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Teaching Opinion

Strategies for Embracing Anti-Racist Work in Our Classrooms

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 27, 2020 15 min read
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The new question-of-the-week is:

What specific changes are you making in your teaching this year as a result of what you have learned from the killing of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests?

The shooting of Jacob Blake earlier this week highlights—yet again—that those of us who have not yet made anti-racism a central part of our curriculum can wait no longer.

Today, Keturah Proctor, Erika Niles, Dr. Theresa Capra, and Mark Holt share their plans and suggestions to do just that.

You can find additional related resources at Race & Racism in Schools.

Embracing Anti-Bias, Anti-Racist Work

Keturah Proctor has just completed her 20th year in education in the Elmsford Union Free school district. She began her career as a special education teacher and for the last 18 years, she has taught 6th grade math and English/language arts:

In the wake of the brutal killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the horrific shooting of Jacob Blake, how can we not step back and reflect on our teaching and instruction? We are in the midst of transformational change in our country.

As educators, we must acknowledge that the events of our society impact the practice and activities of our classrooms. Students are coming in with knowledge and experiences that are rooted in real life, and teachers must be reflective and responsive enough to create space for this knowledge and these experiences to be valued as learning.

Chris Emdin speaks of “Reality Pedagogy” in his text, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...And the Rest of Y’all Too. This new look at pedagogy values creating a space for students’ experiences to anchor the learning and welcomes what is happening in society as the catalyst for students and teachers to engage in the learning process together. It values and centers the experiences of the students over curriculum mandates and “status quo” learning experiences.

In our instruction, we must create opportunities where we are intentionally embedding learning experiences that are authentic for students. Our students must know that what they experience outside of the classroom has value and purpose inside of the classroom. We reflect that through text selection, assessments, projects, and discussion. We have to shift from what was to create what will be. Learning must be authentic but should also focus on creating space where our students have agency, or ownership and control over their own learning. We also have to make sure that the purpose of our instruction is rooted in action as a means to promote change. We want our students to question, analyze, and challenge so that they are also actively moving toward cultivating their understanding of systems of oppression and marginalization. As we begin to embrace anti-bias, anti-racist work, we want to provide the space where students can openly question and critique what is happening in their educational experience as well as what is happening in society.

In addition to examining our instruction, we must also look at ourselves and grow personally. Teachers must begin to look inward and grow their capacity in understanding racial equity and anti-bias, anti-racist work. This requires constant learning and unlearning as to how standards of whiteness actually create learning environments that are oppressive and marginalizing. It also requires being vulnerable and uncomfortable as we begin to challenge the biases and the standards of whiteness that live within us.

Overall, our commitment must be to challenge what we value as true and develop our critical consciousness so that we can work toward decolonizing the educational experiences of our children and embrace education as an act of liberation and freedom.


Erika Niles is an instructional coordinator in the St. Louis area. She is passionate about ALL students:

When I first read the question, I wondered if I was the right person to respond. As a white educator, I don’t have all the answers. However, all too often I have seen my Black friends and colleagues asked to do the heavy lifting when it comes to answering questions on racism and equity. While I know I don’t have the same level of expertise and understanding, I also know that we have to stop asking the people experiencing the harm to do the teaching. It’s on white educators to know better, to do better.

So, what should white teachers learn from the murder of George Floyd?

Decenter Yourself

As hard as it may be, and as much as you may want to, don’t look away. History is unfolding before our eyes, and racial injustice is once again in the center. Take whatever sadness you may feel as a white educator and multiply that by a lifetime of pain and injustice; that is the experience of our Black educator colleagues. White people, this is not about you.

Learn History

We claim to be lifelong learners; however, we tend to limit ourselves to learning about 21st-century education and pedagogy and fail to look at the hundreds of years that Black folx have suffered as a result of our actions (or inactions). We must make ourselves incredibly familiar with history that centers the perspectives and stories of Black folx. While understanding slavery and racism is important, there are also amazing accomplishments and achievements that go unmentioned or overlooked. We must learn about those, too. If we don’t take time to educate ourselves on Black history, we are going to have a tough time confronting the systems and institutions that have perpetuated inequities and racism.

Understand Equity

We need to deepen and extend our understanding of equity to include the dismantling of systems perpetuating these inequities. In this understanding, we must acknowledge that diversity and inclusion, in isolation, will not change outcomes for our students. The best place to gather knowledge is from Black authors and educators. Read the books, follow the threads, and listen to the podcasts. And, when you think you know everything there is to know, find another Black author or educator to read or follow. And listen, again.

Don’t Wait

Buying the books and reading the books aren’t action steps. They give us background information in order to better understand what steps we should take. The first step is talking about racism. For far too long, we’ve let the wrong people set the tone and pace for this work. We can’t pause and wait for people to catch up or feel comfortable. We have an ongoing crisis in our country where people have spent hundreds of years feeling uncomfortable as a result of our inability or unwillingness to act. Being anti-racist as a public educator should be the rule, not the exception.

Build Community

Have the right people at the table. I am not, nor will I ever be, an expert on racism. Experts are those who have, themselves, experienced racism. If we aren’t working in partnership with our Black families and community members, it’s time to start. We need to have open and honest conversations about how to hire and retain more Black educators and how to support our Black families and community members. And when these experts speak, we need to listen and be prepared to act.

ALL Kids

Building honest and trusting relationships with our students where we can talk about race, racism, and equity should be a top priority. We need to pay attention to whose story is being told in our class and how we amplify diverse perspectives. We must model anti-racism and equity in what we say, how we say it, and whom we say it to. We can’t say we love ALL children unconditionally and then fail to talk to them about race, racism, and equity. In doing so, we are creating greater injustice for our Black students. And if kindergarten feels too young to talk about racism, remember that our Black students have had to learn about it firsthand from the time they entered this world.

Go Vote

Get out and vote. But don’t just vote. Educate yourself on how candidates voted in the past. What did they support? What did they not support? Our sphere of influence has the potential to extend to those that we elect. Choose wisely. Black Lives Matter.

Thank You

I am not an expert. I am constantly learning from the many Black authors and educators who continue to do the heavy lifting: Michelle Alexander, John Hope Franklin, Wesley Lowery, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Layla F. Saad, Ibram X. Kendi, and many more. We must continue to magnify and amplify the voices of people who have fought so hard and overcome so much to help us in our quest to love and honor all students.

“Teachers must incorporate race into their teaching”

Dr. Theresa Capra is a professor of education and clinical supervisor for teacher-candidates. She is the founder of edtapas.com, which focuses on research, trends, technology, and tips for educators:

The killing of George Floyd has sent shockwaves through the world, igniting protests. The Black Lives Matter movement has become a symbol of the enduring battle for racial equality. But there are quiet battles to fight, too, and schools should lead the charge. Now is not the time for diffidence in the classroom. Teachers must incorporate race into their teaching, and schools must support them.

It’s a delicate endeavor for a number of reasons. First, 80 percent of public school teachers are white while over 50 percent of the students are nonwhite. Schools are more racially segregated than ever before, so in reality, there are classrooms filled with Black students led by white teachers, while white students have very few, if any, Black teachers. The last thing Black students need is a white teacher espousing the harms of racism.

Yet classrooms are the perfect place for civil discourse because everyone comes in the spirit of learning. And researchers have long asserted that conversations about abstract concepts such as race, sexism, and inequality must begin in elementary school in order to pave the way for thoughtful citizens who can actively improve society.

However, such discussions seldom occur, and when they do, they are usually plucked from superficial social studies units based on textbooks that treat minority experiences with random precision. Compounding this problem is the fact that social studies itself has been marginalized. Many elementary schools only teach social studies for half of the year with a scattered, topical approach that achieves little more than checking a box. Ironically, social studies has become ancient history.

I am not suggesting schools and teachers can cure racism by discussing the killing of George Floyd. What I am suggesting is that the role of race, gender, stereotypes, and power constructs should be consistently treated with a well-planned curriculum commencing in the early-childhood years and enduring into college.

So how can teachers get this important work started? The increased use of virtual learning could actually make this easier for a couple of reasons. First, teachers will be exploring websites, tools, and resources with greater frequency, and there are a lot of sources to support engagement on sensitive subjects for all age groups. Next, as students continue to develop independent learning skills, they can take deeper dives into the material. Finally, using a blend of synchronous and asynchronous tools might make it easier for students to open up.

Another big step is identifying high-quality sources. We can expect an outstanding one very soon. Judeah Reynolds is a 9-year-old child who witnessed the killing of George Floyd while she and her cousin were on their way to the candy store. Judeah’s cousin, Darnella Frazier, had the courage to hit record, while Judeah has the courage to share the painful incident in a children’s book titled A Walk to the Store.

Such sources can help teachers bring race into the classroom. There are also organizations that have been supporting this endeavor for years. Here are a couple that stand out.

Facing History and Ourselves. Founded in 1976 to promote education that teaches students how to be upstanders against racism, bigotry, and anti-Semitism, its curricular materials and resources are geared toward middle and high school students. They offer lesson plans, visual media, articles, and much more. They also support teachers outside of the classroom with free professional development such as workshops, webinars, and self-paced online courses.

Teaching Tolerance. Founded in 1991 as a project within the Southern Poverty Law Center with a mission to conquer hate, this outfit has grown into a full-scale source to support educators with anti-bias teaching. They offer a plethora of lesson plans, articles, activities, print material, and film kits for streaming appropriate video for various ages (all free).

Social Justice Books: A Teaching for Change Project. Evaluating literature requires careful consideration. When it comes to literature based on race, gender, culture, and identity, it’s even trickier because educators must avoid tokenism and stereotypes. The Social Justice site has curated about 60 titles to make the selection process easier. In addition, they offer a short guide to help educators evaluate anti-bias literature

Transforming “anger into action”

Mark Holt currently teaches 5th grade at the Beech Hill School in Hopkinton, N.H. He has been in education for 19 years:

After reading numerous headlines from the past several months, I’m filled with sadness and anger. Why do some people in our culturally diverse country still see Black and brown people as being less important? In times like these, I’m reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s quote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We must transform our anger into action.

As an educator, I’m bringing my positive message of unity into the physical or virtual classroom this September. One of my many goals for each new school year is to foster a sense of community and unity amongst my students. The mantra I use in my classroom is, “We’re a family, and families take care of each other.” I use this message to empower my students to look out for one another, in and out of the classroom. I also remind them that, like any great family, we will have our challenges and we will work through them together. I want my students to see that their voices and opinions matter just as much as mine. I will work to create an inclusive and open class community in which the students feel safe and comfortable speaking their minds.

Together as a class family, we will create the norms or rules for the year. I provide my students with opportunities to take ownership over how our classroom operates so that they will be engaged in what we are doing in the classroom. We will spend time talking about the kind of environment the students want to create. I will allow students to propose rules before we, as a democratic community, vote on them. We will then sign the document, as though it is our class constitution, and hang it in our classroom all year. As it’s a living document, the students can propose changes at any time. Like all things in life, communities evolve and change, and I want the students to see the power in adapting to changing times. Empowering students to take ownership and responsibility over their learning process helps to foster a sense of care and community within the students. They want to take care of their classmates because they’ve chosen to do so and not because they were told to by their teacher. It’s our classroom call to duty.

I use literature and current events as ways to help my students value their differences as strengths. Our first class read-aloud novel for the academic year will be Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson, which tackles important concepts including immigration, race, family dynamics, and white privilege. This will be a change for me that was brought upon by observing the state of our nation in recent months. Although I usually use a novel that introduces the concept of community in a less controversial manner, I’ve noticed that tiptoeing around topics considered taboo simply fosters a sense of silence and complacency. As educators, we need to teach our students how to talk about important topics dubbed “controversial” by many. I want my students to see that we will tackle imperative ideas and topics beginning on the first day of school. While the students review vital reading strategies using the text, we will also be discussing their thoughts on the big ideas introduced in the novel. I want to empower my students to form thoughtful opinions on issues that impact our country and world. By discussing these ideas within the context of the book, I can create a safe place in which students are able to cultivate their feelings and thoughts.

For change to happen, we need the next generation to be equipped with knowledge. Change makers aren’t born; they are created through a culmination of their life experiences. As teachers, we must work to create a safe haven for students to tend to their garden of change in our classrooms this year.

Thanks to Keturah, Erika, Theresa, and Mark for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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.

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