A Call to Action for White Educators Who Seek to Be Anti-Racist

I wrote this in June for PBS Education on the PBS Teachers Lounge blog. JUNE 04, 2020

I am a white mother and educator. For decades in school I have taught “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Unfortunately, for many of my students, the suffering often seems abstract and they falsely believe these are stories from a distant past. But, racism didn’t end with the Civil Rights Movement. It is an ever present, persistent evil that impacts us all in every aspect of our daily lives. Wishing and hoping that systemic racism will just go away–or believing that it doesn’t exist in our own communities–is its own form of violence. And recently I have been asking myself if I’ve made this point clearly enough in my teaching practice.

It should not have taken the recent brutal murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade, at the hands of police, to spark our consciousness. But it has, and this is now the time for me, and for other white parents and educators like me, to sit up, take notice, listen to Black communities, talk to our children and demonstrate anti-racist actions. This is not a time to be dismissive, but instead it’s time for us to reach out, support in every way possible and take meaningful action. I am taking action to build a better future for my children and the children in my care. As a parent and educator I can help dismantle systemic racism. As I continue my own journey of learning about, and committing to, anti-racist action, here’s what I believe we can do as educators to support meaningful change. 

Our words must match our actions
Frankly, what we have done in the past has not worked. If our society had dismantled systemic racism, then we would not be seeing the necessary unrest that we see today. Our rhetoric needs to match our actions. As I think about what I do as an educator and as a parent, I am not 100 percent confident that my rhetoric and actions have always matched. But when I know better, I do better. I have friends, writers and public figures whose words I listen to, whose words I reflect on, and whose words I take to heart in order to support the change that needs to happen in our society. But it’s not enough to read and reflect on those words, I must put those ideas into action.

We must broaden representation in classroom reading
When I reflect on my teaching practice and consider the words that I teach  – the novels I use in my classroom, the authors whose works I use on a regular basis–it is clear that I have not had enough Black, Indigenous, or People of Color representation in my curriculum. On reflection, I have not ensured that every student who sits in a seat in my classroom has felt that their experiences were reflected in what we read. As a high school English teacher, I know that the white savior trope dominates our canon of American literature. I need to do a better job of including more writers who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. People like Maya Angelou and Zora Neale Hurston, people like Amy Tan and Ta-Nehisi Coates, people like Jason Reynolds and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, people like Sandra Cisneros and Junot Díaz, people like Celeste Ng and Ted Chiang, Langston Hughes and Cleo Wade, Sherman Alexie and Leslie Marmon Silko.

We must embrace tough conversations
First, we must be better listeners. It is time to de-center myself, my stories and my experience, especially when talking about race and racial justice. This is not about me; it’s about my friends, colleagues, and community. We must be disciplined and  listen to the stories and experiences of others. Listening means not interjecting my point of view or saying anything that might invalidate the experience of others. I listen to People of Color on the news, I read their words in books and on social media. I listen with the intention of hearing what they have to say so I can create a connection and an understanding. I listen to the conversations students have when they are in my classroom and I find teachable moments when the conversation needs to change. I do not pretend I don’t hear it. Even if this may feel uncomfortable, we need to have these conversations. I listen to the questions my own children have about race and I answer truthfully and transparently. I acknowledge the mistakes I have made as well as the mistakes others make, and we talk about ways to actively change hearts and minds. 

We must explore different ideas, and listen with intention to change 
I talk openly about race issues, not just on social media but with people in real life. I initiate conversations (but only if they want to talk) with non-white friends, colleagues, and students, and I actively participate by asking questions to gain understanding. Not everyone in a cultural group feels the same way and by asking questions I can explore different ideas. Again, this requires being present in the conversation, and listening to learn. I talk to my students about racial stereotypes, about how so much of what we read in class overwhelmingly has white characters and about how literature supports learning empathy for others. As a parent, I talk to my children about current events, about historical events, about implicit bias and overt racism. I talk to them about the importance of speaking up, listening, and learning.

We must commit to constant self reflection and admit our own bias  
I’m still learning. I am learning how much words matter. I love To Kill a Mockingbird but it is one of many books that uses the White Savior trope – as a society we have so much exposure to this idea that white people have to step in and save Black people. This reinforces that idea that Black people need to be saved by white people. Through my own reflection, I understand how this trope is harmful. True allies don’t seek to “solve and save,” instead we stand beside our Black friends and colleagues, build empathy, amplify their voices, and stand up alongside them. I now constantly check my thoughts, and question even those that are fleeting: are my ideas influenced by bias, white supremacy and racism? I recently read this from Greater Good Magazine, and it stayed with me:  “Admitting that we are all subject to biases creates a safer space to examine them more carefully and take steps to fight them…” 

We must use media to strengthen understanding
I’m still learning about cultural appropriation, implicit bias and the historical events that have gone largely ignored, but which have inevitably led our country to this moment. Education plays a role in change. My own learning has been shaped by I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Invisible Man, and more recently, titles like Stamped, Just Mercy, The Hate U Give, Monster, and Dear Martin. These are books I can pass along to my colleagues, my high school students and to my own sons. I watch movies with my family like Akilah and the Bee, Raising Dion, See You Yesterday, Hidden Figures and BlacKkKlansman. I’m learning from podcasts such as Code Switch and Seeing White and my children and I listen to them at home and in the car. 

I’m learning why and how Black communities are disproportionately impacted by Covid-19. I’m learning how and why Black people, especially Black men, are disproportionately killed by police. I’m learning and sharing the names and circumstances of the deaths with my children. I’m learning that I need to support organizations like the NAACP that actively support change. I’m learning that I need to show up.

We must keep doing the work
There is no quick fix for systemic racism. It requires continued, ongoing effort to dismantle white supremacy. But I also have hope. With our combined voices and our combined intelligence, we fight for racial justice and usher change. My Black students, colleagues and friends are in pain. As a white person, as a mother of white sons, as a white educator, it is incumbent on me to be more aware, to learn more, to empathize, to listen and to support others as we work to dismantle white supremacy and forge a new way forward.  

More Resources


Interviewing Ken Burns

As second interview, as part of a Virtual Professional Learning Series, will be live on April 29th!

This was such a cool opportunity. His perspectives on history are phenomenal but I love how he helps connect history to current events and circumstances. Also check out Unum, hosted by PBS. https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/unum/ David will soon have posted great questions connecting content to AP US History and I wrote several to help students with AP Language and Composition.

Prepping for Online Learning

I’ve written a bunch of very brief blog posts over the years about the flipped classroom, including flipped units; I think I even have a “canned” flipped lesson teachers can customize.

Flipped learning IS different from online learning, but not that different.

As educators prepare for the unknown, it is very scary to have to prep for online teaching without knowing if what you create will be valuable, used, or ever used again. If you are in a situation where you have to prep for teaching units online, I recommend creating the units in a way that they can be used as flipped or blended learning opportunities when things normalize again.


My advice is don’t purposely try to NOT do a good job. Try to create something lasting that you can use in the future, that is a learning resource for your students. Make it something that is reflective of the high quality instruction that takes place in your classroom and leverage the technology to make it happen. Learn from your colleagues and ask for help. It doesn’t have to be perfect but you can continue to be awesome in an alternative environment.

If you need help I am available! Just ask. We are all in this together.

Podcasting for Ed

I was a last-minute fill in for a small conference section on using podcasts in the classroom this past Saturday. The conference organizers contacted me about a week before and asked if I was available to teach something and, of course, I said yes. I’d actually taught podcasting to other educators before… back in 2011. A lot has changed since then!

I had a great time using a little bit of my old information, plus a lot of my old podcasts that I had created, or my students had created, that were all still saved in my Google Drive.

I used podcasts as a method of content delivery for students. As part of a unit on Walden I realized there was information I wanted students to know and apply, but didn’t want to use class time for short lectures. Instead I chose to record short podcasts to encourage note-taking/active listening and be able to reach students even if they are absent during the week. This was my first foray into a flipped classroom and podcasts are still a great alternative to screencasting for flipped and blended learning.

Here’s the site I created to house information for my attendees: http://podcasted.us

And here’s my presentation:


Love connections (through tech)

This was originally posted last Valentine’s Day!

I know a lot of people only see how technology wedges in between people, noting how groups will sit together and stare at devices rather than speaking. It’s a problem, I get it. But I am a proponent of using technology to bring people together, to see how it can be used to connect, and I love stories about how that happens.

I was lucky enough to catch a story on NPR’s Morning Edition with Rachel Martin and Newberry Award winner Kwame Alexander. Back in January, the segment asked teachers to share a prompt with students. It was just a simple “Love is…” but the show received responses from over 2,000 classrooms across the country.

And then… magic happened. Like he has in the past, Kwame Alexander wrote a crowdsourced/paella/casserole/GUMBO poem for Valentine’s Day. “‘Kids finding their voice and lifting it up, for love,’ he tells NPR. “Nothing more powerful than that.’”

From a simple prompt to a love poem for families, teachers, pets, movies, food, and expectations. This prompt, and this technology, a radio program, brought people together and made connections through words and feelings. It created a shared experience and published creation for students and teachers across the country.

Listen to the poem – or read it to your class – and see how your students connect to the writers and the common experiences.

Teaching during Black History Month

Black History Month can be a tough recognition to include in lessons, especially if you are not black. This evening I am hosting a Twitter chat for #akedchat on this topic so we can discuss how to include Black History lessons in our instruction year round, not just during February. Here are some resources for getting started, and doing it right. The first, Teaching Tolerance, helped me create the questions for this evening’s chat.




Digital Gallery Walk

Sample Slide – there is room for different kinds of feedback for different editorial purposes.

A Gallery Walk is a structured discussion during which small groups rotate and respond to prompts or questions posted around the classroom.

There’s nothing quite like a gallery walk to get students up, moving, reading, evaluating, and collaborating to assist others. But what if you are moving toward a paperless classroom? Or want to keep a better record of the work that was done? Or have some other unique situation?

It’s easy to move the gallery walk that you would have completed on paper to Google Slides.

In one slideshow, create a slide for each group. In the middle the group can add their thesis/topic/discussion question or whatever needs to be peer reviewed. Off to the sides, create a “Glow” and a “Grow” text box so reviewers can tell what they like and what could change. Finally, add a text box that allows reviewers to give suggestions for how the thesis/topic/discussion question should read.


Top ten reasons to teach with Socratic seminar

10) Engagement

A well-structured Socratic seminar, and the learning that leads up to it, helps keep students excited and engaged in learning. Classroom discussion has a .82 effect size on John Hattie’s “list of influences on achievement” because dialogue itself is engaging. It gives students opportunities to interact with one another that are sometimes rare in classes.

9) Scaffolding

Most of us scaffold work for students so that they have incremental steps to take in order to achieve a goal (note: you can over-scaffold – think of how annoying really shallow steps are). The steps that culminate in a Socratic seminar support skills in close reading, inquiry and question writing, short written responses, small group discussion, and even text selection.

8) Inquiry

Questioning has an effect size of .48. When students have the opportunity to dive deeper, through posing open-ended questions, they usually become more attached to a subject. The Question Formulation Technique supports the process of asking questions – these questions can become the discussion questions or the seminar or be used and investigated at any point in the learning.

7) Differentiation of tasks

Educators have students with a wide-range of abilities in classes. Differentiating tasks that lead to a Socratic seminar helps ensure that individual needs are met and that student small groups have diverse resources to support preliminary discussion (aka coaching groups). The diversity of experiences makes seminars rich – not agreeing creates more productive discussion.

6) Close reading

Socratic seminar depends on students reading and understanding a text in order to discuss aspects of the text with others. Teaching close reading, a skill that is essential to success in other classes as well, is a vital scaffold. Using annotation to get students to cue into what they think and feel, not to mention what they say, is engaging and helps support other learning.

5) Argument

Reading closely and answering authentic questions through inquiry supports students as they learn to build arguments. Being able to cite text in order to support an opinion (kind of like I did above when I cited Hattie) is a necessary skills to getting ready for college and careers. Supporting an opinion with text evidence makes seminars an academic task that goes beyond a regular old class discussion of a topic.

4) Analysis and Synthesis

Socratic seminars require analysis of at least one text, but bringing together multiple texts, and discussing them together, requires synthesis skills. This means more prep time leading up to the seminar but the combining of texts is extremely dynamic and the takes students have on those ideas will make you proud. Often discussion is a great way to build skills in analyzing and synthesizing because students get to hear from their peers and learn how others approach complex topics, making students engage rather than just comply, with tasks.

3) Change it up!

Your Socratic seminar does not have to look the same every time. You can use the Harkness method (this provides students clear & high expectations, an effect size of 1.44), a fishbowl discussion, open chair, BRAWL, and any number of other techniques. Changing up your approach keeps things fresh for students and helps to differentiate instruction to include more students. Find methods that challenge students and methods that embrace them – they may be the same method!

2) Build relationships

In some classes, but especially large classes, students might go a whole year without knowing one another’s names. Socratic seminar can require that students respond directly to classmates (making nameplates for desks/tables helps) so that, over time, they learn the names of students who sit across the room or are in different cliques. The discussion itself can assist in building connections and empathy for others, not to mention help the teacher know the students in order to better meet their needs over time.

And, the NUMBER ONE reason to use Socratic seminar? It meets ALL the standards

When I look through my “Skinnied” CCSS I can see that seminar, and the tasks that build to seminar or extend it further (like using the questions for research), meets every. single. standard.

These are my Skinny Standards paint sticks – at the end of a PL session we used them to reflect on what seminar could do for student learning

What’s your favorite reason for using Socratic seminar in classroom instruction? Or, what’s stopping you?