Current tensions between parents, legislators, and school leaders over race-related issues, heightened by social and mass media, are creating problems teachers have never before had to face. Teacher candidates need to be prepared to teach about race, not only because it is important to their students’ and their own personal development, but because unlike their predecessors who typically avoided controversies, today’s teachers cannot. Precipitating this self-study was my admitted aversion to and discomfort with teaching deeply about race in my elementary social studies methods course. Using multiple data sources including class assignments and discussions, my teaching materials, and reflection journals, as well as documentation of numerous conversations with critical friends, I examined how I prepared for, taught, and reflected on race-related topics integrated into my social studies methods class. Embracing my discomfort, witnessing student disinclination and conservatism, and learning from mistakes, I acknowledge that by engaging my students in surface-level explorations of topics like bias and prejudice but avoiding issues like structural racism and the role of Whites in perpetuating racism by inaction, I have not been doing enough and need to continue to work on my efficacy, particularly the specific skills effective teachers use in anti-racist teaching.
Over the past year or so, laws restricting the teaching of racism have been passed in 14 states, and similar bills have been introduced in more than 25 other states (Pendharker, 2022). Specifically mentioned in all the bills is Critical Race Theory, and most mention the 1619 Project, a curriculum supplement from the New York Times that “places the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country” (2019, para. 3). Conversely, advocates of critical race pedagogy and critical Whiteness studies suggest it is imperative that teachers disrupt the “single story curriculum” that continues to pervade social studies classrooms (Roy, 2018) and fight to make race and race history an indispensable part of the social studies curriculum (Howard & Navarro, 2016). Today’s classrooms serve as battlefields for the latest culture war, as teachers are barraged from multiple flanks, despite their lack of preparation for such a battle.
Exacerbating the ubiquitous divide over teaching about race in our public schools is the fact that our teacher demographics do not match student demographics. U.S. elementary teachers are 79% White and 77% female (Merlin, 2002; Schaeffer, 2021), while our country’s students are 47% White, 27% Hispanic, and 15% Black (de Brey et al., 2021). The teacher candidates at my university are overwhelmingly female, White, and from rural areas without a diverse population. The student body at my university is 88% White, 4.4% Hispanic/Latino, 1.6% African American, 1.3% Native American, .7% Asian, and 4% multiracial. The county in which my university resides is 92% White and voted for Biden in the last election, though all of the surrounding counties in a 100+ mile radius voted for Trump.
In short, my students are essentially all-White, come from White K-12 schools, attend a university with White classmates and professors, and participate in field experiences and student teaching practicum in White schools. What’s more, our university does not require teacher candidates to take a course in multicultural education and anything related.
In the Fall of 2021, entering my 16th year as a social studies teacher educator, I felt an intense obligation to do a better job of preparing my students, most of whom would have classrooms of their own within the next 12 months, for teaching positions that will require them to reconcile the vociferous polarity of the public’s opinions on which social studies events and topics they should teach and how. I acknowledged that I would have to move beyond my typical focus on the state and national standards and cursory race-based lessons, to toward more race-forward teaching.
Social studies teaching should be evolving and adapting to societal needs at the time (Shor, 1980). Brubaker (1977) in foundational conceptualizing of modern social studies education suggested that controversy in the classroom is not merely a goal, but is “clearly in our democratic heritage” (p. 204). Swalwell and Schweber (2016) asserted, “The inclusion of controversial issues in social studies curricula is widely considered to be an essential element of a quality democratic civic education” (p. 283). One cannot teach social studies effectively devoid of controversy (Hess, 2010; Nelson & Hahn, 2010).
To properly prepare my students for today’s social studies classrooms, I would have to address controversial topics of critical race theory and critical race pedagogy explicitly. If I were to lead my White students in the discomforting process of scrutinizing their own privileges and advantages (Zembylas, 2018), I would have to engage with them in difficult conversations about race, as well as reflect critically on my own racial identity. The pedagogy of discomfort framework (Boler, 1999) would guide the examination of my students’ and my values and beliefs, while recognizing that scrutiny of our white privilege and white hegemony might evoke shame (Crowley, 2019), guilt (Leonardo, 2004) or anger (Bhattacharya et al., 2019). The pedagogy of discomfort requires students and teachers to be open to questioning their perspectives and assumptions, intellectually and emotionally. At its core, the pedagogy of discomfort is a tool for self-examination, which made it a fit for my self-study.
The core problem I explore in this self-study is my aversion to and discomfort with teaching deeply about race and race-based controversies in my elementary social studies methods course. While I have routinely addressed race and its importance to social studies lessons in a cursory manner, I had not done so in a way that pushed myself and my students to examine our own racial identities and perspectives on addressing race in K-12 classrooms. Disparate philosophies on teaching race have always evoked controversies over social studies methods; however, current tensions between parents, legislators, and school leaders, heightened by social and mass media, are creating problems teachers have never before had to face. My students would need to be prepared to teach about race, not only because it is important to their students’ and their own personal development, but because unlike their predecessors who typically avoided controversies (Cross & Price, 1996; Evans, 2011; Ho et al., 2014; Nelson & Ochoa, 1987; Oulton et al., 2004; Ross, 2001), today’s teachers will not be able to.
This study sought to examine and reflect on my race-related choices and practices as the instructor of elementary social studies methods. I studied my thoughts and decisions so that my students and I might better understand our identities, as well as better prepare our lessons to represent anti-racist ideals. The following questions guided this study:
- How do I negotiate my lack of knowledge of, and confidence in, teaching about CRT and critical race pedagogy?
- How do I engage my students in pedagogies of discomfort around these difficult topics?
Precipitating my study was my attempt at “making the tacit explicit” (Loughran, 2002, p. 34). I identified several problems with my teacher education practice, including my discomfort with and lack of knowledge about teaching about race, as well as the conspicuous absence of race-related course objectives in our teacher education program. My department generally, and I specifically, justified the safe, status quo approach to teacher education that avoided difficult conversations around race. Before I could begin the reflective self-study process, I first needed to begin to acknowledge, learn about, and frame the problem.
Situated in my context of practice (Pinnegar & Hamilton, 2009), I treated the Fall 2021 semester as a case study to examine the students and me in our normal teacher and student roles for a methods course – me selecting materials, planning lessons, facilitating discussions, and commenting on student work in my K-8 social studies methods course; and the 15 students participating in class discussions and activities, and completing assignments – in order to gain an intensive, holistic perspective (Merriam, 1998; Yin, 2011) of my practice from the inside (Samaras, 2011).
My study met the five predominant characteristics of LaBoskey’s (2004) definition of self-study methodology. I initiated the study of my practice and focused on my practice as a teacher educator, particularly on planning and teaching of race-based topics in social studies methods. My inquiry was personal and intended to help me improve my practice (Pinnegar & Hamilton, 2009). Unlike traditional research, which is designed to describe, explain, or predict, self-study can alter how teachers think and act (Cameron-Standerford et al., 2016). The process was highly interactive, as I met with colleagues as critical friends throughout the semester. Finally, I continually consulted literature on best practices for talking about race in teacher education, culturally responsive teaching, and whiteness. As part of my commitment to transparency, I shared with my students what I was reading and researching, along with what I was thinking about and reflecting on. My open, honest, and reflective process consisted of “questioning, discovering, framing, reframing, and revisiting” (Lunenberg & Samaras, 2011, p. 847). Ultimately, by making the connections between teaching and research more visible, self-study can promote equity and justice (Edge, 2020, 2021), which was my ultimate goal of the study.
Prior to the Semester
Consistent with best practices for case study research using self-study methodology (Loughran, 2004), I included data from multiple sources. I began my self-study by reading several books, such as "White Fragility" by Robin DiAngelo, "How to be Antiracist" by Ibram Kendi, and "So You Want to Talk About Race" by Ijeoma Oluo, as well as websites like teachingwhilewhite.org and learningforjustice.org. I also listened to several podcasts and persistently consumed current events on the topic, particularly the debate over critical race theory in schools. Despite my self-attributed “wokeness” and previous attempts to “grapple honestly with the reality of race, racism, and racial politics in the United States,” I had not fully reflected on my own role in “perpetuating systems of oppression” (Richert et al., 2008, p. 648). These texts helped me to examine the “real, less-than conscious, and less comfortable cultural scripts that influence our practice” (Lea, 2004, p. 116). During this phase, I took notes and kept a reflection journal. My journals and notes provided a record of my intention to challenge my thinking and teaching through the “delicate and often difficult process of deconstruction” (Bergh, 2020, p. 511).
Additionally, I discussed race and whiteness along with current controversies related to curriculum, as well as my plans for implementing these topics in my methods course with four different colleagues, three females and one male, all White. Though I asked each of them to meet with me to offer feedback on my plans for the course and my self-study, I did not ask them to serve as critical friends officially. My decision not to formalize their critical friend roles was based on a couple of factors. First, my colleagues, like seemingly everyone in academia, were overstretched. Most had their own research projects underway, and I felt that if I asked them to join my study, they might say no. Second, I knew I would be traveling multiple days with two of my colleagues over the semester and would have ample opportunities to discuss my questions and ponderings with them extempore.
Prior to the start of the semester, I had intentional conversations with each of my four colleagues, as well as numerous other unscheduled conversations. I recorded notes after each of the scheduled meetings and some of the informal conversations.
Throughout the Semester
As a foundational component of self-study, collegial dialogue allows researchers to examine and uncover that which they would not be able to if working alone (Baskerville & Goldblatt, 2009; Loughran & Brubaker, 2015). Trust is essential to critical friendships (Schuck & Segal, 2002; Samaras, 2011). Self-studies nearly always contain some level of vulnerability of the researcher and critical friends, but for my study, it was particularly essential that I have critical friends I could trust. As a White professor discussing race with White colleagues as my critical friends, I needed critical friends to help me reframe my teaching, to challenge me, not merely help me to rationalize my existing practice (Loughran, 2002). Due to my discomfort with being vulnerable, coupled with my decision not to formalize the critical friend arrangements, I limited my conversations during the semester to two colleagues. Particularly, these colleagues felt comfortable asking me difficult questions and challenging me. I spent countless hours traveling with two female colleagues, with whom I discussed my self-study ten times explicitly, of which I recorded notes afterward, in an attempt to capture our comments and their advice.
Additionally, I collected data from my teaching throughout the semester. Most weeks in class I had the students read and discuss articles, some of which were scholarly, while others pertained to current events. I documented their discussions as best I could. Weekly, students were required to submit a reflection on what from class had them pondering most. Often their reflections related to our discussions of race, so I included those in my data set. I also included student assignments when issues of race were discussed. Furthermore, a question from their final exam was a race-related case study they had to analyze and recommend solutions. I also incorporated comments from students’ anonymous end-of-course evaluations when they addressed my teaching about race.
After the Semester
Following the semester, I emailed eight students with whom I felt I had built trust during the semester asking if they were interested in a Zoom conversation about my self-study, and four replied with their willingness to participate. After explaining that I was asking them to serve as critical friends and then receiving their consent, I conducted 20-40 minute individual informal interviews with each of the four students, during which I asked them to share their experiences with my lessons on CRT and critical race pedagogy, and to give feedback on my teaching. I recorded each of the Zoom conversations.
The data for this self-study fell into four categories: (1) my notes on learning more about CRT and critical race pedagogy through my research, (2) student work from my elementary social studies methods course, (3) notes from my conversations with critical friends, before and throughout the semester, and (4) transcripts from the Zoom interviews with my students.
It is important to note that much of the data consisted of my written recollections of conversations rather than actual transcripts. Accordingly, I recognize the threats to reliability and validity this poses, particularly my confirmation and desirability biases (Kahneman & Tversky, 1977). While attribution errors are inevitable, my initial aim of this study was to increase my knowledge of, and skills and confidence in, teaching about CRT and critical race pedagogy. I set out with an intentionally non-defensive heuristic.
I first analyzed data from before the semester started, which included my journal, my notes from the four scheduled meetings with critical friends, and notes from informal conversations. Next, I analyzed the data from during and after the semester collectively. In both cases, I created initial in vivo codes from the data sets and then combined codes into broader categories (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Finally, I combined the categories into broader conceptual themes (Charmaz, 2006). The first data set from prior to the semester yielded one theme, 'Embracing Discomfort'. The second data, which included student work, notes from critical friend conversations, and transcripts from student interviews, revealed three themes related to my research questions: 'Student Disinclination', 'Conservative Students', and 'Tokenism'.
Before the semester started, I was both excited and apprehensive about tackling race in my social studies methods course. One of my course objectives was “Understand how race, gender, class, and sexual orientation shape students’ identities and influence their perceptions of schools and approaches to learning.” Despite that clear course objective, I had to acknowledge that I had been doing a rather anemic job of teaching it. I had always prided myself on teaching my students to include instruction and materials representing multiple perspectives in their lesson plans, even being accused in my course evaluations over the years of pushing a liberal agenda and America-bashing. Yet, I had never explicitly helped my students to see how their orientation and identities influenced their perceptions of schools and learning.
The hysteria surrounding critical race theory and subsequent policy-making compelled me to more purposefully and intentionally address race in my classroom. In conversations with a colleague prior to the semester, they asked, “Has anyone ever complained that you haven’t done enough teaching about race in your class?” To which I replied, “No. never.” They then asked, “What do you think will happen if you ‘go all in’ on teaching about race?” Clearly, the safe thing would be to continue teaching about race like I had done in the past, yet I could not allow myself to evade the difficult work of examining my whiteness and prompting my students to do so as well.
Nonetheless, I was scared. But why? I was a tenured full professor. Could I get fired? Historically, Michigan has been a strong union state, but workers’ rights have been declining over the past decade, and recently several professors in Michigan have been fired over race-related incidents in their classrooms. And nationally, there has been a burgeoning pushback against professors and CRT. In February 2022, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick vowed to eliminate tenure for any professor teaching CRT: "The law will change to say that teaching critical race theory is prima facie evidence for good cause for tenure revocation" (Rabb, 2022, para 12).
I had written in my journal, “Is this worth the potential fallout?”, but I was not really worried about being fired, though I was feeling vulnerable in leading a pedagogy of discomfort with my students around race. Vulnerability, as both an emotional and cognitive construct (Kelchtermans, 1996), stems from unpredictability and the possibility of failing (Bullough, 2005). As a White, male, middle-aged professor with minimal training in this area, coupled with my decision to share freely, the process would be unpredictable, and there was a realistic chance that I would fail. I asked to one critical friend, “What if I ‘F’ this up and get horrible evaluations?” Almost certainly, I would say something that would offend someone, and I would face questions to which I did not have a good answer. Used to exhibiting expert power (French et al., 1959), I lacked expertise and confidence. Intellectually it seemed absurd that I would have to muster the courage to teach à la Palmer (1998), but for the first time in many years, I was genuinely nervous. My colleagues, however, were overwhelmingly positive and supportive, which vitalized me to continue.
At the onset, it was clear that the majority of my students had not heard of critical race theory. In their reflection journals following a discussion on some articles I had my students read on the first day of the semester, one student wrote: “Critical Race Theory has been around since the '80s, and yet I had never heard of it directly. How has a theory been around for forty years and it is just now becoming more well-known and controversial?!”
Despite my fears of bringing up critical race theory in class, the conversations went much better than I had expected, with students embracing my acknowledgment that I am not an expert on the subject. One student wrote in their weekly reflection journal:
As a teacher, I want my class to be able to have conversations like what we experienced. One method that we used in class on Monday and have been talking about in other classes is the idea of hands down. The hands-down approach to conversation is an effort to eliminate the idea that the teacher is all-knowing. The first step is for the teacher to get on the same level as their students which was demonstrated. A hands-down conversation allows for "productive disagreement and sharing of honest ideas" (Thompson, 2020), which is exactly how our class conversation went.
While planning for each week’s class I debated with myself about how much time to spend on race. It seemed that every time I would read in a student’s reflection about how I was “overdoing the race stuff,” I would read something in another student’s reflection that suggested they still were not showing the level of understanding or making the connections I was hoping they would. Asking my critical friends for advice was helpful, as they encouraged me not to feel guilty about forgoing other lessons that had been standard in previous interactions of the course. One colleague remarked, “They get all that other basic methods stuff in other courses, but they aren’t going to get lessons on teaching about race in any other course.”
Conversations with my critical friends also uncovered that I was being unrealistic in thinking my students would be as excited about the topic as I was. I had assumed they would “really get into it,” but many were annoyed by my passion and approach. For example, one student in their end-of-course comments wrote, “At times Dr. Anderson would get preachy, especially with the CRT stuff. I get that it's important, but I don’t think we needed to talk about it every week.” Another student wrote, “I can tell that Dr. Anderson believes strongly that we need to think about race when planning lessons, but maybe not in every lesson.” I tend to take student comments seriously, perhaps too much so; however, Brubaker (1977) suggested I view those positively: “Students are encouraged to disagree with each other and with the teacher, but the highest compliment they can pay their teacher is that he acted in behalf of his professed beliefs” (p. 204).
Not unexpectedly, I had at least two students who expressed right-leaning perspectives. Of note, however, they only expressed their perspectives in anonymous formats. Both because I wanted to increase the face validity of their responses and because I wanted to decrease students’ discomfort in sharing personal thoughts on such a contentious topic, I asked students to complete a few anonymous questionnaires throughout the semester. For example, when asked to define white fragility before I gave them some articles to read, one student responded, “A made-up concept propagated by people like Robin DiAngelo.” Another student wrote:
Just don't perpetuate this whole "white guilt" narrative because it's harmful to white people who had nothing to do with slavery, the trail of tears, or WW2 anti-semitism. I shouldn't feel guilty because other white people throughout history were trash human beings.
The fact that students shared these thoughts anonymously but not during class discussions suggests a strong social desirability bias (Gordon, 1987) or fear of reprisal from me. These two students did not write anything remotely similar in their public discussion posts, nor did they say anything of the sort in class.
Admittedly, I was very curious about which of my students wrote those statements and speculated with a colleague, who was as curious as I was. I felt a little guilty and unprofessional for trying to guess who the students were, but I justified my conjecture as part of my knowledge-seeking process and ultimately my desire to help them to become more race-conscious in their thinking and teaching.
Having several conservative family members and countless conservative acquaintances, I was not surprised by the two students, but I was saddened. I told naively a colleague, “You’d think after being in college for four years they wouldn’t think this way.” Nonetheless, these students motivated me to explain more about how understanding our nation’s past actions impact life today, not as a means of fostering guilt but in order to advocate for policies that help historically disenfranchised groups.
While typically the vast majority of my students are White and female, the semester of this study, and for the first time in years, I had two students of color – one African American female and one Indian American female. I was both excited and nervous, and it turns out, both emotions were valid. The other classmates and I certainly had a richer learning experience as a result of the perspectives they brought. My nervousness was justifiable as well, since I made a couple of mistakes, from which I learned valuable lessons for my future teaching.
For example, one day in class, a student asked for help creating an assessment for a standard about cultural practices. In my explanation of how she might have students connect rituals from their culture to a related ritual from another culture, I described how most cultures have coming-of-age rituals and provided examples such as Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, as well as Hispanic Quinceañeras. As I looked up at my student who was Indian-American, I panicked. Should I ask her about coming-of-age rituals in Indian culture? Would I be honoring her and respecting her culture by asking? Or, would I be putting her on the spot, making her uncomfortable? I chose not to ask and instead moved on quickly. After telling one colleague about this incident, she suggested the next time I teach this lesson to ask any minority students ahead of time if they would be interested in sharing. I liked the idea, but anxiously wrote in my journal, “That’s a lot of pressure – to remember, to do so deftly.”
I mishandled another incident, this time not by avoiding the question altogether, but rather by exerting unintended pressure on students to share their results from McIntosh’s (1995) White privilege checklist. After giving the students time in class to complete the 20-question checklist, I asked, “How many of you had 16 or more? How many of you had 10-15? How many of you had fewer than 10?” After discussing these incidents with two of my colleagues, they helped me understand what I should have done. Their advice was embarrassingly simple and respectful, yet it did not come to me in the moment. During the conversation on rituals, I should have asked, “Does anyone have an example of a coming-of-age ritual from your culture or another culture that you’d like to share?” Likewise, after having my students take the White privilege checklist, I simply should have asked, “Does anyone want to share or discuss their results?”
Lensmire et al. (2013) warned that “demands for confession end up undermining rich conversations about race and racism, as well as forestalling antiracist action” (p. 426). My eagerness to get my students talking about these important issues may have resulted in the opposite effect from what I intended. The four students with whom I had critical friends conversations over Zoom after the semester included one student of color. I asked each of them if they remembered either of those incidents. Only one did, a White girl who said she remembered feeling bad for the two students of color during the White privilege conversation. She said, “It felt like you were calling out Tasha (pseudonym) because she’s previously talked about how different it is for her at Northern.” When I shared with her what I learned from my colleagues and would do next time, she expressed approval.
Not unlike other White teacher educators (Andrews et al., 2019; Galman et al., 2010; Smith et al., 2017), I had evaded teaching my methods course in a race-intentional or anti-racist manner. My race evasiveness (Jupp et al. 2019) was particularly problematic since “teacher education has been positioned as a potential space to disrupt racism in schools and broader society” (Chang-Bacon, 2022, p. 8). What’s more, teachers entering the profession are often “underprepared to address the racism they will encounter in classrooms and school curricula,” and “teachers may be more likely to perpetuate inequities than disrupt them” (p. 8).
Through this self-study, I sought to take purposeful and earnest steps toward more race-intentional practices in my elementary social studies methods course. First, however, I needed to reckon with why had avoided doing so in the past. At risk of making excuses rather than constructing explanations, I learned that White teachers exhibit race-evasive teaching for a variety of reasons, including personal discomfort and pressure to cover material (Chang-Bacon, 2022).
I also learned that despite my good intentions alone, I have a lot to learn about the specific actions I should take to make my classroom more anti-racist. Britzman (2012) asserted that much of learning how to teach is learning what not to do rather than what to do; however, I am not convinced that if I continued to teach in a race-evasive manner my students would register my actions as what not to do. My students were largely clueless about topics like Critical Race Theory and White privilege, as well as social studies curriculum controversies such as those surrounding the 1619 Project. They were comfortable with not being challenged on racial issues, which is problematic because racialized silence perpetuates White privilege (Mazzei, 2011).
Through this self-study, I have come to accept that though I felt I was doing my part nobly to prepare anti-racist teachers, I merely engaged my students in surface-level explorations of race such as discussing bias and prejudice, but I avoided exploring issues like structural racism and the role of Whites in perpetuating racism by inaction (Bell, 2002). Without collaborative dialogue with critical friends, I would not have processed the dissonant tensions involved or formed new perspectives and goals from my teaching experiences (Bodone et al., 2004; Cameron-Standerford et al., 2016). Moving forward, I am going to continue asking colleagues for discourse through which to inform and challenge me. Though not vulnerable in the sense of my position, power, and privilege, I own up to my inefficacy and am committed to doing better. I recognize that effective anti-racist teaching requires specific skills and actions that can and should be learned.
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