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


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.

Collaboration Tools


Every innovative educator knows the importance of communication and collaboration. Communication is needed when convincing administration that you are, in fact, not insane, your new project idea is backed up by research, and results will be reflected upon using data. It is also necessary when trying to convince your students to follow you on a new journey. We all know how much those kiddos need to know the “so what” of everything they are being asked to do.

Collaboration is needed before, during, and after the innovation. Educators should not have to be islands! I have worked in more than one school where I felt like innovation was shunned. Trying something new was treated as though it would be a detriment to students, the school, and the entire educational system alike. I had to get creative. If you are lucky enough to have a group of collaborators close by, enjoy every second and feel blessed. If you feel like a character on the Island of Misfit Toys, read on.

The Tools

There are many ways to collaborate online with colleagues from across the district, country, and world. I’m going to pick a handful of them here. I’ve had personal success using them, and I hope they get you started on the path to genuine collaboration with like-minded, innovative educators.


I know! Stay with me. Twitter can be overwhelming. That said, it is hands down my favorite place to ask questions of fellow educators. The trick is to curate your feed by following educators you admire, and keeping the profile professional. Want to enjoy the silly on Twitter too? I have two Twitter accounts- one for work and one for play.


Padlet acts as on online bulletin board. Invite fellow educators and everyone can collaborate on one page. It’s possible to house everything from pictures to articles, as well as personal notes. All participant are able to see everyone’s work. There are also templates in case you have particular projects that need specialized categories of information.


Need to meet from across town or another state? Zoom is your friend. It allows you to have “face to face” meetings on your computer. Think FaceTime for business. The best part is the first 40 minutes are completely free! Zoom also allows for multiple meeting participants, so you can collaborate with as many people as you need to from the comfort of wherever.


If you have a single question for a group, AnswerGarden is the tool you’re looking for. Ask the question, provide the page link, and watch the answers flow in. Use it for real time feedback and online brainstorming.

Tech. Tool #2 – Insert Learning

I too have played with this tech tool and think the options are fantastic. I can’t wait to try things out with students next year. Melissa has already been able to test the tool out with students, so she offers a great intro and review!

Melissa Blake ~ Education & Technology

In my quest for formative assessment tools that allow for more student involvement, I came across Insert Learning (https://insertlearning.com/).  As I am about to embark on a unit that focuses on reading informational texts in preparation for a persuasive research paper and extension project, I thought the timing was perfect to implement this tool in class.  Basically, Insert Learning allows a teacher to take any webpage and add sticky notes, discussion questions, quiz questions, and highlights. Additional resources can be added to help supplement comprehension or differentiate, such as videos or links to other websites.  For those who are a bit more technologically inclined, a list of 60+ tools to embed (Flipgrid, Quizizz, memes, and Quizlet, for example) is available on the website, some with tutorials and most with explanations of how the tools benefit students.

All data and responses are sent to the…

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new blogger!

I’m so excited to announce that my friend Traci Espeland is going to start blogging here with me. In her final year of graduate school, Traci started her teaching career with me, as my student intern. This was seven years ago and, even early on, she brought with her a solid training in pedagogical methods and English/language arts, along with great energy and enthusiasm. Traci brings exciting new ideas to life; I’m confident that she will continue this momentum as she seeks out new challenges and opportunities in this blog.

Traci impresses me with her commitment to lifelong learning. She successfully collaborates with other educators in the school, and takes advantage of professional development opportunities offered in the district. She was the 2017 PBS Digital Innovator, representing the needs and talents of teachers throughout all of Alaska with PBS. This year she has been an integral part of the Innovations Team here in the Anchorage School District, supporting educators in technology integrations and innovations. It’s this commitment to growth and the well-being of her students that makes Traci an outstanding educator who empowers her pupils and those around her.

You can follow Traci on Twitter @TraciEspeland

Best-in-Class Resources–You Decide — Ask a Tech Teacher

Every year, I review a large number of websites, apps, and resources that help educators blend technology into their classrooms. I get lots of feedback from readers sharing their experiences, asking questions, and clicking through to see if a particular tool will serve their needs. But, I often don’t hear how the product worked in…

via Best-in-Class Resources–You Decide — Ask a Tech Teacher

Flip the parent teacher conference


For the last few years our parent teacher conferences have been held during the week of President’s Day. This means there is no school Monday, no school Friday, and two half days. Not surprisingly, a lot of families travel that week and skip conferences all together.  Teachers still have a long week of conferences though.

There are a number of alternatives to parent conferences that schools could try and, after chatting with a friend this afternoon when I swung by my old school, I decided to put together and publish a list of ideas I’ve been accumulating for the last few years – especially since I used to have a lot of time on my hands during the night of conferences.

The other thing I noticed, at least from my teacher perspective, is that the families who attended conferences were usually the ones whose children were successful in school while the struggling students didn’t have anyone attend.

From Alternative Models for Traditional Parent Teacher Conferences, Tammy Jackson’s idea to use the evening as time for student credit recovery is great. “Our attempts to develop non-traditional uses of contractual PTC time were not meant to diminish the importance of communicating with parents. Positive relationships with parents are the single most important aspect of a healthy school culture. Working directly with students is what we do best and should always be our number one priority.”

I love the idea of showcasing some student talent in the auditorium and in the hallways – kind of like a gallery walk or showcase of work from classes. Some of it could be digital or recorded so it will continue to live online.

Invite parents in for a showing of a film like Screenagers or Most Likely to Succeed in order to continue the conversations about school.

But here’s my idea. Last spring I brainstormed a few ways to let parents be more involved in my classroom. I’d already had success flipping back to school night so parents could come in and talk to me instead of just listen to me. In a typical PTC there is very little depth of conversation or of understanding the learning that is taking place. So…

Flip the conference. Parents check grades online with relative frequency and have easy access to teachers through e-mail. Some teachers have websites or learning management systems that parents can check out to view the assignments, or send out regular newsletters with updates on the overall learning that is taking place in classrooms. So why not take it a step further? We may have plenty of rigor and relevance in our classrooms, but we need to develop our relationships with parents and families, not just students.

A week or so before conferences send parents a brief reflective survey on their child’s learning and collect it via a conversation at parent conferences. For parents who can’t attend, or for the purpose of collecting qualitative data, you could collect information electronically via a Google Form. Make sure there is a way to include questions, to make the flipped PTC inquiry-based rather than just an assignment parents complete. If you collect digital work from your students, have them accumulate it into a simple folder in Google Drive or a fancy Google Site as a digital portfolio for parents to check out ahead of time.

You could take it a little further and build in time for students to reflect on their learning (standards, college and career readiness, mindset, etc. would all be great places to start) and then share those reflections with parents so the conversation can center around metacognitive learning.

In my opinion, as both an educator and a parent, this would be more fun and thought-provoking than our traditional high school conferences. Since parents and students are coming off the more dynamic model of student-led conferences at middle school, it could be a great opportunity to build on that collaborative, student centered culture.



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I was too chicken to try this last year. Robert Kaplinsky has a great site that demonstrates the power of #ObserveMe, the hashtag I saw all over twitter last fall. He has templates, examples, stories, etc. but as I went to write my questions and print my sign I chickened out. The thought of inviting in my friends and colleagues at random times was scary to me. I never minded if people stopped by to hang out or ask questions but the thought of being so transparent and admitting that there were things I still wanted to improve was really awkward.

I reflect constantly; it’s part of my learning process. During meeting at George School we sat and mostly reflected on our lives and the world around us. We synthesized what we learned in class with what we learned in the dorms, from our friends, our parents, our discussions with peers. During the National Board process I was constantly pushed to reflect on how what I did with students impacted their learning. NBPTS has a great little publication called “What Teachers Know and Should be Able to Do” that I still refer to, reframing the five core propositions as reflective questions.

But now I am in the unique position of being able to go into classrooms and see the amazing work English and Language Arts teachers in the Anchorage School District are doing – I find myself turning again to the #ObserveMe movement I was too chicken to try as a classroom teacher, choosing instead to rely only on myself. Though I think the questions we ask ourselves should intersect with the questions we ask of others… So, teachers, as I start scheduling classroom visits please let me in on the questions you ask yourself and I will give you my answers. It doesn’t mean that what I think is the only answer, it just gives you another viewpoint to help you on your own journey of continual improvement.

In the meantime, I am working on my own #ObserveMe sign for my new little office. Stop by and visit so you can help me as I learn my new position and work on how I can improve.