Sh*t _____ Say (fill-in-the-blank)

It may be odd, but the article I connected with the most was “Schema Theory Revisited.” Although, I must admit that I nearly gave up after the first 25 pages. However, once I got to the discussion of the classroom interactions with Deng something struck a chord for me. I’m taking a loose approach with the context of the article and my own recent classroom experience because it isn’t strictly connected to reading (my text was a video), but indulge me. The video leads up to a reading later in the unit:

The whole “Sh*t _____ Say” meme started a few years ago, with the famous twitter feed that turned into a television show. The show was cancelled last year in its first season, but as they often do, the meme lived on and has spawned a crowded field of competitors for your youtube viewing time. I became aware of this particular video as one does: I was procrastinating on a lesson plan on stereotypes because my plan for this same lesson last semester did not go well.

Last semester as I introduced the topic of stereotypes to my class of all international students, I was a bit shocked when my students unanimously voiced agreement that “Yes, all Asians are good at math.” I was saddened when the women started telling the class what bad drivers they all were. Finally, I was defeated when my Saudi students told me that “No one in Muslim countries drinks alcohol.” And that was said by a student who once posted this status update to facebook “Vodka isn’t the answer, but it makes you forget the question.”

When I saw the above video, I thought that perhaps I was going about it in the wrong way. Rather than trying to tell students about the stereotypes that Americans have about them, perhaps I should start by showing them what people in their own group say about themselves. This approach made all the difference in the world and I think it was because they had much of the cultural schema in place. I think it also helped that there was a little L1 thrown in during the video which also helped to lower their cognitive load. The conversation we had afterwards was also much more productive.

My class this semester is a mix of Chinese, Saudi, Kuwaiti, Japanese, Thai and Korean students. I showed this video to them and while everyone got some of the humor, the Arabic speakers understood all the jokes. The non-Arabic speakers had lots of questions and in their small groups the Arabic speakers walked everyone through the references, and to my surprise, they started making connections between their cultures. As the conversation turned to whether this was an accurate portrayal of young Arabic men in America, things got more complicated.

“Yes,” my students said, “everyone knows a guy like that, but I’m not like that.” This was the sort of ambiguous starting point that I was hoping to achieve in my first lesson, one that would allow us to look at the conversation from multiple angles. Why do we stereotype? One student suggested it helps people fit in to a group, but then I asked, “If that’s why we have stereotypes about our own group, why do we also have stereotypes about people who aren’t in our group?” I was delighted when he replied “Well, that tells you who doesn’t belong in your group.” That’s the beginning of a critical analysis if I’ve ever heard one.

I was lucky that this lesson happened just a few days before I read this article, because I made a connection that I’m sure my teachers had been trying to make explicit for the past two years: schema activation vs. schema building. As a new teacher, I thought that I could build schema by telling students, depositing the knowledge. Here’s a brief recap of my previous lesson plan: give the definition for stereotype, give an example of a stereotype, ask students for an example of stereotypes in their country, finally ask their opinion about stereotypes.

That approach entirely missed the point by relying on the banking notion of education that misled me to believe that I could build schema for students. In the second lesson plan, I found that students were doing the work. In connecting students to the concept by showing them an example relevant to their own experiences, then following that with asking them to explain the humor to their classmates and concluding with a discussion that focused on open-ended questions, students experienced more engagement and their answers were far more equivocal.

Now I feel like reattempting those first 25 pages to see if I can pick-up anything else that I might have failed to glean over the past four years that I’ve been kicking around the term “Schema” as though I knew what I was talking about. The one thing I’m not sure about is what step to take next. I’m open to suggestions and while you’re thinking about it, I’ll leave you with this gem. Who knows how it might inspire your teaching?


2 responses to “Sh*t _____ Say (fill-in-the-blank)

  1. I love the distinction you made between “activating” schema and “building” schema. I have often written activities into my lesson plans to “build” schema and then wondered why they weren’t as successful as I anticipated. It’s great to remember that we should not simply build schema for our students, but rather should allow their life experiences to be a teaching point in the classroom.

  2. Yes, this an excellent approach. I have to admit that I would probably do exacting what you found NOT very success – introduce the concept, give examples and ask for more examples/discussion. I do wonder about, in this particular case, trying this approach with a very diverse class where few students are in the same ethnic category, but I imagine there are other categories that can be substituted, immigrants in general, for example.

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