievance.

During the give and take after his presentation, some teachers stood up and supported him saying that about 10% of the U.S. population was gay, and that given this reality, 10% of their school population could be gay.

Students listened.  Many who were sympathetic went up to Mr. ______ and said they were sorry about what had happened.

As a result of this incident, the school’s Diversity Task Force, which previously had concerned itself only with issues of racism and sexism, added to its statement of purpose their members’ belief in “No discrimination based on sexual orientation.”  They held a series of open discussions with teachers and older students on issues of homophobia.  Teachers brainstormed how to teach tolerance of a variety of life styles.  They realized that one natural place to include this subject was under the subtopic “Families” in their Health Curriculum.


1Segal, Edith, Be My Friend, Citadel Press, N.Y., 1969, p. 14.

2Kohl, Herbert, On Teaching, Schocken Books, N.Y., 1986, p. 88-91.

3Judson, Stephanie, editor, A Manual on Nonviolence and Children, New Society Publishers, Philadelphia, 1984, p. 39.

4The Council on Interracial Books for Children (CIBC), in existence from the late 1960s to the early 1980’s which I was fortunate to work for and with, was a leader in challenging stereotypes and misinformation in children’s trade and textbooks.

5Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, “Why the CIBC is Dealing With Homophobia,” Vol. 14, Numbers 3&4, 1983, p.3.


7Lee, Ntanya, Murphy, Don and North, Lisa, “Sexuality, Multicultural Education, and the New York City Public Schools,” Radical Teacher, #45, p. 15.

8 Interview with the author.


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