Using Antiracist Reading Practices to Help Writers Engage in Meaningful Revision

By Dutch Henry

In a recent meeting of English teachers one of my colleagues asked, “What are the things you see from students that make you say ‘oh no, not this again?’” Over the laughter, one of the other teachers said, “A ‘revision’ that is the same as the previous draft. I try so hard but I just can’t get my kids to revise. They feel so good about finishing something that they don’t want to keep working on it. They have so much to say and so much greatness in them, I wish I could get them to revise.” The chorus of agreement was so loud I had to turn down the volume in the Zoom meeting.

I think about this lament a lot and I always come back to what I’m doing to help my students meaningfully engage in revision. I’ve tried many different approaches over the years, but without much success. Finally, though, I’ve found that what works best isn’t about me at all. In some ways, it’s not about the writers either, it’s about their readers. Student writers care about the views of their peer readers in ways that are profoundly different than the way they care about me, the teacher-reader. 

In  Asao B. Inoue’s “Teaching Antiracist Reading”, he advocates for antiracist reading practices that “ask [readers] to…investigate the deep and hidden structures that make up their personal reading habits, personal reading habits that are also structural and social.” The varied practices Inoue outlines in the essay involve a series of steps that boil down to two core elements. First, Inoue asks readers to pause while they are reading and ask “What am I feeling right now reading this text? Why am I feeling that? What in the text did that to me?” Next, readers ask themselves “Where in my world do I get the ideas that help me respond this way? Where do those habits come from?” Using these two steps in the process of peer review can help readers engage with their fellow students’ writing in ways that improves their reading process and provides feedback that inspires writers to revise.

Based on Inoue’s ideas, I now ask readers in peer feedback to use these questions to share with their classmates how the writing made them feel and what specifically in the writing made them feel that way. Early in the process I support them with sentence prompts to make specific references to the writing. I also ask them to tell their fellow writers how their response to the writing relates to something in their life or experience. Writers, then, reflect on whether the response the reader shared is the one they were hoping for and how they might revise their writing to increase or alter the reader’s experience. This can then lead to more detailed discussions about how to apply the key elements of rhetorical reading and writing in ERWC.

It may be our lament as teachers that students don’t always reach the goals we set for them, but maybe it’s the “we” in that process that is the problem rather than the students. If we focus on what students are already doing and can do well, we can see them reach goals we hadn’t even anticipated for them. If we turn the experiences of reading and writing over to the students more fully we may find that they reach their own goals, which may be even better than the ones we dream of for them.

Dutch Henry teaches English at Shoreline Community College north of Seattle, WA. As the Higher Education English Lead for the Bridge to College Project in Washington, he has partnered with ERWC on module development, coaching, and professional learning.

Kicked Me in the Gut: Picked Me Back Up

By Meline Akashian

Maybe it’s rude in a blog post to tell you to read something else, but here it is: read Matthew Kay’s Not Light But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom.

And be ready. He says stuff like this:

Just as we cannot conjure safe spaces from midair, we should not expect the familial intimacy, vulnerability, and forgiveness needed for meaningful race conversations to emerge from traditional classroom relationships.

Frankly, that’s nothing compared to page twenty-seven. On page twenty-seven, my note in the margin is an expletive.

That’s where Kay chronicles an informal conversation between his poetry club students in the immediate aftermath of Ferguson–or, more specifically, in the immediate aftermath of a black student suffering through a class discussion about Ferguson.  Kay’s students offer raw revelation of what many students are probably thinking when teachers lead such discussions. 

My takeaways were layered, and they came in depressing waves, but here is a big one: Many kids wear masks during difficult classroom discussions. And during race conversations, some kids might wear the mask. I’m just going to leave that there for a second. For any teacher who wants to help students use their voices and activate their agency, it’s a crushing thought. But let’s be clear–the mask itself is not the problem. All of us disguise our vulnerabilities from most people, for good reason. All of us have public and private selves, and each of us alone decides who sees what. 

OK, so combine that reality with our reality, that nearly every ERWC module could be a touchy subject or tap into someone’s past trauma. ERWC teachers are routinely doing what Kay describes as opening “academic” discussions around topics that are “visceral” for some of our students. The whole course is designed around dialogue aimed at productive conflict.  But productive conflict requires openness and honesty.

For me, the practical implication is this: it doesn’t matter if I think I’m an ally; it doesn’t matter what’s in my heart; it definitely doesn’t matter what I do with my free time; it doesn’t even matter if my students love and respect me. What matters is that my students trust me with their bruised and battered insides. And trust not just me, but their classmates. Only then can I hope that students will decide, when they are ready, to be real–in front of me and everyone else in the room. 

Like–I was already a person who loses sleep the night before a touchy classroom discussion.  So around page twenty-seven, I was feeling pretty overwhelmed, doubting Kay’s ability to offer a workable solution, particularly one for me, an especially private person myself. But then he got down to it.

His first chapter offers specific protocols to build a safe space. Three simple discussion norms and three routine activities honor students as individuals and develop a classroom culture devoted to building and maintaining relationships. They require class time and commitment, and perhaps a mild restructuring of the value system driving instructional decision-making.

His second chapter introduces discussion moves designed, not to eliminate conflict, but to help make conflict productive. For example, “Surfacing the Conflict”: teachers figure out what category of conflict is at hand (around fact? process? purpose? values?) in order to determine their most useful next move directing discussion traffic. I’m pretty excited about this approach, because in an ERWC class, the rhetorical thinking involved with categorizing the conflict can be farmed out to students, giving me more time to figure out my next move. 

More value added in Chapter Two? It closes with protocols for discussion prep using hypothetical case studies. By imagining various scenarios, I can anticipate the more likely conflicts or diversions that could derail discussion and ready myself with some “next moves” in advance. Then I can go to bed and actually get some sleep.

Though there’s 24k gold in the rest of Kay’s book, I’ll start by trying to implement Chapters One and Two–or maybe just Chapter One.  Whatever my measured first step, I’m all in to take it. Because when students’ sincere and passionate engagement with a topic is perceived as a risk, it’s a gross, malignant irony. And because Matthew Kay shows us, guiding real talk about hard things isn’t about being a natural-born Mr. Keating; it’s about the groundwork we lay in advance and our ongoing commitment to the cause.

Meline Akashian is an experienced ERWC teacher with grades 7-12 and former Riverside County Teacher of the Year. She has co-written modules for ERWC and is a member of the ERWC Steering Committee.

Not My Power, Our Power: A Teacher’s Response to Matthew Kay’s Webinar “How to Talk About Race in Your Classroom”

“It is hard for a student to unlearn empathy, to forget discernment, to dismiss the importance of solid evidence once they’ve grown used to demanding it… if we are training the next generation of teachers, entertainers, lawyers, and politicians; if we are molding thoughtful citizens, wise counselors, and people of righteous passion; then our classrooms must be deliberate in their approach to conversations about race. The next generation needs to be far better at this stuff than we have been. They are coming of age in a world of artfully disguised injustices, most of which will stay both invisible and vicious if people never learn to learn to meaningfully discuss them.”

–Matthew Kay, author of Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Conversations about Race in the Classroom

By Frank Mata

It is clear that Matthew Kay is aware of the barriers that block educators from broaching race with both colleagues and students–fear of backlash, defensiveness, the potential re-traumatizing effect, “not knowing enough to foster discussion,” or ultimately, a potential loss of professional standing. (There are so many ☹.)

In an hour-long professional development session recorded in 2016 (“How to Talk about Race in Your Classroom”), Kay first challenges listeners to identify exactly what it is that “gets in the way.” Immediately, he spotlights participants’ humility when asked of their fears. At that moment, I found this approach as defying conventional classroom power dynamics. Through a teacher’s admission of humility, to not be the expert on race, this approach invites students’ voices to be an added and authentic means of “teaching the teachers.” It showcases what “assets-based teaching” looks like. In the autonomy of our four walls, dare we welcome this while resisting the presumed duty of measuring students’ responses?

The question then surfaces–are we, as teachers, ready to detach ourselves from the professional authority we hold in the classroom, the very entity that we often base our professional identity, our academic pride, or sense of intellectual security, in the manner that equalizes us with our students? Clearly, the culture of education does not promote such vulnerabilities, as evidenced in the presumptions of merit as associated with years taught, letters after our full name in our email signatures, or even our ability to cold-read aloud a poem with that academic accent juxtaposed to youth language.

The onus is within our position as facilitators, not teachers, when it comes to conversations about race. Matthew Kay introduces and implies to fellow facilitators, in the same inviting way we ought to embrace students’ voices, experiences, and knowledge for all of us to learn from.

In order for the safe space environment to allow for this to happen, Kay highlights his three listening norms of the classroom: 1) to listen patiently, 2) to listen actively, and 3) to police [our teacher] voice. He concludes that through this purposeful structure of how to listen, “it creates a built-in reflection space,” which exposes to us how these norms create the culture of invitation for all of our vulnerabilities.

Hearing this specific tip creates a tangible skill-set for us not as teachers, but as fellow race-discourse participants, to authentically engage with each other. However, to do so, we teachers must be ready, willing, open, and secure enough to set free our conditioned, even mythical, sense of power when engaging in meaningful conversations about race. Though we might spend our own dollars, energy, or efforts in creating the literal learning environment to our tastes or liking, this same space is not exclusive or limited to our own platform. As teachers, our presence is not paramount.

Frank Mata has been in the classroom for seventeen plus years. His current project is developing an ELA 12th grade course focusing on social justice and equity. He teachers at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Eastvale, CA.

Work Cited

Kay, Matthew. Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom. Stenhouse, 2018.