When teaching geography (and every subject) we need diverse voices. We need to push back against dominant narratives that amplify some perspectives (usually of those in power) and erase or ignore others. With this in mind, my co-teacher and I created a new activity to shed light on who we focus on and where they tend to be from. We hoped to encourage students to think about the fact that they mostly learn about North Americans and Europeans, even though there are so many other continents out there (And the majority of the world’s population is Asian. Our third-graders find this fact incredible!)
In the process of teaching (and learning) geography in our third-grade classroom, we found that our students were very North America- and Europe-centric. While eight-year-olds are naturally egocentric, we wanted an activity to shift their perspectives and push them to realize that there are “real, important people” ALL OVER the world.
So we redesigned our beloved activity where we draw people to realize our internalized biases. We originally wrote the activity for 5th graders, but have used with adults as well. This year, we made it more geography-focused and 3rd-grade-appropriate. While we were focused on introducing inspiring (and unexpected) people from different continents, we also thought we might uncover some gender and racial biases along the way.
We have been learning about world geography, starting with the seven continents and five oceans, since the first week of school. We started with the continents and learning about the differences between a continent, country, state, and city in order to make sure that our students could be clear and accurate.
For this activity, we refreshed our memories by sharing some information about each continent as a whole group. Then, we had students work independently on what we called a puzzle. We gave them a handout with five descriptions of humans, a space to draw each human, and a line to write what continent they thought each human was from. We also gave them a bag of crayons to draw with. We’ve discovered that asking people to draw with crayons means they have to choose a color for their humans and often surprise themselves with the assumptions they make.
We read each description out loud and asked students to follow along on their paper. Then, we gave them two minutes to draw a person. We told them to draw “whomever you imagine in your head when you hear the description.” The descriptions lacked gender-specific pronouns or any clues to age, race, or background. After they finished drawing, we told them to write an answer to the question, “What continent do you think this person is from?”
Some students happily drew whatever they imagined, including props, speech bubbles, and detailed accessories. Others were more hesitant and expressed concern about getting the answer wrong. In general, students found assigning a continent to a description of a person easier than drawing the person, as they could copy down one of the seven continents so their choices were more concrete.
Revealing the Answers
In typical third grade fashion, some students were disappointed that they didn’t guess all of the continents correctly when we revealed the actual humans we had been describing at the end (and what continent and country they were from). But our students were also fascinated by hearing about new (and very inspiring) people, so they quickly moved on and realized that learning, thinking, and understanding were far more important than getting “the right answer.” They also loved hearing what country each person was from.
We chose one person from Asia, Africa, South America, Europe, and Australia. Multiple students identified the person we described from Asia—Malala Yousafzai—from our description of her and wrote her name down next to their drawing of her. However, when we read our description of Sadiq Khan, which included the fact that he is a practicing Muslim, no one guessed that he was from Europe.
The person we described from South America was Michelle Bachelet (the current and first female president of Chile), which confused some of our students because we mentioned that she is the president of her country. One student asked how that was possible because there have only been boy presidents? We reminded her that this is true in the United States, but not in many other countries.
Many students were surprised that the Nobel Peace Prize-winning scientist who studied at three different universities (Wangari Maathai) was an African woman. Many students also thought most of the people were from North America or Europe (except for the person who is actually from Europe!) We had one female student who drew only women, and one male student who drew only men. Another student drew androgynous people because she said she couldn’t tell from the descriptions and she didn’t want to make assumptions.
Debrief and Reflections
After we revealed the identities of each person described and discussed our reactions, questions, and comments about each person, we asked students to complete one or more of the following prompts.
While doing this activity…
I was surprised by..
I used to think… , but now I’m thinking …
Students shared out at the end, and had thoughtful reflections (see quotes from students’ reflections below). We love that they are embracing studying geography in a humanizing way and challenging the assumptions or stereotypes that they may have learned from Western-centric media in the past.
“I thought I would be right, but all of my answers were wrong, but I realized it was okay and they didn’t all have to be right.”
“I felt uncomfortable because I didn’t want to get it wrong or offend anyone, but then I realized [after our discussion] that we make assumptions about people whenever we meet someone new.”
“One thing I learned was some things that some people do different things and they are actually really important, but aren’t always recognized because we learn mostly about North Americans.”
“I learned don’t judge people by what they look like or by first impressions.”
Originally published at teachpluralism.squarespace.com on November 13, 2017.
What is Teach Pluralism? First and foremost we are educators, and we love what we do! We are constantly trying to push ourselves, our students, and conversations about education to be as socially just as possible. Find us at Teach Pluralism, and on Twitter @teachpluralism.