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 Although this experiment reflects outdated research methods and violates modern human-subjects protocols, the impact of stereotype threat comes into plain view.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.)

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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.

Countering Stereotype Threat


Reprinted from Teaching Tolerance

Submitted by Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas on April 7, 2015

Blogs and Articles: Classroom Practice Prejudice Reduction
Editor’s Note: This blog is the second in a three-part series that links three important ideas—implicit bias, stereotype threat and identity safety—all backed by research.

Most teachers want to be fair to each student. How many times have you heard educators say, “I treat everyone the same”? But is this even possible—or desirable? When we ignore differences, even in the absence of overt negative stereotypes, implicit bias is still at play—and there is another detrimental force that can flourish under the surface: stereotype threat.

Stereotype threat theory states that people from negatively stereotyped groups may fear being “judged or treated in terms of the stereotype or that [they] might do something that would inadvertently confirm it.”[1] In other words, individuals may worry that they’ll in some way confirm that negative stereotype, and this worry has been found to lower performance.[2]

How Does Stereotype Threat Work?

Over 300 studies involving people of all ages who are subject to a range of different stereotypes (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, age) have consistently shown the power of stereotypes to negatively impact all kinds of performance, depending on the stereotype.

Researchers have found, for example, that awareness of the negative stereotype that black and Latino students are less intelligent than white and Asian students can actually negatively affect performance levels in black and Latino students. In one study, black and white students were given the same test. When the test was described as a game, the students performed equally well. But when it was described as a test of ability, students of color scored lower.

In another study, black students were broken into two groups and given a test. One group was told to write their name and ethnicity on the top of the page. The other group wasn’t. Those who wrote their ethnicity at the top did not perform as well. Similar results occurred in studies when women were asked to identify their sex on math tests and senior citizens were asked to identify their age on memory tests.

As discussed in the first blog in this series, breaking down negative stereotypes is one important way to reduce the prejudices that lead to unconscious prejudice and racism. And the same effort will also counter stereotype threat. To tackle negative stereotypes in the classroom and schools, here are some suggestions:

1. Reflect on Ourselves

It is important that we take time to reflect and ask ourselves difficult questions. How have we inadvertently absorbed some of the negative stereotypes that surround us? Try to notice the stereotypes you see and hear in your daily life from the media and from your personal encounters. Have you heard any in the staff room? A common one is using the phrase “those kids” as a code that separates the speaker from—usually—low-income students or students of a specific identity group, implying that they are a problem.

2. Address Negative Stereotypes in the Moment

As soon as you hear a negative stereotype in your classroom, name it. If you are short on time, do it quickly and then come back for a deeper dive later. Teach the students the definition of a stereotype (with younger children, you can use the word “label”). Do it respectfully; your goal is to raise awareness, not to humiliate the person who used the stereotype.

3. Have Conversations About Negative Stereotypes

Even when stereotypes do not emerge from the students, they are found everywhere in literature, curricular materials and current-events articles. This provides a great opportunity to open the discussion of negative stereotyping with students. For example, you might tell younger students, “Whether it is trucks or dolls, in our class, toys and games can be used by both boys and girls.”

Media literacy activities work too. As a running assignment, ask students to point out stereotypes they find in books or movies and discuss them as a class.

4. Use Events and Activities to Reduce the Power of Stereotypes

In Oakland, California, a Harley Davidson motorcycle club volunteered to lead a Not In Our School bullying prevention assembly. At first, my own stereotyping came into play. I wondered if any school would want to invite bikers. It ended up being a very eye-opening experience.

At the assembly, besides taking a stand against bullying, the bikers decided to teach about stereotypes and asked students, “What did you think when you met us?”

“We thought you were mean,” said one boy.

“Tough guys,” said another.

One biker told the students that he played Barbies with his grandchild. Another said that she was a tax accountant. The point? Don’t make assumptions about people based on their appearances.

Small-scale activities can also be effective in reducing the power of stereotypes. A middle school in San Francisco asked each student to write about how they do not fit a certain stereotype on a strip of paper. One boy wrote, “I wear a hoody, but I am not a gangster.” Then all the strips were posted so others could think about how stereotypes influenced their peers. In another activity, Dissolving Stereotypes, students wrote stereotypes that have hurt them on a slip of rice paper, put them into a pool of water and watched them disappear.

5. Recognize that Breaking Down Stereotypes Liberates Us All

Breaking down stereotypes through dialogue and activities sends a clear message that negative stereotypes do not define us or our communities. Countering stereotype threat requires going a step further and embracing our unique identities and differences as assets to us. By fostering these beliefs, we create “identity safety,” a sense that our identities have value and that diversity is a true resource for learning.

Creating identity safety will be the topic of the third blog in this series.

Cohn-Vargas is director of Not In Our School and co-author of Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn.

[1] Steele, Spencer and Aronson

[2] Dovidio and Gaertner

Tackling Implicit Bias


Reprinted from Teaching Tolerance

by Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas on March 25, 2015

Blogs and Articles: Classroom Practice Prejudice Reduction
Editor’s Note: This blog is the first in a three-part series that links three important ideas—implicit bias, stereotype threat and identity safety—all backed by research.

As educators, it may seem overwhelming that, in addition to addressing overt racism in our classrooms and schools, we also need to tackle unconscious racial prejudices, known as “implicit bias,” not only in our students, but in ourselves. However, it is possible to address implicit bias, and the solutions are in our hands.

The recent events in Ferguson came as a dramatic wake-up call for our country. Fifty years after Selma, we still have a racial divide in this country. While overt racism has greatly declined from the days of segregation and lynching, and many laws now seek to protect our citizens from discrimination, pervasive racist attitudes rear their ugly heads in harmful and sometimes deadly ways. For many of us who strive for equity and social justice in our rapidly diversifying country, the next big hurdle in our path is tackling aversive racism and stereotyping—also known as implicit bias. Negative stereotypes feed our minds like a steady drip of toxin; we may not even be aware of as it occurs. Whether toxic attitudes are about other people or ourselves, they are very damaging.

Several research experiments have deepened our understanding of implicit bias:

In one experiment, word association was used to identify bias. Study participants were shown words with positive or negative associations like “happy” or awful” and then rapidly shown either black and white faces. Right away, they were told to classify the words as pleasant or unpleasant. White participants classified negative words more quickly if the words were shown after they saw black faces, suggesting a negative association with black people.[1]
In another study, research subjects viewed black and white faces so quickly that they didn’t consciously know what they saw. Then a blurred object flashed on the screen. Sometimes the object was a knife or gun. If participants saw black faces, they quickly identified the guns and knives. If they saw white faces, it took more time to discern the object.[2]
Understand the Problem

One of the challenges of changing implicit bias is that, because we are often not conscious of our beliefs, we can take actions based on them without realizing it. These types of reactions have been part of the fabric of humans since our earliest days. Often we fear people and events that surprise us or are unfamiliar to us. To some extent, this type of stereotyping is built into us as a survival mechanism that gets passed on to children. That does not mean implicit bias is “natural” or right. It means we need to be aware that we are capable of holding beliefs that are not based in logic. Once we do that, we can step back and analyze how implicit bias negatively affects us today.

Like the canaries in the gold mine, the unconscious bias that lurks in our minds can indicate the potential for devastating outcomes such as an officer making a split-second decision and killing an unarmed youth. And for educators, implicit bias can cause us to suspend and expel students more rapidly, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan captured when he highlighted statistics on how black students are suspended and expelled at rates three times those of whites, often for lesser offenses.

Implicit bias does not just belong in the domain of white police officers and educators, though. Jennifer Eberhardt, an implicit bias researcher, says, “A lot of the tests we’ve done, we give them to students, to ordinary citizens and to police officers. We’re finding the results are generally similar.” It can also be harmful when it causes subjective and discriminatory choices in hiring, approving people for loans and many other arenas.

Move Toward Solutions

A growing body of research is emerging on how to counteract implicit bias.[3] We need to become knowledgeable about how unconscious prejudice works in order to begin to change it. (You can take online Implicit Association Tests, or IATs, to measure unconscious bias.) Beyond this awareness and taking accountability, there are specific ways that educators and others can counteract it.

While thinking about overcoming unconscious attitudes may be overwhelming, the good news is our brains are malleable. Educators can work on countering negative stereotypes and looking at each person as an individual instead of lumping them together. They also can create identity-safe classrooms where everyone feels a sense of belonging and empathy toward others, with opportunities to get to know and befriend others who are different from them.

The next two blogs in this series will show on-the-ground action by teachers using promising practices to address implicit bias. The second blog in the series will show how teachers are countering negative stereotypes by having students learn about ways to reduce stereotyping in class and understand the concept of stereotype threat, the fear of confirming a negative stereotype.[4] The third blog will focus on creating identity-safe classrooms where students and their social identities are assets, rather than barriers, to success in the classroom.[5]

All students deserve to be welcomed, supported and valued as members of the learning community. Before we can truly model empathy for and acceptance of individuals from identity groups different from our own, we must learn to be honest about the biases we hold.

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

[1] Woo, 2015

[2] Dreifus, 2015

[3] Devine, 2012

[4] Steele and Aronson, 2002

[5] Cohn-Vargas, Steele, 2013

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