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How has race and intersectionality impacted your life?

Racial literacy has always been part of my journey. It was just not explicitly part of my journey until I got to college. From first through eighth grade, I had an immigrant family and upbringing at home, and then a White culture in school. At school, being different was never something I felt really good about. There are so many stories in Tell Me Who You Are that resonate with my experience of feeling like I didn't belong. Only at U.C. Davis, when I started taking ethnic studies courses, did I start to understand how the heart felt, what my emotions were like. I had academic language for code switching, public and private spheres of living, being bicultural. All of a sudden I had words so I could explain it. I fell into teaching my last two years of college, working for the Educational Opportunity Program. I was an academic social counselor, for students who are transitioning into college from disadvantaged backgrounds. Before Proposition 209, that meant minority students. After, that was widened—you couldn't use race as one of the indicators. It was really about socioeconomically, historically disadvantaged youth. And some of the students I worked with did not have a lot of the privileges I had. It was a really transformative time for me, and I started to understand Black and brown power in a much different way. When I was graduating, I was totally lost. I thought I would take a gap year, and I figured, I want to work for social justice. Education has always been a key component to achieving that. So I'll just teach. “Just teach”—that's what it felt like, you know. The universe led me to an all-girls school. Being around a diverse group of young women was so aligned with my values, and I had no idea. What was going to be a one or two year gap, turned into a lifetime calling. I'm in my 20th year of teaching now. Being a teacher of color has been a driving force of that. I didn't realize it until a few years in: How can students of color see themselves in the education system? I work with students who feel comfort in coming to me, because they know that the lived experience is similar, even if not the same.

They say, I was prepared to have conversations that some of my college friends weren't ready to have.

My master's thesis was around adolescent identity, and how it influences learning. This class I teach now is a contemporary social issues class, because as a high school senior, I needed to have those conversations, and no one would have them. I wanted to make space for that for my students. And they always come back and say, “I was prepared to have conversations that some of my college friends weren't ready to have.”

Why is talking about race in the subject(s) you teach necessary?

You can't study history without talking about race, since the founding of our nation racialized people to justify slavery. You can't understand today's issues around race, without understanding that history. Race also plays a role in all disciplines. You can't divorce your identity from your learning and work. So, if you’re talking about science, a lot of science research requires a lens of bioethics, ethical considerations which tie in identity and race.

It's just like reading, right? You have to have tools to unpack any kind of reading. It's the same thing with content, and this content is just one that people are afraid of, because race is so connected to power. Coming from a colorblind framework—when I was going to school, it was like everyone was the same. People were afraid to talk about difference. But we're in a place where identity politics is just common. Turn on the news, and you can hear it. So how do we start to do that with tools, instead of just inflammatory dialogue?

What was it like teaching this lesson or unit plan?

Students bring so much lived and learned experience to the classroom. I always start the class by saying, we are co-constructing our learning. I decenter myself from the classroom. That's really where that first unit comes in. It’s so that they can understand themselves as individuals, understand us as a collective, and understand the context in which we're living in. That’s why identity is so salient. The book allowed us to look at stories that are lived, authentic, real, now, relevant, that most of the students can either relate to personally, or have heard about. They can lean into the conversation in a way that feels less threatening than just saying, here's my personal story. There are a lot of moments when students are like, “Wow, I had that same experience.” “Whoa, someone has called me that same thing.” Or, “I never realized that people had this experience that was so divergent from mine.” It really challenges us to not just talk about diversity, but to really understand what living that reality means. What happens at the end of every class is, “Oh my god, this is so heavy. I don't know what to do with this. I don't even know where to start. Can we even change these systems that have lasted for so long?” I started the first week with the authors’ TED Talk around the head and the heart, and that was amazing, really useful for the students to see. The authors look like them, right. They could be these students. The students felt like they knew them a little bit. We walked through that last section of TMWYA, looking at how people lean in and get involved, and I told them, “What can you personally commit to? Because they did that.” The introductory framing was the hook to understand why the stories are important.

What was it like using Tell Me Who You Are for different age groups?

If I could go back, I would have slowed things down. Said, “let's just really dig in.”

I got some feedback from students which broke my heart at the end. It was that they would have loved more time to discuss with one another. I pushed a lot of content, but less is more, if they have the chance to talk to each other. It is so priceless to have the time and a space that is created intentionally to be safe to talk about these issues—in a world that's so fast, and so noisy. If I could go back, I would have slowed things down and said, “Let's just really dig in.” My students created beautiful stories. They were really moved by each others’. But they did not have enough time to read all of them.

What would you like to tell any educator looking at your work right now?

As educators, we have to find people who keep us grounded in why we teach, people who inspire us to keep learning. Because it's too easy to get caught up in the busyness of school, the to-do lists and the deadlines and the emails you have to respond to. You lose sight of what education is really for: To transform both of you, students and educator. Be brave and be authentic. If you don't know the answer, be vulnerable. Vulnerability is seen as a weakness. I’m trying to instill in my students that it's a strength. I was talking about Lauren's story from Rhode Island in TMWYA. For my students who had visible disabilities, it was powerful. The stories are going to [impact] students who carry things, which maybe they would not normally see as an asset.

We are also so locked into our geographic context. We have misconceptions about other parts of the United States. In the Bay Area, we live in a bubble. With TMWYA, we get to knock down some of the stereotypes. Like, we're not that liberal. It was probably one of the most powerful things. Once, I decided to pull in Vaughn's story and then the sisters from Hawai’i, Marley, Rylee, and Parker from TMWYA. We were talking about the annexation of Hawai’i. I had them read those two stories side by side. The students just leaned into history—individual identity and national identity—in a different way. Because it wasn't a textbook understanding, or even a primary source from the time. It was people who are living and grappling with the historical legacy now. You just have to craft the right questions, and then give the students the resources. They will construct that knowledge, and they will make those connections.

ERAN DESILVA'S lesson planS:

TYPE: Unit (series of lessons) TITLE: Introduction to Race and Systems of Oppression CONTENT AREA: Ethnic Studies, U.S. History, Government

GRADE LEVEL(S): 11th to 12th Grade

DESCRIPTION: These lessons are designed to introduce key concepts of race and systems of oppression. They will understand how race and Whiteness create oppression and injustice. They will also see the contemporary issues of racism.

Click below to download a PDF of Eran DeSilva's unit.

Introduction to Race and Systems of Oppr
Download • 1.56MB

TYPE: Unit (series of lessons) TITLE: Working From the Inside Out CONTENT AREA: Race Studies

GRADE LEVEL(S): 11th to 12th Grade

DESCRIPTION: This lesson is designed to follow intense study of issues of identity, systems of oppression, and belonging in the United States.

Click below to download a PDF of Eran DeSilva's unit.

Working From the Inside Out, DeSilva
Download PDF • 63KB

TYPE: Lesson (full class) TITLE: Becoming a Changemaker CONTENT AREA: Race Studies

GRADE LEVEL(S): 11th to 12th Grade

DESCRIPTION: This lesson is designed to follow intense study of issues of identity, systems of oppression, and belonging in the United States.

Click below to download a PDF of Eran DeSilva's lesson plan.

Becoming a Changemaker, DeSilva
Download PDF • 58KB

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