Dean Kinloch discusses her new book on racially charged history of literacy

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Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Valerie Kinloch, dean of Pitt’s School of Education, discusses the release of her book, “Race, Justice, and Activism in Literacy Instruction,” on Tuesday afternoon.

By Natalie Frank, Staff Writer

More than 50 voices filled a room on the fifth floor of Posvar Hall, reciting the mission-vision statement for Pitt’s School of Education.

“We teach. We commit to student, family and community success,” they said. “We commit to education equity. We advocate. We work for justice.”

But Valerie Kinloch, the School’s dean, noted at the Tuesday afternoon gathering that education systems throughout history have not always lived up to these values. Kinloch discussed the release of her December 2019 book, “Race, Justice, and Activism in Literacy Instruction” with about 50 students, faculty and visitors in attendance.

Kinloch co-edited the book with Tanja Burkhard, a postdoctoral fellow of Kinloch’s, and Carlotta Penn, a former colleague of Kinloch’s at Ohio State University. Each of its 11 chapters are written by different authors, activists and scholars.

Kinloch outlined each chapter during the discussion, along with the poetic interludes placed in between chapters as well as at the end, to allow readers to reflect on the work.

Kinloch said a major focus of her book is to start a conversation about racism and injustice and the issues they present in the classroom and higher educational environments.

“We need to figure out ways to talk about racism and injustices and inequities in educational spaces,” Kinloch said, “but also throughout the entire society and world in which we live.”

Kinloch said she was inspired to write a book during her tenure at the Ohio State University’s College of Education. She and her colleagues, some of whose writing is incorporated in the book, would discuss issues of race and injustice in the education system.

Examples of these issues affecting people of color, according to Kinloch, include invalidation of their academic abilities and discrimination preventing them from reaching their full reading and writing potential, along with a general lack of faith and encouragement that prevents them from seeking higher education.

“Every day we would get together and we would talk about programming for the entire college,” Kinloch said. “We would ask ourselves questions about equity and justice and diversity and we grappled with fundamental questions that impact all of our lives.”

These discussions led to Kinloch and her colleagues creating an edited collection of ideas regarding these issues of equity, race and injustice with help from scholarly authors around the United States. Leigh Patel, a literacy teacher-educator and the School of Education’s associate dean of equity and justice, wrote the book’s first chapter, titled “Generations of Fugitive Literacy: Teacher Education and Activism.”

Patel, who spoke at the Tuesday book talk, said she was very excited to get to contribute to Kinloch’s book and discuss the difficulties that people of color face in trying to further their education.

“We are all literate people,” Patel said. “But we may not have been told that we have the ability not only to read, but to write ourselves into the world.”

Patel also read excerpts from her chapter, in which she discusses how the history of literacy, beginning in colonial times, excluded certain groups of people, for fear of the “catalytic effects” it could bring about in these oppressed groups of people.

“Literacy must be taught along with the histories of how literacy has been withheld from populations under the heel of settler colonialism,” Patel said.

Several audience members said they began to think about how the book could connect with their own lives after attending the event. Holly Plank, a doctoral student and graduate student researcher in the Learning Sciences and Policy Program within the School of Education, said she wanted to apply the book’s lessons to her future teaching career.

“I wanted to think about, as a white woman, ‘What does it look like for me to really live out the vision and mission of the school?” Plank said. “And I saw a lot of alignment of that with what I’ve heard about her book so far.”

Plank added that she enjoyed the format of the book as much as the content itself.

“I really appreciated the way she was lifting up other voices,” Plank said. “I had never seen a book like that where they use the arts and poetry to highlight their own reflections of what the authors are saying throughout a volume like this.”

Kinloch also discussed other chapters in the book, which touch on topics such as developing critical literacy languages, creating modern curricula that adapts to different types of students and what the education system is doing to enact change. The book also includes a foreword which includes quotes and passages from notable black women including Toni Morrison, Mary Jane McLeod Bethun and Bettina Love, an alum of Pitt’s School of Education.

As part of the poetic reflections Kinloch added to the middle and end of the book, the book’s final poem reflects on injustices and violence acted on people of color in today’s world.

“It’s in the book,” Kinloch said. “But it’s also in our face everyday.”

Kinloch added that the book’s conclusion, titled “Not a Conclusion,” is meant to convey to readers that there isn’t a definitive end to discussing the topics outlines in the text.

“There is never an end to this conversation,” Kinloch said, “especially when there are still injustices, oppressions and sanctioned occasions of violence that define our everyday existences.”

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