Teacher Preparation

English Teachers Must Be Anti-Racist, National Group Says

By Madeline Will — November 10, 2021 5 min read
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Prospective middle and high school English teachers should be trained to be anti-racist and to incorporate digital media in their curriculum, according to a new set of standards by the National Council of Teachers of English.

The council’s standards for educators preparing to be English/language arts teachers in grades 7-12 were released on Tuesday after last being updated in 2012. They were developed by an NCTE committee that is comprised of educators in both K-12 and higher education, and will be used in teacher education programs to determine the coursework for teacher candidates.

“A lot of change is afoot [in English/language arts education], and we want to use the standards as an active means to communicate what NCTE believes is essential to possess coming into teaching grades 7-12,” said NCTE Executive Director Emily Kirkpatrick. “The guiding light is that the demands on students and the demands from society have changed the landscape significantly.”

The new standards come at a time when English teachers have found themselves embroiled in the national controversy over how to teach about the nation’s history of racism. Experts, including the NCTE, say that books by Black authors or that feature Black protagonists are increasingly being challenged by those who worry they’re promoting critical race theory. (Critical race theory is an academic framework that says racism isn’t just the product of individual bias but is embedded in legal systems and policies.)

Even books that have little to do with critical race theory—like Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir by Jacqueline Woodson about her childhood as a young African American girl in the 1960s and 1970s and The Story of Ruby Bridges, a picture book that tells the true story of a 6-year-old Black girl who integrated a whites-only school—have been challenged. Experts say the challenges could create a chilling effect, where teachers don’t select books about race to avoid pushback and controversy.

The NCTE standards ask teacher candidates to:

  • Understand their students’ identities and foster an inclusive learning environment;
  • Select a variety of texts—including young adult, classic, and contemporary novels, as well as different forms of media—that represent a range of world literatures, historical traditions, genres, cultures, and experiences;
  • Plan and implement relevant, standards-aligned, differentiated, and anti-racist instruction and assessment to help all students meet their learning goals;
  • Reflect on their own identities and experiences and how that might shape their practice, and then use feedback and evidence from different sources to grow.

“It’s a map—it helps teachers think about what they want to teach and how they can teach it,” said LaMar Timmons-Long, a 10th grade English teacher in New York City and the secondary representative-at-large on NCTE’s executive committee.

Anti-racism is woven throughout the standards

In 2012, the standards used the term “social justice” instead of “anti-racist/anti-bias instruction.” Kirkpatrick said the shift in language was meant to be more specific and have educators interrogate whether every aspect of their instruction—from literature selection to writing prompts—is rooted in an anti-bias perspective.

“In many ways, the standards really back a teacher up in terms of having expertise, and therefore, having the agency to make choices,” Kirkpatrick said, noting the influx of challenges to books about race.

NCTE advocates that teachers always have written reasoning for why their chosen book is the best selection for communicating and exploring certain concepts and topics. Kirkpatrick said the anti-racist expectations in the standards also urge programs to prepare teachers to constantly evaluate: Is the book they’re selecting relevant today? Why is it important for students to read now, regardless of its importance five years ago?

For example, books like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Of Mice and Men have been challenged for what some see as problematic portrayals of race or for their use of racial slurs. Some English teachers are voluntarily moving away from teaching those books, although others say they remain important parts of the canon.

Even so, not all teachers have the ability to choose which books they teach. Those teachers should still amplify voices of color when teaching canonical books that center whiteness, Timmons-Long said, adding that they can ask the class: Why are there no characters of color here? What was the author thinking? What was happening in this time period?

The NCTE standards, he said, help prepare teachers to be able to teach counter-narratives and make sure all students feel represented in the conversation.

The standards emphasize digital literacy

Kirkpatrick said the updated standards acknowledge that students are learning from and consuming a wide range of digital media, from long-form films to short videos on YouTube or TikTok.

“Students are both creating as well as remixing and curating content,” she said. “Preparing teachers to interact with this and bring it into the classroom is essential for relevance.”

And bringing that content into the classroom can help teach students how to evaluate different forms of media and identify misinformation. Teenagers are frequently exposed to misinformation on social media sites like TikTok, ranging from false information about COVID-19 vaccines to theories that Helen Keller wasn’t a real person.

“For many years, media literacy was viewed as the cherry on top or an add on, and the standards are very much taking the view that it must be part of, it must be integrated in [the course],” Kirkpatrick said, adding that teachers should teach students how to evaluate creators’ biases and how to cross-check information with another source.

Lisa Scherff, a 10th grade English and Advanced Placement Research teacher at a private school in Naples, Fla., and a member of the NCTE executive committee, said she has used the Stanford History Education Group’s civic online reasoning curriculum to see if her 10th graders can discern fact from fiction—and had students who struggled with the exercise. Centering media literacy in English classes, she said, is critical.

“In times like this, we need brave teachers, creative teachers, well-rounded teachers who have been trained in all aspects of the English/language arts, and that does include technology and media literacy,” Scherff said. “It’s really exciting to me to see the evolution of the standards.”

NCTE is holding its annual convention virtually next week. Former first lady Michelle Obama is scheduled to speak, along with Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is the author of the New York Times’ 1619 Project.

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