Center for the Collaborative Classroom and Not In Our Town Identity Safety Series

This Five-Part Blog Series provides an overview of all components of identity safety

In Spring, 2015, The Center for the Collaborative Classroom partnered with Not In Our Town and invited Becki Cohn-Vargas and Dorothy Steele to present a webinar followed by a five-part series on identity safety. 

BLOG 1:Introduction to Identity Safe Teaching Practices

(reprinted from CCC website)

Submitted by Becki Cohn-Vargas on Mon, 04/20/2015 - 4:07pm

The goal of most American teachers is to successfully educate all students, but too many black and Latino students underperform academically and fail to meet their potential. Educating all students well is not only important for the students themselves, but for our nation as a whole. We cannot have a just and democratic society without fully educated citizens.

Among the many remedies for student underperformance, we find didactic teaching aimed at skill remediation and zero-tolerance policies. These remedies have not worked. Disproportionate numbers of low-income students and students of color are pushed out of school and fail to graduate. Our work on identity safe teaching shifts our focus from the deficits of students to an examination of what we do in classrooms that helps them succeed socially and academically.

Identity safe classrooms are those in which teachers strive to ensure that students feel that their social identity is an asset rather than a barrier to success in the classroom, and that they are welcomed, supported, and valued whatever their background.

Our work evolved from the body of research on “stereotype threat” done by Claude Steele and colleagues. They wanted to understand why black college students had lower grade point averages than white students with the same ACT scores—at every level. Stereotype threat theory states that people from negatively stereotyped groups may fear, in situations that are relevant to them, that they might “be judged or treated in terms of the stereotype or that [they] might do something that would inadvertently confirm it” (Steele, Spencer & Aronson 2002, p. 389).

Literally hundreds of studies have demonstrated the power of stereotypes to depress human performance. For example, black students performed less well than white students on an intelligence test when it was described as a test of ability. But when the same test was called a game, they did as well as the white students. Studies of women taking math tests had similar results.

In another set of studies, white athletes did better than their black teammates when the task was described as one based on “sports intelligence.” By contrast, the black students performed better than the white athletes when it was described as a “test of natural athletic ability.” (

Our research, the “Stanford Integrated Schools Project” on identity safe teaching practices, explores how to lift the threat to improve success in elementary classrooms. How can teachers reduce the sense of stereotype threat for students whose social identities (race, gender, ethnicity) link them to low school outcomes? Our question: Are there ways to incorporate social and academic practices so students from all backgrounds feel a sense of belonging and purpose in the classroom, so they can fully engage in learning?

Our researchers observed in 84 classrooms to document the arrangement of students and materials, the nature of their relationships, the types of questions directed toward students, the presence or absence of cooperative learning activities, the level of student autonomy, and the teachers’ approaches to dealing with misbehavior. We looked for evidence of the use of diverse materials and activities as a resource for teaching, rather than a more color-blind approach that ignores student differences. We discovered a link between identity safe teaching and enhanced student performance. We found:

  • Students in higher identity safe classrooms had higher scores on standardized tests than students in lower identity safe classrooms.
  • The Student Questionnaire revealed that students from higher identity safe classrooms had an increased liking for school and motivation to learn, liked challenging work, and felt a sense of belonging compared to students from less identity safe classrooms.

This approach is based on the assumption that teaching and learning are social processes that depend on building trusting, positive relationships between teachers and students and among the students—no matter what their social identities.

Social identities are attributes in each of us—whether we are white or black, young or old, rich or poor, gay or straight, Methodist or Muslim, etc. Everyone has multiple social identities. Sometimes, because of our racialized American history, some social identities are linked to school success and others are not. In identity safe classrooms, student diversity becomes a resource for learning.

Identity safe teaching is in stark contrast to schools whose curriculum is high on remediation and low on inspiration, and whose discipline is punitive and based on heavy-handed control that does not promote compassion, responsibility, and problem-solving.

By contrast, identity safe teaching focuses on how what we do affects students’ experience in the classroom. From our research, we learned there is a constellation of things teachers can do that change life in the classroom so that students achieve at higher levels and improve their liking for school, their willingness to work hard, and their feeling of belonging in school. The components of identity safety fall into four major categories: child-centered teaching, cultivating diversity as a resource, classroom relationships, and caring environments. How to put the components into practice is the topic of the next four blog posts in our series.


The components of identity safety are:

  1. Child-centered teaching: promotes autonomy, cooperation, and student voice.
  2. Cultivating diversity as a resource: teachers provide challenging curriculum and high expectations for all students in the context of the regular and authentic use of diverse materials, ideas, and teaching activities.
  3. Classroom relationships: relationships are based on trusting, positive interactions with the teacher and among the students.
  4. Caring classroom environments: social skills are taught and practiced to help students care for one another in an emotionally and physically safe classroom.


Blog 2: identity Safe Classrooms, Child-Centered Teaching

Submitted by Dorothy M. Steele on Mon, 04/27/2015 - 12:00am

Child-centered teaching prioritizes the students’ perspectives in all classroom activities and interactions. We met one teacher who used a literal change of perspective to get in a child-centered frame of mind: Each morning before the kids came in, she would sit in the chair of a different student and look around the classroom, imagining what would it feel like to be that student.

In child-centered classrooms, teachers pay attention to their students to ensure that students can make their own meaning from the lessons and from their interactions with others. In addition, teachers foster both autonomy and cooperation among students. To better understand this process, let’s take these identity safety components apart and then put them back together.

  • Listening for Student Voices: Ensure that each student can contribute to and shape classroom life. This means helping students learn to express themselves and find their unique voices. Students get to present and support their ideas and listen to others. This also means that you should pay attention to your students beyond what they are actually saying. Who seems sad today? Who is acting out and might need more time from the teacher? One teacher keeps track of her students’ feelings by taking the “status of the class.” In response to the question “What’s your status?” students raise fingers from 1 (very sad) to 10 (very happy). She also gives one or two students a chance to explain. They might say “I am happy because my grandmother is coming to visit” or “I am sad because my turtle died.” In seconds, the teacher can gauge the general mood and find out if anyone needs special attention.
  • Teaching for Understanding: Ensure that students will acquire new knowledge and incorporate it into what they already know. By using strategies that involve questioning, analyzing, and drawing conclusions, students make their own meaning and learn to think for themselves. By incorporating activities that draw on their creativity and imagination, students can take a concept and make it their own. When teachers pay attention to whether students understand what they are learning, they can adjust their teaching to clarify and extend the lesson so all students will succeed.
  • Classroom Autonomy: Promote responsibility and belonging in each student. By giving students opportunities to choose, they learn to make their own decisions, and don’t depend solely on the teacher for answers to their questions, or to get the materials or information needed to complete an activity. One teacher had all students set goals for themselves at the beginning of the year. They wrote one academic goal (“I want to be a better writer”) and one social goal (“I want to be helpful”). During the year, students assessed how they were progressing toward their goals. At the end of the school year, they looked at how they had attained their goals. By reflecting along the way, the students all saw progress, and by the end of the year they realized how, by setting a goal, they could really achieve it.
  • Focus on Cooperation: De-emphasize competition, so students learn from and help others. This happens not only during a specific lesson, but throughout the day. Learning to cooperate is one of the most important life skills we can foster in our students. They need opportunities to cooperate in solving problems outside the classroom, as well as during instructional time. One teacher always had the class identify both a social and an academic goal for each lesson. After the lesson, groups shared how well they felt they met their goal. For example, in one class, groups were working on a math word problem that involved averaging. Their academic goal was to use their knowledge of averaging to solve the problem. The students discussed their social goal and decided they needed to work on how to give each person a chance to contribute to a cooperative activity. After the lesson, each group shared their experiences by answering two questions: (1) How did we solve the math problem? and (2) How did we work together to ensure each of us had a chance to participate?

The challenge of creating identity safe, child-centered classrooms is in bringing all of these elements together. Listening for student voices, teaching for understanding, giving students autonomy, and promoting cooperation can all come together in literacy instruction. In one example, as part of their reading program, students worked with a partner to read and write a review of a book and make their own “Goodreads” website. In that one activity, they were working on comprehension and higher-level thinking as they considered their own ideas and interests. This process gave them the chance to learn to work together and agree and disagree respectfully, as they had to bring their ideas together in one review. The Making Meaning program has an array of similar activities that bring together these elements of a child-centered classroom.

In an identity safe classroom, teachers realize that academic learning is dependent on students having an authentic sense of belonging and well-being. Child-centered teaching strategies are not difficult, but the art is to weave them together across the school day. And the payoff is interested, engaged kids who are learning and feeling connected to each other all day long.

BloG 3:Identity Safe Classrooms, Cultivating Diversity as a Resource

Submitted by Becki Cohn-Vargas on Mon, 05/04/2015 - 12:00am

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Many teachers believe that the best way to live Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream is to be colorblind, to ignore the differences among children. And yet, Dr. King did not really intend to make differences disappear.

When teachers ignore differences in an attempt to be colorblind, classrooms are not identity safe. Students from negatively stereotyped groups can feel stereotype threat—a sense of not belonging, or not being seen as capable. These students may worry that they will be judged or treated according to a negative stereotype, or that they might do something to inadvertently confirm it.

In contrast, in identity safe classrooms, teachers aim to include and honor each student’s background in the curriculum, activities, and classroom environment. By cultivating diversity as a resource, everyone is encouraged to fully participate in a challenging curriculum, while sharing responsibility for the classroom. High expectations for all are expressed in the context of regular and authentic use of diverse materials, ideas, and teaching activities. Students who are struggling to meet the high expectations are provided with additional support and encouragement by the teacher so they can persist in their efforts.

Here are the components of cultivating diversity as a resource for teaching:

  • Using diversity as a resource for teaching means that teachers should involve the curiosity and knowledge of all students in the classroom. Teachers do not need a specialized curriculum to meet the needs of all students. Instead, they continually ask students to share from their lives and backgrounds. In this way, they also break down stereotypes of each other’s cultures. For example, one teacher invited students to bring music to play during writing. At first, they only brought popular American tunes. So she brought in music from India, where she was born. Then a Mexican student brought ranchero music, and a Nicaraguan student brought marimba music. Then the teacher shared some salsa to show the students other types of music from Latin America. Sharing this music from different countries gave students the chance to enjoy and appreciate the similarities and differences in the music with their classmates in a positive, curious context.
  • Using diversity as a resource also means learning the hard lessons of history and having difficult conversations about the effects of bigotry, always at the students’ developmentally appropriate level. For current events, one fourth-grade Latina brought in an article about a rogue video game where players hunted for “illegal aliens.” The teacher, while mortified, did not shy away from this painful topic. She held a discussion, acknowledging the reality of racism and breaking down the negative stereotypes. The teacher emphasized compassion by attending to feelings that resulted from the distressing article. She reminded students that some of their teasing and games, although less cruel, also hurt their peers.
  • Teachers should support each student in high-level learning with high expectations and academic rigor. Too often, teachers believe that hanging up pictures of people from diverse backgrounds and providing a few books reflecting diverse cultures is all that it takes to cultivate diversity as a resource. But when some students are provided with curricula focused only on remediation of skills, it tells all students that some of them are capable and others are not. Even students who are not strong readers or writers have important ideas that need to be shared and cultivated, so they can develop their conceptual understanding of the world and find their place in it.
  • A challenging curriculum motivates each student by providing meaningful, purposeful learning. As part of the era of “No Child Left Behind,” many schools focused on preparing students for standardized tests. The arts, science, and creativity were often sacrificed. For students who were below grade level, rote learning and a checklist of standards left them bored and more likely to misbehave. In contrast, a challenging curriculum is vibrant. Teachers motivate students to become engaged through inquiry learning, project-based curricula, and open-ended activities that link to their lives. The class becomes a safe place for thinking, where zany ideas are encouraged and all voices are heard. Instruction can be differentiated to accommodate a range of academic levels while everyone is exposed to activities to do together. Students must analyze and synthesize what they are learning, compare and contrast, and explain their thinking to others in an atmosphere of intellectual excitement. It is not possible to have an identity safe classroom when some students are assigned only remedial, skill-focused work, while others are involved in meaningful, challenging work that relates to their own lives.

In identity safe classrooms, cultivating diversity as a resource is a way of life that creates equal status for all children. This approach allows them to get to know each other, show respect and caring for others, and build from their own experiences and backgrounds. By intentionally not being colorblind, teachers create conditions where students see themselves reflected in every aspect of their classroom. They feel capable of handling rigor and challenges because they belong and are supported in their efforts.

Blog 4: Identity Safe Classrooms, Classroom Relationships

Submitted by Dorothy M. Steele on Mon, 05/11/2015 - 12:00am

Positive classroom relationships are the foundation of an identity safe classroom. You cannot create a sense of identity safety without a continuous focus on how the students are feeling and treating one another. Positive classroom relationships are based on trusting, positive interactions with the teacher and among the students.

Think about all the teachers you had in school. What jumps out? My co-author, Becki Cohn-Vargas, immediately remembered Mr. J., a creative writing teacher who nurtured her as a writer. She also remembered Miss K., who wrote in her journal (one she still has to this day—50 years later) I can’t wait to see you in print. But she also remembers Ms. H., who humiliated her in front of her entire sixth-grade class. Trust gets built through many micro-interactions that build over time. It is the feeling a student has that “my teacher believes I can do this and will stand by me as I work to get there.”

Building positive classroom relationships involves two identity safety components: teacher warmth and availability to support learning, and positive student relationships.

The component of teacher warmth and availability to support learning connects the academic and social aspects of teaching. When teachers show their students warmth and personal connection, students feel their teacher knows and appreciates them and their efforts as students. They know they “can do it!”


Teachers demonstrate their availability to support student learning when they are sincerely engaged in the academic work themselves, are responsive to student needs, and encourage students to seek help when they need it. This shows the students that learning is a process of effort, practice, revision, and support from others. The focus in the classroom is not just on getting the right answer, but on fully engaging in the process of learning.

A few simple things make a lot of difference to students:

  • Use words thoughtfully. For example, even when you need to give students difficult feedback, make sure you understand what they were doing, and be encouraging as you ask them to rethink and revise their work.
  • Send a positive call, note, or e-mail home. One parent remembers clearly the teacher who said, “I am so happy to have your son in my class, he has such an inquisitive mind and contributes so much.” That teacher did not know how much it meant to that parent, whose son was having trouble in school at the time.
  • Connect with each student daily. Find the unique ways that each child contributes, and give them more opportunities to do so.
  • Turn mistakes into learning opportunities. One math teacher would have the kids analyze their mistakes. When she asked them to share what they discovered, all their hands shot up. Mistakes were safe to make in that classroom.
  • Learn and teach your students a few words in the language of each English Language Learner in the class. Giving students opportunities to share their home language lets them know they matter to you.
  • Monitor and support student engagement. By regular observation, you may realize that one student needs extra time to finish her work. Or, you may ask one student to help another so both of them will improve their understanding of the task. Always try to give negative feedback privately.

The next identity safety component, positive student relationships, builds interpersonal understanding and caring among students. The environment should be focused on empathy and free of bullying. Extend your involvement beyond the classroom door. What is happening on the schoolyard or on the way to and from school? And who is included and who is left out of birthday parties and playdates?

  • Create norms for the classroom that address not only behavior, but also respect and empathy. Help students learn to understand their own feelings. Perspective-taking activities help students consider how others feel.
  • Pay attention to how students interact with each other. Who is dominating? Who is left out? Teachers can be very intentional about grouping students. First, teach students how to work together by practicing with simple group activities. Then, give them opportunities to work together in pairs and small groups on a regular basis, mixing up the groups and watching how they work together.
  • Help create a sense of belonging inside and outside the classroom. For example, watch the students at recess. What are they doing? Is a boy off by himself, or is a girl sitting alone at lunch? Discuss with the students ways to be inclusive in their games. One after-school coordinator in a school with mostly Latino students noticed that the students were telling white and black children that “only Mexicans could play soccer.” She made a point to have a discussion with all the students about how the field and games were for everybody. They worked together to come up with ways that all students could play.

Helping students build positive relationships with you as their teacher and with their peers not only creates a sense of belonging and identity safety, but also gives them lifelong skills that will help them with their families, friends, and future careers.

Blog 5: Identity Safe Classrooms,Caring Classroom Environments

Submitted by Becki Cohn-Vargas on Thu, 05/28/2015 - 12:00am

The final domain of identity safety is caring classroom environments, where social skills are taught and practiced to help students care for one another in the context of an emotionally and physically safe classroom. This post about caring classroom environments is the final entry in our series, because the classroom and school environment is where all aspects of identity safety play out.

Components of Caring Classroom Environments

Teacher skill is the capacity to establish an orderly, purposeful classroom that facilitates student learning. All the components of identity safety will not be effective without the use of effective teaching strategies and a well-managed classroom. A chaotic environment is unsafe because students do not know what to expect. Inconsistent discipline strategies feel unfair. Teacher skill includes well-planned lessons that promote student engagement, procedures for classroom routines, and smooth transitions.

Emotional and physical comfort is crucial, so that each student feels safe and attached to school and to other students. It can only happen in an environment of safety. It does not happen when students feel afraid. I still remember cringing as a first-grader walking down the enormous school hallway when I heard the assistant principal yelling down at another child, If you ever use that bad language again, I will wash your mouth out with soap! I cowered; although I myself had never used bad language, just hearing that terrified me.

Emotional and physical comfort can be achieved in many ways. Teachers can set up the classroom to enable each child to have his or her own personal space, allowing them to keep their work with them and to keep their desk neat. The walls can reflect the students’ lives and backgrounds, with pictures of people that look like them. All students can see their classwork posted on the wall, not just top achievers.

Teachers can show students that they value fairness and explicitly explain how they do that. One teacher had a slogan on the wall: “Equal, but Different.” She created activities to get that message across, including having the students do an activity called “Draw a Monster.” She told the students not to look at each other’s papers as she gave very specific instructions: “Draw a round head with two pointy ears, a long nose…” When the students finished they looked at each other’s papers and laughed as they saw how different each one was, proving the teacher’s point.

Another teacher taught students about the different learning modalities. She let them know that we each have modalities where we do well and others we continue to develop. The students considered their own strengths and made rainbows with their different learning modalities highlighted in different colors. Each rainbow was in beautiful colors, but each one was different.

Attention to prosocial development incorporates social and emotional learning (SEL) into all aspects of daily life, teaching students how to live with one another, feel empathy for one another, and solve problems with respect and caring for others. However, attention to prosocial development goes beyond teaching social and emotional skills. It means creating a classroom environment that continuously addresses students’ prosocial learning and needs in the context of developmentally appropriate teaching.

As we mentioned earlier, cooperative learning does not only happen during group time, nor does SEL skill development happen only during specific lessons. It happens all day long. One teacher began every day with a quick status check. She would call out, “Status of the class,” and everyone would raise their fingers to indicate how they felt, with ten fingers being great, and one being not very good. In a short moment, she could tell the general mood and determine who needed a bit of special TLC. When teaching students how to do the activity, she let them know their feelings mattered and would impact how they felt in school. And they knew she cared.

Attention to prosocial development is also woven into the curriculum. Literature, writing, and current events can all be linked to meaningful explorations of prosocial values, including empathy, perspective-taking, and treating one another kindly.

Class discussions can be places where students learn to listen to each other’s ideas and disagree respectfully. Class meetings and restorative circles are also places to both prevent and solve problems, where harm can be avoided and repaired through compassion and attentive listening.

Identity Safe Teaching Is Like Weaving a Tapestry

Putting the pieces of identity safety together is like creating a tapestry. Each of the components of identity safety can be seen as a thread; joined together, these threads create a holistic sense of identity safety for each child. As we have shown in this series, this process is at once simple, with many familiar strategies, and complex in the process of weaving all the strategies together. We have found that teachers often feel validated to find that many strategies they are already using work to help create identity safety. Weaving this tapestry by intentionally reflecting on practice may be harder than it seems, but it is definitely worth the effort.