On Becoming an Anti-Racist Teacher of Young Writers

September will bring music to the hallways of Compass Charter School in Brooklyn: a rhythm of footsteps, notes of laughter and tears, a chorus of greetings and goodbyes and stories of summer.

September will bring thoughts of 27 four- and five-year-olds home with me every night. Who did I reach today? Who will I make greater efforts of reaching tomorrow?

September will bring Black children to my classroom, more than it has in six years of teaching, combined. I am one of two white teachers that will greet them, likely the first of many. We will spend two years thinking and questioning and creating together.

We are responsible.

“As educators, we have the power of choice in what we replicate of oppressive systems and what we don’t.”

Chris Neal, Center for Racial Justice in Education

We are responsible. 

Everything we do, everything we don’t do either feeds or tugs at the racialized threads that weave through our schools and our communities. By we, I mean all of us. The teachers of white children, of brown children, of Black children. The teachers of children are responsible.

I am late to this work, but I am here. I am looking inward…looking outward…I am aware now, more than ever, of what the color of my skin provides for me and what it denies others of. I am late to this work, but I am here. I regret that in the six years of living and teaching in affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods, addressing racism seemed irrelevant. I know now that teaching white students did not excuse me from this work, rather it was even more urgent to do so in the very settings upheld by systemic racism. I am late, but I am here…and I am ready.

September will bring children to my classroom, and my co-teacher, Madeleine, and I, are making choices. Embedded in inquiry, our choices will bring us closer to equity and justice.

We ask:

By silenced, we think of authors whose work may never be published. By unrecognized, we think of authors whose work is not yet prioritized in classrooms or bookstores. By underrepresented, we think of authors who are not yet visible in the literacy world:

Click to access data from Cooperative Children’s Book Center

We ask:

Reflect on the major social identifies of your student population: When it comes to race, language and dialect, family structure, gender, religion, ability, class, and nationality — who are the dominant voices in your classroom? Whose writing is studied and displayed as an exemplar? Who frequently sits in the author’s chair to share? 

Now, fill in the blank above: When it comes to race, language, family structure, gender, religion, ability, class, and nationality — whose voices are missing from the conversation? Whose work has never been displayed on charts? Whose books have gone unread? 

Our focus:

What structures and systems are in place to ensure Black and Indiginous People of Color (BIPoC) children are seen, heard, and celebrated as writers?

Madeleine and I are making choices, embedded in inquiry, as we:

  • Curate a collection of books in our classroom library, displaying books that we hope children will one day see displayed in bookstores and libraries.
  • Highlight authors as mentors to our children, authors who we hope will one day be considered mentors to all. 
  • Co-author books with children, books which we hope to see more of in the world.  
  • Create systems and structures within writing workshop that prioritize access and equity to our BIPoC students, systems and structures which we hope will one day be the norm.

I am in a position of learning and will continue to lean on those who are laying the groundwork for educators, in addition to the expertise of those who I am fortunate enough to call colleagues. I commit to sharing the steps we take towards these actions as the school year unfolds — anti-racist steps that can be followed regardless of student demographics.

While crafting our essential questions, while designing a classroom environment, and soon, as we begin to nurture a community, we frame our thinking around equity and justice:

Thank you, Madeleine, my ever-generous writing partner throughout the messy process of composing this piece.

Thank you, Rasha, Sally, and Nazneen, for your careful eyes, thoughtful feedback, and steadfast guidance in this work.

Thank you to Chris and Hannah, from the Center for Racial Justice in Education for the transformative training, and to the Compass leaders and staff whose courageous and raw emotions, perspectives, and stories contribute to an ongoing conversation which I am grateful to be a part of.

Thank you readers, especially those who have made it this far. Thank you for being open to reflection, dialogue, and questions that place us in positions of vulnerability and discomfort. That’s where this work begins and will continue to take us.

Books I’m Beginning With:

  • How to Be an Anti-Racist, by Ibram X. Kendi
  • For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education (Race, Education, and Democracy), by Christopher Emdin
  • What if All the Kids are White?: Anti-bias Multicultural Education With Young Children and Families, by Louise Derman-Sparks, Patricia G. Ramsey, et. al.
  • Troublemakers, by Carla Shalaby
  • White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo

Resources I’m Referencing: