A Social Justice Book Study Group

Seeking to push fellow teachers’ thinking around social justice issues, this teacher and her colleague started a book study group. Here’s how they did it.

Last spring, a colleague, Dr. Karmen Kirtley, and I decided to form a book study group for fellow teachers. We knew that many of our colleagues were yearning for high-quality professional development that would push their thinking around social justice issues. And we’ve found that many teacher preparation programs vary widely in content and quality, and not all programs provide educators with the skills to teach in an anti-racist or anti-bias way. A book study seemed to be an appropriate method by which to address these needs, as well as our country’s political climate and the many reports of prejudiced behavior we were seeing from across the nation.

There’s another reason we wanted to create the book club that has to do with our students’ identities and experiences. We teach at a public high school in Denver, Colorado. About 65 percent of our students receive free-or-reduced lunch. About half are currently enrolled in English language acquisition courses, and 75 percent are students of color. These demographics, although helpful, do not by themselves prompt teachers to see students as individuals who have complex—and differing—religious beliefs, socioeconomic statuses, family situations, political views and experiences with racism. To build crucial knowledge around students’ identities, Karmen and I felt a need to go deeper. And with reports on the effects of divisive language and actions in schools—and beyond school walls—coming in from across the country, this need felt pressing.

During the summer before the 2016-17 school year, Karmen and I applied to make our book study a district-approved professional development unit, and the request was accepted. (In our district, teachers are paid on a merit-based system and receive salary increases for completion of district-approved PD courses.)

Our school’s parent-teacher-student association awarded us a grant to begin building a social justice library for teachers with 20 copies of two different books—Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms (2015) by H. Richard Milner IV and Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real About Race in School (2008), edited by Mica Pollock—and copies of a selection of scholarly articles on anti-bias education. The parents who awarded us the funds were enthusiastic about our forthcoming work. They recognized the benefits of providing teachers with recent scholarly works on such topics as culturally responsive instruction and anti-racist education, and how these readings could strengthen teacher-student relationships and, thus, improve student achievement.  

With the grant from the association, we were able to allow 20 teachers (22, including Karmen and me as facilitators) to participate in the book study, although close to 30 of about 100 staff signed up. During the fall semester, we met four times—once to introduce participants to the book study’s purpose and three other times during which we discussed our books and generated action steps for ourselves.

We first read Rac(e)ing to Class. One goal of our small group discussions was to identify issues that are within teachers’ control and issues that are more systemic in nature. Here are some examples of teachers’ reflections:

Are we first creating warm, caring relationships with students?

Consider the differences between “schooling” and “education.”

Teachers should develop their knowledge beyond the academic content.

Why do schools narrow curriculum?

Then, we turned to our second book—Everyday Antiracism. Karmen and I selected this title because it’s a collection of short essays by leading scholars (easy for teachers to read during minimal amounts of spare time) and because it contains discussion questions and strategies for the book’s use. One recommended strategy is for readers to think of “try tomorrows,” actionable steps that teachers can take in the near future to practice being anti-racist educators. Here are some ideas our book study generated: 

Avoid using gender-specific pronouns in the classroom.

Don’t be afraid to speak about racism.

Make group work skills part of the curriculum.

Own my own mistakes and ask students for their solutions.

We’re currently reading a selection of scholarly articles, beginning with “Peddling Poverty for Profit: Elements of Oppression in Ruby Payne's Framework" (2008) by Paul C. Gorski. It’s a critique of Ruby Payne’s framework for understanding poverty.

It’s clear that our book study has already had a meaningful impact on teachers. We’re planning to add to our social justice book library each year and to use books from previous years with new groups of teachers to ensure a sustainable culture of professional growth and collaborative learning. We’re doing this work with the goal of striving for social justice for all students and staff in our school community.

Breden is a public high school social studies teacher and Colorado Education Association Teacher Fellow in Denver, Colorado. 

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