Research has shown that when students of color have access to texts that reflect their own experiences, they are more likely to be motivated to read. But in a year when actively anti-racist content is urgently needed in virtual and in-person classrooms alike, representative voices and diverse perspectives can still be hard to find in instructional materials—and the impact is sobering. Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2015 indicated that while 46% of white 4th graders were proficient in reading scores, only 18% of Black students and and 21% of Hispanic students met the same proficiency criteria.
In an October webinar with Edsurge, Newsela invited a panel of education leaders to discuss how schools can build an anti-racist culture and community, support teachers with robust content and training, and continue to do this much-needed work while so many of us are still remote.
Liana Gamber-Thompson, EdSurge
Nicole Adell, Principal, Newburg Middle School, Louisville, KY
Jennifer Coogan, Chief Content Officer, Newsela
Lawrence Pendergast, Deputy Chief Academic Officer for the Division of Teaching and Learning, NYCDOE
Dr. James Pope, Deputy Superintendent, Tuscaloosa City Schools, Tuscaloosa, AL
Building anti-racist culture and safe communities in virtual and in-person spaces
Principal Adell kicked off the conversation by stressing that in order to build an anti-racist culture, schools have to start by encouraging staff to have courageous conversations about their core beliefs. Only when the adults have done the work, she stressed, do schools have the foundation for supporting important conversations with students. She shared how gathering staff on a virtual call to share beliefs was difficult and emotional, but establishing vulnerability was their ground zero for moving forward as a school.
Lawrence Pendergast echoed this sentiment, emphasizing that there have to be hard conversations at the school level first. “We can’t impose a belief system on teachers,” he said, “we have to engage teachers about their beliefs.” And when it comes to creating safe communities, Adell described how every staff member at her school—herself included—now has a small cohort of students they meet with every morning to create a launching-off point for the day. With a school population that includes 19 different nationalities, creating an intimate setting where students and staff can have meaningful conversations is central to ensuring all students feel seen and heard.
Developing robust instructional content that promotes anti-racism
A significant portion of the discussion focused on the role of instructional content, and as a jumping-off point, Newsela’s Jennifer Coogan shared a slide with five key practices for supporting anti-racism in content selection. These included relevant coverage (being prepared to address current events as they develop), but also a sustained focus on empowering narratives and SEL, making sure that the social-emotional wellbeing of all students is being supported by instructional content.
Coogan also spoke to the importance of acknowledging that racism exists in our core institutions, and that we all need to interrogate curricula with fresh eyes. Part of this is moving away from diverse content being deemed an elective, as it’s often the first to go when budgets get tight. Coogan spoke about aligning this content with state standards, and pairing it with core subjects and skills—whether that be analyzing primary sources or looking at problematic parts of our history through the lens of previously unheard perspectives.
This view was elaborated on by both Pendergast and Dr. James Pope, who agreed that the work of anti-racism has to be embedded in core academics. “This can’t be the work of a given office,” Pendergast said, “it has to be a part of everything, and we have to approach it as a system, not as an initiative.”
Dr. Pope further stressed that this work can’t be “ wrapped around an initiative”—instead, “we’re informing our team how to implement practices that are embedded in our everyday work.” Additionally, anti-racist content and practices should not be limited to social studies—they should extend into math and science, and inform how teachers of all subjects think and interact with students. “We’re not pushing anything on anybody,” he said, “we’re making people aware of how we can be supportive of all students.”
Supporting anti-racism during remote learning
The work of advancing anti-racist instruction is more important than ever—but how can schools not lose sight of these goals amid the challenges of COVID-19? Dr. Pope described how in Tuscaloosa, the pandemic has made school leaders freshly aware of the inequities that exist in student populations, and they’ve been compelled to back up their mission statement for Black Lives Matter by pushing forward an operational curriculum in support of the movement.
Pendergast agreed that schools have to support sweeping statements with action, and shared how in New York, they created a series of short-form recordings to support teachers who were struggling with remote teaching and having less time to do more. By providing bite-size, user friendly content that was easy to consume in short spurts, they invited instructors to look at content and ask questions like: Who is being centered? Who is absent?
Dr. Pope also emphasized that in some cases, the pandemic has presented new opportunities. When it came to connecting with families, his schools have actually been able to do more with parents through small online sessions to discuss dialogues around equity. “This is a great time for family and community engagement,” he said, “and for giving parents a voice.”
Supporting teacher training on anti-racism
Throughout their conversation, the panelists also touched on the importance of supporting teachers with professional development and learning. As Adell said, “When the adults feel comfortable to have those tough discussions, to look at curriculum and content and question it—then you get really cool lessons for our kids.”
Dr. Pope added that because anti-racist work can be a difficult subject, professional development opportunities need to provide teachers with strategies for action. He encouraged schools to create a series of small lessons that build to a larger impact, providing teachers with a toolkit to explore issues around identity and life experiences.
The webinar closed with each panelist providing a piece of advice or encouragement for the audience as they looked to implement these learnings in their own schools and classrooms. Adell reiterated the importance of building a culture where adults feel comfortable having hard conversations—only then can they take that work to students in an authentic way. Pendergast encouraged schools to focus on the classroom: “No matter what we say at the city-wide level, if it’s not happening in the classroom, it’s not happening.”
Dr. Pope spoke to the importance of creating a culture of transparency in districts, schools, and classrooms—”There’s no learning in the comfort zone, and no comfort in the learning zone.” And Coogan closed with a reminder for school staff and teachers to find joy where they can: “This is heavy work,” she said, “but the learning itself can be joyful. We’re living in a historic moment, and we should celebrate that.”
Watch the entire session here.