How are people of color portrayed in the media? A teacher decided to empower her sixth graders to take a look

March 2, 2016

LaNette Sims teaches 6th grade social studies at Spencer Elementary Technology Academy on Chicago’s West Side. In this conversation with Outreach Director Adam Marshand, LaNette shares how she is brought the themes of racial justice and equity to her sixth grade Social Studies students during Black History Month.

Adam Marshand (AM): What was the inspiration for how are you weaving the themes of Black History Month into your classroom instruction this year?

LaNette Sims (LS): We begin every school day the same way. My students watch a popular news program for middle and high school students. The stories vary from day to day, covering current events and stories that impact young people. One day in January, there was a feature on black teenagers in need of assistance and how white people were coming to save them. That day, I decided I had to act. It would be irresponsible of me as an African-American educator to expose my students to this narrative and not address it. As a Social Studies teacher, it is my duty to talk about race and class with my students.

AM: How are you addressing this narrative with students?

LS: I knew turning off the TV or getting on a soapbox would not be the best way to get through to my students. Rather than telling them what to think, I wanted to empower my students to take a more critical look at how people of color are portrayed in the media. So last month I began having my students collect data on the subject. My students took a look at what types of stories were being featured, how people of color, women, and white men were being portrayed. They documented whether the stories are positive or negative, and if people were being portrayed as victims or helpers.

AM: What are your students going to do once they finish collecting this data?

LS: Their month-long data collection project culminated with them analyzing the data, and using that evidence to write letters to the creators of the news program. Students also captured how they felt while watching the stories, whether they think the news program provides fair reporting, and what fair reporting should look like. They identified some key takeaways from this project. Topics like gun violence, education and race were often negative stories, while positive stories disproportionately featured white males and technology. When stories depicted people of color positively, they still often included negative verbiage, and rarely discussed the root of the problem or suggested that there were solutions.

AM: What do you want your students to walk away with at the end of this project?

LS: I want them to know, even if the media around them shows minorities in need of assistance day in and day out, this is not the norm. I want my students to grow into well-informed citizens who understand themselves in spite of how they may be portrayed. And ultimately, I don’t want them to leave with my opinion. I want them to critically analyze and form their own opinions on the issues that impact their lives, to understand other perspectives, and how other people think of them. That’s what I work towards everyday for my students.

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