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On the Podcast: Antibias and Antiracist Work in Your School Community with Liz Kleinrock

Antibias and antiracist work in your school communityAs many of us look to cultivate an antibias and antiracist community in our schools, we often struggle with where and how to get started.

Today on the podcast I’m talking with Liz Kleinrock, author of the new book, Start Here, Start Now: A Guide to Antibias and Antiracist Work in Your School Community. Liz Kleinrock is an antibias antiracist educator and consultant based in Washington, DC. In addition to classroom teaching, Liz also works as a facilitator for schools, organizations, and companies across the country.

In her book, Liz helps us set ourselves up for success and prepare for the mistakes we’ll make along the way.

Throughout each chapter, she answers the questions and challenges educators have about getting started. She uses a framework for tackling perceived barriers from a proactive stance, shares sample lessons, resources, conversation starters and more.

Download a sample chapter of Start Here, Start Now

Learn about Liz's Upcoming Webinar Series!

The audiobook of Start Here, Start Now is available from your favorite audiobook distributors! Available more platforms soon!

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Below is a transcript of this episode. 

Liz: Yeah, I wanted to write this book based on a couple of things. One, I was listening to so many voices, and questions, and concerns that other colleagues were having. People who were really committed to social justice, to anti-biased and anti-racist work, but were really just struggling to get started. And were able to identify these really specific barriers that they felt that were preventing them from engaging in this work in their classroom or school community. I felt that at my school, I was having a pretty good amount of success, like working with my administration, collaborating with colleagues. Taking content that could be seen as very dense or very controversial, and being able to deliver it with students in a way that was age appropriate and accessible. And that really, I think, honored where students are at and what they're curious about.

When I first started this book and was just thinking about, wow, this is a really large subject. How can I narrow it down so there's some sort of structure and consistency? I went on social media and actually asked a question on Instagram and was just curious about teachers' experiences. And ask them if you really want to be engaging in social justice work in your classroom but you're not, why are you not? And then based on the over like 200 responses I got from teachers all over the place who work at traditional public schools, charter schools, independent schools, looked at responses and was able to sort them into different categories. And those categories became the themes of each chapter. Although some changes have certainly been made since I started writing, like wanting to frame things in a more proactive way, rather than like, this is why it's not working. But you'll find topics and themes such as, how do I partner with my administration?

Or how can I get parents and caregivers on board with this? Or how do I make time for anti-biased and anti-racist work in my school day when there are so many things that I already have to do? This is already just, it feels like another thing on my plate. And hoping to kind of shift the way that educators think about this work, not as this is now an additional thing that I need to add onto my agenda or my workload, but how can I rather shift the lens through which I'm teaching all of these subjects and doing these things that I have to do every day in order to be more inclusive, to represent different perspectives. And to honor student voice even more.

Brett: You've written in the book and you've explained this on the Heinemann blog and we've had you talk about this a couple times, but anybody who's new to this work, anybody who hasn't heard from you before, what is the term ABAR? And why do you use ABAR as opposed to something else?

Liz: Sure. So ABAR stands for anti-biased, anti-racist. I like these terms because both of them are rooted in action. Because quite often, when we use words like non-racist, or I'm an ally, they end being descriptors rather than reminding people that there are actions that we have to take daily. And we have to think about and adjust the way that we speak, the way that we interact with other people. This idea that these are actually concepts that unify us in like a really strange messed up way, that all of us possess biases. It doesn't matter who you are, what your identity is, where you grew up. This is something that we are all exposed to and something that we all hold.

And the point isn't just to make us feel really awful about it and wallow in the history of oppression and injustice that has been committed against different marginalized peoples all over the world throughout human history. But it's recognizing the ways that we uphold certain systems of oppression based on biases, stereotypes that we hold. And once we are able to identify them, what can we do to actively dismantle them too? So while I think it can be sometimes very scary, I also think there's a lot of power and ownership in this as well. And that's what I try to convey to students.

Brett: When I was reading your book, one of the biggest aha moments was actually when you were talking about shifting the lens. And I really wanted to ask you about that because it feels like it's such an obvious answer when I read it, but it was just so like, oh my God, yes, this is it. Shifting the lens to thinking about the full content. Can you just talk about your thinking around how to shift that lens?

Brett: Sure. So I spent most of my career teaching elementary school. I'm currently teaching middle school for the first time ever. But in elementary school I had to teach everything, teach math, and science, and reading, and writing. And in some cases like art, and gym, and music too. And oftentimes these subjects are taught in isolation and not only are they taught in isolation, but they're taught in a very standard way. This is math time and this is the curriculum. And you follow the script and the kids have the workbook and you have to go through this order that was prescribed by someone. You don't know who, but this is just how things are done and how things have been done. But where I started to find some access was starting subject by subject, not thinking that I have to take on everything at the same time. But if there are particular learning objectives or standards that I have to teach my students, are there choices that I can make in terms of texts, authors, and perspectives that I'm choosing to center instead of just what's given to me.

So one example of shifting this lens is my former school used readers and writers workshop. And one of our units was on opinion essays and the example essay that we were supposed to spend weeks building this essay collectively as a class was about like, what kind of ice cream do you like the best and why? And the idea of spending two to three weeks writing this essay about ice cream was so frustrating and mind numbingly boring for me. Why can't I just take the exact same skills, the same things that we need to go over with kids. It's the exact same learning objectives, but just give them a topic that's a lot more meaningful and relevant. And so we're able to talk about things like dress codes in schools, or first amendment freedoms and things like that. Should hate speech be covered under the first amendment?

What do you think? Give your opinion, but support it with evidence. We're still doing the things that the curriculum says that we need to do. We're still teaching them the same types of critical thinking skills, how to represent their thoughts within sentences and paragraphs. But the subject matter, I think is a lot more relevant. The same way that if you are teaching reading, if you're doing biographies, like whose biographies are you reading? And also who are the authors of those biography? What questions are you asking your students and how they connect to what you're reading in class? And even in math, I know there's an entire chapter in the book about math and science. Because when I lead workshops, stem teachers are often the ones who feel the most left out that. When we look at math and science, it's seen as something that's very objective, that there's no bias in it, but there is so much bias.

And especially in the ways that we look at the ways that different students from different cultures might participate, might represent their thinking, the types of strategies and participation that we honor in our classrooms. So looking at it also in different levels, like not only what is the curriculum, what texts am I using, but also how am I interacting with my students? And in addition, what other self work am I doing in order to understand where I'm coming from based on my experience as a student? What I've been taught, what am I trying to learn and unlearn? And what biases am I potentially bringing in and projecting onto my students that I need to be aware of?

Brett: You talked a second ago about how you structured the book, how you approached the organization of the book. And it is so, for a book called Start Here, Start Now, it is so perfectly structured for taking us on that roadmap. But if someone is new to ABAR work and they're looking for a specific place to start, you do write very early on in the book, you give us advice about not taking on everything at once. How would you advise us to start as we're beginning?

Liz: I always suggest that people start with themselves, that there is an enormous amount of learning and unlearning that we have to be able to examine and interrogate. And I think the hardest work that prevents us from engaging with our students and diving into anti-biased, anti-racist work in the classroom, is often the discomfort that comes up when we have to take a look in the mirror and think about, gosh, are there actually things that I've assumed about my students that have actually caused them a lot of harm? Are there really problematic beliefs and practices that I've been perpetuating all along? We will always want to think well of ourselves and to have to unfortunately come to the realizations that despite our best intentions, our impact might not have always been great. It might actually have harmed some of our students, some of our colleagues, and of the families and caregivers of our students.

That's a really uncomfortable truth to have to hold and to reckon with. But I do think all of that work is so necessary before you ever start doing it with young people. If you're not comfortable talking about race, or racism, or privileges that you hold, or gender identities with your friends and your colleagues, you're probably not ready to do that with kids. I do think that there is space for joint learning and collaboration with students always, but understanding your own thoughts, your biases, and beliefs I think, is really necessary in order to build that foundation first. It's also why I get a lot of questions around like, are you ever going to write a curriculum? And I write and I share lessons in isolation online in the book, but I've always tried to kind of move away from this idea of a set or standardized curriculum.

First of all, if anything becomes standardized, it's not responsive to our students and their cultures because your kid's going to change every single year. And that also means if I have a curriculum that so many people out there are just looking for a script, like give me a binder, tell me what to say, tell me what to do without thinking about how, again, you can still be causing harm to your students. You could have the most diverse classroom library out there, but if you're using all of these books to reinforce stereotypes, they're only focused on deficits of people and communities, you're not actually doing the good work that you think you're doing.

Brett: And I will just sort of add to that. You write early on in the book about how important it was to you that this book be very practical and it is, it is so practical as you open the book and you read along. One of the things that you also note is that ABAR work can be emotionally taxing for both student and teacher. How do we make time for the space of processing as we go along with our students and for ourselves?

Liz: Yeah. I think there are a lot of different ways that you can think about making space in your classroom. And certainly depending on the situation, you might have more time to think about how you're going to intentionally create that space than others. If I know that I have a long time to plan for a unit, I'm thinking about exit tickets, I'm thinking about reflections. I'm thinking about ways that students are going to be able to show and reflect their understanding. If it's through group work, or anchor charts, or written reflections, or class discussions. But when things just happen to occur in our world and we often have to respond to events that are happening, what types of practices do we have if you're comfortable with leading like community circles in your classroom. If you have practices like students using writing, like reflection journals, or things like that, making sure that you have a certain number of strategies that can be applied to different situations to allow your students to process and make space for just how they're thinking and feeling.

And also recognizing that not all students are going to reflect in the same way. Some really like to share out loud, some might be more comfortable writing down their thoughts. Some might want to talk to their peers, but not to you. And making sure that you're also changing up these strategies enough where students, regardless of how they want to engage, have an access point to do so.

Brett: You mentioned a few moments ago about the vulnerability of ABAR work. And you yourself are quite vulnerable in your writing as you tell stories of the classroom and of yourself throughout the book. How does that vulnerability with students create the trust that is needed for this work?

Liz: Well, I think relationships are at the center of all of this. And if I'm going to ask my students to be vulnerable with me, to share about themselves, to maybe own up to things that they're not super proud of, like talk a little bit about how the uncomfortable part of anti-biased work is realizing where you hold biases like you as a teacher. But also hearing certain things come out of the mouths of your students can sometimes be a little bit cringy, but those are all truths that need to be out on the table in order to be able to unpack them too. We can't fix problems that we don't know about, or we don't talk about. We can't do anything if we're not aware. So oftentimes with my students, and also when I lead workshops for adults, I will start with ways that I have messed up and mistakes that I have made as well as trying to model like my own thinking process, and development, and growth.

Because I do think something that holds a lot of teachers back and a lot of just not even folks in education, but folks who are trying to engage in activism and learning about different people, and learning about history, and the world. There's this idea I think, that sometimes people get put on pedestals when they're deemed experts. And I know that because I have a book coming out that is a label that people will use to describe me. But no one is born at any particular level. I don't think anybody comes out of the womb reciting critical race theory or anything like that. But I think it's really important to model what this journey looks like, that there are different starting points for everyone. It's not a binary. It's a spectrum, and that we all exist on different parts of the spectrum.

And it's not linear work either. There are so many different intersections of who we are as people. You might be super well-versed and when it comes to race, but when it comes to talking about ableness, that's something completely different that people might not have had to examine before. You can be super comfortable talking about religion, but not about gender. There are always going to be places where we feel more comfort in our knowledge and expertise, and there are going to be places where we need to do more work. And that's important to recognize that and own that. There is no person who is perfect in this. But unfortunately I do think the way that a lot of media and particularly social media works, we demand perfection from one another in a way that's really unrealistic. And it's really important to model for our students that we are all perfectly imperfect and that there's no one out there who has all the right answers, who gets it right all the time.

Brett: I like how you modeled that in the writing of the book too you open the book up saying that you're writing this at this specific time. It can all change in a year. It can all change in two or three years as we grow, as you continue to learn, as we continue to learn. There's that growth that comes with it, as we never stop learning. This work is never done, as you write. So I'm wondering about, you mentioned this a second ago, being aware of our reactions and the boundaries when we're having ABAR conversations. How can we work on that awareness specifically of our reactions, especially when we're engaging in the conversations with students, especially in elementary school?

Liz: Yeah. I think that comes back to doing the self work, to begin with and there are certain resources and tools that are out there that have been in existence for such a long time. And my work very much like builds upon the brilliance of other scholars, educators, and activists. For example, one resource I talk about is the Courageous Conversations Compass, which is by Glenn Singleton.

And it's just such a useful practical tool to think about when I talk about race, where do I enter the conversation from? Do I enter from an emotional standpoint? Do I intellectualize it? Am I more of a relational person? What's my entry points? And if I can engage in practices like that, possibly with like friends or colleagues, people who you can start with, who you feel really comfortable with, it might give you some indication of how you might respond when students say things in class that you might not agree with. Or it might actually end up harming some of their peers. I think it's really important to remember that I don't think growth ever comes from a place of shame. Shame can be a really powerful tool and it can often be weaponized. And usually that's what tells us that we need to be quiet and to disengage. And not to try to dialogue with people or ask questions when what we need is the exact opposite.

Brett: One of the things I love about the book as you have throughout, as we read throughout each chapter, you have these subsections, certain sections called how do I know it's working, keep in mind, don't reinvent the wheel. why was it important to sort of have these subsections? But also, I think one of the ones that really jumps out is how do we know when it's working?

Liz: I think reflection is such an important part of this. It's important when you're assessing your kids in math, or in reading, or in writing, but it's just as important when you're engaging in anti-bias or anti-racist work. In some cases from a very practical perspective, you might have an administration who is all about data, that you might need actual pieces of quantitative evidence. My students came into this lesson or conversation knowing X, Y, Z, and they are leaving knowing this new set of information. And here's the evidence, or here's the proof to show their growth, and understanding, and application. For other teachers, you just want to make sure that you're being responsive to your students, that you are engaging your students, that they are also not walking away with gross misconceptions about some of the topics you're covering in class.

And I have certainly made my share of mistakes without checking in enough with students after we had a conversation like, assumptions that I've made that my students all walked away with a similar understanding. Or that we were all on the same page about something, which is also a very, I think naïve way to think about this work. But it's currently been part of my growth also. But it's also what you can avoid some of those awkward conversations when a kid comes home and their parent or caregiver says, what did you talk about in school today? And they gave a very narrow segment of your conversation that grossly misrepresents the entire lesson or unit. But then you get that really uncomfortable parent phone call or email, like, what were you doing? My kid came home saying, you talked about something in class and I wasn't quite sure. So just wanted to check in, or that would actually be a really nice way to receive that message. It can definitely go in another direction.

But recognizing that we have an enormous responsibility in leading these conversations with our students, but also caring for them. And I think about the, how do I know it's working part as extending care and love for your students and supporting them in this work.

Brett: You mentioned the parent conversation. You do have a whole chapter in the book dedicated to working with the community. And you specifically advise us to sort of think of ourselves as community educators. Why is it important for us to think of that community education portion? And can you kind of talk a little bit about conversations with parents a little bit more in just sort of some thinking there?

Sure. So in the chapter around parents and caregivers, I wanted to address I think like an underlying sentiment that I have experienced and witnessed a lot in education and not just in the school where I've taught, but in a lot of different communities where I've gone in to do talks or workshops that there's often a divide. And I think a lot of educators see it as us versus them like, parents and caregivers are working against us. But rather I think it's really important that we are in connection and community with each other, that this is a partnership. That we're all on the same team, that we're here to support our students and center them as much as possible. And while we certainly know our kids, well, at least I hope teachers know their students well, their families know them better than everyone too.

And they're able to provide a lot of information about what their kids are interested in, things that are happening in their home and outside of school that we're not aware of. Because we also don't want to go through that really awful process of re-traumatizing students if there are things that they've experienced that we're unaware of. I think there are a lot of parents and caregivers out there who are very on board with this work and some who are also on board, but still hesitant, not because of them not wanting their kids to learn about race, or diversity, or politics in class, but they're just concerned about how the conversation is going to be facilitated. So when we're in community with one another, that's where we can begin to develop this mutual trust and respect. Something my mentor teacher always said is that trust and respect are the pillars of any relationship, any community.

And without those, we really don't have anything. And teachers have a lot of power actually in how we start to form those relationships really on in a year. And if we can develop mutual trust and respect with the families and caregivers in our class, they might be really on board and supportive in this work. And also much more forgiving when we do stumble and make mistakes as well. I believe a lot in transparency rather than asking for permission, which I think can imply that there's something wrong with these conversations and lessons in class. But if I were a parent or caregiver of a young person, I would absolutely want to know what's happening in the classroom. I deserve that. That is also my right as a parent or as a guardian.

Brett: Well, Liz, it's an amazing book. You've done incredible things with this book and we learned so much from it. But I think the thing that I learned the most is that you are a huge horror movie fan. So before we part, what makes the perfect horror movie for you? What's your favorite horror movie?

That's so hard. Okay. There are so many out there. And if I had more time, I would break it down by sub genre also. I think really great horror movies can take a concept that can be, I mean, it's great to see something super innovative, but even with very classic themes and tropes, but you can still make them like somewhat unpredictable. I think James Wan who directed the Insidious series and the Conjuring universe took some very classic themes like haunted houses, ghost, possession, things like that, but filmed it in a way where you also really cared deeply about the characters involved. And also just as a viewer, you don't have any control over it. It's not just one type of jump scare or the slow panned out, slow burn or anything like that.

But I think one of my absolute favorites is 28 Days Later. Took a concept like zombies, which had been done for quite some time. And the simple shift of just making them run really fast. I thought like for real he just brought it to a completely different level and all it took was something like that simple. So that's definitely a favorite. Also 28 Weeks Later was pretty good too.

Brett: Good. All right. Anything else you want to add? Anything we missed? Anything you really wanted to get in that we didn't cover?

Liz: I'm excited. I will admit that I'm also really scared. I am wrapping my head around still identifying as a writer. I think in the past I have just thought of myself as a person who writes, like I am a teacher and I also write sometimes, and it's mainly for social media or the internet. And I think there's something very exciting, but also very scary about having your words solidified in a book. Because the way that I think and what I believe is constantly changing based on what I'm learning and how I'm talking to other people. So I think it's a little scary to think that in like a year or two, I could disagree with half of what I've written and hope for that next edition update and stuff. So I just hope people like it. I hope they find something useful in it. And if I get something totally wrong, I hope people also are comfortable calling me in to offer that correction because that's also how we get better.


Liz Kleinrock (she/her) is an antibias antiracist educator and consultant based in Washington, DC. A transracial adoptee, Liz was born in South Korea and grew up in DC before attending Washington University in St. Louis, MO. After graduating, Liz moved to Oakland, California, where she served as an AmeriCorps teacher with Girls Inc. and Super Stars Literacy for two years. Following her service, Liz moved to Los Angeles and earned her M.Ed from UCLA's Teacher Education Program. After a year student teaching a 5th grade class in Watts, Liz joined the founding faculty of a startup school in East Hollywood where she spent seven years teaching 1st through 4th grades.

In addition to classroom teaching, Liz also works as an antibias antiracist facilitator for schools, organizations, and companies across the country. Her work has gained national recognition through a documentary short produced by Fluid Film, and media outlets such as CNN, The Washington Post, NPR, and BBC. In 2018, Liz received Teaching Tolerance's 2018 Award for Excellence in Teaching, and currently serves on the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board. Liz is proud to share her 2019 TED Talk from "Education Everywhere" on building foundations of equity with young learners, and is the author of Start Here, Start Now: A Guide to AntiBias and AntiRacist Work in Your School Community with Heinemann Publishing. 

She currently resides in Washington DC with her two bunnies, and teaches middle school. 

You can connect with Liz on her website, TeachAndTransform.org, on Twitter at @teachntransform, or on Instagram at teachandtransform.


Topics: Podcast, Community, Heinemann Podcast, anti-racism, Liz Kleinrock, Start Here, Start Now, ABAR

Date Published: 05/27/21

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