The Writing on the Wall

It is impossible for me to go to my social pages or turn on the news and not make connections between national and international discourse about Black and brown people and the rise of racial slurs, symbols, bigotry, and harassment occurring in our schools. Across the country, racially motivated and other biased school incidents are reported regularly in the news and on social media. The preponderance and frequency of these incidents point to school and social climates that create toxic learning environments for all students and indelibly harm the students who are targeted. A close friend of mine, and mother of two elementary school students, frequently shares with me incidents that her Black daughter and son experience at their school. I recently received a text message from a Black teacher at a predominately Latino elementary school with a list of incidents experienced by her and other Black teachers and students that have gone unaddressed. Every time one of these stories is shared with me, or I read them in the news, my mind is catapulted to the faces of Little Rock Nine and Ruby Brown as they walked through angry mobs hurling slurs, epithets, and threats at them. 

Hate at School, a special report released in 2018 by the Southern Poverty Law Center found:

  • More than two-thirds of the 2,776 educators who responded to the questionnaire witnessed a hate or bias incident in their school during the fall of 2018. 
  • Fewer than 5 percent of the incidents witnessed by educators were reported in the news media. 
  • Racism appears to be the motivation behind most hate and bias incidents in school, accounting for 63 percent of incidents reported in the news and 33 percent of incidents reported by teachers. 
  • Of the incidents reported by educators, those involving racism and antisemitism were the most likely to be reported in the news media; anti-Latinx and anti-LGBTQ incidents were the least likely. 
  • Most of the hate and bias incidents witnessed by educators were not addressed by school leaders. No one was disciplined in 57 percent of them. Nine times out of 10, administrators failed to denounce the bias or reaffirm school values.

Educators, whether in classrooms, schools, districts, after-school programs, or community partners need to be prepared and accountable for intervening when these acts occur. But, as the findings above demonstrate most often they are not. Students can end up physically harming each other and themselves when the impact of derogatory language, symbols, and acts is dismissed. The narrative below, compiled and adapted from incidents reported in various news articles nationwide, is a snapshot of how unaddressed incidents reinforce a culture of tolerance and escalate into crisis. I was prompted to write it after a Facebook friend posted about their Black child being told they were an “animal.” I hope that if you see any aspect of your classroom, school, or district culture in this anecdote you will take steps to educate and prepare yourself to act in ways that prioritize those targeted, are anti-racist, and foster collective accountability for acceptance, belonging, and inclusivity in your culture and environment.

When You See the Writing on the Wall Believe It

The school year is underway, the weather is changing, and the rhythm of your school is palpable. Maybe it’s your 10th year as principal. Perhaps you are a new principal. You might be a veteran principal at a new school. The first few weeks greeted you with a few challenges, expected and unexpected. You have not been able to fill the vacancies in bilingual education, your Vice Principal has taken a leave, one teacher did not give you notice they would not be returning, and teachers' absences are high. The schedule may have required some minor, or major, adjustments. Your cafeteria was skipped over again for the maintenance you were promised it would get for the last five summers. The materials for the district’s new reading initiative arrived six weeks into the school year. While students are settling into the new year your walkthroughs and teacher feedback make it clear that they are having trouble concentrating in class. But together with your leadership team, teachers, and support staff, you are finding ways to navigate and address these challenges. So, though you know the beginning of the school year has not been perfect (is there one?) you feel good about how you are handling it. And, because no school year is without challenges, you view them as par for the course.

During one of your walkthroughs, you pop into an empty boys' bathroom for a routine peak. Nothing seems out of the ordinary. A few paper towels on the floor. A sink that needs a good wipe. When you look into one of the bathroom stalls you notice writing on the wall. You look a little closer and are shocked to see the words “Black lives do not matter” and other racist slurs scribbled in an area of the stall. You do a double take then step into the stall and close the door to see what else might be there. Relief sets in when you see there is nothing more. After you ask maintenance to remove the writing, you check all of the school bathrooms and are again relieved to find nothing more. At the end of the day, you meet with your leadership team to share what you found and to see if they have observed or learned of other incidents. The leadership team, in shocked confusion, begins pointing out all of the ways that the school is diverse and inclusive and how it has been responsive to student requests for programs and activities that support their specific concerns. You inform the leadership team that you will anecdotally document the incident and ask them to watch and listen for further issues. But, because your leadership team agrees that it appears to be an isolated incident and you cannot identify any responsible students, you decide not to raise the incident as a school-wide concern. 

A few weeks pass, no other incidents have been identified or reported. You feel confident your hunch that the writing on the wall was an isolated incident, maybe a proverbial “bad apple,” was correct. You’re glad you didn’t make it a community concern.


A Black parent writes a post on her Facebook page that says her 13-year-old son, one of your students, was told by another student “to go back to where he came from.” A thread of comments unwinds. Some of the comments like, “They were only kidding,” “It was a joke,” “Kids talk like that all of the time,” and “Maybe they didn’t know it was offensive,” dismissed the comments (Maydun, 2023).  But other Black parents of children in the school start sharing incidents and comments that their children experienced. One parent stated their daughter was told by a non-Black student, “No one likes n****s” (Joseph and Moshtaghian, 2021). Another Black parent adds their child and two other children were called a racial slur when a white classmate became upset during a conversation at lunch (Stein, 2019). There are reports of Black students being told they stink and others being called monkeys by their white and other non-Black peers (Chavez, 2021). Black parents indicate that “incidents were reported to administrators, and the parents of the children who used the epithet(s) were notified, but the student(s) were not immediately disciplined…The parents of the Black students were not immediately notified of the episodes” (Stein, 2019). The thread of Facebook comments becomes a living witness to the writing you discovered in the bathroom stall but decided not to address. The local news channel has picked up on the Facebook comments, spoken to parents, and requested comments from school and district leadership.

You are asking yourself, “How did this happen?”

You didn’t believe the writing on the bathroom wall and, therefore, did not take immediate, proactive, and deliberate steps to denounce and address the issue. The writing in the stall of the boys’ bathroom was a trace sign of racial bigotry in your school. Prompt strong measures are needed to weed and prevent out prejudice, racism, and bigotry in all of its forms in schools and classrooms. Delayed uncertain responses communicate tolerance, comfort, and complacency and tacitly condone these behaviors.

You are asking yourself, “What should I have done?”

Even though one, two, or a small group of students may have been responsible for the comments in the bathroom stall, many more would have seen and been impacted by them. Some may have told their parents and caregivers about them. Denouncing the comments to students and staff, parents and caregivers, and the wider community, investigating the incidents, and responding to the harm experienced by target students are the most important immediate actions to take. They demonstrate that the comments were seen and taken seriously by school leadership and set the tone for a school environment that speaks up and acts against racism and bigotry.

You are asking yourself, “Is that enough?”

The answer is no. You were not prepared to respond to bathroom comments in a manner that demonstrated using bigoted and racist language is not permitted in your school. You were unable to assess how this incident was an indicator with a root cause that needed to be identified. You must prepare your school community to work together to create an anti-racist and anti-bigoted school culture.

  • Involve others to create community agreements for the school that communicate expectations, norms, values, and beliefs about acceptance, belonging, and inclusivity, and name what these beliefs and values look like in your learning community.
  • Denounce, investigate, and respond to incidents in ways that prioritize targeted groups so they feel heard, safe, and protected and create accountability within the school community.
  • Develop a language that everyone in the community can use to respond to prejudice, racism, and bigotry when it occurs. For example, phrases like, “I find that offensive,” “That isn’t funny,” and “Why would you say something like that?” speak up challenge derogatory language, and can create dialogue (Learning for Justice, 2022).
  • Support teachers to develop classroom communities and learning that build an understanding of the impact of racism and bigotry and empower students to speak up against it for themselves.
  • Identify the resources you have in place to respond to racist and bigoted comments, acts, or incidents, and seek external expertise and facilitation when you need it.

There is never a time to be silent about racism or bigotry of any kind in our classrooms and schools. When you see, hear, observe, or receive reports about racist and other bigoted comments, acts, or incidents believe they are real. Denounce and address racist and bigoted behavior in your learning community before it becomes a crisis.

Don’t ignore the writing on the wall.



Chavez, N. (2021, December 5). "Students are fed up with racist slurs and bullying. Now they are walking out of class." CNN.

Joseph, E. and Moshtaghian, A. (2021, November 15). "Minnesota police investigating video of racist rant encouraging a Black student to her own life." CNN.

Maydun, H. (2023, April 19). “Teacher at school where Black student was called ‘monkey’ said she didn’t know it was an insult.” KRON News.

Mercado, R. (2022, November 22). "Oakland community responds in wake of the racist message, threat found in school bathroom." The Mercury News.

Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). (2018). Hate at School.

Stein, P. (2019, March 12). "A white child called three black classmates a racial slur. Months later, the school is struggling to move forward." Washington Post.

Teaching for Tolerance. (2022) Speak Up at School: How to respond to Every Day Prejudice, Bigotry, and Stereotypes. Southern Poverty Law Center.



Responding to Hate and Bias at School

A guide for administrators, counselors, and teachers.

Mix It Up

Ideas for teens about breaking down social barriers and addressing bias and bigotry at school

Responding to Everyday Bigotry: Speak Up

Anecdotal stories that are organized by the following categories: among family; among friends and neighbors; at work; at school; and in public.


Affirming Beliefs Matter to Black Students’ Reading Development

I want Black students to do more than learn to read. I want them to be empowered by reading!

You don’t need an alphabet of degrees to know that students’ reading abilities are essential to their success in school, the choices they will be able to make in life, and most importantly, in my view, the full expression of their humanity. Certainly, the pandemic took its toll on students with school shutdowns, remote learning, isolation, and fractured relationships. But if we are being truthful, the failure of our educational system to empower Black students as autonomous critical readers has little to do with COVID-19 and more to do with an educational system that devalues and limits the learning of Black students to basic literacy. 

Black people have always valued the written and spoken word, using it to name, navigate, contest, and fight against oppression and injustice in our lives and, at times, at great peril (Douglas, 2020; Muhammad, 2020; Perry et al., 2004). For Black people, literacy encompasses more than reading fundamentals. When I think of Black people and literacy, I am reminded of words from Theresa Perry’s essay “Freedom for Literacy,” “To be literate also included what you could do with your knowledge–with words–whether you could use words to motivate people to action, persuade people of the truth of your assertion, or inspire others to become literate” (Perry et al., 2004). Literacy is a tool for the individual and collective advancement of Black people. 

The real “reading crisis” is that the systems, policies, practices, and beliefs driving education do not value how Black people value reading or what it means to Black people to be literate. Reading instruction has historically framed and treated the literacy experiences, practices, skills, dispositions, and strengths Black children arrive to school with as deficits that need remediation, problems to be fixed. Black students' cultural frames of reference are generally not considered vital resources when it comes to their reading development. The literacy resources, experiences, and behaviors Black students bring to their learning are valued only when they align with traditional, western practices and standardized measures. White-centered curricula and instructional practices dominate reading instruction creating disconnects between the lived realities of Black students and their learning which is a devastating barrier to learning (Wingfield, 2023). 

The rejection, erasure, and negation embedded in these learning experiences make learning cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually unsafe for Black students. As a result, Black students are continuously required to make choices about the pieces of themselves that they carry with them in our classrooms, schools, and districts. Where connection and relationship should be nurtured, alienation and separation are instead normalized, making Black students particularly vulnerable when learning to read. We must challenge ourselves to disrupt this. For reading instruction to advance true literacy development for Black students it must be grounded in the literacy traditions and practices of Black people and build on the interests and dreams of Black students today. 

A significant body of research demonstrates how culture influences neurocognitive processes. As Zarretta Hammond (2015) suggests, “Culture is the software that programs our brains.Given the complex brain functions that are required when learning to read we should not expect the significance of culture to to be any less important when it comes to learning to read. Drawing from the science of reading without connecting reading instruction to the science of how the brain learns will not significantly propel Black students’ reading development. The expanding knowledge about how cultural experiences impact our brains (particularly how we process information) tells us that our uses of brain-based principles should center and integrate culturally responsive-sustaining approaches (Hammond, 2019; Jackson, 2010; Park and Huang, 2012; Han and Ma 2021). But do we all have the beliefs needed to do this?

For Black students, reading development must be guided by the purpose to “create in (them) the ability to look at the world for (them)self, to make (their) own decisions,” and “act to liberate themselves, and the world, from injustice”’ (Baldwin, 1963; Freire, 2010, Wells, 2023). Cultivating these literacy environments, what I call emancipatory educational ecosystems, requires that educators replace the deficit beliefs about the literacy repertoires of Black students and culturally-centered approaches that underlie many evidenced-based reading policies, strategies, and practices with affirming beliefs that nurture literacy environments that are connected to Black students’ identities, cultures, histories, and communities.

As teachers, schools, and districts develop plans and galvanize parental and community support to promote reading, their plans must strive to create learning environments, emancipatory educational ecosystems if you will, where Black students are affirmed and immersed in reading instruction where their identities and cultures matter. Learning to read must be powered by affirming beliefs that lead to meaningful culturally responsive-sustaining practices. And because beliefs are core to what we do as human beings and educators, we must start with a belief system that directs us towards policies, strategies, practices, and content that leave no doubt they are intended for Black students to be empowered readers. Here are four affirming beliefs that support Black students.

  • Black lives matter: Black lives matter is the unambiguous belief in the humanity, dignity, intelligence, beauty, and worth of Black to our society and the entire planet, that Black people, Black history, Black culture(s), Black experiences, and Black sensibilities are vital to the past, present, and future and Black people have the right to be everywhere and be vibrantly, joyfully, creatively, largely, and abundantly alive wherever we are.
    •  Use Black students’ lived experiences boldly and creatively to spark curiosity and interest, strengthen their identities, and sustain their culture(s) through the use of culturally responsive-sustaining content and instructional practices. 
  • Belonging: In Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and Standing Alone, Brené Brown (2019) defines “true belonging” as “the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness.
    •  Welcome, love, support, and engage Black students with the intention of fortifying their understanding that “(their) existence—who and how (they) are—is in and of itself a contribution to the people and place around (them)” (Brown, 2019).
  • Interdependence: Interdependence is the belief that people share social and emotional bonds with each other that support their individual and collective well-being and, at the same time, allow everyone to hold a solid sense of themselves within those bonds. 
    • Understand learning to read as a collective act that develops through interaction with words and the world, by building on Black literacy practices, and in relationship with others.
  • Empowerment: “Empowerment is a multi-dimensional social process that helps people gain control over their own lives. It is a process that fosters power (that is, the capacity to implement) in people, for use in their own lives, their communities, and their society, by acting on issues they define as important" (Page and Czuba, 1999).
    • Immerse Black students in texts that are mirrors of the historical greatness of Black people and windows that invite them to develop their own understandings of lives, their communities, and the world.



Aukerman, M., & Chambers Schuldt, L. (2021). What matters most? toward a robust and socially just science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1). 

Baldwin, J. (1963). A talk to teachers. In J. Baldwin (Ed.), The price of the ticket: Collected nonfiction 1948–1965 (pp. 325– 332). St. Martin’s Press.

Brown, B. (2019). Braving the wilderness: The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone. Random House.

Douglas, F. (2020). My bondage and my freedom. Mint Editions.

Freire, P. (2010). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Green Bee.

Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain. Corwin.

Jackson, Y. (2010). Pedagogy of confidence: Inspiring high intellectual performance in urban schools. Teachers College Press.

Han, S., & Ma, Y. (2015). A culture–behavior–brain loop model of human development. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19(11), 666–676.

Muhammad, G. (2020). Cultivating genius: An equity framework for culturally and historically responsive literacy. Scholastic.

Perry, T., Steele, C., & Hilliard, A. G. (2003). Young, gifted, and Black: Promoting high achievement among African-American students.

Beacon Press.

Page, N., & Czuba, C. (1999). Empowerment: What is it? Journal of Extension, 37(5).


Park, D. C., & Huang, C.-M. (2010). Culture wires the brain. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(4), 391–400. 

Wells, L. (2023). There Are No Deficits Here: Disrupting anti-Blackness in education. Corwin.

Wingfield, J. (2023). Literacy as a Revolutionary Act in Early Learning Classrooms. In K. Porsher, R. Ramkellaean-Artega, C. Hinds-Roger, & J. Bell (Eds.), From Being Woke to Doing# theWork (pp. 225–233). Brill.

Looking for Anti-Blackness in My School: Where do I start?

Looking for Anti-Blackness in My School: Where do I start?

During a conversation with the legendary principal and national speaker, Baruti Kafele, on Episode 175 of his weekly AP and New Principal Academy, we discussed steps school leaders (and other educators) can take when school opens to begin addressing anti-Blackness in their schools (and classrooms). I shared an abbreviated definition of anti-Blackness from my new book, There Are No Deficits Here: Disrupting Anti-Blackness in Education, as well as a few look fors (Wells, 2023).

School leaders who want to build school cultures that are fortified against the inequalities and systemic oppression endemic to our society must do so ON PURPOSE. While systemic and institutional racism is not new, this moment is. We need definitions and strategies to address anti-Blackness in our current time. I offer the full definition of anti-Blackness from There Are No Deficits Here to help school leaders understand what it is and how it operates.

“Anti-Blackness is the beliefs, attitudes, practices, and behaviors that create the specific forms of racism that systematically marginalize, dehumanize, denigrate, and disempower Black people (Comrie et al., n.d.). Anti-Blackness positions Black people as inherently inferior and codifies a continuum of social belonging on which all people, including all people of color, are situated but on which Black people are categorically denied the benefits of membership. Anti-Blackness is the ideological, structural, and cultural foundation on which the violence; lack of access to education, jobs, and healthcare; psychological abuse; exposure to toxic, unhealthful environments; and disenfranchisement we experience are normalized. Anti-Blackness exists and operates both at the individual and structural level within our educational ecosystems and generates learning opportunities that perpetuate the mistreatment and erasure of Black people in schools and society.“

So, what do you do with this definition? How do you use this definition or any other definition of anti-Blackness to examine your thinking and your school for the ways in which anti-Blackness shows up? Begin by asking yourself, the leader, three important questions?

  1. Am I ready to be uncomfortable enough to do this work?
  2. How have my experiences shaped my beliefs and perspectives?
  3. What resources do I need to guide my school in this work?

Answering these questions honestly for yourself will let you know if you are ready to begin the work, give you insight into your mindset, and identify the resources you need. Then you can begin using these five steps to help you become aware of and respond to anti-Blackness in your work: Look, Name, Watch, Replace, and Repeat. It is important to note that there is no correct pace for moving through these steps. You should pause and process between each step so you can develop a depth of understanding before moving on. But starting with you first is essential. Spending time moving through these steps in your everyday life is vital to becoming metacognitive about your thinking and actions. It is also important that when you do begin engaging your school community you work collectively with a representative cross-section of stakeholders, what I call conscious collectivism, and have the support you need from experts. 



LOOK: Hold the mirror up and take a hard-eyed look at your thinking, feelings, and behavior. Here are a few ways you can begin this reflection.

  1. Observe yourself in public spaces like grocery stores. Who do (don't) you stop for? To whom do (don't) you say excuse me? What do you think about people as you pass them? 
  2. Identify the thoughts and feelings you have when driving through predominantly Black neighborhoods and communities. When you see groups of Black people in restaurants? At the beach? The movies? What do you do? 
  3. Examine how you respond to conversations about race, news reports about acts of aggression or violence toward Black people, and protests in support of the rights of Black people.

NAME: When you identify anti-Blackness in your thinking, feelings, and behavior name it.

WATCH: Be mindful and develop practices for noticing and naming anti-Blackness.

REPLACE: Be proactive in redirecting your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to those that affirm Blackness.

REPEAT: Keep looking, naming, watching, and replacing to understand and uproot anti-Blackness when it shows up for you.



LOOK: Hold the mirror up and take a hard-eyed look into your school to analyze the culture. Here are 15 questions you can ask when looking at your school.

  1. What do you see in the physical environment?
  2. How are students distributed across classrooms and courses?
  3. What does student seating in classrooms look like?
  4. How do curricula materials portray and discuss Black people? What do you do to address inclusivity? Negative images?
  5. What instructional strategies are most prominent?
  6. What types of questions do you ask Black students (boys, girls, LGBTQ, non-binary)
  7. Who is disciplined? For what? How?
  8. What is the impact of policies, practices, and programs on Black students?
  9. What are the demographics of the staff? Who is in what positions?
  10. How do you talk to Black students (boys, girls, LGBTQ, non-binary)? 
  11. How does your school encourage Black students to express themselves?
  12. What is the vocabulary of your school when talking about Black students?
  13. What do you do when Black students identify issues of race, racism, discrimination, exclusion, and prejudice in your classroom, school, or district?
  14. Where do you get external support? What organizations? What are the demographics of the leaders? The staff?
  15. Has your school made a public commitment to equity? Racial equity? Anti-Racism? Where is there evidence of this commitment in your school?

NAME: Shift the language you use in your school from terms like “discrimination,” "unintentional," “unfairness,” and “implicit-bias,” to explicitly name anti-Blackness where you identify it.

WATCH: Develop a culture of mindfulness in your school where there are norms and practices for noticing and naming anti-Blackness

REPLACE: Be proactive in changing the culture and correcting the policies, practices, materials, partners, and language that harm Black people in your school.

REPEAT: Keep looking, naming, watching, and replacing to understand and address anti-Blackness in your school.

Confronting the reality of anti-Blackness in our schools is essential to creating educational environments where Black students and their identities, histories, and cultures are valued in the culture and learning, where they can thrive! We need leaders with the conviction and courage to investigate the beliefs and practices operating in their own thinking and in their schools. May you be the ones who take the first step.


Comrie, J. W., Landor, A. M., Riley, K. T., & Williamson, J. D. (n.d.). Anti-Blackness/ colorism. Boston Center for Antiracist Research, Boston University. https:// files/2022/06/Anti-Black.pdf 

Wells, L. (2023). There Are No Deficits Here: Disrupting