My Students Deserve to Share Their Stories On Their Own Terms

Mar 22, 2021 12:00:00 AM


I found "The Bluest Eye" on my own in my older sister’s classroom books. I was in ninth grade. I can’t remember what I thought when I first saw it. Curious. I opened it up and I didn’t understand everything, but I knew without a doubt that this was mine. It was my story, told with words that I would eventually understand fully. It was my secret, this story of this dark girl who could never live up to her own expectations of beauty and intelligence.

We revisited Morisson’s work in 10th grade English. [pullquote position="right"]As my white teacher read the words, I felt exposed.[/pullquote] All of my secrets! Now they’ll know everything. I understand now that my teacher was trying to be culturally responsive. She was trying to create space for me, looking for me to confirm the Black experience for my white, wealthy peers. She considered me an expert on “The Black Experience” that was now the subject of study for the month. I hated this. I just wanted to hide. Now I’d have to defend my Blackness against them and now they had evidence.

My Students Will Share Their Stories On Their Own Terms

I went into education for this exact moment. My students will share their stories on their own terms. They won’t be forced to share their stories for the sake of some private school teacher’s insistence on teaching Black history in her English class. They won’t have to speak on behalf or defend their community.

I found myself and my stories in college as an African-American studies major. [pullquote]I vowed to bring those stories back to my family, my community—the people who didn’t quite “make it out.”[/pullquote]

I found something else. A diversity I was expecting but wasn’t prepared for. A classroom of Brown faces, but not like my own. The tension was palpable. Ariana gets upset when Jorge says the N-word. My seniors want to have two separate proms, one for Banda and one strictly hip hop. I found teaching within this anti-Black divide one of the biggest challenges of my life.

And what could I provide? How could I possibly get them to see each other? I decided to start from that feeling of exposure. My Black and Brown students needed to see themselves reflected in their curriculum.

A large percentage of the students I teach are Latinx, many of them newcomers, from Central America and Mexico. Many of them are learning English for the first time. Many of them are having conversations with Black people for the first time. For many of them, I am their first Black teacher. Students who have faced incredible hardships, with commitments to their families and communities, that sometimes come before commitments to school.

[pullquote]All of my students, Black and brown, deserve a Black teacher.[/pullquote] They deserve to have someone who knows that feeling of exposure, of not being quite ready for people to see all of you, who can teach their stories. A teacher who could skillfully bring together the shared histories of these communities. In order to do this, I give my students an opportunity to share their stories on their own terms instead of reading sources from a sea of white authors, then plopping in a couple Black or brown faces in September and February just to make sure I have covered all the bases.

Students Need Opportunities to Reflect On Their Own Identities

I created an Ethnic Studies curriculum that allowed my students to breathe and gave them opportunities to reflect on their identities. Starting with a unit on identity where I simply asked them, 'who are we?,' I pushed back on descriptions of their race as a monolith—statements like ... “ Well, Latinos are...” and “Black people do...”—simply weren’t allowed in the classroom.

I challenged my students to think about the ways they were privileged, despite facing oppression every day. In my class this year, instead of asking my students, “Tell us what it's like to be an immigrant,” they were presented with texts written by Afro-Indigenous writers, like Alan Paleaz Lopez, a queer, Afro-Latinx poet whose work allowed both my Black and Latinx students to see themselves and hear their stories, without being put on display.

We Must Make Ethnic Studies a Priority

For students throughout California to have experiences like my students, state leaders must establish mechanisms to prioritize Ethnic Studies and to ensure educators are prepared to do this important work. The State Board of Education will be adopting a model curriculum for Ethnic Studies at its March meeting and I am hopeful that Assemblymember Jose Medina’s effort to establish Ethnic Studies as a graduation requirement with AB 101 will be successful this year. I am also encouraged that Governor Newsom has proposed investing in professional development and instructional materials for Ethnic Studies in his state budget. These are all steps in the right direction.

[pullquote]The solidarity we need among our Black and Brown students can happen when they see themselves equally reflected back in the curriculum, not to expose each other, or put groups on display, but to heal with each other.[/pullquote] Envision the power Black and Brown kids like me, finding their stories and knowing that they are, undoubtedly their own.

  Photo by andriiafanasiev, Canva-licensed

Asha Hannah

Asha Hannah teaches ninth grade Ethnic Studies at Leadership Public Schools in Oakland, California. She is a 2020-21 Teach Plus California Policy Fellow.

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