How has race and intersectionality impacted your life?
Tremendously. I am biracial. My dad is an immigrant from the Philippines. He joined the Navy back when the United States had bases all over. My mom is a member of the United Houma Nation tribe, a state-recognized tribe in Louisiana, who's been fighting for federal recognition as long as I can remember. Growing up, in a lot of ways, race and intersectionality were a matter of embarrassment. I tried to fit in, I tried not to talk about what my family was like when I was at school. It was very much a matter of being invisible as a kid.
As I grew up, I also became aware that race was still impacting kids I was teaching. So I became involved with our district equity team a few years ago, doing equity training for about five years now. I'm still working on helping colleagues be aware, not just of the oppression you might experience as a Person of Color, that I've experienced, but also about the privileges I might have. Things like White adjacency, which provides me opportunities not open to others. Being cisgender, which contains privilege my son does not have. In many ways, it’s given me a burden. But it's also given me a lot of insight to how I've been shaped as a person.
Why is talking about race in the subject(s) you teach necessary?
Folx need to know that reading intervention is one of those places where racial and socioeconomic disparities show through.
I teach reading intervention. Folx need to know that reading intervention is one of those places where racial and socioeconomic disparities show through. For example, when I first became a reading interventionist, I was writing a grant and had access to free and reduced lunch numbers. Our school was somewhere around 30% free and reduced lunch, maybe 70% not free and reduced lunch. When you looked at my class numbers, it was flipped: I had 70% students with free and reduced lunch in my classes. It's not unusual for me to have a class of students that are all Kids of Color, not just native speakers but also from other countries. There is an innate bias that is already built into the courses I teach. I have to be very clear with my students and my parents that this bias is there. So we talk about race, and how literacy continues not only as a tool of liberation, but also as a tool of oppression in our country.
What was it like teaching this lesson or unit plan?
We need to stop this idea that traditional novels or classic novels are more important than other forms of reading.
We did my graphic novels unit, where we read graphic novels and memoirs that focused on folx who had suffered oppression or been impacted by intersectionality and race throughout their lives. For example, we read They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, and I Was Their American Dream by Malaka Gharib. My kids were able to see that they aren't the only people who are impacted by race and intersectionality, that it’s shaped every person in the United States, in the world. And so we were able to explore that. We ended up writing graphic novels, too.
I chose graphic novels because, as a reading intervention teacher, I see biases in my reading materials. One thing I push is that graphic novels are a valid art form. It's a very rich reading experience. It usually contains words that are unique. We live in a very visual society now. And so we need to stop this idea that traditional novels or classic novels are more important than other forms of reading. There's also such a plethora of great racial memoirs coming out. Gene Yuen Yang has one out called Dragon Hoops. There are some great graphic novels written by Native American and Indigenous writers, too—like This Place: 150 Years Retold (Highwater Press) and Surviving the City by Tasha Spillett. These aren't memoirs but they could easily be used within this unit to discuss race and who gets to tell your story. This is material that kids are willing to read. It's material that's tackling tough subjects and giving kids vocabulary. In I Was Their American Dream, Malaka Gharib has an entire page dedicated to microaggressions. Being able to provide kids with mentor texts that help them to write about these experiences is very important to me.
My second unit is the one about intersectionality, where we tell a racial history through objects. We were going to use not only stories from Tell Me Who You Are, but also Gayle Pitman's new book about the Stonewall riots, where I realized that if you look at the objects that surround us, they tell a story about us also. Like for me as a mother, there are objects collected from when my kids were infants, all the way to now, when my youngest is 17 and getting ready to go off to college. It’s the story of the development of our identity. I hope to teach it soon. We didn’t get to because of everything that happened.
How has the coronavirus been changing your work?
As a teacher, I'm realizing how influential systems may be in either being allies or being oppressors. My district rolled out this whole plan, we were all going to push out instruction online. We did it for three days. And they found out it wasn't working. It wasn't working for our parents. Right now, one of my parents has a spouse who is very fragile health-wise, and they have three children in our schools. All three needed packets from their teachers. That’s $26 to make copies. Luckily, one of our teachers made sure those copies got out to them. But we assume that every family has a printer, working internet, access to food in quarantine. This entire event has exposed some really big cracks in our system that we need to deal with. It makes me more cognizant that I need to be an advocate for kids and families.
If we're not critical about race, there are a lot of stories we will just cast aside. In St. Louis, the 12 folks who have died are African Americans. If we're not teaching kids about race, you end up with workforces that don't look at that inequity. You know, I've never wondered about whether my community in the town of Columbia, Missouri had enough hospital beds. My son and I were running errands yesterday, picking up an order at a local restaurant because one of the things we’ve tried very hard to do is support our local businesses. We have the disposable income to do that. There are a lot of folks in town who don't, students I teach who rely on the fact that my school district is delivering meals. For us, it's been this exploration of privilege. How do we leverage that privilege to make sure we're helping somebody else?
How did your community react to your work?
One of the great things about my district is that they have been open to this work for so long. I mean, we have a district equity team of about 50 teachers and other educators. My superintendent is trained in equity work, we're trained by the organization National Conference for Community & Justice of Metropolitan St. Louis, too. We're realizing that teachers need material, and so I think it was very well received, that I was doing this work within my district. As far as doing the work with my kids, it’s really amazing that there's this growing awareness of self at the middle school level, right? They have conversations like, what if you grew up in a family where racism is the norm, how can you disrupt that? How do you continue to maintain those relationships?
I mean, I grew up in the South. The majority of my mom's family presents as White. Racism can be very in your face. You know, something your great-aunt said was the most racist thing in the world. I was able to open up with them, and we've shared some really tough things about talking about race, even within your own family. As an equity trainer, I don't go into a situation to change anyone's mind. But my students are really open, and when they come back and say, “Well, I talked about race last night at dinner, here's what we talked about,” I think that's where the real change is going to come. Real change happens on so many levels. I can't just do equity work at a district level with teachers. There's no guarantee that it'll go any further. Whereas, if teachers are bringing this work into our classrooms, then we're impacting students, and families, and our whole community.
What would you like to tell any educator looking at your work right now?
How do you address that [microaggression] with your teacher, with somebody you admire or trust, who is saying something that hurts you? And what do you do if they keep doing it?
This work is not going to always be easy. Sometimes you have to realize that you have to keep training yourself. You may find that some of our students have things to work through. I had students say to me when we were in the middle of a lesson, “Well, I had a teacher who was saying this to me.” When we unpacked it, we talked about why the language used might be a microaggression. How do you address that with your teacher, with somebody you admire or trust, who is saying something that hurts you? And what do you do if they keep doing it? That’s one of the things this whole quarantine experience has taught me: we can prepare students for the unexpected, but we never quite know what they're going to experience in their life journey. So I just want to give them the tools that they need to be successful. To be healthy and happy.
Anna Osborn's Lesson plans:
TYPE: Lesson (full class) TITLE: ‘I, Too’ am America” Introduction: Visualizing Others’ Experiences in Sequential Art Narrative (SAN) / Unit: “‘I, Too’ am America”: Exploring Identity Through Sequential Art Narratives and Graphic Novels CONTENT AREA: ELA/Humanities; Reading Workshop (This 6-8 class is an intervention class. My students are identified as reading 1 or more years below level. I have chosen SANs and graphic novels to explore because my students love graphic novels and there is a terrific explosion of graphic novel memoirs discussing race and personal racial experiences in the US.)
GRADE LEVEL(S): 6th to 12th Grade
DESCRIPTION: This lesson will help students gain an understanding of the vast diversity of being “American” and the “American” experience and how these are impacted by racial experiences. The unit will include literature circles where students read current young adult graphic novels that feature racial experiences prominently and will culminate with each student writing their own racial memoir in graphic novel format. This lesson is an introduction to the unit and will have students identify 3-5 key events to visualize from a TMWYA story that can show the essence of their understanding of TMWYA participants’ experiences with race and ethnicity in the United States. Students will write a one-page sequential art narrative (SAN) to show these 3-5 key events and to retell the TMWYA story they read.
Click below to download a PDF of Anna Osborn's full lesson plan.
TYPE: Lesson (full class) TITLE: The Objects that Represent Us: Using Objects to Understand Intersectionality and its Impact on Racial Identity Through History and the Present CONTENT AREA: ELA/Humanities; Reading Workshop (This 6-8 class is an intervention class. My students are identified as reading 1 or more years below level.) I have chosen a text set of young adult and children’s nonfiction and fiction books to support and extend TMWYA that that can be read in part or in whole to help students understand their own intersectionality and how it might impact their racial identity. The goal of the unit is for students to understand how objects might be used to understand and communicate identities. GRADE LEVEL(S): 6th to 12th Grade
DESCRIPTION: This unit will help students consider the complexity of intersectionality and how each individual’s racial experiences are unique based on the interactions of their varied social identities, including race, social class, gender, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation, age, and appearance, and historical context. The unit will include exploration of race during various periods in history, with special focus given to the items (like primary documents, food, clothing, mementos, or historical objects) that might represent our racial identities, intersectionality, and life’s journey.
Click below to download a PDF of Anna Osborn's full lesson plan.