Deconstructing Prejudice: Creating a Space to Understand Human Nature and Power Structures

Deconstructing Prejudice:
Creating a Space to Understand Human Nature and Power Structures
Katie McGee
Teachers College, Columbia University
Deconstructing Prejudice:
Creating a Space to Understand Human Nature and Power Structures
It was the moment Nikkeya said, “I don’t want to go on a trip outside of Texas. I don’t
want to get killed or hurt just by walking around.” This was the moment I realized just how
much my Black seventh-grade students in Dallas, Texas have been affected by the current
political and social environment.
It’s easy to assume that students watching Black lives frivolously shot down every week,
students want to talk about what’s going on. It’s another thing entirely to get to the core of the
issue, sitting down with a group and allowing them the chance to truly voice their concerns and
feelings about what’s happening to people who look like them.
Sitting with my Advisory students, allowing them to lead a conversation about what’s
happening was eye-opening. They weren’t just afraid to leave Texas, they were afraid to leave
the confines of their Black neighborhoods, afraid to journey twenty minutes to Downtown
Dallas, where they were keenly aware of daily protests and the recent shootings of police
officers. The pervading question in these conversations was “why?” They didn’t just want to
know the historical answer to the question, they wanted to get deeper, to underlying questions of
human nature. They wanted to know what caused people to treat each other in ways that led to
what they saw on the news and social media every day.
Seeking to Understand
After reflecting on these conversations, it was clear that the students at my school needed
a way to deeply understand human nature. Following these conversations, I developed a unit for
the second semester of their seventh-grade reading class that discussed the power of language,
with Animal Farm as the anchor text. The unit was based strongly in research and inquiry;
students were able to make real world connections to the 2016 electoral candidates and began to
show understanding of the influence of language to rally and hold power.
This year, I am moving out of the classroom to develop and maintain a literacy program
for grades 6-8 in the same middle school. KIPP Destiny Middle School is a charter school where
parents choose to bus or drive their students up to an hour and a half in search of a “better”
education than the public-school system. The school has a population of 95% students who
qualify for free and reduced lunch, 90% Black students, and 10% Latino students. On average,
students enter the school with Fountas and Pinnell reading level scores 3-4 years below grade
level, and with average Reading, Language, and Math MAP scores in the bottom quartile.
Currently the school is in its third year of operation and is facing closure if state test scores do
not meet a minimum requirement in the next two years. This puts an immense pressure on both
students and teachers, as they seek to reach “proficiency” by maintaining a TEKS-aligned (Texas
Essential Knowledge and Skills) curriculum while also balancing the socio-emotional needs of
Because of this context, I believe strongly in a balanced literacy approach to meet the
varied needs of students performing at diverse levels while still preparing them to meet state
testing standards and empowering them as readers. The four elements our reading program
focuses on are fluency, vocabulary development, text comprehension and written expression.
Within fluency, students receive phonics instruction as needed and every student in the school is
expected to have daily sustained silent reading in choice books, as promoted by Beers (2003,
2017) and Calkins (2001). Vocabulary development is grounded in the research-based Marzano
6-step approach of direct vocabulary instruction (2013). Text comprehension is largely based on
Calkins’ reading workshop approach (2001) and explicit instruction of comprehension strategies
via minilessons based on Beers’ approach (2003). Written expression is also based on Calkins’
writing workshop approach and the writing process (with grammar instruction) is taught
explicitly in separate writing classrooms. All of this works throughout the day to give students a
broad array of strategies to grow as readers.
Since many of our students are struggling readers, one of the most important elements in
our context is to “teach them how to struggle with a text, how to develop the patience and
stamina to stick with a text, how to figure out on their own what is separating them from success
with the text, and what they should do with it,” (Beers, 2003, pg. 16). This focus on a growth
mindset while explicitly teaching how to struggle and work through difficulties allows students
to comfortably fail in the process of becoming independent readers and thinkers.
At the same time, I also believe strongly that our students deserve a reading classroom
that “affirm[s] and reaffirm[s] the principles that center around belief in justice and freedom and
respect for human rights,” (Greene, 1995, pg. 43). Especially given the context of working in a
school that consists of populations that are marginalized, Greene’s ideas of creating a dialogic
community that allows students and teachers to ignite their passions through curiosity and
inquiry seem particularly salient. Our reading classrooms must give way to conversations
between students with the teacher as participant that create a “wobble that unsettles learners,”
(pg. 47) to promote growth and understanding across differences, as suggested by Fecho and
Clifton (2017). These notions of dialogic classrooms work well within the idea of teaching with
reality pedagogy as outlined by Emdin (2016). Reality pedagogy’s ideas of treating the student
as the expert in their own learning and focusing on creating space in the classroom to express
unique perspectives give students in urban classrooms a necessary outlet to explore how their
own world exists in relation to others.
With these beliefs in mind, I have created year-long curricula for the school’s reading
classes that attempt to balance being both functional and empowering, as described by Alfred
Tatum (2005). The unit where I am looking to further discussions of human nature and power is
in eighth-grade. Knowing that students are coming to their eighth-grade reading class with the
beginnings of a conversation of the historical impact of language on power, it seems logical to
delve a step further into discussions of power historically as well as currently. This needs to be
done in a way that allows students to explore the “why?” that was their immediate reaction to
injustices they saw in the world around them.
Exploring Power and Prejudice
In an effort to give students access to texts and conversations that deepen their
understanding of power and human nature, I knew I needed to solidify the question both students
and I were actually asking. In light of current events in the United States, students are constantly
accosted by images of groups spewing hateful pro-White rhetoric, often with groups supporting
diversity, like BlackLivesMatter, receiving the most backlash for expressing their freedom of
speech. Some of the questions that come to mind in response to this are, “What made people hate
others this much?”, “How is no one saying anything to stop this?”, and “How is this happening
today?” These questions were echoed by my students sitting in those early morning Advisory
conversations and I quickly found there was no easy answer. My immediate instinct was to direct
students to times throughout history that elicited the same questions, though a lack of
background knowledge blocked my ability to communicate the true scope of what they were
seeking to understand.
Ultimately, I know we need a starting point to discuss these issues that is both unrelated
to current events and well-documented to give us a common language. This is why I first decided
that providing students with the historical background of what happened during the Holocaust
will prove to be an effective starting point, or case study. My belief is that working with this
moment in history when prejudice and power collided to cause an objectively devastating abuse
of human rights will allow students to begin to ask questions that will help them to reach their
own understandings of current events.
Essential Question and Course Texts
Since current political and social turmoil in the United States has left students feeling
unsure about their place in society, it is important to name outright the two things at play that are
manifesting themselves on the news every night. One has already been named several times:
power. This unit will address the structures in place and the tools by which people have great
impact over others. The other large issue is the prejudice present that allows for the current
tumultuous environment and has historically been a large part of similar events. I have chosen to
focus on prejudice, knowing that bias is also at play and will need to be discussed as well with
students. My argument for using the term “prejudice” is that historical events like the Holocaust
were fueled by prejudice, which promotes outright discrimination. Bias has a part to play as well,
and my hope is that students are able to explore the impact of both. The goal of this unit of study
will be for students to answer the essential question, “What are the relationships between
prejudice and power?”
As previously stated, I want students to have common ground in a historical event to
begin their discussion of the essential question, so the first text students will read is the graphic
novel Maus I, by Art Spiegelman. Maus I details the true story of Art Spiegelman’s father
Vladek from the start of his adult life as a Jew living in Poland in 1935 to the moment he and his
wife were taken to Auschwitz in 1944. The story vividly shows the incremental way that the
Nazi party was able to seize complete power in Poland and eradicate the Jewish population.
Vladek himself says, “But always things came a little worse, a little worse…” (Spiegelman,
1973, pg. 81) to illustrate the way structures of power were put in place to eventually lead to the
Holocaust. The graphic novel itself offers powerful visual symbols of power structures and
embeds prejudice towards Jews in a way that makes it feel commonplace and expected.
To effectively tie conversations around prejudice and power in the Holocaust to current
events, the next text students will dive into explores modern day mass incarceration of Black
Americans. Students will read one chapter from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the
Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander titled, “The New Jim Crow.” This chapter
explains the structures and realities of mass incarceration, explaining how it is a relatively
unknown and misunderstood crisis happening under our noses. “Mass incarceration has been
normalized, and all of the racial stereotypes and assumptions that gave rise to the system are now
embraced (or at least internalized) by people of all colors, from all walks of life, and in every
major political power,” (Alexander, 2010, pg. 181). The chapter offers statistics and anecdotes
comparing current mass incarceration to Jim Crow laws and digs into the biases and prejudice at
play in systems that are accepted and normalized by Americans. Alexander (2010) goes as far as
to say, “[e]xtreme marginalization, as we have seen throughout world history, poses the risk of
extermination,” (pg. 219), giving warning to the deadly similarities between the current
incarceration crisis and events like the Holocaust.
Maus I offers a one-sided view of what it is like to become a victim of deeply held
prejudices, while “The New Jim Crow” offers a bevy of facts and data that attempt to prove the
impact of current deeply held prejudices on Black Americans. Students will still need an
understanding of how prejudice forms to be able to effectively answer the essential question. In
an effort to offer one answer to the question of how prejudice develops, students will read the
transcript (and watch) the TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Adichie.
As the final anchor text of the unit, students will use the piece as a point of developing a
common language for the unit assessment and as a way to navigate the incredible depth of
issues created by prejudice and power. Adichie tells a personal reflection on the dangers of being
presented with a single story representing a group of people. She talks of being on both sides of a
single story, as the recipient of the prejudice single stories create and as a proponent, not
seeking the other side. “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to
dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can
break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity,” (Adichie, 2009).
This final story will effectively give students a lens for solidifying the inquiry they started with
the other texts.
Before, During, and After Reading Activities
As the writer of a curriculum that I will be supporting teachers with implementing, I will
make suggestions for before, during and after reading activities for teachers. It is up to them
whether or not to follow my suggestions according to what works in the specific context of their
classroom. The following are suggestions that I will make to reading teachers using this unit of
Before reading, I believe it is important for teachers to create an environment of honesty
and transparency while embodying a growth mindset. Students who may not have the language
to navigate the murky waters of discussing prejudice will need support and tools to formulate
and share their own opinions while respecting those with different ideas in the same classroom.
An anticipation guide with statements that have to do with the ideas discussed in the unit will be
a good way for students to anticipate what the unit is going to be about before the unit starts
(Beers, 2003). Discussing these guides with students and providing tools for students to talk
about the topics before the unit begins will set them up for success.
Also given students’ lack of prior knowledge of the Holocaust, it will be important to
spend time building background knowledge of World War II and the political events leading up
to the Holocaust. My suggestion will be to collect historical information through a variety of
experiences with text, whether it’s films, images, or informational texts. Students can gather this
knowledge in something similar to a K-W-L chart, though I would suggest an extended version
of the chart with places for students to track a timeline of events and important leaders.
During reading, teachers will need to use a variety of strategies to meet the needs of
diverse readers, though a consistent practice across classrooms will be think-alouds. “Thinkalouds provide struggling readers with a structure on which to build this dialogue; they learn to
think about their reading and to monitor what they do and do not understand,” (Beers, 2003, pg.
122). This strategy will push for students to show their thinking either verbally or on Post-its.
This process will be modeled with different thinking strategies and on different genres of texts
by the teacher frequently enough that students are able to independently think-aloud.
After reading, students will revisit their anticipation guides and use scales to wrap up
their final thoughts about the essential question. Scales are a good way for students to think
through high-level thoughts and ideas presented in the unit in a way that feels concrete while still
leaving room for interpretation and explanation. After reading, students will need time to discuss
with others as well as personally reflect before they can begin their final assessments.
Vocabulary instruction. Students will be using context clues as a strategy throughout
the year, so teachers will provide ways for students to be introduced to words and use them
throughout the unit. Vocabulary instruction will focus on making sure students explicitly learn
more complex terms, use them with frequency and are able to remember them beyond the unit
(Beers, 2003).
The final assessment for this unit will involve students researching events that are
typically told as single stories, and creating “Another Story” through multiple means of
expression. In an effort to allow this project to have significant choice for students, they will be
able to choose the topic they want to research. Some examples would be: the Iranian Revolution,
American Colonization, the Jim Crow Era, Japanese Internment during World War II, the Black
Lives Matter Movement, and Immigration Reform. Students will have suggested topics with
supporting texts provided, but requests for inquiry into a topic that inspires a student would be
Instead of a traditional research paper, students will be able to choose from multiple
means of expression to interpret the texts they read. All students need to have a written
component and a visual component telling “Another Story,” or another way of seeing the event
they research that is not frequently represented. Some of the written options would be traditional
research papers, justifications of visual pieces, or narratives of the new story they are telling.
Some visual options would be to create a graphic novel for the new story, create a visual board
or poster detailing the story or their research, or an online presentation of their project. The final,
polished pieces of writing or graphica will be submitted to our school’s literary journal to be
officially “published,” as a way of giving their stories a purpose beyond the classroom.
Hopes and Concerns
This unit is a combination of both functional and empowering learning, with the essential
question and final assessment as driving forces to empower students to search beyond single
stories. My hope is that students find a place to discuss issues that pervade their every day life
with a common vocabulary and background knowledge that gives them control over narratives
they are exposed to. I want students and teachers all to learn from each other and create final
projects that they are proud of. This unit can do more than change perspectives of the students
participating if they have final projects and ideas they can share with the school community and
communities outside of school.
A concern for me is that I am not personally teaching this unit. The deep understanding
and time I have taken to create the unit may not be easily transferred to teachers who did not do
the same thinking. The unit fits my own beliefs about teaching reading and without buy-in from
the teachers implementing the curriculum, it may not be successful. Another concern is that
students with such varied instructional levels may not be given necessary scaffolds to gain access
to the anchor texts for the unit. The anchor texts need to be accessed by all students, so teachers
will have to accommodate for different learning needs. My final concern is that the unit itself is
time-intensive and students may need a lot more time to research and prepare their final projects
than the school calendar allows. My push for teachers will be that they are responsive to the
needs of their students while also covering the most important elements of the unit, so that will
mean making critical choices about what to cut if necessary.
Overall, I hope this unit provides a learning experience that students won’t forget. The
danger of a single story is true now more than ever, and I hope students begin to seek and write
other stories that honor the many truths of those different from them. This is the first step
towards a generation that can change our country’s narrative.
Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New
York: New Press.
Beers, G. K. (2003). When kids can't read, what teachers can do: A guide for teachers, 6-12.
Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Beers, K., & Probst, R. E. (2017). Disrupting thinking: Why how we read matters. New York,
NY: Scholastic Inc.
Calkins, L. (2001). The art of teaching reading. New York: Longman.
Fecho, B., & Clifton, J. (2017). Dialoguing across cultures, identities, and learning:
Crosscurrents and complexities in literacy classrooms. New York, NY: Routledge.
Greene, M. (2000). Releasing the imagination essays on education, the arts, and social change.
San Francisco (Cal.): Jossey-Bass.
Marzano, R. J., & Simms, J. A. (2013). Vocabulary for the Common Core. Bloomington, IN:
Marzano Research Laboratory.
Spiegelman, A. (2011). Maus: A survivor's tale. New York: Pantheon Books.
Tatum, A. W. (2005). Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males: Closing the Achievement
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