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Actionable ABAR Antiracist Conversations in ELA, with Liz Kleinrock

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I first met Liz Kleinrock years ago, after listening to her powerful Ted Talk, “How to Teach Kids to Talk about Taboo Topics.” She kindly came on the podcast back in Episode 71, “How to Talk about Equity and Inclusion,” and shared so many wonderful ideas about Antiracist conversations.

Her work and platform have expanded exponentially since then; she now works full time designing curriculum, consulting, and helping guide ABAR (Antiracist Antibias) conversations in education and beyond. And now, she’s written a book, Start Here Start Now: A Guide to Antibias and Antiracist Work in your School Community” to help educators with guiding scripts, unit layout examples, and class activities and reflections they can use right away about antiracist conversations. Plus, she’s got four children’s books in the process of publication (I can’t wait to see them!).

Antiracist conversations

I’m so delighted to have Liz back as one of my very few repeat guests. She shares specific strategies for helping make your classroom a place where people can share their identities, make mistakes and repair those mistakes, and learn through units that incorporate many voices and perspectives (even if you’re stuck with a certain book list).

You can listen in to this episode 175 below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.

Meet Liz

Because Liz has been on the show before, and we were trying to pack as many actionable ideas as possible into this episode, we skipped the whole “tell us about yourself” portion of a usual show. So I’m going to let Liz tell you about herself right here, with an excerpt from her beautiful newly remodeled website.

Antiracist conversations

“I am a transracially adopted Korean, Jewish, queer, antibias and antiracist nationally recognized educator, author, and consultant. My identity as an Asian American is complex—it has taken me a long time to grapple and reconcile the intersections of that identity. 

I was born in South Korea and grew up in Washington D.C. in an Ashkenazi Jewish family and as one of the few Asians in my community. As a kid, I didn’t learn anything about Asian or Jewish history in school—those were things I had to teach myself.

Curiosity led me to research Asian Jewish history. I learned that not only have there been Jews in Asia for centuries, but there has also been a history of Asian-Jewish solidarity. This discovery helped me make space for both my identities.

My thirteen years in education have been formative all along the way. After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis I moved to Oakland to work as an AmeriCorps teacher. Teaching in Oakland was a pivotal experience in my journey as an educator. It was here that I began to unlearn many of the harmful beliefs I had been taught as a child about saviorism and paternalism when working with a marginalized community.

My education continued in L.A. where I got my Master’s in UCLA’s Teacher Education Program. From there I taught a 5th grade class in Watts, and was on the founding faculty of a school in East Hollywood. Since returning to my D.C. roots in the summer of 2020, I have taught 6th grade, and have been an elementary school librarian where I also worked in my school’s office of equity and inclusion.

Many of us didn’t grow up familiar with the concepts of allies, advocates, and bystanders. I wanted my students not only to understand these concepts and how they fit within the context of history, but also realize how they can become change agents themselves. Fluid Films produced a documentary short about that process while I was teaching at Citizens of the World Silver Lake, and from there my work has been featured by CNN, The Washington Post, NPR, and the BBC.

I work in classrooms of many kinds, and am also an antibias antiracist facilitator and consultant for schools, organizations, and companies across the country. I have been fortunate to partner with many stellar organizations including The North Face Explore Fund Council, The Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, and  Central Synagogue in New York City. I was also named one of Top 100 Influential Jews 2022 by The Tel Aviv Institute.”

Starting with Identity Exploration to have Antiracist Conversations

As her book opens, Liz suggests getting started with ABAR work with an exploration of your own identity. Considering your own background, which of your identity markers are important to you, and which ones have been validated by school and society, is a strong base from which to explore these questions with students. (I was happy to see “I am From” poems – one of my favorite poetry activities – incorporated as an activity in this chapter of the book).

Flip through Liz’s Instagram post below to see one model from the book for exploring what parts of your identity were supported and validated (or not) in your own education experience. Plus, get a sense for the book as a whole as you go!

Establishing a Classroom Culture to Support Big Conversations such as Antiracist Conversations

While Liz suggests starting early to establish a classroom culture that is supportive of conversations around identity, she emphasizes the need to return to this work regularly throughout the year.

One successful strategy she’s used is to have a conversation with kids not only about how you want them to act during important conversations, but how they want you to act. She suggests creating a classroom contract that honors the vital need for respect in both directions.

By the way – this part of our conversation had me thinking back to episode 148 with Pernille Ripp, and the way she started conversations around classroom culture through illustrated children’s books such as “Don’t Touch my Hair” and “What are your Words?” Just another idea!

Modeling a Willingness to Make Mistakes and Talk about Them

Part of creating an effective classroom culture to support ABAR and Antiracist conversations work means knowing that you (and your students) will make mistakes along the way. Liz suggests modeling that willingness to make mistakes and then talk about them and repair them.

In her book, she shares many specifics on how to stop language and comments that are hurtful in class, and then explore what’s going on behind them – does the student not know the history of the language they’re using? Did they just hear it somewhere? Or are they intentionally using inappropriate and hurtful language? The nature of the follow-up conversations with that student and potentially the whole class community depend on what is happening behind the comment.

Adding Layers to Current Units/Books

Antiracist conversations

Encourage Antiracist Conversations

When you’ve got a certain book you’ve been handed to teach, and you feel it’s leaving out an important part of the story you want your class to tell, there are a lot of options you can consider.

First of all, Liz reminds us, you may be able to change and tweak your booklist to start Antiracist conversations. Has the curriculum been revisited recently? Or is your school using the same booklist they were using twenty years ago? If so, starting conversations with your department or school board could help create much-needed change in your school. Reflecting in community on the students you’re serving, and making sure your booklist is providing them with Dr. Rudine Sims’ concept of windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors, can create space for new possibilities.

But assuming you don’t have control over whether or not to teach the book, there are several steps you can go through to help add layers to the story being told.

First of all, consider your objectives. What standards are you covering? What context do you need to provide? From there, you can consider what other texts could help do the same work while bringing in more perspectives. Liz cites the work of the folks behind the #disrupttexts movement in pioneering the idea of paired texts.

But even if you can’t bring in a lot of paired texts, you can examine the topics inside the book with a fresh approach. For example, say you were teaching Gatsby, what if you brought up discussion and writing topics around the construction of whiteness, and the classism, elitism, and sexism of the book?

You can provide another layer by considering the historical context of the era, and showing what else was happening in the era a book is written. In this way, you can bring in stories of other groups of people. With Gatsby, you might consider what was happening for women at the time, and how that plays out in the book and how it doesn’t.

Finally, Liz suggests taking some time to explore author identity as you approach a book. By taking a look at who is writing the book, you and your students will more clearly understand the perspective through which the story is being told, and be prepared to ask questions about what perspectives might not be included.

Incorporating Stories told by Authors who have Lived the Experiences

We finished the podcast by talking about the importance of choosing authors – at least some of the time – who are telling stories that relate to their own lived experience.

For example, when Angie Thomas writes about a young black female protagonist dealing with code switching at school, she understands the experience of this character deeply based on her own lived experience.

In contrast, Pearl S. Buck, a white woman, cannot understand the experience of her Chinese characters in The Good Earth in the same way.

When Liz, a transracially adopted Korean-American woman, was growing up, she read only three books in school that featured Asian or Asian-American characters, and none of them were written by Asian or Asian-American authors.

Incorporating diverse texts in your curriculum, book clubs, and choice reading shelves that are written by people who intimately understand the experiences of their own characters can help students recognize themselves in the pages.

Connect with Liz

Visit the Teach and Transform Website

Follow Liz on Instagram

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