From our vantage point, the exploration of topics of equity and social justice is often approached from a distant, hypothetical "objective" point of view — something to read about, to discuss, to observe, but rarely felt. Because of this, we designed the opening of the session so that the approximately 40 participants could feel the effects of having to hide, cover, or censor what they said. We instructed participants to think about the most important person in their lives and to write in detail about an event that captured why that person was so important to them. Once participants finished writing, they were instructed to get into pairs with one person assigned the role of storyteller and one person assigned the role of listener.
We told the storytellers that they had five minutes to tell their partner, without the use of their notes, about the person and the event they wrote about. The storyteller could make no mention of pronouns, proper names, or any other markers that would indicate the gender of the person in the story.
As storytellers began to tell their stories, we watched as a few began to avoid eye contact or lower their eyes as they struggled to find words to tell their story. Others sat with arms crossed, in a pose that suggested heavy thinking. A few others simply stopped speaking all together. Watching this happen reminded us of how we must have looked to our high school students when, early in our career, they would inquire about the simplest of topics such as, "Are you married?" or during a class session asked, "What did you do over the weekend?"
At the conclusion of the activity, we posted two questions on the overhead for partners to discuss. The first asked them to share about their individual experience with the activity. The second instructed them to talk about what the experience caused them to think about. When we opened for a large discussion many of the storytellers shared how frustrating the activity was for them. They reported the difficulty they experienced filtering their language, thinking through each word before it was spoken, understanding how the altered language changed the meaning and intention of their story, and ultimately managing their anxiety to share a brief story. As one colleague said, "I learned more about the difficulty people face just to be who they are." Another person shared, "I learned how important language is."
We reminded our colleagues that the activity might have felt frustrating, but as the British teacher Clare Sullivan has written, "Psychologically there is a world of difference between choosing not to tell your colleagues, and being worried they will find out." For that reason we hoped that our workshop would offer ideas, support, and resources for their own classrooms.