How I Resist the Urge to Get Defensive about My Whiteness

Notes from the Classroom

I’m white. Really white.

I often joke that my skin has two equally lovely shades. In the winter, I’m Casper-white. And in the summer if I’m not careful, I’m lobster-red.

As much as I may joke about my own whiteness, teachers like me have a natural inclination to get defensive when someone calls out our whiteness in relation to our practice. Resisting the urge to get defensive, though, might be one of the most important moves we make in our professional lives.

I’ll never forget the conversation I had with a teacher who was new to our district. She complained that our book choices were “too white.” Right away, I felt my defensive barbs prickle, and a million responses rushed to the tip of my tongue. Like, Are you kidding? You should have seen what it used to be!

Thankfully, though, I bit my tongue and, instead of snapping back, I took a deep breath and responded, “Tell me about it . . . . No really, tell me about it.”

Then I listened as she told me where she noticed holes in representation. It was nice to get an outside perspective because, as someone who was new, she could look at our curriculum in ways that I couldn’t. And now I’m sure that she learned more about who I am because I listened un-defensively.

Start with a Descriptive Inventory

Even though it can be hard to resist the urge to get defensive, I’ve found that stepping back to listen can make a world of difference. And I don’t just mean listening when someone is confronting me.

Do you remember that exercise in your undergrad class? The one where you had to observe a class and tally how many times a teacher called on each student. You collected the information first, then backed up to do some thinking and analysis. Do the same here.

Start by gathering observations–lots of them. Save the analysis and conclusions for later and just record what you notice is happening in class. By doing this sort of inventory, you can listen to many aspects of your practice: your students, yourself and your instruction, your curriculum. You might be someone who collects this thinking in lists or spreadsheets or simply by saying them out loud.

Once you’ve got the observations, it will be time to take a step back and reflect on what patterns you notice about whose voices and values are being represented in your class. Is it actually as diverse as you’d hoped it was? I’ve found that taking the time to make some unbiased observations helped me to better realize when my perceptions, and my privilege, might be getting in the way of real reflection–and might be unintentionally causing me to get defensive.

My first step in getting there was to look at some important areas of my practice. To get started on your own journey, you might start your inventory with the following areas.

Inventory Your Students

Describe what you know about your class. Tally, chart, or describe what you know about each student in relation to their:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Geographic origin
  • Languages spoken
  • Gender identity
  • Sexuality
  • Family
  • Socio-economic status
  • Interests
  • Values

Among other benefits, this exercise helped me realize when I needed to get to know a student better.

Next, ask the same questions about yourself as you would your students. And if you’re really feeling adventurous, ask your students to do the inventory on you.

Inventory Your Instruction


  • Who do you call on when you’re looking for answers?
  • Who do you “check in on” to make sure they’re getting it?
  • Who do you push with extension or more challenging opportunities?
  • Who volunteers to speak in class? Who doesn’t?  
  • What opportunities do you give for students to talk to each other?
  • How often do students speak to someone inside their social circle? Outside it?
  • What opportunities do students have to give you feedback?

Do the same kind of inventory on the books in your classroom. Get ready to look not only for holes when people aren’t represented, but also for stereotypes that might be perpetuated.

Step Back and Reflect

It’s now time to reflect on all that you’ve noticed. Ask yourself:

  • What patterns do you see?  
  • Who is represented? Who isn’t?
  • Whose viewpoints seem to be given the most voice or value?
  • What stereotypes are present, perpetuated, or disputed?
  • Which students are given opportunities to see themselves, their families, their friends, their values represented in books?
  • Which students get to see and experience others’ perspectives and cultures through books?

This kind of reflection isn’t something that you do in just one sitting. And it can be uncomfortable–really uncomfortable. But once you start, it’s tough to deny that it’s some of the most important work we can do–for ourselves, for our instruction, and most importantly, for our students.

Megan Kortlandt (@megankortlandt) is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches at Durant High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students through the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Every time Megan goes grocery shopping, her cart makes her appear to be exceptionally healthy, but don’t be fooled. The healthy stuff is all for her pet rabbit, Hans.

To Teach Equity, We Should Choose Modern Texts

Notes from the Classroom

A colleague of mine recently received an interesting reaction to Zora Neale Hurston, when a young black man in his class declared one of Hurston’s essays to be “bullsh**.”

The student wasn’t interested in Hurston’s perspective on race, in a piece written in 1928. While my friend handled the incident as well as possible, it gave our whole PLC pause, since it raised an important question:

When selecting texts for an English classroom, how do we rank student interest and equity?

For many of us, the gut response is to look to The Canon. We find reputable voices from across time and distance, and select texts that diversify our collection of readings.

Which gives most English classes something that looks roughly like this:

  • Shakespeare
  • Hemingway
  • Fitzgerald
  • Lee
  • Miller
  • And a grab-bag of other White or European or early-American authors

And then, for balance and equity we might add:

  • Cisneros
  • Harlem Renaissance voices
  • MLK
  • Amy Tan
  • And Toni Morrison, if the school district will allow it

I’m not looking to unfairly profile anyone here. But the list of names tends to be finite.

Yet for non-white or non-male students in your district, these canonical texts, which felt relevant not so long ago, might not resonate today.

This was the case in my colleague’s class.

Hurston’s piece is mainly about taking life by the horns in spite of adversity. But in the process of being pro-self-confidence, she takes more than a few shots at fellow African-Americans who, she believes, are too busy feeling sorry for themselves.

Can you blame my colleague’s student for not wanting to hear this 90-year-old voice, two generations removed from a modern perspective? (Here I should point out that my colleague and I teach the same curriculum–my criticism is not of him but of the texts we–all of us ELA teachers–have allowed to define the course for too long.)

It’s not hard to imagine that this one forthright student speaks for many who quietly suffer through a whole semester of reading that never speaks to a modern point of view, much less a modern perspective for minority students.

It’s something that my PLC considered a few years ago. We had realized that out of our first six or seven texts, we had to present caveats for five of them about the use of terms like “negro” or other racial insensitivities, and that included Fitzgerald’s wonderful Gatsby.

That doesn’t make Gatsby a bad choice, but it certainly creates an oppressive classroom atmosphere for students of color who have to hear this language almost daily, in literature that we tell them is important and definitive.

Even our well-meaning texts, like those from the Harlem Renaissance writers, can alienate the very students we hope they speak to the most.  


Because–ironically–we ask students to embrace the perspectives of (to them) ancient voices while refusing (or neglecting) to listen to or examine the modern voices that have emerged since then.  

Is Langston Hughes an important voice in our history? Of course.

But in this cultural moment, is it more important for our students to hear Langston Hughes’ voice than, say, Angie Thomas or Clint Smith or Jason Reynolds? These are writers who have captured the zeitgeist of our current race issues. And they’ve done so through eyes that dilate more or less in sync with those of our young, impressionable students.  

If you haven’t read these enormously popular and well-known modern voices, perhaps ask yourself, What limitations exist in your own perspective of modern cultural issues? If The Canon offers our kids one set of eyes to see the world through, is it not our responsibility to try other, newer lenses as well?

Michael ZieglerMichael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.