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How to Create Anti-racist Virtual Classrooms: Strategies for Teachers and Families

  • Covid-19

Going back to school this year means something different in homes across the country. And the new academic year requires an enhanced body of knowledge for families and educators facing both COVID-19 and ongoing racism.

The University of Pittsburgh School of Education’s PittEd Justice Collective, a movement launched in June to center equity and anti-racist approaches in education, recently convened a panel of expert practitioners and scholars to provide insights on remote teaching and learning strategies. The webinar’s focus: anti-racist teaching and learning.

About 225 people from across the country attended the mid-August webinar, including K-16 educators, school superintendents, principals, education consultants, college students and families.

Valerie Kinloch, the Renée and Richard Goldman Dean of Pitt’s School of Education, moderated the panel, and recognized the urgency of the work that needs to be done to reach all students and the next generation.  

“We have to have a deep love for what we do, and for the people we work with and learn from,” said Kinloch. “The work of equity, justice and anti-racism is hard work, but it’s the most important work we can do when we talk about engaging and learning.”

The panelists featured in webinar spanned multiple disciplines and areas of expertise:

  • Tinukwa Boulder, director of innovative technologies and online learning, associate professor of practice in Pitt’s School of Education
  • Detra Price-Dennis, associate professor of education in the teachers college at Columbia University
  • Cassie Quigley, associate professor of science education in Pitt’s School of Education
  • Sharon Ross, assistant professor in health and human development in Pitt’s School of Education

You can watch the full webinar here. Here are some highlights from the discussion:

What is anti-racist teaching, and what does it look like in practice?

According to Boulder, anti-racist teaching is the idea of looking at instructional planning through an equity lens. It’s thinking about digital accessibility and making content accessible for students who may have cognitive disabilities, she said. A starting point in tackling those issues with social justice and equity is thinking of ways to encourage students to critically think about race and racism—and for educators, being comfortable to address the discomfort that comes along with discussing this topic, she said.

Ross views anti-racist teaching from a health, physical activity and human development perspective. She said it means being able to name racism and disrupt multi-level factors that contribute to health inequities. She said she brings in guest speakers to provide students with tools to build awareness about these issues.

Quigley, a science educator, said she asks her students to be open—or “permeable”—to conversations about race and racism.

“I ask them to acknowledge the past that was created, and what counts as knowledge,” she said. “The science that is often taught in schools promotes and perpetuates racism and white superiority. It plays out in who is promoted as leaders in the field and who participates in risky medical trials. Anti-racist teaching asks us to question this history.”

What is the relationship between equity and anti-racist teaching?

Price-Dennis said these terms come from the same place: They’re about examining hierarchal power structures in our society. “If we don’t have an understanding of that, it’s hard to name what’s anti-racist,” she said. “It’s about moving toward co-constructing relationships with families, and how those relationships can look more reciprocal—and more focused on the collective good. And inviting discomfort into this space.”

Ross added that racism includes other “isms”—including sexism, classism and other systems of power. “To pursue anti-racist teaching aligns with the fight against oppression for any marginalized group, and the status quo reinforces privilege. It has to be this active posture and stance of pushing back,” she said. “We need to make sure that we are creating a space where we have courageous conversations with students so they can go back and apply it themselves.”

What are the implications for remote teaching and learning strategies? How can we construct curriculum during this moment?

Boulder noted that COVID-19 has also caused a “tech pandemic.”

“There’s a digital divide,” she said, in regard to the issue of access to technology. “When we don’t talk about that in terms of equity, there are a lot of families who don’t have high-speed technology or access to online learning. We rely on the internet for social-emotional well-being too, so there are many issues beyond education.”

Price-Dennis said that she thinks about classroom set up, which looks different now in a time of remote learning.

“With remote learning, how do our students know who is in a virtual classroom? I think about what the space looks like. It’s our job to think about the way we use technology to encourage participation and give space for students to process their ideas,” said Price-Dennis.

Quigley said that when constructing a curriculum, she thinks about ways to view learning assessments as the ultimate goal to find and promote student strengths. Rather than assign multiple choice exams, Quigley said teachers should think about implementing creative approaches to allow students to investigate issues that are of interest to them in their communities.

“This is a great opportunity to allow our students to engage in communities to discover and learn about environmental justice during this time that we’re all at home,” said Quigley.

For assignment ideas, Quigley suggested: “Maybe there’s an infographic that can tell a story about the lead pipes in students’ neighborhoods. Or maybe it’s creating podcasts to talk about plastic pollution.”

How do we de-center whiteness in the curriculum? What if school districts don’t give teachers the freedom to do this work in the classroom?

For those working in K-12 public schools, Quigley said that the state education standards cannot be ignored, but she strongly encouraged teachers to ask students to be their guide.

“Students are really good at asking tough questions,” she said. “They can give us opportunities to align course study to standards already in place.”

How can we create a space for students to call us out when they’re not represented in the classroom?

For Ross, while creating safe classroom spaces, it’s important to acknowledge that having conversations about race can be uncomfortable—and educators need to practice having them. Working with higher education students who are future teachers themselves, Ross said she shares with students that it’s a learning opportunity for her, too.

“I let my students know that this isn’t going to be comfortable. You are going to be triggered, your heart may start racing. … I am asking you in this moment to use that as an opportunity to learn and lean into that,” said Ross.

What should we do when we receive pushback on anti-racist teaching from parents and others?

Boulder said to expect resistance, but to continue onward.

“If you set yourself this goal to engage in this conversation, then the idea is that we are maybe dragging people along kicking and screaming. But we should do our best to educate those who may be resistant,” she said. “Part of it is educating, informing and having those conversations. It may require repetition and driving it through in different ways.”

Check out a list of related resources recommended by the PittEd Justice Collective.

Join the PittEd Justice Collective

The next PittEd Justice Collective webinar, “From Linguistic Racism to Linguistic Justice and Liberation: Black Language, Literacy and Learning,” will be held on Sept. 1 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Register for the webinar.

The webinar will discuss how and why African American Vernacular English should be respected and integrated as part of the literacy and learning of Black children during COVID-19 and beyond. It will also explore relationships between Black children’s language and the development of healthy identities.

Anyone can join the PittEd Justice Collective. Head to the PittEd Justice Collective website, scroll down and submit your information. Contact PittEdJusticeCollective [at] pitt.edu with other questions.