Advancing the false idea that teaching through an antiracist lens and developing students’ reading and writing skills are mutually exclusive is a gross misinterpretation of the work I see many teachers do—teachers who engage students in deep learning and support them in developing the skills necessary to be active, informed participants in a democracy.
Excellent teachers know how to help students to develop the reading, writing, and communication skills they will need to be successful in the world and how to put those skills in service of a more just society.
These are not mutually exclusive.
We teach more than skills. And furthermore, we teach more than content, too.
After all, currently there are many people in power who have rich content and disciplinary knowledge. But what comprises that content? What types of knowledge (and whose) is deemed valuable? There are also many people currently in power who also have excellent reading, writing, and communication skills. The question is: how are they using those skills? To what ends? For whose benefit? And at whose expense?
Neither content nor skills is neutral.
Full transparency: I am the product of both private and public education. By many measures (i.e. test scores and rankings), I went to excellent schools, even elite ones. In many ways, our educational system worked for me—and for people like me.
In many other ways, however, the system also failed me.
My excellent education failed me when the books I read and the history I learned reinforced the dominant narrative of those in power but marginalized many more others.
It failed me when conversations about racism were relegated to a past we had somehow overcome, slavery, and Civil Rights.
It failed me when I internalized ways of being that devalued the cultural capital of my own heritage and history.
It failed me when I internalized racist ideas about myself and others.
It failed me when I didn’t practice the skills necessary to question those ideas and the system that wrought them.
I have no illusions about the type of privilege and power my excellent education afforded me. I can read, write, and think critically. Doors are open to me that would otherwise not be. But I also have no illusions about the deep—personal and interpersonal—wounds that this excellent education also inflicted. The cost of an excellent education should not be our individual or collective humanity.
I am a both/and person. It’s a bias I claim. Which is why I believe we can help students become better readers and writers and thinkers—and we can work toward justice and collective liberation. I am fortunate to learn from fellow educators who do both every single day.
As Dr. Lisa Delpit writes in Other People’s Children:
Students need technical skills to open doors, but they need to be able to think critically and creatively to participate in meaningful and potentially liberating work inside those doors…”
[E]ven while students are assisted in learning the cultures of power, they must also be helped in learning the arbitrariness of those codes and about the power relationships they represent.”
Too often, conversations in education circles get reduced to false binaries which serve no one well, especially our students. Straw man arguments abound. The work of #DisruptTexts and other equity-focused educator collectives is mischaracterized as if all we do is talk about race and everything else, including instruction, is ignored. I would invite those critics to consider how my students this week used their developing critical literacy skills to unpack word choice and syntax in their textbooks. How they researched and presented on several different cognitive biases as part of our larger study of argument: how these biases show up in the way claims, evidence, and warrants are constructed (Toulmin model, anyone?). How these biases lead us to draw false conclusions and make other logical fallacies. How all of this is part of a larger unit of study and inquiry on truth, using a rich text set that includes contemporary and historical readings from Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to Orwell’s 1984.
The thing is this: it’s not enough to teach students the knowledge and skills they need to access traditional levers of power in an unjust system if we don’t also support students to use that knowledge and those skills to question—even dismantle—that system and reimagine something better. Otherwise, those levers will simply be pulled in ways that replicate injustice. Instead, we must “teach to transgress,” as bell hooks urges, to push against and beyond boundaries, if we have any hope of making education a practice of freedom.
Our role as educators is critical. Again, as Dr. Delpit reminds us, “political work demands that I place myself to influence as many gatekeeping points as possible. And it is there that I agitate for change.”
Agitate for change, indeed.
NOTE: This blog was originally written as this Twitter thread and revised.