September 30th, 2019

Who Am I? A Strategy for Teaching About Power and Privilege

By: Heather Van Mullem, PhD

A circle of diverse hands joins together

Creating a successful learning experience is at the heart of instructional design and delivery. “In addition to academic instruction, one of a classroom’s teachers most important roles is to help students develop the critical thinking, collaboration, and self-reflection skills necessary to foster a better society” (Blacke, 2015, para. 1). Encouraging students to explore the topics of power and privilege resulting from social classifications and their impact on the thoughts and actions of themselves and others is an important step toward encouraging social justice. However, creating a classroom environment that facilitates and supports discussions about sensitive topics can be challenging.

Students may worry that they will say the “wrong” thing or that their comments will be considered offensive. They may also worry that their feelings and perspectives could be judged, thus negatively impacting their standing in the class and/or friendships with their peers. Those fears may be enough to discourage students from engaging in learning opportunities.

To get students engaged, the conversation must become personal. Students must be able to view these issues through their own eyes. Beginning the process of self-exploration starts with accepting that we are flawed human beings. It is important to know and be able to identify that we have limitations, and identifying and examining the lens(es) through which we view issues and topics is crucial to creating opportunities for exploration and learning.

“The first way to promote social justice in the classroom is to create a community of conscience. This environment ensures that students’ voice, opinions and ideas are valued and respected by their instructors and peers” (Blacke, 2015, para. 6).

Below is an example of a strategy that could be used to encourage learning about social classifications, power, privilege, and social justice. In the process, students will learn more about themselves and how their experiences impact their views on these topics.

  1. Shortly after the semester begins, facilitate a class discussion where students work together to define the concepts of power and privilege.
  2. Ask students to identify the labels used to create their identity (e.g., sex, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, social class, religion, political affiliation, age, ability, etc.). Students can independently create a personal list and then be provided the opportunity to share examples of labels with their classmates. Providing students the opportunity to share with others may help classmates identify additional labels to add to their personal list.
  3. Ask students to create a document which identifies if (and how) each of the labels on their list provide them with power and/or privilege. This may be a difficult step for some students because they may not yet identify how social classifications provide them with power and/or privilege. This list becomes the document from which they will work for the remainder of the semester.
  4. As you work your way through each topic during the quarter/semester, ask students to revisit their original document and add how each label has impacted their experiences and perspectives. This may mean that they revisit a topic more than once as the semester progresses. This is a working document and can be thought of as a journaling exercise.
  5. Students will submit each update to you for your review. This provides you with the opportunity to engage in ongoing dialogue with students as they identify, explore, and process how aspects of their identity are influenced by (and have influenced) their power and privilege socially. Integral to this sharing exercise is the opportunity to establish a relationship and build trust. Trust is essential to facilitating a space where students feel safe to explore their thoughts and experiences without fear of judgement. This opportunity for consistent and meaningful feedback allows for the instructor and student to get to know one another better with the exchange of reflections, and for the student to receive consistent feedback on their evolving ideas. Additionally, the instructor’s feedback also serves to model productive and thoughtful conversation about potentially sensitive topics which students can later mimic when talking with classmates about these topics (Blacke, 2015).
  6. Remind students that they are welcome to share their perspectives during class discussions with their peers. Perhaps, as they begin to feel more supported to share their reflections through the feedback provided by you, they may feel more comfortable to engage in classroom discussions with their peers.
  7. At the conclusion of the quarter/semester, ask each student to compose a final reflection paper which addresses how their label(s) influence their experiences of power and privilege. Ask students to address these questions in their final reflection:
    1. Who has power?
    2. Who has privilege?
    3. Is it me? Why? Why not?
    4. What role do I play in creating a more equitable and just environment?
    5. What can I do to enact positive change?

This exercise encourages student self-reflection, facilitates an opportunity to help each student feel safe and supported as they explore sensitive topics, and provides ongoing opportunities to improve their writing skills.

Additionally, by encouraging students to complement their personal perspective with outside academic resources, students have the opportunity to enhance their information literacy skills. Engaging in this exercise throughout the duration of a course is essential to its success. Self-reflection takes time. Learning takes time.

“We all view every social justice issue through the lens of your own experience, and these different lenses can block our growth and learning if we aren’t aware of them. If we fine-tune our self-awareness, our individual lenses can richly inform classroom conversations and help us understand issues on a much deeper level, directly from each other” (Gonzalez, 2016, para. 8).

Providing feedback with each update submitted by every student is time intensive. However, the ongoing interactions are critically important to establishing a safe, supportive, and trusting space to engage in meaningful conversations. “By teaching social justice in your classroom, you afford your students the opportunity to engage in authentic examination of their world and make positive changes” (Lynch, 2019, para. 4).

References

Blacke,C. (2015, May 13). Teaching social justice in theory and practice. Retrieved from https://education.cu-portland.edu/blog/classroom-resources/teaching-social-justice/

Gonzalez, J. (2016, February 14). A collection of resources for teaching social justice. Cult of Pedagogy. Retrieved from https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/social-justice-resources/

Lynch, M. (2019, January 9). Teaching social justice in your classroom. Edadvocate. Retrieved from https://www.theedadvocate.org/teaching-social-justice-in-your-classroom/

Heather Van Mullem is a professor in the Movement and Sport Sciences Division at Lewis-Clark State College.  An award winning professor, she has held a variety of leadership roles in professional organizations including President of Northwest District SHAPE America, President of Idaho Shape, and President of Western Society for Kinesiology and Wellness.