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.

How We Standardize Our Students’ Voices, and Why It’s a Problem

Notes from the Classroom

“So, if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity–I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself.” – Gloria Anzaldua, from “How to Tame a Wild Tongue”

As a teacher of language, I find that I’m often caught between contrary instincts about how to teach voice. I think voice done well is one of the most powerful elements of writing. This applies to all writing, not just what we tend to label as “creative writing.”

Here, though, I’m talking about argument writing, because that’s what I teach.

In my classroom, my first instinct is to follow the rules that were drilled into me by almost all of my teachers. That instinct tells me that I should push traditional rules of writing. These rules say your voice must be neutral, third person, and use standard grammar. Following these rules, the idea goes, highlights the power of one’s argument.

That’s what I was taught. And that approach is still taught everywhere.

But I’m caught between that and another instinct.

This second instinct comes up when female students persist in using the male pronoun, or when I read something that is so bland I can barely stay awake–and my eyes drift to the top of the page and see the name of a student who I know isn’t bland. I look at those names and I notice that they are often female, people of color, kids who speak two or more languages.

And as I circle non-standard usage, I wonder if what I’m really looking for in that neutral, standard voice is actually me: white, male, bland.

It bothers me that we’re stuck, my students and I. They want to get good grades and be successful writers. I want the same for them.

But not at this price.

When I ask them to be tradional, what I’m really asking for is whiteness. Think about those words: traditional, standard, neutral. They’re all pointing in the same direction.

Why do we read, teach, and celebrate the distinctive voices of Zora Hurston, Jamaica Kincaid, and Gloria Anzaldua, only to turn around and tell our students that they shouldn’t write this way for the exam? That these brilliant writers and their voices should be relegated to the “creative” category, rather than using them to show our students that serious arguments don’t always come from “neutral,” “traditional,” “standard” writers?

I hear the words above from Anzaldua every time my classes talk about voice, every time I circle something. And I know she’s right.

RICKRick Kreinbring (@kreinbring_rick) said many, many years ago that he would become a teacher because “English Major” didn’t sound like a job, and his father really wanted to see him get a job. Rick liked to read and he wrote a little, so he got his teaching certificate and he’s been working at it for over 20 years. Most of the time he’s at Avondale High School, trying to stay one step ahead of his students.

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.  

Hard Conversations

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

51mp4tejmhl-_sx336_bo1204203200_Last year I participated in a book study at the Oakland Schools chapter of the National Writing Project. It picked up themes from a summer workshop on creating a culturally responsive classroom. Focused on Geneva Gay’s book, it began for me a difficult process that, along with a conversation I had with my seniors, taught me that I wasn’t doing enough to create a classroom atmosphere that promoted and supported all of my students equally.

During this conversation–a kind of exit interview I’ve done on and off over the years–my students of color gave me some hard facts about the education I was trying to help them with. They said that they were “used to” being on the outside, used to only reading about white people–except in February–that that’s just how it is.

Used to it.

That haunts me.

Blind to the problems I was creating and perpetuating, I decided to ask myself hard questions about my own assumptions, and how those assumptions were affecting my students. I don’t like the answers I’m getting but I’m going to work on it.

51vllt2frql-_sx334_bo1204203200_Step 1: Expand Our Horizons

Over the summer I assigned The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Between the World and Me to my AP Language and Composition classes.

We read Lacks last year, and I thought that by adding Coates’ excellent book to the menu, I might begin to open my students’ thoughts to ideas of privilege, to a culture that sends very different messages to students who lie outside the mainstream. I’ve come to see summer reading as an opportunity to introduce students to things they might not pick up and that are not from the canon.

Step 2: Brave Conversations and Listening

I edged students into the shallow end of this conversation about race, exploitation, poverty, and history by using a Culture of Thinking routine–Circle of Viewpoints. This let us take on different points of view and explore how the writer can skillfully move a reader through complicated and difficult ideas.

My hope was that this would set the tone for the more challenging Between the World and Me. For this I used a simple Think-Pair-Share routine to set up small conversations that I could eavesdrop on. With students spread out all over the floor, their books open to close-read passages, I watched and listened. How would they respond to Coates’ razor sharp, often accusatory, observations? Most of my students are people who “think they’re white,” but there’s a sizable portion who are not. Avondale is blessed with a remarkably diverse population. Would the white students notice the knowing looks on their non-white classmates’ faces, as they read passages that pointed to a culture that told them that they were “different”? How would they react to the idea that there are laws and regulations that are not just unfairly enforced, but designed to put certain groups of people on the wrong side of them?

Another Step: Reflect

It was a mixed result. I didn’t expect an epiphany about privilege. Epiphanies are rare, and scary. My aim was to point students toward challenging ideas, those that were skillfully written.

Some of the ideas were too much for them–my fault for not better scaffolding the skills–but there were some encouraging conversations. I heard a conversation connecting Coates’ idea about the “control of black bodies” to what happened to Henrietta Lacks’ cells. In another conversation in a larger group, students discussed how the dress code seemed to be designed to make girls’ fashion choices responsible for boys’ behavioral ones. I heard students wonder about the dress code’s prohibition against “sagging” and who that might be aimed at.

These are tough issues. But when I feel that discomfort, I think back to that conversation last May and that horrible phrase “used to it,” that my students felt like outsiders, extras in a play not about them. That discomfort we feel, that shift from familiar to unknown–that seems important enough to spend time on, and I’ll be returning to it throughout the year.

Always Another Step

I’d like to invite others to help me with this. I’ll take any advice, and I’d love to talk about these issues. The book study ended so I’ve got some time.

Who’s up for some discomfort?

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.