The Friday before school started, as we sat through professional development, a colleague passed around a note: A student had been murdered. Devastated, we waited for the principal to acknowledge that a member of our community had been lost to the violence that is part of living and teaching in the Watts area of Los Angeles. That moment never came. In fact, when one of us set up a memorial in the back of our classroom, we were told not to—it would be too traumatic for students, who needed to “focus on school.”
We asked the principal why he chose not to address our loss. He said there was no time for grieving—500 students were depending on us to be “ready” on Monday.
But what does it mean to prepare our students for “college, leadership, and life” (our district’s slogan) when the majority, all African American and Latina/o, are living without food security, healthcare, decent housing, or safe streets? How do we acknowledge our students’ struggles? How do we use those struggles as teaching tools to help our students see their individual and collective strength, and to work towards a more just world?
As a Chicana and a Pinay English teacher, we each went into teaching because of the promise education represents in our communities’ struggles for self-determination. What we didn’t envision were the ways that poverty would manifest in our classrooms and, even worse, the ways our school would blatantly ignore our students’ pressing needs.
We realized we needed to create a counter-space to help students unravel the layers of pain and oppression that keep them from realizing their individual and collective potential. Knowing we would never get the support we needed for this kind of teaching from our district, we created a study group to read about other educators’ visions of justice-oriented teaching, to discuss our ideas for new curriculum, and to evaluate as we went along.
We started with African American scholar Theresa Perry, who explains in her book Young, Gifted. and Black: Promoting High Achievement Among African-American Students that, for communities of color in the United States, literacy has a long history as a subversive act. She directly addresses African Americans of the past:
You pursued learning because that’s how you asserted yourself as a free person, how you claimed your humanity.
You pursued learning so that you could work toward the racial uplift, for the liberation of your people.
You pursued education so that you could prepare yourself to lead your people.
Literacy, in this sense, is about reclaiming our humanity and committing to struggle on behalf of our people. It is not for individual gain. We wanted our students to feel this sense of purpose about learning. We wanted to develop curriculum that would encourage them to explore their pain and struggles as a starting point for building a sense of collective identity.
We also wanted to capture their resilience. Even when our schools have failed them, most of our youth continue to show up. They push back, consciously and not. This insistence on pursuing education is a legacy that our students have inherited from their communities.
So, instead of blaming students, we set out to become better teachers. First, we paid more attention to building caring relationships with and among our students. Then we reframed our learning objectives. Instead of teaching decontextualized skills, we focused our students on developing speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills in service of their community. The texts we chose, the research we designed, and the writing students crafted became vehicles for developing identity—not just powerful individual identities, but a collective identity that we believe is central to the purpose of literacy. Of course this was antithetical to the approach of our district, and required taking risks and pushing back against school leaders.
This kind of teaching is time-consuming and difficult to sustain. We found it impossible to reach our students without creating the space to pause from the bustle of teaching to build community with colleagues and support each other’s growth. Here are two units we designed, with collaborative support, that move toward honoring our communities’ histories of self-determination and strength.
“Does anything good ever happen to these people?” demanded Ana. “I hate this book!” Only a week before, Random Family was the only book she had taken home and read all year. As she spoke, I remembered that Ana was the mother of a 4-year-old, and her life in many ways resembled the women she was reading about.
We had only six weeks left in the school year. Through activities, assignments, and discussions that connected our personal experiences to the class content, my students and I had built solid relationships of trust. But even after students poured their hearts into their work— perhaps through a story about losing a loved one to violence or an epiphany about the importance of community justice—I found myself left with the same question: What are we doing to address the pain and trauma behind those powerful stories?