This is a multi-stage assignment I use in my Young Adult Lit + Antiracist Teaching undergraduate course. It unfolds over about 5 weeks and makes up the major action in one learning module, usually at the start of the semester. Most students in the course are studying to be high school or middle school English language arts teachers.
- Design and facilitate a critical race discussions about young adult literature.
- Know and be able to use accurate critical race concepts while analyzing and discussing literature.
- Gain comfort/affective stamina analyzing and discussing anti-Blackness, racism, whiteness, etc. in literature.
This assignment leverages key ideas in Letting Go of Literary Whiteness by Carlin Borsheim-Black and Sophia Tatiana Sarigianides. Students have already read this book with some supplemental articles, and I anchor excerpts about white education discourse (p. 96-98) and critical race literary analysis (p. 74-78) to this assignment.
These novels offer a variety of ways characters negotiate incidents of anti-Black racial violence and white supremacy. The novels also center or challenge whiteness in various ways. These exact texts are not essential for the assignment, but a set that presents a variety of responses to racism, racialization, etc. is important.
I have students facilitate their own discussions in pods as we read these novels over three weeks. Importantly, these discussion are open-ended without much direction from me. I have students audio record their discussions and, at the end of each week, transcribe a 5-10 minute portion of the discussion. Like the discussions, I don’t give much direction about what to transcribe, and they don’t know exactly what we will do with these transcripts yet. This is important. “Choose a part of the conversation you think is important or interesting,” I say. At the start of each week before we move onto the next novel, I briefly ask them about what they transcribed and why, and what came to mind as they were transcribing. This brief touch keeps the transcriptions in view even though they are without much broader context at this point.
Part I: Pre Discussion Planning
After we’ve finished the novels and discussion, we revisit the key ideas in Letting Go of Literary Whiteness and turn toward the assignment.
Steps to Students:
- Annotate your 3 transcripts. Annotate them by looking for instances of white educational discourse (LGLW p. 96-98) and critical race literary analysis (LGLW p. 74-78). You might find some clear instances of these, wonder if these are happening in some places, or notice an absence of these. Make your annotations as comments in the margins of your transcriptions. Shoot for at least 10 annotations. Keep all this to yourself and don’t share among your podmates.
- Write insight statements. From the annotations you made, write 1 insight statement based upon each transcript. What’s an insight statement? An insight statement synthesizes smaller points (like your annotations) into one meaningful point so you can design learning around it. It’s a full sentence with subject, verbs, and perhaps conjunctions and other parts. Example: Pod sometimes agrees or supports white discussants to help them feel comfortable while discussing racism in the text, rather than pushing to deeper and less comfortable examination.
- Reflect on you own racial self (300 words). Reflect on your own racialized position and experiences that play into designing and leading a critical race discussion. In what ways do you feel competent or incompetent for this task? What emotions do you feel in your body (e.g., nervousness in your belly)? What specific prior experiences have influenced these feelings?
- Fill out the planning grid.
I then have 30 minute pre-discussion meetings with each student. In the meeting, we look at the alignment among the four parts of the planning grid, the quality of questions, the staging each question might need, and other aspects of inspiring dialogue. Most students are good to go after the meeting; some need to revise a bit and wait for me to approve their planning grid before leading the discussion. These meetings are time consuming but essential to the meaningfulness of the experience.
Part II: Students Lead Pod Discussions
Each students leads their pod in a 15-20 minute discussion based upon their planning grid. These discussions are not about their past discussions but rather about a character, scene, conflict, etc. from one of the novels. Depending on the length of class and size of pods (typically 4-6 people), there can be multiple pod discussion in the same period. Occasionally pods will run some of their discussions on their own outside of class. Be sure to audio record.
Part III: Post Discussion Analysis
- Reflect on you own racial self (300 words). Reflect on how your own racialized position played into leading the discussion. How did you feel while leading? What questions or parts of the discussion challenged you the most, and why? You should also consider how your own racialized position in context with that of your group played into your experience. (This applies even if you and everyone in your group identifies as white.)
- Annotate and analyze the discussion by (A) transcribing it and (B) annotating the transcript for evidence of your desired antiracist outcome (see your planning grid). Also continue looking for instances of white educational discourse (LGLW p. 96-98). Shoot for at least 10 annotations.
- Write insight statements. From the annotations you made, write 1-3 insight statements about the discussion — just like you did before.
- Draw conclusions (300 words). Write a conclusion that explains: How successful were you in achieving the antiracist outcome of your discussion, and why? What is your evidence for success, and/or what kind of evidence is missing?
I emphasize that having a “successful” discussion and meeting their antiracist goals is not necessary to be successful on this assignment. Without stating this point, students will be put in the position to manufacture a successful discussion. Students turn in each of the 8 items listed above, in that order, in one document.
With so many parts and moving parts in this assignment, I also roll this assignment out to students in an editable google doc. I give them time to annotate the assignment sheet with questions in class, and then I answer the questions in that same document. This process helps surface layers that I don’t anticipate, and it makes the whole thing seem more feasible to students.