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February 1, 2022

Liz Kleinrock on Antiracist, Antibias Teaching

True school equity work takes courage and community care.
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Liz Kleinrock is an elementary school educator in Washington, D.C., and the author of Start Here, Start Now: A Guide to Antibias and Antiracist Work in Your School Community (Heinemann, 2021). She's the recipient of Learning for Justice's 2018 Award for Excellence in Teaching and serves on the group's advisory board. Kleinrock's Ted Talk on "How to Teach Kids to Talk About Taboo Topics" has received more than 2 million views. In this interview with EL, she explains that taking an antibias and antiracist approach to teaching and school leadership—an approach that's foundational to educational equity—means no longer centering adults' comfort.

How does your own identity and experience growing up impact the work you do?
I'm a transracial adoptee. I'm Asian, and my parents are Ashkenazi Jewish but very much present as white. Growing up, I didn't have any representation of Asian people or Jewish people or queer people in any book in any curriculum. The closest thing I had was The Korean Cinderella, which was written by a white person. That was it.
I wonder how different I might be if I'd had the language to express what I was feeling or going through at the time, if there were adults in my community that validated those parts of who I am. As a person of color raised in a white family, I had no language around my identity or to express feelings of imposter syndrome. I don't want kids now to have that experience.
Thinking about the educators you interviewed for your book, what is their single greatest challenge in cultivating an antibias and antiracist classroom or school community?
If I had to pick one ongoing theme [from those conversations], it would be the challenge of working in school systems where inequitable practices have been replicated for so many years—and are embedded due to comfort and convenience. Also, encountering people in positions of power who might know what the "right thing" to do is but aren't willing to either take the risk themselves or relinquish power to make necessary changes—changes that would best serve all students and marginalized community members.
Why is it important, in your view, to get elementary students to think critically about and discuss complex issues like racism and bias?
There is a huge amount of research that shows that young people, including infants, notice physical differences in people and make judgements based on their perceptions. So, some form of categorization is already occurring early on.
I try to teach from an inquiry-based perspective where I see myself more as a facilitator than the person standing at the front of the classroom with all the knowledge. The first thing I do is ask students what they think they already know about a particular issue or topic and see what comes up. For example, this morning, I was reading the picture book When We Were Alone by David Robertson to a class of 2nd graders. It's about Native American residential schools and I wanted to frontload our conversation by introducing the term assimilation and asking them, "Has there ever been a time when you felt like you had to give up part of yourself in order to fit in, whether you wanted to or not?"
It's important to use questions that students can relate to. Sometimes students respond in ways that are totally off the mark, and it's like "Cool, this is a misconception that we have to address." Or "Wow, you actually already know a lot about this … I can push you in deeper ways."
Elementary students are very capable of engaging in this work. We need to not underestimate them.

I think schools are the only brave space where kids can ask hard questions and process their understanding—where we see their curiosity as a 'teachable moment' or a learning opportunity.

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Liz Kleinrock

What's one hard and fast rule you have about responding to students' bias when it arises?
Shame gets people nowhere. It's very hard to learn, operate, and move forward from a place of shame. When it comes to talking about any aspect of diversity, equity, or inclusion, nobody wants to mess up. That fear of shame or embarrassment is what keeps a lot of people from engaging in it. And those are messages that we learn at a really young age. If you read any newspaper article about race, you see people expressing their fear of not wanting to say the wrong thing, not wanting to be cancelled. So you have to be gentle and open, even as you emphasize the value of diversity and interrupt biases.
I think schools are the only brave space where kids can ask hard questions and process their understanding—where we see their curiosity as a "teachable moment" or a learning opportunity. Because we don't give each other that grace anywhere else.
Can you share an uncomfortable moment you had with a student and how you responded?
There was a moment this year when we were doing some reading around LGBTQ+ History Month and within the first couple of minutes, I had a 3rd grader say, "Boys marrying boys. That's gross!"
It's important for me as a teacher to model what kind of language is and is not acceptable. So, I stopped the conversation and said, "You know what, at our school we have a lot of different types of people. We have same-sex families, we have queer families, we have queer teachers (I am one of them), and you probably have queer classmates you might not know about as well. And while it's perfectly OK to be curious about people who are different from you and ask questions, we have to be really careful about using language that is loaded in judgement—like good or bad or gross."
I then had a follow-up conversation with that student. Of course, I needed to interrupt the bias in the moment, but the community care piece needed to happen as well. So that child doesn't walk away thinking I just got shut down, this teacher hates me.
Repairing that relationship, even if a student says something harmful, is important so they'll continue to engage going forward.

When you go at the pace of the slowest person in the building, you're centering the comfort of someone who might not have as big of a stake in this work.

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Liz Kleinrock

How can administrators support teachers in taking an antiracist, antibias approach?
It's a balance: My takeaway as a teacher from this pandemic year is I need a lot of support, but also leave me alone. I think a lot of teachers fall into the same boat. We need support and space, but we also need to be in an environment where no member of the school community is able to opt out.
School leaders must recognize that they hold so much power in cultivating the culture and community of their school. And people are going to look to them for an example.
I love the quote: "What you permit, you promote." People do notice all the things that you think might be flying under the radar. Like if a problematic comment is made during a staff meeting and you don't say anything as a school leader, people notice. If you do say something, people notice.
Take stock of those moments and think about not just what your values are as an educator or as a school leader, but how those values are showing up. If you support the teaching of multiple perspectives of history, do your teachers know that? How do they know that? If you support the inclusion of nonbinary and transgender students in your school community, does anybody know that? How does that show up in the decisions you make as a school leader, and the practices and policies that you support and implement?
Some people say that you have to win hearts and minds first when doing equity work. What do you believe?
I struggle with that all the time because I do believe that we need to build capacity for this work, but I also keep going back to something Paul Gorski wrote. In his 2019 EL article about "Avoiding Racial Equity Detours," the pacing for privilege detour really sticks out to me. When you go at the pace of the slowest person in your building, you're centering the comfort of someone who might not have as big of a stake in this work. Making sure that they feel comfortable every step of the way is the quickest way to go nowhere.
At this point, I don't believe in waiting for everyone to get on board. This work is too important and should not center the most unwilling.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for space.

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