By Jessica Salfia
This spring WVCTE and NWP@WVU will be hosting our second annual WVELA conference. A West Virginia for All: Creating Diverse and Inclusive ELA Classrooms will take place March 29-30, 2019 at the Mountain Lair on the campus of WVU in Morgantown, West Virginia and will focus on ways we can create more inclusive curriculums, more diverse reading lists, and how we can disrupt the canon.
As we have been preparing for this exciting conference, I have been reflecting on my own teaching and curriculum, but also on West Virginia and how we can make our state stronger and our students better, more informed citizens.
It’s time to take a hard look at what we’re teaching and who we’re teaching. Our world is changing quickly, but in many places our curriculums and reading lists have remained the same. Some of the texts we’ve been teaching for years no longer speak to the students we have in class today. Our students need to be exposed to cultures, races, and experiences that are different from their own, and our students of color deserve to see themselves reflected in literature. We need to confront the whiteness of our schools and our curriculums, find ways to support and elevate the voices of our students of color, and teach diverse books.
Let me start by saying, I am a white teacher—but most of us are. According to The National Center for Education Statistics, 98% of West Virginia’s teachers are white. That means in a faculty of 100, there are two teachers of color. Two. And I would venture to guess that at many West Virginia schools that number is even lower.
Lack of diversity in education is a national epidemic, but in West Virginia this problem is exacerbated by an increasing lack of diversity in our population. Census data shows that 93.6% of West Virginia’s population identifies as white. Naturally, our school populations and education faculties will reflect this trend.
All the more reason to confront this blinding whiteness.
Our students of color in West Virginia experience not just being a minority, but sometimes being THE minority in our classrooms. For a gut-wrenching perspective on this, read poet and educator Clint Smith’s “Ode to the Only Black Kid in Class.”
For white teachers teaching in mostly white schools in economically challenged or rural areas, talking about race and confronting race in our classrooms may feel uncomfortable or even scary. Nobody wants to say or do the wrong thing. But what we need to remember is that this often how our students of color feel in our mostly white classrooms—uncomfortable, scared, and afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. It’s up to us, the educators in the room, to start a positive dialogue and create a classroom where students feel safe talking about race.
So how do we do this?
Teach diverse books.
There are several grassroots movements being organized by educators around the country that are promoting the diversification of curriculums and the canon. Here a few of my favorites:
from the Disrupt Texts website: “Disrupt Texts is a crowdsourced, grass roots effort by teachers for teachers to challenge the traditional canon in order to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum that our students deserve. It is part of our mission to aid and develop teachers committed to anti-racist/anti-bias teaching pedagogy and practices.”
Founded by educators, Joel Garza and Scott Bayer, the mission of #THEBOOKCHAT is to introduce readers to books by and about people who might not look like you, books by and about people might not live like you. In addition, organizers are committed to creating and sharing a classroom-ready resource (a hyperdoc unit-in-a-box) for each work that contextualizes the work historically and culturally and that challenges a deep reading thematically and personally.
Scholastic’s We Need Diverse Books catalogue.
Seek out opportunities to learn from and listen to educators of color.
We have already established that West Virginia is experiencing a shortage of teachers of color. (And teachers in general…remember those 700 vacancies?) It may be difficult to reach out to a colleague of color in your school or district. Well, the teachers of Twitter have got you. A colleague of color willing to have a conversation is just a mouse click away.
There are some truly dynamic educators of color in other parts of the country doing grassroots activism, working to elevate marginalized voices. Many of them are very accessible on Twitter and Facebook, have websites, or books out now.
Below is a list of some of those educators who are resources for any teacher ready to confront a lack of diversity in their classrooms:
The brilliant women who started the #DistruptTexts Movment:
Mr. Minor’s new book We Got This is out now from Heinemann. He is an outspoke advocate for students, teachers, and education, and also an all around wonderful human.
Additionally, check out this list–this an excel list of People of Color in Education Professional Development with contact information provided.
Create opportunities in your classroom and your school for your students of color to interact with adults of color, to have cultural experiences, and celebrate their individuality.
In addition to diversifying my curriculum, I advise our school’s Diversity Club. (Check out our website HERE.) Students in this club work as ambassadors of cultural education, acceptance, and social justice for their peers and school community. Any student is welcome to join, and each month the club plans and hosts activities that highlight different cultures, gender issues, and race. Theses events are open to any student from our school or the feeder middle school.
Some of the events we have hosted at Spring Mills High School for our school community, organized by the students in this club:
- Guest speakers of color (next month the local president of the NAACP is joining us for a club meeting.
- Black History Month school-wide celebration and assembly
- LGBTQ film festival
- Monthly focuses and school-wide announcements (Hispanic Heritage Month, LGBTQ Awareness, Native American Heritage Month, Asian-Pacific Islander Month)
- Holidays Around the World Presentation at the local Intermediate School
- An annual, school-wide Multi-Cultural Fair
Activities like these could easily be incorporated into your classroom, school, or district. A guest speaker is an email or phone call away!
Organize a trip to an HBCU or an HBCU festival!
West Virginia is home to two historically black colleges, Bluefield and West Virginia State. Give your students of color an opportunity to learn about and explore the opportunities and the culture of an HBCU.
In my district, the Berkeley County Diversity Council sponsors busses to take students to the St. Alfred St. Baptist Church HBCU Festival, and I serve as our school’s onsite coordinator of this event. This is the largest HBCU Fair in the country. Students can get information about colleges, but also attend interviews and get accepted to college and receive scholarship money on site that day.
In addition to the exposure to post-secondary experiences, this event is also a cultural experience. My school has a 19% minority population, and while this is slightly higher than the rest of the state, my students of color are still sometimes the ONLY students of color in their classes. For a West Virginia minority student who has spent most of their life seeing only folks who don’t look like them, a college fair or experience like this one can be a transformative.
(Some pictures from last year’s trip to the St. Alfred St. Baptist Church HBCU Festival)
Can’t take students to an HBCU or an HBCU fair? Invite an HBCU to visit your school! Colleges do recruiting in schools all the time, and there are two HBCUs in our own backyard. For a complete list of HBCUs click HERE.
In order to effect real change in this state, we cannot be afraid to begin confronting the whiteness of our classrooms and schools.
Teachers must elevate the marginalized voices in our classrooms, diversify our curriculums, and learn how talk about race and diversity with our students and colleagues–especially in West Virginia schools with a limited number of minority students. Mostly white students and classrooms need diverse texts and experiences as much as non-white students, but for different reasons.
According to the article Talking about Race in Mostly White Schools by Leah Shafer, “there are deep racial and geographical divides in our country, leading to “a profound lack of creative empathy,” says Kathryn Short, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) who is interested in ways to talk to young people about racial injustice. Many white Americans were unable to envision the struggles and desires of marginalized people or of people whose lives were vastly different from theirs.”
Our students live in a time of extreme social and political divisiveness. As a result, teaching empathy and understanding has become an essential part of many school curriculums. Conversations about race and diversity are critical to lessons on empathy and understanding each other.
Take a look at this slide from Scott Bayer’s presentation on teaching diverse books from last year’s WVELA18 conference:
Garfield Park is a community on the west side of Chicago. What do you notice? What would your students notice? How could you use this to start a conversation about our differences and similarities? About empathy? More importantly how would these statistics challenge your students’ preconceived notions geography and race?
For more strategies and perspectives on confronting diversity in your curriculum, check out this post for edweek.org by Justin Minkel How Can White Teachers Do Right by Students of Color?
And join us to continue this conversation this March 29-30 in Morgantown, WV at WVELA19!
WVCTE is wondering…
How do you diversify your curriculum? How do you advocate for students of color? How to you disrupt the canon in your classroom?