Creating a Welcoming and Intellectually Challenging Classroom: Edutopia Article by Suzie Boss about our book “Identity Safe Classrooms, Places to Belong and Learn”


Creating a Welcoming and Intellectually Challenging Classroom
AUGUST 29, 2014
Share Share70+

As you set up your classroom for the new school year, try spending a few minutes in your students’ chairs. Are you comfortable? Now look closer: Will the seating arrangement invite conversations between students, or keep them isolated? What do you notice about what’s on display around the room? Will students see themselves and their families reflected in the diversity of images and books?

Are whiteboards, laptops, and other tools for learning within reach for students, or reserved for the teacher? Any other clues that you’re entering a space where all learners will feel welcome, safe, trusted, and curious about their world?

Veteran educators Dorothy M. Steele and Becki Cohn-Vargas offer this simple but powerful suggestion to build a more inclusive, equitable environment for learning: “Look at life in the classroom every day from the perspective of each of the students.” They have coined the term “identity safe classroom” to describe learning environments where every child feels welcome and eager to learn. This isn’t just feel-good talk. Building an identify safe classroom offers a deliberate strategy to reach students who feel alienated from school because of repeated failure, heavy-handed discipline, or negative stereotypes.

Their book, Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn (Corwin, 2013), offers thoughtful advice, grounded in research and practice, that’s worth considering throughout the school year. Steele, an early childhood educator, is former executive director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University. Cohn-Vargas, currently director of Not In Our School, has been both teacher and principal during her 35 years in education.

The authors’ field-tested suggestions deserve special attention early in the year when you and your students have a fresh start on building a positive classroom culture.

Supporting Student Voice and Collaboration
If you’re planning to give project-based learning (PBL) a try this year, you’ll benefit from their suggestions to encourage student voice and collaboration — key ingredients for effective PBL. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Aim high: Warm and safe doesn’t mean easy. Set high expectations for all learners, the authors advise, and then provide necessary scaffolding to ensure that each student is working toward mastery.

Foster collaboration: Encourage collaboration rather than competition so that students benefit from peer feedback and help each other improve. If students are new to teamwork, start by having them work in pairs. Model what it means to be an active, respectful listener. Reinforce norms about resolving conflicts respectfully. That’s different from expecting your classroom to be a conflict-free zone.

Cultivate diversity as a resource: Cultivating diversity is not the same as taking a colorblind approach to teaching. The authors suggest drawing on students’ diverse backgrounds through music, literature, language, and current events. Foster critical thinking to help students analyze negative and stereotypical messages, in school and in the wider world. Don’t shy away from hard conversations about race and culture. Avoid what the authors call a “tourist” curriculum, which reduces multiculturalism to a tour of holidays. Invest time early in the year to learn about students’ diverse interests, talents, and backgrounds, and then incorporate this information as you plan projects. This will reinforce the message that students’ diverse experiences are classroom assets.

Listen for student voice: To develop their confidence as learners, students need regular opportunities to share their thoughts, make decisions, and reflect on their classroom experiences. That’s why the authors suggest strategies to amplify student voice. With regular opportunities to formulate ideas, explain their point of view, and elaborate on the ideas of others, students “feel the importance of their participation,” according to Steele and Cohn-Vargas. Peer feedback, common in PBL, is one of many ways to amplify student voice in the learning experience.

The authors also suggest rotating classroom roles, such as a “greeter” who welcomes visitors, or giving students a say when it comes to managing their own behavior. They share an example of a girl who learned to manage her restlessness by taking two-minute relaxation breaks in the library, whenever she needed them.

Promote autonomy: A classroom that promotes autonomy gives students room to make choices and take responsibility for their learning. Encourage autonomy by involving students in setting norms and reflecting on their progress. Use class meetings as opportunities for students to solve problems for themselves. As you gradually release responsibility to students, they will see themselves as capable people who can “make something happen,” the authors report. This goes hand-in-hand with PBL practices. At the end of a successful project, teachers often say they see students “standing a little taller.” It’s an apt metaphor for students developing autonomy and growing as learners.

What steps are you planning to ensure that your students feel welcome, safe, and intellectually challenged in your classroom this year? Please share your strategies in the comments.




If I live, I’ll be Great: Diary of a First Year Teacher


If I live, I’ll be great: Diary of a First Year Teacher


Lakeview Toastmasters, Oakland, CA

January 30, 2014

Speech delivered by Becki Cohn-Vargas

[Pretend to read from diary]


September 9, 1986, Oakland, CA

Dear Diary

Today is my first day as a classroom teacher. I will have 31 Spanish-Bilingual first graders.  I planned a packed day with so many things to do that I could teach for a week. Then I had a nightmare last night that I was getting dressed and was so nervous that I forgot to put on my dress. I got to school and suddenly found myself teaching in my slip- and what’s more, I forgot my lesson plan and could not remember what I was going to teach.


I am 35 years old and have been around so it shouldn’t be that hard. I am a seasoned professional. I lived in Guatemala and had driven ambulances and in Nicaragua worked for the National Ministry of Education and I produced educational television shows. This should not be so hard.


September 11,

Dear Diary, My first day was a disaster. Nobody told me it would be 31 against one. Well, to be honest, most of the kids were OK, except for 5 of them. Ignacio kept fighting with Sergio. Raul kept bouncing out of his seat. Ariel called out every five minutes. And you should have heard Magdalena scream when somebody bumped her.


I have a new favorite song, “If I live, I’ll be Great” sung by Chris Williamson.



My first year of teaching was one prolonged nightmare and when I pinched myself, I did not wake up. Who would think that those five kids in my class could turn me into a blubbering piece of mush? 


I knew that the first thing a teacher needs to do is to be able to get the class quiet. I tried all kinds of techniques. Dramatize this story Flick the lights. Have someone flick lights and then turn off and on as I speak. OK, I would flick the lights. Nothing happened. So then I turned the lights out and the portable would go dark. Ignacio would scream out “ooo” and everyone laughed. “Quiet” I screamed. Flash, I popped the lights back on so I could see who was making the noise.  And they froze and went silent for a second. But like clockwork, Ariel poked Magdalena on the shoulder, she began to shriek and the hubbub started all over again.


Other times, I was just too exhausted to get them quiet. I would keep talking while they did and try to teach reading. Not a good plan if you wanted anyone to learn anything. Their antics and show was much more entertaining than mine.



So, I tried what they called “positive reinforcement.” I would call it bribes with M&Ms. I would say “I like the way the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle group is sitting”- Everyone suddenly sat up with hands folded, absolute angels. I handed M&Ms to each perfect little group. But by the time all had eaten their candy the roar began again. And the fights. Joshua stabbed Freddy with a pencil. While I was stopping to deal with that, Magdalena pulled Nancy’s hair. My bag of M&Ms was getting low and my discipline system was still not working. The most humiliating part was that the Physical Education teacher would come in and they would automatically go quiet for him.


I thought to myself, I would like to see Ronald Reagan come in here and try to teach!


Maybe I just need some help. How about a student teacher? My friend Mario signed up. What did I know to share with Mario? I couldn’t control them and neither could he. And when his professor came to observe, “OMG” (well we never said that back then). A disaster and a total embarrassment. No more student teachers for me. Of course, they never should have placed him with a first year teacher in the first place.


The only time I could kind of get the kids to settle down was when I sang with them. One day after lunch was a good time to sing. I was pregnant that year and I was huge. We had these old fashioned wooden desks with the desk part attached to the chair. I was leaning precariously sitting on one with my guitar and boom, I crashed to the ground. And they all laughed. These little monsters!!!! I went home and cried. I wanted so much to be a teacher and I was failing so miserably.


I thought, OK, I will make the class so titillating that they will comply just out of sheer fascination. I had this great idea I learned about at a workshop to stimulate creative writing stories. I worked with some sixth graders to stage a scene as if aliens had come to school in their classroom during the night. They wrote on the board a message from the aliens. “Dear first graders, We came to visit you classroom and we really want to hear your stories. Love, the Aliens.” They wrote personal letters to each student. To make it more dramatic, they turned over chairs and desks and put footprints in green paint around the room on the floor and the walls.


My students walked into the class that day. Suddenly, their facial expressions went from surprise to horror. My little monsters were terrified. They all started to cry. The next day their parents came to complain that they had nightmares. 


I don’t know how I survived the year. I never was so happy for summer vacation to come.


The good news is that this story has a happy ending. I did learn to teach and so did Mario. He won awards as an excellent teacher of math. And I didn’t turn out so badly either. It was not one year, but over several that I got my “teacher voice” and built positive relationships of trust. The students quieted down and engaged with the curriculum I even I wrote a book about identity safe classrooms. ( The book  gives examples of classrooms of teachers who create environments where students are proud of their identities, excited about learning, and empathetic toward one another- without bribes and M&Ms.


January 24, 2014 Kean University, New Jersey

Dear Diary,

I am giving my first keynote about my book. Last night, I had a nightmare, I dreamed that I started with a film and then couldn’t stop the DVD and so I never got to give my speech. Who knew, I would be here today back then at La Escuelita with my wild and wonderful students in my first year?

I still love that song “If I live I’ll be Great.” I may never be great, but maybe being great is about surviving and living to tell the tale.


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!

Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn


Identity safe classrooms are those in which teachers strive to ensure students that their social identities are an asset rather than a barrier to success in the classroom. Acknowledging students’ identities, rather than trying to be colorblind, can build the foundation for strong positive relationships.

—Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong & Learn
Identity Safe Classrooms by Becki Cohn-Vargas and Dorothy SteeleIn spite of real and powerful social inequalities, identity safety is an antidote to negative stereotyping in our society and stereotype threat, the fear of confirming a negative stereotype. Research on stereotype threat shows that student behavior is impacted even by the worry that he or she may inadvertently confirm a negative stereotype. Improving school climate is critical when it comes to addressing bullying, according to the National School Climate Center.
We’re thrilled to share a new resource that brings these powerful ideas to all educators. Our Not In Our School director, Becki Cohn-Vargas, along with co-author Dr. Dorothy Steele, just published a new book,Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong & Learn from Corwin Press. The book is full of real-life examples from teachers, including strategies for creating identify safe classrooms and schools.
Identity Safety & Not In Our School
Identify safety is directly linked to the Not In Our School goal of creating safe, inclusive and accepting classrooms. When classrooms are not identity safe, students from negatively stereotyped groups can feel a sense of stereotype threat—a sense of not belonging or being seen as capable students. In these classrooms, students may receive fewer opportunities to participate in challenging curriculum, share in the responsibility for the classroom or see themselves and people like them represented in the materials, learning activities and environment.
Research shows that students from all backgrounds in identity safe classrooms learn better, have higher achievement and like school more than their peers in other classrooms.
Authors: Dr. Dorothy Steele & NIOS Director Becki Cohn-Vargas
Becki Cohn-Vargas and Dorothy Steele worked closely together when Dr. Steele was the executive director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University and Dr. Cohn-Vargas was the Director of Elementary Education for Palo Alto Unified School District. Learn more about Identity Safety in Dr. Steele’s interview:
Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas has long been a supporter of Not In Our School and joined our team as director in 2011, helping bring the Not In Our School message to the White House, the National PTA, the National Education Association, CNN, the Discovery Channel and thousands of students, parents and educators.
Get the Book

Find out more at and buy the book here.

Printed on niot-org in September, 2013

Trayvon Martin: The Wakeup Call to End Stereotype Threat


Trayvon Martin: The Wakeup Call to End Stereotype Threat

APRIL 24, 2012 (reprinted from Edutopia)

While some who hear the term “identity safety” automatically think it means protection against identity theft, that actually serves as a good analogy. A colorblind environment, where differences are left “at the door” is a form of identity theft.

At Not In Our Town, we have been looking deeper at the implications of stereotyping and profiling that led to the killing of Trayvon Martin. We are probing not only deeply held bigoted attitudes that contribute to acts of bullying and hate, but also more subtle, equally devastating educational achievement and opportunity gaps. They both stem from the same sources: a lack of acceptance and inclusion coupled with unfair stereotypes. We have been examining the concepts of stereotype threat and identity safety as two powerful concepts that not only offer insight into these problems, but point to solutions.

Stereotype Threat: Deep-Seated Negative Expectations

In his book, Whistling Vivaldi, renowned social psychologist and Stanford University Dean of Education Claude Steele discusses his theory of stereotype threat. He writes about how he learned he was black as a seven-year-old in Chicago during the 1950’s. He discovered that he could only go to the swimming pool one afternoon a week because he was black. That, says Steele, was his first “encounter” with the racial order of the time. Steele describes the “conditions of life tied to identity” that change as times change, but nevertheless consist of what social psychologists call contingencies that go with identity.

We all have multiple contingencies that make up each of our identities: our age, race, religion and gender, to name a few. Steele describes the tremendous hold these contingencies have over people’s psyches, a hold so strong that the person stereotyped is adversely affected even by being afraid to confirm a negative stereotype. This fear of possibly confirming a negative stereotype is what Steele dubbed “stereotype threat.”

“If you have to deal with things in situations because you have a certain identity, that identity will be important to you,” he wrote. “Most psychologically impactful identity contingencies are those that in some way threaten the individual.”

That threat is illustrated in Whistling Vivaldi. The book’s title came from New York Times journalist Brent Staples, who described his experience as a college student.

“I became an expert in the language of fear, couples locked arms or reached for each other’s hands when they saw me. Some crossed to the other side of the street . . . . I tried to be innocuous but did not know how. . . . I began to avoid people. I turned out of the way to side streets to spare them the sense that they were being stalked . . . . Out of nervousness, I began to whistle and discovered I was good at it . . . . I whistled the Beatles and Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons.’ The tension drained from people’s bodies when they heard me.”(Watch Dr. Claude Steele read from and discuss the book.)

Steele writes that “Staples was dealing with a phantom, a bad stereotype about his race, that young African American males in this neighborhood are violence prone.” When Staples whistled classical music, he was trying to dispel the stereotypes about him. The example demonstrates the psychological toll borne by all African American men in a society that fears them. In Staples’ case, the whistling worked. Trayvon Martin was not so lucky.

Perhaps stereotype threat caused Trayvon to tell his girlfriend that he was afraid but not sure he should run, because by running he would confirm a negative stereotype or provoke a response. Black youth describe being followed in convenience stores or being pulled over or frisked by police repeatedly; the experience is pervasive.

It is part of our biological imperative to categorize and stereotype, and it is natural to be affected by stereotypes about us. Steele demonstrated this in a famous experiment where African American students were placed in two groups. One group was told their intelligence was being tested, the other group was asked to give feedback on the exam questions.

While both groups had matched achievement levels, those who thought their intelligence was being tested performed worse. This research has been replicated many times with different forms of stereotyping, always resulting in the same conclusion each time: fear of confirming a negative stereotype impacts performance, whether it is older individuals who are stereotyped for losing their memory or women stereotyped for not being good at math. In each case, when the stereotype is salient, the person’s performance goes down. A whole international field of study of stereotype threat has emerged. But what of the solution?

Identity Safety: An Antidote to Stereotype Threat

Steele not only wanted to pose the problem, he wanted to find solutions. He proposed counteracting the power of the stereotypes by “inoculating” a person with a sense that his or her identity has value and is an asset not only to themselves, but to the world.

Along with his wife Dorothy Steele and other colleagues, Steele coined the term “identity safety” and tested it in 80 classrooms. They found that when students were in an environment where they felt valued, where their identities and ideas were considered to be a resource, where they could develop positive relationships and it was assumed they would achieve, their performance and liking of school improved. In addition, the negative consequences of stereotyping and stereotype threat were reduced.

The Trayvon Martin murder has woken all of us up to the fact that we do not live in a colorblind society. Stereotypes and stereotype threat are alive and well. Prompted by Trayvon’s story, recording artist Donna Summer described her own experiences being profiled. She captured the urgency of waking up to the tragedy of letting these stereotypes go unchecked when she said:

“We need to hear those bone-chilling screams and the shot that killed Trayvon seconds later. Yes, it’s a parent’s worst nightmare come true. But it mightfinally wake up the whole world.

Let us hope that the world does wake up to the need for identity safety and create environments where students of all backgrounds feel valued, accepted and included, and where they are free from debilitating stereotypes and stereotype threat.

You can learn more about this problem and its solution by visiting

Racial Profiling: Not In Our Country


“Young black men know that in far too many settings they will be seen not as individuals, but as the ‘other,’ and given no benefit of the doubt. . . . Society’s message to black boys — ‘We fear you and view you as dangerous” — is constantly reinforced. . . .  Even those who keep their distance from this deadly idea are at risk of losing their lives to it. The death of Trayvon Martin vividly underscores that danger.”

—Brent Staples, New York Times   

Art on a Santa Monica, Calif., street in reaction to the killing in February of Trayvon Martin, a Florida teenager.Street art in reaction to the killing of Trayvon Martin. Source: New York Times

By Becki Cohn-Vargas, Not In Our School Director
What are the collective costs for us in a society that stands silent when its own children are targeted? Let’s work together to find solutions.
Profiling is alive and well. It is a kind of shorthand that allows us to dehumanize young black and brown men, and we have just seen it lead to a deadly chain of events in the killing of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin. The costs are high for every family whose men live in the shadow of profiling. Mothers fear for their children’s lives, black and brown men of all social classes are routinely stopped by the police. Our whole society pays a price of fear, inequality, and the polarization we are seeing now in the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial verdict.
At Not In Our School, we have taken on the challenge of finding solutions. We begin by exploring the phenomenon of stereotype threat and stereotyping. We believe the key to making change is opening dialogue and sharing stories to build bridges of understanding. We also believe in working to create identity-safe and inclusive environments and work together to change the underlying systemic barriers that have existed throughout this country’s history.
We offer some films and tools to help schools and communities get started.
Dr. Claude Steele Speaks About Stereotype Threat:
Many African-American men go to great lengths to counteract the pernicious stereotypes to avoid being profiled. One such example was journalist Brent Staples, who whistled Vivaldi when he walked down a street at night to ease any tensions (Steele, 2009). Claude Steele, Dean for the School of Education at Stanford University reflects that “this is something that Trayvon Martin didn’t really have an opportunity to do in those final horrible closing moments of his life, was to somehow reveal ….to Zimmerman who built up in his own mind from the stereotype, a sense of being under life-and-death threat. If Trayvon had a chance to be seen, he could have maybe punctured the stereotype and would be alive today. But under the circumstances, all that didn’t happen, and you get a particularly tragic eventuation of a stereotype.”
Steele and his colleagues spent years studying the causes and effects of stereotyping and discovered that, even when stereotypes are not uttered aloud, the phenomenon of stereotype threat, which is the fear of confirming a negative stereotype, can be a stigma that affects attitudes and behaviors. These ideas are very important to Not In Our School because our core principles focus on creating safe, inclusive and accepting environments, free from stereotypes, bullying, and intolerance.  In this interview Dr. Steele explains the concept of stereotype threat and its antidote “identity safety.”
Silent Beats: Let’s Examine Our Own Prejudices
Here is a short film that challenges our assumptions on profiling. Use it to open dialogue on profiling in your school and in your town.
Join The Movement to End Racial Profiling
The following groups joined to help create a dialogue and curriculum on profiling: NAACPNot In Our Town/Not in Our SchoolNEATeaching Tolerance/Southern Poverty Law CenterThe Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under LawAmerican Federation of Teachers (AFT), Human Rights Educators of the USA (HRE-USA) Network, and Facing History and Ourselves.
Racial Profiling Tools for Educators, Parents and Administrators
Tips for youth on how to interact during encounters with law enforcement



Leaving Behind Stereotypes and Coming Together on Rosh Hashanah


Tashlich (young children) at school

Rosh Hashanah has a tradition called Tashlicht. Like the children above, we throw small pieces of bread into a stream to unload all the things we want to leave behind from past year. The bread disappears in the flowing current. At Not In Our School we do something similar to release negative stereotypes. Source: USCJ
By Becki Cohn-Vargas, Not In Our School Director
When you think of a Jew, what image comes into your mind? These ten photos might surprise you.
These Jewish people break every stereotype.
Take my daughter, Melania. As a four year-old, Melania had traveled with her Nicaraguan passport and wondered if she also had a Jewish passport. That is because as a Jewish mother with a husband from Nicaragua, I made it a point to be sure our three children had a strong positive sense of their identity from both my rich Jewish tradition and their father’s beautiful Latino culture. I wanted them to feel a sense of “identity safety,” that their identity and background had value and was an asset in their lives and to the world.
Our family had a mix of colors from light to dark. The Bar Mitzvah luncheons had delicious “gallo pinto,“ Nicaraguan rice and beans and fried plantains, together with lox and bagels. The wonderful set of photos above shows Jewish people of all races and ethnicities is a beautiful reminder of the importance of moving beyond the stereotypes.
Tonight we celebrate the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah has a tradition called Tashlicht. That is when we throw small pieces of bread into a stream to unload all the things we want to leave behind from past year. The bread disappears in the flowing current.
At Not In Our School we do something similar to release negative stereotypes. In this activity, people write negative stereotypes with watercolor markers on small pieces of rice paper. Then they release them into a small pool of water and watch them dissolve in swirling colors.
Both activities are deeply symbolic and meaningful. Here is a link to a short film and lesson plan on dissolving stereotypes.
Wishing everyone, everywhere a year to leave behind negative stereotypes and to come together for a peaceful and happy Rosh Hashanah for the Jewish New Year, 5774.