How do we go beyond the cosmetic fixes of racial inequality in education and go further? There is no quick fix, and we all need to do the work.
Today on the Heinemann Podcast we’re preparing for Social Justice Saturday at The Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project which will be on Saturday - September 15th. Heinemann author Sonja Cherry-Paul is one of the organizers of the event and a speaker. Also, among the day’s speakers are Heinemann Fellows Dr. Kim Parker, Tiana Silvas, and Tricia Ebarvia. Tricia and Kim also organize Disrupt Texts (along with their co-founders Lorena German and Julia Torres), a crowdsourced effort for teachers to challenge the traditional canon with the goal of creating a more inclusive, representative and equitable language arts curriculum.
For today’s podcast, Sonja leads the fellows in a conversation on racial literacy and racial justice in education.
Learn more about Disrupt Texts here.
Below is a full transcript of the conversation:
Sonja: Alright, ladies. I wanted to ask us to really think through pretty broadly where are we in terms of racial literacy in schools? In terms of racial justice in education? Where do we need to be?
Kim: I think that with so much work to do, and I think that this political climate has just made it more apparent by how tentative and reluctant, and resistant so many people are to talk about white supremacy, to talk about anti-blackness. To even use that language. My experience is that if we cannot even give voice to those terms, then I don't know what's happening in schools, then, to really push that conversation. What happens is that you have a few teachers who speak up on those issues and then they're vilified and they're really trying to make substantive change.
Kim: I mean, I think in terms of having those conversations about racial literacy, we need to be talking about the now more than ever. I'm just not so confident that it's happening in any systemic way beyond pockets of educators who are really sticking their neck out to do what's right.
Sonja: Right. I agree with you, Kim. From my experience, what I'm continuing to see is this laser focus on these cosmetic fixes in the classroom where it looks like schools are sprinkling in some multi-cultural books or maybe they're designing a social justice unit. Then that's it. Where the laser focus really needs to be on what you were just saying, dismantling racism in the institution of education and building it up to be one where it's throughout the fabric of a district's policy, it's procedures, which would look like things like ongoing professional development that teachers don't get to opt out on, and hiring practices where there's an intention to hire and retain teachers of color, and creating spaces that really enable them to thrive such as affinity groups and networking with other teachers of color.
Sonja: Things that I'm not really seeing happening systemically but we keep focusing on the classroom and teachers who are opting into doing this work, and allowing others to opt out. Is that what you're seeing, Tiana and Tricia? Do you see some systemic changes in your schools, or in other schools?
Tiana: I would agree. I feel like there's these pockets, like what Kim was saying, these pockets of educators who are doing the work, they're on the forefront of it and districts are investing a ton of money on curriculum when it's not really curriculum, it's a way of being, it's a mindset, it's a way of life, it's a way of teaching. These cosmetic shifts that you spoke about where it's book or being more conscious of what's being privileged, visually privileged, in classrooms.
Tiana: Really what it is, it's a total shift in school practices that needs to occur to be able to dismantle this and not just the one actionable step of, "Oh, this year," I hate to say it, I'm sure there are leaders out there that have said this, "I hired a teacher of color." "Oh, I sent my staff to this PD. We're getting closer." I mean, there has to be more of a really active stance of an every day idea, and thinking, and being as an educator that's in it for racial equity and liberation.
Sonja: Tricia, how about you?
Tricia: Yeah. I would agree with Tiana and Kim. I think that the problem is that districts too often try to do these, like we said, cosmetic changes. Things that feel concrete, like changing some books around or having a unit here or there, but the bottom line is unless you can shift the teachers in the room and until you can have intentional deep reflection and have teachers who were educated in a racist system, so to some extent, maybe they don't know any better, but, you know, there's Google. I think that until there's that internal shifting, until the people do that internal work, I just don't know because you can have "diverse curriculum" but it can be delivered in harmful ways, really harmful ways.
Tricia: That's what I worry about because I think too often we want to latch onto these technical solutions, a quick fix, something that looks nice on the outside, and might be nice on a pamphlet but the truth is that racism has been part of the fabric of this country and it's not going to be a technical solution. It's going to be requiring, like Kim said, a dismantling, a restructuring, a real come to terms, kind of, moment for everybody. There's a lot of resistance. There are many people who are invested in the system because it works for them.
Sonja: I agree, Tricia. You were just talking about quick fixes and I'm thinking about that approach particularly in the school district I spent the majority of my career in. I'm wondering if we all have this in common, are we all, or have we all predominately been working in white educational spaces, meaning teachers and kids? Is that the sort of environment we each are in now?
Kim: Up until recently I have primarily spent my teaching career in urban schools with kids of color.
Sonja: Now, not so much?
Kim: No, now pre-service teachers who are mostly white.
Sonja: In terms of the quick fixes, I feel like I'm seeing that a lot where teachers, they want to skip that work that, Tricia and Tiana, that you were just talking about, that really reflective get in there and recognize that I have been raised in this racist educational system in a racist country and I need to get in there and do some dismantling of my own thoughts. Instead, they want the binder. I keep saying to teachers, no, you have to do the work and then you become the binder. You are the binder that you're looking for once you get in there and do that work.
Sonja: I'm wondering if we can, since we are in these spaces that are predominately white teachers, white students, I think that brings a very specific dynamic and I'm wondering if we could talk about the particular challenges in these spaces and what it feels like for us each day there, and the issues that we've experiences around making racial justice a priority. I'll say, for my part, as one of the few African American educators in the district I was working in K-12 and for a long time I was the only. Certainly, what brings to mind to me is this idea is being a warm demander, that Judith Kleinfeld, and James Vasquez, and Lisa Delpit, and Gloria Ladson-Billings have talked about, just the ways in which teachers from racially and culturally diverse backgrounds, how they instruct in ways that are different from the white colleagues.
Sonja: The perceptions that I got from my white colleagues, and sometimes teachers and students, is, "Oh, Mrs. Cherry-Paul, she's edgy. She's intimidating." Just feeling very alone in the way in which I existed in this district. I'm wondering if you can also speak to the challenges for teachers of color working in predominately white educational spaces?
Kim: Sure. I mean, I think that what I have found really powerful is when you find one or two other teachers of color to teach with who are on the same wave length and who want to push for equity in ways that you think will actually most directly benefit kids, then you can do amazing things. Also, you can distribute the tremendous emotional labor that the work requires. It just does. I think there's also emotional labor that's exacted from people who might look like you but don't necessarily support those efforts, who are very comfortable essentially seeing kids underserved every day and still getting a paycheck. I feel like this work, the work really for decolonizing and disrupting is a lonely work because you're just simply not going to be doing what everyone else is doing. Fine being at least someone, and I think that social media and the internet, workshops, and conferences, at least allow the possibility of a community, but I know that you cannot do the work by yourself. You just can't.
Sonja: I think what you were saying about the importance of social media brings me to the work that you and Tricia, and your other colleagues have been doing with Distrupt Texts, and I have so appreciated the way in which you are working alongside so many educators, many of whom might be feeling lonely but then they have this really rich platform to go to and see, "Oh, there are other people here who, like me, are trying to do this work." I'm wondering if you can talk about DisruptTexts, what brought you to this work, and what exactly is the work that you are doing.
Tiana: I think the work really came out of just some conversations. Some conversations that Kim and I had been having for a while that had come out of our group as Heinemann Fellows. Just thinking about curriculum and thinking about the ways in which, we're high school English teachers, and the ways in which the cannon has really been a tool for maintaining a status quo for promoting certain voices over others. This realization on my part, I think Kim came to the realization much earlier than me, about how really, I don't want to say arbitrary the cannon is, but constructed. Constructed with a purpose.
Tiana: We decided that we would think about how could we disrupt that, how could we bring in different voices, voices that everyone should know. It should not take a student until they are in college and seeking out a multi-cultural literature class where they finally read James Baldwin. That's unfortunately, again, because teachers are products of the system, teachers only what they know and what they've been trained to know, and the bias they have about certain texts. We thought what if we could just give teachers a platform and a way to think about, because there are teachers who are doing this work everywhere, teachers of color and some white teachers. How can we give them a platform to share the ways that they are subverting dominant narratives and bringing in non-dominant perspectives that have, for too long, been ignored.
Sonja: I do enjoy going to your twitter chat and just reading what folks are thinking about and the work that they're doing. I'm also wondering how might you advise educators to apply the work that you are doing, which I think primarily focuses on high school texts, or traditionally high school texts. How might some educators apply this work to disrupting the literary cannon that exists at the elementary and the middle school levels? Is there a DisruptText chat coming up for that?
Tricia: Well, there needs to be. I'm having my own children go into elementary school and now into middle school. Certainly, it's required, and I think the principals are the same. Who are the voices that we keep listening to over and over again? I don't want to say the teachers don't have control over the curriculum, but there's more leeway than they probably, there's more leeway there. There just is. You can be creative. I think your read-alouds don't have to be the same read-a-louds you had when you were in school that you loved, because your kids are different and need something else. I'm sure Tiana can speak to that.
Tiana: Yeah, it's so important. Again, with my child, too, what books are representing his identity and my daughter's identity but I think as a fifth grade teacher, just swapping the books out and questioning what's recommended, I mean, we have to be doing that. I think about how writing has changed because we didn't use the highly recommended Every Living Thing by Cynthia Riley this year, we used Jason Reynold's Ghosts to study his craft and parts, and what kind of doors that opened up for my students. When we were studying poetry, Nicky Grimes was all over the place, and just seeing how children were incredibly engaged and committed to their writing, and committed to trying to work their writing like these authors.
Tiana: That's something I hadn't ever seen before as a writing teacher. Parents were noticing the difference. Parents commented and said that the literature was one of the things that they took note of the most during the school year that offered their white, Irish child a perspective that they have never, ever had else wise. It is so important from our little ones all the way up to our young adults.
Tricia: I think we always talk about Doctor Bishop's Through Mirrors and Windows and I teach in a predominately white school, 85 percent of the population is white. I think it is just as important to expose white children, white students to the rich legacies, literary legacies of people of color. I always go back to this quote from Kwame Alexander at ILA, and it was quoted in his New York Times piece, but the mind of the adult starts in the imagination of the child. If we're not giving kids opportunities to understand, empathize, and see the rich complexities of different people, then we're going to keep getting the same thing.
Sonja: Yeah. Thank you for saying that, Tricia, because a lot of my work is focused on thinking about these issues in predominately white educational spaces, and for a long time I feel like I've been made to feel by some professors that the work isn't as important as work with kids in urban schools and in urban environment. I think it's so important for us to be thinking about how teachers in these spaces take up this work. How do they develop and then implement curriculum with students that addresses race and racism? What are the issues that come up that are a barrier to this work? Which of these barriers are surmountable and which feel insurmountable and why? What are some of the break throughs in how this work can really guide all educators in schools in making this work a priority for students? I'm happy to hear you say that.
Tricia: You know what? There was a point in time where I taught in a predominantly white school for a couple of years and I am pretty sure that I was probably one of, if not the only, black teacher many of those white young folks were ever going to have. That matters to them.
Tricia: I'm always profoundly moved when I run into those, now they're grown adults. They will talk about the fact that we talked about race, we talked about racism, we talked about whiteness. We did all of those things while also developing a love for literacy, and reading, and writing, and all of those other things in a way that moved them to continue to act. I think the fight is wherever the fight is. Wherever I am is wherever I'm going to be in that moment. I think that's what's really important is that these places, kids need teachers to speak up and kids need to see teachers of colors being excellent, out here being excellent all day because many of us are. What are the situations that support teachers of color? Then, also, given that 80 percent and increasing number of teachers are white, what can we do to really have the conversations that move people to action?
Kim: I mean, I'm amazed that Tricia and Tiana are probably much more patient than I am because, I don't know, I'm just impatient. You can ask someone. Tricia, you talk about, what is it, the 80 percent, if you could move whatever that metric is that we talked about, and that we have to believe, and this is where I'm heartened by my colleagues because that's also the importance of the work is that you have a group of folks who say, "People are moving," and you work with the population of people in a school, or in a department, or an example who are willing to try. I think what's really powerful, what I've encourages Tricia to do is that she's a department head and she's moving her faculty to try things.
They're throwing out their stuff, and they're reading things, and they want to talk about it. It's not just this just happened one day, it's because there's something going on in that environment that Tricia in nurturing and encouraging that those teachers just might do something different. Those kids might just be moved. That's where we need to focus our time and energy. What's going on in those spaces? Why is Tiana able to move these children in ways that are really powerful? Everyone's out here talking craziness but really, the really important work of changing the heart to mind of children and educators is happening, we're just not paying attention.
Sonja: What's frustrating, Kim, too, is we keep being bombarded with research that says, "This work matters. It's important. It's making a difference and all kids benefit from having teachers of color, particularly black teachers. Not just for black kids, but for white kids, too." Every day there just seems to be some new study, and some research that we can wrap our hands around and say, "Hey, we have all of this to draw from." It's encouraging to hear that this progress is happening in your school, Tricia. I really hope that other educators who are not just educators of color, but all educators who are warriors in this work can stay the course.
I want to talk a little bit about the work Tiana is doing in writing workshop. We were chatting recently and Tiana said that writing workshop is about creating a space where students can be heard, not necessarily always understood. I'm wondering if you could just unpack that a bit and talk about the work you've been doing around writing and trauma and the difference that work makes in the lives of students from racially and culturally diverse backgrounds, and what educators can do to mitigate their, or their school leader's anxieties and concerns about student's sharing too much, or "What do I do with this content? Is it inappropriate for school?" How they can just really keep the focus on their student. If you could just talk about that, Tiana.
Tiana: Yeah. I feel like writing is that place in a classroom where you can build this intense sense of community. It's a place where strangers can come together and find common threads that they may have not known about. I think every individual's experience can be different in writing. I think about a student that I once had, I had him for two years, and basically it appeared that writing transformed himself. He said to me, he said, "I can do this thing. Writing, I have something to say, Ms. Tiana, to the world and the world needs to hear it." When I first met this student, he wouldn't even speak. With 25 percent of our children and adolescents facing some type of trauma throughout their lives, writing is critical for students to have to affirm who they are to be able to not only develop their oral written expression but their emotional expression, too.
A child should never be forced to write about a particular topic, or an experience they had. What a child chooses to write about depends on how the community of writers is cultivated and nurtured. I do think that writing is this place to disrupt a process systems. I think it's that way because I think writing has been driven by the white dominant narrative forever. What are teachers doing even in the elementary section of our education to really push the methods, and the resources, and the supports that are in the student's hands and basically ask that question, "Whose voice is being privileged here?" How do I disrupt those methods and materials that represent a type of power and control and bring in who the student is, wholly the student is. Students are amazing, they're intelligent, they bring so much to the table.
Often, that is completely boxed in because of this dominant narrative. I hear that students, "Oh, they're not writing like this." Well, they're not writing like how you envision them writing because you're boxing them in. You're doing it under your narrative, your story, the way you learned how to write. I think about also Elizabeth [inaudible 00:22:43] novel [Poedex 00:22:45], amazing work. This resonates with me, she said, "Late into the night, I write and the pages of my notebook swell from all the words I've pressed onto them. It almost feels like the more I bruise the page, the quicker something inside me heals."
As an elementary school teacher, I just hope that writing, I don't even want to say workshop anymore because I don't like the term workshop but writing studio, just writing in general, is a place for kids to be themselves, present themselves and bruise those pages with whatever it is, whether it be working through something emotional, or really trying to get someone's attention to change the world.
Sonja: As you were talking about just the teaching of writing also can be an oppressive system for our students, I'm just thinking about a thread throughout our conversation is just the importance of teachers, all teachers, teachers of reading, teachers of writing, all teachers, it's essential for them to confront their own bias in order to teach well.
Kim: Yeah, I think it all stems from what we think we know. What are the taken for granted notions. If we assume that children are coming to us with no funds of knowledge, or anything of value, then of course, right, they need formulas and everything else. Without failing to understand that in terms, for example, black folks in this country, we have always been literate, we have always valued literacy, we have always found ways to be literate. I think it does come back to teachers and other educators thinking about why do they believe that. Then really working hard to find the counter narratives that disprove those notions.
Then, sort of, once you begin to do that work of decolonizing your mind and what you thought you know, then you can really start to think about practice, but as you said Sonja, until, I think, people start to think really hard about why do we think these things? How did we get here? Why am I still perpetuating racism and white supremacy in my classroom? Again, it's not just white teachers who are doing this, teachers of colors do it, too.
Kim: What does it mean to really think differently and to do differently because that's what we really have to do is, yeah, as you said, we know all the things we need to know to improve the outcomes for kids, yet we choose not to. That's the problem.
Sonja: Yeah. I want to talk about, again, the importance of how we practice self care. As we started off with this conversation talking about this work being emotionally heavy, and just difficult sometimes, if not all the time. I think it's important for so many educators of color to really continue to have this be a part of the conversation. How are we practicing self care so that we can continue to be the warriors that we are in education that we're persisting, that we are, hopefully there will be longevity in the field for us. I don't see that happening without self care. Could you all talk a little bit about it? I know Tiana hinted at it earlier but one way you guys practice self care is your text group where you communicate and check in with one another. What are some other ways that educators can practice, particularly educators of color can practice self care?
Tricia: Kim is always advocating and suggesting how we take care of ourselves. I think one of the huge elements has been our group. We're in all different places across the country and different time zones, and it's a safe space. There's not too many safe spaces in this world of, "Hey, this is what I'm thinking. This is what I need." From the serious to, "Hey, what's for dinner." Being able to have that ... You know that's [crosstalk 00:26:59]. I mean, self care. That's my self care is being able to smile and grow from our little group. Also making sure that we're physically fit for our work. Our bodies and our minds are centered because it can take a physical toll on us. At least the summer of just recharging mentally but also getting ready physically for whatever this year's going to bring because who knows what's going to happen. It's unpredictable, what we're going to have to get ready for. That all has to be aligned.
Kim: I mean, I think that this game, we are playing a long game. I think it's really important to ... I love the way that we celebrate each other even if that's someone knocking out "X" number of words in a day, or submitting a proposal to someone, to an editor. I don't know, teaching a great lesson even. I think we all celebrate those victories, big or small, like they are our own. It's nice to see that and to be in a community, too. I value it because it's women of color. I think that it's really easy to not give women of color our due, honestly.
That's my lived reality. It's powerful. It's powerful to, one, say, "Hey, you are awesome. We're in this group," and two, also to talk about things that had happened and for the group to reflect those experiences back to say, "I hear you. I see you. You are not wrong. Nope, you're not crazy." All those things matter because you could be, like, walking in the world and they're going to tell us that that's not the case. Also, I'm really not interested in being anyone's martyr. I mean, maybe 20 years ago that was really cool but I'm not interested in that.
I'm actually not interested in doing the work by myself, which is another big change for me from when I first started teaching. It doesn't have to be lonely if you really work hard to curate and cultivate your networks and pay attention to them, and let them thrive and flourish. That's what has sustained me, honestly. There's a group of people who will show up every day for you and that's what it takes. I mean, I think educators of color, in particular, need that. They also need people who are going to call them out because this group will, and then my other friend, who we used to teach together, we are still very good friends, we'll do that. It can't just be all celebrations but it can be, "You were supposed to get that drafted. Why didn't you do that? Really, you're not doing your thing."
Kim: It's this nice balance of support and accountability and a thousand group messages a day that really keep me going.
Tricia: Yes, I also think, in listening to Kim and Tiana talk, I think about how fortunate and lucky we are and how this experience and knowing them in just the brief time that I've known them, has been a gift, a real gift. It makes me sad to think that there, to think about all the teachers out there who don't have that. To think how lonely I was and I didn't realize it before. There's still so many teachers who need this support system and who need those groups. Like Kim said, to try to find those networks and to cultivate them, and power works by isolating.
I think, especially in these predominantly white spaces where you might be the only teacher in your school or in your department, is to try to seek out people or try to find opportunities whether if it's in your building district, like, we are starting a teacher's of color coalition group in my district, which I'm really looking forward to, but even to go outside. Kim has taught me that the power of local communities, right, to reach out to other people and to reach out through social media because people are out there.
They're looking for connection the way you are. I think that Val Brown of Teaching Tolerance and a good friend now, she has this great quote pinned on the top of her Twitter, which is, you know, something to the effect of, "What the bad guys are afraid of most are unity." I think trying to find those people to unify yourselves around, find that safe space, not even safe, empowering space is the key. To not let anyone convince you that you don't need it.
Sonja: I wanted to ask, basically, how did you all get so fierce? Literally, I know that sounds funny but I work with a lot of educators of color who feel silenced, and they feel powerless and I think it might be helpful for people to hear what's driving you? What's compelling us to really persist? When I think about that, I think about being inspired by my parents, particularly my dad and his experiences growing up in the segregated south, and just never wanting to take for granted the struggles and the sacrifices that he endured.
I also think about my daughter who, even though she's an adult, I look out at the world and I think everyday, "Oh, my gosh. How can I make this better? How can I make this a little bit better so that she can face less obstacles than I have?" That propels me to keep going. I was just wondering, I'm talking to these fierce women, how'd you get like that? How can you help others grow their fierceness? You have a cape somewhere?
Kim: Tricia and I go around about this when I told her I was not always like this. I mean, when I first started teaching, I was at a charter school, I was really into the rules and all of the conformity, and everything. I was down for demerits and I was into giving kids things to read. It was my choice, control choice. All of that is to say is that, for me, I wasn't just, as I told Tricia, I wasn't just born woke. It's been a process of realizing that freedom is really what we are after for kids. All kids deserve to be free. I want to be a teacher that nurtures their freedom, particularly for kids of color. They probably have had, they want to be free, but I think school structures do such a terrible job of promoting their freedom. Once I realized that, then my job is really to make them literate, free citizens of the world, but change my approach to teaching.
Then I think the most profound change for me came when Doctor Teresa Perry, who has been my mentor for many years, reminded me of the historical tradition of black teachers, and Vanessa Sybil Walker who writes about all of the subversive work black teachers did during desegregation, and before desegregation. Also, Carter G. Woodson's work with teachers and documenting teachers. Just reminds me in terms of locating myself, right, I'm just another teacher in a long line of black teachers who have always fought for what's right for kids of color. I don't think of myself as exceptional, I don't think of myself as special. I just think that this is the work that I'm supposed to be doing, and these are the people that I'm
When it's over and done with, someone else will pick it up, or they should. I think that's what is most important to me is that the work continues and it's a movement. This is my moment in the movement and when I'm done, I'm done. Someone else will pick it up and it'll be their turn.
Tricia: I think, I sometimes joke about this but I think it's true that the second half of my teaching career is this period of atonement. This idea that I've come, in my own racial literacy journey, to understand and see things much clearer and I'm still learning everyday. I think because I understand all the unpacking that I've had to do for myself, I just don't want kids to have to wait until they are my age to do this unpacking, or to see with clarity what the world is really like.
I just think they can do better. I don't have all the answers but I think I can change my practices so I'm not just perpetuating the same outcome over and over again. I think, and personally, my kids, you know, I think just my own children and thinking about them without trying to too much onto them, our experiences are different but I also know that I want to create a world that is going to be better for them. That means helping the students I have, this is the selfish thing, I want the students I have to be the types of people that I want my kids to feel safe and loves by.
Tiana: I don't think I've ever been a real follower. Maybe in some aspects of life, like, not sneaking out of the house when I was young, maybe. When it came to my work, I don't think I've ever been a rule follower. I think most recently, in the past four years, I've become more vocal and feeling, "Yes, I'm going to take action and be more vocal about this." I think the drive, it's personal. Sonja, you and I just spoke about this. This is personal. I exist because a teacher was woke in the sixties with my parents. Young lives are at stake here. We are in such privileged positions being teachers because we have the chance, we have the opportunity to really, really just cultivate the world that children are living in.
I don't want lives lost anymore. I don't. My children are of color. I want them growing up in a safe, aware, compassionate world. That's the drive there. For others to start to understand what it's been like and where we're going. It's life or death and I hate to be that dramatic about it, but it is. This is all about liberty and what does liberty really mean.
Learn more about Disrupt Texts here.
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