Striving Toward an Anti-Racist Pedagogy in Literacy By Doctor William Kerns

The next few weeks are going to be interesting. This week my blogging partner Dr. William Kerns gives his views on an important issue in literacy. Sometime in the next few weeks, I will be blogging about the topic- The Reading Wars: A New View from the Radical Middle. Radical Middle is a term first used by P.D. Pearson, the creator of the gradual release model. So, stay tuned, lots of good things coming! Dr. Sam




In this blog, I take a stance that as teachers, it is imperative to engage in ongoing self-reflection and exploration about race. This is a crucial step in order to engage in teaching that is actively anti-racist. The topic is imperative to consider considering the news of this week, but I would not wish to view a discussion of critical literacy (Kuby, 2013; Luke, 2018; Wallowitz, 2008) and transgressive pedagogy (hooks, 1994) as limited to only times when discussions of the role of race in politics and society make headlines. Instead, I argue in favor of foregrounding anti-racist pedagogy and critical literacy in an ongoing manner as a teacher.


This is a challenging task. Thankfully, there are a wealth of recent books that explore strategies for being an anti-racist teacher who helps students to explore difficult discussions and texts on the topic (Ahmed, 2018; Brookfield, 2018; Kay, 2018; Minor, 2018; Okun, 2010; Tatum, 2017). In taking on the challenge, it would also be wise to explore literature related to racism in the United States (Kendi, 2017; Ortiz, 2018) and literature that can provide guidance in reflecting about the difficult topic of race (DiAngelo & Dyson, 2018).


I believe in the importance of teachers openly and honestly investigating our beliefs in relation to teaching practices. This includes, for white educators, such as me, openly confronting issues of white privilege and interrogating whether white fragility or even the white gaze might come into play. It also means listening – always being open to learning.  Key questions we might ask include: What are my fundamental beliefs about education including reading education and language arts? How do these beliefs shape my teaching? Underlying these questions are also questions about stances on diversity, race, ethnicity, and whether you view it as important to activity be anti-racist as an educator. Why or why not.  There are possible tensions and challenges that arise as you consider ways to be anti-racist while helping students gain knowledge and skill that they will need.  In addressing these questions, follow-up questions to address can include: What assumptions do we make about people around us – the adults and the children? It is imperative to be anti-racist, rather than merely making a claim to be non-racist. Otherwise, activities can wind up supporting racist narritives without questioning the narratives. The educational choices we make in the classroom are not neutral. The very claim to be neutral itself is an act of privilege, exercising the power to claim neutrality while making underlying choices about what texts to use, whose voices will be heard.


I believe in the need to raise the question of voice by asking who is considered legitimate to speak on a certain issue and who is silenced within a curriculum as an aspect of being an anti-racist teacher. Is it possible that a curriculum might condone or support racist structures or racist assumptions? I also believe that it is important for teachers and students alike (and together!) to develop the skills to examine language used about issues such as race and racial identities in various texts and contexts. Race is a socio-cultural construct grounded in Colonialism and in systems of oppression. An anti-racist approach which includes ongoing self-reflection as a teacher will aid teachers as they respond to the diverse ways that children are impacted by life-conditions.


In order to be anti-racist as a teacher, I believe that it is important to examine discursive practices, or episodes in action and rules – made explicit or implicit – related to who has a voice and who does not, as well as things that are deemed acceptable to be said or that are deemed unacceptable (Young & Ortega, 2009). This can help teachers to explore underlying beliefs regarding race that shape educational practices.  The discourses about children and parents who are of varied racial and ethnic backgrounds provide a framework for further communication about aspects of the reality of lives of students, and the reality of teaching.  Discourses on race are shaped by social structures, and in turn discourse can either support or change those social structures (Fairclough, 2013). So, in practice, this means listening and engaging in dialogue with students while engaging with diverse texts. It also means providing the context within the learning environment for students to be empowered and to be heard.


Freire and Macedo (1987) argue that an emancipatory approach to literacy does not merely focus on the mechanical skills of reading and writing, the classical traits of what it means to be a well-educated person, or even the joy and comprehension of reading a text. These approaches to literacy are insufficient for education to have an emancipatory rather than an oppressive impact. Instead, in an emancipatory pedagogy, an emphasis is placed on a critical analysis the text and of social structures in order to “read the word and read the world”. I would argue that to be anti-racist as an educator of literacy and English Language Arts, an emancipatory approach is needed. Crucially, Giroux (1992) argues that this voice is best enabled when the student engages in communication in his or her own primary language (or dialect).


The journey of self-discovery and reflection never ends. Each of us has our own story. Let’s take the anti-racist journey together. Let’s stand together. Our students deserve it.




Ahmed, S.K. (2018). Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


Brookfield, S.D. (2018). Teaching Race: How to Help Students Unmask and Challenge Racism. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


DiAngelo, R., & Dyson, M.E. (2018). White Fragility Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Race. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.


Fairclough, Norman (2013) (Second Edition). Analyzing Discourse: Textual analysis for social research, London: Routledge.


Freire, P., & Macedo, D. (1987). Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey.


Giroux, H. A., & McLaren, P. (1991). Radical pedagogy as cultural politics: Beyond the discourse of critique and anti-utopianism. In D. Morton & M. Zavarzadeh (Eds.), Theory/pedagogy/politics (pp. 152-186). Chicago: University of Illinois Press.


hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York, NY: Routledge.


Kay, M.R. (2018). Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.


Kendi, I.X. (2017). Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Bay City, MI: Bold Type Books.


Kuby, C.R., (2013). Critical Literacy in the Early Childhood Classroom: Unpacking Histories, Unlearning Privilege. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.


Kurashige, L. (2016). Two Faces of Exclusion: The Untold History of Anti-Asian Racism in the United States. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.


Luke, A. (2018). Critical Literacy, Schooling, and Social Justice: The Selected Works of Allan Luke. New York, NY: Routledge.


Minor, C. (2018). We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to BE Who Our Students Need Us to Be. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


Okun, T. (2010). The Emperor Has No Clothes: Teaching About Race and Racism to People Who Don’t Want to Know. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.


Ortiz, P. (2018). An African American and Latinx History of the United States. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.


Tatum, B.D. (2017). Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race. New York, NY: Basic Books.


Young, R.F., & Ortega, L. (Eds.) (2009). Discursive Practice in Language Learning and Teaching. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.


Wallowitz, L. (2008). Critical Literacy as Resistance: Teaching for Social Justice Across the Secondary Curriculum. New York, NY: Peter Lang.


Copyright 2019 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the views of this author & his guest bloggers.  They do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

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