The Promise of Complementary Practices: Anti-Racism Pedagogy and Universal Design For Learning

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A photo of author Nadia Richards at the age of five
Me at about five years of age on my uncle’s farm in Kitchener, Ontario.

By: Nadia Richards
Manager, Anti-Racism Integration 
AREA Committee Member 

George Brown College

I imagine Anti-Racism and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as complementary pedagogical practices that together allow educators to challenge deep rooted issues of racism while ensuring students engage, learn, and grow.

As a way of demonstrating the value of drawing from both practices, allow me to speak from personal experience. When I was a toddler my family moved from our home in Montreal to my mother’s home in the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago. My mother's new job with the island’s Ministry of Education allowed for our family to embark on a new adventure.

During our time in Trinidad, I adjusted well to the education system’s rigour. I remember these early years with fondness. I flourished academically and loved learning. I could read at an early age and was good at math. Songs like the classic “There’s a Brown Girl in the Ring” livened up the playground and served to remind me that I was important. The encouragement to learn and love myself left me feeling secure.

When I was four, my family and I returned to Canada in the middle of winter. Although I loved Trinidad and was thriving in school, I was happy to return to Canada. I relished the prospect of snow and looked forward to starting at a new school. My mother encouraged this excitement. And why not: I was smart and could make friends easily enough. I thought of our return as a new adventure.

To this day I remember my first day in my new school and the name of my Junior Kindergarten teacher - let’s call her Mrs. J. My mother dressed me in a red snowsuit with white stripes specially selected for me at Sears. We took a 3-minute walk to my school. My mother waited patiently with me to enter the portable that housed the school’s early grades.

Mrs. J ushered me and my fellow students into a warm classroom. I was given a cubby and told to take off my snowsuit and wet boots and to put on my indoor shoes. This wasn’t easy, but I managed to do so without too much trouble. Later in the morning the bell rang for recess, which meant having to again put on my snowsuit. Doing so was a struggle, so much so that I held the class back. Unexpectedly, I was suddenly feeling self-conscious. The seemingly simple task of putting on my snow suit grew harder still. The minor ordeal should have ended there, perhaps with Mrs. J helping me. Alas it was made worse when she instead encouraged my fellow students to call me “slowpoke”. Enough did so that the term “slowpoke” rang in my ears as tears streamed down my cheeks. Up until that point, I was a happy and carefree child who enjoyed school and felt like I belonged. This incident, innocuous though it may seem, set me on an entirely different path. Suddenly I was unhappy and inhibited and made to feel like an outcast.

That evening I told my parents what happened. The following day my mother went directly to Mrs. J and expressed disapproval of her harsh and unkind tactics. I think Mrs. J. realized that I had a defender in my corner. She would never again call me out or ridicule me in front of the entire class. Yet my experience as her student hardly improved. There was a stark contrast between the way she engaged with the other children and the way she treated me. Although I was only a child, I was aware of these not so subtle discrepancies. There was a kindness in the way she interacted with other students that was largely absent in her interactions with me. When she looked at me her gaze was typically cold and uncaring. Unfortunately, I had not yet possessed the language to articulate my discomfort and isolation. I could not find my bearings as a young student.

I remain unsure if Mrs. J intended to leave such an unflattering mark on one of her students. Nevertheless, I am sure that such experiences with her were repeated in subsequent grades. The effects were palpable and lingering. Although I had supportive parents — my mother was herself an educator — I began to regress academically, my confidence slowly drained. I almost lost my ability to read. Indeed, I was so riddled with anxiety that I could barely read aloud when called upon to do so. That gnawing sense of isolation rarely left me during my primary school years and eventually I grew indifferent to education.

To complicate matters, my school promoted phonics as the primary means for teaching literacy. Alas phonics wasn’t well suited to the shy and anxious young girl I had become. I continued to struggle to read until, at last and thanks largely to my mother, my learning underwent another shift. Her unwavering love, care and guidance gradually altered my trajectory as a student. Variety became the spice of my reading and academic life. My mother had me read a variety of books and play different word games. My love of reading and learning, for so long dormant, returned. Over time my literacy proficiency improved and too did my confidence.

The connections among my story, anti-racism and UDL may not be immediately evident. Yet I believe the connections are important to discern. To begin with, I believe Mrs. J’s treatment of me constituted a form of subtle racism. As a young child, moreover, I stood little chance of identifying her treatment as such, let alone fighting against it. This point is crucial to emphasize. Young children especially are at the mercy of their teachers. This is why trust, inclusivity and teaching excellence are of such profound importance in a student’s academic experience. Mrs. J abused her power as an educator and allowed her personal biases to shape her engagement. I often think about students who might have had a teacher like Mrs. J. What if they did not have a supportive person in their life to help them get back on track? How do such experiences with teachers like Mrs. J in one’s younger years set the stage for their future interactions and expectations of post-secondary institutions? What would be needed in post-secondary institutions to support such a student and what do educators need to know in order to provide them with the appropriate support?

Anti-Racist pedagogy helps to both explain and counteract the persistence and impact of racism (Blakeney, 20, p.119). It is also a teaching and learning model designed to improve how lessons are taught and learned. In other words, teachers and students are meant to benefit from an educational model with anti-racism at its core. I have often wondered how Mrs. J. might have benefited had she embraced such a model. Would she have thought twice before encouraging my classmates to refer to me in a derogatory way? Would she have considered the potential such moments have in setting a child back in her learning? Would she have better appreciated her role in facilitating a safe, healthy and nurturing classroom for all her students? Would she have been more prepared to self-reflect and interrogate her own biases, particularly where race is concerned? We will never know, of course. Nevertheless, in posing such questions now we can begin to imagine how anti-racism pedagogy could transform the learning experience.

The UDL framework has three principles at its core:

  1. Means for Engagement: engaging learners in different ways, while providing for a space in which they have autonomy over their learning journey.
  2. Means of Representation: ensuring learners receive content to which they can closely relate (i.e., culturally relevant content).
  3. Action and Expression: providing learners with the space and opportunity to demonstrate their skills and knowledge in various ways.

In my case, I might have sooner overcome the trauma I experienced on my first day of school had the UDL model been adopted. Similarly, if there was a greater attempt at engaging me, I might not have lost my confidence as a reader. Simple questions might have been enough to do the trick. What do you like Nadia? What are your interests? Exposure to culturally relevant literature may have left me feeling less isolated and more excited to read. Had Mrs. J especially more actively encouraged me to express myself, I might have overcome my tentativeness and shyness. I likely would have felt more secure and less adrift. I certainly would have been better equipped to articulate the knowledge I had gained in any given subject.

Now imagine a learning experience inspired by both anti-racist pedagogy and UDL. Another of my own grade school experiences allows me to do just that.

Besides my mother, one teacher especially — let’s call him Mr. D — was also responsible for altering my trajectory as a student. Mr. D was my teacher for Grades 7 and 8. He was a stern yet compassionate educator. Perhaps his greatest gift was his ability to engage students, making them feel important and worthy of his time and energy. He presented content in so many ways, often ingenious and always accessible, so that I was never bored and always attentive.

In grade eight Mr. D focused on different peace leaders around the world. He introduced the class to Nelson Mandela. He carefully explained the system of apartheid, why Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, who the players were and why it was wrong. This was a moment of transformative anti-racist pedagogy. The history and legacy of colonization in South Africa was contextualized for us and explained. Mr. D would emphasize the importance of being decent people, not complacent and apathetic to the suffering of others. He explained racism to the class. This would be the first time any teacher had acknowledge racism that racism had existed. I was taken aback by the lesson and proud that he showcased someone who looked like me was so powerful, revered and had the tenacity to combat a system that seemed relentless to change. When Nelson Mandela was released in February of 1990, it was during my last year of elementary school, and I was glued to the television looking at history being made and thankful for Mr. D's lesson.

Mr. D gave me and my peers numerous opportunities to be independent and to choose topics that demonstrated our knowledge in meaningful ways. He encouraged us to share our knowledge and do so in ways we could situate ourselves. One of the years with Mr. D, we had “cultural week”. I performed an Afro-Caribbean folk dance. I did this dance in front of my peers, and in that moment, I was able to share and have my fellow peers learn from me. This type of engagement created a sensitivity amongst the students, one that promoted a different style of learning that was enjoyable and whilst setting a stage for building one’s confidence.

Mr. D strikes me now as the model of a UDL educator — engaging, flexible and committed to all of his students. More importantly, I see now that Anti-Racism principles guided his approach to teaching and learning. He made an invaluable impact on my life.

Not long after starting my Ph.D. in the Department of Social Justice Education, OISE, University of Toronto, I sent Mr. D a letter thanking him for all he had done for me in Grades 7 and 8. I thanked him for his level of compassion and understanding and his skillfulness as an educator. I reminded him of all that he did to help me to engage in my learning and to renew my love of learning. Mr. D expressed his own gratitude.

When I became an educator, I prioritized anti-racist pedagogy and saw it as a way of being. I began with the ways in which I engaged my students, respecting and accepting their uniqueness and providing myself with the space to learn from them. I embraced other ways of knowing, which included indigenous knowledges, while making a point to address issues of colonization and the implications on colonized peoples, especially those impacted by colonization on this land. And lastly, because I understood that students learned in different ways from my own experiences, I aimed to diversify the knowledge I shared and how I chose to present the knowledge, by way of searching for various modalities to share.

After teaching in the post-secondary system for over five years, I got a job as a professor at George Brown College. I remember attending my first UDL information session at the college. I was amazed by the versatility of the UDL framework and how it supported all students. I could connect the positive experiences in my own learning journey with the UDL framework. I looked forward to creating a learning environment where my students were inspired to learn and would use the tools I provided them with, through a UDL framework, to empower themselves. My teaching experience became a richer experience, as I had gained the insights from my firsthand experiences, allowing me to recognized the significance of engaging in anti-racist pedagogy, whilst striving to convey the knowledge using UDL as a framework to reach as many students as I could.

My experiences as a child fueled my passion for anti-racism and shaped my academic and professional aspirations. I became determined to focus my scholarship and work in areas of anti-racism, education and social justice. As an educator I was granted with the privilege of learning how to combine anti-racist pedagogy with UDL, making for a better learning experience for my student. They were invited to engage, grow in their learning through various means of representation and received the right to express their knowledge and skills in the best way they could.

Today, I am the Manager of Anti-Racism Integration and a member of the Anti-Racism and Equity Advisory Committee at George Brown College. My work is centred in building relationships with the George Brown community to work towards infusing anti-racism into everything we do at the college, from the ways we treat each other and our students, to the ways in which we educate. It is my hope that my story will validate the significance of educators incorporating anti-racism and UDL practices into their content and classrooms. There is much promise to this complementary practice where possibilities for educators, students and institutions are limitless.


Blakeney, A. M. (2005). Antiracist pedagogy: Definition, theory, and professional development. Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, 2:(1), 119-132. DOI: 10.1080/15505170.2005.10411532