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ILA's First-Ever Social Justice Panel Primes Educators to Discuss Race in the Classroom

By Alina O'Donnell
 | Jul 20, 2017

Cinnamon scones.

social-justice-panelThat’s what was on Cornelius Minor’s mind as he left for the International Literacy Association (ILA) 2016 Conference & Exhibits for his first ILA conference experience. Just two days earlier, he had watched the livestream of the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Philando Castile, which came on the heels of the Alton Sterling shooting in Baton Rouge, LA.

He felt angry, helpless, and heartbroken.

“I walked into school that day, visibly carrying my hurt. Wondering what I would say. I needed allies. And my colleagues were eating scones,” said Minor. “Cinnamon scones. I can still smell them.”

Minor, a lead staff developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, had reached a breaking point.  He never wanted a student to feel the way he felt walking into the breakroom at work that day. He sent a letter to ILA’s Executive Board, asking if it was possible to add a space for educators to gather and talk about the week’s events, which also included the killing of five Dallas police officers. The resulting “Impromptu Conversation Led by Cornelius Minor” was immediately added to the conference’s agenda. Minor modeled how teachers could talk about emotionally charged and controversial topics to a passionate, standing-room-only crowd.

It was considered by many to be a highlight of ILA 2016.

Minor’s session inspired ILA to add a new event to this year’s lineup: “Disrupting a Destructive Cycle: How Literacy Drives Social Change.” Moderated by The New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, ILA’s goal was that the panel would encourage more literacy educators to facilitate difficult conversations in the classroom centered on topics like racism, implicit bias, and equity—issues confronting students every day. Students need an outlet and support. Educators need tools.

Partnering with Heinemann to broadcast the event via Facebook Live to reach more educators around the globe, the forum took place on Saturday, July 15 at the ILA 2017 Conference & Exhibits in Orlando, FL. Approximately 250 educators attended in person and 7,500 people on Facebook Live have watched it to date.

Joining Minor on the panel were Monita K. Bell, senior editor for Teaching Tolerance; Deborah Delisle, executive director at ASCD; Zareen Jaffery, executive editor of Salaam Reads; Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education; and Gene Luen Yang, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

In her keynote speech, “Literacy as Liberation,” Hannah-Jones walked the audience through the history of the criminalization of literacy and segregation in education, starting with 18th-century slavery and arriving at present day. Her takeaway? Despite landmark decisions like Brown v. Board of Education and (mostly) well-intentioned education reform efforts, the U.S. education system is still separate and unequal.

“The classrooms in Detroit are abysmal,” Hannah-Jones said. “You have students who’ve never taken home a textbook in 13 years. Who don’t have enough chairs. Who have moldy food. Where the water is not drinkable. Who are being assigned third-grade worksheets when they’re in high school, but that’s because they’re reading at a second-grade level.”

This was not shocking to Thomas, a “product” of the Detroit public school system who returned to the Detroit classroom as a teacher for six years before she, and most of her other young, black colleagues, were fired.

“I was expensive to employ. I was a traditionally certified public school teacher,” she said.

Over the next hour, the panelists talked about what they’re doing to disrupt cycles of inequality and affect social change. Thomas believes that one of the most important steps administrators can take is to remove the structural barriers to teacher candidates of color by developing a strategic plan around diverse hiring practices.

Delisle, who formerly served as assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education under President Barack Obama, recognized the social constructs on very early stages of children’s lives. She emphasized the need for stronger teacher training programs that prepare teachers to walk into a classroom and challenge the status quo.

“Are they ready to have critical conversations among themselves? In addition, are they willing to question what books are used, what novels are promoted, what kinds of conversation and discourse they can actually have in a classroom? And even among themselves, are they able to question their own practices?”

Panelists also discussed the importance of using books and texts that reflect a mosaic of races, cultures, religions, ages, genders, and sexual orientations to help students identify with literature and connect books to their life.

“When I was a kid, it was hard to find stories with characters who looked like me or lived like me,” said Yang. “I think one of the reasons why I love superheroes so much is because almost every superhero has a dual identity. As an Asian American, that was my reality.”

As a Pakistani-American Muslim, Jaffery also failed to see her own experiences reflected in the books she read as a young girl. In 2016, she founded Salaam Reads, an imprint of Simon & Schuster that focuses on children's and young adult books featuring Muslim kids and families. Her intent was to promote a more nuanced and honest portrayal of the everyday lives of Muslim families.

Bell believes that bias reduction starts internally. She said that educators should practice self-reflection to observe their own biases, with the assistance of online tools such as Project Implicit's Hidden Bias Test, or by seeking out professional development opportunities that engage specifically with bias. Once they have conquered their own biases, she recommends educators use Teaching Tolerance’s classroom activities with their students.

“You don’t know what you don’t know about yourself,” said Bell. “Once you recognize these things in yourself, you can start to do the work to counter it.”

During the conversation, half of the attendees were silent, motionless, absorbed. The rest couldn’t sit still; they were live Tweeting, clapping, and shouting out in agreement.

Juli-Ann Benjamin was among the attendees who was too enthralled to pick up her phone. In the 22 years she has served as a teacher, assistant vice principal, and now, a literacy coach, in the New York and New Jersey public school systems, very few professional development experiences have truly resonated with her experiences as a black educator.

“I’ve come to ILA for seven or eight years and have never felt more included and happy to be a black educator,” she said. “I’m a happier ILA member because I now see myself within the workshop sessions.”

Outside of the session, a flurry of social media activity has sustained since Saturday.

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Hannah-Jones, along with ILA, hopes that the panel will continue to reach more educators and help them normalize conversations about race and social justice, and empower their students to become agents of social change.

Watch the archived recording here.

Alina O'Donnell is the editor of Literacy Daily.
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