Lovely listeners: today is a work day.
Now, we all know that talking about anti-bias work is a vital component of the kind of school change that makes our classrooms safer and more engaging for students of color. Doubly so when we are white educators, and when we teach in predominantly white spaces, in predominantly white communities.
But sometimes, it feels like all we do is talk, and then assure ourselves that the work is done.
It’s not. It’s really, really not.
Real change in dismantling bias in our classrooms can only come about when talk turns to walk. When we are serious about change, we share our own journeys, with all their missteps, rocks in the shoes, and joy-filled leaps and bounds. We share, and we listen, and only when we see what the work takes can we make the change we want to see in the world.
On this episode, we welcome Emma Vastola and Emily Gilmore to the show, as they share their own journeys and all the work they take on, that they do each day to dismantle bias — and before we go any further I ask that you take a moment and hold these two Vermont educators in gratitude with me.
Now, we’re going to be using Liz Kleinrock’s “Start Here, Start Now: A Guide to Antiracist and AntiBias Work in Your Community” to guide our conversation, and as you listen, I want you to consider — reeeeeeeally consider — these two questions: one, how can YOU share your own work in this way? and two, what’s stopping you?
I’m Jeanie Phillips. Welcome to another episode of vted Reads: a podcast about books by, for, and with Vermont educators.
Jeanie: I’m Jeanie Phillips and welcome to #vted Reads. We’re here to talk books for educators, by educators, and with educators. Today I’m with two fabulous educators, Emma Vastola and Emily Gilmore, and we’ll be talking about Liz Kleinrock’s Start Here Start Now: A Guide to Antibias and Antiracist Work in Your School Community. Thank you so much for joining me, Emily and Emma. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.
Emily: I’ll start off. This is Emily Gilmore. I use she/her pronouns. I am a cis, white, former social studies teacher, now working for Great Schools Partnership, as of this year. I was in the classroom for nine years. I live in Winooski, Vermont, land of Abenaki and I’m really excited to be continuing conversations with Jeanie and Emma.
Emma: Thank you, Emily. So my name is Emma Vastola. I am a cis white female. I am currently teaching a multi-age fifth and sixth-grade classroom at a preK – six school in Mount Holly, Vermont. I am really excited to be here to talk with Jeanie and Emily today.
Jeanie: Thank you both so much for joining me. As you know I love to read and I love to expand my to-be-read pile even though it’s practically toppling over now. What’s on your bedside table? What are you both reading right now? Emma, why don’t you go first?
Emma: Okay, so let’s see. I, like you Jeanie, have a topple-like bedside table with lots of books on it. And so I’d have to say the one at the top is Dr. Wayne Dyer’s Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life. That is one I go back to repeatedly that’s always there. Another one that I have been reading is Adam Grant’s Think Again. And I usually have a book of poetry at my bedside table, and I am not going to remember the name of it.
Jeanie: What are you reading Emily?
Emily: Well, I have been driving a lot more for work. So I have been shifting to audiobooks, I normally mostly listen to podcasts. So I’m super excited and started listening to Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley and it is unbelievable as an audiobook. Oh, my goodness, highly recommend. Especially since I spent time in Sault Ste. Marie two or three years ago, and so to be able to situate myself on the same land that the story takes place on is really powerful. And Michigan is just my happy place. So it just, it’s a beautiful story. And I can picture it all which is even, even better for me. And then…
Jeanie: Emily, I loved it so much. I read it twice. As soon as I finished it I turned back to page one. It’s so good. It’s so good. It’s so good.
Emma: I also read it Emily definitely. And on audiobook it was exceptional.
Jeanie: Everyone needs to listen.
Emily: And then the author Taylor Jenkins Reid, I just love. I love Daisy Jones & The Six. I love The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. And I just started Malibu Rising and it knocks it out of the park again, it’s just one of those books. She’s one of those authors that just like can kick start me into reading 1000 books all at once. I think I’ve read all of her books like within 24 hours. And so I’m really excited to just dive in again.
Jeanie: Oh, that just adds a whole author to my list. I’m really excited about that because I haven’t read any of those. Thank you.
Emily: You’ll love The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. Like Love, love.
Jeanie: Got it. I trust you. Thank you both for those recommendations.
So this book, Start Here Start Now: A Guide to Antibias and Antiracist Work in Your School Community by Liz Kleinrock starts with acknowledgments. And I wanted to start there too. What I love about this is that Liz writes a lot of acknowledgments. And she takes time to thank her parents and her colleagues and a host of writers and activists and educators. And I’m going to read a little bit that really touched me when I was reading this,
To my ancestors: it has taken me a long time to connect to you and hear your voices. While my life has taken many different turns, and some have felt determined by chance, I have no doubt that I am where I meant to be, doing what I’m meant to be doing. I recognise the strength I draw coming from a line of ancestors who have been colonized, enslaved, and persecuted across continents for centuries. I would not be here today if not for your strength, resilience, power, and sacrifice.
To every student who has come through my classroom door (both in person and virtually) in Oakland, Los Angeles, and DC, I love y’all so much. I hope you never forget that once you’re my student, you’re always my student. You are the real change makers, and I cannot wait to see what impact you have on the world.
I read that because it’s beautiful and because it’s true. But I also just had a conversation with you Emma in your classroom about creating a culture of acknowledgment and giving credit. And I just love how Liz Kleinrock models that here and how it centers her identity, which seems especially important to this book, and I wondered if either of you had any responses to the acknowledgment section of the book, to the beginning of this book.
Emma: For me, I think it really brings up the importance of like that thoughtful space to connect your past to your present, and acknowledging that those stories that are in those individuals and land have impacted you. And, and to give those credit, those credit and to acknowledge those who, who have really helped you grow into the person that you are. So that is a section that really is meaningful to me and really has impacted I think the way that I’ve structured and thought about structuring my classroom.
Emily: I really see the connection to what she models through starting her class with identity work, and that starting the book with identity work just feels really appropriate. And just already, like, creates an ease as the reader of knowing who the person is how they’ve been influenced. I think it’s just really powerful and accessible like, especially as teachers thinking about the impact that we have. The things that have impacted us, but also like the lasting impact that we then have as teachers just really feels full circle to me.
Jeanie: Thank you both for that. I think I’m a librarian by training. And so often, when we think about giving credit, we think of work cited and bibliography. But I wonder, especially for K – six if we didn’t start with citing sources in that in that sort of APA or MLA format kind of way. But we started just by acknowledging the folks that have influenced us, whether we created a piece of art, or did a project or wrote a story, like did we have a mentor text? Is there an author we love that we’re inspired by? Is there a classmate who gave us feedback that we want to give kudos to? Do we want to thank our parents or our teachers for inspiring us? And so to me, that’s all a part of this culture of giving credit. And I know that for you all, like me, I think a lot about who I’m citing. I try to cite people of color and especially black women.
And I just think that Liz does something really lovely at the beginning of her book, by citing Audrey Lorde, right, and her parents and her students. And so thank you for indulging me in my little librarian riff there.
The book really gets started with a focus on how do you even begin if you’re new to antibias, antiracist work. And I know that the two of you have been sort of doing this work for a while. So how did you get started? Or what might we learn, what resonated for you from Liz Kleinrock’s perspective that we might share with our listeners? Emily, you want to go first?
Emily: Sure. So I this will take me back to where I come from. So I grew up just outside of Chicago. My mom grew up in a Jewish household, her father’s very religiously Jewish, her mother is culturally Jewish. And so she leans more culturally Jewish. My dad was raised very Presbyterian, very English, Scottish mindset. And so that left a lot of obscurity for me in terms of what it meant to grow up with a Jewish identity what that means. And growing up in a community that was predominantly Catholic, it was a very stark difference to what celebrating holidays looked like for me, especially lots of friends and CCD on Wednesdays and going to Mass and how that changed our soccer schedules. And so that also left me really vulnerable to being the target of a lot of microaggressions. And just explicit anti-Semitism throughout my childhood, that it took a long time for me to really understand the impact that that had on how I viewed myself and my place in the world. But it did make me really empathetic to people who also identified as other that just ever since I was in preschool, I just always sought out stories of people who didn’t fit the norm.
And so as a social studies teacher that just was already ingrained in me is thinking about fair and not fair. S I know what fair not fair felt like. And so that really just exploded when I became, I really found myself in my voice as a teacher.
Jeanie: Thanks for that. How about you, Emma, where did this work begin for you?
Emma: Oh, that’s such a good question. I think for me, I was born and raised in Southern Vermont. Actually, I work in the school that I went to as an elementary school. And I feel like I was always kind of different in the sense even though it’s been, you know, pretty much white, small, rural town.
But my father started an organization, a non-profit called volunteers for peace. And they did international exchanges with different groups of people throughout the world. So they would bring people together for two to three weeks to work on short-term voluntary service projects that were focused on anything from helping, you know, build houses for people, or working in different kitchens. And each year starting from the time I was two, I think it was 1982. Actually, they started they brought a group of international volunteers to our small town. And so at that time, it was usually 7 to 12 people who would come together from different countries all over the world, predominantly from Europe, but I just got a sense of difference and embracing that.
And I love to listen and learn and be kind of this observer to learn about people and I think that I embraced difference moving into high school. Anyway, in college, I think that bringing groups of people together to talk about kind of challenging conversations always kind of drove me. I felt comfortable in that, and respected. And I think that that work has kind of driven me in finding who I am as an educator now. I think that’s where it started.
Jeanie: What I hear from both of you is this idea of difference as an asset, as strength. And what I really appreciate from Liz, is this idea of looking at our students through an asset lens – through an appreciative lens. And really seeing their strengths and seeing kids for what they are, instead of what they aren’t.
I know when I started doing identity work, it’s so much easier to be to talk about and be in touch with the sides of you that are disadvantaged, right or that don’t have power, right? Because then we can live into that myth of like pulling yourself up by your bootstraps that this country loves. And for me, the work was really being in touch with the parts of myself that hold privilege and power and, and who are wrestling with that a little bit. And so I think that’s what I see when I work with teachers. And adults too, is that that’s really hard for them, that it’s really challenging to notice where you hold power, and then to hold yourself accountable to that power. And so what I really appreciate about Liz Kleinrock’s approach is that she walks us through how to do that.
And that leads to a lot of great identity work, which I know we at the Tarrant Institute often talk to teachers about how to do that work with our students, because it helps us know students well, it helps them understand themselves better, it helps build community in the classroom. It helps us cultivate a critical lens on the world and understand difference and how it plays out. And I know that you have both done identity work with your students. And I wondered if you would share some examples of what that looks like. Emma do you want to start by talking about your Where I’m From poems and the other work you’ve been doing this year?
Emma: Sure. And I actually used Start Here Start Now because I actually read this book right at the beginning of the school year, and it was such a great kind of refresher on focusing on identity. And she actually uses some really good examples of I am from poems or bio poems. And so we used bio poems, or I from poems to really kind of think critically about where they were, who am I and where do I come from. And that process in itself, I think helps students kind of get thinking critically about their own identity. But also at the same time through sharing out within the community helps them learn from each other, and helps them build community and respect within the context of the community that you’re creating, especially at the beginning of the year.
Jeanie: Emily, do you want to talk a little bit about the work you’ve done at in social studies with identity?
Emily: Yeah, so ever since my first year of teaching, I had students write me letters at the beginning of the year. So before we really did any community-building, before I really introduced myself, I would ask the students to introduce themselves to me before there were any judgments or spaces for students to get into the habit of, or to continue the habit of like negative self-talk.
Especially with high school students that just feels like that’s the default in a social studies classroom. It’s either I love social studies, I’m so glad to be here. And then I don’t know anything else about them. Or they hate Social Studies, and they don’t share anything because they feel like there’s already this negative association. And so that was something that I started really before my real journey with antibias, antiracism work.
And as I started to read the responses that students would give, I would give it back to them at the end of the year and they would really start to especially like, ninth-grader, I started with 10th graders. So they were, by the time that they’re juniors, they’re essentially seniors.
And so the ways that they saw themselves through the lens of their older selves, I started to really see that identity work happening. And then that became an explicit unit of study. At South Burlington, with the ninth graders, was having them look at their identity, looking at culture, and the different ways that it shows up and pivotal events and how they’ve shaped their lives, those three things together to start every year with those pieces, the students were so and part of that, too, was building a community of, of protection for each other. Acknowledging when we cause harm, and really focusing on how do we have meaningful conversations. Those have to go together, especially when we’re asking students to share pivotal events and where, where they came from things that have had an impact on themselves, and then sharing it with others that they felt comfortable, took a lot of really explicit work.
A lot of that having to do with SRI protocols and modifying them for the classroom like those, those pieces, really, there’s a lot of pieces together. But by doing that internal work, first, we were able to really dive deep into the historical topics that we covered. And having that sense of empathy was much easier to do, rather than the years prior, where I was trying to teach empathy, without those pieces in place.
Jeanie: Oh, I love that so much. And what I’m hearing from both of you is the sense that like, we can’t get to who are we and how do we behave together without doing the work around Who am I? And how am I showing up? And the reciprocity between those two feels really important. I think sometimes we try to jump like you said, right to the like, who are we? And how are we going to behave here without doing any of that introspection necessary to know what we’re bringing to the space? That feels really important.
I also really appreciate that because I think so often, when we talk about personalised learning, we put the emphasis on the individual, but I actually think the emphasis needs to go on community. And so this is a way of building community by also doing that individual work.
I look forward to putting some special links in the transcript for folks to go find that lead to Emma and Emily’s work in the classroom. Thank you both for that. So the other thing that comes up, Emma, did you want to add something?
Emma: Yeah, I would actually love to add, I love what Emily was saying. Just about the time, like evolving into, you know, spending the time on who am I and then evolving into who are we is so important.
I know I went into this this school year, I’m thinking about like, so much of being a teacher is, is oftentimes kind of fighting time. Okay, I, you know, we have to get this done. And this done, and this done. And this done, And I was really mindful going into the school year that no, we’re just going to take our time,
they’re going to take the time that they need to really know each other
And I think it was, at least this year, I feel like it was probably around 10 weeks and after doing lots of different identity things: a brand identity, learning about who am I and who we are, that it felt like we could have courageous conversations where we’re really having these I think that was Kleinrock, she talks about pulling in instead of pushing out in terms of having those conversations that are hard. So taking that time to spend on identity I think is really crucial. And it’s okay too.
Emily: I really agree with you. And I think that there’s, there’s this pushback with ABAR [antibias, antiracist] work in particular that it’s, it’s taking away from content. And I think it’s this duality of I got to know my students way faster and at a much deeper level, so that I was able to personalize their learning, understand what they needed to feel successful. I knew how to reach out to parents or families, caregivers, special educators. The students felt comfortable disclosing things that were going on in their personal lives, especially last year when everything was mayhem of like, we, the number of conversations we had about like mental health was so much more significant in a time where it felt like people were talking about mental health. And this really surface level like self-care will help you not feel burnout. It’s like, no, no, we’re actually talking about mental health crises right now.
And we’re working together as a classroom, to anchor really complex conversations.
While monitoring our friends, the ways that they’re showing up, despite wearing masks where, you know, there’s this sense that you see less of a person, but, you know, being able to see each other’s eyes and being able to really feel the energy in the room. It just would have been a totally different experience, had we not gotten to know each other. Through identity Yeah, I just, there’s just, I can’t say enough about how important it is to, to actually know and not make assumptions. Because that’s something that is so easy to do as teachers because we’ve seen so many young people in front of us that it’s easy to fall into that trap.
Jeanie: Oh, gosh, I so appreciate the depth that you two are going with this. And this idea that this difference between thinking we know our students, and really knowing our students and allowing them to voice who they are, as opposed to us assuming or falling into tropes that we carry in our brain because we’re seasoned teachers.
It also brings up the next issue that Liz addresses in the book, which is this issue of time. Specifically, how do I do this kind of work ABAR work and by ABAR just for listeners, we’re talking about antibias, antiracist work? How do I make time for that? While also teaching all the things (I am doing some air quotes here) need to teach, right? Like whether you think of that as covering content or staying on course, with proficiencies and curriculum? How do you also prioritize this kind of work? You’ve already let us know that sometimes you have to slow down and really get to know kids in order to do the important work that comes ahead. And have those relationships that mean you’re really being an impactful teacher. Or help them have those relationships with each other that helped the classroom sing. And having just been in Emma’s classroom last week, I can say the results of that deep work she did with her students is really paying off in how they show up and have been able to have conversations and relationships with each other.
But how else do you deal with that issue of time? With that issue of teaching the proficiencies you need to teach and embedding antiracist antibias work into the curriculum? Emily, do you want to go first this time?
Emily: Sure, I was just turning to page 24. In Start Here Start Now where Liz Kleinrock provides a really beautiful graphic organizer for ways to think really critically about what you have to do and what you get to do.
And that’s something that this is actually something I use in my work with Great Schools Partnership, working with other schools, as they think about their journey, whether it’s with equity work, or proficiencies, personalized learning. This is a disclosure: I love proficiency-based learning. That is also how Jeanie and I know each other is through our role in work. That was my focus, with my role in research was using student voice with proficiency in personalized learning. And so to see this chart that Liz has that, and I’ll read the header, so she talks about your identifying your state standards, and how your students will meet that standard, the subject that you teach, what do I have to do in order to do what I want to do? How can I tackle this through an ABAR lens? And what and where can I supplement/substitute.
And I think this is such a great, easy model to follow of like, these are things I have to do.
But when you really look at the language of standards, the opportunities are endless for the ways you can reach that standard. And that’s something that just made teaching, really fun to think about giving those same standards to students. And really think critically about why we’re doing what we’re doing. And how we can get to do the things that we want to do by thinking critically about the systems that are created.
In full transparency, we talked about the four I’s of oppression pretty early on in my curriculum with students. And so we are always thinking about where is that institutionalized oppression? And who’s deciding what we are learning with that ideological oppression? Where are those ideas coming from? How does that show up in our internalized selves? And that how does that interaction with each other really show up and the ways that oppression and liberation can be in place? And so I just, if there’s one thing in this book, it’s this, and then for the STEM teachers who are like, well, she’s a social studies teacher, so I’m ignoring her. Go to the back of the book, on page 129, because there’s a whole section for you stem folks.
Emma: So one way that thinking about this kind of work through a lens in terms of thinking of building a classroom, of trust and reflection. I just actually presented with Jeanie and another amazing colleague of mine, Margaret around personalized learning plans. And part of my reflection around that was on reflection, how it also ties into having students reflect really gets into then them knowing themselves, but also you knowing them really well.
The other piece of that, for me, too, is the beginning of the year, we spend quite a bit of time, actually using SRI protocols that are kind of rewritten at the level of our students so the students within our community can access kind of thinking about how do we want to feel in our community. And I’m going through like a negotiation of brainstorming ideas individually, and then collectively coming up with some ideas about how we want to feel as a community and then continuing to reflect on those feeling words throughout the time that we’re spending together. I think it helps to also bring in at least in you know, the elementary setting, to the ability to think about actions and choices and if they are meeting the feelings that we want to feel in my classroom. And I think it’s helping that that social and emotional piece that I think is also really critical, it’s not just another thing, it’s all the same.
Jeanie: I really, I really appreciate that from both of you this idea that it’s not another layer. It’s how you do the things you’re already doing. And whether that’s how you select books and articles and topics to focus in on and or the perspectives you bring to those things is really important to the conversation that kids are having in your classroom and the critical lens that they’re building up over time so that they can begin to identify racism and bias and then do something about it. So thank you both for that.
Emma, you’ve already alluded to the fact that if you’re going to do this kind of work, you’re also going to have to have difficult conversations in the classroom. And there’s a nice chapter in here about how to do that, how to hold space for hard conversations. And I wonder what has worked for the two of you when things get prickly? When you’re asking kids to think in ways that maybe are uncomfortable or when you have differences of opinion in the classroom?
Emma: Well, I think that I’m going to circle us back to making sure that there is that safe, caring community by doing like, starting with who am I, who are we and then identity work, I think creates that safe space to be able to call in. When having conversations about I think, even like in the elementary school setting, we’re really talking and I would say in any setting any educational setting, where we’re having tough conversations, the ability to do that is because there is this feeling of safety, to be able to take risks, and to be vulnerable, to ask questions and to share kind of vulnerabilities around certain topics. Because it’s a safe space for people to do that and for students to do that.
Jeanie: How would you build on that, Emily?
Emily: Yeah, I think there’s, so part of that part of what I’m thinking about is how power shows up in the classroom. And that was something that I was always pretty explicit about. I called myself a benevolent monarch, that I have been selected to be here. It was your destiny to be in this classroom, I have all of the power, but I can choose to be kind. And so I never wanted students to feel like I am giving them this false sense of reality of having a say in the classroom. Because ultimately, that’s, that’s just not true. I’m legally responsible for them. And so that was always something that I leveraged to really think intentionally about the conversations that we’re having in class, like, what are the things that were explicitly saying out loud? And what are the things that we’re saying to one another? And what are the things that we’re writing down and processing?
I think about the nuances between a safe space and a brave space.
And ultimately, it’s down to those in a classroom because we just you, I don’t have, I cannot control the brains of others. And so acknowledging that was really important for me in the students, first and foremost.
We had a unit on the history of race, racism, and oppression. That was a lot of journaling. Because I didn’t want my particularly white students verbally processing what it must be like to have a marginalized identity, when there are students who have marginalized identities, sitting next to them being like, cool, this is a space for you. But really, to make it complex to think about what are the actions that we’re taking? Like? Yes, we’re reflecting. But what is we all have power? Because I’m giving you, I’m actually giving you power right now. What are you going to do with the topic that you’re researching, or how you’re choosing to demonstrate your knowledge understanding that is going to be making the lives of others and yourself better? And so really frame and that’s, I mean, kind of the benefit of the classroom is like, this is a place that’s not out in the real world where there are more limitations to what you can say or do but this is the place where if you want to write your legislator, let’s do it. If you want to, you know, go talk to the principal about something you want to see changed. Let’s do it.
If you want to just read and process that’s really important, and so that being able to think about the avenues to take so especially when something hard and problematic comes up. It’s not a surprise, but there are also next steps to take. And I think what Liz talks about that I wish I leveraged was bringing her families, her community in with her. And that’s not something that I had even come close to doing as a classroom teacher, but it’s something I’m thinking about now, in my role.
Jeanie: I just feel like I’m in the presence of such genius between Liz and her words on the page. And the two of you, like, I’m just learning so much. And also just really appreciate Emily how you frame that as you are the benevolent monarch. Like you have power, and you have the power to do what Emma’s talking about, which is set agreements with your students. So that the culture can hold such things. And then also to make space for people to process this new learning in ways that are appropriate for themselves and for the other people in the classroom. I just really appreciate that so much. Thank you both so much for that.
And this leads to my next question, right? Because we are in the midst of a whitelash right now. I’m just going to call it what it is. We’re in the midst of a whitelash against critical race theory and all things equity and inclusion. We hear about it on the news. It’s all over social media. People are showing up at school boards, people not in the area, not from the community are showing up at school boards. And, and so that’s all of the work that Liz is talking about the antibias, antiracist work, is getting a lot of pushback in our racist society.
And so I guess, my question for you, and it’s not brand new, this has been ongoing. Emily, you taught at South Burlington as they were changing the name of their mascot, and they’re flying the Black Lives Matter flag. And so there’s been a lot of pushback in the past. So how do you approach this kind of work in that climate? How do you keep parents and caregivers informed and deal with criticism and still continue to do the work and not just give up?
Emily: I’ll just start by saying that it’s really hard. It is. It would be a bold-faced lie to say I had any kind of answer. I profusely sweat through my clothes when I teach the history of race, racism, and oppression to my students for fear of pitchforks. I’ve gotten Heil Hitler’s in class when I’ve said that I’m Jewish. You know, like, there are clear responses that have happened and will happen, unfortunately. And it’s, it’s really complicated.
But I think what is really important is making sure that we’re constantly learning, I think, especially as a white woman, there’s so much to learn and unlearn. Something that I always, I always feel like prevented me from pushing my curriculum forward more was that fear of backlash, and not being able to say the right thing about why what I’m teaching is important. And that is harming students. I know I caused harm to a student that is something that I continue to process and work through. Because I hold a lot of implicit bias, I hold a lot of unconscious bias, like there are a lot of problematic things with me. I am a white woman. I hold racist ideas. I have to work through those and make sure that I’m not continuously causing harm. And I think that’s one of the hardest parts is acknowledging that first, to then just hold that as a line of like, why I can’t continue that same pattern, I need to make changes, which can be hard, but it’s important to your students. And that’s what always kept me centered.
Jeanie: Before we move on and hear from Emma, could you just talk a little bit about the bar we work that you do as a part of that process of processing your own bias and assumptions?
Emily: Yeah, so Christie Nold, who’s a fellow educator at South Burlington and just wonderful human and Jennifer Belisle, who was also a wonderful human, also in South Burlington, we, and Raechel Barone, she was also a part of it too. Christie really spearheaded the initiative. June of 2020, I think she reached out to us and introduced the idea of creating a BARWE group, which is Building Antiracist White Educators, creating our own branch of the organization that’s based in Philadelphia, the website is https://www.barwe215.org/. And creating a space for white educators to come together monthly to discuss topics that are coming up for us.
It became a really powerful space for responding to racialized incidents in South Burlington, thinking about how we can be co-conspirators together, looking at student achievement data and the impacts of racism and how that’s showing up in the students who are leaving our schools. It was has been and is continuing at South Burlington, and there’s been a lot of schools that have started their own, across Vermont. And it’s just a really powerful organization that is just for white identifying educators to be messy, and learn together without causing harm to our colleagues of color.
Jeanie: Thank you for that. Now, I’d really like to invite Emma in because I know she has things to add to.
Emma: Yeah, I would love to and I was really connecting to what you were saying, Emily.
The work of acknowledging yourself and your own biases within the context of your classroom and as an educator is really critical. And it’s hard. It’s hard work. It takes a lot of space to reflect and to generously listen, not just to yourself, but also to others in order to do this work.
And Jeanie, you were saying, you know, when there’s conflict and disagreement. For me, I feel like it really I, I tried to seek to listen and engage in a conversation around how to advance this work. I think it really starts with you. And I think that’s one of the big things for me and the big takeaways. And this is really hard work. And it really starts with individuals. And making space and time to, as Emily said, learn from others and reflect on who you are helps the practice grow.
Jeanie: You know, I work with schools and school districts around change, school change. And one of the recommendations I have for people is to get to know your district policies. And so for example, Kingdom East, a school district has a really excellent equity policy. And I think that can be really leveraged. If you get pushback about this work, right? Like you can look at your school and district’s equity policy and use that to defend yourself against critique, knowing that you’re doing the right thing. And so I think it’s really important for teachers to know who has their back, and to make sure that policy has your back. And it’s really easy. Having been a librarian, it’s really easy for districts to ignore their own policy sometimes. So like if somebody pushes back on a book in the collection, it can be a knee-jerk reaction for administrators just to want to remove the book to get rid of the conflict. But we have to remember that conflict is a really good thing too, right. When conflict is happening
it means we’re doing something, it means we’re shifting ideas, it means we’re doing the work if people are pushing back a little bit, and that that pushback can be a really good thing.
But also be familiar enough with your policies to know that you can go to the school board or you can go to your administrator, your superintendent and say the policy says this, that the policy supports what I’m doing in my classroom. So I just say that because I think it’s really important to know when you’re supported, and, and that policy has implications, and we should be pushing for equity and inclusion policies. Thank you both for your thoughtful responses.
One of the sections of this book I really appreciate living in Vermont, I hear over and over again from educators: “well, my school is mostly white, so we don’t need to deal with that.” And I’m like, if your school is mostly white, you especially need to have conversations about race and racism because that’s where it’s mostly invisible. And so I really appreciate chapter six, What Does ABAR Look Like If All or Most of My Students Are White? And I wondered if you could share your own understandings of why it’s important to do antibias antiracist work with white students, and what that might look like.
Emma: I think, for me, with at least with a predominantly white school, where I’ve taught most of my career, is I think it starts with the diversity. Acknowledging diversity and different perspectives and where we see diversity, even though you may be white. It’s like that idea of the mask identity mask, like what you see on the outside, versus what you see on the inside, and having conversations about that those aspects of identity. But also engaging in conversations and learning around how this has come up in the past for marginalized communities and people who have been marginalized to help the white students understand the context of what’s happening today and their place in the world, in a safe space?
Emily: Yeah, I think what I ended up finding most helpful was thinking about it through like a deficit mindset of like, if we’re only in the mindset that we’re only teaching white students, then that’s definitely not true. And that also means that the lens that we’re looking at our curriculum is going to be through this whiteness lens. And so whose voices are not represented, whose bodies are not represented, whose contributions to the world are not represented, when we’re not thinking beyond how we show up every day, and not critically evaluating what we’ve been taught. Because that’s what I feel like it’s most accessible to, to teachers in particular of like, well, why do you teach what you teach? And generally, there’s a response. And it’s either well, I’ve always done it this way, or I had a really bad experience in school. And so I want to make things better. Like, generally, I find teachers fall into one of two categories. They love school, and so they’re back in it, or they hated school, and they want to make it better. And both of those conversations lead to a critique of well, how did you learn what you learned? And when we think about, well, what’s especially histories, I always feel like it’s a really good access point of like, what’s the last history that you actually learned in school? And usually, it’s like the 1970s.
And when I taught chronological history, I never taught past the 1970s it was impossible to go from Mesopotamia to modern-day, what happened yesterday. And so to offer that as an entry point of like, well have significant things happened since 1972? Today, and just thinking about like, well, you know, how are we really thinking about who is in our curriculum, and that’s what I found was interesting, in conversations with science teachers, in particular of like, well, okay, so what type of science are you? Do you talk about the scientists and where those ideas came from? And, you know, that’s a part of sciences, who’s creating it, and where did those ideas come from? And if you’re not talking about, you know, the Ming Empire and what was happening in China, or you’re not talking about out the Muslim creations of math inside, like, we’re, there’s just so many pieces that are missing. And I think it goes back to that acknowledgment piece of if we’re not authentically teaching like we’re just wrong for not including those perspectives. It’s just wrong. It’s, it’s an inaccurate depiction of science. They’re hard entry points, but it’s that self-reflection piece that can be so helpful when thinking about how whiteness is showing up.
Jeanie: One thing that I was thinking about Emily through what you were saying was the power, the danger of the single story, and I think that’s something that Liz Kleinrock brings up on page 101. She actually uses some really great charts that she, she uses with her young students.
Just thinking about certain topics, and using a single story and the meaning that they can make. Something that I did recently with my students is they looked at an image of the first Thanksgiving, and just reading that image through a critical lens and then questioning well, is that accurate? Is that an assumption? Or is that something that you see? And so being able to differentiate between those two things was really powerful. And I think it’s hitting on kind of what she suggests in the book to really get at, like, what that looks like teaching in schools with predominantly white students.
Emily: Absolutely, that reminds me of something I used to do in class. Around this time was, we would watch what would the Mayflower episode of Charlie Brown. And I would first ask like, okay, so who’s seen Charlie Brown? Who knows who Charlie Brown is? And then we’ll watch the episode like, so what is the message that we just learned about Thanksgiving? And, and students will have all these ideas? Like, what are some things that you thought were weird? Like you are teenagers, you definitely thought that this cartoon was weird. What were some things that you thought were weird? And then we’ll start to unpack those. And then by using primary sources, Learning For Justice has some pretty incredible primary sources to help facilitate conversations around Thanksgiving for all age levels. And so we would use those to talk about so here are some indigenous First Nation perspectives on what Thanksgiving means to them. And now, what might they observe when watching Charlie Brown? What might this actually mean to them? They’re like, oh, no, did you just ruin the Christmas episode too? And I was like, as a Jew? I sure did. I sure did.
So we would have those like, really meaningful conversations. Like perspective matters. And if we’re not thinking about those different perspectives, and who’s being represented in how, what does that mean, the next time that you’re just cruising through Netflix, like what are you going to be looking for, in the characters that are represented and the movies that you’re watching? And that just continues to grow?
Jeanie: You’re both bringing me back to one of the scholars I cite most often. And that’s Rudine Sims Bishop and her ideas of windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors, which she wrote about literature, right. And she said we all need mirrors: ways to see ourselves in literature. But the same could be said about science, math, social studies, right? Like we need to see ourselves represented in the field. We also need windows: we need views of other people represented in those ways in our literature, in our social studies, in our science, in our math. And for white folks, especially, we get a lot of mirrors, white students get a lot of mirrors into the world. They need windows and sliding glass doors to understand how other people experience the world in order to be balanced humans.
And I’m hearing that from both of you. Thank you for that. So, Emma I have a question that’s really specifically for you, because you have taught first and second grade and now you’re teaching fifth and sixth, and this book really is meant for sort of early middle and elementary schools where it’s, it’s Liz Kleinrock’s really writing for teachers of those grades.
And so she specifically has a chapter on what does ABAR work look like with younger students? And I wondered if you had any perspectives on this as somebody who’s taught down to first grade. Yeah, I don’t like the way I just said that. I just want to say I think kindergarten and first-grade teachers are amazing. And say I just want to rephrase that and say, as someone who has taught amazing first and second-grade students?
Emma: They are amazing. They teach you so much. I feel like those younger students, and they don’t like it when I call it younger either. So I might switch that into first and second graders. But I think that it really goes back to looping back to some of the conversations that we’ve had around getting to know your students. Well, I think oftentimes, as educators of primary students, we have this like, idea that they can’t engage in difficult conversations because they’re young. And I would argue that I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. And when we’re protecting them in that way. What does that story tell them? And how does that impact the choices as they get older?
So what I’ve found is it’s really about the process in which you have the conversation with them around certain topics. So choosing essential questions that really engage them in the topic, they do have a lot to say, around it. And I think you can do it in a way that’s engaging and sensitive at the same time. Because they do want to talk about it, and not to offer them spaces to do that, I think challenges our educational system.
Jeanie: I’ve taught K to six before I moved up to a 7 to 12 school, and I love first and second graders, they’re so earnest, and they’re so full of kindness and love. And I think actually we miss a prime opportunity to engage them in the work of being fully human if we don’t have them have these conversations about difference. And especially with an appreciative lens, so I’m grateful for your answer.
One of the things about equity work and antibias antiracist work for me is it keeps me on my growth edge. It keeps me always learning because I never fully arrive. Which I think can feel exhausting, but I actually love it right? It keeps me on this journey to learning more and more about myself, about the world, about how to do a better job of it. And I wonder what you’re learning edges are right now. The two of you who’ve been doing this work in different ways. Where is your growth point right now?
Emily: I’m there. So I mean, especially just with Kyle Rittenhouse. And I don’t even have words to process that right now. But there’s just so much that feels the way that I respond. I know that there’s that’s a lens of privilege, and that’s a lens of whiteness.
Jeanie: Just to be clear, you’re talking about the verdict, the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict that just came out. And so you’re saying your response to that is one of privilege because I imagine like me, you responded with like, what the heck, how is the verdict? And yeah, okay.
Emily: A few more expletives. But yes, I’m just really thinking about also the privilege of not having to acknowledge that as a classroom teacher. I am in this space that I’m in right now my office and my house feeling very protected. And working through that, that feeling of I don’t have to go into a classroom tomorrow and explain to students what just happened and that’s also a way that kept me growing was knowing that I was being held accountable by teenagers who look to me for an explanation and a lens to look at the world.
I think about how little I really understand about the land I live on. And just the ways that the Abenaki have been treated and just there’s so much just so much that every day I am breathing through like a stretch. Liz has been working on her split. And I feel like that’s where I am is like how can I breathe through? Just stretch.
Jeanie: Thank you for that. I really appreciate that. I’ve also been trying to do some learning about the Abenaki and the land that I’m on. So I’m really grateful for that. But how about you, Emma? Where are your growth edges right now?
Emma: I think it’s hard to really zone in on one edge. But I guess what’s really coming up for me as not only a classroom teacher, but a leader in our district too is thinking about, I think this is less so maybe in middle and high school, but in elementary schools, we use programs quite a bit. And I’m really trying to think about programs critically through an ABAR lens of how, who are they serving, what students are they serving? And who are they written for? And using them critically. And are they going to serve students? And are they always going to serve all students is the question. And I think that my learning edge also – so this is actually the first year I’ve taught middle school in quite some time – for fifth and sixth graders is when I’m all like, making sure that I’m designing experiences that bring in the voices of marginalized communities whether or not it’s choosing books that are written by women, or American Indians or other perspectives. And I know that I’m making mistakes all the time, but at least I’m trying to, you know, push myself to learn about how I can make, you know, more spaces that are like healing spaces where people’s voices are acknowledged, and people can lean into vulnerability in order to learn more about themselves and about each other.
Jeanie: I really appreciate that. That notion of healing spaces, and I really appreciate the way that brings us around to this idea that antiracist antibias work is healing work, the work of healing ourselves and healing our communities and, and helping our students learn to heal themselves in their community. So thank you both so much for this really nurturing conversation about doing this work together. Thank you so much for talking with me about Start Here Start Now.
I’m Jeanie Phillips and this has been an episode of #vted Reads talking about what Vermont educators and students are reading. Thank you so much to Emma Vastola and Emily Gilmore for appearing on the show and talking with me about Start Here Start Now: A Guide to Antibias and Antiracist Work in Your School Community. If you’re looking for a copy of Start Here Start Now check your local library. Thanks to Audrey Holman, audio engineer and so much more. To find out more about #vted Reads, including past episodes, upcoming guests and reads and a whole lot more you can visit vtedreads.tarrantinstitute.org. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @vtedreads. This podcast is a project of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont.