Author and Activist Susan Naimark visits Education in the Community

By Sarah Meakin

As Service-Learners in the field of education, we seek not only to serve the students of Boston as tutors, but also to learn from them and the community. Our S-L class, Education in the Community, had the privilege of learning from Bostonian activist and author Susan Naimark, who lead a lecture and discussion with our class in early March. Prior to Naimark’s visit, we read her book, The Education of a White Parent. We were all excited to meet the author of a book that had been such an important part of our class discussions about race, privilege, opportunity, and inequity in the Boston Public Schools.

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Susan Naimark addresses students in Professor Polly Attwood’s Education in the Community course.

In addition to answering our questions and updating us on the lives of the people who appear in the book, Susan gave a mini-lesson on implicit bias. Before the guest lecture, students took an implicit association test through Harvard University’s Project Implicit. According to Project Implicit, “An implicit stereotype is one that occurs outside of conscious awareness and control. Even if you say that men and women are good at math, it is possible that you associate math with men without even knowing it. In this case we would say that you have an implicit math-men stereotype.” Students were assigned to take one test for racial bias, and one for another topic, such as gender or ability status.*

Susan spoke about the implications of implicit bias in schools. Implicit bias towards students of color and members of language and ethnic minorities can predispose teachers to unconsciously harm students’ educations in a number of ways. For example, “Many U.S. studies have shown that teachers hold lower expectations for African-American and Latino children compared to white children,” Susan told our class.

As an aspiring teacher, it was empowering to learn about the possibility of “debiasing” from Susan. While it is ineffective to repress one’s biases, research shows that by directly confronting biases and constructing new mental associations, they can be unlearned. Susan gave us some debiasing interventions as part of her lecture:

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Susan Naimark (left) with Professor Polly Attwood.
  1. Counter-stereotype training – retrain associations.
  2. Exposure to counter-stereotypical individuals – does not even need to occur in person to be effective.
  3. Intergroup contact.
  4. Education about implicit bias.
  5. Accountability – expectation that one may be called on to justify one’s beliefs, feelings, and actions to others.
  6. Fostering egalitarian motivations and goals.
  7. Taking the perspective of others.
  8. Deliberative processing – encourage people to reflect on the way they think about others.

“This country is ahistorical,” Susan warned our class. “We need to understand today’s divisions and where they come from.” As aspiring teachers and S-L students, it is our duty to confront our own biases as well as those of others, and learn about and teach the challenging past of this country. Only by confronting these issues directly can we begin to change their detrimental effects.

*If you are interested in taking a test, which is said to moderately predict bias, you may do so through Harvard’s Project Implicit: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.
Professor Polly Attwood’s Education in the Community course uses classroom and field-based activities to provide historical and social contexts of public education by encouraging students to reflect on their own prior education, to learn from persons active in the education community, and to consider their future roles as educators.
Sarah Meakin is the Service-Learning Teaching Assistant for Education in the Community. She took the class as a freshman in 2013.

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