Led by High School Student Facilitators, RWU Teacher Candidates Reflect on Implicit Bias

Director of Partnerships and Field Experiences Kimberlee Johnsen-Smith organized a series of trainings with Providence nonprofit Diversity Talks, for future teachers and their supervisors to engage with diversity, equity and inclusion

By Julia Rubin
Participants talk in pairs.
Participants do an active listening activity, where they take turns answering a question while their partner listens without responding.

BRISTOL, R.I. - On Monday evening, a circle of education majors, faculty, and public school teachers looked up at a screen in the front of the room. The slide listed a selection of identifying labels, such as “Muslim,” “White,” “LGBTQ,” “Black,” White Man,” and “Latinx.” The participants were asked to choose only one label for themselves and write it on a name tag, which they would wear for the whole group to see. 

This was the introduction to an implicit bias training with Diversity Talks, a Providence-based nonprofit organization. The facilitators are experts on diversity, equity and inclusion issues in the classroom because they experience these issues every day. 

They are high school students from Providence and surrounding areas, fostering important dialogue for future and current teachers, with support from Diversity Talks staff members. 

“It’s always great to have students feel empowered and take ownership over improving the rapport between students and teachers. They’re taking the lead and saying, 'This is important for us,' ” said Kimberlee Johnsen-Smith, who took on the role of Director of Partnerships and Field Experiences this year.

When it came time to plan the annual collaborative training for teacher candidates and their school-based and university-based clinical educators, Johnsen-Smith saw it as an opportunity for community growth. Last September, she invited Dr. Gerald Hairston, a social justice researcher based in Connecticut, to deliver a keynote on diversity, equity and inclusion in schools. Participants found the conversation imperative for uncovering challenges with power relations in classrooms, and critical for restoring school culture in Rhode Island and beyond. 

“I wanted to also offer a space to begin conversations around supporting all students, particularly those from underrepresented groups,” Johnsen-Smith said. 

The workshop was planned in a three-round series in small groups, to ensure an intimate space for personal stories, inquiries and interactions, Johnsen-Smith said. The goal was to explore how implicit bias is a direct impact of cognitive, social and environmental factors.  

"The seminar with Diversity Talks was a great way to start the conversation about biases in our everyday society at Roger Williams and beyond,” said senior elementary education major Melissa Rodriguez. "As future educators, it is crucial for us to understand the students we have in front of us, and how our view of them as a whole can affect their abilities in the classroom setting."

"I think that the Diversity Talks event offers educators the knowledge, awareness, and types of transformative discussions that help people to think more deeply about the issues of bias and diversity that everyone must collectively face in order to help others, ourselves, and our communities move beyond prejudice to form a more inclusive environment both in our classrooms and in our world."

The activity presented at the beginning of the training was a way to bring to light the power dynamics in the room and the way people are often forced to put themselves in one category when it comes to identity. This exercise, along with others, left student participants thinking long after the training ended. 

“Following the Diversity Talks events, our student teachers have been able to process what they’ve taken in,” Johnsen-Smith said. “The conversations that we’ve had weeks later have been even deeper and richer, about the impact implicit bias has on ourselves and our interactions with our families, the people that we work with and the students we serve.”