NCTE · social justice · Teaching Writing with a Social Justice Lens Blog Series · writing workshop

Thinking About Implicit Bias: Teaching Writing With a Social Justice Lens

Every time I attend the National Council of English Teachers (NCTE) Annual Convention, something inspires me to look a little harder and think a little more deeply about aspects of our curriculum. Maybe the impact came from some controversial conversations about gender and sexuality biases that happened at NCTE.  Maybe the impact was accentuated by post-conference tweets and Twitter chats, or maybe the emphasis on student voices, including those of LGBTQ teens resonated with me. In any case, I returned home with a resolve to be more aware and reflective of my own biases, as well as more inclusive when it comes to the elements of curriculum that are within my control.

The big question is how.

One important resource to explore is Project Implicit which is a non-profit organization that studies hidden biases. Through this website, we can participate in interactive quizzes that measure reactions to various stimuli and provide us with information about our own implicit biases–and I have them. And, when I am working with individual, uniquely different students, I should know that. Sometimes the first step toward doing better involves increasing awareness.

Another website to explore is Teaching Tolerance. Specifically their post about hidden bias is a great starting point. Initially, the post references Project Implicit, but then it offers definitions of terms, impacts, and lots of explanation and ideas for addressing and dealing with implicit bias–where it comes from, what it causes, and what we can do about it.

After spending time grappling with some of the concepts within these resources, I felt better prepared to handle issues that arose during a recent conversation with fifth-grade teachers about transgender people and their rights to bathrooms. We wound up talking about what it means to have gender-neutral classrooms– Jessica Lifshitz is a fifth-grade teacher in Illinois, and her post about inclusion and sensitivity has important reminders about small changes that matter a lot in terms of classroom management, practices, and routines. If you haven’t read it, please click here now.  And then, really ask yourself:

  • In terms of activities, both within the classroom and extracurricular, who is included and who might feel excluded? I’m talking about mother/daughter book nights, father/son writing groups, or anything remotely like those. Not everyone has a mother or a father. Not everyone wants to be labeled daughter or son. Don’t overlook those concepts.
  • What family structures are represented (or not) within classroom language, books, photographs, charts, or other illustrations throughout the environment?
  • What practices and routines exist that lean on gender identification? I’m talking about girls’ lines and boys’ lines, girls need to choose boys, girls are one color and boys are another, two girls and two boys at any given table, or any other practice that involves saying girls and boys–including saying girls and boys! (Say students, learners, writers, readers, mathematicians–those are all gender-neutral.) Beth’s post will be up tomorrow, and she addresses these issues more deeply.

Tricia Ebarvia has created another resource that has helped me identify my own implicit biases. She is a high school English teacher and a Heinemann Fellow for the last two years. Her post about questions to ask ourselves is a must-read. In terms of inclusive practices, she has created a series of eight questions to ask ourselves about not only our classrooms and who is represented within it, but also within our own literary lives. Her questions include:

  1. How inclusive is the media you consume, personally and professionally?
  2. How inclusive is your curriculum?
  3. How inclusive is your classroom library?
  4. How inclusive are your mentor texts for writing?
  5. How often do you use gendered versus non-gendered language?
  6. How equitable are your class discussions? In what ways do you ensure all student voices are heard?
  7. How often do you show (think aloud) inclusive thinking when discussing your decisions and responses to texts?
  8. In what ways—and how often—do you and your colleagues reflect on your practices to ensure all voices are recognized and respected?

These questions and reflections about them exist also within a PDF document that Ebarvia created. Initially, some of your responses to these questions might not feel comfortable–mine didn’t! Please don’t panic. If you find the time to go through your classroom library and find it doesn’t represent a variety of voices, you can begin to address it, without a full-scale overhaul.

Perfect can’t get in the way of good.

There are times, I know I fall short in terms of recognizing my implicit bias and doing better. I’m embarrassed to share my own recent behavior. My 16 year-old daughter Cecily had several friends over. When I asked her who was coming, she responded something along the lines of Jessie and her new Indian friends. She went on to name them, and I struggled to remember any of the names–the names all sounded so similar to me. I was running an errand when everyone arrived, and I went down to the basement to meet them when I got home. In my defense, there was a big crowd, and they were in the middle of a game. They said hello, but only dutifully, and I made a quick decision to not engage in introductions. I said hello to Jessie (who I know well) and headed upstairs. As I reflect on this experience, I’m not sure I would have paid close attention to names and faces regardless of color– I’m overwhelmed by more than say five teens in the basement. I just want them to know that I’m home and I’m checking on them. But still… given my resolve since NCTE, I wish I’d taken the time to listen to their names and pay attention to their faces.

This work is hard.

Dr. Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, was interviewed on NPR in August 2018. In that interview, she advises:

Start from the premise that, of course, you’ve been impacted by these forces. There’s no way that I wasn’t impacted by the forces of racism in a country in which it’s embedded and infused. And so just start there. And then try to figure out, OK, how have those forces shaped me and how are they manifested in my life and my relationship. That’s a very different question. That’s a question of how rather than if I’ve been impacted.

Over the next several days, my co-authors will share posts that have practical resources and ideas to help all of us take this on. This work is a process and a continuum, a marathon and not a sprint. But definitely one that needs us to take first steps. As we think about our implicit biases, maybe the most important thing is that we increase our awareness and act from a place of humility and reflection– with a willingness to take a look at parts of our belief systems and behaviors that are uncomfortable, at best. When we know better, we do better. And isn’t that the goal?

Websites to explore:

Teaching Tolerance

Project Implicit

The Kirwin Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity

On 2/4/19, we will host a Twitterchat that addresses this important topic. Please join us at 8:30 p.m. EST, using the #twtblog hashtag.

Feb19 Twitter Chat Image

At the end of the series, we have a special giveaway that members of the community who comment on any of our posts will be eligible to win.


  • This giveaway is for a copy of Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension. Thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book.)

  • For a chance to win this copy of Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, February 3rd at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Betsy Hubbard will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, February 4th.

  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Melanie can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Heinemann will ship the book to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)

  • If you are the winner of the book, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – BEING THE CHANGE. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

9 thoughts on “Thinking About Implicit Bias: Teaching Writing With a Social Justice Lens

  1. Looking forward to all the posts in this series! Thank you for all the great links and resources. I had never heard of Project Implicit. I’m eager to check it out!


  2. Such a powerful post. I have been arguing for years at my daughters’ school against the “father/daughter dance” and “mother/son” movie night. I’ll definitely be sharing some of this material at PTA meetings. Thank you!


  3. I really appreciate Jessica Lifshitz post, they are little things that can easily be changed in a classroom and so meaningful for students. This is a great reminder to be conscious of all our students individuality when planning.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love this series! It is so important that we confront our own implicit bias first and then figure out how we can make our teaching/ curriculum more inclusive! I look forward to this! Thank you!


  5. So many dimensions to consider in your post and more as the series continues. This is critical . . . “This work is a process and a continuum, a marathon and not a sprint. But definitely one that needs us to take first steps.” Time for everyone to get moving! Complacency is an issue!

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.