Let’s Give Them Something to Talk (And Act!) About: Privilege, Racism, and Oppression in the Middle School Classroom

April 02, 2020
By Educator Innovator

Our April reading for the 2019-20 Literacy, Equity + Remarkable Notes = LEARN Marginal Syllabus describes the collaborative work of Ashley Boyd, a teacher educator from a university, and Jacinda Miller, an experienced middle school English Language Arts teacher. With a shared interest in social justice literacies and passion for engaging youth in current issues, the two educators used the novel All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely to anchor conversations about race and privilege. This piece describes the classroom culture that made this work possible, rich classroom discourse about critical issues, and the creative social action project that resulted.

This is the fourth month of LEARN 2019-20, a Marginal Syllabus co-developed with the National Writing Project (NWP) and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Each month of the 2019-2020 academic year, we’ll collaboratively read and discuss an article, published in four different NCTE journals, that investigates the intersection of literacy and equity. Refer to the the 2019-20 syllabus for information on all the annotatable readings, which will go “live” on the first Monday of each month, along with related events hosted by the National Writing Project.

April Topic: Creative social action as response to contemporary young adult literature about race in a middle school classroom

As one White student attempted to argue that some stereotypes are “nice,” such as that all Asians are smart, a student in class who identified as Asian rebutted this first student’s attempt, sharing with her that he did not want to be thought of as smart because of his race, but rather because he was in fact smart.

Let’s Give Them Something to Talk (And Act!) About: Privilege, Racism, and Oppression in the Middle School Classroom

As part of our close study of this text, Ashley Boyd and Jacinda Miller joined the Marginal Syllabus team to talk about their article.

In April, we read about a middle school classroom where students engaged in critical conversations about All American Boys, a young adult novel narrated in the alternative voices of a young White man who witnesses police brutality, and a young Black man who is the victim of the attack. Authors Miller and Boyd’s piece shares the care the two teachers took in planning to address the vital, and sensitive issues the novel raises. They describe how Miller created a culture of trust prior to introducing the novel. Also, they share the way they set the instructional stage at the outset of the unit by asking students to name and appreciate the advantages they enjoy at their small town, middle class middle school. As a result of their thoughtful approach, the classroom conversations they facilitated about the book deftly dealt with issues of race and inequity. What is more, those conversations were consequential because they led to social action projects that engaged the parent community. The detail with which Boyd and Miller share their planning and the instructional moves make this an instructive read for new and veteran teachers alike.

This reading reflects the passion for social justice that inspired two educators from different contexts to collaborate while taking a risk as teachers to address privilege, race and oppression. This article makes inspirational teaching profoundly accessible for educators who might like to chart a similar course with their students.

Join the Annotated Conversation

We invite you to read “Let’s Give Them Something to Talk (And Act!) About: Privilege, Racism, and Oppression in the Middle School Classroom,” and annotate the text with your own thoughts, reactions, and questions. Annotations may be added using the web annotation tool Hypothesis. To add your own annotations, as well as to respond to others, sign up for your free account.

Share your annotations as you read or any time throughout the month of April. We also encourage you to use this reading and the opportunity to annotate however the Marginal Syllabus best suits your interests—organize a study group among colleagues, bring a class you are teaching to participate in this online discussion either publicly or privately, engage as an individual, or connect this text and conversation to other interest-driven activities.

Image: From Voices from the Middle, March 2020. Copyright © 2020 by the National Council of Teachers of English. All rights reserved. Used by permission.