“We are not just teaching content. We are teaching students.”
“Teaching is being open to other people’s stories,” says Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz. “But you have to know your own story. If you’re not aware of who you are and what you bring to the classroom, and if you don’t think deeply about how issues of race, gender, class, and religion live inside of you, you will just exact harm.”
Knowing your own story is critical to teaching. And Dr. Sealey-Ruiz wants to tell you why and how to gain that knowledge.
Dr. Sealey-Ruiz is an Associate Professor of English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, a poet, an activist, and a Power Talk presenter at this year’s Literacy for All: The National Institute.
We were honored to chat with Dr. Sealey-Ruiz about her seminal research on racial literacy, culturally responsive teaching, book recommendations, and classroom strategies.
(The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
What is racial literacy?
You've spoken and written about the need for educators to understand literacies beyond those specific to the content they teach, and you’re best known for your work on racial literacy. What is racial literacy?
Racial literacy is being able to have healthy and constructive conversations about race, racism, and other concepts and realities that impact our lives.
A lot of times, we read things and they just stay in theory. My goal, especially around racial literacy, is for people to see it as a skill, to be able to talk about it, and then to think and make changes in their hearts, in their minds, and in their behavior—and then change the world.
What is the racial literacy model?
How did you develop your racial literacy model, and what is it?
People learn in different ways, and sometimes people need to learn in steps. And that was part of the impetus for me to ask myself, well, how would I teach racial literacy? What would be the components?
And that's when I came across the idea of the model, including critical love, critical humility, critical reflection, historical literacy, archaeology of self, and then ultimately, interruption.
Once we learn history, we learn about the self. From there, we can reflect on how we think about race. We can also think about how we want to interrupt the ways that race influences us to be inequitable in a classroom or to have a prejudice toward someone.
Let’s dive into some of those components. What is critical love?
Critical love is really having a profound and ethical commitment to the communities that we serve.
I want our literacy teachers to see that, yes, we are helping students become amazing readers and writers, and thinkers. But I also want them to ask themselves, are we loving them in the process?
And are we loving ourselves enough as well to push back against some of the deficit ideas, racist ideas, and sexist ideas? Because if we hold onto those beliefs, it really does impact not just the way we teach students but our ability to love them.
And love, for me, really is central to teaching.
Historical literacy and archaeology of self
Can you tell us more about the historical literacy component of your racial literacy model?
I actually see the world through literacy. So for me, everything is a literacy.
But to be very specific in terms of historical literacy, that is being able to understand the history of our country, the history of a community, the history of a school, and to act accordingly. When you understand the history of someone or something, you move in a very different way—a respectful way.
Can you share a little about your concept of the archaeology of self?
The archeology of self can cover multiple things, including the self-knowledge we need as literacy teachers and the self-knowledge we need about ourselves.
A lot of times, we talk to teachers about allowing kids to have a blank slate. Well, no one really gives teachers a blank slate, right? We come in, and everyone has a formula for who teachers should be, even in the most challenging times. And these are challenging times.
So I want to encourage teachers to give themselves a blank slate. To wipe things away and be willing to learn new things about themselves. To draw on both new and old knowledge from their teacher education and experience to be the best teachers that they can be for themselves and for their students.
Racial literacy and culturally responsive teaching
What is the connection between racial literacy and culturally responsive teaching?
I started writing about racial literacy about 12 years ago. And I've come to understand now, with enough distance, that racial literacy must be the foundation for culturally responsive teaching.
Because you have to be able to, number one, do that self-work, understand history, and be humble. You have to reflect on, “How am I going to take this knowledge and have it influence my curriculum and my pedagogy?”
A lot of times, we do it the other way around. ‘Let's learn this theory around the pedagogy, and then let me fix this.’ No, for me, it starts in the heart and the mind. You have to be literate about race, which is connected to culture.
So you have to have that fundamental understanding of racial literacy, and then you can become a culturally responsive teacher. That's at least how I'm seeing it and theorizing it.
Today’s students—who are Gen Z and even Gen A—seem so much more open to discussing race than older generations. They do it all the time on TikTok and Twitter. How has this affected teachers’ ability to develop racial literacy?
I'm glad that you brought in the relevance of age in our current times. When we talk about being culturally responsive, the word "culture" is fluid. It's not just relating to, let's say, religion, cultural practices, or what foods we eat. Culture is a much wider kind of concept, and culture includes the current times.
And this is why I still work with high schools. I have to be relevant and understand how today’s students are seeing the world, and then I have to be able to shape my pedagogy to meet them.
Now, I'm not saying I have to be a TikTok or Instagram expert, but I need to understand these are the literacies that they are interacting with. How am I going to allow space for that in my classroom if I don’t understand it? Because we are not just teaching content. We are teaching students.
Classroom strategies to support racial literacy
What teaching practice can educators bring into their classrooms and schools?
I would say you have to bring yourself with an open heart and an open mind. And to really see the children in front of you, not just what you've been told about them.
Because when children are loved and when they feel safe, they will share all of who they are. And that will allow you to shape your curriculum even if you are working with a standardized curriculum, a curriculum that's given to you.
When you see the children in front of you, you can't help but incorporate their lives and their concerns, and that curriculum will never be the same.
Be willing to create a humanizing classroom space where the teacher can be the teacher, the kids can be themselves, and learning can happen in a very different way.
Anything else you would recommend to teachers?
I would say for sure, especially if it's younger kids, make sure the books in the classroom reflect what the children look like.
We know about that 2018 study that showed that there are more animals in children's books than the combination of AAPI, Native American, Latinx, and Black children together. Only 23% of books had characters of color, with 27% of animals. And 50% had white boy characters. So I would say make sure the books are diverse.
And make sure your examples when you're teaching, whether math or literacy, are diverse, meaning the names of characters. If you're making up stories, use the names of the children in your classroom. Again, see the children.
Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz at The National Institute
Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz is the author of the book Advancing Racial Literacies in Teacher Education: Activism for Equity in Digital Spaces (2021).
She will be sharing insights about the archaeology of self and the racial literacy model at The National Institute: Literacy for All, a professional learning event like no other. Save your seat today to join us from July 17-20, 2023, at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess in Arizona!
Amy is passionate about researching and writing about urgent topics in education to help educators stay up-to-date on the best practices. As a former teacher of English writing, EFL, and ESL, she is dedicated to supporting educators and students.Explore more related to this author
Racial literacy has to be the foundation for culturally responsive teaching.
Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, Associate Professor of English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University