How has race and intersectionality impacted your life?
My dad is White, and my mom is Latina. She immigrated here from El Salvador when she was younger. Growing up I ate Salvadorian foods and stuff like that, but I look White, and pretty much everything in my life surrounded the Whiter side of me. I remember early on, learning that my Latina side wasn't perceived to be cool. I have this really weird memory of a girl in Sunday school making fun of me for having beans for breakfast. As a kid that stuck with me.
Only in college did I think, Wow, how amazing and awesome it actually is to be multi-ethnic, or multiracial. In my master's program, a professor who mentored me really hammered in the importance of these intersecting parts of my identity, and to not be ashamed of any part of my identity, even if people growing up or throughout my life have made me feel ashamed of who I am. That was a big moment for me.
I'm upfront with all this with my students. I tell them I look White, but I'm also Latina. However, it's just because of the way I look that people in the world treat me differently than they would some of my relatives with darker skin than me, or an accent. I use this to open the door for them to talk about privilege and intersectionality. I've noticed that by being more vulnerable with this part of my identity, students tend to be more vulnerable with theirs.
Why is talking about race in the subject(s) you teach necessary?
I tell my students, we're not really here to talk about the White majority.
Well, I teach history. So it's definitely necessary. The way I was taught history was very one-sided, very Eurocentric. We never talked about people of color unless it was Harriet Tubman or MLK Jr. I literally never learned about anyone who was Latinx, growing up. The only time Latinx people were talked about was in the context of being conquered. Never in a positive way.
Then I had this amazing professor when I was a junior in high school. She was talking about People of Color, and their contributions to U.S. history, and I was mind-blown. Like she had us read A People's History of the United States, and I remember reading the first chapter on Columbus. I was just floored. I had all this education about Columbus as this amazing hero. And then for the first time, I found out he's actually a genocidal maniac.
That was why I studied history in college: there has to be more than just one side. Now, as a teacher, I work really hard in all of my history classes to incorporate different perspectives. I tell my students, we're not really here to talk about the White majority. That's the narrative that we've always heard. Who else was here in history? What are their roles? What are their perspectives? How can we amplify their voices? Especially when People of Color have been fighting really hard to have their voices heard for so long? What are the historical roots of what's going on today? Where does this come from? What does it mean to be an advocate for social justice and for those who are marginalized?
What was it like teaching this lesson or unit plan?
Why is it easier to come up with examples of racism that we see in everyday life, but not of justice?
I was so blown away by how beautiful Tell Me Who You Are was. I had a lot of fun getting to pick out different stories, and deciding which stories we are going to focus on. There seemed to be a story for just about everything that I had an idea for.
Last year, it was really hard for my students to understand those concepts like privilege and power and identity. They're a bit more abstract. I got a lot of pushback from White students, who’d be like, “Oh, you're just making that up.” I had one boy literally get in my face and say, “Who are YOU? How are you qualified to teach this?” It was really aggressive, and it was really scary for me. I was a first year teacher at the school.
When I started incorporating the stories this year, I noticed a lot less pushback, particularly from White students. It wasn't just my perspective. I was like, “Let's read about someone who's experienced that.” I think it was a lot harder for them to push back on that. I also noticed for a lot of my students of color, they were really excited to read stories of people who look like them. We have a high percentage of Pacific Islander students, and when we read Sione's story, many were like, “Wow, this is the first time in our schooling here that we've ever read another Pacific Islander voice. This is amazing.”
I’ve done the poster lesson in past years, and this year I added stories from the book. To me, the most impactful part was then having them put the post-its up about “Where do you see this happen in everyday life?” Students become so vulnerable. There was a boy, he's Middle Eastern, he talked about someone using a racial slur or making the racist microaggressive comments to him when he was walking past some building. He posted that and talked with me about it later.
Every year I've done this, the Justice poster always has the fewest examples, which I find so interesting. We have a conversation around that, like “Why is it easier to come up with examples of racism that we see in everyday life, but not of justice? And what would it look like if we lived in a racially just society?” From there, we build vocabulary, encourage students to reference that vocabulary, and provide other examples throughout history where justice has been upheld or taken away.
How did your community react to your work?
They could not keep quiet. They were just like, “What, this is so crazy. This is wrong.”
I had a co-teacher this year, Annie Olson. She was totally on board with it, helped create a lot of different things surrounding the work, and incorporated it into her classes. Most of the teachers that I was close to saw the book and they really liked it. I ended up gifting it to my administrators too, and they were like, “Oh my gosh, this is what you're using in your classroom. This is so cool.” In my department, we have a lot of freedom to be creative and do what we want. So I didn't really get any pushback from anyone, and my kids liked the stories a lot.
In one instance, I gave April's story to my freshmen AVID [Advancement Via Individual Determination] class. I was like, “We're going to read this quietly for 20 minutes.” They could not keep quiet. They were just like, “What, this is so crazy. This is wrong.” They were so passionate about her story. “Can we contact her, make sure she's okay?” To me, that class this year has been the most challenging for me to bond with. But after reading that story and later Neda's story, I noticed the kids were excited, and curious, wanted to know more and wanted to help. It was really cool to see.
What would you like to tell any educator looking at your work right now?
Despite the pushback, despite the seeming chaos, it's always, always worth it.
Doing this work is definitely not easy. It's very, very hard, and it's very messy. At times, like there will be pushback. But I think if I've learned anything, it's that despite the pushback, despite the seeming chaos, it's always, always worth it. There was never a moment when, talking about race or racial literacy with my students, I regretted it.
Embrace the messiness. Have faith in your students. And even if they're not being super receptive, trust that maybe you're just one person on their journey of becoming more racially literate. They may not get it from you, but hopefully, somewhere down the line, they’ll learn, and want to do better, want to do right.
CORINNA OTT'S Lesson plans:
TYPE: Lesson (full class) TITLE: Introduction to Identity in “Identity” Unit CONTENT AREA: U.S. History
GRADE LEVEL(S): 11th Grade
DESCRIPTION: My U.S. History this course this year, rather than being taught chronologically, is being taught thematically. The first unit we are covering is around issues of identity throughout U.S. History and what being an “American” in the United States has looked like throughout history. We will begin the year by studying histories of Native Americans prior to colonization, as well as Hawai’i prior to colonization.
Click below to download a PDF of Corinna Ott's lesson plan.
TYPE: Lesson (full class)
TITLE: Taking a Closer Look at Race (Part of our Identity Unit) CONTENT AREA: U.S. History
GRADE LEVEL(S): 11th Grade
DESCRIPTION: My U.S. History course this year, rather than being taught chronologically, is being taught thematically. The first unit we are covering is around issues of identity throughout U.S. History and what being an “American” in the United States has looked like throughout history. We will begin the year by studying histories of Native Americans prior to colonization, as well as Hawai’i prior to colonization and transition to defining terms surrounding race and racism in order to build their racial literacy. This particular lesson can be done in a 90 minute block period, or may be split up into two 50 minute periods.
Stories included in this lesson chosen by my co-teacher Anne Olson.
Click below to download a PDF of Corinna Ott's lesson plan.