Race has been a powerful subtext of America’s education crisis during COVID — and Teachers College faculty members Detra Price-Dennis and Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz believe that teachers must be digitally fluent in order to understand and connect with the nation’s public school student population, which is primarily made up of young people who are Black, Indigenous or of color.

Case in point: the response of students and staff to the online workshops that Price-Dennis and Sealey-Ruiz conducted this winter as part of the first-ever Racial Equity Day at Hastings High School in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.  

Detra Price-Dennis and Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz

CREATING A SPACE FOR RACE Detra Price-Dennis (left) and Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz are co-authors of the forthcoming book Advancing Racial Literacies in Teacher Education: Activism for Equity in Digital Spaces. (Photos: TC Archives)

During her talk, Price-Dennis, Associate Professor of Education, shared an example from the youth platform TikTok in which a prominent figure in social media — someone who has cultivated a public image of being anti-racist — was implicated in a racist incident.

The conversation quickly ratcheted up. Some students defended the person’s actions; others condemned them.

“The exchanges in the chat show that kids are living through racism and oppression, and they want the tools to deal with it,” Price-Dennis says.

The exchange underscored a central point that Price-Dennis and Sealey-Ruiz make in their forthcoming book, Advancing Racial Literacies in Teacher Education: Activism for Equity in Digital Spaces (Teachers College Press).

“Teachers need to do work around their own racial and digital literacy,” says Sealey-Ruiz, Associate Professor of English Education. “They can’t afford to say, ‘I’m not technology-oriented.’ You may not be as quick as your students, but you have to build this literacy, because not only are students using technology every day, they’re learning about racial issues and becoming engaged in them though online spaces such as #BLM. So digital literacy can’t just be part of the curriculum. It is the curriculum.”

In advance of their book’s publication in May, Price-Dennis and Sealey-Ruiz have been bringing their message to teachers through a variety of venues.

TIMELY CONVERGENCE TC’s Detra Price-Dennis and Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz provide “theoretical and practical entry points into a conversation about race in the digital age.” (Photo courtesy of Teachers College Press)

Price-Dennis has repeatedly taught a course she developed, “Digital Learning for the K–8 Classroom,” through TC’s Continuing Professional Studies platform, and covered the same ground in webinars for Columbia University’s Global Centers. Since late March 2020, she has also hosted weekly Member Gatherings for the 35,000-member National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), in which teachers nationwide meet online to share ideas and build fellowship. The series has featured guest appearances by national book award winners, researchers, literacy educators, classroom teachers and public personalities speaking on topics that have ranged from linguistic justice and writing pedagogy to mentoring and LGBTQ representation.

At the very first gathering, Sealey-Ruiz read from her recently published volume of poetry, Love from the Vortex. A line from a poem titled “Icarus” caught the essence of what educators everywhere were already feeling: “The distance between us sometimes feels unbearable — too much to handle after a day in a life that requires all of me.” Sealey-Ruiz has also conducted professional development workshops in which in-service teachers, school leaders, community college educators and others undertake an “archaeology of the self” — a process of “digging deep and peeling back layers” to understand their own racial beliefs and practices so that they can teach their students to do the same. She’s done much of this work with her former doctoral student, Angel Acosta (Ed.D. ’20), an education consultant who has created a timeline experience in which educators and others review the history of racism in America and process their own emotional reactions.

This fall, Price-Dennis and Sealey-Ruiz will also co-teach a course titled “Digital Literacies for Equity in Education.”

“Teaching is being open to other people’s stories,” Sealey-Ruiz says. “But you have to know your own story. If you’re not aware of who you are and what you bring to the classroom, and if you don’t think deeply about how issues of race, gender, class and religion live inside of you, you will just exact harm.”

[Watch a video of Sealey-Ruiz discussing the "archaeology of the self."]