How has race and intersectionality impacted your life?
I've been thinking about it for a long time. I find it really, really hard to answer. Growing up, I had two African American students in my classes for eight years. I had no students of color in my high school grade. I went to college, and I had no students of color in my education program. I went to grad school, and I had one student of color in my literacy class. I went to library school, and there were no students of color there, either.
I'm Syrian American. I was the only kid in my class that had frizzy hair and a big bottom—next to all my little skinny Irish classmates. No one knew what Syrian/pita bread in the age of Wonder bread; kids asked if it was pizza. My Syrian culture is very clannish, and very insular. I wasn't really great at reaching out and making friends; I was just always used to being so surrounded by my family and tons of cousins. I’m getting a little bit better at that now.
Being Syrian is everything. It's everything. There was something in Tell Me Who You Are where it's sometimes not appropriate to ask somebody where they're from. But in my school, when I see a kid that I think is Arab, I ask, “Where are you from?” all the time. It's always met with, “Oh my gosh, you're Syrian too.” It's always this connectedness. I know when you listen to the news, you hear about the war in the Middle East, between the Muslims and the Christians. But when I grew up, my aunts who died when they were in their late 90s lived in peace with their Muslim neighbors. They would nurse each other's children. They would care for each other. The war created the sectarianism in Syria that we see today.
I don't know one Syrian woman in any place that I've ever met who's not strong and opinionated and confident and capable.
I don't know one Syrian woman in any place that I've ever met who's not strong and opinionated and confident and capable. I came across a Facebook group recently called Lebanese Cooking—and it's so funny because everybody there is just. like. me. My sister popped on, and she was like, "They’re just like us! This is just our big extended family." Food is central to everything. There's a food for every reason—when babies are born, when they cut their first tooth. It's just such a really beautiful thing. I love my culture. I love my crazy loud family. I have this fervent need to make sure that my kids know how to prepare these foods, so I’m making cookbooks for them with all the family recipes. It's tough, because if my grandmother was still here… she passed away when I was 22, and I have so many things to ask her, but she's not here anymore. And you can't go back. So ask your parents everything. Write everything down.
Why is talking about race in the subject(s) you teach necessary?
I taught in two private schools that had no students of color, and then I worked in a school whose students were probably 95% African American and Hispanic. With an all-White faculty. As a teacher I was determined to challenge my students; my second grade and then middle school students did really great. The kids were wonderful. The parents were wonderful. But there was no roadmap. There were a lot of really hard situations. There are a lot of kids who were living in poverty.
I have watched my students experience [racism]. I was in a store where I saw one of my African American students followed around in the store by the shop owner. My colleagues and I loved the kids, worked hard, and were committed to them, but there was this cultural disconnect between white teachers and families of color. We would have greatly benefitted back then from the book For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood by Christopher Emdin.
People need to learn from each other. About each other. We can't forge or improve our relationships with other people, if we don't know them. It’s the most important way to be able to respect and love someone else. You can't hate somebody if you know them.
What was it like making the bibliography?
It’s 31 pages right now. I just had this tremendous need to make sure that everybody was represented in story. Especially for little kids—you know, I’m very conscious about this, now that I have these two little grandsons. They have to see People of Color in their picture books. They can't grow up only seeing White faces.
So you'll see that the picture book section is the longest. As one example, I once did an author study with Allen Say. I did it in the third or fourth grade. First of all, I adore watercolor painting. His books are absolutely gorgeous. He's Japanese American, and his books cover everything.
You can have an entire high school lesson plan based on one picture book.
You can take those Allan Say books and even translate them into high school lessons. You can have an entire high school lesson plan based on one picture book. They are such valuable tools to use, no matter how old you are. You get a snippet of what a culture looks like, in artwork. They’re just beautiful.
How did your community react to your work?
Very positively. I shared Tell Me Who You Are with my principal and assistant principal, and they both have copies in their office. I made a beautiful display on my bulletin board. This is my third year in my current school, and my department is amazing. I'm supporting their race-related efforts with all these resources that we have now. The CHOOSE Champion resources—these lesson plans—are going to be great for us.
What would you like to tell any educator looking at your work right now?
Make it your own.
Make it your own. We have tremendously segregated schools—take these resources, and address your population. For your White kids, you have to gently and beautifully introduce race and various cultures to them.
We have a lot to do in our schools and our communities to help people recognize that People of Color do not share the same benefits of American society that many White people take for granted. There is still a huge demographic of White people who are not going to vote for any programs or laws that will make life better for so many people. … So I think we need to strike a balance between forcing people to recognize their biases, and gently coaxing them out of there.
Reading Resources for Educators: Marie DeAngelo's Bibliography
In addition to this bibliography, CHOOSE recommends checking out additional bibliographies curated by the following sites:
TMWYA Story Reflection Template
Where I’m From Poem Activity