Academic journal article Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue

TEACHING FOR EQUITY IN THE MILIEU OF WHITE FRAGILITY: Can Children's Literature Build Empathy and Break Down Resistance?

Academic journal article Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue

TEACHING FOR EQUITY IN THE MILIEU OF WHITE FRAGILITY: Can Children's Literature Build Empathy and Break Down Resistance?

Article excerpt

TEACHING FOR EQUITY IN THE MILIEU OF WHITE FRAGILITY: CAN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE BUILD EMPATHY AND BREAK DOWN RESISTANCE?

We are university English education professors who teach a course titled "Critical Issues in K--12 Literacy" to undergraduate teacher education candidates. The course content is intended to teach three broad topics in which literacy regularly intersects in K--12 schooling: (1) racial equity, (2) language equity, and (3) poverty. The overarching goal of the course is for university students to learn to teach for equity within an English language arts context. Students read texts on the racism of low expectations (Delpit, 2013), specific strategies for building the English language skills of L2 students (Gibbons, 2014), language varieties and dialect bias, strategies to teach Standard American English while still honoring students' native varieties of English (Wheeler & Swords, 2006), and assets-based perspectives to tackle poverty and class equity in literacy classrooms (Gorski, 2013). We engage a multifaceted approach to an incredibly complex educational challenge.

Students often react to the course curriculum with some level of resistance. Many students' initial responses align with DiAngelo's (2011) analysis of White reaction to learning about issues of privilege and inequity, which she has labeled as "White Fragility," while others' responses align with Flynn's (2015) notion of resistance, which he has called "White Fatigue." For example, in a class discussion about microagressions, a student responded, "Don't you think if you look for racism, you will find racism?" suggesting that people of color who experience microagressions are simply looking for something that would not exist if they did not look. Our challenge, as we teach about privilege and inequity, is to move our students from a state of White Fragility or White Fatigue to a state of acting as allies in the efforts toward creating equity for marginalized students in U.S. schooling. This chapter considers the pedagogical approaches we take to provide students with space to explore their own racial and class identities (typically White and middle class identities) and to build empathy for students whose identities and experiences with oppressive systems are different than the teacher's. We reflect on both our pedagogy and our students' responses through their assignments.

A plethora of research exists on teaching White college students about racial equity in education (see DiAngelo, 2011; Flynn, 2015; Heinze, 2008; Howard, 2006; Ladson-Billings, 2001; Lazar, 2004; Montgomery, 2013; Tatum, 1992), with authors approaching the topic from different perspectives. Various authors have used psychological models to describe their White college students' reactions to learning about race and poverty, including Helms' racial identity model (Tatum, 1992; Heinze, 2008). Others have developed new models to explain White, middle class college students' reactions to discussing racial equity, such as White Fragility (DiAngelo, 2011) and White Fatigue (Flynn, 2015). We argue that one effective approach to change the hearts and minds of resistant and fatigued White preservice teachers, who may be on various points of their own White identity development, is to use literature with children at the center as a gateway to building understanding. If reading can indeed be emancipatory (Freire & Macedo, 1987), it should transform the future teacher. If it is truly emancipatory, it should lead to a deeper sense of and more thoughtful teaching and social praxis.

We explore the efficacy of using children's and young adult literature to help teacher candidates break down their resistance and build empathy toward marginalized students in K--12 schools. We argue that literature provides predominately White, middle-class students with a safe space to explore their own processes of understanding racism and come to terms with their own privilege while building empathy through reading about the fictional experiences of children. …

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