March 2018
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Tracy Iftikar, Andrea Poulos, & Parthy Schachter, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, USA

Tracy Iftikar

Andrea Poulos

Parthy Schachter

In fall of 2015, the three of us sat in a classroom with three other colleagues in the ESL Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Two of the other attendees were graduate students teaching in our program and the other was one of our administrative staff members. It was the first official meeting of our Reading Group on Race and ESOL Teaching. Before the discussion of the reading Tracy had chosen for this first meeting, Kubota and Lin’s (2009) chapter titled “Race, Culture and Identities in Second Language Education: Introduction to Research and Practice,” we each stated what had brought us to the group. As the founder of the reading group, Tracy’s interest in this project was related to her identity as a person of color, interest in exploring issues of race and language education, and desire to explore ideas with colleagues rather than just struggling with readings on her own. Andrea chose to participate because she had been thinking about race for a long time, has been involved with various diversity projects over the years, and felt this would be an important ongoing discussion. Parthy’s interest was due in particular to discussions on race in her social media circles. Though our backgrounds and individual reasons for coming to the group varied, a common theme was that race matters in our teaching and that we hoped that this reading group could be a way to address the gap in professional development regarding race at our institution. There was also an underlying urgency to explore race as the national dialogue about race continues to impact the lives of our students.

Prior to this first meeting, Tracy formally proposed the idea to the director of the ESL program, sent an email to all staff members in the program about the group, and conducted a Doodle poll to find the best time. Since the first meeting, our reading group has met three or four times a semester for 90-minute sessions. Discussions are based largely on theoretical articles with themes related to critical pedagogy, critical race theory, racial inequality and ESOL teaching. Though we value personal experiences and they have naturally become part of our discussions, we use the ideas in the articles to ground our discussion, and we find that the “distance” achieved by using the “academic” articles can actually lead to a more focused and open conversation. The reading group continues to be open to all staff in our ESL program, not just instructors. We have not used any type of formal reading list; rather, Tracy chooses articles by looking at introductory texts and referenced sources, examining notes on discussion points and questions to be further explored from meetings, and taking broader recommendations from her husband, who is a graduate student studying race.

Our progression as a group has been organic in many ways. None of us is an expert in the area of race, and we continue to develop a shared language. For example, recurring ideas in our readings such as racism as normal and othering often do not immediately make sense. Together we are learning how racism can operate unseen and often unquestioned. We are learning how speaking English is often associated with being white, and how our ESOL students can be marked and treated as different. With time, as we see how the ideas are discussed in different readings, we start to make connections between the readings, and to our roles as language educators. Some of our readings are also not specific to language education, and we have to figure out the connections on our own. For example, as we have read articles about whiteness in education or about the seemingly broad definition of culture, we have worked together to see points of application in ESOL. At times we struggle with certain ideas or terms, and we use popular resources such as Google, newspaper clips, and magazine articles to support our understanding. We also jot down notes for further follow-up. While there are certainly moments of confusion and frustration and we often end with more questions than answers, the ongoing nature of the group allows us to return to topics again and again.

On occasion, it has been challenging to not have an expert to elaborate on and clarify ideas for us, or to guide our discussions. For example, we realize that without deeper knowledge of a specific concept such as Pierre Bourdieu’s habitus or Robert Phillipson’s linguistic imperialism, our understanding of an article could be limited, and that we cannot realistically explore every idea referenced in an article. On the other hand, it has been helpful and motivating to chart our own reading course as we try to parse out what areas to focus on. We are invested in what we discuss, and our choice for the reading for the next meeting is often inspired by questions from the previous meetings. Sometimes we use discussion questions provided with some of the articles. Most of the time, after a quick review of the last meeting and opportunity for anyone to clarify or follow up on previous points of discussion, Tracy starts our discussions with broader questions such as, “What did you think of this article?” and “What were some questions you had?”

Conversations about race can feel fraught; there seem to be so many ways to get it wrong. For example, Motha (2014) challenges us to recognize that the teaching of English has not been a “race-neutral, apolitical, ahistorical endeavor” (p. 2). As we learn about the tension that she explains as “the contradiction” of English, where the spread of English has been empowering at the same time that it has been oppressive, it can be difficult to critically examine our roles within this contradiction. In addition, we have had different reactions to and interpretations of complex topics such as white supremacy, racism and privilege. We continue to provide each other the space to freely share, question and learn ideas. Reading and talking about race in response to other scholars and thinkers has allowed us to not only broaden our perspectives and deepen our discussions, but also to think beyond the often assumed practice vs. theory dichotomy. We view theory as important, accessible and relevant to all staff members. Sometimes there is discomfort with focusing on abstract ideas without more concrete examples. Other times, when we do read about or discuss concrete examples, it is unsettling because it seems to imply that there is a formula or correct way to teach or be critical. In the end, we realize that theory and practice are intertwined.

Interestingly, this reflection on the role of race in ESOL has happened not only in the structured meetings, but in multiple other informal ways such as conversations via email or in hallways and offices as colleagues share thoughts with us about the readings or topics. Email invitations to meetings always emphasize that previous knowledge and prior attendance are not required, and the readings are always sent to every staff member in our program at least one week before the meeting. While the three of us have become the core members of the group and attendance has varied from just us three to six or seven participants, we have created a space for a continuous dialogue on race in our program. In fact, some colleagues print out and skim the articles even if they cannot attend, and one staff member has shared multiple recommendations for books and campus talks related to race.

Especially in this political climate where racism has increasingly played such an “acceptable” role in policies and conversations regarding immigrants and people of color, we have found that a reading group can be helpful in maintaining an ongoing conversation about race that is collaborative and meaningful. We hope that by sharing some of our experiences, along with the challenges and our responses, you can see how you might start such a group in your specific context. DiAngelo and Sensoy (2010) state that critical practice “requires a deep and sophisticated analysis, self-awareness, inter-group experience, and on-going education” (p. 102). We continue to meet as a group to review what different thinkers say, and we can hold those ideas up in the prism of others’ thinking as well. The prism is turned one way and then another, not only in our official group meeting, but as we find each other in the staircase in passing and in slowed walks from teaching in other buildings. Sometimes the talk is theoretical, sometimes it is awash in the latest news, and sometimes it is cleaved to the classroom or a particular learner. We are grateful for the expanding conversation as we continue our roles as learners of race and language education and as ESOL practitioners.


DiAngelo, R., & Sensoy, Ö. (2010). “OK, I get it! Now tell me how to do it!”: Why we can’t just tell you how to do critical multicultural education. Multicultural Perspectives, 12(2), 97-102.

Kubota, R., & Lin, A. (2009). Race, culture and identities in second language education: Introduction to research and practice. In R. Kubota & A. Lin (Eds.), Race, culture, and identities in second language education: Exploring critically engaged practice (pp. 1-23). New York, NY: Routledge.

Motha, S. (2014). Race, empire, and English language teaching: Creating responsible and ethical anti-racist practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Reading List

This working list includes texts explored in our reading group on race and ESOL teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison ESL Program since fall of 2015.

Introductory Readings

Kubota, R., & Lin, A. (Eds.). (2009). Race, culture, and identities in second language education: Exploring critically engaged practice. New York, NY: Routledge.

Markus, H.R., & Moya, P.M.L. (Eds.). (2010). Doing race: 21 essays for the 21st century. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company

McCoy, D. L., & Rodricks, D. J. (2015). Critical Race Theory in higher education: 20 years of theoretical and research innovations. ASHE Higher Education Report, 41(3), 1–117.

Motha, S. (2014). Race, empire, and English language teaching: Creating responsible and ethical anti-racist practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Additional Readings

Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: New Press.

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2015). More than prejudice: Restatement, reflections, and new directions in critical race theory. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 1(1), 73–87.

DiAngelo, R. J. (2006). The production of whiteness in education: Asian international students in a college classroom. Teachers College Record, 108(10), 1983–2000.

DiAngelo, R., & Sensoy, Ö. (2010). “OK, I get it! Now tell me how to do it!”: Why we can’t just tell you how to do critical multicultural education. Multicultural Perspectives, 12(2), 97-102.

Gorski, P. (2016). Rethinking the role of ‘culture’ in educational equity: From cultural competence to equity literacy. Multicultural Perspectives, 18(4), 221-226. doi: 10.1080/15210960.2016.1228344

Haque, E., & Morgan, B. (2009). Un/Marked Pedagogies: A dialogue on race in EFL and ESL settings. In R. Kubota & A. Lin (Eds.), Race, culture, and identities in second language education: Exploring critically engaged practice (pp. 271-285). New York, NY: Routledge. 

Johnston, B. (1999). Putting critical pedagogy in its place: A personal account. TESOL Quarterly, 33(3), 557–565.

Lee, E. (2015). Doing culture, doing race: Everyday discourses of ‘culture’ and ‘cultural difference’ in the English as a second language classroom. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 36(1), 80-93.

Leonardo, Z. (2004). The color of supremacy: Beyond the discourse of ‘white privilege’. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 36(2), 137–152.

Leonardo, Z. (2004). Critical social theory and transformative knowledge: The functions of criticism in quality education. Educational Researcher, 33(6), 11–18.

Leonardo, Z. (2009). The myth of white ignorance. In M. Apple (Ed.), Race, whiteness, and education (pp.107-125). New York, NY: Routledge

Liggett, T. (2014). The mapping of a framework: Critical race theory and TESOL. Urban Review, 46(1), 112-124. doi:10.1007/s11256-013-0254-5 Luke, A. (2009). Race and language as capital in school: A sociological template for language education reform. In R. Kubota & A. Lin (Eds.), Race, culture, and identities in second language education: Exploring critically engaged practice (pp. 286-308). New York, NY: Routledge.

Weiner, E. J. (2002). Beyond remediation: Ideological literacies of learning in developmental classrooms. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 46(2), 150–168.

Tracy Iftikar teaches in the ESL Program at UW-Madison. She has been teaching ESOL since 1998 and previously taught in California, Massachusetts and Japan.

Andrea Poulos has been involved in teaching and administration in ESOL for over twenty years, including at the UW-Madison ESL Program since 2008, and prior to that in Minneapolis, MN and Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Parthy Schachter has taught in Israel, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Madison at public, private, and non-profit institutions. She currently teaches ESL academic writing at UW-Madison.

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