Mr. Kirby: I know I’m not communicating negative messages about Native Americans overtly. I wonder if I’m communicating in more subtle ways though.
Ms. Two-Rivers: We communicate in those subtle ways all the time. Micromessages are the small, subtle, sometimes subconscious messages we communicate, often without saying a word.
Mr. Kirby: Like nonverbal communication?
Ms. Two-Rivers: Yes, that’s a big part of it. Looks, gestures, and tone of voice can all communicate micromessages. The framing of feedback and the examples in a classroom also send subtle messages.
Mr. Kirby: Are micromessages always negative?
Ms. Two-Rivers: No, not always. We have both micro-inequities and micro-affirmations. Micro-inequities are negative micromessages we send other people that cause them to feel devalued, slighted, discouraged, or excluded. Suppose you are sitting in class and notice that no matter how many times you raise your hand to answer the question, the teacher doesn’t call on you. How would that make you feel? Would you continue to raise your hand over time?
Mr. Kirby: Probably not. I’d feel like my answers don’t count, and I’d probably quit trying. You know, sometimes in my class, students just blurt out answers without raising their hands. Once I listen to them, it’s often time to move on. The students who did raise their hands might accidentally get slighted. I can see how that happening repetitively might make students less engaged and less willing to raise their hands in the future.
Ms. Two-Rivers: That’s a good observation. On the other hand, micro-affirmations are positive micromessages that cause people to feel valued, included, or encouraged. Suppose you are trying very hard to understand a difficult math problem. During a break, your teacher comes up to you and says, “I really appreciate how sincerely you are trying to work through this. Have you tried dividing the problem into smaller chunks?” How would that make you feel? Are you more likely to persist and perhaps solve the problem than you would have been before receiving that comment?
Mr. Kirby: Being praised for my effort would probably improve my self-confidence. I’d be more likely to keep trying, and more likely to succeed. So micromessages work both ways: micro-inequities can make it more difficult for students to succeed, but micro-affirmations can support them.
2.Challenging Cultural Stereotypes Through Micromessages
Ms. Two-Rivers: When we examine micromessages more closely, we realize that a number of mutually reinforcing factors are at play. If we want to break the cycle of negative stereotypes, then we need to interrupt the transmission of micro-inequities.
Mr. Kirby: Where does the cycle start?
Ms. Two-Rivers: It starts with cultural stereotypes, the beliefs about different groups that are pervasive in our culture.
Mr. Kirby: So, for Native Americans, that would be the stereotypes of the uncivilized “noble savage” or that Native Americans are all “protectors of the earth.” The Single Stories we tell about groups may reflect these stereotypes.
Ms. Two-Rivers: Correct. Stereotypes lead to biases of which we are often unaware.
Mr. Kirby: A stereotype that Native Americans are “uncivilized” might lead a teacher to expect Native American students to misbehave in class.
Ms. Two-Rivers: Bias can be explicit or implicit. Explicit biases in education are illegal today, thanks to laws like Title IX, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and the American with Disabilities Act.
Mr. Kirby: But implicit biases remain because we are often unaware of these hidden associations. If a teacher has an implicit bias about Native Americans, he might not realize that he isn’t treating everyone fairly. Micromessages are fed by those implicit biases, aren’t they?
Ms. Two-Rivers: Yes, they are. The teacher in your example with the implicit bias against Native Americans might discipline those students more harshly for the same infractions. That sends a micro-inequity to the Native American students. These micro-inequities and disadvantages accumulate over time. But as educators, if we interrupt the cycle with micro-affirmations, advantages accumulate rather than disadvantages.
Mr. Kirby: What happens when these messages accumulate, both positive and negative?
Ms. Two-Rivers: They affect the receiver’s sense of self-efficacy.
Mr. Kirby: That’s your belief in yourself and your ability to accomplish a task. Native American students who have been repeatedly disciplined for minor infractions might start to believe that they’re bad students. I also know self-efficacy influences behavior, so once those students start to believe that they’re troublemakers, they may start to misbehave more. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.
Ms. Two-Rivers: If their behavior aligns with the cultural stereotypes, then it perpetuates the stereotypes. If we provide positive micromessages that bolster student self-efficacy and change their behavior, then we can begin to shift and challenge cultural stereotypes and beliefs.
3. Examples of Micromessages
Mr. Kirby: Could you give me some examples of micromessages?
Ms. Two-Rivers: For example, a micro-inequity that could harm Native American students would be using the term “Indian” or “redskin.” Micromessages can also be conveyed through how the message is said. For example, a teacher might use a more enthusiastic tone of voice in response to white students.
Mr. Kirby: That would be a micro-affirmation for white students but a micro-inequity for Native Americans. It could be positive or negative depending on the audience.
Ms. Two-Rivers: That’s a great insight! The same micromessage could be received differently by different people.
Mr. Kirby: What about non-verbal messages through body language? If you cross your arms in front of your body and close yourself off when someone is speaking, that sends a micro-inequity.
Ms. Two-Rivers: That’s a good example. If you only highlight famous figures or role models who are white, then that sends a micro-inequity. However, if you show role models showing a range of ethnicities and backgrounds, that can send a micro-affirmation.
Mr. Kirby: What about using role models that show respect for age and wisdom? Would that be a micro-affirmation that reinforced the Native American value of respect for elders?
Ms. Two-Rivers: Yes. Our micromessages can reflect our values. One of the ways you can integrate Native American values into your classroom is by focusing on micro-affirmations that reinforce those values.
4. Reframing Micromessages
Ms. Two-Rivers: Subtle, yet often powerful cues send micromessages when we engage and interact with one another. Becoming aware of our micromessages requires us to pay attention to all forms of communication, not just our words.
For each scenario, type how you would change or reframe that micromessage to respect Native American values and provide micro-affirmations for Native American students.
5. Changes in Communication
Mr. Kirby: What can I do about these micromessages in my classroom?
Ms. Two-Rivers: The good news is that research has shown that small changes in classroom communication can have a large impact on student outcomes. You’re at the epicenter of your students’ instructional environment. The small changes you make today can affect student outcomes tomorrow. You’re already taking a positive step by improving your awareness of micromessages in your classroom. As you continue these discussions with other teachers and students, you’ll help improve everyone’s awareness of these issues.
Mr. Kirby: OK, continuing the conversation about these issues is an easy enough step for me to take. I think that will help me focus on reflecting on my own beliefs and values. What else?
Ms. Two-Rivers: There’s an organization called NAPE, the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity. NAPE has a whole course on micromessages, which is where I learned a lot of what we’ve been talking about. They have a number of tools that can help you evaluate your pedagogy and instructional practices for micromessages such as peer observation frameworks, student culture surveys, and classroom climate surveys.
Mr. Kirby: Great. Some structured tools would be very helpful.
Ms. Two-Rivers: NAPE also has an environmental scan that can identify how micromessages are being communicated in your classroom.
Mr. Kirby: What else can I do?
Ms. Two-Rivers: I’ve found it helpful to keep a journal and reflect on the micromessages that I have received and delivered. It’s also important to be cognizant of “little issues.”
Mr. Kirby: That makes sense. It’s better to deal with them when they’re little issues rather than when they become big issues and damage relationships.
Ms. Two-Rivers: Another action you can take is consciously fostering an atmosphere of equity and respect for all your students. Pronounce and spell their names right, be curious about and respect their cultural norms, and be truthful and attentive working with them.
Mr. Kirby: That gives me a good list of changes to make in my classroom. Thanks.