On the evening of Tuesday, Oct. 6, students and faculty of the English department came together to attend the second annual “Race and the English Classroom” seminar, an event directed toward discussing how race affects both teaching and learning in English classes. Those in attendance mostly consisted of English majors in the Education certification program and faculty from the English department; however, many from other majors and English students from other concentrations came to see what the event was all about.
As those attending gathered in the Loughman Living Room in Scanlon Hall, they were greeted by members of the English 350 (Methods in the Teaching of English) class and encouraged to take nametags and a copy of a scholarly article that would be used in the discussion-based seminar.
Initially, those in attendance were urged to help themselves to the food and refreshments served as sustenance for the two and a half hour event.
The event, which was lead and facilitated by Professor Sophia Sarigianides, began with a warm welcome and an introduction to the seminar, which was regarded as a conversation about how race affects both teaching and the classroom setting as a whole. The overarching question that lingered in the backdrop of the panel “How does race affect your teaching?” acted as the foremost prompt for the event’s entire conversation.
After greeting everyone and addressing the purpose and importance of the event, Professor Sarigianides turned the conversation over to a five-person panel of English educators at various levels from different backgrounds. Two of the panelists were members of the Westfield State University English department, namely Professor Elizabeth Starr and Professor Shirley Wong. The others were local high school English teachers: Joe Courchesne (Holyoke High School), Amy Martinez (Springfield High School of Science and Technology), and Jaclyn O’Neill (Baystate Academy Charter High School in Springfield).
After each panelist had given a personal anecdote on his or her experience or grapple with teaching and/or experiencing race in the classroom, Professor Sarigianides turned the conversation turned over to those attending the event. Each round table in the room was made up of seven or eight people. At each table were one or two students from Professor Sarigianides’s Methods in the Teaching of English who initially acted as facilitators for discussion.
Within these groups, English Education students shared their personal experiences in dealing with teaching challenging texts in the English classroom in their pre-practicum and practicum. Students from outside the English Education concentration also shared their experiences—from daily, personal happenings to experiences in other classrooms—simply as students or as student teachers/observers in those scenarios.
A prevalent reference point to the conversation derived from the subject matter in a scholarly article that Professor Sarigianides supplied upon entry to the event, titled “‘It’s Pretty Much White’: Challenges and Opportunities of an Antiracist Approach to Literature Instruction in a Multilayered White Context” by Carlin Borsheim-Black. The main focus of this article was Borsheim-Black’s concept of antiracist pedagogy, which she defines as “an approach that works proactively to interrupt racism … [acknowledging] the importance of racial and cultural identities.”
After each table finished its break-off discussion, each panelist shared a detail of his or her own table’s exchange before the conversation was opened to the entire room as a whole. Students in attendance whose area of study is outside of English also has a lot to say at this point as they were genuinely engaged with the seminar.
Senior English Education major Kelly Griffin, who is currently a student in Methods in the Teaching of English, expressed her satisfaction with the conversation, saying “the event was a great success overall because it got people talking about the way race and racism affect not only the classroom but the world around us.”
Griffin, who is currently in the process of completing her pre-practicum at Holyoke High School, went on to explain that one cannot expect change if teachers are not teaching their students about racism and its relevance. “Our students are the future of this country,” says Griffin, “and teaching them that discrimination is an ongoing issue to be acknowledged and discussed will no doubt spark a fire in them to not only expect a better and more accepting world, but demand it.”
As she prepares to enter her final semester and take on her practicum, Kelly Griffin brings not only genuine dedication but also immeasurable passion into her field, especially after having attended this professional development seminar two years in a row.
Says Griffin, “Race is an issue whether you talk about it or not.”