A Portrait of an English Department’s Racial Reckoning: Using Reading Responses with Critical Race Theory
K. Keener (www.kakeener.com) has taught English in a variety of contexts across four continents and all levels for 21 years in total. She began as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zimbabwe and most recently taught at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, New York. Currently, she is taking a year off to travel and write a series of novellas about a digital nomad. (See EscapeHatchSeries.com for more info.).
As the nation had a racial reckoning in the Spring and Summer of 2020, my own school district grappled with the ways our community was culpable. I’ve taught in a predominantly white, affluent, suburb of New York City for six years. While schools were shut down in the later half of the Spring semester 2020, our school board held a meeting allowing open comments over zoom about people’s experiences with inclusion and exclusion in our schools. With graduates home from colleges shut down from COVID and students socially isolated, the meeting was held over zoom and allowed for three minutes for each comment. It lasted over four hours. Graduates and current students spoke up about the microaggressions and racist comments they endured throughout their schooling. Also, their comments painted a portrait of a white faculty teaching white authors, unaware of their implicit bias and unaware that racist slurs were being used in the unheard corners of the school buildings and beyond.
The district embraced some changes. An investment was made in new books by more diverse authors. As an English department, we read Carlin Borsheim-Black and Sophia Tatiana Sarigianides’s Letting Go of Literary Whiteness: Antiracist Literature Instruction for White Students. A copy of Jason Reynolds’ Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You was bought for every incoming freshman. The freshman English teachers and I met every week to gather resources and share ideas for how to use Critical Race Theory (CRT) in our classrooms. The anti-CRT movement that sparked legislation across five states in June 2021 had not yet begun. We were simply caring adults who were discovering that the good work we’d been doing was not yet good enough. We were struggling alone—and together—to evolve our teaching practice.
Alongside this struggle, I was struggling with building academic independence with my 47 freshman students, largely over zoom. Our school was doing okay in virtual learning. Unlike many of my friends teaching in New York City, only 30 miles south of us, my students were showing up on zoom and mainly keeping their cameras on. They even participated; there were lively break-out room conversations almost daily. However, their reading responses were stuck at the level of “I like this” or “I can relate to this”. As our faculty and our larger community were asking deeper questions, I was trying to encourage my students to ask deeper questions too.
Several months into the school year, I was introduced to Marilyn Pryle’s Reading with Presence through the Moving Writers blog. After teaching students the five part format of Pryle’s reading response (See Task Sheet Here), I layered in Critical Race Theory with a series of powerful questions from a table inside Letting Go of Literary Whiteness. I was proud of how students were able to use these questions and think about their independent reading books. They discussed how the Black characters in their books experienced inequities both subtle and overt with insight. Here’s some student examples.
Looking back on the year, of course, many things happen to encourage this kind of independence and racial awareness as readers.
- We discussed Stamped, which I supplemented with many resources. They were often amazed about the layers of history we continued to peel back together.
- We played a free online game about microaggressions and discussed it.
- We used the questions from the CRT table (mentioned above) to hold small group discussions.
And then, I released them to see how independent they had become with this new way of thinking. I asked them to choose a book with a Black protagonist from this curated list. Then, I asked them to choose a Reading Response category from six available–one of which was CRT. Finally, they posted to the discussion boards online and replied to others. It was then that I witnessed them truly flourish.
I was ready to grow. And so were they. It was a year that began a racial reckoning for all of us, and it was a start that we could take pride in. After a tremendous year, it was my students’ voices in their reading responses that built reserves of hope within me. They asked themselves tough questions about their reading and bravely waded out into unknown waters. In Dolly Chugh’s book The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias she discussed how the fight against bias often happens in these reflective moments when we do not have to act immediately. Unlike the immediate responses in class discussions on our reading, reading responses allowed students to be reflective, find the language for what they were thinking and through the power of that language begin to grow.
I cannot know what will be said in those unheard corners of our school building and beyond. We still must continue to extend our reach in every way we can under the banner of equity. But, for now, I am proud of them. I sent them off for their Sophomore year telling them they should be proud of themselves. I hope that this pride fuels not rest but more courage.