How has race and intersectionality impacted your life?
"I started to really stand in my Blackness, stand in my womanhood … In that comfort, I became a better educator on every metric."
With age has come the ability to be acutely aware of race, without being burdened by it. And being a woman presents its own set of challenges—when you add Black woman, there are a myriad of assumptions and-or expectations. Whereas before I tried to defy those, or not play into them, now I just really focus on being my authentic self. If that self feeds into stereotypes, fine. If that self does not feed into stereotypes, fine as well.
I started to define myself for myself, not by society's or the school's metrics. I started to really stand in my Blackness, stand in my womanhood, and I became more comfortable. In that comfort, I became a better educator on every metric: student happiness, student engagement, test scores, my happiness with my job, leadership opportunities within the school.
Obviously, there's still hurdles, right? I'm the only Black teacher at my school. When parents come to Back to School Night or when their kids describe how I look, it is a shock for them. For parents who are steeped in holding on to power and white supremacy, it is often a battle. But I'm real firm on what I believe, and I get results with students. So most parents change their tune by the end of the school year, or by December. For those that don't, it is what it is. I'm lucky that I'm older, so that I have the experience to allow me to be comfortable where I am.
Why is talking about race in the subject(s) you teach necessary?
The very things that we don't talk about in schools are the things that we struggle with as a country.
The very things that we don't talk about in schools are the things that we struggle with as a country. I've been saying this forever, I don't even know where I got it from. We don't really talk about finances and money management. We struggle with that. We don't talk about mental health. We struggle with that. We don't talk about race and gender. We struggle with that.
The only way we are going to make any steps forward is by doing what Iyanla Vanzant calls “calling a ‘thing’ a ‘thing.’” You have to name it in order to change it. You have to name it in order to affirm the experiences of the people in your school. Avoiding topics doesn't make them go away—it only serves to confirm that they're taboo, or that they’re conversations only to be held in specific company. That's not my M.O.
People will feel uncomfortable. I will feel uncomfortable. I don't get every conversation right. I have to go back and research. I have to apologize. We have to be willing to fumble. We have to be willing to mess up, and be pure in our intentions, then go back and make it right.
What was it like teaching this lesson or unit plan?
Every time my students read something they’ll say, “Whose voice is missing? Why is it missing? Whose perspective is this?”
I adapted a lesson I had previously done with Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks, and I added the perspective of Butler in Tell Me Who You Are. [Butler’s mother Aurelia Browder was an activist in the Montgomery Bus Boycott.]
So I gave my fifth grade students the story that they've been told over and over to frame our lesson—and then talked to them about how there was this other person, and here's her story. And here's what happened. Why was her story left out? Why was Rosa Parks a more acceptable example of ladyhood and womanhood in this movement?
Kids are inquisitive. Kids are truth seekers, generally. And kids like to trip adults up. Which is like, my three favorite things. They’re always so excited to hear about stuff they didn't know. They're always so angry, like, “We've been lied to our whole lives.” They just want to dig for more. I think talking about intentionally silenced voices is also justice work they can relate to—like when a teacher is telling a story about what happened in a conflict, very often the student’s story is not told, or not believed. Students can see patterns. They can be better equipped to become advocates for themselves.
My students are all in. They are racial justice champions. Every time they read something they’ll say, “Whose voice is missing? Why is it missing? Whose perspective is this?”
How did your community react to your work?
As I've actively begun to change the way I teach—through personal exploration, through embracing the tenets of culturally responsive teaching—the racial justice work I started five or six years ago has only progressed. The staff at the school I teach in has seen the results. They've seen me grow as a person and as an educator, and that I am not afraid of having conversations. My colleagues have come to learn that that engagement only excites kids even more. Have I had pushback? Yes. But people have been more curious and interested than defensive.
As far as administrators go, we have a new principal. She’s been a big support, a big champion of the work that I'm interested in. That's been very helpful. The principal that I had before, I think that he was interested from an optics perspective—but not from what it would really take to do the work. He didn't try to hold me back. But he also didn't really understand the full scale of the work that I was trying to do. He liked the activities, but the conversations and the potential pushback from parents, he wanted to stop all of that. He was interested in the kids being excited, though.
What would you like to tell any educator looking at your work right now?
To take your feelings out of it—because when you discuss untold historical facts, you will undoubtedly have a kid who wants to argue in the opposite direction. You're in the middle of a lesson, and you might have a kid who reminds you that you've missed a fact. That can hurt. You might feel personally attacked. Really think about why you are sharing this lesson: to expose a myriad of perspectives, to give kids a more holistic view of the past. Just go in with that intention. Don't go in with a personal goal or mission, just go in wanting to expand the narrative. And then stop there. Also, read, read, read. Gather as many artifacts as you can, in addition to the ones in the lesson plan. Watch little clips online. Really be able to share the story fluidly.
LESLYE FOLMAR HARRIS'S Lesson plans:
TYPE: Unit (series of lessons) TITLE: Storytellers: Silenced Voices and Expansive Narratives CONTENT AREA: Social Studies/ELA
GRADE LEVEL(S): 4th to 7th Grade
DESCRIPTION: In this unit of study, learners will review the previous narrative surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott as well as explore the counter narratives surrounding this period of history. Learners will discover and explore the experiences of Claudette Colvin and JoAnn Robinson.
Learners will propose why counter narratives are often excluded from what is taught and brainstorm their responsibility as global citizens to expand the narrative.
Learners will use narratives from TMWYA as well as the resources listed below to ground their work.
Click below to download a PDF of Leslye Folmar Harris's unit.