Cultivating an Anti-Racist English Classroom

By Sharon Kunde

The English classroom is a crucial space for us, as teachers, to cultivate anti-racism. In ELA class, students learn which stories and points of view matter—they are taught which voices and narrative styles are legitimate. While strides have been made in the past years and decades to remove racist content from our English curricula, this is not enough to constitute an anti-racist curriculum. In order for our curricula to be truly anti-racist, we must rethink our entire system of literary study.

While most of us know how imperative it is to include works of literature by non-White authors in our curricula, we cannot effectively teach literary criticism of these diverse texts in our current system of literary study. English classrooms continue to operate in a system established within colonialism which served to naturalize and legitimize existing power structures. The twentieth-century English classroom became a place where the members of the dominant culture (White people of European descent) were taught a narrative of their culture’s natural superiority. This narrative was furthered not only by the texts that were studied but by the ways in which these texts were analyzed. For example, texts were traditionally treated (and often continue to be treated) as objects to be studied empirically outside of their historical or authorial contexts and for the purpose of affiliating the reader with the dominant culture. While important interventions happened in the second half of the twentieth-century – from Black Studies to postcolonial theory to New Historicism – I believe that the academic reading situation itself is by and large still rooted in those early conservative assumptions about what, why, and how we read in the classroom.

For many years, I have been examining the ways in which my teaching relies on those hierarchy-preserving presuppositions. I have come to see teaching literature as a pursuit of critical awareness of the ways in which power perpetuates itself , instead of as a process of familiarizing my students with a pantheon of great works and great writers. In this way, teaching literature can be a way to teach resistance to injustice. Through literature we can trace a painful history of enslavement, exploitation, and genocide; we can understand our own complicity; and we can fan the flames of what author la paperson calls “decolonial desire”: the urge to co-opt bits of the system in which we are enmeshed to “wreck, scavenge, retool, and reassemble” the world as we know it (xiii).

There are three major areas I focus on as I work to decolonize my teaching practices. The first is the development of diverse and inclusive syllabi that foreground the stories of the oppressed. This might mean organizing reading lists around a foundational concept like “resistance,” “justice,” or “freedom.” For upper level courses organized historically, this might mean finding and including texts by indigenous authors and authors of African descent that expand and complicate the story of colonial expansion, which forms an important if silent backdrop even for texts that on the surface seem to have nothing to do with colonialism. Seek out authors like Olaudah Equiano, Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, William Appess, Paul Dunbar, Sarah Winnemucca, Black Hawk, and Zitkala Sa, all of whom are accessible to high school readers. Include canonical authors whose works directly address issues of slavery and colonialism – Mary Shelley, Mark Twain, William Faulkner – and foreground the ways in which these authors are grappling with a larger colonial context. The latest Norton and Riverside anthologies provide excellent pathways out of the canon.

The second area of focus is the development of an inclusive classroom pedagogy that encourages all to participate and legitimates a range of modes for students to express knowledge and engagement with course content. In terms of assessment, this means deliberately varying assignment type. Complement annotations and analyses with creative work that allows students to experiment with the style of the text being studied, or to respond to that text using a different genre or style: a short story in text messages, a series of memes, hip hop lyrics. Make accretive reflective assignments like reading journals count as much as essays or tests. Include spoken assessments like presentations, Socratic seminars, performances, and debates. In terms of classroom participation, use popsicle sticks or index cards to ensure that you call on everyone equally. Use think-pair-share to give students a chance to warm up before speaking in front of the class. Assign each student a turn to be a “discussion opener,” so that every student has a regular chance to say something about the text with a chance to prepare themselves beforehand.

The third is what I call methodological pedagogy. It encompasses the critical and evidentiary habits of mind that we cultivate in the literature classroom. This area – the least tangible but the most fundamental – has to do with our reason for stepping into the classroom every day. Of course, these reasons are broad and multi-faceted and include helping our students navigate future challenges, such as college and employment. But more than those instrumental capacities, we as teachers are cultivating an environment that encourages the curiosity, concern for others, and desire to know more that I referred to above as “decolonial desire.” By doing so every day and in real time, we are showing our students how to slough off complacency and self-interest and instead to be open-minded, generous, and dedicated to service. Moreover, by consistently asking students to ground discussion comments and writing in textual evidence, we model and cultivate a respect for evidence and an ability to reason carefully from the facts. Finally, we model how to evaluate and interpret, to know a good argument from an empty one, an honest inquiry from a self-serving appeal. By upholding our commitment to open, meaningful, and evidence-based discussion, we are teaching our students and ourselves not just to hope but also to work for change.

References:

la paperson. 2017. A Third University is Possible. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Dr. Sharon Kunde is an educator, scholar, and writer. Her current book project is titled “Natural Reading”: Race, Place, and Literary Practice in the United States from Thoreau to Ransom. Her poetry has appeared in The Colorado ReviewSalt Front, and The Spoon River Review. Dr. Kunde teaches 8th and 9th grade at the Lycee International de Los Angeles and blogs about hiking in the California backcountry at https://throughhike.wordpress.com/. Find her website at https://www.sharonkunde.com/.

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