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  • Implicit Bias and Me

    Posted by Marc Smith on 10/7/2020 3:00:00 PM

    Credit: Wikimedia (Photo Credit: Wikimedia)

    A few weeks ago, I finished a class and started my trip home. It was late and I had a bit of a drive ahead of me. I was tired and operating mostly on auto-pilot. As I merged onto the on-ramp, I was instantly caught in heavy traffic. As I slowly merged onto the highway, I could hear (and feel) a deep thumping bass sound with a distinctive hip-hop rhythm and rap lyrics approaching over my left shoulder. As I turned my head, I noticed a white woman driving the car next to me where the sound was coming from. The first thought my tired mind registered was one of surprise. In the next 2 to 3 seconds, the analytical, reflective part of my brain turned back on and jumped into overdrive, questioning myself: “Why are you surprised?” “What, you think white women don’t listen to rap?” “What did you expect to see?” “What is wrong with you?” 


    Since starting my journey to become a more culturally proficient educator, I have found myself having more and more experiences like this one. I am becoming more attuned to my own implicit bias and the assumptions I make about the world based upon my cultural background, as well as the messages that have been imprinted on my brain throughout my life. While I still tend to quickly transition into questions of judgement like, “What is wrong with me?”or “What type of person am I to have that thought/feeling?”, I am also working to see these moments of self-awareness as progress. A few years ago, I am not sure I would have questioned my surprise -- or even noticed it. I am not sure I would have analyzed where the thought was coming from or how it really signals an automatic connection my brain has made between rap/hip-hop music and people of color.  


    Implicit Bias in Systems

    In education, we continue to see inequity in opportunity, access, and achievement for students of color across the country and here in Monomoy. While these inequities may not always be a product of overt acts of racism, they are the product of systems that are influenced by the unconscious, automatic beliefs that exist in all of us. We have left these biases largely unexamined. Many systems and structures that operate in schools today have their roots in a different time, when society was separated into those who were fit for education, property, prosperity, and advancement, and those who were not. Often, this meant if you were a white male from strong economic standing, then you were fit, and all others were not. We may be tempted to say that this idea is one that is representative of a time long gone in public education. Yet, if we examine our current public education system and the policies, practices, regulations, and structures that support it, not much has changed in the last 100 years. These systems also work to reinforce bias by producing outcomes that seem to legitimize the collective stories we have been told through movies, music, television, news media, and our own cultural upbringing. As such, it requires us to actively challenge these stories and systems, examining what we do, how we do it, and why we do it.


    Looking Inside

    As a part of my journey towards culturally proficient practices and becoming an anti-racist educator, I have worked to learn from others who are further along in this journey than I. In taking on this new learning, one message that I have heard time and time again is that working towards cultural proficiency and anti-racism begins within. You may recall Dr. Wornum talking with us about this last year. As she said, exploring our own culture and how it shapes the way we view the world is a critical first step in becoming a culturally proficient educator.  


    Where to Start?

    If you think you are ready to begin this work exploring your own bias, I would like to recommend a powerful tool to you. Since 1998, Harvard University has sponsored Project Implicit (linked here). From the Project Implicit website:


    “Project Implicit is a non-profit organization and international collaborative network of researchers investigating implicit social cognition - thoughts and feelings that are largely outside of conscious awareness and control. Project Implicit is the product of a team of scientists whose research produced new ways of understanding attitudes, stereotypes and other hidden biases that influence perception, judgment, and action.” 


    The way the tool works is that you are first asked to select an Implicit Association Test. There are a wide range of tests that you can take, exploring bias in a plethora of categories (race, skin tone, religion, disability status, etc.). The test is simple, straightforward, and easy to participate in. It tests your responses to associations made between a positive or negative statement and a particular bias category. You are asked to respond as quickly as possible without thinking. The goal is to help you uncover your automatic associations, the ones that exist well below your conscious mind and that are a product of inputs that have shaped your subconscious your entire life. It is very important for you to know that this is not meant to be a tool for self-judgement, or to prove if you are a good or bad person. Rather, it is meant to inform you about your unconscious mind and serve as information that you can use to mitigate implicit biases by making you aware of your automatic associations.  


    My Vulnerable Moment

    In the spirit of vulnerability and openness, I will share the results of one of my Implicit Association Tests (IAT) and how I use that information. I took the IAT for skin tone about a year ago. My test results indicated that I have an automatic preference for lighter skin tones over darker skin tones. After the initial feelings of guilt and shame passed, I began to reflect on what the test was telling me. First, the more I thought about it, the less surprising this result was. I was born and raised here on Cape Cod. As a result, my day-to-day interactions with family, friends, community, work, shopping, etc., have been dominated by interactions with people that look like me: light-skinned. I went to Stonehill College, often referred to as Clonehill because everyone looks the same: light-skinned. Growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the characters that largely dominated the movies and TV shows I watched also looked like me: light-skinned. This all had an imprint on my unconscious mind. Largely, I had no control over it. Something over which I do have control, however, is what I do with this information and insight, and whether I make a conscious effort to push past my initial implicit reactions.


    There are specific steps that I can take to ensure that I do not let this automatic preference result in actions and decisions that reinforce systems of oppression. I know that I need to actively pursue opportunities to learn more about different perspectives on education, especially those that are founded in cultural backgrounds and experiences that differ from my own. I do this by listening to podcasts, reading texts, and watching TED Talks by prominent thought leaders of color so as to deepen my understanding and challenge the narratives I have internalized. I also know that I need to actively monitor my thoughts, impressions, and feelings in a variety of professional settings to ensure my automatic, unconscious preferences are not influencing my decisions. As an example, when on an interview team, I need to make sure that I am actively monitoring my “feelings” and “impressions” about each candidate and his/her “fit” to ensure none of my automatic preferences are superseding the qualities of the candidate. This takes purposeful, deliberate work on my part and is necessary if I want to be a culturally proficient educator and leader. 


    Practice Makes Progress

    Many of us have heard the expression “Practice Makes Perfect.” There are two iterations of this phrase that I think more accurately reflect real life, as I am not sure perfection exists in the human condition. “Practice Makes Permanent” and “Practice Makes Progress” are both more appropriate reflections of our work to be better educators and better human beings. The more we practice something, the more it becomes a part of who we are … not because the work gets easier, but because we get stronger. And once we get a little stronger, we are ready to progress towards our next goal, which is why practice makes progress. Give yourself the permission to stumble through this work -- to be awkward, to flounder, to have self-doubt. Allow yourself to be vulnerable -- what Brene Brown would define as experiencing uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Nothing worth doing is easy, and this work is definitely worth doing.

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  • Why We Should be Talking About Race with Our Students

    Posted by Marc Smith on 6/2/2020

    Photo Credit: Goalcast.com  Photo Credit: Goalcast.com

    As I sit down to write this, it has been just over a week since George Floyd's death. Like me, I am sure many of you have followed this story closely, and I imagine none of us have been able to escape the emotional turmoil that seems to be in the air across our nation. Personally, I have been flooded with a wide variety of emotions and have spent a large portion of my quiet moments processing these feelings.


    The current protests are a result of many historical elements that cannot be ignored. First, our country has a history of systematic oppression of people of color. Second, many of the policies, procedures, and practices that govern large systems in our country presently have been part of those systems for a long time and were established by intentions long forgotten; many of those intentions were not ones of inclusion, but rather intentions of segregation. Third, historical policy decisions in this country frame our current reality. For example, According to the Pew Research Center, "Black Americans are nearly three times as likely as white Americans to live in poverty, according to the 2012 March Current Population Survey. Among whites, 10% were poor in 2011, compared with 28% of blacks, 25% of Hispanics and 12% of Asians." As a result, when we make certain decisions that seem unconnected to race (like deciding to close small businesses due to a health crisis), we disproportionately affect people of color. Fourth, public education is a system, and like all other large systems, has underserved children of color for a long time. Historically, a lot of that has been on purpose and presently we are living the results of that system. Last, Monomoy is not immune from any of the above facts. As we discussed earlier this year, when we disaggregate our data at Monomoy, we see that our students of color are underserved in achievement, recognitions, access to advanced courses, and academic growth.


    Living in a home with four school-aged children, I know that our students are aware of what is going on in the world, that they have feelings about what they are seeing, and that they need support in navigating complex issues. As a district, we have an obligation to support our students and to talk about race with them. Avoiding conversations of race is a privilege reserved only for those of us that are white, and as a school staff that is 97.5% white, that makes up most of us. Silence is only an option for those privileged (learn more about white privilege here) to be part of dominant culture and we need to have the courage to set aside our own discomfort with conversations of race, so as to affect change. Our discomfort is not more important than addressing issues of racism, injustice, and inequity.


    How to Talk About Race with Our Students

    First, we must acknowledge that it is going to be messy and we have to give ourselves the permission to make mistakes. Please know that myself and the rest of the administrative team are here to support you in this difficult work.


    As when thinking about any conversation we want our students to engage in, we need to think about the structures that will help students discuss issues of race in a safe way. Dr. Kalise Wornum gave us a set of Guidelines for Discussion that can be very helpful in establishing a structure:

    1. Respect confidentiality, no attribution
    2. Be willing to "try on" the ideas of others
    3. Speak your own truth - Ground communication in personal experiences using I statements
    4. Ok to disagree; Not OK to blame, shame, attack (self or others)
    5. Share "air time" - actively listen to other participants
    6. Practice "Both/And" thinking
    7. Say "ouch" when something is done or said that is hurtful
    8. Expect and accept a lack of closure (complex issues require on-going dialogue)
    9. Be aware of Intent vs. Impact
    10. Stay Engaged! Never Give Up! Never Give In!


    Additionally, there are many great resources to help us in this important work. Specifically, Teaching Tolerance (https://www.tolerance.org/) is a great resource for both professional learning and content/plans you can use with your students on a wide variety of inclusive topics. In 2017, Teaching Tolerance did a webinar entitled "Let's Talk! Discussing Race, Racism and Other Difficult Topics With Students" which is directly related to supporting educators in facilitating conversations around race. You will need to register for a FREE account in order to view the webinar. They also have a downloadable pdf (linked here)


    Scholastic magazine has curated a set of materials that you can use with students to address difficult topics, including race. The website is organized by grade level bands and easy to navigate (Scholastic Link).



    We are all in this together. One of the things that makes me so proud to be a member of the Monomoy community is the sense of caring and comradery that permeates the district. While race conversations are very much in our consciousness today, they will need to continue in the district as an integral element if we are going to make substantive change towards equity. In that, we will need to lean on each other in this work. So if you find a great resource, share it with your colleagues. Talk about race and racism with each other. Offer each other forgiveness and patience as we all move through this difficult work. Be curious.


    I do not promise to have all the answers. I know I will make mistakes. I know that I have a mountain of information to learn about race and racism. I also know that I will continue to ask questions, to dig into the structures of our district that are disadvantaging students of color, to learn from those that have expertise to share, and to use my position of privilege to make change ... and I invite you to join me.


    With love, respect, and humility  ~ Marc

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  • Drawing New Lines

    Posted by Marc Smith on 4/27/2020 1:00:00 PM

    Just the other day I found myself on another of what has come to feel like an endless stream of Google Meet and/or Zoom meetings that now make up my life.  I was on a call with two people I have met briefly before from one of our community partners and two others from their Board of Directors that I was meeting for the first time.  Just as I was about to start talking about why I had asked to meet with them, my dog decided it was a good time to assert his presence and start barking at me.  Now for a point of clarity, he is a 200 pound English Mastif with one heck of a bark.  

    Big Bark


    After apologizing for the interruption and ignoring the mastif so that he would move along, I finished my introduction and asked a few questions to prompt our discussion.  Just as one of the members on the call began to speak, I found myslef launching for the computer mouse to mute my microphone just in time to block out the noise of the teenager who decided the middle of my confernce call was the best time to fill her Hydroflask with ice... in the same room as my "home office"... also known as the kitchen table.  


    As I reflect on this experience, along with the experiences I have heard in conversations with teachers, admininstrators, parents, friends and colleagues from within our district and from other districts, it is clear that we are all trying to figure out how to operate in a world where our home life and our work life blurred together.  I know I am not along in feeling this pressure to be constantly checking my email and responding almost instantaneously for fear that someone might think I am not working when I am supposed to be.  I know I am not alone in feeling like I need to be available all the time and flexible with my work time so as to meet the needs of others.  And I know that I am not alone in feeling like it is starting to wear me down.


    As we settle into the next two months of distance learning, I think it is important for us to take the time to consider how we will try to establish healthy boundaries that allow us to have work/life harmony in this new way of doing business.  


    Accepting Reality

    There is this concept in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy called Radical Acceptance.  In short, the idea of radical acceptance is that there are certain parts of our reality that we can not change and that we just need to accept.  In accepting these realities, we can then be proactive and take actions that will mitigate the difficulties posed to us by the reality we face.  COVID-19 has changed our reality in many ways, most of which are out of our control.  We did not create the pandemic, we did not determine the social distancing measures needed to combat this pandemic, we did not enact stay-at-home orders, and we did not close schools for the remainder of the school year.  

    Radical Acceptance doesn't mean that we are ok with the way things are or that we approve of this new reality, it means that we acknowledge it and plan accordingly.  


    Planning for Power

    Planning ahead is one tool that we can use to reclaim power over our lives.  In doing our work from home, it is too easy for the hours to slip by and for abstract ideas of excercise, meals, meditation, walking, sleeping, etc. to continue to be pushed aside for that email that just popped up, article I need to read, or meeting I should schedule.  Without a plan or schedule, we are at the mercy of external inputs and we are constantly responding to them and our lives are driven by our work.


    As we look forward to the next two months, I encourage each of us to take some time (put it in your calendar) to make a plan for the things you want to protect for you and your well-being.  Do you want to excercise?  Do you want to spend time reading a novel? Do you want to spend more time with your children?  Do you want to garden?  If so, when will you do it?  For how long?  Where in your home/community? Once you have determined all that, put it in your calendar and stick to it.  Planning and scheduling will help us to ensure we are doing things to mitigate our reality and keeps us healthy during these difficult times.


    Setting Healthy Boundaries

    Although it doesn't always feel this way, not every email is an emergency.  Part of establishing work/life harmony is establishing professional boundaries for yourself, communicating them to others when necessary and sticking to them the best you can.  As an example, I have worked really hard over the past 3-4 years to ensure that my weekends are for things that keep me sane (my children, my health, and my pursuits of joy).  As such, I have worked to leave my email until Monday morning.  I will say that the transition to distance learning broke this habit pretty quickly; personally placing this pressure on myself that I needed to be available and responsive all the time.  I am working on restablishing this boundary for myself.  


    As we move forward, take time to consider when and where you will do your work.  When will you check email and for how long?  What is a reasonable expectation for you for returning emails?  Should you communicate that out?  Should you take your work email off your phone and just use your computer, or at least turn off the screen notification on your phone (this was a game changer for me as a principal)?  Is there somewhere in your house that you can do your work that you can close off behind a door when you are not working? 


    Look for the Opportunities

    Maybe some of these blurred boundaries also create opportunities for us.  Can you incorporate a healthy habit into one of your work requirements? (I have been thinking about slowly pedaling on my Peleton while participating in some of my Google Meet meetings instead of just sitting in a chair for hours).  Can we enjoy a nice healthy lunch and take longer than 22 minutes to eat it?  Can we take a walk after lunch or in the middle of the day because we have a break in scheduld meetings?  When we have a meeting or lesson that doesn't go the way we wanted, can we reach out to a spouse, partner or child for a hug to boost our Oxytocin right in that moment instead of having to wait until the end of the work day.


    So as we move forward together, I ask that you forgive the occasional bark that may enter one of our conference calls, and I ask that you too take some time to plan for our new reality in a way that preserves your personal power, sets appropriate boundaries and looks for opporutniteis for work/life harmony.  


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  • So Many Initiatives...

    Posted by Marc Smith on 2/4/2020

    Photo Credit:  FreeSVG.org


    Differentiated Instruction, Cultural Proficiency, Social-Emotional Learning, Trauma-Informed Teaching Practices, Closing the Achievement/Access Gap, and Curriculum Development/Review/Revision can seem like a daunting and unrealistic collection of initiatives to accomplish in one school district. Taken as separate initiatives, the work is overwhelming at best and mental breakdown inducing at worst; however, the key to sanity and clarity lies in looking for the overlap.


    In my role in the district, I am involved in many conversations with a wide range of staff that support our students in a variety of ways.  One great benefit of this work is that I get to have some rich conversations with teachers, specialists, and leaders both inside and outside the district.  This affords me the opportunity to see patterns within the themes of those conversations and make connections across many seemingly disparate change efforts.  One great challenge is remembering that most staff that work in Monomoy do not have the benefit of traveling with me and engaging in these conversations.  As in any large organization, any one person's understanding of the system as a whole is largely shaped by his/her interactions with others within the system.  The more we have the opportunity to interact with diverse members of the organization, the deeper our understanding of the system becomes and the more we are able to see how all the parts move together.


    Recognizing that not everyone can follow me around the district, I thought it best to share the connections that I see in hopes that it will help others consider a systems view of our district, reduce initiative anxiety, make meaning of complex terms, and establish a deeper sense of the "why" behind our work together.


    When first thinking about how to describe the way that I see these initiatives fitting together, I was initially struck by the image of puzzle pieces.  Independent pieces that come together to create a bigger, more complete picture.  However, after thinking more about the ideas and how to describe some of the interrelations, I decided that perhaps puzzle pieces were not the best analogy.  Instead, I think that the way these initiatives interact is more like gears; moving together interdependently where the motion of one gear affects the motion of all the others.

    Let's imagine that one of the gears represents Social-Emotional Learning (SEL).  Here in Monomoy, we have adopted the CASEL five core competencies model for SEL; for this analogy, I will look at two of those five, self-awareness and relationship skills.  As adults, we continue to develop our own skills while also supporting our students.  In working on self-awareness for our students and ourselves, we need to continue to learn more about who we are, what we believe, our strengths, our limitations, our emotions, and our values.  When exploring our values and helping students to understand their own, we can not fully explore these ideas unless we pay careful attention to the role of culture in the development of one's values (and the gear of SEL turns the Cultural Proficiency gear).  Lindsey, Lindsey, Nuri Robins, and Terrell define culture as, "a set of practices and beliefs that is shared with members of a particular group and that distinguishes one group from others"(13).  Using this definition, each of us belongs to many cultures.  Reflecting on our own cultural values along with how they influence our relationships with students and our teaching decisions in the classroom is a core principle in Cultural Proficiency as well as developing self-awareness within SEL.  Further, if we are to help students to develop relationship skills and deepen our relationships with students, we must study diverse cultures so as to understand how the values of those cultures shape interactions with other cultural groups.  


    As we are studying our students and their cultures, and reflecting on our own culture so as to deepen our own self-awareness; we begin to make adjustments to our instructional decisions in the classroom.  Perhaps we learn that some of the students in our class come from a culture that is expressive, using body language and facial expressions to convey meaning.  As a result of this learning, we decide to add an option to our end of unit assessment that allows students to demonstrate their understanding in an oral defense, or by structuring a debate in which students have to take opposing viewpoints on one of the unit's Essential Questions.  We have now just differentiated the product for students (and so moves the Differentiated Instruction gear).  As students have the opportunity to demonstrate what they know in different ways, we develop a deeper understanding of who they are, deepening our relationship with them, and adjusting the cultural lens that we bring with us into the classroom.  In this way, the gear of Differentiated Instruction (DI) affects SEL and Cultural Proficiency.  


    Or perhaps we learn that a few students in our classroom have experienced trauma in their young lives.  As a part of our work on understanding the effect of trauma on the brain, we know that students that have survived trauma can have a heightened "flight or fight" response mechanism that can manifest in many ways including hypervigilance and anxiety.  We have also learned that when the brain is in this heightened state, it is not able to access high-level thinking skills and/or take on new learning.  Maybe we know that the School Psychologist has introduced the child to the Lazy Eight breathing technique or we have taught it to our students in the class.  As a result of this knowledge, we decide to put an infinity symbol (lazy eight) on the test we are about to give out to the class right next to the spot where the kids put their names.  This serves as a simple visual reminder to have the students use this technique before starting the test.  This helps the students to develop better self-awareness and is a simple DI technique where we are differentiating process.  


    When we share effective differentiated practices with our colleagues, perhaps considering how to better reflect the cultural backgrounds of our students in our common assessments, then we impact our shared curriculum in a positive way.  Looking at how students are performing on common assessments and looking at that data through a lens of race, gender, socio-economic status, etc. can help us to identify areas where certain populations of students may not be accessing school in the same way (the achievement/access gap).  When we begin to notice patterns and trends around certain populations of students, we might then begin to study those students to learn more about their culture.  In this way, our curriculum work deepens our cultural proficiency work and helps to take action in closing achievement/access gaps.  


    These examples are a small sample of the interactions between Differentiated Instruction, Cultural Proficiency, Social-Emotional Learning, Trauma-Informed Teaching Practices, Closing the Achievement/Access Gap, and Curriculum Development/Review/Revision.  As the adage states, it is important that we don't lose sight of the forest for the trees.  Each of these initiatives is in the service of student learning and is best when not viewed as disconnected, individual areas of focus.  When observed as separate it is very easy for us to become overwhelmed; however, when we begin to look for connections we see how much work in any one area positively affects each of the other initiatives.  


    Works Cited:  Lindsey, Randall B., et al.  Cultural Proficiency: A Manual for School Leaders 4th Edition.  Corwin, 2019.



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