Getting honest about ​teaching Role Models​

At the end of the school year, there were some weeks left that I used to talk about role models. The inspiration for this mini-unit came from the music clip “Apesh*t” by Beyonce and Jay-Z in which the couple refers to the representation of black people in art. The mini unit initiated some tough conversations about power and privilege in the class, which taught me valuable lessons. The foundation of this mini-unit were worksheets based on the video in combination with background readings and the IB learner profile attributes.

The music video of the song Apesh*t was shot in the museum Louvre in Paris. Beyoncé and Jay-Z used their platform to critically analyze a public space like the Louvre, as on most paintings black people are misrepresented as merely servants or enslaved. When I watched the video, I knew I wanted to use it for a unit, because -besides the fact that I am a lifelong Beyoncé fan- the video addressed the important topic of role models and heroes. I believe very much that it is important to offer students a wide variety of role models and heroes; someone they they can look up to or aspire to be. However, Banks warned for the risk that heroes and role models are merely used as “addons” to the standard curriculum (2010). According to Banks (2010), heroes and role models are often celebrated without taking into consideration the broader social context in which these people became heroes and how they had to work to get their status. Therefore, the focus should be on the process by which individuals became celebrated figures. This is crucial, according to Banks (2010), because “only when students learn the process by which individuals become heroes/heroines will they understand fully how individuals, particular individuals of color, achieve and maintain hero/heroine statues and what the process of achieving this status means for their own lives” (p.239). I took this observation to heart and created, based on the music video, a critical unit about who gets to be a role model due to societal standards. At the end , students chose their own role model from underrepresented social groups, who would be celebrated by us in the form of a portrait.

The unit was taught at an IB world school, hence the IB learner profile attributes played an important part. The IB learner attributes are qualities or characteristics of students attending an IB school. These attributes should develop students in responsible and critical world citizens, therefore the attributes are a great element for each unit. During the first lesson, we used the IB learner profile attributes to brainstorm about which ones are the most important for role models, and more specifically about the meaning of a role model.

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Overview IB Learner profile attributes

Next lesson, students read stories about people nominated as nextgeneration leader by the Magazine Time. Every year Time magazine publishes a list with next-generation leaders. The students worked in expert groups when reading designated stories to identify the reasons why these people can be considered role models and which IB learner attributes would fit the best.

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Cooperative learning: Expert Method

Thereafter, we started talking about the music video from Beyonce and Jay-Z. This lesson was taught in a European context, therefore the focus of the critical analysis is limited to messages about European issues like colonialism, marginalization, and underrepresentation. Therefore, this assignment ignored the references to police violence and “take a knee” actions.  The worksheets were the basis of whole-class discussions and group conversations.

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Background information was a part of the worksheets

Once we started working on this mini-unit, I realized that there was not enough time to examine all the different layers included in the video and the assignments about unrepresented role models. The students did not have enough background information about colonization, trans-Atlantic slavery and consequently marginalization, to fully understand the message of the video. Therefore, the whole-class discussions about representation and power were problematic. The students did not comprehend what the effect could be of lack of representation or skewed image of a particular group in society.

Lessons that I took from this unit:

  • I need to check beforehand if the students are familiar with assumed and required knowledge about colonization and the effect of that on the present.
  • Furthermore, I learned that students express frustration when they do not necessarily agree with the topic or feel uncomfortable with the content. Topics about marginalization, power and whiteness are sensitive and not often talked about in European classrooms/spaces. The expression of frustration or disagreement is a step in changing or challenging an established way of thinking about the world. The whole-class discussions were a struggle from time to time, nevertheless this should not be a reason not conduct such conversations.
  • I, however, should think of ways in which these conversations are more productive and less pushing against the self-defense of white students. A blog post, about whole-class discussions dealing with power and privilege, gave me great insights into the importance of preparing such whole-class discussion by letting students write down their opinions and conduct discussions based on these written statements.

At the end of the unit, the class chose three role models from underrepresented groups in society who deserved a portrait. The three role models were examined based on their achievements and IB learner profile characteristics. These investigations provided inspiration for the words that described the role models, as the portraits existed of words only. The creation of the portraits was a relaxing end of year activity, which produced three wonderful portraits of Donald Glover, Malala, and Tim Cook.

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Portraits of three role models
  • Banks, J.A., (2010). Approaches to Multicultural Curriculum Reform. In J.A. Banks & C.A. McGee Banks (Eds.), Multicultural Educations Issues and Perspectives (7th ed., pp. 233 -254). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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