‘We Always Talk About Race’: Navigating Race Talk Dilemmas in the Teaching of Literature—LEARN Marginal Syllabus

May 03, 2021
By Educator Innovator

“As Ella and Anthony’s department chair animatedly observed about discursive conflict in the classroom during one of our workshops, ‘it’s so much easier to sidestep it.'”

In our May reading for LEARN: Marginal Syllabus, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas examines the instructional decisions by two teachers who navigated race conversations in their English Language Arts classrooms. Drawing from a larger ethnographic study, Thomas describes how one teachers’ classroom talk included information about his racial identity as a Black man, the identities of students, as well as the identity of a book’s author and characters. In another case, Thomas details how a White teacher engaged her class in a literature conversation that included navigating a book’s use of a racial epithet and whether to avoid saying it during class discussions. The teachers’ decisions both name and also ignore race talk are illustrative of the dilemmas that literacy teachers encounter in the exploration of literature with youth.

This is the third month’s reading from the Spring 2021 LEARN Marginal Syllabus co-developed with the National Writing Project (NWP) and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) with support from Hypothesis. Each month, March through June, we invite educators to collaboratively read and discuss an article published by NCTE that investigates the intersection of literacy and equity. Each reading with related author discussion will go “live” on the first Monday of the month.

This month’s reading and author discussion:

‘We Always Talk About Race’: Navigating Race Talk Dilemmas in the Teaching of Literature

This month, we invite you to read about an ethnographic study that features two cases of race talk dilemmas which emerged in high school literacy classrooms. The article presents richly detailed conversations that occurred between two literacy educators and their respective classes of students as they discussed the books The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother and Dangerous Minds. This article describes how Thomas, as a researcher, analyzed the teachers’ language and decisions as they navigated multiple conflicts related to the complex issues of race in literature, the classroom, and the world. Published in 2015, the article illustrates how race talk dilemmas are both commonplace and consequential, and how important it is for literacy educators to think critically about the ways in which their classroom conversations are facilitated to support more affirming discourse about race in schools.

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