About the Podcast
The Teaching for Racial Equity podcast is based on the book by authors Tonya B. Perry, Steven Zemelman, with Katy Smith. In this four-part series, guests will engage in critical conversations about race and equity in education, explore how to integrate these topics within student learning and foster student voice, and discuss what it means to be an “interrupter.”
Through thoughtful, personal stories from the authors and guests, listeners will gain a deeper understanding of racial inequities, be energized to disrupt them, and help inspire their students to do so, too.
About This Episode
The authors discuss how Teaching for Racial Equity came to be and its potential impact on race and equity issues in education today. They share how their self-reflection work impacted their collaboration and the development of the book.
Meet the Authors
Tonya B. Perry is a Professor of Secondary English Education and serves as the Executive Director for GEAR UP Alabama and the Red Mountain Writing Project at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In her roles, she works for equity, focusing on civically and justice-engaged teaching, service, and scholarship.
Steven Zemelman is a visiting scholar at Northeastern Illinois University and a founding director of the Illinois Writing Project. He promotes student civic engagement and restorative justice in Chicago schools. His books on teaching writing and reading have long been widely appreciated, including his most recent, From Inquiry to Action: Civic Engagement with Project-Based Learning.
Katy Smith is a Professor of Secondary Education and a Department Chair at Northeastern Illinois University, where she and Steve Zemelman direct the Illinois Writing Project. She has dedicated her career to developing and enacting equitable classroom practices, first as a teacher of high school students and now as a teacher educator.
Read the Transcript
Tonya: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Teaching for Racial Equity Podcast based on the book by the same name. I'm Tonya Perry, one of the book's authors. In this four part podcast series, we'll engage in critical conversations about race and equity and education. We'll also explore how to integrate these topics within student learning and discuss what it means to be an interrupter. Through thoughtful, personal stories and self-reflection from me and my co-authors and our guests, who are educators, we will engage in this work and hope that you will gain a deeper understanding of racial inequities. We hope that you will build relationships necessary to address these inequities. And we hope that you will be energized to interrupt them. In this episode by my co-authors and I, we're discussing how we develop our own relationships and how we do our own self-reflection work and how we've done that to the creation of our book. Hi, Katy. Hi, Steve. How are you?
Katy: Good afternoon, Tonya. It's nice to see you.
Tonya: Good to see you.
Steve: Glad to be here.
Tonya: I want to introduce Steve first. Steve and I have been working together for two and a half years, and I want you to know that Steve is a visiting professor or a scholar at the Northeastern University, and he's a co-director of the Illinois Writing Project. Let me just add that he's the author of multiple texts, and correct me, Steve, but I think at least 11 other texts. And I think that I would call you a long term educator. I would call you a civically engaged and restorative justice person who believes in schools and what they can do to help students and empower teachers to make a difference in this world, particularly the schools in which you've worked in, in Chicago. And I would say you really are a mean griller. I had a chance to come to your home before COVID and spend some time in Illinois and Chicago. And I'd say that you're also my friend.
Steve: Thank you. Thank you a lot, Tonya. I'm going to introduce Katy. We decided we'd introduce each other. And so Katy is my partner in crime. We are the two directors of the Illinois Writing Project. Katy is a professor and department chair of the, now let me get it straight, education inquiry and curriculum studies department at Northeastern Illinois University. Katy was before that a teacher, high school English teacher working in a wonderful interdisciplinary program. Katy, by the way, was also the author of the secondary education curriculum, teacher preparation curriculum at Northeastern. And she's been a great friend and I even like her cat who may show up at any time in this podcast.
Katy: That's true. Thanks, Steve. Thanks. I appreciate that. And I'm really happy to be able to introduce Tonya. Tonya Perry is a professor at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. She and I first met seven years ago when, as the director of the Red Mountain Writing Project, Tonya's writing project hosted the Urban Sites Network Conference for the national writing project. And so our connection across the national writing project gave us a great first start, but I've been so impressed with the work that she's always done as a member of the Research on Women in Education Board for AERA, the director of the NCTE Cultivating New Voices Program, a member of the beloved community in the national writing projects right now teacher studio, and NCTE executive board member, and a member of the board of directors of the national writing project. To say that Tonya's a rockstar is absolutely the case. But most of all, I get to know Tonya as my friend and my colleague and my co-conspirator in this work. And so it's really fun to be together today as we have been for the last two and a half years on a Wednesday afternoon working toward this book.
Tonya: Oh, wow. Thank you, Katy.
Steve: Yeah. I was curious about how long it had been. And so I pulled out my calendar for fortunately smartphones have calendars that remember forever and I checked and it was August 2019 that I could find my scheduling of the first online zoom conference with Tonya. And we've talked every Wednesday afternoon for two and a half years almost without stop. I guess stopping for an occasional holiday or vacation trip.
Tonya: Wow. Can you believe it's been two and a half years, Katy, Steve?
Katy: Yes, and a minute and a half. Those weeks that we don't meet, it feels like something's missing on the Wednesday afternoon, so yeah.
Tonya: Yeah, and just in talking about this book and what we've been doing over these last two and a half years, I think the book is different from others on race and equity. And I think that over the two and a half year period, we've been able to craft something that we can be very proud of. I think that this book is different because it's a diverse group of colleagues together talking for an extended period of time. And I always say to you, and I say to myself, I think we're living this book, right? We are living the work. The things that we talk about and the things that we discuss and the things we grapple with, we're living it and going back into our own lives and try to figure out how do we move this work forward. And we are a diverse group of colleagues, so having these conversations is very important, but also insightful. I also think that this book is different because it involves teachers as writers and colleagues. Their voices are in the book. What they believe, what they feel and how they're feeling in the moment in which they're doing the work is very much evident. And we have, I think, done a really good a job of making sure they're incorporating in ways in which they are very proud.
Katy: I think that's something that's been really important to all three of us, that value of highlighting the teacher's voices and some voices of young people were really often not heard in books around education.
Tonya: Absolutely. We've got some really just stellar students who are involved in this work. They're just regular everyday students who feel like they can make a difference in the world and they just do.
Steve: Yeah. I would add to that there are many writings, wonderful writings on equity and education. It's really a growing field, very rich, but often those writers will say that teachers and all of us should be reflecting really introspectively to understand our own perspective, but they don't necessarily say how to do that. We provide strategies and examples of us and our teachers actually doing that work. And then along with that, the book really includes some of the conversations and evidence of our own struggles as a group, as the three of us together, trying to really build ways to trust each other, to be honest with each other and to share our honest beliefs that aren't always exactly the same because we really come from some different backgrounds.
Tonya: Absolutely. And we won't go into any details, but I remember that day, I asked you, so why are we writing this book and why are we together in this book? And we just had to have an honest conversation about who we were and where the work might be going, and be very honest about our own racial lens. I just thought that that was...but I'll leave that for other people to read in the book, that conversation.
Steve: Well, I have to say, though, that that moment when you posed that question and I had to begin answering honestly was really a key moment. It wasn't an easy moment, but actually Jacqueline Woodson, who I was watching a session with her this morning talks about that walking through doors can be scary, but that's when you really learn something. And so that's the case with those kinds of hard conversations. I realized I have to be honest here, or this isn't going to go anywhere.
Tonya: Yeah. And so why this book right now? What do you think, Katy? Why this book? Why now?
Katy: Well, I think the three of us feel we come together from a shared background of a writing project perspective, right? I mean, that is something that we have as a common starting point of lifting up voices that are not always heard in every classroom. But two and a half years ago, I don't think we had any idea that this would be quite as timely as it is today. The need to ensure that all of our students are welcomed and feel comfortable and are learning inside our schools and outside of our schools, I think that that is particularly important today.
Katy: Steve, earlier this week, you shared with Tonya and me an Ed Week article that cited a UCLA study with the current educational climate with teachers and teachers feeling the need to be very careful about what they teach and do some self censoring, as well as some local and local laws and state laws around making sure that...trying to prohibit conversations that some of us think need to happen. And so I think it's just a particularly important time for teachers to be in conversation, for all of us to be in conversation about how to navigate this field that we're in.
Steve: Yeah, I was thinking about that and I was thinking that with these pressures that teachers can be wondering, well, what can I do, given that this kind of work is being questioned and be threatening for some families, parents, and community people? But I was thinking that, well, teachers and any of us can reflect on our own history and point of view, so as to understand how we are the same or different from our students and what that can mean for our teaching, in order to really be present and provide students with what they need. We can do that. We can read and inform ourselves, nothing is going to stop us from doing that. We can pay attention to our students and learn more about and who they are and their identities and what that means for the kinds of support they need in school.
Steve: We can build up the climate in our schools so that everybody, students and teachers of various backgrounds, feel welcome and feel supported. We can do all those things. And even if there are books that we're not allowed to read...and by the way, there's data now that's showing that when those books are censored, that actually the purchase of those books skyrockets. So kids are reading them anyway. And so we can do a lot of what needs to be done to really promote equity in our schools. And we're hoping that this book will help teachers to do that. I think that many of the strategies in the book focus exactly on that. How do you hope, Tonya, that the book is going to be used by teachers?
Tonya: That's a really interesting question, and I love what both of you just said. I think that's insightful and it will be very helpful for teachers. And I just think that this book will provide encouragement and support for teachers and perhaps courage. This idea that I'm not alone, there are other people who are doing this work in the field give ideas about what it is that we can do or what people can do or what teachers can do in their own sphere. The book itself has ideas for teachers who are working with colleagues. How do I work with my colleagues so that we all can work towards equity? So whether it's equity work as a committee or one-on-one, being able to do that, I'm hoping that this book would do that. But it would also allow. Just like you said, Steve, teachers to think about ways in which they can use these practices in their classrooms sometimes within whatever their purview is or what they're comfortable doing. So I just finished reading The 1619 Project and, wow, what a powerful book. And it talks about a lot of history that we don't have in our American history. And Nicole Hannah Jones talks about how it is truly American history. And then I saw Cornell West yesterday on a talk and he said that it is truly American history that we need to take and put together, and that none of our histories are beautiful, that all of our histories have some pieces in it that people perhaps would not want to have addressed, but it is all American history. And we should weave and place these all together to have a more complete picture of the American story. And so we hope that our book would do that for teachers. It'll allow us to be able to know the identities of each of our students, the histories of each of our students, and for them to reflect also on their own histories, and for them to reflect on their own hopes and dreams. But that's really what we want for the book is for all kids to be seen and heard, and for them to be able to tell the stories. After all, I do believe that the kids do care about themselves and each other in the world. And I think as teachers, that's what we do. We help them figure out how they can and move forward in this world. And one way to do that definitely is without a doubt, being aware of equity and how they navigate and what their position is in the world.
Steve: One other thing that I wanted to mention was connecting with the community. And one of the fortunate things that's happened for me was that I got to work for a while with a community organizer. And some of that is shared in the book, that there are ways to think about making connections and getting things done when you're working with a community. And one of them is really working one on one, having one on one conversations with people where people feel safer, and it's easier to be honest and open. In a big meeting often it's hard to...people need to save face and it's hard to really straighten out misunderstandings.
Steve: Another thing about that work to think about is don't try to do it alone. Don't try to be a sole hero. Find allies, find parents and fellow teachers and administrators who will support you so that if there are questions about what you're doing, you have support in policies and other people. Otherwise, you're out there alone and it's very easy to be put on the defensive. So we can help teachers think more about that in the book.
Katy: And that's one way that we've talked about the whole notion of teaching for racial equity, right? Oftentimes we begin with some questions that we have about ourselves, right? Trying to build our knowledge of our ourselves, our history, the opportunities that we had, the barriers that we may have had that prevent us from being in full relationship with others. And that doing that excavation of our own selves, what Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz calls the archeology of self. Okay? A framework that we've really used throughout the book, trying to understand our own situations so that we can be more fully in relationship with others, which makes it possible to build those relationships with fellow teachers. And then with students, and then within the larger community.
Katy: Sealey-Ruiz's racial literacy framework really begins with a whole concept that we start with the foundation of critical love, using her words, a profound, ethical commitment to and caring for the communities we live in. And so the community of the relationship that we've built as three authors, right? Our little community, our community with our teacher writers, our students, so that we can have an effect then, we hope, on the larger educational community and the larger communities where we live. And that dialectic, right, between our self knowledge and then building relationship with others.
Steve: And Tonya, you really introduced us to Sealey-Ruiz's work, and that became a guiding structure, framework for the entire book, her racial literacy development framework. And you were friends with her. I mean, you must have known about that. I'm wondering now, when I think back, what led you to think that we really better use this as something to help guide our book?
Tonya: No. That's interesting that you asked that, Steve. Yes, Yolanda and I are friends and I've been with her on the journey as she's discovered the model. And I've watched this emerge from her over time, but she came to Birmingham and did a professional development. And I got a chance to hear her do a day long professional development on the model. And I thought this is a beautiful model, a smart model, an applicable model for the work that we were doing. And that's when I introduced it to you both. I think everything in the model, with the critical love, the humility, the reflection. I think I also have an affinity for the archeology of yourself, but the historical piece is also very important.
Tonya: She has a part of this model that talks about the historical literacy, that if we ever want to get to true interruption and truly understanding equity work, that we can't ignore the history and the historical piece of our children that we teach and of ourselves, and come to grips with what it is that might be missing. And then be able to with confidence know that history is not a combination of a people. It is a learning of a people and then to move forward. See, the idea here is to learn from our history and to learn from those things that we haven't done so well. But it's also to empower groups of people so they understand truly where they've come from.
Tonya: And I wonder if the historical literacy is a piece that we really can use in our classrooms, in our history classrooms, English classrooms, science classrooms, to really empower students so that they have a greater sense of self and understanding about their own histories. I just wonder when she was developing that, and she knew that this day would come, right? But I really think it's very applicable. You can speak to that if you think that's something that you want to speak to.
Steve: Well, I have really felt the need to do a lot of reading, a lot of learning about history that I have to admit I knew almost nothing about. The history books in school don't necessarily tell us about really the positive things that happen. They tend to focus on, okay, there's slavery and, okay, Rosa Parks sat on a bus, but I mean, there's a whole history of people of color actively trying to develop civil rights, building up their own culture, developing a rich cultural heritage. Last night on the radio, I listened to an hour of the musical biography of Langston Hughes. He was extremely involved in jazz, in black music, a lot of his poems were set to music. In school, maybe you read one or two poems that he wrote. You're not made aware of at all of the operas that he created collaborating with composers and musicians. There's a whole rich history there. We're waiting to hear about a grant about one of the African American neighborhoods in Chicago that represents rich history that I knew nothing about. I knew the name of the neighborhood, and that was all. And I think that that adds to the sense of humility, realizing how much we don't know that we need to work to find out, but we'll never know it all. And so we can't say, oh, we've arrived. We have to have humility in this work and realize there are things that we don't even know we don't know, but I think that's another major part of the racial literacy development framework that really helps you think about what you need to do in order to be an activist for equity. So, that's a big part of what I've learned in the process, but I don't want to say, oh, I've learned it all and I'm all there. Almost every day, I realize there are things I'm still working on and that's okay. That's a good thing, especially at my advanced age. It's good to keep learning things.
Tonya: Well, there was a webinar the other day, and people were able to sign in on the chat and they talked about, what kind of history did you learn? What did learn about? And it was really interesting. Most people who responded in the chat knew very little about African-American contribution to the American history, including those of us who were African-American. And it is because the traditional schooling practice and textbooks don't include many of these things that we are learning now about African American history, and the history of indigenous peoples, and the history of Latinx peoples are not necessarily incorporated into the larger American history story. So, part of what teaching equity does is it helps teachers, students, communities think about how can we make sure we have the American story present in what we teach? I just think that that's a major part of it.
Katy: We're thinking about this in a really large sense, but in preparation for our conversation today, I've been thinking a lot about just our own work over this time. And I want to ask what are some things that each of you learned about yourself or about your colleagues or about the students through our work, in writing this book? What else have you learned on a more local level, right?
Steve: Well, I can tell you that I had to think back about my growing up, my family. My father started a toy factory. If anybody hadn't owned a dime store, kaleidoscope, they were made in our factory by Steven Manufacturing Company, named after me. And I hadn't thought about the fact that as a little kid hanging out at the factory, there was exactly one African American person there, and that was the janitor. And I never thought about why. Of course, I was just a little kid, so it's not like I should blame myself that I didn't ask my dad, why aren't there more people of color hired here? I was just a little kid, but it is something that was present in my growing up that I hadn't thought about. And what does that mean? What does it mean that I had an entrepreneur for a father who really was a model for how to go from having nothing and being in The Depression and being lucky to make a dollar a day to starting this toy factory? And not all kids have that kind of background in order to give them the knowledge and the confidence that they can do that. I mean, I've become this entrepreneur, like my dad really, and that's a privilege. That's a fortunate thing that I've had that the kids I work with may not have had at all, and I need to keep that in mind. And as Tanya commented on my history, when we shared together and that's in the book, she said, Steve, you lived in a bubble, and it's true.
Katy: Yeah. Yeah. I was thinking about, for myself, things that I had learned or relearned about the students that we worked with. I taught high school kids for 20 years and I'm in my 20th year at the university. Right? And one of the things I love about being at the university is that I get to be out in lots of different schools, but I don't get to have my own young people that I see every day. And that's a downside for me, but what I was really reminded of in reading and hearing the stories of the students who are part of our book is just how great those young people are and be. And thinking about how in schools we need to and can really support them to do the great kinds of work that Jayden and Jordan and [crosstalk 00:33:33] Dion...I was like, I can picture him, Dion, described in book. So that's been a really fun part of the work for me.
Tonya: I know that I was reminded of the resilience of teachers and how important the work is and how teachers undergo and undertake this work and move it forward for their students. So it's their own self-reflection and working with their colleagues that they undergo, and then taking it and integrating it into their own classrooms that move students forward. And it teaches students how to navigate and to be interrupters for themselves. I'm reminded of Tina who's in the book. I'm reminded of Sean who's in the book. These are teachers who work with students who feel empowered when they're in their presence. I'm reminded of Vanessa who's in the book. I'm reminded of Adelphia who's in the book, who worked with both teachers and students for Vanessa, and work mostly with teachers, with Vanessa and Adelphia, but how they move this work forward. And they also take risks, right? It's not all beautiful work because as humans, we still have to go through this process of learning and figuring out who we are and what our stance is. And then how do we combine what we believe with other people, and that's what they've done in the text as well. And then of course, there's Chris in the book and Brandon in the book, and they talk about their own work with students and how they've moved this work forward in equity. It's not beautiful work, right? It's not straight and linear, straight up work, right? It's messy, right? It's messy and it's recursive, but it's so worth it. And the teachers remind us of this every time we talk about it, the skills that children leave with. Even in science class, even in social studies, across the curriculum, how this work is so important. So I was just encouraged listening to their stories about how they move forward this work. Right? So the teachers have really given us a lot to think about. Yeah, I just wanted to think more about what's the role of interruption, Steve?
Steve: Well, there are many ways to interrupt, but the top of Sealey-Ruiz's pyramid is interruption, that it's important. It's great to reflect, to find your own humility, to read and study to know the history so you know the inheritance, the resiliency and the wonderful, positive things, as well as the challenges. But then, finally, there's interruption. There's the time when it's important to act. And that's what anti-racism really comes down to. It's fine realizing your own limits, your own interests, your own perspective, your own directions, but what are you actually going to do to make change? And for teachers, I think that means even again, with these attempts to censor or to limit what we can do, you can look around your building and you can look at the data and you can ask, is discipline really not just equitable, but is it constructive? Does it really leads students and communities to be stronger and to support one another? Does it need more? You can ask questions like that. And then look for allies, talk to other teachers and look to make change where it's needed. And so there are all kinds of ways that we can interrupt. We can look in our own classroom. I was reading just the other day of a teacher who says that he has tried to monitor and actually keep track of who he calls on in the room and how often, and being surprised that there are kids that he is not really giving the attention that they need. You can do that, as a teacher, whether people are limiting what you say and what books you can use in the classroom or not. And that is interruption, that's interrupting yourself in your classroom. And you can look for ways to do that in the community as well. And you can look at what are the books that we're reading?
Steve: One of the wonderful things about Shonterrius that readers will see in the book is that she started looking for books that would really connect with students and who they are. So they'd be seeing themselves in their reading, as well as reading the classics, and that had a powerful effect on her students. You could do that yourself as a teacher and whether people are limiting what you can say or not. So there are a lot of ways to interrupt, and I'm sure that both of you have more on the list.
Tonya: I was just thinking about interruption, even in your own class. When you're reading literature, it's full of opportunities to identify interruption phases. And we talk about this in the book, so I won't go in a lot of detail here, but I'll just introduce this idea of teaching kids to recognize when they read, whether it's fiction or nonfiction, what's happening here. How have certain processes, laws, procedures been interrupted, right? And so this idea of identifying interruption, even within text, no matter what you're reading, is a way in which we can ask students to do some of this work, to identify interruption times and phases. So I'm just thinking about that as a possibility, moving to action and also having these discussions about what this looks like in the larger world. And discussing how this impacts even our own space and our own place in the world. So I just wanted to share that in addition to the things that you mentioned, Steve. Katy, do you have anything that you want to add to this?
Katy: Well, I was thinking about just the notion that the work around interrupting for racial equity is work around recognizing full humanity, and the need to...Sorry, let me try that again. I've been thinking about the notion that interrupting for racial equity is interruption to recognize the full humanity of all of the people that we encounter and that we are in relationship with. And isn't that what being fully human is all about?
Tonya: Absolutely. And I think there's something else that we've been discussing is that what happens with YWI, Youth Writing for Interruption when what we do transfers to the students and that they can use the skills that we teach them to advocate for themselves? So this idea of YWI, Youth Writing for Interruption, I think can be a powerful one.
Steve: Nice. We also include students voices in the book. And one of the things that we realized about the students that we included is their examples of interruption and action that students themselves are doing that often teachers don't even know about. And there are ways that we need to identify as teachers and recognize and support the strengths and the actions and the geniuses of students that are before us and help them to become...I mean, ultimately we can do what we want, but our job really is to create students who are active in their community and who are interrupting in a responsible and effective ways and not just disrupting and complaining about things.
Steve: We carefully chose the word interruption, because it's about saying, stop, we need to do some things differently, but not just tearing everything down. And so we've tried to really emphasize that in the book as well. And I'm thinking that as people hear the upcoming podcasts, the next two are by teachers who have been contributors to the book. And then we'll wind it up in a last one and people will be hearing about their work with kids there.
Tonya: Absolutely. Well, I think we've had an insightful conversation. It was good to go back down memory lane and also just excavate for ourselves, this journey that we've taken. Thank you for being my partners.
Steve: And here we are, one more Wednesday afternoon, like the two and a half years since August 2019, when we started doing this. It's been great. It's been a life changer for me.
Tonya: Lots of things have happened in these last years, and thank you for this journey. I think we've all learned a lot.