English teachers should be anti-racist, says national group

Future middle and high school English teachers should be trained to be anti-racist and incorporate digital media into their curriculum, according to a new set of standards from the National Council of English Teachers..

The council’s standards for educators preparing to become Grades 7-12 English/Language Arts teachers were released on Tuesday after being last updated in 2012. They were developed by an NCTE committee of K-12 and higher education educators, and will be used in teacher education programs to determine courses for teacher candidates.

“A lot of changes are going on [in English/language arts education], and we want to use the standards as an active way to communicate what NCTE believes is essential to have before teaching grades 7-12,” said NCTE Executive Director Emily Kirkpatrick. “The guiding light is that student demands and societal demands have dramatically changed the landscape.”

The new standards come at a time when English teachers have found themselves embroiled in national controversy on how to teach the nation’s history of racism. Experts including NCTE say books by black authors or featuring black protagonists are increasingly challenged by those who fear promoting critical race theory. (Critical Race Theory is an academic framework which says that racism is not just the product of individual prejudice, but is embedded in legal systems and policies.)

Even books that have little to do with critical race theory, like Brunette girl dreaming, a memoir by Jacqueline Woodson about her childhood as a young African-American girl in the 1960s and 1970s and The history of Ruby Bridges, a picture book that tells the true story of a 6-year-old black girl who entered a whites-only school, have been challenged. Experts say the challenges could create a chilling effect, where teachers aren’t selecting books about race to avoid backlash and controversy.

The NCTE standards require teacher candidates to:

  • Understand the identity of their students and foster an inclusive learning environment;
  • Select a variety of texts – including young adult, classic and contemporary novels, as well as different forms of media – that represent a range of global literatures, historical traditions, genres, cultures and experiences;
  • Plan and implement relevant, standards-aligned, differentiated and anti-racist instruction and assessment to help all students achieve their learning goals;
  • Reflect on their own identities and experiences and how this might shape their practice, then use feedback and evidence from different sources to grow.

“It’s a map, it helps teachers think about what they want to teach and how they can teach it,” said LaMar Timmons-Long, a 10th grade English teacher in New York and General Secondary Representative on the NCTE Executive Committee. .

Anti-racism is woven through norms

In 2012, the standards used the term “social justice” instead of “anti-racist/anti-bias instruction”. Kirkpatrick said the language change was meant to be more specific, and educators needed to question whether every aspect of their teaching — from literature selection to writing prompts — was rooted in an anti-bias perspective. .

“In many ways, standards really support a teacher in terms of expertise and therefore having the agency to make choices,” Kirkpatrick said, noting the influx of challenges to books about race.

The NCTE advocates that teachers always have a written rationale explaining why the chosen book is the best choice for communicating and exploring certain concepts and topics. Kirkpatrick said anti-racism expectations in the standards also prompt programs to prepare teachers to continually assess: Is the book they select relevant today? Why is it important for students to read now, no matter how important it was five years ago?

For example, books like Kill a mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Of mice and Men have been challenged for what some see as problematic portrayals of race or for their use of racial slurs. Some English teachers voluntarily distance themselves from teaching these books, although others say they remain important parts of the canon.

Even so, not all teachers have the ability to choose the books they teach. These teachers should always amplify color voices when teaching whiteness-centric canonical books, Timmons-Long said, adding that they can ask the class: Why are there no characters of color here? What was the author thinking? What was happening at that time?

The NCTE standards, he said, help prepare teachers to be able to teach counter-narratives and ensure that all students feel represented in the conversation.

Standards emphasize digital literacy

Kirkpatrick said the updated standards recognize that students are learning and consuming a wide range of digital media, from long-form films to short videos on YouTube or TikTok.

“Students create, remix and curate content,” she said. “Preparing teachers to interact with this and bring it into the classroom is critical for relevance.”

And bringing that content into the classroom can help teach students how to evaluate different forms of media and identify misinformation. Teenagers are frequently exposed to misinformation on social media sites like TikTok, ranging from misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines to the theories that Helen Keller was not a real person.

“For many years, media literacy has been seen as the icing on the cake or an add-on, and the standards very widely consider that it should be part of, that it should be integrated into [the course]”said Kirkpatrick, adding that teachers should teach students how to assess creator biases and how to cross-check information with another source.

Lisa Scherff, a Grade 10 advanced placement research and English teacher at a private school in Naples, Fla., and an NCTE executive committee member, said she used Stanford’s online civic reasoning program History Education Group. to see if his 10th graders can tell fact from fiction and had students who struggled with the exercise. Centering media literacy in English classes, she said, is essential.

“At times like this we need courageous teachers, creative teachers, well-rounded teachers who have been trained in all aspects of English/Language Arts, and that includes technology and media literacy,” Scherff said. “It’s really exciting for me to see the evolution of standards.”

NCTE is holding its annual convention virtually next week. Former first lady Michelle Obama is due to speak, alongside Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is the author of the New York Times‘ Project 1619.