How can we all work to better communicate with one another about systemic racism and xenophobia? How do teachers do the internal work of equity in their practice?
This summer authors Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul and Tricia Ebarvia will be co-facilitating a special Institute for Racial Equity in Literacy at The University of New Hampshire. As we prepare for this work, we’ve ask Sonja and Tricia to talk more about what this work looks like.
Sonja: In thinking about this institute, one of the things that it brings to mind to me is how isolated I know I felt in the school district I was working in in terms of being able to talk about issues related to race and racism. One of the things I tried to do was to create a platform, if you will, for this conversation to exist in this school district, where I knew there had to be other people who were feeling the way I felt about silences around race and racism, but who maybe we're just, I don't know, navigating this on their own. When I think about this institute, I think about teachers like me and some of the teachers that joined the committee that I co-created who were also feeling like maybe this isn't at the forefront of everyone's minds in their school districts, they wish it were, and so our institute could be a place for folks to come together where we create a larger circle of colleagues to engage in these sorts of conversations.
Tricia: I agree, Sonja. I think one of the things that's so difficult with a profession that is more than 80% white and white women is that teachers of color are isolated, right?
Tricia: Throughout history we've seen that systematic oppression is facilitated by isolation, sort of a divide and conquer. Even if it's not intentional or purposeful, and I don't know, in some cases maybe it is, but I think because there are so few teachers of color in many school districts, and I think the latest statistic I heard earlier this year was that there were 40% of schools in the United States did not have a single teacher of color, you can think about how hard it is for teachers like us to find each other and to have these conversations.
Even if schools do have teachers of color, I think the other issue is that whiteness as a ideology, I guess you could say, is what permeates most of public schooling, even from its inception. I think even schools that have teachers of color, because they're also few in number and isolated, the school system is set up in such a way that makes having conversations about race really difficult to have and difficult for teachers of color to even bring up, because we've been socialized to not talk about race, which makes it so hard.
Sonja: Right, right, and because we know the field of education is such that more than 80% of teachers are white, we can expect that probably the majority of teachers coming to this institute will be white teachers. I think that is an opportunity for us to talk about some of these issues, for them to really be reflective about the fact that let's look at this room and let's look at who's able to be here and let's look at who isn't. Just having that conversation can be very eye opening because there are these narratives that people build around education and around professional development that I think can be also exclusive and unspoken.
I think we need to be very explicit about this with teachers when we come together, that even this institute, as much as we are working hard for this to be a space where we are thinking about anti-racist practices, even this institute is, if you will, a place that is making it difficult for teachers of color to come to the table. Doing things like this podcast and being active on social media, Tricia, which you are just constantly giving so much of yourself and your time, but that's really important because there are teachers of color in districts who are really unable to take advantage of PD like this. Going further, I think this is something we'll need to be considering, right?
Tricia: Yeah, totally agree, Sonja. I think that the in real life experience of being able to sit in a room with one another is so valuable for us, but we also have to be mindful of the many, many teachers who are not able to be with us for many different reasons. Some of them have to do with cost and scheduling and just life, right? It is the summer. To be able to bring this work and bring these conversations into media platforms like Twitter or other social media, in order to just keep the conversation going, because I know I've learned so much through my social media interactions and have developed real genuine relationships with people that I have never met in real life, which sounds crazy, but is also amazing. What a gift to be able to bring teachers together who may otherwise never be able to have conversation, and especially conversation about issues regarding race and racism in schools.
Sonja: That's right. There is a growing body of work being written around race, which is so exciting. Every day there seems to be a new book that's being published that we can access and read and learn. The research around racial literacy, the theorizing around that is really very limited even though it's a term we use a lot. To help teachers really begin to think about this, I think many of the things we're going to be doing at this institute is to just encourage self-examination and critical discussion and to be asking educators to think about their own racial classification and how they view those with different racial ethnic classifications. To have that discussion is going to be a really rich opportunity that I would like all participants to, and even those who aren't able to be there, to take part of.
It's not always easy to get this information because the research on it is trying to catch up with the demand. I do see a big demand for theory and research and PD around racial literacy. I'm hoping that at this institute, for those who are present and for those who will be following us on social media, they'll be able to access these explicit discussions about race and racism we'll be having and how this impacts students in the classroom, what the process of racial literacy development looks like, particularly in the context of an English classroom, but not limited to English classrooms, and how might these explicit conversations affect students' literacy development? I know you've been in the English classroom for a long time, Tricia. What are you thinking about what teachers present of the institute and those who will be following us will be able to think about in terms of racial literacy and as well as literacy development?
Tricia: Yeah, I think one of the things that's really interesting about education is that we always talk about buzz words, right? One buzz word that we often talk about or hear is this idea of like 21st century literacy. I maintain that technological literacy, 21st century literacy, any of these things, none of these things will be effective if we don't have racial literacy, because at the end of the day, understanding who we are as racialized human beings in the United States is critical to understanding the way we read and write and understand and interact with the world.
In my experience in recent years as I've become more comfortable talking explicitly about race and about our identities as readers and writers, it has opened up so many new avenues and pathways for thinking and self reflection that I don't think were necessarily available when I didn't make those conversations possible in my classroom through just feeling uncomfortable about talking about race because, again, that's what we've been socialized to do. I, in my classroom, talk a lot and begin with first with identity and exploring the multiple ways that our identities shape our experiences and shape our reading and writing.
One of the things that we're going to be doing at this institute ... This might be a good time to introduce the essential questions. One of the things that we'll be looking at is exploring the idea of racial equity through the anti-bias framework and social justice standards from Teaching Tolerance, which I have actually used a lot in my classroom. Just to give everyone a preview, and for those of you who are following me along the social media, our first question ... These questions actually form the arc of the institute. Our first question is thinking about how we just identify ourselves racially and what impact race has had on our lives.
We've been doing a lot of work around racial equity. The idea of putting together and understanding for ourselves a racial autobiography is so critical to this work, because if we are going to think about dismantling systems of oppression, we have to understand how those systems of oppression have worked on us as individuals. Thinking about that first big question, which is going to be the work of our institute on the first day, is really how do we identify racially, what role has race had in my life, and really, what role has race had in my life specifically as a teacher, thinking about my expectations for schools and my beliefs about what students can and can't do? Sonja, do you want to share the next central question?
Sonja: Yes. We'll also be thinking about diversity, which is, I like to call it a very ambiguous term these days, because there could be so many different interpretations of what diversity is, but specifically we'll be thinking about what is the racial experience of others and how does race impact people of different backgrounds? I think that is really important for our students to be able to do and to understand. A very key part of them developing racial literacy is to be able to really probe the existence of racism and examine the effects of race and other social constructs and institutional systems that affect their lives and the lives of others different from themselves.
Tricia:That leads right into the justice domain, which is thinking about how do individual racial experiences and identities lead to, and/or impact systemic racial inequities? This idea that we all have our lived experiences as racialized human beings, I have mine, you have yours, each person has their own lived truths, but in many ways, how can we interrogate what these experiences and these beliefs around race, how can we interrogate the ways in which these beliefs and ideas around race then come together to form systemic inequities, right?
Tricia: How beliefs shape attitudes and then attitudes then shape policy and actually affect outcomes as well.
Sonja: Last, but certainly not least, is action. How can we ground our literacy practices to fight for racial equity and for justice? Ideally, what we'd like is for students who acquire a racial literacy throughout their time in our classrooms to be able to discuss the implications of race in edifying and constructive ways. In short, a desired outcome of racial literacy is that members of the dominant racial category are able to adopt an anti-racist stance and persons of color are going to be able to resist a victim stance. I think that's something else that we'll be striving to balance in this institute.
Tricia: Yeah, and I think that one of the, I guess, resources or opportunities that we have, especially as literacy teachers and language arts teachers, is the written word, the spoken word, conversation. We have stories, right?
Tricia: We have countless stories that we can use. What are the counter stories in our own students' lives, right? What are the dominant narratives that they have experienced about what it means to be Asian American or African American or Latinx, or even white, right? What are these dominant narratives and how can we disrupt them? I don't know. I know I'm biased because I am a language arts teacher. I don't know of any other way, any more powerful way than reading and writing about ourselves that can help us really interrogate our identity. Right?
Sonja: Right, right.
Tricia: ... and help us understand others.
Sonja: I'm most looking forward to coming together with educators around the country to really tackle important work that has been silenced in much of education. I'm super excited to explore some rich texts together and to think about how we can apply this work to our teaching in the greatest sense. Right? Getting the information from the text that will inform our teaching, but also thinking about the texts we use in the classroom and learning to think more about representation and authorship and context and content as we are selecting texts. Those are some things that really excite me about the institute.
Tricia: I am really excited about exactly what you said, Sonja, which is being able to illuminate for participants and for ourselves how we can do this work of racial literacy and really racial equity within the language arts classroom and just within our classrooms in general. It's not an add on, right? This isn't a thing where, oh, I have this unit on social justice or I have this unit on racial literacy. I think this work is so fundamental to who we are as people because we are racialized human beings. It's so fundamental to who we are as people that it is already embedded in everything we do in language arts, right? We're just not intentional about it. I think that's one thing that teachers don't understand.
I think sometimes teachers get too preoccupied by, "I have to get through this content," or, "I have to teach these skills," or, "I have to get ready ... " I totally understand the pressure of tests and state tests and standardized tests, but the work of racial equity and the work of racial literacy and really social justice is not separate from the daily work we do with kids in our classrooms. We've already been doing it. When we haven't been intentional about it, what that means is that we've often been defaulting to what the dominant narratives in schooling, which has often been resulting in systemic inequalities related to race. We just end up participating in that when we're not intentional.
Sonja: I think the other thing I'd like to just talk about is that this work can be positioned as divisive work. "Oh, we're going to talk about race. This is too heavy for the classroom. Our kids can't do this work. It's too hard." I think there's this misinterpretation of this as divisive, polarizing work that happens in our classrooms. I have to say from my experience as a teacher, and I know yours too Tricia, this is exciting work.
Sonja: This is transformational work.
Sonja: I think once we come together and can really think about our own identities and what has kept us from doing this work, then we're lowering the gates. We're lowering some of the obstacles, our own obstacles that we've built around it and can see the light and can see the potential and can see just the importance of doing this work everyday in the classroom. I think it's going to be very difficult to go back to business as usual. Once we do this, you will forever start to see how this work lives and breathes and everything you do every single day.
Tricia: Right. Yes, and I will say too, I think just talking about race, "talking about race," is only divisive because we allow it to be, because we say it is.
Tricia: I think part of this institute and what I'm really looking forward to is being able to have really open, honest and vulnerable discussions that we as educators need to have and that our students deserve to have. We can't send them out into the world unable to talk about race.
Sonja: That's right.
Tricia: That has not gotten us anywhere if we look at society, right?
Sonja: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Tricia: I think one of the greatest tools we can give students is the ability to talk openly, honestly and productively about racial issues, because I think if you can talk about race, you can really talk ... If you can manage those conversations, you can really talk about anything.
For information on the event, please visit the UNH Registration page.
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Sonja Cherry-Paul, EdD, has taught middle school English for twenty years. She is a literacy consultant who served on the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award committee for ten years. Sonja leads presentations about literacy at national conferences and provides professional development for educators on reading and writing instruction and racial literacy.
She is the coauthor, with Dana Johansen, of the titles Teaching Interpretation and Flip Your Writing Workshop.
Follow Sonja on Twitter @SonjaCherryPaul
Tricia Ebarvia has spent the last 15 years as a classroom educator with a student-driven approach to teaching reading and writing. Through her career, Tricia has applied the philosophy of the teacher-as-researcher while applying best practices to “cultivate independent learners” through independent reading and student choice. “For better or worse, “well enough” doesn’t satisfy me. I approach each school year, each course, each unit with fresh eyes.” Tricia teaches at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, PA, and is a Heinemann Fellow in the 2016-2018 cohort. Follow her on Twitter @triciaebarvia