How has race and intersectionality impacted your life?
I just didn't know. I just didn't know. But my strong belief is that anything I now know about race has come from my relationships with my students of color, and their parents and families, but also the White teachers I work with, so that, collectively, together, we are learning. I am about to get my doctorate in teacher education with an accent on race, but the most important things I have learned about race have not been from my studies. To tell you the truth, I have really learned the most from people. It's just a constant, gradual opening of the eyes, and it never stops. And I know that I will never be able to fully understand because I am White.
Why is talking about race in the subject(s) you teach necessary?
Art is a way of communication that is non-verbal, and so much of learning about race is non-verbal.
Racial literacy is necessary in art because art is a way of communication that is non verbal, and so much of learning about race is non verbal. It is about getting in touch with your subconscious, the things you have subconsciously absorbed throughout your life. Sometimes, when you're working on a piece of art, you realize things much more quickly than if you were just talking about it.
Art dredges up a lot of those lessons that you learned without being conscious that you were learning.
Art dredges up a lot of those lessons that you learned without being conscious that you were learning. And so I think that the lessons that we came up with, and then we explored with our students, I saw a lot of realizations still coming to them, because art taps into your memory. And we are so expert at blocking all of that off, that memory, and just filling it with these platitudes that we are taught that don't actually apply.
What was it like teaching this lesson or unit plan?
The idea was to create an interdisciplinary art and writing project to allow students to explore their own personal stories, the impact of race in their own lives. At first, because it was mostly White students, the question about race went completely over their heads. But then I used stories from Tell Me Who You Are as examples of what a White person talking about their relationship to race can look like. Things did slowly come up to the surface that had been pushed down for these kids, and I think that it was as a result of the honesty and the rawness of the stories in TMWYA. It wasn’t like reading a textbook. And it's not like just reading an article. These are really rough stories. Very real. And they encouraged the students to be truthful and messy themselves.
How did your community react to your work?
The class I was working with was all White students in a very White town. Race is something that is purposefully ignored. Typically White Americans, who are not first generation, when you ask them what their backgrounds are, they just say, “Oh, I'm just normal.” They have a difficult time talking about their ethnic roots. It's not something they really felt comfortable with. They are very into being “just American."
One student, when first asked the question about race, she said, “Oh, I'm Irish American, you know, a few generations removed.” Her last name was an Irish name. But, as we started talking in class, and we had the kids talk together, more came out about her Cuban heritage. And she wrote about how much her grandmother meant to her. And she cried because she said she had not really addressed that too much. So I think that that happens when you're combining art and the written word, and you're delving into these backgrounds that you've kind of buried, the feelings start coming out, and then she was able to express those feelings so beautifully in her art.
What would you like to tell any educator looking at your work right now?
Racial literacy is not an upward climb, there are peaks and valleys.
The majority of the educators are supposedly colorblind. They’re like, “I don't see color. I just see kids.” But when you bring in kids of color to speak to them, to say, “Well, if you say that to me, obviously you do see color because you know that I am of color. So what you're saying is that you don't really want to see me. But, I want you to see me and recognize me.” And I find that that is a real wake up moment for the teachers.
Racial literacy is not an upward climb, there are peaks and valleys. It’s hard. I think it's just like learning to walk. Those first steps are hard, and sometimes you fall back, but we just have to keep going.
Janice Marsili's Lesson plan:
TYPE: Unit (series of lessons) TITLE: Developing Racial Literacy Through Art & the Written Word CONTENT AREA: Interdisciplinary Art and Writing Project Introduced in a Peer Advisory Class
GRADE LEVEL(S): 8th to 12th Grade
DESCRIPTION: This interdisciplinary unit combines art and the written word to allow students to explore their own personal stories through the first lesson’s activities, and, through the work they do in the second lesson, to develop an understanding of the stories of the people represented in Tell Me Who You Are. Together, the knowledge and skills gained from this unit will provide the opportunity for increased cultural awareness leading to greater racial literacy.
Click below to download a PDF of Janice Marsili's unit.
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