Sixth-grade teacher Ryan Mateo Sharnbroich has one goal for the first day of school: to make sure his students know they are welcomed and understood in his classroom. Sharnbroich, who is pursuing his Master of Education in Instructional Leadership, is laying the foundation to embrace difficult and sensitive conversations about equity and difference with his students later in the year.
As students return to public schools amid a divisive political climate, Sharnbroich discussed his work exploring inequity and difference in classrooms and the strategies he uses to bridge these topics with his young students.
What does inequity in the classroom look like?
There are many different ways inequity shows up in the classroom: achievement gaps between certain groups of students; certain kids getting more attention from teachers than others; and kids getting equal supports at school but unequal supports outside of school. Inequity in the classroom is also apparent when certain identities are accepted while other identities are not recognized and therefore marginalized.
At the end of the school year, do your students understand the concept of equity?
That’s part of my research: trying to understand the ways we can measure the impact of this work. I’ve been teaching in the district for four years and, so far, haven’t been able to assess whether we’re reducing bias among our kids and increasing awareness around equity and civic engagement. But I definitely believe that kids leave my classroom with a much deeper understanding of human difference and equity.
What does equity work look like in a young classroom?
The most common equity lessons are close readings of literary passages, images, videos and news articles, but some of the most powerful are simulations. With my students, I’ve re-created the blue eyes/brown eyes lesson pioneered by teacher Jane Elliott. In the lesson, students with brown eyes are randomly given a treat and students with blue or green eyes are excluded. Every single time I’ve done it, the students who did not get their treat are horribly upset and think it’s unjust and wrong, while the kids who did get their treat think it’s totally fair. And those students will start to taunt and tease the ones who didn’t get a treat.
It’s a lesson about how groups of people are treated based on factors and characteristics that are completely out of their control. It also shows students how, when you’re suffering from oppression, it’s very obvious to you. But when you’re on the side of the oppressor, sometimes you engage in ways that are not conscious to you but end up being really cruel and hurtful. It opens up some really important and interesting conversations.
Ultimately, bringing equity work into the classroom is about how you talk with students, group and partner students, differentiate academic and social-emotional learning for your students, and how you make each of your students feel when they are in your classroom every day.
How do the parents of your students react to these conversations?
I’m very transparent — I give parents notice before I do these kinds of simulations or engage in any conversations around controversial topics.
Teachers tend to be afraid of parents who get upset and object to these simulations or discussions. Not that I am seeking out for parents to be upset, but when they are, I recognize these are the people we should be bringing into the conversation. Some of the concerns that parents bring up are valid and if we’re engaging in this controversial work, their voices need to be heard.
How do you plan to broach subjects like diversity and equity considering the current political and social climate?
Despite what’s happening in the other Washington, equity is too important for us not to be charging forward with this work.
How do you learn to do equity work as a teacher?
A lot of it just comes from practice. I’ve been doing this for the past four years, and it’s always mucky and messy. You just learn to be comfortable with the discomfort, because it’s never going to be comfortable. But it’s too important not to do it.
There’s no end point either: there’s no single conversation where you and your students come to an agreement of what we all think and believe. That’s not the point. The point is to have kids grapple with these topics and help them develop the critical thinking skills to come to their own opinions.
This story was originally published by the UW Graduate School.
Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications