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A young girl is dressed up in costume as Rey, the female protagonist from the movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Culturally Responsive Teaching

Why Representation Matters

Children’s early experiences shape what they imagine to be possible. Here are six strategies for giving them positive, familiar examples of who and what they can be.

Being brave is never easy. For years, I've been a proponent of the idea that we need to help our kids be brave, but frankly, in recent months, I've felt that pushing them to gut through the scary stuff may be too much to ask of developing minds and hearts. As I learn more about how the brain works and how fear can actually get in the way of learning, I'm thinking that maybe we need to talk less about bravery and grit, and talk more about making learning less scary and traumatic. (And while I'm sure we could talk ad nauseum about the ways that standardized tests provoke anxiety and fear, I will leave that conversation for a different post.)

Seeing and Being

When the mother of the child featured in my Helping Kids Be Brave post sent along this new picture, I couldn't help being struck by something about it. Maybe it was in her daughter's stance, in her eyes, or in her mother's acknowledgement that they couldn't take the picture until Jenni went to her room and got a pillowcase to complete the outfit because "details matter." There was something more than a cute kid in a nifty costume, some kind of sureness in her stance and her eyes. This kiddo had latched onto the Star Wars character Rey as a role model for more than just this one picture. Rey was (and is) a new option for Jenni when it comes to imagining herself in the world. This little girl was ready for a fictional mentor, and Rey was there -- and not just there, but featured prominently in a popular blockbuster film. Rey was an available option in a film largely dominated by male characters. (And trust me -- as a former Princess Leia wannabe, I understand the joy of finding a female character who doesn't always need rescuing!) Jenni had someone to identify with, someone she could look to for options when sussing out tricky situations.

Gender matters. Indeed, representation matters, because "If she can see it, she can be it." Our children's early experiences -- including the hours spent consuming media -- shape what they imagine to be possible for people who look like them, live where they live, or come from where they came from. Simply put, kids determine what they can be based on the examples around them. Our students know it. We should, too.

I grew up in the rural Midwest, and very little that I read, saw, or heard in my classes or in the media represented my reality. There were no buses, subways, or malls where I lived. We were country kids, but not Little House on the Prairie country kids. The women that I saw in the media and read about were either urban or suburban, except for those rural women who always rode horses everywhere and lived on farms. I lived in an apartment and had never even been near a horse. My textbooks, the films I watched in class, and even the tests that we took used examples drawn from a totally different set of life experiences. No one "out there" looked or sounded anything like what I saw "back here." The subtle message I received was that the place where I lived didn't matter, and that my experience didn't matter. 

6 Strategies to Increase Representation

So what can we do to help children recognize that their reality does matter?

  1. Learn about your own culture and be ready to talk about it. Know why you're who you are because of where you came from.
  2. Know about the community in which you live (PDF). What’s important about it? What’s special? How does it connect to and reflect the cultures that lived there in the past and today?
  3. Talk about stereotypes in the media and in the world around us. (PBS and MediaSmarts both have great tip sheets on how to do this.)
  4. Think through the instructional materials that you use, with a specific eye toward the kids in your class and the community where you live. Are there positive examples of different races, roles, and levels of affluence? Do you include the full spectrum of gender, or only the binary?
  5. Take a look around your classroom. Does the decor reflect the languages and cultures of the students who sit in the seats? If not, ask them to help you create something to kick off the new year. Student work makes for great decoration -- and it's free!
  6. Think hard about your pedagogy. Do your teaching strategies make learning less  or more accessible to some than others? Are there specific things that you can do (or avoid doing) as you welcome all children into your room? (Teaching Tolerance has some great resources for this.)

Representation matters. What our young people see around them positively or negatively shapes their expectations for themselves and for each other. When it comes to our classrooms and schools, let’s do our part to make sure that they can see themselves and all of their peers as strong, creative, capable, happy, and connected. 

About the Author
  • Laura Thomas Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist @CriticalSkills1
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Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Love this post Laura! I agree with you, representation matters so much. From the books our kids read, to the activities they join in and out of school, to the TV shows/movies they watch! It's important that our kids are able to see themselves represented in the things they learn from and connect to the most, be it that it's gender, race, culture or ethnicity representation. Representation matters, period. Love your tips for us to reflect on how to work within out own environments to improve the current conditions.

Kendra PeloJoaquin's picture

Thanks so much for this post, Laura. I work in a child care that is committed to anti-bias education and we think a lot about who is here and who is not. Currently, I think a lot about economic class because I think it's one of the last differences that we are uncomfortable to think and talk about with children. I noticed that you used the phrase "levels of affluence" and I was curious about that. As someone who grew up working class, the phrase made me laugh because if I asked my family about a level of affluence, they'd likely say "Zero". As a teacher who thinks about class a lot it made me wonder if this phrase adds something to our conversation about class.

Could you tell me more about that?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Sure Kendra! I like to use that phrase in lieu of SES because it feels less edubabbly and because I think it pushes us to stop and think a minute about how we divide ourselves into different groups. It means the same to me as level of income- both official levels and the more cultural ways we determine haves from have-nots in different communities which may not cut across broad geographic lines. I think it also takes into account the non-financial ways that different groups and individual hold more or less power in a community based on the length of time they've lived there, the respect that others give them (earned or not), family name, etc. I guess it makes me stop to take into account all different kinds of currency, not just the kind that folds or jingles.

Does that help?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Thanks Rusul. I feel like there are still more things that have come across my radar in the time since I wrote this- different ways I want to be sure my classroom represents the full spectrum of people and experiences in the world so that every kid can find themselves and the people they love (or will love someday) there.

Kendra PeloJoaquin's picture

Hmmm. Yes. I definitely hear you about SES, I don't like it bcs it sounds research-y. I have a friend who works at Class Action a group that specifically educates people about and through the lens of class, and I've adopted "class" from her. It's succinct, I think, and clear. It seems appropriate whether we're talking about "owning class" folks or people living in poverty. It's interesting, I"m still just reacting to that word, "affluence". I used to work with homeless women, and I can't imagine using the word "affluence" to describe their identity or situation, so "all levels" seems inaccurate somehow. I appreciate all experiments with language and don't believe there's only one way to refer to anything, so I'm not trying to censor you, or nitpick.
Thanks for engaging.

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