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
How can educators create classroom conditions where students can find and claim their own voices around issues of race and equity? Two educators join Teaching for Racial Equity author, Tonya Perry, to discuss how they’ve accomplished this work in their schools. Shonterrius Lawson-Fountain is a secondary literacy support teacher with Birmingham, Alabama city schools and leads professional development on supporting student voice. Vanessa Heller is a middle school teacher in southern California who revised her humanities curriculum to incorporate social issues and support awareness and action for her students, who are mostly from affluent families.
Meet Tonya Perry
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.
Read the Transcript
Tonya: Thanks, Shon. It's so good to be with you tonight.
Shonterrius: You too.
Tonya: Vanessa, tell us about you.
Vanessa: Hi everyone. I am, Vanessa Heller. This is my 24th year teaching. I teach just outside of LA, in a suburb. My motto is teach the way you wish you would've been taught. I focus on my humanities curriculum, so my curriculum is all about people, I'm all about people. Doing this work with these wonderful contributors and authors just really speaks to my heart and it's so for kids. Also, I'm an inquiry trainer. I present on best practices in inquiry and gifted education throughout the state and a couple other states as well, so I'm really happy to be here.
Tonya: Vanessa, it's always nice to be with you as well. We've been through this journey for the last two and a half years where we've been exploring our own ways of thinking about equity and how we are as teachers, how we are with our colleagues and growing in this work and how we are with our students. I'd say that all of us is very important work. I would just want you to talk to us about the environment of your school and what prompted you to start this equity work. Vanessa, do you want to start?
Vanessa: Sure. I will tell you that several school districts in my area, we were reacting to certain events, George Floyd, and things like that, instead of being proactive in our equity work. That being said, we are trying to do the work in a hurry. What could possibly go wrong? But as far as my own personal development, for me, it's something that's been long and coming.
Vanessa: As someone who's into inquiry and who has been mentored by one of our authors of Teaching for Racial Equity, Steven Zemelman, he inspired me to connect inquiry and action. For me, in my classroom to introduce social justice issues is what learning is all about. Kids want to learn about real things. They want to feel connected, and so equity work is not a supplement. It is integral into what we do.
Vanessa: I think that's really important for us to know is that it's not so something you add onto your curriculum, it is an integral part of your curriculum, and that's what my work has become. It's never fast enough and it'll never be enough, and I'm trying to work with my district to make that be a natural part of what we do with kids. I wish we could say we're being proactive, but you know what? I'll take whatever we can get. We're doing the work and we're doing the important work.
Tonya: Thanks, Vanessa. What about you, Shonterrius? Describe your environment and what prompted you into this equity work?
Shonterrius: My work started with self. I had to check myself at the door. I teach in an urban school, I've always taught in urban title one districts where the majority of kids are people of color, and those who are not of color are considered to be of color because of their socioeconomic status. We have to know the equity work doesn't start and end in a day. It's a lifelong process because it's constantly changing, constantly evolving. Gholdy Muhammad's work speaks a lot of what I do, looking at identity... all those things are skills. Those are all necessary. Dr. Perry, of course, is always as a... one of my writing project fellow talks to us about the importance of voice and how we show up our positionality, and our kids have to know that they don't have to accept what someone says they are. The single still story can be rewritten so that their actual real story comes out. Yeah.
Tonya: It sounds like both of you really value all of your students, and all of our students come with so much, and their zip code does not have anything to do with their talent, and their skills, their brilliance, and their genius, and they bring so much to the table. It's just as teachers, it is up to us to help them discover because they already have it, but help them discover how they move forward. The next thing that I want to hear about is how did you come to realize the importance of listening to your students and learning about your students as a way to teach for equity? Shon, do you want to start?
Shonterrius: Absolutely. I can remember my seventh-grade class, we had a textbook and there was a story by Daedalus and Icarus, and the students wanted no parts of it at all. They were throwing the book, it was a mess. I realized then that if I wanted my students to learn, they had to see themselves in some way represented in the text that I taught. That's when I learned the power of layering a text. We have to give our students mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors. But you have to give them a glimpse into being able to see that that world has value, that the hidden literacies mean something. We have to be able to play on those in our classroom.
Shonterrius: A lot of what I've been able to do has been making sure that my students are able to see, even if it's a remnant of themselves and their lived experiences, because in doing that, when students can connect to what they're reading and what they're doing, it increases the efficacy. The agency is high. They want to do more. Layering the text from me giving them some of what they want and giving them what is required has really been striking a balance for me, but we have to give students an opportunity to see themselves in the text they read. If I don't see myself in what I'm reading, how am I ever going to discover who I am? I'm going to always be questioning where my place is in society or what I can and cannot do. My single story exists. Giving kids space and opportunity to show up as their authentic selves and seeing characters who do the same and make no apologies for it. It's giving them what they need, not what I need, but what they need. Everything is student centered.
Tonya: Vanessa, what do you think?
Vanessa: I could listen to Shonterrius, all day, and I'm thinking about how much I agree with you, Shonterrius. My approach is the same, except I can too easily maintain the dominant narrative. As a white female, I represent 70, 80% of the workforce in education. Our textbooks traditionally leave out a whole lot of people and a whole lot of histories, even just from a patriarchal, matriarchal perspective of course, into people of color. The demographics of where I work, I don't really have to do anything at all. Everyone is happy and everything is perfect. I work in a suburban school district, over half of our population are white, even more are upper income, so nothing is wrong. Everything appears wonderful. Now, given the fact that we have a history of incidents of antisemitism and racism, we had the Anti-Defamation League have to work with us several years ago, problems exist, and we've reached a crescendo where we can't keep pushing things under the rug. Let's not only address realities as negative or as ugly as they may be, let's embrace these realities and do something better with it. As far as listening to kids in the classroom, you also have to stop talking and let them speak. If we keep talking, how can we possibly listen? And I do love to talk, make no mistake, but I love having conversations with kids. I attended one of the largest school districts in the country and it was sink or swim. You either could do it or you couldn't, and that's where privilege helped you swim, and I was fortunate to be able to do that, but boy was I ignored. I hate being ignored. Think about any child in a class, like you were saying Shonterrius, who doesn't see themselves in materials, in the books that they read, in the conversations, in history, how does that child feel?
Vanessa: I spent my time reading under my desk, I had better things to do, but gosh! Wouldn't it have been nice to engage in my education? School and learning were not the same for me. As a teacher, like I said in the intro, I want to teach students the way I wish I would've been taught. I would like school and learning to be the same, and it's not for so many kids and that's one of my goals. I want kids to see themselves. I want kids to hear themselves and hear each other. I want to have these really engaging conversations and kids love that. Shon, what do you think about that?
Shonterrius: That's important that we listen to our children because so many times kids, we see them automatized little test taking people who walk in a straight line who are compliant, repeat they're compliant, but I'd rather have a kid who was loud and wild, and free and all in, and wanting to just suck up this learning than one who was compliant, and that all starts with relationships. We have to see our children for people. They're not automatized. These are little people who are going grow up and have to live in a world that even sometimes we as adults have issues coexisting in, and they're just children. We have to be able to create a classroom culture and climate where students know that their voice is valued. I see you, and because I see you, I don't have to worry about you doing all these crazy things and fulfilling what the narrative says, because I see you. I hear you, and so the conversation is rich. Their responses are pure and authentic. The writing that is produced, the things they say and do are just so raw and real.
Tonya: One thing about it is that I do think that there are things that we can add to students, but I think there's so much they can add to us too. Have you had the opportunity to learn from your students? You teach them, but they teach us. They bring so much to the table. The other thing about it is that in embracing the students, you embrace them for all that they are, linguistically, from familiarly, socially, and you began to just see them completely as a whole. I realize that all parts of who they are really make them who they are. And that's just the beauty of it, and that student voice that we help emerge is in them, but we give them opportunities to be able to use those voices. It makes me so excited when a student realizes, "Whoa! I got a voice. Whoa! I said that?"
Vanessa: I think what's important, and when you read about the wonderful work that Shonterrius, does with her students, which is amazing, that's one of my end goals, or the beginning work that I do with my students, both of us set the tone from day one that we're about asking and answering and questioning and exploring and discussing. It guides your teaching when you get student feedback, none of us wants to be in a room talking to ourselves. Day one, I do something called silent conversation on big paper, where at each table I have questions. It's really a first day of school activity. What do you expect of me? What can I expect from you? What do you want me to know about you? Day one, I set that tone. Shonterrius, and you can talk to us about some of the wonderful things you do, the lessons where students are using music and poetry to speak about themselves and the things that are important to them. You set the tone, you set the tone right away, but also you share of yourself.
Vanessa: I teach ancient history, but we teach about gender inequality, poverty, economics, the flow of power through economic systems. We talk about slavery. Slavery is something the Americans did not invent. We got grossly good at it, but slavery has been around a long time, so how we treat each other is a historical narrative that's important for kids to know. We talk about it. It's a reality. We can't protect our kids from reality, they're going to be there and let them ingest it, discuss it, question it, and express themselves.
Tonya: Are there other things that you do, Shon, that encourage student voice? I just heard from Vanessa, some things that she does even with ancient history, and being able to tie it to relationships. What are some things that you do to encourage student voice?
Shonterrius: A lot of times I use activities to start to school year off that require them to peel back some layers. I have a mirror activity. When I first start doing it, I was a little scared myself because it forces me as well to be transparent as the teacher. We hold a mirror up and I ask them what they see, simple question. What do you see? Sometimes they'll tell me everything that they think I want to hear. And I ask the question again, "What do you see?" And sometimes the tears will fall, my eyes will fall, theirs will fall, but I want them to know that it's okay to be you, scars and all, we're gracefully broken and it's okay because it makes you who you are. It's a part of your healing, that's your story. And you have to tell it.
Shonterrius: A lot of activities, I do music a lot because music language can be universal. It is transcendental. It can cover many things, so I use music a lot as a way to get them to see that there are different avenues for projecting voice, for looking at perspective and understanding ideas and themes and motifs and how we play with language. Oftentimes I pair Shakespeare and Tupac all the time. If they'll be playing some at 1:50, it's the same thing, one is rap and one is Shakespeare. Just giving kids, allowing them to see that text could be print, it could be non print. It could be a poem. It could be a story. It could even be a song, because songs begin on paper as lyrics, sometimes as even pros, so getting them to see that language in of itself its a tapestry and they can weave it how they wish to, but it has to allow the purpose [inaudible 00:23:18] in their task. And that's important.
Tonya: This is something that we haven't talked about, but I think you allude to it in the book. What's one way you talk about race within your class? What's one way that we talk about race in the class and we have to be... we always want to do it from a positive standpoint, not a negative standpoint. This idea that people are beautiful, and we want to take it from that stance. How do you talk about race? Maybe give one example, how do you do that in your classroom with the students?
Shonterrius: I use Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, it's the first book we read every year, because there's so much in there about color. A lot of text that I use, I try my best to use lots of diverse texts, things they wouldn't normally be reading. I want them to see, because in order for us to approach a conversation, we have to be okay having tough talk, tough conversations, we got to be okay being uncomfortable in a space. And it's okay to be comfortable being uncomfortable because that's where the stretching goes. That's where the growth happens.
Tonya: Let me ask you this, and then I want Vanessa to respond. I wonder if seeing people for who they are and having that conversation in class is really what we do. Being able to talk about who you are and your race and your ethnicity and your family, I feel like that really does make your class a community because you get a chance to bring yourself to the table. What do you think about that?
Shonterrius: Because they have to know themselves.
Vanessa: When we look at artifacts, because we're doing civilization, we don't often see color in stone carvings or things like that. Sometimes I have to dig a little deeper to find wall paintings. For instance, we look at ancient Egyptians, they have a wonderful tan, "No guys, that's what color they are." I'll have to try to dig a little bit deeper to make sure when we talk about Nubia, that I show Nubians, dark skin people who had their own empire, so I am showing examples of our history, our collective history and it's of a variety of colors. Then as we go from civilization to civilization, kids share about themselves, they share their language. We have a very multilingual population. Right now we're studying Hinduism and Buddhism, and kids are like, "Oh, I have this shrine at home. Mrs. Heller, this is how you pronounce that." Everyone is sharing. "Oh, yes. I live with my extended family." That kind of thing. I guess, I set the tone that this is what we talk about and it's cool, and they're at sixth grade so if I think it's cool, then it automatically is cool. We share that common ancestor, so right away, we're all related. So suck it up kids just enjoy each other.
Shonterrius: I say all the time, your black is beautiful. Whatever color you are, it is beautiful because it is who you are. When you embrace all of you, other people will too. That's what equity work really starts with. Your self perception comes outward and it does guide your actions, your speech, things you say, things you do. We teach our children that it's okay to just be you and be comfortable being you, it's all right. They just want to feel like they matter, that you see me, not what you want me to look like, but you see, my experiences, my culture, everything tied to me, and we're going to all see that we're all the same at the end of the day. We're all broken vessels trying to make it work in a cruel world. How are we going to show up? How are you going to use your voice to be an echo?
Vanessa: Shonterrius, you do the mirror activity and I'd like to try that. I start with identity webs, and it's just a concept map, but I start with identity webs and we start with simple categories and I do this with adults and training too. But we add to the identity web over the year, as we get to know ourselves, we get to know different civilizations and how people operate, how they get along and how they don't. We add to that, and so as they are more comfortable with themselves and in the classroom environment, that safe space, they'll add more to it. Again, this age group, they become more of who they are. They're not quite sure where they're headed or who they want to be yet, but by doing that self-exploration, they're going to set that foundation. We had to do the same thing in the book. Dr. Perry, we had to start with ourself.
Tonya: We certainly did.
Shonterrius: I would have taught the iceberg. She does identity webs, and I have my kids that get the culture iceberg. These are things that you see about me, but what you don't see is my hidden literacy, and that's where we tap into their genius.
Tonya: While you're doing this work, what are some things that you've learned about yourself and your colleagues while you've been doing this work? Do you have any surprises?
Shonterrius: Okay, so I was thinking about the notion of when I first started teaching just how I had this fairy tale picture in my mind of what my kids would look like and how they would respond to me. And because I did not share the same background as them, sometimes there were conflicts. My own unconscious bias sometimes kept me from seeing my students early on. My students helped me create my music as unit poetry. It was created out of necessity because my kids were not getting it. They were not understanding what a main idea was, reading Daedalus and Icarus. I learn how to pull from them and create lessons that tap into that criticality, their skills, their answer, all those things combined, and that was really the birth of the music is poetry unit.
Tonya: What about you, Vanessa?
Vanessa: I don't get upset about anything. I don't regret anything, Shonterrius, because I'm too old there's not enough time left, and I just got to keep going. I was always bored as a student and I like to think teaching is the ultimate scrap booking, it's so creative. It's like a puzzle. Of course, the pieces are usually lost somewhere on the floor so you have to keep trying to make due, but I just find that I'm constantly working on this puzzle that education is, and there's always something more to craft and do, and to learn and know about. That's what learning is, you have to model that for the kids. To ask students to be part of their own learning should not be revolutionary.
Shonterrius: Come on. Say this.
Vanessa: I'll tell them little fun facts, because I have to go beyond the textbook, just like you're layering text as well, we'll do read arounds. I'll supplement the core content with other texts, and that's what I did in our book Teaching for Racial Equity.
Vanessa: I experimented with a lesson where I brought in a variety of texts at different reading levels so we could read around a subject. I think that's so important. Do not stick to one piece of text. You are doing yourself a disservice. You are doing your students a disservice, and that's that single narrative, boring and harmful.
Tonya: Yeah. Perspective is important, isn't it?
Shonterrius: It's very important because if you want students to show up at... be civic minded at seventh grade civics, how do you learn all these things and how to navigate the world if you can't look beyond the lens for which you see? Perspective matters, the power of tapping into their voice because it taps into their agency, giving them a space to be involved in inquiry matters. Asking kids questions and intentionally sending them down a rabbit hole brings me joy, I love it because what are you going discover going down that hole? What are you going to find?
Shonterrius: In doing that, they ask, "Well, I want to talk about this." "Okay, let's go, come on, find me a text, find a book." So many times the kids suggest, "Hey, I found this book." There's a book called Wild Walker. Our first unit deals with growing pains, how we go through those transitions in life and those childhood rites of passage. My kid found a book called Wild Walker that speaks to a young boy, he's going through some things. I said, "Okay. I found that book. I bought a classroom set." My student introduced me to Wild Walker years ago, and I still read it now.
Shonterrius: Allowing kids space to delve into inquiry and to delve into their own questions and ideas, and to even question authors gives them space to really find joy in learning and thus they want to learn more. They don't want to leave my class. Even some teachers I work with, they latch on, they follow me where I go. They're always calling. And I love it because I feel like the more I learn, I can teach someone else, but I can also learn from them. I'm never too old to learn. My children have taught me how to be the teacher that I am.
Tonya: Now, talk to me about what's next for you guys on your journey. What's one piece of advice that you would give to yourself as you're on this journey?
Shonterrius: I would tell myself to give myself enough grace, because sometimes we don't get it right. Sometimes we mess up and sometimes we don't get everything right, but it's okay to just keep trying, because every little step you take is going to matter in someone's eyes. I would tell myself to always remember that broken crayons are going to still color. I have to be part of the change. I cannot walk around my lips moving. I have to put my boots on the ground and do the work, and sometimes they can be lonely. Sometimes it creates tension at work, but guess what? I work for children, and I will work for children until my eyes are closed. I would tell myself to continue to stay in the fight and to continue to see these children and help them be able to see themselves and that everything about them good, bad, ugly, or indifferent is what makes them who they are and it's okay. But you got to get lit because it's a part of activism, so get lit by any means necessary.
Tonya: What about you, Vanessa? What's next for you on your journey?
Vanessa: What isn't next for me on my journey? I would really like to work in the social justice standards into my curriculum and probably as a summer project, really to look at all aspects of my curriculum through an equity lens, to truly integrate it and see how I can work in the social justice standards from learning for justice, which used to be teaching for tolerance. I am going to re-initiate my teaching for equity group. COVID through us all for a loop, and this is a group I started because I am impatient, I have no time to wait for anyone else to do anything. We only have a certain amount of time and I have so much to do, so starting small, one to one relationships, work on my school culture, but take the people with me that I already know were ready to rock and roll with this. Let's do this equity work.
Vanessa: How can I continue the work with those of us who represent the dominant perspective, the majority of the workforce? This work has to be done by all of us and we need to work together. We need to work across SES, color, all those things, politics. My particular focus is also on better representation in the gifted population. I teach a lot of gifted students. I'm GATE certified and I'm making strides. We've now decided to use a universal screener. We need to catch everyone's genius to quote Gholdy Mohammad, "We're trying to capture every child's genius." Then once we have that, once we know based on data, based on information, instead of what we think or don't think about a student, then what can we do for them and with them? Again, it's all about the kids as Shonterrius says, but we need to do some work with adults, adults who don't think racism exists. Adults who are very defensive right now because they think they're being called out, and I want to call those folks in. And I think it's really important. And I got to hurry up.
Shonterrius: Time is of the essence. There's no time like the now. Let's give them some variety and give them some voice and choice. In doing that, it's going to change the landscape of education. I really want to work with education policy, curriculum writers. That's on my bucket list.
Tonya: Well, we only have one minute. I just want to end this up and just say that you both now have been involved with Stenhouse Publishing and been able to share your stories and share your journey, and you can continue that work. I know that we have a study guide that we're working on and of course, the podcast will be available. There's so many other things that you'll be able to do to share your story. I can't wait to see your continued journey working with your colleagues and your students. We do have to end because we only have 30 seconds, I think right now, to end this up. We talked the entire time, but thank you so much for being a part of this work in this two and a half, three year journey. You too are something else.
Vanessa: Love you, Shonterrius.
Shonterrius: I love you too, Vanessa.