It was a weekend afternoon in early March — the first Saturday after schools across the nation had shut their doors and switched to remote learning. Emily Kirkpatrick, Executive Director of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) was at home in Louisville, Kentucky, when an email came from Teachers College’s Detra Price-Dennis asking for a few minutes of her time.

The Digital File

Soon Kirkpatrick and Price-Dennis, Associate Professor of Education, were on the phone, kicking around ideas about how to help NCTE’s 35,000 teachers navigate completely uncharted waters. They looped in another education professor at Stanford, and that same evening, an email went out inviting all NCTE members to attend a virtual workshop to “touch base with our community and support one another.”

“That’s what it’s like to work with Detra,” says Kirkpatrick. “You immediately get into a conversation with her that is thoughtful, smart and generative, and good things happen — quickly.”

I knew when I was working on my Ph.D.that I didn’t want to become a pie-in-the-sky theorist. I promised myself that when I graduated that I’d be in a school every week supporting the work of teachers and families. And I’ve held to that. 

— Detra Price-Dennis

Among the many educators who have helped guide the public schools during the COVID pandemic, few have been more active, on more fronts, than Price-Dennis. During the first month, while dealing with her own transition to teaching TC students fully online, Price-Dennis was seemingly everywhere. She co-organized the virtual NCTE workshops, which now regularly bring together hundreds of English teachers from across the United States and around the world. She appeared on a virtual town hall panel about public education in New York City, led by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, at which she called for teachers to “focus on the learner, not the tool” and cautioned parents that “there isn’t going to be a one-size fits all solution.” (Perhaps mindful of her own eight-year-old daughter, she also reminded adults to think about young children’s need for sensory input. “Even if it’s just for 15 or 20 minutes, if there’s some rice you can put in a baggy or a squashy ball — something to help them with sitting there and starting at a computer screen all day.”)

Virtual Town Hall: Meeting K-12 Student Needs During COVID-19

Meanwhile, using a video-based learning platform called Flipgrid, Price-Dennis also has been assembling a digital program to enable youngsters to ask health professionals questions about the coronavirus and “get information about COVID in terms that relate to where they are developmentally.” And she has been a frequent source of expertise and comment for Chalkbeat, New York 1 and other media outlets scrambling to understand the new education landscape.

In all, it has very clearly been a case of the right person at the right moment. A former early childhood and middle school teacher, Price-Dennis is an expert in using digital platforms to engage students from marginalized backgrounds. In one of her past research projects, for which she received NCTE’s Janet Emig Award for Exemplary Scholarship, she provided black fifth-grade girls in Texas with digital tools to explore media portrayals of the killing of Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man, by Baltimore City police. At TC’s annual Reimagining Education Summer Institutes, she’s helped teachers create virtual libraries of culturally relevant literature for diverse students. Prior to the school shutdown, she was partnering with a school in lower Manhattan to help children explore the history of monuments and statues in their neighborhood and create podcasts — and statues — of local elders who were more representative of their lives. And at Teachers College, she’s an adviser to the Media and Social Change Lab (MASCLab), a hub where faculty and students alike come together to create multi-modal stories.

But Price-Dennis’s immediate and unhesitating response to the COVID crisis also reflects a broader commitment she made years ago, when she first decided to leave public school teaching to pursue a career in higher education.

“I knew when I was working on my Ph.D. at Ohio State that I didn’t want to become a pie-in-the-sky theorist,” she says. “I promised myself that when I graduated that I’d be in a school every week supporting the work of teachers and families. And I’ve held to that.”

I think we need to start imagining what lies ahead and to dream of worlds that don’t exist to help us address the problems we face today. 

— Detra Price-Dennis

With the nation once again rocked by the police killing of an unarmed black man, Price-Dennis’s most important contributions during this increasingly troubled time may yet turn out to be in the realm of racial literacy.

Three years ago, working with TC doctoral student Jenice Mateo-Toledo, teacher and coordinator of English as a Second Language at Farragut Middle School in Hastings-on-Hudson, Price-Dennis helped develop a “Courageous Conversations” program to encourage a dialogue on diversity and race in the largely white Hastings-on-Hudson Free school.

Price-Dennis, typically, became an instant presence, immersing herself in Farragut classrooms, corridors, faculty strategy sessions and even Hastings-on-Hudson Union Free School District Board of Education meetings.

The success of “Courageous Conversations” prompted Price-Dennis to suggest that Farragut introduce a book club to complement and support the exercises in cultural awareness. 

“She came in twice a week and actually taught the class with me for an entire quarter,” says Mateo-Toledo. “Talk about getting your hands dirty — I mean, professors just don’t do that. Detra not only worked with the students, but also she changed the way I teach by pointing to ways to improve the learning.” 

“Detra became part of the fabric of the education we deliver at Farragut,” says Principal Gail Kipper.

More recently Price-Dennis also led “JustLit: Fostering Racial Literacy with Children” — a workshop for teachers on using culturally relevant literature to help young students “ask questions about race, social justice and equity and prompt them to take action.”  (JustLit was funded by the Rowland and Sylvia Schaefer Family Foundation, co-directed by Teachers College Trustee Marla Schaefer.)

The current moment, with protesters in the street and the president threatening to take military action, is, again, unchartered territory — and even Price-Dennis, who brings an almost unfailing sense of optimism to her work, has had dark moments.

“I really don’t have the words right now,” she tweeted in late May. “Just grief and anger.”

But stepping back, she remains convinced that out of upheaval often comes change for the better.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat the stress people are feeling,” she says. “But I think we need to start imagining what lies ahead and to dream of worlds that don’t exist to help us address the problems we face today.” She remains encouraged by how quickly teachers from urban, suburban, rural, wealthy and impoverished districts have come together as a digital community. “Everyone has interesting challenges and everyone’s context is different. Yet, we’re all in a space where we’re just trying to survive. It’s an opportunity for us to be open and vulnerable.”

Steve Giegerich