Eighth-graders in Christopher Avery's world cultures class often found that learning about the world meant confronting their own biases.
When the class discussed the Middle East, talk turned to the power of stereotypes. One student commented that the 9/11 terrorist attacks influence our perception of people and events. Another student said that, when he learned the 2013 Boston Marathon had been bombed, he immediately pictured a Middle Eastern perpetrator.
"I know that's wrong, but it just subconsciously happened," the student told the class at The Haverford School in Haverford, Pennsylvania.
Avery, who is now helping underserved students as director of programs of Steppingstone Scholars in Philadelphia, encourages such conversations. He wants students to think about how their biases - we all have them - can shape their worldview. Most important, he wants students to learn how to recognize their own biases so they can see the world without them. It's an important skill in a nation as diverse as ours, but one that can be difficult to teach.
That's why Avery is one of five teachers from across the nation receiving the 2014 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching. The biennial award from the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project recognizes teachers who excel at reducing prejudice, increasing intergroup respect, and bringing social justice into the classroom. They are equipping today's students to thrive in a diverse world.
As an awardee, Avery was filmed in his classroom, allowing Teaching Tolerance to highlight his teaching strategies as part of the project's professional development materials. Along with the other four winners, he attended a three-day summit in Montgomery, Alabama, to work on a collaborative project that will be shared with the nation's teachers. The five teachers each received $2,500.
The other winners are Amy Vatne Bintliff at Oregon Middle School in Oregon, Wisconsin; Christopher Hoeh at Cambridge Friends School in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Barrie Moorman at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.; and Michelle Nicola at Bridger Elementary School in Portland, Oregon.
These five teachers vividly demonstrate the skills that are quickly becoming essential in our nation's classrooms. Our schools are more diverse than ever, and teachers have a unique opportunity - and responsibility - to help students learn to navigate differences. It's not enough to focus on preparing students for college and career. Students also need the "soft skills" necessary for collaboration. And they need to understand the importance of working together to solve the problems they will inherit. Effective teachers are creative. They find opportunities to get out of the classroom. And, most important, they listen to students.
It's not an easy task, but these teachers have proven it can be done.
In Massachusetts, Hoeh created a yearlong social studies curriculum that follows the process of creating cotton clothing from seed to store, but also challenges bias and teaches the history of several social justice movements.
On any given day, Nicola's Oregon classroom might be transformed into a soap opera, a dance club or a theater if she believes it can help her students succeed.
In Wisconsin, Bintliff selects stories for her students to read that feature strong protagonists of color who shatter stereotypes. In the nation's capital, Moorman engages her students by taking them out of the classroom and into the community.
Back in Pennsylvania, Avery has used Skype to allow students to chat with a class in Sudan, an experience that opened their eyes as they spoke to students on the other side of the world.
The creativity, commitment and skill these teachers have shown deserve recognition. Their successful strategies need to be shared with other teachers. Regardless of a classroom's location in this country, it's clear that it's no longer enough to prepare students for the future by assessing their competencies in math, science and literacy. They need to understand our diverse world so they can successfully navigate it as adults.
Maureen Costello is director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project.