Identity Safe Classrooms and Schools from Teaching Tolerance- Blog 3 in the Series


Identity-Safe Classrooms and Schools

Submitted by Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas on April 20, 2015
Blogs and Articles: Classroom Practice Prejudice Reduction
Editor’s Note: This blog is the third in a three-part series that links three important ideas—implicit bias, stereotype threat and identity safety—all backed by research.

When you hear the words identity safety, you might immediately think it has something to do with “identity theft.” Identity theft refers to when someone steals your name and financial identity, so you can no longer use your credit cards or fully function as yourself. How would it affect you psychologically to have your identity stolen? Uncertain, defensive, afraid to trust?

That is exactly what happens when individuals must function in an environment where their identities are not respectfully acknowledged—when negative stereotypes are used to define them or when they must give up or hide parts of themselves to be accepted. By understanding the concept of identity safety, educators can help students feel secure in their identities and free to be who they are and thrive at school.

Many teachers have seen the film The Eye of the Storm (called A Class Divided on the PBS website) about an Iowa teacher who conducted a “blue eyes, brown eyes” classroom experiment. Although this experiment reflects outdated research methods and violates modern human-subjects protocols, the impact of stereotype threat comes into plain view. The teacher told her students that having blue eyes meant they were inferior. She had them wear collars in class. The next day she told students that she made a mistake; the brown-eyed children were inferior, and she had them wear collars. And the brown-eyed children wearing the collars performed worse on a spelling test than they had the day before.

When asked why, one student said, “It’s those collars.” The immediate power of stigma was made visible. Because of a long history of race and racism in this country, the social identities of some racial and ethnic groups are linked to academic success while others are linked to school failure. Identity-safe teaching serves as an antidote to that stereotype threat and stigma.

An identity-safe environment values diversity by creating belonging and validating each person’s background and the multiple components of social identity (age, race, gender, culture, language). It’s an evidence-based model; researchers from the Stanford Integrated Schools Project observed 84 elementary classrooms and have found a link between identity-safe teaching and enhanced student performance. Students in identity-safe classrooms performed at higher levels on standardized tests and felt a greater sense of belonging and inclusion.

Identity-safe teaching includes a whole constellation of practices: the arrangement of students and materials, the nature of the relationships, the types of questions directed toward students, cooperative learning activities, student autonomy and non-punitive approaches to dealing with misbehavior. Diverse materials and activities are used as resources for teaching, rather than the colorblind approach that ignores student differences. Research has found that these components, woven together, create the sense of identity safety in students.

To build identity safety in classrooms and schools, educators can draw on the practices spelled out below, organized into four domains[1]:

1. Child-centered teaching promotes autonomy, cooperation and student voice.

Listening for student voices ensures that each student can contribute to and shape classroom life.
Teaching for understanding assures students learn new knowledge and incorporate it into what they know.
Focusing on cooperation rather than competition encourages students to learn from and help others.
Classroom autonomy promotes responsibility and belonging in each student.
2. Cultivating diversity as a resource provides challenging curriculum and high expectations for all students in the context of the regular and authentic use of diverse materials, ideas and teaching activities.

Using diversity as a resource for teaching draws from all students’ lives as part of the curriculum and daily life in the classroom.
High expectations and academic rigor support all students in learning to analyze, synthesize, evaluate and strive to grow intellectually at every academic level.
Challenging curriculum motivates students with meaningful, purposeful learning as opposed to rote teaching and remediation.
3. Classroom relationships are based on trusting, positive interactions with the teacher and among the students.

Teacher warmth and availability to support learning builds a trusting, encouraging relationship with each student based on belief that he or she can succeed and achieve at high levels.
Positive student relationships promote interpersonal understanding and caring among students in a climate free of bullying and social cruelty.
4. Caring classroom environments are ones where social skills are taught and practiced help students care for one another in an emotionally and physically safe classroom.

Teacher skill is the capacity to establish an orderly, purposeful classroom that facilitates student learning.
Emotional and physical comfort are crucial so that each student feels safe and attached to school and to other students.
Attention to prosocial development incorporates social and emotional learning (SEL) into all aspects of daily life, teaching students how to live with one another, feel empathy for one another and solve problems with respect and care for others.
Identity safety is an approach that works not only for children but also for educators and society at large. As we come to create not only identity-safe classrooms but also identity-safe schools and communities, we will all feel a greater sense of belonging and compassion and ultimately reduce the prejudice, implicit bias and stereotype threat that causes so much harm and hurt in our world.

Cohn-Vargas is director of Not in Our School and coauthor of Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn.

[1] Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn, Cohn-Vargas and Steele. (This book offers an array of ways educators can create identity safety in their classrooms and schools.)

Login or register to post comments share




This is Part 1 of the 5-part Identity Safety Blog Series, a partnership project of Not In Our Town and the Center for the Collaborative Classroom (CCC). Watch the companion webinar to this collaborative series.

Blog by Dorothy Steele Ed.D and Becki Cohn-Vargas Ed.D

The goal of most American teachers is to successfully educate all students, but too many black and Latino students underperform academically and fail to meet their potential. Educating all students well is not only important for the students themselves, but for our nation as a whole. We cannot have a just and democratic society without fully educated citizens.

Among the many remedies for student underperformance, we find didactic teaching aimed at skill remediation and zero-tolerance policies. These remedies have not worked. Disproportionate numbers of low-income students and students of color are pushed out of school and fail to graduate. Our work on identity safe teaching shifts our focus from the deficits of students to an examination of what we do in classrooms that helps them succeed socially and academically.

Identity safe classrooms are those in which teachers strive to ensure 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.
Our work evolved from the body of research on “stereotype threat” done by Claude Steele and colleagues. They wanted to understand why black college students had lower grade point averages than white students with the same ACT scores—at every level. Stereotype threat theory states that people from negatively stereotyped groups may fear, in situations that are relevant to them, that they might “be judged or treated in terms of the stereotype or that [they] might do something that would inadvertently confirm it” (Steele, Spencer & Aronson 2002, p. 389).

Literally hundreds of studies have demonstrated the power of stereotypes to depress human performance. For example, black students performed less well than white students on an intelligence test when it was described as a test of ability. But when the same test was called a game, they did as well as the white students. Studies of women taking math tests had similar results.

In another set of studies, white athletes did better than their black teammates when the task was described as one based on “sports intelligence.” By contrast, the black students performed better than the white athletes when it was described as a “test of natural athletic ability.” (See

Our research, the “Stanford Integrated Schools Project” on identity safe teaching practices, explores how to lift the threat to improve success in elementary classrooms. How can teachers reduce the sense of stereotype threat for students whose social identities (race, gender, ethnicity) link them to low school outcomes? Our question: Are there ways to incorporate social and academic practices so students from all backgrounds feel a sense of belonging and purpose in the classroom, so they can fully engage in learning?

Our researchers observed in 84 classrooms to document the arrangement of students and materials, the nature of their relationships, the types of questions directed toward students, the presence or absence of cooperative learning activities, the level of student autonomy, and the teachers’ approaches to dealing with misbehavior. We looked for evidence of the use of diverse materials and activities as a resource for teaching, rather than a more color-blind approach that ignores student differences. We discovered a link between identity safe teaching and enhanced student performance. We found:

Students in higher identity safe classrooms had higher scores on standardized tests than students in lower identity safe classrooms.
The Student Questionnaire revealed that students from higher identity safe classrooms had an increased liking for school and motivation to learn, liked challenging work, and felt a sense of belonging compared to students from less identity safe classrooms.
This approach is based on the assumption that teaching and learning are social processes that depend on building trusting, positive relationships between teachers and students and among the students—no matter what their social identities.

Social identities are attributes in each of us—whether we are white or black, young or old, rich or poor, gay or straight, Methodist or Muslim, etc. Everyone has multiple social identities. Sometimes, because of our racialized American history, some social identities are linked to school success and others are not. In identity safe classrooms, student diversity becomes a resource for learning.

Identity safe teaching is in stark contrast to schools whose curriculum is high on remediation and low on inspiration, and whose discipline is punitive and based on heavy-handed control that does not promote compassion, responsibility, and problem-solving.

By contrast, identity safe teaching focuses on how what we do affects students’ experience in the classroom. From our research, we learned there is a constellation of things teachers can do that change life in the classroom so that students achieve at higher levels and improve their liking for school, their willingness to work hard, and their feeling of belonging in school. The components of identity safety fall into four major categories: child-centered teaching, cultivating diversity as a resource, classroom relationships, and caring environments. How to put the components into practice is the topic of the next four blog posts in our series.

The components of identity safety are:

Child-centered teaching: promotes autonomy, cooperation, and student voice.
Cultivating diversity as a resource: teachers provide challenging curriculum and high expectations for all students in the context of the regular and authentic use of diverse materials, ideas, and teaching activities.
Classroom relationships: relationships are based on trusting, positive interactions with the teacher and among the students.
Caring classroom environments: social skills are taught and practiced to help students care for one another in an emotionally and physically safe classroom.
This blog was co-authored by Dorothy M. Steele, ED.D. Dorothy is co-author of the new book, Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn, and former Executive Director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University. She is an early childhood educator who is interested in public schools including teaching practices that are effective for diverse classrooms, alternative assessment processes that inform teaching and learning, and strategies that build inclusive communities of learners in schools. Her work with the Stanford Integrated Schools Project was an attempt to look at these various aspects of schooling in a large urban school district.

Becki Cohn-Vargas, EdD is currently the director of Not In Our School (NIOS), designing curriculum, coaching schools, and producing films and digital media on models for creating safe and inclusive schools that are free of bullying and intolerance at national nonprofit the Working Group. She also teaches online courses on bullying prevention for the University of San Diego. Becki worked in educational settings for over 35 years as a teacher and administrator. She co-authored the book Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn with Dr. Dorothy Steele. The book was published by Corwin Press.

HATE is a Four-Letter Word


Reposted from Edutopia 9/29/14
When I was a district administrator, a parent called me, very distressed that a TIME for Kids article about 9-11 was being read in her fourth-grade child’s classroom. She told me that she was sheltering her child from all news media. I responded that children need help making sense of tragedies, and that we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking we can forever shelter them. Yet many educators prefer not to speak about hate. After all, it is sheer ugliness and not something we want to draw attention to in our schools. But hate needs to be examined. Why? Because it exists, and because it is especially prevalent among youth.

According to the National Crime Prevention Council, youth ages 15-24 commit half of all hate crimes in the United States. In a recent New York Times op-ed, “White, Bigoted and Young: The Data of Hate,” economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz explored the demographics of Stormfront, the most popular U.S. white supremacist website. His findings revealed that the most common age of Stormfront members is 19. He also found that the most venomous hate was displayed against African Americans and Jews, often with tremendous ignorance about those targeted groups.

Educators are in a unique position to address these issues. To open the dialogue with young people about diversity and compassion, we must not be afraid to talk about hate.

When and How to Start Facing Hate
By fifth grade, children study Native Americans and the Civil War and must make meaning out of horrific historic events. Unlike the child above, who was sheltered, some have witnessed or directly experienced hateful acts, while others have seen them on the news, in movies, and video games.

Adults need to help youth make sense of these frightening things. Although there is often no other way to explain it than as hate, adults can balance brutal reality with a sensitivity to developmental levels, taking care not to raise anxiety. Explanations can actually calm fears by talking in understandable terms about how people can be mean to others while assuring children that many people are working to make a more accepting and safer world.

The focus can be on helping students become empathetic and compassionate while learning to appreciate differences. They can also work to create identity safe classroom environments, places where children of all backgrounds feel accepted and valued, and treat one another respectfully. Rather than sugar-coating history or ignoring hate, by naming it and explaining to children in a responsible way, we can guide young people toward engaging in efforts to make their community a place free of hate and bigotry.

Middle School and Beyond: Stop Hate Together
By sixth grade, students have become fully aware of history and the devastating power of hate that led to tragedies like the massacre of Native Americans, the brutality of slavery, and the genocide of the Holocaust. They now need even more support to analyze not only history, but also current events, whether it is a police officer killing an unarmed teenager and subsequent riots in Ferguson, Missouri or Christians crucified by terrorists in Iraq. Rather than ignoring these horrific scenes, educators can help students understand the roots of hate and bigotry and become proactive about preventing them in their own world. When exploring these issues, students have an opportunity to discuss provocative questions:

What can people do when hate rears its ugly head in a community?
What can schools do?
Is there room for a forgiving attitude?
What can be done to be proactive about avoiding hate?
Older students can dive deeper into these subjects by:

Learning skills of discourse with those who hold different opinions
Developing an understanding of different cultures and belief systems
Generating ways to spread kindness and respect.
Well-facilitated dialogue about news reports, films, and literature can open these conversations. Not In Our School, a program of Not In Our Town (NIOT), is dedicated to combat hate, bullying, and intolerance with over 70 free films and lesson plans featuring students taking action to address hate and bridge differences.

The new NIOT documentary Waking In Oak Creek (30 minutes, free to schools and communities) provides a powerful example of a how a community came together after six worshippers at a Sikh Temple were killed by a white supremacist. The accompanying lesson plan can also be used as a tool to explore identity safety, help students learn about Sikh culture and their attitude of forgiveness, or launch an anti-bullying campaign.

Engaging Parents in the Process
While recognizing parents’ reluctance to teach about hate, educators can help them understand that avoiding all references to hate will not erase it from their children’s lives. With the rare exception of the parent who attempted to totally shelter her children, in most cases it is not the schools that are exposing young people to the hate and violence in the world. Violence and hate are readily viewed on television, the internet, and movies everywhere, even in hotel and airport lobbies. Parents need to be invited into the conversation about the importance of addressing hate and all forms of intolerance, and join the school to take action in spreading kindness, compassion, and empathy.

As educators, it is incumbent upon us to prepare young people for the world that they are inheriting and give them tools to combat hate and work for a democratic and civil society. To start, we can open the conversation about forgiveness, compassion, and the importance of standing up.

Bullying Prevention
Hate is a 4-Letter Word
8 Tips for Schools Interested in Restorative Justice
Heteronormativity in Schools
Resources to Fight Bullying and Harassment at School
5 Ways to Stop Bullying and Move into Action
We Recommend
5 Ways to Stop Bullying and Move into Action
How to Teach Beyond Ferguson
Maya Angelou’s Poetry: A Lesson in Service, History, SEL, and Civics
Students Standing Up to Bullying and Hate
Teaching Children About the Brutality of War

Becki Cohn-Vargas
Director, Not In Our School at Not In Our Town

Pride of El Castillo


By Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas, Not In Our School Director

Upstanders come in many forms. We hear about those who lead movements for social justice, but rarely do we hear about the people who quietly live their lives and stand up just by the fortitude they show in staying the course against great odds. Yamil Obregón Bustos is one such person. I heard about him when I was traveling in Nicaragua.

Pride of El Castillo
Yamil Obregón Bustos
Yamil owns Border’s Coffee, a small cafe and restaurant in El Castillo, a beautiful town along the San Juan River in Nicaragua. El Castillo is a bucolic town with no cars and a historic fortress that draws people from around the world. I heard that Lonely Planet had visited his cafe, calling it the best coffee in the region. They also had written a piece, “El Castillo’s Dirty Little Secret,” referencing the harassment that Yamil experienced as a result of being the only openly gay person in his small town. Yamil has not only been subjected to hateful anti-gay slurs and threats, but also attempts to shut down his business.

I went to the cafe and had a delicious meal and some great coffee prepared by Yamil himself. Then I asked if I could interview him to share his story with our NIOT readers. What struck me the most was that he chose to live and run a business in the town of his birth in spite of the rampant homophobia. He could easily have ventured into a larger city where he would not be so visible and vulnerable.

Lonely Planet publicized his plight and also drew people to his El Castillo cafe in the historic Nicaraguan town. I titled this piece “Pride of El Castillo” in honor of his courage. Listen to him in his own words.

And if you’re ever in Nicaragua, make sure to check out his restaurant.

It’s Time to Talk About Gender Identity


The first news reports stated that a “man in a kilt” was set on fire on a city bus in Oakland on Nov. 5. Later, it turned out that it was a high school student wearing a skirt set on fire by a 16-year-old student. 

More information became available, revealing that Sasha, the student who was attacked, self-identifies as agender, neither man or woman. Sasha, who prefers to go by the pronoun “they,” has parents who accept them. They attend a school that is also accepting and regularly commuted to and from school wearing a skirt on the city bus without incident over the past year.
It is strange for me to write with the pronoun “they.” Even Sasha’s parents say they get it wrong sometimes. But as I write with these new pronouns, the power of this horrific event calls upon us to venture into this new territory and seek to create understanding. Sasha had already been an activist, creating and sending a petition with 27,000 online signatures to President Obama with the purpose of seeking recognition for gender non-binary people.
The anti-bullying movement has brought to light the continuum of mistreatment of kids who do not conform to gender stereotypes, from continually hearing “That’s so gay” to brutal and relentless teasing. In the extreme, this intolerance manifests in physical violence, including the hate crime murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard, and closer to home, the murder of transgender teen Gwen Araujo in California. And now, agender student Sasha Fleischman was lit on fire.

The 16-year-old student has been charged with hate crime charges as an adult. But the hate did not begin or end with him, rather his behavior reflects hateful attitudes that abound in our society. Arguments during the marriage debate stated that gay marriage was “not natural” and would lead to “marriage involving animals, siblings, etc.” While these attitudes are slowly changing for many people, the debate around gay marriage made it abundantly clear to many young people that intolerance toward the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) community was still widely accepted. As the case comes forward, the entire community will have to grapple with the complexity of these events, and our collective need to deepen understanding at every level.

The Bay Area is a place that prides itself on being one of the most accepting places on earth and a model for other parts of our planet. And yet it is important to recognize the complexity of this situation to prevent it from becoming divisive, even in this community.

Sasha FleischmanThe entire community will have to grapple with these events and collectively deepen our understanding of the intersection of race, class, and gender at every level. We need to ask, What is needed to bring our community together to end all forms of intolerance, hate, and violence?

Why not focus on ways to educate young people not only about tolerance, but how to move toward acceptance of people who are different from them? We can learn and teach about all forms of gender identity and sexual orientation. We can also find new ways to build bridges across difference and acceptance of people of all races, religions, mental abilities, and physical body types. We can teach students to be upstanders, who speak up and stand up for themselves and others.  

And we can create classrooms, churches, and community spaces where every child belongs and feels a sense of identity safety where his, her, and their identity does not have to be left at the door. Spaces where his, her and their identity is safe and not put in jeopardy and everyone can freely and openly walk in the street and ride on a public bus.

As Karl Fleischman, Sasha’s dad, wrote to the Sequoia School community where he is a kindergarten teacher, “None of us can know the mind of the kid who lit a flame to Sasha’s skirt. But I have a feeling that if he had seen Sasha’s skirt as an expression of another kid’s unique, beautiful self, and had smiled and thought, ‘I hella love Oakland,’ I wouldn’t be writing this now.”

Right: Sasha Fleischman. Click here to leave messages of support for Sasha, family, friends and all who are targeted for their gender identity.