Unconscious Bias and Trauma in K-12 Curriculum

“I will not traumatize you based on YOUR cultural identity and connections to family, place, land, tradition, and language; rather it will be a celebration ALL year” Effuah Sam

Unchecked, unconscious bias in educators results in trauma being weaved into the curriculum that we teach our students. If we aren’t actively questioning our methods and eliminating problematic practices, we are contributing to an environment that is not safe for all students. The trauma inflicted is unintentional but insidious, and it crops up in ways that aren’t revealed by looking at the curriculum frameworks. Educator preparation courses do not focus on ways we, as educators, further traumatize our most vulnerable students. So it is up to us to take a critical look at our own practices. I have been teaching for almost 20 years and, in that time, I have assigned some of the projects that I now object to. It wasn’t until my own children had the experience that I began to reflect on my own practices. Every year at least one of my adopted children is given one of these problematic assignments: the country of origin (ancestry) project or the personal timeline. Every year I have to decide if I will speak up or not. Some years I do not. Some years I ask for an alternate assignment. Not this year. I want to speak up now, before the project has been assigned, and I will not be looking for alternate assignment for my child. All of our students should get an alternate assignment because we can do better and we should do better. We need to re-examine all of our lessons through the lens of trauma informed teaching and question our current practices. What is it that I want the students to get out of this lesson? Does the lesson plan follow best practices in social emotional learning, cultural proficiency, equity, inclusion? Is there a more inclusive way to teach this content? 

Second grade is when my children were first introduced to the country of origin/ancestry  project. The directions are essentially to find out what country/countries your family immigrated from and pick one to do a presentation. I do not know the ancestry of my adopted children. When my son had this assignment, I told him that he could choose a country that my ancestors had come from or we could look up his birth mother’s last name for clues to his ancestry. I didn’t want to explain why this assignment was a problem to the teacher and I certainly didn’t want to explain to my son how his Black birth father’s ancestors likely got here. This year is supposed to be his sister’s turn. It is likely that some of her relatives also “came from” West Africa via slave ships. So, the only knowledge I do have is not pleasant information. This time, I don’t want to give my child a “fake” country of origin. I don’t want my child to have an alternate assignment. I want the assignment altered for all children. Students should be given the choice of whether or not they want to make the assignment personal. The learning standard for the ancestry project is from the History and Social Science Frameworks, Topic 3: migrations and cultures [2.T3]. The supporting question is: “What are the different reasons people choose to settle in a community?” Instead of narrowing the scope to the countries represented in our little town, why not open it up to all countries? You can still discuss family history without limiting the discussion to only family history. 

The personal timeline is a project most of my children have had to do at least twice for some reason. The directions say to create a timeline from birth to the current school year, including important personal events and either hand-drawn or printed pictures. Let me share how this project went with one of my adopted children. First, he asked me if I had any baby pictures of him. I do not. So, I suggested that he draw a picture or that I could find a picture of a random baby online and we could just pretend it was him. He was unhappy with both of those options. I looked for pictures on social media and was able to find a picture of him from when he was about 4. I showed it to him and he said that it was good enough. Then he got to work. After a bit he told me he needed some help. His timeline started with the day he was born, then his 1st birthday, then there was a bunch of blank space, then the last event was “starting 4th grade.” He didn’t know what else to put on there. I asked him what he would like to include and we tried to piece together what we could. I got out his DCF disclosure paperwork and searched through for pieces of his story that were appropriate to go up on a bulletin board. There were certainly things he remembered that he wanted to include, but he had no idea where they went on the timeline of his life. And the only blanks I could fill in were all mixed with trauma. 

Sometimes when the timeline gets assigned to my children I contact the teacher and explain why my child might have difficulty. Each time I have done this the teacher would apologize and offer an alternative… then send out the same assignment the next year to a new group of students. And my kids have been given this assignment in multiple grade levels. If the point is to have them create a timeline, have them choose a year in their life or the life of a famous person. Or pick their favorite celebrity and do a timeline of their life. There are so many other ways to teach this skill! Let the students decide how personal they want the assignment to be. 

See also: the family tree assignment and why we need to axe it for good

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