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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.

Teaching Opinion

Connect With Colleagues to Counter Critical Race Theory Critics

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 06, 2021 10 min read
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(This is the third post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

A number of states have either passed or are considering legislation that would ban critical race theory and, in some cases, many types of lessons that teach about systemic racism. How should educators respond to these efforts?

In Part One, Ashley McCall, Jennifer Jilot, Lorie Barber, and Ishmael Robinson shared their reflections.

In Part Two, Neema Avashia, Margaret Thornton, and Ruth Okoye contributed their commentaries.

Today, Jennifer Borgioli Binis, Meg Tegerdine, and Stephanie Smith Budhai, Ph.D., write their answers.

Making Connections

Jennifer Borgioli Binis is president of Schoolmarm Advisors, a freelance researcher, editor, and fact checker for education authors. She’s led dozens of large- and small-scale curriculum- and assessment-design projects with teachers across the East Coast:

Despite the communal nature of education, teaching can be a solitary act. Even in schools with a teacher-designed curriculum, strong coaching systems, and a collaborative culture, there are thousands of moments when individual teachers make decisions by themselves, informed by their mental models and professional judgments. And fewer of these moments feel more isolating and intimidating than when the decisionmaking is about something controversial.

Author and researcher Diana Hess defines controversial issues “as topics that reflect authentic questions about the kinds of public policies that should be adopted to address public problems” (Hess, 2009, p. 5). This definition helps us situate matters of racism firmly under the umbrella of controversy. Many, many, indeed many, organizations want to provide teachers with guidance on how to negotiate and navigate specific controversial issues, including systemic racism, and much of their advice is solid, grounded in a desire to help. But, unfortunately, a lot of it is far removed from actual classrooms and less than helpful when positioned inside what can be the solitary world of an individual teacher.

As such, one of the best ways to respond to recent legislation is to throw open the proverbial classroom door and embrace or find community. The nature of our communities bend and shift based on our needs, identity, short- and long-term goals; the community you needed as a new teacher is different from what you need in your fifth or 15th year of teaching. Likewise, the community a solitary person of color in a school needs in this moment may be different from what a group of white women educators just getting comfortable talking about race need. It’s essential, though, given the complexity and tension of this moment, that teachers know they do not have to face this all alone.

There is no perfect community, and no one group of people can offer everything. Instead, the invitation is to connect with people who can provide protection and support and those who challenge and question your thinking. You may find both on social media through Twitter chats focused on matters of systemic racism, but if you find that everyone is perpetually on the same page, at all times, about all things, it’s worth seeking out thought partners who challenge you or expand your thinking. Several publication houses support community-oriented fellowships, and such work is part of national unions’ conferences. Content-focused organizations like NCTM and NCTE offer grants that can be used to support teacher-led professional learning communities. Others, such as Zinn Education Project support study groups around particular topics or texts.

Meanwhile, groups like TODOS, URC, or Institute for Racial Equity in Literacy were founded explicitly to offer community to like-minded teachers. You might even find this is the perfect moment to consider your national-board certification. If you prefer something local and/or more personalized, the sheer size of the teacher force in American is such that if you reach out to any organization with local chapters and units, such as the NAACP or SURJ, the membership rolls will include teachers.

I’m of the mind that there is no right or best way to respond to what’s happening in this moment. However, some responses can compound harm done to children, and the best way to mitigate that impact to the greatest extent possible is by being as thoughtful and proactive as possible.

Reach out to your union and push them to create affinity and peer-review groups. If you don’t have access to a union, encourage your administrators to create—and protect—space for you and your colleagues to brainstorm and collaborate. If your direct administrators are not willing or able to create that space, consider organizing text-based discussions or lesson-study sessions. If that doesn’t feel viable or safe, for whatever reason, consider spending some time with Hess’ work, including her book with Paula McAvoy, The Political Classroom. If even that feels too risky, if you’re feeling too alone, too far over your skis, or too unsure about how to find a way forward in this moment, my Twitter direct mentions are open. I’d be honored to help you find a community.


Teaching ‘the Truth’

Meg Tegerdine is a nine-year veteran special educator teaching in a self-contained setting in north St. Louis County, in Missouri. Three words she uses to describe her classroom culture are leadership, community, and voice. Meg was recognized as a 2021 Extraordinary Educator by Curriculum Associates:

I am only speaking for myself and what I believe to be the best course for my students and community. I did not become a teacher to teach from a boxed set of materials or to grade papers. And I definitely did not become a teacher to indoctrinate a whole population of students with false theories, ideas, and “truths” that I know are not true. No, I became a teacher so that I could make learning engaging and meaningful for my students. I became a teacher so that I could see their frustration when they ruminate on a difficult concept and then watch their eyes light up when they finally make sense of it in their own way.

I fully believe that it is my responsibility to teach students the truth. Let’s be honest, our students are far more aware of the imbalances in our systems than we want to believe. They probably see the truth of the systemic racism in our world through their clearer vision. They are not as biased or jaded by the things adults have experienced and they often speak the truth, even as we struggle to accept it. It would be an incredible disservice and breach of my educational integrity to paint a false narrative of our world. I believe that lessons on systemic racism should absolutely be taught in schools, and any attempt to do otherwise is to continue to bolster the very injustices that are so ingrained in every facet of our lives.

And here’s the thing. My main job as an educator is to help my students learn how to think critically. How to take in information and differentiate between reliable and unreliable sources. My job is to help them utilize the skills they have to make up their own minds about different topics. I did not become a teacher to push my beliefs and ideals on my students. I became a teacher to support them in determining their own beliefs and their own ideals. In my mind, the danger is not in teaching about systemic racism but in completely ignoring it. By choosing to ban critical race theory and lessons pertaining to systemic racism, I believe that states and school districts are reinforcing the very ideals that they are so vehemently saying are not present in our world. Why not teach it? What are you scared of?


Educators Can Educate Themselves

Stephanie Smith Budhai, Ph.D., is co-author of the forthcoming book Culturally Responsive Teaching Online and In-Person: An Action Planner for Dynamic Equitable Learning Environments. She is also a certified K-12 teacher and teaches pre- and in-service teachers culturally responsive and anti-racist teaching practices:

Critical race theory and lessons about systemic racism are steps in exposing students to the true history, perspectives, and lived experiences of groups of people whose voices have been silenced. It is important to approach teaching and learning using critical frameworks to better understand how institutionalized and systemic racism is built into the fabric of society.

Educators are at the crux of the classroom and have the power to enlighten students on the world around them, without providing any political opinions. Educators should respond to the efforts of banning critical race theory in the same way that others before them worked to keep religious freedom in schools. School boards, particularly elected ones, are often controlled by community members in positions of power. And if they do not support particular legislation, it is likely that it will not come to pass. Educators can engage in discourse around critical race theory and institutional racism and its connection to academics with district and legislative leaders.

People are generally afraid of what they do not understand. Educators can connect the need for students to understand the constructs that have led to racism in America and develop project- and inquiry-based learning activities to help them situate their thinking into the current realities of society. Educators can start by using their privilege to speak up and speak out about the harm in further silencing the voices, many of whom are in the same demographics as their students, of those whose stories have not been told at all, not accurately or not completely.

Educators can start with a book study for other educators and school leaders on White Fragility and Nice Racism and go from there. Once like-minded individuals have thought about their own bias and prejudices that may be impacting their support of a ban on critical race theory and lessons on systemic racism, they can work together to devise a plan for addressing the concerns of others. There is strength in numbers. Educators educate, and this time, the education will be for the educators themselves.


Thanks to Jennifer, Meg, and Stephanie for their contributions!

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 nine years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

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

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.


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