Opinion Blog

Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Equity & Diversity Opinion

Anti-Racist Teaching Strategies for Predominantly White Schools

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 04, 2021 12 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This is the first post in a two-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

This question is geared toward educators who are teaching in predominantly white schools. What are you doing to help your students understand systemic racism and take steps to combat it?

Recent attacks against schools for teaching about anti-racism point to the need to double down on these strategies—particularly in predominantly white communities.

There have been scores of posts in this blog about challenging racism in the classroom (see them all at Race & Racism in Schools), but this is the first discussing specific strategies to use in predominantly white schools.

Today, Lisa Stringfellow, PJ Caposey, and Jennifer Orr share their responses.

Creating ‘Safe Places’

Lisa Stringfellow teaches middle school English at an independent school in Boston. She is passionate about engaging students in their learning through innovative practices and examining literature through the lens of equity and social justice. She writes middle-grade fiction and is the author of A Comb of Wishes (2022, HarperCollins/Quill Tree Books). Connect with her on Twitter @EngageReaders:

It is more important than ever to help students understand issues of race and racism and that they have a role in helping to dismantle systemic inequalities. The events of the past year—the racial protests following the murder of George Floyd and the pandemic and its disproportionate impact on communities of color—brought to light hard truths about the realities of systemic racism. It is important to talk about these issues in the classroom, especially in predominantly white spaces.

Before teachers begin this work, there are several important steps to be taken to ensure students understand these important topics and can talk about them in a way that doesn’t perpetuate harm, especially for BIPOC students in the room.

Establish a shared vocabulary

Don’t assume that your students know what words mean. Establish a shared vocabulary early on for terms you plan to use in discussion so there is common meaning and understanding. For example, what is the difference between prejudice and racism?

Before reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry with my 6th grade English class, I share with students a glossary of words that we will use in our discussion. It includes:

  • Racism - a system of advantage based on race
  • Prejudice - an attitude, opinion, or feeling formed without adequate prior knowledge, thought, or reason
  • Anti-racism - action that supports dismantling racism, challenges individuals who support it, and works for institutional change

Having such a glossary gives us common language and allows us to have clear and nuanced conversations.

Create safe and inclusive spaces

When having sensitive conversations about race, students need guidelines. What are the norms of the group? How will the discussion be managed? And for particular importance for students of color in the room, will they feel safe?

I encourage teachers to craft a statement about how their class will operate and how they plan to support these important conversations while also protecting the dignity of all students. For example, teachers should not rely on students of color to be “experts” or speak for their race or identity group. The statement about safe and inclusive spaces can be part of the syllabus that is reviewed and revisited throughout the year or something posted in the room.

When reading literature that contains slurs or other harmful language, be explicit about how it will be handled. I state in my syllabus, “At times, our texts may contain racialized or hurtful language toward particular marginalized groups. Even if it is printed in our texts, we will not speak any hateful language in our classroom.” Students know that these topics will come up, but they also have assurances; they don’t have to wonder what to do or how these issues will be navigated if you have made it clear ahead of time.

It’s important to remind students of these norms during discussions and to stop and address problematic or hurtful comments when they occur.

Explore and affirm social identity

Understanding yourself is the first step toward understanding and respecting others. Race is a social construct, but it is also an important part of our identities. Hopefully, teachers will have done their own reflections on their identities as part of their preparation for guiding conversations in class. In my experience, though, students who are white often have not had many opportunities to reflect on their racial and social identities and may not have spent much time thinking about it.

Understanding their own personal identity and group memberships can allow students to consider their positionality when discussing topics. A question students might consider when discussing an issue is, “How does my identity influence my thoughts about X?”

Learning for Justice has extensive resources as part of their Social Justice Standards, including lessons to develop positive social identity and self-esteem and to recognize multiple identities in others.

Center marginalized voices and experiences

Characters in books are often assumed to be white until the author identifies them otherwise. “White” is seen as a default or “normal” position socially. It also remains at center in most curriculum design. When efforts are made to broaden or diversify curricula, teachers sometimes take an additive approach—adding more books by diverse authors to a summer reading list—leaving what is traditionally taught essentially the same, centered predominately on white experiences and perspectives. How can we deconstruct and reposition the voices and experiences we teach?

A strategy from Universal Design for Learning can be applied here. If you modify the environment to center the needs of your most prioritized learner, the accessibility for all students improves. Similarly, if you prioritize and uplift the voices and experiences of BIPOC and other marginalized groups in your curriculum, programs, and policies, the results will enhance understanding and benefit all students.

When discussing literature, I often ask students:

  • Whose voices are included?
  • Whose voices are left out?
  • Who holds power and who doesn’t?

We should put those voices in the center to reach everyone.

Further reading

Learning for Justice

Center for Anti-racist Education (CASE)

Facing History and Ourselves

Teaching While White

Building Anti-racist White Educators (BARWE)

UDL Rising to Equity initiative



PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, keynote speaker, consultant, and author of seven books who currently serves as the superintendent of schools for the nationally recognized Meridian CUSD 223 school district in northwest Illinois. You can find PJ on most social-media platforms as MCUSDSupe:

In the vast majority of predominantly white schools, the answer to what are we doing to understand systemic racism is “not enough.” In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and ensuing social unrest in the summer of 2020, the conversation of racism and inequity began in my district. For context, we are over 80 percent white and less than 1 percent African American.

Thankfully, we had a handful of concerned citizens that cared enough to call me out for not doing more. Fancying myself an open-minded “ally” to the movement who has even written personal blogs and spoken on the topic in the past, I was taken aback. So, I went back to my comfort zone. Kids.

I met with a handful of our students of color, past and present, and performed what would be similar to an exit interview. What I found was gut-wrenching for me. We had unintentionally created a system where our students of color chose to be voiceless throughout their school careers because it was “just easier.” They ignored or tolerated verbal abuse. They did not feel a true part of the school community.

This was the system I had unintentionally built. This is the system being built in most predominantly white schools. See, what happens is simple. A student is a victim of a racist act, hate speech, or even violence. As a school, we intervene and provide traditional consequences. Then, things go back to the way they were or intensify. Over time, the students of color find more harm in advocating for themselves than they do in silence.

This happens when every act reported is acted on. This happens when no shortcuts are taken. This happens when good intentions are present. I know, because this was the system I led.

As to how to fix the problem, I am not sure. We are in the infancy of our journey. This journey includes multiple meetings per month with the community, administration, faculty and staff, and board to discuss racism. We have spent a year working on internal victory before attempting a public win. What this process has exposed to each of us about ourselves has been enlightening at best and troublesome at worst.

We are working with other schools that have been down this road. What I can say for certain is this: Inaction is not an option. I can also say that relying on “textbook” reactionary policies is also not the solution. We must be proactive. If I were to provide two pieces of advice I believe every teacher, principal, or district leader should follow right now, it would be simple. First, talk, but more importantly, listen to your students of color and learn what it is like to be them in your class, school, or district. This will provide a clear and compelling reason why more work is necessary. Second, find a group of like-minded people and start having discussions. Learn about yourself and learn about the work. Quite simply, the first person you need to lead when it comes to creating a more racially inclusive environment is yourself.


Racism Is Not ‘A Thing From the Past’

Jennifer Orr is in her third decade of teaching elementary school students in the suburbs of Washington. She is a national-board-certified teacher, mom to two teenagers, and an obsessive reader of books of all kinds:

I teach fairly young children, 3rd graders. One of the things I have found, in more than 20 years of teaching elementary students, is that most young children believe that racism is a thing from the past. They know the stories of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. They have some sense of our history of slavery. But they do not connect those historical events and ideas with their lives right now. I have found this to be true teaching students of many races and ethnicities.

I currently teach on a military post in the suburbs of Washington. All of my students are in military families, and my classroom is diverse. Many of our students are white, but we also have large Black and Latinx populations. When we study the history of our country (and the history of Virginia, which includes “massive resistance,” when many school districts closed schools rather than integrate them), my students are appalled. They cannot imagine such a reality.

A part of me is grateful for their shock. It gives me hope. Another part of me is concerned that they do not understand what life is like for many people of color today. For both my white students and my students of color, I want to be sure they are prepared for and able to see the reality in our country. I want to know that they are conscious of the choices they make and that they see made around them. I won’t pretend the world is an equitable place when it is so clearly not true.

One of the biggest things that can help prepare children to take steps to improve the world in which they live is to strengthen their critical-thinking and critical-analysis skills. Young children tend to believe what they are told by adults, all adults. Those in their lives and those they see on screens. Helping them realize that they can question what they see and hear, rather than simply absorb it, is a huge first step.

We do this, as we do many things, through literature. Using fairy tales, stories my students have frequently known for all of their lives, we dig. We explore how people (by gender, by race, by age, by socioeconomic status, by attractiveness, etc.) are portrayed. We explore who has power in these stories and who does not. We explore who is missing from these stories. It doesn’t take long for students, at least a few of them, to begin to transfer that thinking to the world around them, especially when they feel they are the ones without power or a voice. Helping students see that they can question and analyze fairy tales gives them permission and the skills to question and analyze so much more.

We also explore current issues, often through young people who are taking action. We learn about Mari Copeny (Little Miss Flint) and Marley Dias and her work with #1000BlackGirlBooks. My young students are immediately engaged to see people their age, or close at least, who have identified inequities in their communities and are taking action to address them.

Offering students windows into issues in our country and helping them strengthen their critical-thinking and questioning skills don’t take a lot of time but have a huge reward in seeing students who reflect deeply and feel strongly.


Thanks to Lisa, PJ, and Jennifer for contributing their thoughts.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 10 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Classroom Strategies for Building Equity and Student Confidence
Shape equity, confidence, and success for your middle school students. Join the discussion and Q&A for proven strategies.
Content provided by Project Lead The Way
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Professional Development Webinar
Disrupting PD Day in Schools with Continuous Professional Learning Experiences
Hear how this NC School District achieved district-wide change by shifting from traditional PD days to year-long professional learning cycles
Content provided by BetterLesson
Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity Q&A How Schools Can Address Racial Stressors, An Expert Explains
A Stanford researcher looks at how schools play a role in interventions for students of color dealing with racial stressors.
6 min read
Student alone in an empty school hallway (blurred). Bullying, discrimination and racism.
Pornpak Khunatorn/iStock/Getty
Equity & Diversity Educational Inequality: 4 Moments in History That Explain Where We Are Today
A new Columbia University report highlights how inequality was embedded in the creation of public education in the United States.
5 min read
This May 8, 1964 file photo shows Linda Brown Smith standing in front of the Sumner School in Topeka, Kan. The refusal of the public school to admit Brown in 1951, then nine years old, because she is black, led to the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the "separate but equal" clause and mandated that schools nationwide must be desegregated.
This May 8, 1964 file photo shows Linda Brown Smith standing in front of the Sumner School in Topeka, Kan. The refusal of the public school to admit Brown in 1951, then nine years old, because she is black, led to the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the "separate but equal" clause and mandated that schools nationwide must be desegregated.
AP Photo
Equity & Diversity The Origins of Racial Inequality in Education
"Uncovering Inequality," a project from Columbia University, chronicles how policies created and sustained inequalities in schools.
4 min read
In this May 13, 2014, file photo National Education Association staff members from Washington joining students, parents and educators at a rally at the Supreme Court in Washington on the 60th anniversary Brown v. Board of Education decision that struck down "separate but equal" laws that kept schools segregated.
In this May 13, 2014, file photo National Education Association staff members from Washington joining students, parents and educators at a rally at the Supreme Court in Washington on the 60th anniversary Brown v. Board of Education decision that struck down "separate but equal" laws that kept schools segregated.
AP Photo
Equity & Diversity Opinion 'What We Need Is Compassion Toward One Another'
Robert F. Kennedy spoke timeless words following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. His message should guide educators today.
A.J. Rinaldi
4 min read
Mourners gather at the Ebenezer Baptist Church for funeral services for the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in Atlanta, Ga., April 9, 1968. Seated from far left are, Sen. Robert Kennedy and his wife, Ethel; Archbishop Cooke of New York, in front of Kennedy; Margaretta Rockefeller, third from left in next row; Whitney Young of the Urban League, leaning forward and speaking to Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen, at far right. Among the people standing are, Michigan Gov. George Romney, third from right; New York Mayor John Lindsay; and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, far right.
Mourners, including Robert F. Kennedy, gather on April 9, 1968, at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta for funeral services for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.