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Teaching for Racial Equity: Becoming Interrupters

Posted by admin on Apr 6, 2022 10:23:46 AM


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 next steps for teaching racial equity, including actions educators can take on a daily basis and ways to overcome resistance to their efforts.


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: Well, welcome back. Hello, and you're here at Teaching for Racial Equity podcast and it's based on the book by the same name. I'm Tonya Perry, one of the books authors. And our final episode, I'm joined again by my co-authors Steve and Katy. And we're going to share our thoughts on what we've learned from our previous episodes and discuss next steps for teaching racial equity. This includes actions educators can incorporate into their teaching and learning and ways to persevere in the face of resistance. So let's get started tonight. Are you ready my co-authors?

Katy: Here we are.

Steven: Absolutely.

Tonya: Yeah. So before we move on, I just wanted to just briefly talk about what we've been doing since we've last been with the audience. I know that Steve you've been hanging out with third graders virtually?

Steven: That's right.

Tonya: Discussing social issues. Is that right?

Steven: Absolutely. Every week, every Tuesday at noon.

Tonya: Oh, I know that's pretty interesting work. I can't imagine anything more fulfilling, honestly, Steve, I bet you have some pretty good conversations?

Steven: They always have great ideas.

Katy: Well, they're inspiring always. Tonya, I know that you are continuing to stay busy with NCTE with the National Writing Project and with your work as a professor. And I heard a rumor that you're also taking tap dance lessons.

Tonya: Oh my goodness, Katy. Yes, I am. And I am a star only in my own mind.

Katy: Tap dancing is hard. So although I think as teachers, we often tap dance in more figurative ways. Don't we? So there we are.

Steven: Absolutely. And Katy I know that you have over the years done a lot of dancing and choreography for local musical theater.

Katy: That is true.

Steven: Along with being constantly dealing with your role as a department chair at Northeastern Illinois University in education. And so I don't know how you balance it all and still work with the writing project as well, and take care of your cat, who hasn't shown up on the screen just yet.

Katy: Yeah. Time will tell.

Steven: But you manage somehow, clearly.

Katy: Well, I think among us, we're fairly active group, fairly active trio. But part of the joy has been to continue to do the work together and to be listening to the kinds of things that have come out as we've developed these podcasts. Tonya, what's something that really stood out for you from the podcasts that we've done so far?

Tonya: Oh my goodness there are lots of wonderful nuggets that are in the podcast. I just say one of the nuggets, I think that I've received is the importance of families and doing the equity work. Our communities and our families are very important as we begin to understand more about our own communities and that our communities that our students come from. And so I think it's important part and an important part of our work that we cannot ignore. Although I would say that I don't know about you, but in my teacher education training, a lot of the emphasis was on school and skills and that's important, very important, but also you have a better understanding when the home and the community is incorporated because you begin to understand how students come to be, how they come to understand their own worlds.

Tonya: I think that's a very necessary part of building a relationship with the students. And then we had another part of our podcast where we talked about equity work and being able to work with our colleagues. And I thought that was important because we have to be vulnerable and be able to share who we are and be able to listen, to hear who our colleagues are, so that we can better understand where we need to go in this equity journey. So those are things that have stood out for me Katy. What about you Katy?

Katy: I think for me, the overall commitment of all of those who have contributed to the podcasts, our teachers, as they've talked about their students, about their work with their other colleagues, and certainly working with you two, working with my colleagues at the university. No matter where each of us is in the continuum of racial literacy development, the commitment to continue to learn, the commitment to engage in this really challenging and meaningful work, no matter where we are, that is just an overarching theme that I will carry with me from all of this. And Steve, how about you?

Steven: Well, first of all, I'm always struck by the teacher's passion. You can't have a conversation with the teachers we work with without feeling the passion and the energy that comes from them and that carries them through, especially when things are challenging. And maybe I was surprised at how much as we worked together over the past couple of years, the teachers we are working with really focused a lot on their own learning process. I never heard teachers talking as if they'd already figured it all out and thought that they were "woke." Instead, there are people who are always learning and learning from their students as well as from their families. And I would add that with the families what it means is that you get more support from families when they feel like they've been consulted when they learn what you're doing and understand that you respect them and that they're an important resource. Then they're the people that are going to support you, especially if their challenges are questions about what's happening in your classroom.

Steven: So part of that for us is thinking about ourselves as interrupters and there's that word in the title of the book becoming interrupters. So it's interesting to think about why we've chosen that word rather than a lot of people talk about disruption, both in education and in the technology world and so forth. And so to me, it really means that the effort is more of a conversation rather than just stopping everything and trying to start all over from the beginning. But I wonder what is in your mind, partners these days when it comes to thinking about interruption.

Katy: I've listened to Tonya, I've listened to Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz and many others. And done a lot reading and thinking myself. And I think there are times for disruption. There are times when we need to blow things up. But interruption is a little gentler to me and provide space for ongoing growth and healing. And the three of us have to talked a lot about why we chose that word and that is one of the things that has really stuck with me. The space for growth, the space for healing when things not just merely, when things are interrupted.

Tonya: Katy, that's a good point and same with you, Steve. I don't know that it has to be an either or, it can be and. You can have a disruption and you can have interruption. I just think that there are times as you both diluted to times for disruption, but there are also times for interruption. I think interruption can occur more frequently. So you can interrupt during a class, or a student can say, "Excuse me, can you clarify that?"

Tonya: What does it really mean when you say X? What do we do when this happens with Y? Those are interruption statements or stems that students can use in the class that we can use with our colleagues, that interrupt a thinking process along the way. So we don't have to get to the end of a process when maybe there're some things that have occurred and we really feel like there needs to be a disruption. We can also do interruption tactics or processes or practices along the way to shift that thinking as we have these dialogues and conversations. And that's what I'm thinking, at least for me. That doesn't have to be a binary, but I think they put both coexist. There's just times that you call on one and maybe the other at different times.

Steven: I've never told you two this before, but this just suddenly came to me now, as we're talking that in the congregation that my wife and I had belonged to the rabbi was very unusual. And one of the things I really appreciated about him is it would be in the middle of a holiday service and he'd stop in the middle and interrupt himself and us and say, "Have we really thought about what that prayer just means?" And he'd chat about that or invite people in the congregation to talk about that. And it just struck me as being so thoughtful and caring about what we are happening, that he would interrupt the process in order to really stop and reflect on it.

Katy: And I think it's a healthy thing, if we can interrupt along the way, then maybe things won't get to the point that they need to be blown up. We can course correct along the way.

Tonya: Yeah. And at the same time, there are things that happen that disruption is maybe the only course. But interruption certainly is something that we should think about along the way, thoughtful reflection, someone pointing something out, asking a question that redirects how we're thinking or what we're thinking, or at least have us go through that process even if it doesn't change someone's mind. But interruption is very important. I'm hoping that my whole life I've been able to interrupt my own thinking in ways in which haven't been effective, or I haven't done something in the way I think should be best. And that interruption does that jarring. So I'm hoping that the book does that for others as well. And I was also thinking about what is it that actions can teachers take on a daily basis to continuously work toward racial equity in their classrooms?

Tonya: Thinking about this concept of interruption. And I know it may seem like a lot, but I'm just thinking about the practice of the daily writing for a teacher, not a whole lot, but this is on your own private thinking and reflection about your own classroom community and the practices in the classroom. And then thinking about even keeping the journals one way as you start thinking, because sometimes when things are not going well or certain things are going well, we don't always process what is that technique or strategy or that interruption practice we used in the class or we needed to use in the class that made it really flow and effective.

Tonya: So one way to do that, I think is I like to actually write down some things sometimes about what worked and sometimes about what didn't work, particularly when it comes to racial equity and making sure that all kids feel included in the class and seen and heard. What is it that made this class so powerful today? Or why was it that it didn't connect today? Is it some way that I made the students feel invisible? What did I do? What did I say? How can I go back and rethink some of the things that happen in class and then come up with my own interruption practice for my own actions, and those of the students. I don't know. I think that's something that could work, Steve.

Steven: I don't see why not. I mean, and the thing about journaling is that it causes you to stop and reflect and think about what it is. I mean, we spend the days plunging through the day. There's so much never forget Donald Graves, one of the first times I saw him speak, talk about teachers, just constantly put it up, take it down, put it up, take it down. Here's the next thing. Here's the next thing. And it's hard to stop yourself to stop and think. But I think that another piece of the daily work is a lot of us tend to think about having conversations with students about race or talking about racial issues. And that's certainly something that can be important. But just as important is really the times when teachers try to really learn what their students perspectives are, what their strengths, what their geniuses are, what their needs are, and that's as much equity as verbally talking about it.

Steven: And it's something that we can all do, no matter what people are saying or making rules about what you can or can't say in the classroom, it's how you understand your students and support them in the ways that they need. And that's easily as important as anything else on a daily basis. And finally, what I would say is that, that's what really has knocked me out with the teachers we've worked with, that they talk about that, the kinds of things that they learn from their students and about their students so that they can be better teachers.

Katy: Yeah. I was going to say one other thing that really strikes me that teachers can do on a daily basis is find a partner, find your friend. I've certainly enjoyed having that opportunity over these past couple years, our Wednesday afternoons provide a time that the writing that I've done during the week, the thinking that I've done during the week, I've got my two friends here that I can seek feedback. I can see seek an opportunity to keep learning. Teaching is often so isolating. And so if we can reach out to each other and help support each other, because not every environment is all that supportive.

Tonya: That's right.

Steven: I was talking with Vanessa, one of our teachers, if you've listened to the other podcasts, you've heard from her who was talking about this just last night we were on the phone, because I wanted to hear more about what's going on in her district that she's trying to promote. And she's really picturing that as important, because it's safer. You're not having to bring up issues in the whole faculty meeting or department meeting. Instead, if you have somebody that you can trust, that you can ask them to come into your classroom or visit theirs. And so you feel like you have a partner, she said, that's a major thing that they're really promoting in her district.

Tonya: I love that. Go ahead, Steve, go ahead.

Steven: I was going to say that I'm interested to hear what y'all think about teachers doing this work in settings where maybe there isn't as much support going on. We certainly know that there's a lot of questions. A lot of concern being expressed by community members and families that can make PE teachers wonder, "Well, can I really do any of this because people are feeling threatened by it?" Even though they really shouldn't be threatened because it's about support for all of our children not dividing people. But I'm wondering what your thoughts are both of you, about what teachers can do in settings where maybe they don't feel there's a lot of support for this work.

Tonya: Well, I think you hit on something there Steve, and even with your conversation with Vanessa, I'm thinking about establishing equity partners someone who really holds you accountable for equity in your classroom, in your talk and your interactions with students and parents or communities is somebody who's your accountability partner when it comes to how well are you really responding to the school and the overall community and holding you accountable and somebody who you can have those conversations with. When I feel really successful that I did X, what do you think? Or I really feel like I missed the mark on this. How do you think I should handle this? But having an equity partner I think is important and Katy's right finding your people. I think that Katy you're right on the mark. Even outside of the school? What do you think about that Katy having people?

Katy: One of the things that you had mentioned before in an earlier conversation, Tonya, is the notion of finding communities of practice. If you've got a community of practice within your immediate environment, that's great and that's ideal. But if not one can find a community of practice, there's others out there seeking to do the work together. I think about one of our writing project fellows who talked, she does a Saturday coffee where she gets together with other teachers from the area and well pre-COVID. They met at a coffee shop. I believe they've been doing Zoom coffee for the past two years. But they're not all from her school, but they're all people that value student learning and value writing in particular and drawing upon students writing to ensure that they are included appropriately in a classroom. So they can develop their voice in whatever classroom they're in.

Tonya: I love that idea of community of practice and sometimes the community of practice, like you said, Katy could be within the school, could be a national community of practice, or it could be parents who really want to make a change and they become your community of practice. And so being able to do it's important. Katy, thinking about this what do you think the role of policy and law is at the local federal levels in advancing equity and the role of grassroots action We've been really talking about more grassroots here, but let's talk about policy and law. What do you think about that at the federal level and advancing equity? What do you think?

Katy: Well, as you said earlier, I don't necessarily see this as an either or, rather it's a both and. Ibram Kendi talks about the necessity of law and policy in enacting positive change. And certainly there are some laws and policies in various places that are concerning. In the meantime, in our state of Illinois, the state has passed culturally responsive teaching and leading standards that teacher preparation institutions need to ensure that future teachers are engaging with. A media literacy requirement again, to help ensure that their future students are really and able to discern and think critically about out the information that they are hearing and seeing from all angles.

Katy: And all of that said, the grassroots effort is really important as well. The teachers in the classrooms, those of us who are advocating from different points of entry from the university, from our writing projects, from our consultant areas, we all need to work together. And so I think to me, it is both, and. We need the law and policy. We need those of us on the ground to really be working toward advancing equity for all of our young people.

Steven: I would say too, that there are going to be... Because some of the laws and policies are really aimed at silencing the discussions, truth be known right now.

Katy: As I said, a little challenging, right?

Steven: A little challenging. And so they're going to be brave teachers, not all of us, but some who decide to stand up and teach the truthful history anyway. And they may find themselves in court about it or otherwise finding themselves under fire. And what I think the rest of us can do because not everybody's going to have that bravery, or maybe they have a family and young children, and they just can't take that risk. But what we can do is urge our unions and fellow teachers and other organizations and community organizations and parents to stand up and stand behind those people and make clear that they're representing values that are important to a lot of us. And that therefore, perhaps those efforts are going to bear fruit.

Steven: I wanted to just jump back for a minute though, to our earlier question about what to do when the setting is not supportive and that is that nobody he is stopping any of us from learning and reading and studying. Right now, I mean, our book is not the only one there's been a wonderful flourishing of literature about race, about racism, about anti-racism, about how to do that in the classroom, about thinking about that more broadly and historically learning the history. I mean, there's so much history of people of color that isn't taught in school, but they're wonderful books that really bring a lot of this to life. And we can read that. Nobody's stopping us from buying the books and reading them, although if we don't have the time, but there is summer.

Steven: And so I think we have to keep that in mind that there are always things we can do each of us to continue our learning in this process that Sealey-Ruiz calls a continuum of racial literacy development, we're all on the spectrum of moving in that direction. And that means you've got to study and find out the things that you don't realize you don't know.

Tonya: Absolutely. Steve, I think that I'm glad you mentioned the continuum and part of the racial literacy development model has historical literacy. And in there, that is a discussion of learning about the history, the true history, the complete or comprehensive history, not just one part of history, but learning holistically about history and how all of the incidents that has occurred in our history are intertwined and how they relate to each other. So I think that it's important that the laws they should teach us, that we can't run from our past, that it is not any one person's history, it is the American history in this case and in some cases our global history. But that we're better because we can face the history and learn from it that there is when we reject history, then we are doomed to repeat it. But we are also doomed to walk in a way that is not prosperous for us as humans.

Tonya: So people who want truth universities, schools, local organizations can stand together. We don't have to stand separately because we are looking for, and really want the history, the historical literacy of all races, but particular, the races of marginalized people to be integrated into and be told and woven into the American history. So I know that there are people who are scared, but you should never be afraid of that history and should welcome to learn about that history so that we can do better, because we can all learn from those mistakes that have been made in the past. That's how we become better. So I just think that policies should really help us do that and really put all the history, the American history at the forefront and not run from it.

Steven: And a lot of that history is positive. A lot of the history of people of color is really wonderful in terms of creativity and art and thought and music. And so for example, we learned from Gholdy Muhammad the history of African American literary societies in cities, all over the country in the 19th century. I was just reading about the history of all the hundreds of school buildings and schools that were built and funded by African Americans, right after the emancipation proclamation, they went right to work, creating schools for their children. And so there's history like that it's not all terrible things that people were doing to each other. And when we know that there's that wonderful heritage that helps people of all colors to be proud of that and to emphasize that as part of the heritage that they can bring to their learning now.

Tonya: Yeah. Well, what do you hope that the readers will take away from this book overall? We've talked about several things and this is our last episode with Teaching for Racial Equity for the podcast, so what is it that we hope that people will take away from the book? And I can just start it. And I'm hoping that people understand that our students are very important to all of us. Our children are very important to all of us and we can't teach them without connecting to who they truly are. It's just not possible. If we're going to see a student, we have to see the student, the student's history, the student's present, the student's dreams, the student's future it's the whole student. And racial equity is a goal for all of us, for none of us want to leave any student misrepresented or invisible in any way. So it's important that we see the whole student, know the whole student that includes the history of the student, the president of the student, the community of the student and knowing who everyone is makes us stronger, not weaker. I think that's what I want people to get from the book. You Katy?

Katy: Yep. And that these are efforts that help us be more fully human. There are things we can do. There are things that must do and that if we just start somewhere. Being patient with imperfection, but persistent and just keep going, because that's how we embrace our humanity. Steve, how about you?

Steven: In the book, we've encouraged people to start with themselves and to reflect on their own history, their own growing up, their own perspectives. And I've thought about how that has to be hard for a lot of people to somehow find perspective beyond what they already see and what they already view in the world. It does help to have a thinking partner, somebody who's different from you in some way. So they see your life in a different perspective than you do. And I have to say for myself personally, that's been one of the most joyous thing about working on this book is having the two of you bring to light the times when I'm not realizing what my perspective is and not realizing that there's another way to see things that might make it easier for me to understand the need for doing things differently with children.

Steven: Because most of the time, actually for teachers, we're adults and the people are working with are children they're already in a different generation and their lives are going to be different than ours. And to be able to see what that means for their learning and what that means for how we support that learning, we have to find a way to move outside ourselves and reflect on that. And we ask people to do that in the book, but it's not easy. And I think educators who work with teachers have struggled to find ways to help new young teachers to do that work because it isn't easy. But it's important.

Katy: When I think about then where do we go next? What does each of us see as next? And what advice might we give to ourselves? I'm going to jump in and just say, my advice to myself is keep learning. Just keep learning. Keep doing that. Tonya, how about you?

Tonya: I'm thinking that I just want to be willing to listen. Then being willing to ask questions and listen, probably speak less and listen more. And then being able to interject and being willing to interrupt certain ways of thinking, whether it's questions, something declarative, maybe by posing scenarios. But I just really want to be able to listen and learn and then be able to interrupt in ways in which people can begin to think through what they've said in myself. I'm still on this journey as well I don't want to say that I got it figured out because if I did, you should run. But this idea of being willing to listen, because I think by listening you can also learn more and be able to respond in a way that takes us further along this journey in a positive way. What do you think Steve?

Steven: Well, what I think for myself is that for all of us, it can be challenging to think about what to do next because the history and problems of race are huge and complex in this country. And you can feel helpless or you can wonder, what can I as one person or even in a small group do. But I think that each of us can look around at our own context and identify something where we can make a difference, make an interruption, make a contribution. And sometimes also to keep quiet in the Illinois Writing Project, we have an equity committee it's going to be meeting next Monday and focusing on what do they want to really tackle next? And I think I'm going to try to keep myself quiet for a while and just listen and to see where other people's heads are before I jump in, because I always have strong opinions myself. So that's my challenge and I hope I'm up for it.

Tonya: Well, I think that the book has certainly done something for us on this journey for the last two and a half years, it'll be three years soon of actually doing the work and practicing what we have learned in the book. It has been wonderful working with the two of you. This is certainly not the end and we're just moving on to something different. What do you say?

Katy: Sounds good to me.

Steven: We are ready for the next step I hope. And I hope our listeners are too.
Tonya: Absolutely. Well, thanks for listening to The Teaching for Racial Equity podcast. We hope you've enjoyed this series. We've enjoyed doing the series for you. The writers for the book, the teacher writers in the book, we've immensely enjoyed doing this and taking the look at ourselves. We've covered a lot of ground in these episodes. And then as you reflect on what you've learned and what you're reading our book, we challenge each of you to ask the hard questions. Engage in those hard conversations and embrace the hard work that can lead to greater equity. May the words of the late civil rights leader, congressman John Lewis provide all of us with the courage and perseverance to keep going to interrupt inequities when we see them and to get into some good trouble. Hey, say goodnight everybody.

Steven: Goodnight.

Katy: Goodnight, everybody.