Over the past several years that has been an increased and much-needed urgency on equity and social justice. The need arises from systemic differences and inequities in achievement and academic success of our students, predictable based on factors including race and socioeconomic factors, among others. In addition, the need for focusing on student well-being and mental health has also been on the rise, as we have seen steady increases in student anxiety and depression over the last decade, only exacerbated by the pandemic. The incorporation of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in our classrooms can support us in both eliminating inequity and increasing student well-being.
Learning for Justice, formerly known as Teaching Tolerance from the Southern Poverty Law Center, released Social Justice Standards in 2018 that show the intersection of equity and social justice with SEL. There are four main sections to the standards: Identity, Diversity, Justice, and Action. Each of these sections, in some way, addresses the need for self-awareness. Self-awareness relates to the ability to recognize one’s own identities, values and beliefs, feelings and emotions, and how our behavior is influenced by them. The following sampling of Social Justice Standards emphasize the importance and need of self-awareness:
2. Students will develop language and historical and cultural knowledge that affirm and accurately describe their membership in multiple identity groups.
7. Students will develop language and knowledge to accurately and respectfully describe how people (including themselves) are both similar to and different from each other and others in their identity groups.
11. Students will recognize stereotypes and relate to people as individuals rather than representatives of groups.
16. Students will express empathy when people are excluded or mistreated because of their identities and concern when they themselves experience bias.
(Teaching Tolerance, 2018)
Within Social Emotional Learning, and as described in my recently released book Effective Strategies for Integrating Social Emotional Learning in Your Classroom, there are two key aspects to self-awareness: cultural self-awareness and emotional self-awareness. Relating to the topic of social justice and equity, we will focus on the prior, and dig into how developing self-awareness can help us increase equity in schools.
Deepening Our Own Self-Awareness
As educators, increasing our own self-awareness helps us to better understand our own perspectives, biases, values and beliefs. Through deep introspection, we can become clearer on who we are culturally. There are several tools available to us to deepen our cultural self-awareness. Hall’s Cultural Iceberg Model (1976) illustrates two aspects of culture: surface culture, including aspects that are visible or observable such as food, music, art, language and holidays. For many of us, these aspects of our culture are clear to us, and our awareness is high. Deep culture, however, is not visible and may not be easy to observe. Deep culture includes notions of courtesy and modesty, concepts of time, family, and self, and attitudes towards children, authority and death. In Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain (2014), Hammond describes Maynard’s Culture Tree, which represents a similar concept but in the form of a tree. Maynard’s Culture Tree shows surface culture (observable patterns), shallow culture (unspoken rules), and deep culture (collective unconscious).
As we deepen our own cultural self-awareness, we can work to also build equity within our own practice. There are some key questions to ask ourselves to both build self-awareness and to build more equitable systems in our schools and classrooms. Consider the following questions and reflect on your responses:
What is my why?
Consider why you got into the education profession. How does the notion of equity, or providing each student what they need when they need it in order to be successful, fit into why you became an educator?
What are the aspects of deep culture that impact my instructional practices?
As you consider the aspects of your own culture, especially those aspects that relate to deep culture, reflect on how those aspects both facilitate or potentially interfere with creating an equitable learning environment for each student.
What are my own biases?
Bias is a disproportionate weight favoring or against someone or something. Often, we are not aware of these biases, yet they have impacts on our everyday behaviors.
What practices do I already engage in that support equity?
What are your embedded teaching practices that support equity? How are you building upon the “why” you have identified?
Deepening Students’ Self-Awareness
There are many ways that we can deepen student self-awareness. The first step, of course, is to be self-aware ourselves, as discussed in the previous section. To build student self-awareness, we can incorporate a variety of instructional strategies and activities, many of which can be found within the OCDE Project GLAD model! You may have utilized these strategies with your students in the past. Some of them implicitly build self-awareness. However, we can make the self-awareness explicit through these strategies as well, in some cases by simply pointing out to students that one of the purposes is to develop their self-awareness.
The Inquiry Chart
With the Inquiry Chart, students focus on two key concepts: what I know (or think I know) about a topic, and what I want to learn about the topic being studied. Thinking about and discussing these topics builds students’ self-awareness. They must reflect on the knowledge and concepts they are familiar with, analyzing their own learning through metacognition. In addition, students think about and articulate their own areas of interest by articulating they questions that they themselves have regarding the topic being studied.
The Inquiry Chart then provides students the opportunity to not only express what they have learned, clarifying misconceptions and answering questions they had, but also the opportunity to research specific areas of interest. While not every question may be answered by the teacher or through instruction, the students have the opportunity to research those topics they would like to learn more about. As students research, they deepen their own self-awareness, determining what they are interested in and topics and concepts they want to learn more about.
The Extended Name Tag
The Extended Name Tag is a strategy originally developed by the UCI Writing Project. The strategy, as the name implies, begins with students writing their name. Surrounding their name, students answer a variety of questions that are most often provided by the teacher as prompts. Depending on the time of year, as well as the topic being studied, a variety of questions can be utilized.
Each of these questions provides the opportunity to deepen students’ self-awareness, especially in terms of deep culture. While some questions, such as discussing favorites, music, celebrations, or aspects of their family relate to surface or shallow culture, questions about aspects of deep culture can be asked to have students reflect upon their own culture. The following are a few questions that may help to deepen students’ self-awareness and, as they share with others, also deepen social awareness as they learn about each other.
How do people greet one another?
Choose a holiday your family celebrates and describe how it is celebrated.
How would a visitor be welcomed to your or a family member’s home?
Which is more important; to be successful as an individual or as a group? Why so?
What does it mean to have individual success?
What is the relationship between humans and nature? (e.g., do humans dominate
nature? does nature dominate humans? do the two live in harmony?)
Is it better to be action-oriented or more contemplative and think things out?
What is the role of luck in the lives of your family and friends?
(Adapted from “Communicating Across Cultures” MIT Course 21G.019, 2005)
The Action Plan
The Action Plan is a strategy that allows students to identify an issue or a problem, and find potential solutions. The strategy builds students’ self-awareness as they identify issues that are important to them, and that impact others. As students consider their own values and beliefs, they can create an action plan that both deepens and solidifies those beliefs and values.
The Identity Pyramid
The Identity Pyramid is not a GLAD strategy, but rather one from Effective Strategies for Integrating Social Emotional Learning in Your Classroom. In the Identity Pyramid, students describe various aspects of their cultural identities. Aspects at the base of the pyramid are those that they feel most connected to, or that they feel have a strong influence on their life. Aspects of students’ identities that are listed at the top of the pyramid are those that have a smaller influence on the student’s life or ones that they feel less connected to. As students identify these facets of their identity, and consider the placement on the Identity Pyramid, their self-awareness grows deeper.
As we develop our own self-awareness, and help our students to develop their own self-awareness, we can also begin to work towards developing institutional awareness. This can be a daunting task, as an institution, such as a school or district, is comprised of many individuals. However, as we consider an equity lens, we can work to ask ourselves and our colleagues some of the same questions we asked ourselves as individuals:
What is our why? Why do we exist as an institution and what do we want to accomplish?
What are embedded practices, cultural beliefs, and biases that the institution holds? Who benefits from these practices, and who is harmed by them?
What practices do we engage in that support equity, and where are our blind-spots?
The practice of building truly equitable learning environments for each student is multifaceted. We must first begin with our own introspection and deepening of our self-awareness. As we focus within, we can then begin to help our students develop self-awareness as well, and ultimately look at how the institutions we work within can become more self-aware in order to serve each student equitably.