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“Anchoring Racial Literacy Knowledge in Course Design”

On Wednesday, March 10, 2021, Siena College’s Education Department, English Department, Damietta Cross-Cultural Center, Diversity Action Committee and Committee on Teaching and Faculty Development sponsored a webinar with Dr. Sophia Sarigianides and Dr. Carlin Borsheim-Black. Titled “Anchoring Racial Literacy Knowledge in Course Design,” the presentation focused on research from their book “Letting Go of Literary Whiteness: Antiracist Instruction for White Students,” and their own journeys in teaching racial literacy. Dr. Sophia Tatiana Sarigianides is the Professor & Coordinator of Secondary English at Westfield State University, and Dr. Carlin Borsheim-Black is a Professor of English Education at Central Michigan University.

The presentation was broken into three parts. Part one was called “Text Selection: Significant and Insufficient” and used examples Dr. Borsheim-Black has witnessed in her own teaching to argue that, while teachers have been more successful in diversifying literature selections to include literature from a wider range of people of color, this action is not enough. She analyzed how literature curriculum is often slow to change, and that a problem seen today is that when we read literature, people tend to default to thinking of characters as whiteunless explicitly expressed otherwise. Thus, this part of the presentation highlighted the necessity to challenge these assumptions and to choose not just literature from people of color that focus on the topic of racism, but also literature that affirms people of color through themes such as joy and normalcy. Through these actions, Dr. Borsheim-Black argues that teachers can interrupt this default of whiteness.

In the second part of the presentation, “Race Talk: Necessary and Not Enough,” Dr. Sophia Sarigianides displayed not just why it is necessary to talk about race in English classes, but also some of the problems with race talk and criteria for teachers to help make these discussions strategic. She explored some of the issues seen in classrooms today, as teachers may avoid discussions on race or wait for the topic to emerge. Therefore, she presented criteria that teachers can use to be more strategic when trying to promote conversations about race. Among her criteria was the need to establish discussion norms at the start of the year to create an inclusive learning environment. She also highlighted the need to ensure that race talk is sustained, and not just approached on a small scale. Each of her strategies provided recommendations for teachers to use to lead important discussions.

In the final part of the presentation, “Anchoring Racial Literacy Knowledge in Course Design: Value and Evaluate,” the presenters posed the question: What is racial literacy? They provided a definition, stating that racial literacy is the “complex understandings about what race is and about how racism works.”  During this part of the presentation, Drs. Sophia Sarigianides and Carlin Borsheim-Black explained that they have found that many English teachers want to incorporate antiracist teaching into their classrooms, but they may be unsure of how to do so. Therefore, they provided examples of racial literacy tools and approaches that can be used to support antiracist teaching. For example, they also spoke about the importance of establishing racial literacy objectives, as teachers can start class with essential questions and follow through with assessing the students’ comprehension of these objectives.

Dr. Sophia Sarigianides and Dr. Carlin Borsheim-Black concluded their presentation by explaining that what they spoke about was just the “tip of the glacier.” They highlighted how their presentation and book are only one step in the process of achieving antiracist teaching, but both can provide a starting point. At the end of the presentation, they explained how they wrote their book to help any teachersespecially new teacherswho are entering the field and might be unsure of how to address race in the classroom. They recognized that when they started teaching, they lacked these resources. Hence, their book was written to help teachers create an antiracist classroom , and to inspire all educators to feel like they can be more successful in creating a safe learning environment. They acknowledged that racism will continue to evolve, therefore, they want to help teachers to engage in sustained antiracist literacy.

Overall, their presentation was incredibly valuable for all educators and students in the audience. As a whole, the lessons outlined in their presentation provided new teachers with a strategic manner to approach racial literacy.  I would wholeheartedly recommend reading their book since it is as informative as their presentation. After reading the book, you would no doubt be better versed in how to incorporate antiracist teaching in the classroom.