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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

What Should Anti-Bias Literacy Instruction Look Like in the Classroom?

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 08, 2023 8 min read
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Tricia Ebarvia, educator, author, consultant, has a new book out: Get Free: Antibias Literacy Instruction for Stronger Readers, Writers, and Thinkers. A DEI expert, Tricia spent some time talking about the book for my blog.

LF: How would you summarize the purpose of your book and the potential value K-12 teachers would find in it?

Tricia Ebarvia:

For me, the purpose of Get Free is to help educators learn how to create liberatory spaces in their classrooms—spaces where kids and teachers can bring and become their authentic and best selves, and where they think deeply about the perspectives of others and can effect positive change.

I think most teachers would agree that schools aren’t just places that get kids “ready” for the real world; they can and should also be places where kids can learn how to make the world better than it is now. To do this, of course, students need to be strong readers, writers, and thinkers, and this work is not separate from—and in fact, I argue they are inherently tied to—anti-bias literacy skills. We face so many challenges today as a society. Helping students to understand the role of bias in themselves, in others, and in the misinformation and disinformation we see in the media is critical.

My hope is that my book might offer teachers a pathway forward in embedding anti-bias literacy skills into the daily work of reading, writing, and thinking we already do in our classrooms. My own practice, and the book, builds on the scholarship of social-justice educators, and teachers who pick up my book will find lots of practical strategies and shifts that they can try out in their classrooms with the intentionality and care we know makes good practice.

The book begins with some invitations for self-reflection as we unpack the biases we might have as educators. After that, I spend the next chapters exploring how to create brave spaces rooted in community and ways to affirm the many beautiful identities that students bring with them to class.

The second half of the book has lots of strategies for holding space for potentially difficult conversations and expanding and deepening students’ critical-reading skills. I hope that this is a book that teachers can read and learn from but also continue to reach for throughout their career. Teaching is hard, and I hope teachers can find a supportive thought partner in the words on these pages.

LF: I was struck near the beginning of the book how you discussed “biases” and several of them that teachers in particular should be aware of. Can you elaborate on a few of them? [Editor’s Note: See a chart from Tricia’s book below.]

Tricia Ebarvia:

That chapter could have been an entire book by itself, and there were many more biases that I could have written about! One of the central premises of that chapter—and really, of the entire book—is that we all have biases, and that for the most part, these biases are neither good nor bad. But when we don’t take the time to reflect on how these biases inform our thinking, we leave ourselves acting in ways that might harm students, even if unintentionally. I actually teach students about biases as part of our own critical-thinking work, and it struck me how many of these play a role in teaching.

For example, one of the biases I discuss is the nostalgia bias, which is our tendency to romanticize the past. Unfortunately, this bias not only creates an inaccurate assessment of our past students, but it also prevents us from fully appreciating the kids who are sitting in front of us in the present, who may bring different but equally valuable skills and knowledge into our classrooms.

Or consider the anchoring bias, which happens when we allow initial information we might learn about a student to inform, often unfairly, our judgment of them. Over the years, before the school year would begin, I’d have colleagues who, with good intentions, share both positive (“That student is such a great writer!”) and negative (“Watch out for that student …”) feedback about my students even before I’d met them. We know first impressions matter, but when we anchor our expectations of students based on these first impressions, we may inadvertently limit our understanding of what students can and can’t do. And of course, all these biases—and the potentially damaging impact they can have—can be even more pronounced for students of color because of the way stereotypes aggravate these biases.

As I said, biases are natural; we’re often acting on them without even realizing it. But when we slow down our thinking and become better aware of how these biases may be impacting our interactions and relationships with kids, the better able we are to disrupt these harmful impacts.

Get Free Figure 1.1

From “Get Free” - Reprinted With Permission

LF: One of the many reasons I liked Get Free was because of the numerous practical examples you provide, including images from the classroom. This is probably an unfair question, but can you share three or four suggestions from the book that you think teachers can apply now near the beginning of the school year?

Tricia Ebarvia:

My own favorite professional books are the ones that both provoke my thinking about my practices and also provide strategies that I can use immediately in the classroom. I tried to fill Get Free with lots of practical tips for teachers. One thing that I think that’s really important for teachers to remember is that supporting students in exploring their multiple and complex identities isn’t something that’s just for the beginning of the school year when they’re getting to know you and their classmates. Better understanding themselves and each other is work that has to be done intentionally throughout the school year, and so I include lots of notebook-writing prompts to use and build upon as the year goes on.

One of my favorite tools is using the Courageous Conversations Compass. I adapted Glenn Singleton’s tool in my classroom, and it is often the “go-to” protocol that I use with students, especially when we’re processing more difficult topics. And speaking of conversation, Chapter 4 includes more than 20 strategies and structures for discussion that help students better listen and understand perspectives that they might not have considered before. Overall, I think one of the most effective instructional moves teachers can make in the beginning of the year is to introduce students to strategies and protocols that they can use to explore themselves and then apply these same strategies and protocols to the characters they read in their novels and the arguments they analyze in their readings.

For example, one protocol I like to use is Who is Centered? Who is Marginalized? and Who is Missing? or C-M-M. I first ask students to reflect on their own relationships: Which people are at the center of their lives? Who do they feel most connected and obligated to? Who might be in the margins of their relationships? And who—people or groups—might be missing in their lives, for any number of reasons? They can then apply this framework to the characters they read in their books or the perspectives centered, marginalized, or missing in the arguments they analyze.

LF: As you point out in the book, many educators work in states where laws and organizations might be hostile to some (though, obviously, not all) of the practices you recommend. What specific advice do you have for teachers in those communities?

Tricia Ebarvia:

I think it’s a really hard time to be an anti-bias, anti-racist educator right now. I know what educators are going through and have had to navigate resistance, and even hostility, from some colleagues, administrators, parents—and sometimes even kids. And yet, it’s also a time when it’s critical to embody an anti-bias, anti-racist stance.

First and foremost, I think the work of justice is about organizing and collaborating. It’s about finding the colleagues in your department or school who believe, as you do, that schools can and should be places where students’ diverse identities can be honored and where students can be their authentic and best selves. Find your people. Sometimes, it’s the teachers in the classroom next door, but sometimes, it’s teachers across the country. I’ve been fortunate to have both in my career.

One thing that the pandemic has taught us is that we can have really excellent professional development online—look for opportunities to connect with other teachers who can offer support. The status quo and oppressive systems continue because often those who are most marginalized in those systems are isolated from one another. Find your people. I promise they are out there.

I would encourage teachers to do as much as they can given the context they’re in. Talk with colleagues, families, and students. Every conversation is an opportunity to learn what next steps you might take. For some teachers, that might mean changing out a poem, article, or short story. For other teachers, they might be able to change a major novel. Small steps can sometimes feel too small, but those small steps still matter. And as exhausting as teaching already is, the thing that’s going to sustain teachers in the short and long term are the relationships we build with students and colleagues. Fill your bucket with those deep and rich relationships.


LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?

Tricia Ebarvia:

The last words I wrote for the book are in the epilogue, and I’d like to share them here because they express my deepest wish for readers of the book and for all teachers:

Teachers know about love. When we teach with love, we see each of our kids with the respect and compassion, complexity and messiness that makes them human. When we teach with love, we lead with grace and openness and hope. When we teach with love, we know that our liberation is bound in each other. If you’re reading this book, I hope that it may encourage you to love fiercely even on days when our grief about the world, when people or systems let us down, seems unbearable.

Perhaps especially on those days.

Because the list of things to fight for is everlasting.

LF: Thanks, Tricia!

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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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