Voices in Education

Decolonizing Our Classrooms Starts With Us

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Being an antiracist is an active and ongoing practice one engages in for life. It takes patience, reflection, and commitment. I believe that being an antiracist starts with going inward and taking stock of what we feel and know to be true. Only then can we begin to analyze how dominant ideology and white supremacy have shaped our individual beliefs and behaviors. While the work and act of understanding oneself deeply can be challenging and uncomfortable, it is absolutely critical if our goal is to uproot and decolonize the spaces and systems we move through, subscribe to, and in many cases, benefit from. 

Being an antiracist educator is no different. But I do believe that because our work is dynamic and our reach is wide, our job is more urgent than ever. The time is long overdue to think radically about teaching and learning, and it begins with us.

Don’t talk about it, be about it. 
Lerone Bennett Jr. said, “An educator in a system of oppression is either a revolutionary or an oppressor.” I see no lies. Educators have a special role in the revolution, they always have. With the number of students and families we serve, I believe that our impact is truly unmatched. This is a privilege and I say that with both joy and urgency. I implore you all to take action and stay active even when words are no longer buzzworthy.

Here are some ideas to help you get started.

Assess how the culture of power is manifested in your classroom.
Educators have a responsibility to dismantle racism that is built and wired into schooling, testing, response to behavior, and curriculum. However, the first step is to address our own role in perpetuating racism and assess how we may be replicating the culture of power (or dominant culture and aspects of whiteness) in the classroom as described in Lisa D. Delpit’s, The Silenced Dialogue: Educating Other’s People’s Children

Teachers are, by nature, incredibly quick, decisive, and efficient. We have to be. We hear things like “work smarter not harder” and “what has the highest leverage?” You know what I am talking about. But, what if, for a moment, we slowed down and looked at these decisions and the status quo that currently exist within our classroom walls. Have we become complacent?

Take a moment to write down your teaching ideology when it comes to your students and their abilities. 

You might start with: 

  • How do you view success? 
  • What are your expectations for your students? 
  • Now, think about your seating arrangements and the types of learning activities you plan and have your students engage in. Are students seated facing you at all times? 
  • Do students collaborate and engage in interactive learning structures? 
  • Think about if and how you actively amplify student voice and build student agency in the classroom. Do students have a voice and do they have a say in their learning? 
  • Think about the student to teacher talk ratio and the nature of discussions in your classroom. Are you the sole or loudest voice in the classroom? 
  • Think about how you talk to your students and about your students. Do you use deficit-based language or hold assimilationist beliefs? 
  • Think about how you resolve issues in the classroom. Are you inquiry-stanced and solutions oriented? 
  • Do you engage in power struggles with students? 
  • How often do you give students referrals and how quickly? 

Now, do your answers align with your ideology?

In Mapping the Terrain(s) of Ideology, Paula Elliot writes: "Ideological clarity allows teachers to make instructional decisions so that all their students can cultivate critical skills and dispositions to co-construct curricula that are relevant to their world." Teachers can support students to learn that they are not dependent on having access to the canon and knowledge legitimized by others. A commitment to seek clarity helps teachers define student achievement that provokes understanding of the content, context, and purposes of standardized test requirements, as well as purposes of a more just society. So equipped, their students can then make ethical and responsible choices in terms of how they want to live their lives and how they want to contribute to society at large. We must keep this the forefront of our teaching and planning. 

Amplify the voices and stories of our students and their ancestors. 
Textbooks and core curriculum are manifestations of the culture of power. It is imperative that we take a closer look at these texts that we have been assigned and for some, passively assigning to our young people. We cannot contribute to the erasure of history. It is our responsibility as educators to take steps in finding texts that not only showcase the voices and stories of our students and their ancestors, but prioritize and humanize them beyond a month on the calendar. But what if I am white? Nobody is asking you to be an expert or to pretend to know more than you do. This question is rooted in you being at the center. But I don’t know where to start and I don’t have access to the right people or resources. This is another example of you being rooted at the center. I invite you to take your white liberal teacher hat off and be the student. Continue to read and soak up information from those who have been doing the work for years. The information is out there. 

Teaching and planning beyond the basics.
We cannot continue to prioritize basic skills and test preparation.To put so much emphasis on standardized testing, which is rooted in inequity and the eugenics movement, is and continues to be a disservice for our young people. When educators focus on achieving basic skills, we fail to equip students with the agency to evaluate, create, and analyze for themselves. What we need to be focusing on is holding space to learn and practice skills needed to navigate the world. This includes critical thinking skills and world knowledge required to make informed decisions. This includes the truth and history of the country so that our students know a false narrative or lie when they are presented with one. They need to know their rights. 

Educators who are antiracist have the capacity to teach and plan through a critical race lens. When planning from scratch, educators use backwards design and are intentional with essential questions and learning goals, objectives, and outcomes. Educators who are antiracist are also able to look critically at existing curriculum within our content areas to decide if there is opportunity to make it antiracist and if there is opportunity, be able to identify it and act on it. By the same token, educators know if something is inherently racist and/or perpetuates white supremacy or dominant narratives, and gets rid of the lesson or unit altogether.

It is also essential that we teach our young people about what racism is and model for them how to be antiracist. This starts with giving your students sanctuary within four walls to learn, practice, and speak up against injustice. Students must learn how to be antiracist and we must teach them.

There are many ways to approach this act of decolonizing the classroom. Continue to listen, learn, reflect, act, and, then, repeat. Before creating content and speaking on a topic or on behalf of a group of people, take a pause and seek what has already been shared, researched, and created from educators and leaders before you. Remember that what works for one teacher and their classroom may not work for you and yours. 

For now, I encourage my fellow educators to take the final weeks of summer to recharge and rethink your physical and digital classroom for the upcoming school year. For those who are soon to receive children in the coming weeks, good luck! May us all recognize there are no days off for an antiracist educator. Happy Planning!

Terry Kawi

Terry Kawi ELA Teacher and Instructional Coach Instagram: ms_kawi

Terry Kawi is a middle school ELA teacher and instructional coach. Terry is a 6-8 ELA teacher in the Bay Area and previously taught in Brooklyn, NY. She holds a bachelor of art’s degree in history from UC Davis and master’s degree in teaching secondary English from USC. Terry is entering her eighth year of teaching and continues to prioritize building relationships and empower students through reading and discourse. Outside of teaching, Terry enjoys reading nonfiction, listening to music, and staying active.

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