Book Discussions Build Community, Aim to Create Equity in Schools

MyQuella Swogger in a black shirt posting notes onto a windowMonday, May 4, marked the start of Teacher Appreciation Week. And this year, teachers are being recognized in a new light, as the country grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtually, teachers continue to bring students together, helping them finish the school year in an unprecedented way.

But back at the start of 2019-2020 academic year, Valerie Kinloch, the Renée and Richard Goldman Dean of the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh, asked her students, faculty and staff to read about the theory and practice of “abolitionist teaching” and educational equity by giving them an assignment: read the same book.

Kinloch encouraged all of the school’s staff, faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, and even alumni to read and discuss, “We Want to do More than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom,” by Bettina Love, a two-time alumna of the School of Education.

In her own words

Listen to a conversation between Bettina Love and Pitt’s Associate Dean of Equity and Justice Leigh Patel, produced by the School of Education.

Those who read the book were also invited to join a series of discussions where they could explore themes that reflect the work Kinloch and the school take up in their teaching, curriculum, research and community engaged initiatives: equity in education.

A prominent theme in Love’s book is the theory of abolitionist teaching, in which Love (CGS ’01, EDUC ’02G) suggests that teachers, parents and community leaders approach education with “the imagination, determination, boldness and urgency of an abolitionist.” In so doing, they can also create a space where all children, and especially Black and Brown children, have an equal opportunity in the education system. Kinloch stressed that this work is even more critical during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is necessary that the Pitt School of Education take up Love’s call for abolitionist teaching now more than ever. We are living in heightened times of uncertainty, pain and trauma that are exacerbated by COVID-19 and other crises that demonstrate inequities and inequalities. These times also make hyper-visible ongoing educational, economic, healthcare and racial injustices. Thus, there is a need for imagination and boldness, for equity and justice, which reveal the urgency of having a transformative approach to education. For these reasons, I could not think of a more important book for our school to read together,” said Kinloch.

“For me, the way Dr. Bettina Love engages in transformative discord with young folks and adults is just amazing. She thinks with them, pushes them and asks them to push her back,” said Kinloch. “And to think she’s an alum of our school, it’s such a beautiful thing to witness.”

Valerie Kinloch stands before a group of people gathered for a book discussion

Opening up

Kinloch kicked off the first book discussion of the year in late January, followed by several other sessions lead by School of Education leadership with expertise in addressing the injustices of the education system.

“I love talking and learning with other people. Today, we have an opportunity to talk and think with each other,” said Kinloch, as she opened the January event. “Now, allow us to talk about passages that you think we need to bring into this space, here in this room today.”

Lindsay Clare Matsumura, associate dean of the School of Education, attended the book discussion—and flipped to a page of Love’s book and opened up about a personal experience related to racism in schools.

“A phrase Dr. Love used throughout the book was ‘spirit-murdering.’ I felt haunted by that,” said Matsumura. “It really resonated with me because I’ve been in classrooms all over the country where, over and over again, I see situations where kids are treated like they can’t create a thought in their minds.”

Kinloch continued the conversation about this racism-related concept introduced by legal scholar Patricia Williams in 1987.

“Engaging in the spirit-murdering of students is deep, powerful and devastating. In education, we work within these systems and spaces that can be very dehumanizing,” said Kinloch. “How do we stand up and be in conversations with each other to make the world a better place? This work must happen in classrooms because schools are supposed to be environments that nurture and support children and young adults to be the best they can be. To think, to dream, to act.”

Another theme addressed in the book discussions was Love’s challenge to educators to be co-conspirators, not allies, when it comes to creating equality and equity in education. Love wrote that moving beyond ally-ship means fighting against racism and oppression, not just being supportive of the people who are affected by it.

“Being a courageous co-conspirator is a critical element of challenging and tearing down the intersecting systems of oppression that are omnipresent within our society and education system,” said MyQuella Swogger, a School of Education student pursuing her master’s degree in higher education administration. “This element also struck me the most because the term ‘allies’ never sat well with me, and Dr. Love provided the language and knowledge behind why ally-ship isn't and never will be enough.”

Creating change

Bettina Love Love, who is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University of Georgia, said she hopes that those who do not consider themselves educators take something away from reading her book.

“One of the biggest things I try to do is have a balance between issues that plague African Americans in this country and the beauty and creativity of who we are. I want people to leave with a full story of who we are—not just our pain, but our joy and creativity,” said Love. “The fullness of what it means to be a person of color, our culture and what we’ve done in this country. I’m inspired by that. We need to have those conversations.”

Swogger, who plans to pursue a career in student affairs, said she is inspired by Love’s work.

“Dr. Love’s work, inside and outside her book, has reminded me that my joy, dreams, creativity, history, culture and aspirations matter and are powerful as a Black woman with various intersecting identities,” Swogger said.

Kinloch said she’s hopeful that reading Love’s book—and the discussions that come from it—can help create change.

“Hopefully, we think differently about the people with whom we interact and we learn to be co-conspirators. That’s what I am hoping to do with everyone in the School of Education,” said Kinloch. “If we don’t do this work in education, then I cannot trust that other people will take up this important work.”

The mission-vision of the School of Education to “ignite learning,” commit to educational equity and strive for well-being for all is supported by the themes Love discusses in her book.

Some recent highlights from the school:

  • In January 2020, the School of Education’s Dean’s Office and the Remake Learning Network received a $1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop an innovative network of Educators of Color and learning scientists who will work together to transform how research and development are conducted in education.
  • The Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education (P.R.I.D.E.) program within the School of Education’s Office of Child Development aims to help Black children understand race and embrace their ethnicity and heritage. The Office of Child Development is piloting a program called My Racial Journey, which will help educators learn how to talk about race in the classroom.
  • The School of Education’s Doctor of Education (EdD) program now includes the principles of equity and justice across all levels of its curriculum, rather than just placing them only within specific courses. This change went into effect in the 2018-2019 academic year.