Addressing Racism in the Reading and Language Arts Classroom by Dr. William Kerns

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Today my blogging partner Dr. Bill Kerns gives a thought-provoking essay. Special thanks to Bill for giving us all things to think about as we address the issue of racism in the reading and language arts classroom.  

 Addressing Racism in the Reading and Language Arts Classroom by Dr. William Kerns

Silence about human suffering and injustice is not a moral option. A global pandemic is ongoing, with impact that is disproportionate by race and socioeconomic status because of a long legacy of inequities. Many students you may teach are likely struggling to keep up with the demands of online courses because of gaps in access to technology. In my last guest blog on this site, I discussed ideas for learning about Chinese cultural traditions in literature and language arts activities during writing workshops as a means of countering stereotypes. In this blog, I urge you to consider how issues raised by the killing of Ahmaud Arbery can inform your curriculum. It is my belief that this tragedy is not merely a reminder of past horrors. It is a reminder of the past, present and a warning of the future. The realities of brutal injustices and blinding racism never went away with the passing of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, they evolved. It is my stance that as an educator it is insufficient to be merely non-racist while claiming a type of political neutrality.

I view it as a moral imperative to create literacy and language arts activities that intentionally are anti-racist. This can be done while honoring the needs of instruction in language arts and literacy. A good first step for each of us as educators is to examine our own classroom (online or eventually face-to-face) and school climate. Is it empowering or disempowering for students from cultural, ethnic, and racial minority groups? Does it include issues and topics related to the students’ background and culture? Be supportive and nurturing with students, because a key criterion for culturally relevant teaching is nurturing and supporting competence in both home and school cultures (Gay, 2018). So, use the students’ home cultural experiences as a foundation upon which to develop knowledge and skills. Content learned in this way is more significant to the students and facilitates the transfer of what is learned in school to real-life situations. By engaging in in-depth literature study and inquiry projects around difficult themes related to social inequities and racism, students develop new skills and knowledge, teachers make meaningful connections between school and real-life situations, and there is meaningful discussion about how the inequities of society can be improved.

It is possible to plan literature circles, literature discussions, writing workshops, and digital storytelling that incorporate these areas into topics that are anti-racist by countering stereotypes, raising attention to the damaging impact of bigotry, and the horrors of systemic injustices. Incorporate the language arts (reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and visually representing) in creative ways. Literary studies in the classroom should not merely focus on the skills and content that are determined to be important in order to pass standards and high stakes testing.

Being anti-racist as a teacher includes lessons that encourage the exploration of what it means to participate in society, with an awareness of injustices in society in the context of race and ethnicity. Help prepare students to become change agents in society as you also help students in their personal growth and ethical development. Seek out literature that can be useful in communicating moral and ethical themes, communicating life stories and life lessons related to the human condition and the psychology of characters. More than this, you can also seek out literature that communicates themes and trends in society and that explores power structures, ideologies, communicates trends in history and forms of conflict. In the process, lessons can focus on both the information in a text and the evoked experiences.

You can then explore diverse ways that students are impacted by life-conditions in society, including ways that many students are denied equitable education opportunities. Critique how forms of social injustices are either supported or resisted through pedagogical practice. Students can engage in in-depth examination of the ethical and moral context of who is empowered and who is disempowered, who is given voice and who is silenced. They can examine the moral implications of ways that conceptions of race can contribute to privileges and disadvantages in society.

The approach to literacy and language arts instruction that I encourage is grounded in not only skill development but a goal of using literacy and literature lessons to change lives. The curriculum should recognize the importance of including students’ cultural references in varied aspects of the learning. Stories and dialogue make a difference, so make sure that the conversations are genuine even if difficult. Create an environment in which there is a consistent set of high academic expectations and a real respect for students as well as a belief in their capability. Admittedly, I realize that any teacher reading this blog is likely under pressure to enact curriculum that is efficient in its techniques and processes that address basic skills, standards and high stakes tests. Behavioral objectives drive the design of instructional processes. But it is possible to address these skills and objectives while promoting critical inquiry into racism and social injustices. Schools should not be factories. Students are not merely products. They are people. Precious. Beautiful. Fragile. They deserve the opportunity to contribute to a world that is more equitable, a world in which finally racism is addressed and not just swept under a rug with the pretense that if ignored, it is a thing of the past. This week’s headlines are a tragic reminder that the deadly consequences of racism are not in the past.


References and Resources


Gay, G. (2018). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research and practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.


Kendi, I.X. (2017 ). Stamped from the beginning: The definitive history of racist ideas in America. New York, NY: Nation Books.


Kendi, I.X. (2019). How to be an anti-racist. New York, NY: Random House.


Motha, S. (2014). Race, empire, and English language teaching: Creating responsible and ethical anti-racist practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Copyright 2020 by Dr. Sam Bommarito & Dr. Williams Kerns. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

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