Collaboratively Cultivating Critical Racial Literacy Practices for Teacher Education

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Racial LiteracyAntiracismLiteracy Education
Engaged in the fifth year of an ongoing self-study community of practice (SSCoP), we recognize schools and curriculum as contexts that produce and maintain racism. As a group of eight white, female teacher educators from different institutions across the United States, we share a common goal of dismantling the structures that operationalize anti-blackness and anti-Black racism by foregrounding racial literacy in teacher education. In this multi-site case study, we used 'critical racial literacy' as an analytic framework and the 'Archeology of Self' as an action-oriented process to examine critical incidents from our monthly discussions of shared readings and journals. We found we needed critical love and humility to reflect and interrupt racism. We noticed we did not engage in exploration of our own beliefs and biases, instead we explored incidents of institutional and systemic racism. We recognize we need to examine ourselves in these contexts and systems. In sharing this study, we seek to call others into mobilizing critical racial literacy and the Archeology of Self, perhaps through SSCoPs, to interrogate and (re)imagine teacher education to work towards antiracism. In doing so, we advocate a global and united movement for more equitable education systems.


As a group of white teacher educators from different institutions across the U.S. engaged in year five of a self-study community of practice (SSCoP) (Kitchen & Ciuffetelli Parker, 2009), we center anti-racist, anti-bias (ABAR) teaching and learning in methods courses. While we began our collaboration focusing on our own learning and (un)learning racism, our work has shifted to taking action in our spheres of influence. To inform our perspectives, we read, discuss, and write reflections on work by authors of Color. As an SSCoP, we aim to enact equity-focused teacher education that prepares pre-service teachers (PSTs) who are change agents. In doing so, we realized that Archaeology of Self (Sealey-Ruiz, 2022) is one way for us to begin to develop our own racial literacy while simultaneously enacting racial literacy in our methods courses. This paper seeks to contribute to the SSCoP body of knowledge by sharing findings from an analysis of how we engaged in racial literacy development across various geographical locations to transform our pedagogy in literacy methods courses.

At the same time, we acknowledge that our subjectivities and accountability systems constrain us. The institutional structures we work within mobilize racism; thus, some of the changes we implement in our individual courses conflict with the institutional frameworks (e.g., teacher accreditation standards, licensure examinations, etc.). Consequently, focusing on the individual level of our work is not enough. We must enact “strong equity”—accountability systems and programs that include all stakeholders and recognize societal and educational systems and structures that reproduce inequality (Cochran-Smith et al., 2018, p. 6).

To meet this challenge, we must recognize schools and curricula as sites of continued anti-blackness and anti-Black racism (Jackson, 2022; Lopez & Jean-Marie, 2021; Love, 2019) and center racial literacy in teacher education (Sealey-Ruiz & Greene, 2015). “Racial literacy is the ability to examine, discuss, challenge, and take anti-racist action that involves acts of racism” (Price-Dennis & Sealey-Ruiz, 2021, p. 19). In the past two decades, “the explanatory power of racial literacy has expanded the ways race and racism have been conceptualized across multiple fields” (Laughter et al., 2021, p. 2). Racial literacy aims to reflect on experiences with race, be reflexive about attitudes and beliefs, and take an anti-racist stance. Croom (2020) calls for a racial turn in literacy research and argues for the lifelong development of racial literacies among literacy researchers. This turn must also happen in K-12 classroom settings. Teachers well-versed in racial literacy can better identify barriers students may face in the classroom as being linked to larger systems. We must extend this knowledge to our pre-service teachers and foreground discussions of race while problematizing systemic barriers and focusing on actions that could lead to more educational equity for students of Color. If we are working on becoming racially literate teachers who promote culturally responsive teaching, we must be more reflexive and engage in consciousness-raising self-examination around race. “Reflexivity is a very important process in racial literacy development. It offers the mirror needed to do the important work,” and forces us to be more conscious of our assumptions (Price-Dennis & Sealey-Ruiz, 2021, p. 23). We acknowledge that becoming racially literate educators and researchers will always be a work in progress and, therefore, we must continually self-reflect and “grapple honestly with the reality of race, racism, and racial politics in the United States–and [our] own role in perpetuating the systems of oppression” (Richert et al., 2008, p. 648).

The events of 2020-21, which again exposed the structures of societal racism, have amplified this pressing need. As we work toward developing and centering racial literacies for our PSTs and ourselves, we asked the following question:

Conceptual Framework

We draw upon racial literacy (Price-Dennis & Sealey-Ruiz, 2021) as a theoretical framework. Racial literacy originated in sociology (Twine, 2003) and was later used in legal studies (Guinier, 2004) before its use in education (for a recent content analysis of racial literacy studies in education, see Laughter et al., 2021). Racial literacy requires a multilayered understanding of the functions of race in society and “that we learn to read individual situations for the ways in which they represent, reinforce, or resist systemic injustice” (Grayson, 2018, p. xv). For a racially literate person, “race functions as a tool of diagnosis, feedback, and assessment of conditions within society and people’s lived experience”; this requires an understanding of the complex ways that race intersects with how individuals experience the world (Skerrett, 2011, p. 314).

Sealey-Ruiz (2021) outlines tenets that schools of education can embrace to develop racial literacy. These tenets mobilize racial literacy among PSTs, in-service educators, and teacher educators. First, Sealey-Ruiz (2021) recommends that educators read critical texts about race, racism, and diversity across disciplines to establish a common language to interrogate, problematize, and eradicate notions of racism. Second, to become culturally responsive educators, it is imperative that educators self-examine their conceptions about race, Black children, and other children of Color. Next, teacher educators must hold themselves accountable for modeling and practicing racial literacy while maintaining similar expectations of PSTs. Similarly, PSTs are responsible for practicing racial literacy in the classrooms where they will observe and teach. The fourth tenet includes discussing and critically interrogating personal experiences with race and racism. Last, educators operationalize racial literacy by taking action against racist and discriminatory practices causing adverse effects for Black students and other students of Color in the schools they will teach in.

In addition, Sealey-Ruiz (2022) suggests that the Archeology of Self is an action-oriented process that encourages educators to engage in self-examination or deep reflection that includes excavating or digging into issues of racism to understand how racism influences pedagogy. It offers six components for racial literacy development: critical love, care, and commitment for the communities we live in; critical humility, understanding the limits of our own ideologies; critical reflection, thinking about how our identities privilege or marginalize our work; historical literacy, developing an awareness of historical forces that shape our society; deep examination of the self and biases; interruption, interrupting racism and inequality at personal and systemic levels. (See the Archeology of Self graphic here.) The Archeology of Self was inspired by theories and frameworks including Critical Race Theory (Ladson-Billings, 2021), Abolitionist Teaching (Love, 2019), Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy (Muhammad, 2020), and reimagining and reframing success and achievement in education (Emdin, 2021; Milner, 2011). Sealey-Ruiz (2022) asserted: “There is no way around this: the heart and the mind must be examined if we are to move forward in eradicating the inequalities that exist in education for BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] students” (p. 24). Some scholars have begun to use the Archeology of Self to dismantle the status quo as teacher educators (Porcher, 2021a; Tondreau et al., 2021), and others engaged undergraduate and graduate students in the Archeology of Self using multimodal tools (Porcher, 2021b) and through letter writing (Bell et al., 2022). We drew on racial literacy as a theory and the Archeology of Self as a process and a tool for examining our own racial literacy development. We highlight these efforts in critical incidents from our SSCoP below.


Using a multi-site case study design (Creswell, 2013), we explored the ways we did or did not engage in the Archeology of Self (Sealey-Ruiz, 2022) in an effort to build our racial literacy development (Price-Dennis & Sealey-Ruiz, 2021). As Sealey-Ruiz (2020) posited, “Individuals who develop racial literacy can engage in the necessary personal reflection about their racial beliefs and practices and teach their students to do the same” (para. 3).

Self-study allowed us to examine our personal and collaborative reflections about our racial beliefs and practices and the discord between the two (Dinkleman, 2003; Fletcher, 2020; Loughran, 2005; Samaras, 2011). Self-study offered a way to systematically answer our questions related to racial literacies in and outside of our individual contexts as we work toward a more equitable education system (Fletcher, 2020; Kitchen, 2020; Loughran, 2005; Sealey-Ruiz, 2022; Vanassche & Kelchtermans, 2015).

Participants, Contexts, and Positionalities

We are eight white female teacher educators from varying geographic locations and institutional ranks (see Table 1). Our self-study began in 2018 when we met through our self-selected participation in a group on studying teacher education at the Literacy Research Association Annual Conference. Since then, we have met monthly, participated in shared reading and writing, and developed personal and professional friendships. We studied critical literacies (Tondreau et al., 2020), examined our whiteness and niceness (Tondreau et al., 2021), and worked to build our racial literacies.

Table 1


Years in Teacher Education as Professors Rank  Region University Type
(A)4Assistant ProfessorSoutheastMid-size, Public
(B)8Associate ProfessorNortheastSmall, Private, Liberal Arts
(C)4Assistant ProfessorMidwestMid-size, Public
(D)18ProfessorNortheastMid-size, Public
(E)16Associate ProfessorMidwest, UrbanPrivate
(F)6Assistant ProfessorNortheastSmall, Private, Liberal Arts
(G)2Assistant ProfessorSoutheastLarge, Public
(H)14Associate ProfessorPacific NorthwestPrivate, Liberal Arts

We are mindful that our positionalities as white, cisgender females shape how we read, how others read us, and our work as teacher educators. As such, in our work together, we raise questions about what it means to examine race issues critically. We feel that our self-study creates a space for us to explore tensions within our institutions while developing our own understanding of racial literacy. We are cognizant of our positionality as white women when attempting to engage students and colleagues in conversations about race; we also acknowledge how much we learn from the emotional and intellectual labor of our colleagues of Color. We also acknowledge that some may feel we are challenging their positions of privilege. As white teacher educators, it is imperative that we become more aware of the privileges and biases associated with whiteness and our positions at the university and that we overcome possible fears about entering critical conversations. We would be remiss if we did not mention the need for us to interrogate our whiteness. It would be unethical to engage in work about systems of oppression without thinking about how we, as white educators, play a role in maintaining such systems (Linder & Davis, 2016). Our self-study is an outlet for us to reflect and grapple with how we do, or sometimes do not, interrupt racism.

Data Sources and Analysis

Data collection for this study spanned October 2020 to January 2021, in conjunction with our reading and discussions of "Race, Justice, and Activism in Literacy Instruction" (Kinloch et al., 2019). We chose this particular interval of data because the study of race, justice, activism, and literacy instruction built on our ongoing racial literacy development, and our analysis of this data allowed us to understand in what ways it did (or not).

One data source includes monthly video recordings and transcripts (n = 4) from synchronous Zoom meetings. In our monthly meetings, we began with personal (e.g., family updates, etc.) and professional (e.g., teaching of a common assignment; brainstorming possible data analysis) check-ins, then provided updates regarding our shared writing (e.g., reflections and writing for publication), discussed our shared reading (e.g., reflecting on chapters read), and set goals for upcoming writing and reading. Another data source includes our journal reflections (n = 32) and our responses to one another’s journals and shared resources. Journal responses were reflections regarding the book chapters we read, common assignments we implemented, how the semester went and setting related goals, and taking heed of Kinloch and colleagues’ (2019) call to foreground race, justice, and activism in literacy instruction: What are you willing to do? What are you willing to risk? What’s sustainable? What isn’t? How do you know? Our data sources aligned with our self-study efforts.

Self-study provides us with a space to practice the tenets of racial literacy. Price-Dennis and Sealey-Ruiz (2021) suggest three tenets for engaging with beliefs and practices: questioning assumptions, critical conversations, and reflexivity. Questioning includes resisting and/or interrupting racist or discriminatory practices, policies, and beliefs encountered in education. Critical conversations serve as an outlet to question assumptions and practice to gain confidence in using language about race and other biases. Reflexivity is the cyclical, ongoing process of (re)examining perceptions, beliefs, and actions about race and discrimination. We contend that we made more progress toward racial literacy development together than we would have on our own (Tondreau et al., 2020).

Explicating our data through the components of the Archeology of Self toward racial literacy development illuminated how we were or were not engaging in the process. We employed critical content analysis (Miles et al., 2013) and analyzed transcripts and journals using the six components for racial literacy development: critical love, critical humility, critical reflection, historical literacy, examination of the self, and interruption (Sealey-Ruiz, 2022). The first four authors worked as a subgroup of critical friends and coded data line-by-line with the components above as codes. We employed constant comparison (Corbin & Strauss, 2014), individually examining transcripts and journals and coding. We met regularly to confirm and reconcile our codes. Then, the whole group worked as external critical friends to member check, build trustworthiness, and identify the most salient critical incidents that showcased (or not) our individual and collective racial literacy development. We all reviewed the findings to confirm that our words and ideas were expressed consistently with our intent.


For this paper, we showcase two critical incidents to demonstrate how SSCoP played a role in our shared racial literacy development through the Archeology of Self. The dialogic nature of our group meetings and the interactive online journals allowed us to track discourses of race, power, and intersectionality, highlighting the interplay between the components of the Archeology of Self. Studying these particular critical incidents allowed us to engage in critical reflexivity (Paris & Alim, 2014; Price-Dennis & Sealey-Ruiz, 2021), more clearly identifying how we used our developing racial literacy to impact our spheres of influence and also how larger systems constrained these efforts.

Critical Incident: Meeting

The dialogue we chose to highlight begins when Participant H discusses how she is experiencing difficulty ensuring that deficit language is removed from all courses in her program, even those she does not teach. During our October meeting, we discussed culturally biased literacy assessments and our own shortcomings in replicating these standardized measures within our own teacher education programs. For instance, we discussed issues of deficit language and how in assessing students, some of us described them as “high-needs” or “struggling” while labeling them with a level of perceived literacy. The conversation highlighted that these assessments perpetuate deficit discourses (Sachs et al., 2018). Deficit discourses are a tool for “literacy educators to uphold a culture of violence that affects all of our [Black US citizens] youth” (Haddix, 2020, p. 33). This violence contributes to racial disparities in test scores and disproportionate disciplinary action in schools, leading students of Color to special education and/or the School-to Prison-Pipeline (Annamma et al., 2014).

We engaged in an Archeology of Self as literacy teacher educators who teach PSTs to find students’ perceived weaknesses in the context of a white curriculum. While we challenged deficit discourses in our courses, group members indicated uncertainty about challenging colleagues who perpetuate those discourses with PSTs. Participant B shared her experience convincing her colleagues to be “on the same page” regarding the term “literacy clinic.” This example illustrates the interplay between Participant B as an individual who makes choices to challenge medicalized language that replicates systems of oppression, “You go to a clinic when you’re sick, or something’s wrong with you, not when you maybe want to grow a little in some ways with literacy,” and who enacts agency when she works to build consensus with her colleagues, “So I sent an email,” and, “I looped in everybody.” Through her individual actions, she is providing cultural knowledge to colleagues by identifying the problematic nature of medicalized language and offering more appropriate phrasing. Thus, illustrating how she is working beyond interruption to collaborate with others to build historical literacy and critical reflection. The discussion of these issues within our group represents critical humility as she recognizes the limits of individual actions to make the necessary changes in our curricula.

Simultaneously, this excerpt highlights Participant B's effort to interrupt deficit discourse in her institution. She aims to change the discourse of her colleagues, “If we could all get on the same page,” at the same time, she understands that the institution is larger than herself and that the misconceptions of others can and will undermine her own efforts to challenge deficit discourses, “Ah! you’re undoing the work I’ve tried to do!” Although we have formed an SSCoP to provide us with the language and the courage to speak up about racial injustice in our own context, we need to build a community to build racial literacy within our contexts.

This conversation began as Participant H shared frustration over a colleague who is teaching the literacy assessment class for her and having her PST use deficit language to describe students. Thus, opening the conversation for Participant B to share her experiences and then for Participant D to continue the discussion. Participant D then describes how our schools are designed to label and marginalize students who don’t “perform” on state testing. Putting students in separate classes impacts their self-efficacy. Thus, highlighting the full spectrum of how literacy education is dominated by societal and racial discrimination. The critical reflection and acknowledgment of the historical literacy practices demonstrate a move towards racial literacy.

Broader societal discourses comprise the audit culture of education, which uses language to position and rank students and re-inscribe deficit discourses. The medicalized language tied to “deficits” in literacy skills, and typically adopted by mainstream special education, assumes that a disability is a “natural” impairment within the individual in need of remediation (Annamma et al., 2016). The colonial legacy of this thinking remains deeply rooted in the American school system, and linkages between race and intellect undergird our systems for disability identification, assessment, and support. In this example, Participant B is not only pushing back on the language of individual colleagues or the norms of her institution; she is also attempting to disrupt societal norms and discourses to facilitate racial literacy.

Critical Incident: Journal

Journal reflections helped us identify how we operationalized racism, as well as other issues that mediated our work toward racial literacy. In November 2020, we chose and responded to the prompt, “Reflect on the reading [Chapters 5 and 6] and/or common assignment. What went well, and what do you want to revise?” The reading focused on a student at a four-year institution, Arlene, who experienced a white professor who undercut her identity through writing criticism. The incident led Arlene to drop out of the four-year institution and move to a community college where she felt more comfortable. The reading allowed us to examine the historical literacy of writing instruction at four-year institutions and to critically reflect on how our institutions perpetuate racial disparities.

Participant B’s entry demonstrates recognition of institutional racism, noting and questioning her complicity and the institution’s role in perpetuating and dismantling racism, “Arlene's [experience of racism] was troubling, but one I can really see happening. When her [white] professor undercut her writing, it changed her life trajectory. She left the university for a community college where she felt more at home. This caused me to pause to consider what supports were in place or what instructional supports were used to lead to Arlene’s success?” Illustrating that the critical reflection process leads to a desire to interrupt current practices and engage the remainder of the group in an interactive dialogue.

Participant D responded, “This is a really important question that forces us to deal with our institutions at a level that we are often not invited nor feel comfortable with.” Wrestling with a system that needs to begin with critical love, Participant D references her individual comfort, indicating that her whiteness insulated her from taking action, evidence of critical reflection (Jones & Okun, 2001). Participant C replied, “When I think about tracking in US high schools, middle schools, and even elementary schools, I’m not at all surprised. The system is designed to have some students working for those in power. This system of oppression actually works quite well.” This critical reflection addresses the historical literacy of schooling and represents how institutions lack critical love or humility. Throughout this conversation, it is evident that there is an attempt to think about how we can interrupt the historical issues around racism through critical reflection.

This dialogue suggests that we were collectively developing racial literacy; entries encouraged individual reflection that helped us identify and articulate how racism was being mobilized. In analyzing our SSCoP through the framework of racial literacy development of the Archeology of Self, we could better identify discourses of racism at the individual, institutional, and societal levels and how they constrained anti-racist teaching. This shed light on questions we needed to grapple with and opportunities for actions in our own contexts, such as identifying necessary instructional and institutional supports for students of Color or pushing back on the practice of tracking.


We argue that collaborating critically and methodologically rigorously through our SSCoP facilitated our racial literacy development (Kitchen, 2022; LaBoskey, 2004; Loughran, 2005). We came together five years ago with critical humility, and over time, we developed critical love for our SSCoP. Our SSCoP embraced tenets of racial literacy development for schools of education (Sealey-Ruiz, 2021), by reading critical texts, often by scholars of Color, and over time we established a common language in our dialogue with one another. More generally, we embraced tenets of racial literacy development through questioning, critical conversations, and ongoing reflexivity (Dennis-Price & Sealey-Ruiz, 2021). All of this occurred across contexts of different institutions and geographic locations.

The Archeology of Self (Sealey-Ruiz, 2022) as a theory, process, and analytic tool also propelled our racial literacy development. As evidenced above, we engaged in many components of the Archeology of Self through dialogue in our meetings and journals. The critical humility that brought us to this SSCoP and the critical love we established helped us engage in critical reflection, built our historical literacy knowledge, and allowed us to have the knowledge and language to engage in an interruption in our respective contexts. We did not understand the components of the Archeology of Self as hierarchical but as overlapping or co-occurring. For instance, we needed critical love and humility to reflect and interrupt.

At the same time, we noticed, particularly in this dataset, that we did not engage in the component of the Archeology of Self, exploration of our own beliefs, biases, and ideas. Rather we excavated and explored critical incidents of institutional and systemic racism. This was certainly a limitation.

As we move forward, we must further explore our beliefs, biases, and ideas perpetuating racism at institutional and systemic levels. We need to examine ourselves in those contexts. Perhaps we unconsciously avoided this component to avoid centering ourselves as eight white women literacy teacher educators. Alternatively, perhaps our reluctance to excavate our racist beliefs, biases, and ideas can be attributed to our whiteness and niceness (Tondreau et al., 2021). Sealey-Ruiz (2022) reminds us that “if teachers do not critically examine themselves and their practice, they are likely to continue enacting a pedagogy that harms instead of heals” p. 25).

Implications for teacher education include building local, national, or international SSCoPs with an ethical commitment to caring and critical love. Within such a community, teachers can read, question, and have critical conversations and reflexivity regarding race and racism. As noted above, these are tenets that will build racial literacy. We also recommend using the Archeology of Self within SSCoP. For us, it gave us a tangible, process-oriented way into our own racial literacy development. We believe the collaborative nature of our community helped us make more progress using the Archeology of Self in our racial literacy development than we, perhaps, would have on our own. We invite other teachers and teacher educators to do the same.

Like the scholars before us, we recognize the urgency of developing racial literacy (Price-Dennis & Sealey-Ruiz, 2021). It is the first step to dismantling racism in literacy education. We also recognize there is no end to racial literacy development; it’s an ongoing process.


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Elizabeth Y. Stevens

Roberts Wesleyan College

Kristen L. White

Northern Michigan University

Tess M. Dussling

Saint Michael’s College

Nance S. Wilson

University of New York at Cortland

Amy Tondreau

Austin Peay State University

Wendy Gardiner

Pacific Lutheran University

Tierney B. Hinman

University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Sophie Degener

National Louis University

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