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Navigating Our Assumptions

Monday, January 12, 2015

middle school girl writing

Recent research at Stanford and NYU shows that just the fear of being stereotyped can have a measurable impact on student performance. In his groundbreaking book "Whistling Vivaldi," Stanford professor Dr. Claude Steele shows that introducing students to a diverse group of adult role models can moderate the negative effects of these anxieties.

Last spring Harlem Academy introduced a unit called “Mitigating Stereotype Threat” into our advisory program. Drawing on the experience of successful adult guest speakers who have navigated these issues themselves, the program is designed to help our seventh and eighth grade students explore assumptions that they make about others, that others make about them, and even some they might make about themselves.

Before entering into conversations with guests, students meet in advisory to discuss issues of identity, such as race, gender, sexuality, ability, and economic background. Using poems, films, and current events as points of entry, students jump into discussions of stereotypes and how they affect our behavior and expectations of others.

With these conversations as context, students meet with guest speakers who have succeeded in diverse fields like finance, engineering, and law. These role models share their experiences of pushing back against stereotypes, as well as some general wisdom about passion and working hard toward goals. The hope is to show students what their future looks like if they maintain confidence in the face of a challenge and continue to achieve at their potential.

“The guest speakers were really open,” said Harlem Academy graduate Brandon Cepeda ‘14. “They talked about both their good and bad experiences with us. I appreciated that honesty. It helped me keep an open and positive mind to the differences in people that I observe.”

Classmate Ryan Rivera ’14 added “I liked that they didn’t give us the Disney version. They wanted to let us know what we should expect and that people might try to put us into labels. But the speakers also helped me think about how my words affect the way other people feel and how to express myself without making others feel judged.”