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Diversity, not divisiveness: Liza Talusan leads a workshop about identity-conscious education

Leighah Beausoleil / THE GATEPOST

By Raena Doty

Asst. Arts & Features Editor

Educators and future educators of FSU came together in the McCarthy Center Forum on March 21 to participate in a workshop about being an identity-conscious educator, led by Liza Talusan.

Talusan is a professor at UMass Boston who teaches courses about leadership, equity, and justice. The workshop itself took its name from her book, “The Identity-Conscious Educator: Building Habits and Skills for a More Inclusive School.”

She started the workshop by discussing three different skills attendees needed to develop to be an identity-conscious educator - to build knowledge, to engage in reflection, and to move to action.

She added she would aid educators in moving to action by providing three strategies that could be implemented into the classroom as soon as the next day - critical check-ins, building an identity-conscious practice, and identifying what she refers to as “windows and mirrors.”

Talusan started with critical check-ins, saying she usually does critical check-ins at the start of anything she teaches or leads, whether it’s one of her classes or - as in this case - a workshop she was leading.

Critical check-ins do three things, she said. First, they transition the space to an educational area, allowing students and teachers alike to “calm down and get centered.”

Second, she said the critical-checks allow people “to put the content on the table,” which she described as laying out the plan for the meeting, class, or workshop before actually getting into any of the content.

Third, she said they allow people to build habits and skills out of the conversation involved in talking about this work.

Talusan then did a critical check-in with the group, asking everyone who attended to rate themselves on a scale of one to 10, one being the least and 10 being the most:

“How present are you for what’s happening here?”

“How committed are you to creating a more inclusive community?”

“Where does building skills - like, really working to create a more inclusive community - fall in terms of your priorities?”

“How much time do you have to commit to [diversity, equity, and inclusion] work?”

“How much energy do you have for this?” and “How often do you talk about identity?”

After participants rated themselves, Talusan asked them to reflect on why they gave that rating and what could be done to help them achieve a higher rating.

“I want you to take a second and think about, ‘OK, if I were going to move to action … and increase my number just a little bit … what would I need?’ … What would you need to move one number higher?” she asked.

Talusan said the type of critical check-in she demonstrated could be implemented into a classroom as much as it could be implemented into a workshop, and it’s a very practical tool for helping students work effectively in the classroom.

She warned against asking people how they feel if they don’t want an honest answer, though.

“I always ask my students, ‘How present are you?’” she said. “I’m always a 10. I’m always so present for this type of work. And so, if I’m going to ask them and they say ‘two,’ I have to be willing to hear ‘two,’ right?

“When I say to my students, ‘I don’t need you to be a 10,’ in the beginning, they’re really shocked. Like, ‘What? I was always told I was supposed to show up a particular way, and to be serious meant that I was always this,’ and I’m like, all right, that’s fine that you were told that, but what’s the reality?” she asked.

She said sometimes getting someone “one number higher” can be as simple as allowing students to eat snacks in class to get their energies up, and sometimes it’s a much larger problem that no individual person can solve, but allowing people to check in can create a more adaptable classroom that actually fits with the needs of the students.

Talusan added this approach can be adapted for students of many different ages by using, for example, simpler terminology or fewer numbers.

“We’re building the skills for reflection and the habits of conversation,” she said.

She moved on to discussing what it means to be an “identity-conscious educator,” highlighting how important it is to have these conversations about identity even when you don’t know much.

“Oftentimes, people are waiting for it to be perfect. ‘I have to wait to talk about identity until I know it well,’” she said, but added discussions around identity will not look pretty when someone first starts participating in them.

She said many people will quit conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as soon as it gets difficult.

“Understand it’s a little bit messy, but messy doesn’t mean it has to be divisive,” Talusan said.

She said students of any age can start talking about DEI in age-appropriate terms. In fact, she said many children are naturally curious and ask questions about diversity that get shut down by adults who don’t want to engage in those conversations.

“How do we help children develop the habits and skills [for identity-consciousness]? It’s not by ignoring it - it’s by engaging in this conversation, about being with them, helping them to build healthy habits,” Talusan said.

“Identity-conscious practice is simply this process of realizing that who we are informs and impacts how we act and interact and see the world around us,” she said.

Talusan said many people try to pretend they don’t see identity, which she identified as what many people call an “identity-blind approach.” She said she prefers the term “identity-avoidant” because her daughter is visually impaired and believes the association with blindness is ableist.

She said identity-avoidant approaches to teaching are more beneficial to the educator than to the students.

“If we’re talking about this in the classroom, and I say, ‘Mm, mm, mm, every single one of you needs to leave your differences outside that door’ … who does that make teaching easy for? It makes it easy for me. Because then I don’t have to care about anything that makes you different,” she said.

The third “move to action” Talusan identified is a practical activity to practice in classes, called “windows and mirrors,” terminology coined by Rudine Sims Bishop, an author and literary scholar. She asked attendees of the workshop to practice with her, showing them photos and asking them to identify parts of the photos that are “windows” and parts that are “mirrors.”

Windows, she explained, are places - particularly in books and curriculum - where a student may see an introduction to a new kind of world, as though they were looking through a window. On the other hand, mirrors are places where a student feels reflected and seen.

By identifying windows and mirrors, Talusan said educators and students can be more conscious of who they are and who the people around them are, and thus more identity-conscious.

She ended by saying that diversity in the classroom should be a starting point for a healthy, informed conversation, rather than a point of contention.

“As we start to build the habits and skills for being able to be curious with each other and really leaning into [that] diversity and identity don’t have to be divisive, we can actually build collaboration and curiosity and critical thinking and understanding and community together,” Talusan said.



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