Small (Anti-Racist) Teaching

Something that I’ve found interesting is thinking about how common or popular techniques in academia can be applied to anti-racist pedagogy. In particular, I did this a few months ago when I talked about doing anti-racism work the SMART way. More recently, I read James Lang’s book Small Teaching

While I found the book generally helpful and well-written, I found myself asking how could small teaching contribute to anti-racist pedagogy?

Small Teaching by James Lang

Every instructor, at one point or another, is faced with deciding how to deal with difficult subject matter and moments in the classroom. Ideally, such decisions should be made before anything difficult comes up, but often this is not the case. 

For some, dealing with difficult topics and moments – including racism – in the classroom can seem like a Herculean task. Being expected to know when and how to intervene in such situations is a lot of pressure, especially when you’re faced with them for the first time. Plus, it can be emotionally and mentally draining for both you and your students, depending on your positionality in relation to the topic.

So, it should come as no surprise that often, when we’re asked to make changes to the way we teach, we don’t follow through. We are turned off by the idea of some great upheaval in the way we’ve always done things because it seems like such an onerous, time- and energy-consuming task.

I can guarantee that this is one of the driving factors in many instructors’ hesitation to actively reflect and adapt in the face of recent calls for more anti-racist curricula.

What is ‘small teaching’?

To interpret these calls as one which asks instructors to throw everything out and start from scratch would be a mistake (see also: calls to “burn it all down”).

I think anyone who’s advocating for more anti-racist pedagogy would agree that creating a more anti-racist classroom – or even discipline – won’t happen overnight. It probably won’t happen in the next month, or even the next year. So, it’s okay to start small.

Despite the fact that most resources, like this one compiled by MRECC, offer a laundry list of steps you should take towards anti-racist pedagogy, making changes to the way we teach needn’t be a huge undertaking. 

Some of the most meaningful changes are very small ones.

According to James Lang’s website, small teaching involves: 

“Small, manageable changes we…make to our teaching that…have a significant positive impact on student learning”

The original premise of Lang’s concept of small teaching certainly aims to make our classrooms more inclusive overall, but lacks a view toward making them more actively anti-racist. Some of the steps suggested by MRECC (and that are echoed in other resources) include:

  • Reflection exercises
  • Diversifying your syllabus
  • Critical language awareness
  • Interweaving opportunities for students to learn about race, identity, and anti-racism throughout your courses/curriculum
  • Making space for restorative justice in your classroom

However, despite this gap in his book, there are strategies that Lang suggests which would aid in the process of creating more anti-racist classrooms. I will focus on a single strategy here. These are what Lang calls “prediction exercises”.

The Power of Prediction

As the name suggests, prediction involves drawing on prior knowledge and/or context clues in order to make an educated guess about something that has not happened or that you have not learned about yet.

Prediction exercises, in general, have a number of benefits in the classroom. They:

  • Increase retention of learned material
  • Allow students to make connections between learned material and prior knowledge
  • Give students an opportunity to examine their thinking and recognize “fluency illusions”
  • Allow you, as the instructor, to recognize misconceptions and more deliberately demonstrate the inadequacy of their connections, before helping them make more accurate and productive ones

The last two points emphasize an important aspect of prediction in the classroom. Predictions made by students should never go unchecked or unanswered. When they do, on the one hand, students will question the purpose of such exercises. 

On the other hand, withholding the correct answer or information allows students’ misconceptions to persist. Therefore, it is important not just to surface those misconceptions in the classroom, but to allow students to talk through them. 

Lang emphasizes that “effective self-explanation prompts can provide the tools that help students recognize the problems with their current understanding and point them to the principles or steps that will lead them to new understanding”.

Prediction in the Classroom

When should you use prediction exercises in your classroom?

You can use this strategy as often or as infrequently as you like. If using it as a part of your process of making your classroom more anti-racist, you might consider incorporating prediction exercises around any topics that are commonly misunderstood (such as slavery in the ancient world).

Additionally, you might use prediction exercises as a test of things that you’ve noticed in your everyday life. 

For example, if you consistently see ancient Greeks and Romans portrayed as white, maybe consider asking your students to weigh in at the beginning of term. 

An activity: ask your students to draw a “typical” Greek or Roman (or pull some images off of the internet). Explain to them what the reality of race in the ancient world was, and then have them reflect about the choices they made.

As a small teaching strategy, these exercises should – at minimum – take up only 10-15 minutes of class time. However, you can expand upon this as much as you feel necessary, especially if discussion is lively.

How to use prediction in the classroom?

You might incorporate a prediction exercise at the beginning of a lesson or unit. In this situation, the correct answer or information would be provided to students in the course of the lesson. 

At the end of class, you could take a few (10-15) minutes to discuss together, in small groups, or ask students to reflect individually on why their prediction was right or wrong.

A similar scenario could involve asking students to make their predictions for the next lesson or topic at the end of class, and then have them complete homework assignments which would provide them with the correct answer. 

Discussion could take place at the beginning of the following class meeting.

Finally, prediction exercises can be incorporated into assignments which involve multimedia, such as videos. You could design short video quizzes which would prompt students to make their predictions before a key or pivotal moment. 

After viewing the rest of the video, students could be asked to reflect on their predictions asynchronously or in the following class period.

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