First Draft of Keynote for January 2014



I decided to put the first draft of my keynote that I am preparing for the New Jersey Diversity Council in January. I am open to comments and questions. 


Introduction: 4 minutes

It is 2014 and this was the year all students were supposed to be proficient- pause and  as we all know, we are not anywhere close with persistent patterns of failure for students of color – but so many educators have worked so very hard- taking that bold challenge to close achievement and opportunity gaps, and we have learned a lot along the way- and rather than to be discouraged, this day is about hope- and promise of the possibility if we look at the social nature of learning – I am here to share an idea that is a paradigm shift from the test-score focused way our society looks at kids and schools- an idea that changes the dichotomy that separates social-emotional learning and the academics of the Common Core- This idea is not a silver bullet, but a way of approaching teaching that is based on the social nature of learning. it is called identity safety. Here is the definition:


“Identity safe classrooms are those in which teachers strive to insure

that students feel that their social identity is an asset rather than a

barrier to success in the classroom and that they are welcomed,

supported, and valued whatever their background.” in these classrooms each student is afforded equal status- and that is at the heart of the matter


When you hear identity safety- you may think of identity theft. You immediately think of someone stealing your credit cards- taking away your identity and ability to function- ask anyone who has had their identity stolen- it is frightening. But, what about your IDENTITY as a person- when you are told not to speak your language, when you feel that because of your gender or race or something about you makes you less of a person- or that you have to change to be accepted- your identity is stolen as well.


And that has happened to me. My parents named me Esther- a good Jewish name after a queen who saved the Jewish people. I grew up in New York City among many Jewish people where I went from  Kindergarten to fifth grade. And then we moved to South Bend, Indiana. There for the first time, I was called a “dirty Jew.” I felt like a fish out of water. We lived there for two years and in seventh grade, right before we moved to California, I distinctly remember an incident at a dance- I can see it as if it was yesterday. The kind with Paul Anka and Four Seasons music. Girls on one side waiting to be asked. And standing along the wall, I overheard two girls talking. “Who’s that?” one of them asked. And the other responded “Oh that’s Esther” wrinkling her nose. “Good thing, she is moving to California.” But you know, Esther never moved to California…PAUSE… When We got to California, I changed my name to Becki- a much more acceptable name. Identity theft? I only realized much later- but by then, the name Becki stuck.

Goals of the day: 1 minute

Today, we will be taking a journey to understand identity safety. First we will go a bit deeper into the problem- and go into stereotype threat, the idea that negative stereotypes impact people even when they are not over- just the fear of confirming a negative stereotype impacts performance. Due to the social nature of learning, that is an underlying part of the problem. Then we will explore identity safety as a solution, and learn about the research on this evidence-based concept. Finally i I will describe the components of identity safety and ask you to share initial thoughts on how these ideas can be applied in your schools- to learn from each other. Along the way- I will also highlight some books and resources to help you understand these issues more deeply.


Colorblind/inclusion visualization: All the well-meaning teachers intended to treat everyone the same- but let’s take a moment to imagine- 3 minutes

  • You are in fifth grade and you are the a low-income student in a classroom where all the others are very from wealthy families. The teacher says- tell the class where you went for your summer vacation. How do you feel?

  • You are the only Jewish kid in the middle school choir- and every song on the winter program is a Christmas song and they ask you to play “We wish you a merry Christmas” on the piano at the concert. How do you feel?

  • You are the only woman CEO sitting with a group of male CEOs and they begin telling off-color jokes and turn to you and laugh- we don’t mean you- we think you’re just one of the guys. How do you feel?


Jewish people have a saying when they feel they are invisible. “What do you think I am- chopped liver?”


Here is how one African American woman described her experience: 1 minute

My experiences at Princeton have

made me far more aware of my

“Blackness” than ever before . . . no

matter how liberal and open-minded

some of my White professors and

classmates try to be toward me, I

sometimes feel like a visitor on

campus; as if I really don’t belong . . .

It often seems as if, to them, I will

always be Black first and a student



Who do you think that was?

– Michelle Robinson (1985) (now Michelle Obama)


The dilemma- Definition of stereotype threat. 5 minutes: 5 minutes about oakland to palo alto to identity safety

I worked in low-income schools in Oakland for 13 years. When I first was hired as a teacher, I was brought into a classroom with literally no materials, and just a few old readers and not enough math books for each student. Later as a principal, we could not find qualified teachers and I even hired an emergency credentialed teacher with pizza delivery on his resume. Then I moved to Palo Alto, one of the most high performing districts in the country and was in charge of a program where students from a neighboring low income community entered a lottery to be part of a court ordered transfer program. In Palo Alto, hiring teachers was very competitive and I found teachers who were nnot only qualified, but very caring teachers- wonderful libraries- and music and art programs. And yet- there was a – big achievement gap. It was a huge wake-up call.

Luckily, that was when I ran into a former colleague, Dorothy Steele. Together with her husband, Claude Steele, the person who initiated research on stereotype threat, I learned about new research they were doing to counteract the impact of stereotype threat- they were researching ways to promote Identity safety. But first, let’s explore the concept of stereotype threat.


Stereotype threat happens when people from negatively stereotyped groups worry that they may be judged or treated in terms of the stereotype, or might do something that would inadvertently confirm the stereotype.


Show the Definition

The fear of being judged or treated stereotypically,

the worry that a negative stereotype might be true

of the self, or that others might think it so. Or they might do something to  inadvertently confirm the stereotype.


Studies on stereotype threat began with African American and white college students. These students were broken into two groups who both were given questions from the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). One group was told they were being tested to determine their competence with the advanced verbal skills. The second group was told that the researchers were just testing out questions and it was not evaluative. The results: the group who thought they were being evaluated did worse than those who didn’t. For the white students, this phenomenon did not occur. That led researchers to conclude that the negative stereotypes about African Americans and intelligence was impacting their performance when they thought they were being evaluated. This research has been replicated with middle and high school students and a range of different stereotypes.

Here are some examples from other studies:

Show slide and expain”

Who and When?


– Women → math tests

– Latinos → verbal tests

– Elderly → short-term memory tests

– Low SES → verbal tests

– White male engineers → test assessing why Asians are

good at math

– Blacks → golf task assessing “sports intelligence”

– Whites → golf task assessing “natural athletic ability”


– When the material is especially challenging

– When students care deeply about performing well

Find out more about the research at this website reducing


Here is a short film that illustrates this phenomenon

Brown Eyes blue eyes: 6 minutes

8:35 Look at Brian to 10:38 end


Find this film by googling Brown- Eyes Blue Eyes experiement


“One’s reputation, whether false or true cannot be hammered, hammered, hammered into one’s head without doing something to one’s character.” Gordon Allport


The Nature of Prejudice by Gordon Allport


Steele and colleagues launched a whole new field of study in the arena of social psychology- but they did not want to identify the problem- they also wanted to identify solutions. Identity safety was a theory that they wanted to test to serve as an antidote to stereotype threat.


Ideally we need to change the world- reduce inequities poverty, and prejudice


In schools we need to change the experience for students

•  Change psychological experience to create a sense of belonging and equal status that is so strong that it can counter negative societal stereotypes

“Identity safe classrooms are those in which teachers strive to insure

that students feel that their social identity is an asset rather than a

barrier to success in the classroom and that they are welcomed,

supported, and valued whatever their background.”


Partner Chat: 5 minutes

Turn to a partner and share how stereotype threat works and has affected you in your life.

Where do you feel identity safety? Turn to a partner and share


While we work to change the world- to reduce inequities, poverty, prejudice, negative stereotyping, and profiling.

We can implement identity safe teaching to counteract negative stereotypes; and

ensure that students feel that they belong and have equal status and are valued whatever their background.


Identity Safety Research: 3 minutes

Identity Safety research set out go from the bottom up. Dorothy and Claude Steele and colleagues looked at what strategies worked for students who did better in school, liked school and felt a sense of identity safety.


Description of the research The data were collected from a large, urban district in the Bay Area. —There were nearly 1800 first, third, and fifth grade students in 84 classrooms in our sample. 1.Classroom Observations 2.Student Questionnaires of 3rd and 5th grader 3.Teacher Questionnaires 4.Teacher Ratings of Individual Students 5.Demographic Descriptions of Student Characteristics and Achievement Levels 6.Principals’ Interviews

Results: They found that In identity safe classrooms students:

  • —Earned higher scores on the Sat 9 test

  • —Liked school more, including:

  • —Interest in challenging work

  • —Felt stronger sense of belonging

  • —Had a sense of autonomy

  • —Believed that working hard would improve learning

  • —Felt their teacher and classmates helped them

Identity safety is a constellation of 16 factors that are linked and are all equally important. However, to explore these factors, we decided to break them into four categories to make it easier for educators to consider how to implement. This next part will be a broad sweep through the factors- at times I will give a negative and positive example to illustrate the idea.

Components of identity safety- 20 minutes- five minutes each

1. Child-centered teaching- —

Classroom Autonomy When students get a chance to learn in a safe environment- they come to believe in themselves and develop a sense of their own competence- to foster autonomy offer choices, let students identify and pursue areas of interest and link them to academic work in writing and research. Draw from student’s lives and experiences.

Listening for Student Voices: Giving students a voice- and listening to them- they can be empowered to do much more than you might expect.

Deci and Ryan did research on the power of autonomy as a key factor together with belonging that leads to success in school and in life and is the key to motivation.

Teaching for Understanding: The promise of Common Core- which was not the focus of the NCLB proved to be one of our factors- when a child understands- then a foundation for further knowledge is built.

—Focus on Cooperation Rather than Competition  This includes both cooperative learning activities and opportunities for students to learn how to work together in a range of activities.


Cultivating Diversity as a Resource

—Using Diversity as a Resource for Teaching

Negative example: My daughter Priscilla came from Nicaragua at age 8. A teacher singled her out and asked “tell the class about Cinco de Mayo.” Only Nicaraguans do not celebrate Cinco de Mayo- it is a Mexican holiday.

Positive example: Having the whole class write about how they celebrate winter family traditions. My fifth graders did this and we even got it into the newspaper- that way each child felt honored.

—High Expectations and Academic Rigor I believe in you- and I believe you can meet these high standards.

Growth Mindset- Carol Dweck studied the concept of a fixed mindset where people believe intelligence is fixed, what you are born with is what you have for life. People with a growth mindset believe their brain is like a muscle and grow as learning takes place. This can be taught and in experiments where students of color were given training in the positive mindset together with opportunities to write about what matters to them in their lives, their grade improved.

—Challenging Curriculum for everyone- no dumbed down curriculum- interesting, relevant,

Negative example: Differentiation of instruction with the lowest levels getting lower level thinking skills- rote learning

Positive example: Find the appropriate level of challenge- proximal zones of development- get students to stretch- having higher level thinking activities for all academic and reading levels.

3. Classroom relationships:

Student-teacher- how do you build trust with students? Simple as Greeting students at the door- you can set up the classroom so students feel that they can learn from mistakes. In one class the teacher created such safety that she asked students to look at their errors and figure out what they did wrong and share it- it was sixth grad and all the hands went up to share.


Equal but different- make a monster activity

Student-student-positive intergroup friendship opportunities- One teacher helped arrange play-dates fro kinder students from East Palo Alto


Newcomer’s High School in New York- students interviewed each other with a simple question- Tell me about someone who made you feel welcome and that you belong when you came to this country or to this school?


4. Caring Classrooms

—Teacher Skill refers to skill at what we called the science and art of teaching- the creative mode the science is where teachers have a set of strategies and skills as the science- and the art is knowing  when and how to effectively implement them- it also is about creating non-punitive management system.

Negative example: Disproportionate suspension and expulsion of African American and Latino students- researchers have discovered the over-use of “defiance” as a reason for suspending students of color- and inconsistency about what defiance means. Now in California there is a movement with the ACLU to remove the blanket term defiance-

Positive strategy: Use consequences that teach rather than punish, use restorative practices- and reflect on the impact of their behavior and write about ways to improve and learn from their mistakes.

—Emotional and Physical Comfort- all the unspoken aspects of an environment- in the air and in the attitudes in a classroom- even a store you enter- you sometimes feel welcome, other times ignored when you seek help- students get a lot of unspoken and subtle messages about whether they belong or not.

Negative Example:

A teacher who sat students in rows in the order of how well they did on tests,- you can imagine how stereotype threat played in to this classroom. One student who was a second language learner who had missed a year of schooling was always in the lowest seat. She later went on to community college and was placed in remedial math and would have had to retake basic math and high school requirements to transfer to a state university. She did very well in all her classes except math- eventually, she dropped out and never completed college. Later I discovered that this is actually quite a common phenomenon. Math is a gateway subject.

Humor is a two-edged sword- it can lead to feeling more comfortable or it can be at someone’s expense. Sometimes a nickname used by the teacher and students- may make that child feel uncomfortable- in one example- in a high school, a Muslim student was called a terrorist by friends one too many times. When he blew up- the other kids said- “but he always laughed when we did it.” It turns out that since 911 both male and female Muslim students are taunted and called terrorist. And then there was a student in a CAL shirt who was hung upside down in a garbage can by a Stanford team member during a school assembly- it was funny for some- but not that 8-year old.

Positive Example: I see myself reflected on the walls- Chart possible ways to do that- Pay attention to cliques- mix students up in a variety of ways that allow them all to get to know one another- with activities that allow each to contribute


Equal but different- create a monster activity

Positive example: Positive or negative Pre-suppositions Time passes, will you?

You better study for the test or you will fail.

When you study for the test, what will you work on first?

How do you strengthen skills of students at different skill levels while you maintain equal status?

Attention to Prosocial Development- SEL needs to be taught. When doing a Cooperative learning activity have students reflect on a particular social skill and how well they did after each activity.

Questions and Answers: 10 Minutes


Conclusion 5 minutes

Read some of the stickies


On our journey today:Think of how each of these ideas applies in your context


  • We looked at how a colorblind environment- one that ignores differences does not lead to a feeling of belonging

  • We explored the concept of stereotype threat- the fact that just the fear of confirming a negative stereotype impacts performance

  • We looked at the concept of identity safety that draws from the fact that learning is a social enterprise and that each student needs to feel validated and appreciated not in spite of but because of who they are and given equal status

  • And finally- together, we looked at the factors that make up the constellation of identity safe practices and developed a list of strategies that you can use to implement

Identity safety is at once simple and complex. Many of these strategies are familiar to you- but it is the constellation of all of them that creates that sense of safety. So where do you start: just by conveying to your students- who they are and what they think matters!


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