Microaggressions: How to Spot ‘Em, How to Stop ‘Em

Creating the space for your students to take risks and make mistakes is some of the hardest work teachers do. When 6th Grade English teacher Katie Reen set out to make that space for her students in the realm of microaggressions in texts they were reading together, they practices and discovered much more than they expected.

High school students worked alongside Ms. Reen and her students in this important, engaging work and her reflection on the experience has the potential to start conversations about this essential work in classrooms all over Nashville, and beyond. We’d love to hear your thoughts and connections to the work and if you’re doing similar work, we’d love to hear your story!

By Katie Reen

I don’t know about you, but I give myself an A+ when it comes to teaching my students how to find a stereotype in a piece of literature or text.  They spot those little suckers even more effectively than they do a metaphor or simile – which – one could argue – is actually the kind of thing I’m supposed to be having them focus on.  I am an English teacher, after all; an English teacher who dared end the last sentence with a preposition, mind you.  Anyway, once my kiddos see a pesky microaggression, whether it be based on ageism, sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism or any other kind of dreaded ‘ism,’ they are incensed.  They roll their eyes at the character who committed the dastardly deed.  They slap their books against their knees in total disgust at the ignorance of the offending party.  They scream and yell at the fictitious figure who dared display such unenlightened insensitivity. They literally experience rage.  We wallow in the discomfort of the moment, but then we turn to the next page and read on as if it never happened in the first place.

Something about this has always bothered me.  It is like I took the small step to notice the infractions, but not the giant leap to do anything about them.  What good is identifying a problem when you’ve done nothing to root it out?  This year, I thought, no more!  We were gonna spot em’ and then work to stop em.’

Enter School Counselor

Helen Tarleton is our resident school counselor and guru of all things related to human communication.  I shared with her my shortcomings and together, we drafted a lesson using the Speak Up at School curriculum created by the folks at Teaching Tolerance.  We took their 4 step approach to speaking up against bias which includes interrupting, questioning, educating, and echoing.  We married this approach with the most obnoxious examples of stereotypes and microaggressions that we could find from the magnificent book The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, which we had just finished in class.  We taught our eager beavers the 4 approaches one can take when they perceive bias in a situation, and asked them to imagine that they were a new character written into the scene by Raskin with the express purpose of interrupting the bias.  Students excitedly thought about what they would say to educate the obnoxious character, Grace Wexler, when she said that “it was so difficult to tell the ages of people of the Oriental persuasion.”  Or, what they would do to question Mr. Hoo when he called his own son a “dumb jock.”  Imagining these rewrites seemed to give students power; power to correct a situation that they personally knew to be wrong.

Bring it to the ‘Real World’

Once we had kids hooked in the fictitious world of The Westing Game, we turned their attention to the real world.  We used a real life situation that happened between the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers during the World Series this year.  We asked students to imagine that they were in the dugout with Houston Astro,Yuli Gurriel, when he made an unfortunate hand gesture and paired it with an offensive term directed at the Japanese-born pitcher for the Dodgers, Yu Darvish.  We pushed our students to imagine that they were in the dugout with Yuli when he slanted his eyes and called Darvish “chinito” an expression that means ‘little Chinese guy.’  What was most exciting was watching the kids realize in this example, that you couldn’t take a high-and-mighty-just-say-no-circa-1980-style approach.  Context matters.  Relationships matter.  One student grappled with the situation by saying, “Well, if I was in the dugout, I’m probably Yuli’s friend.  I probably care what he thinks about me.  I don’t want to lecture him or sound like a parent.  So, I should probably correct him in a friendly way.”  Can you imagine a more nuanced understanding of a complicated situation for an 11 year old boy?  What was really cool about this particular example is that upon completion, I could show my students what Yu Darvish did in response.  He took the high road.  He chose to educate.  He decided to offer forgiveness and grace in the face of such callous behavior.  Another great lesson for kids.

Send in the Troops – or in this case – High Schoolers – to Develop the Chutzpah

To make the lesson even more impactful, I rounded up three superstar high school juniors to take part.  They brought the magic touch and served as such incredible role models for our guppers.  As they walked the table groups helping kids come up with just the right thing to say in the face of the wrong thing said, students really opened up with ideas.  We turned our role plays into more day to day examples.  We asked them to think of how they’d intervene if someone said another person looked “ghetto.”  How about if a friend said a movie was “gay?”  We even tried to break down what we would do with a subtle microaggression like complimenting a person perceived to be Hispanic by saying “Your English is so good” or telling a black student they were so “articulate.”  As students worked through these hypotheticals that all too often creep into everyday life, they started to gain confidence to address them.  We even added a 5th category of intervention – using humor as a weapon.  Students quickly turned these situations on their heads with silly quips like “the movie had a male attraction?  I totally missed that part.” Or, my favorite, “Your English is pretty good too.”  We all know that a laugh can be a good way to speak softly, but still carry the big metaphorical stick.

A Failure No More

All in all, this 45 minute lesson was pretty magical.  The kids got a chance to practice something that is going to be hard to actually do.  Let’s face it.  How many of us, as adults, encounter these sorts of things all the time and say absolutely nothing?  I can feel my face redden as I think of the times I didn’t interrupt a bias myself.  I’m 40, 18 years into my chosen profession, theoretically a grown up, and it is still hard to do.  They are the ripe ole’ age of 11 or 12, generally drowning in insecurity, and working so hard to find their place in the crowd.   This was just the right approach to help kids put some more tools in their tool box that might prepare them to do something when next called upon or confronted.  The biggest win of the lesson was to put us all on notice. We now live in a 6th grade community where a shared value is to intercede when one of these pesky harms enters our space.  It is like we have our very own version of the Homeland Security motto: When you see something, say something, except we even know the things to say and just how to say them for maximum effect.  There are still many miles to go before we sleep, but I feel much better about our communities approach to not only spotting these social ills, but actually addressing them.  I’ll twist and tweak the lesson for the coming year, but I give myself at least a B for my first try!

2 Replies to “Microaggressions: How to Spot ‘Em, How to Stop ‘Em”

  1. Wow Katie! What an impactful and creative lesson. Addressing these issues, arming your students and allowing them to role play will definitely improve their advocacy. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Based on the responses of your students, you are inspiring them to be strong, conscious, and kind human beings. I’m inspired by you, too. What a gift you are giving your students and through them to the world.

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