How has race and intersectionality impacted your life?
I grew up in Springville, Alabama. As a child, I saw racism all around, but I didn't know it was wrong. I didn't even really consider it. It was just so prevalent. It just seemed kind of like a fact of life, like the weather.
It was easy to believe what my parents believed, or what I was told. If I did ever encounter someone of color, it became autopilot to just have certain thoughts. Reflecting back on it, I really see how much people are just trained. You receive all these beliefs, without choosing them. You are a receptacle that people dump their ideas into, and as a child, you don't know any difference.
Anyway, I feel like my adult life has been a slow undoing of all these beliefs that I just didn't recognize were within me. The turning point came when I left that small town and went to college—to University of Alabama at Birmingham, not that far away, but enough to realize that people are far different from what I was led to believe they were. It was a shock. Everything I'd been learning was wrong. I felt this huge distance between myself and my hometown after that. I had no desire to go back. I rejected the county as a whole—which might be a little bit sad, reflecting on it now.
I realized, though, that just because you don't engage with something doesn't make it go away. At first I was like, “Oh, I just don't want anything to do with this.” But eventually, as my friends became increasingly diverse, it became really difficult to reconcile that with the racism in my own home—and I had to confront it. I grew up feeling like conflict was bad, and that I shouldn't kind of have these differing opinions, so when I did, it became a huge source of tension between me and my own parents.
I started traveling around that same time. I saw more of the world—especially in Central America—and I began to recognize my privilege, that I had so much more than some people do. It's privileged, in and of itself, for me to be able to travel. But when I came back, I was just so angry. I was angry for all these things that I felt like I was given, unearned. I was a Resident Advisor at college at the time, and I lived in this brand new freshman dorm, and I hated my dorm because it was this symbol of wealth that nobody was talking about. I just felt uneasy, and I think that's what eventually led me to want to teach.
I wouldn't say that my parents as people have changed necessarily. For a long time, I was hung up on feeling like I needed to change their beliefs, but I've had to recognize that I can only do so much. I've explained to them how their comments make me feel, and how they impact me. I’ve had those conversations. Our relationship after that has changed, in that they don't want to talk about it with me anymore. Which is hard.
Why is talking about race in the subject(s) you teach necessary?
We as educators have to be that other voice that says like, “Hey, wait a minute, there's other ways of thinking out there. Let me show you some of them.”
Teaching Spanish lends itself nicely to discussions of race. You're teaching a group of people about a culture that is different from their own, for the most part. I mean, even among your Hispanic students—some could be from Mexico, but they don't know anything about Ecuadorian culture, right?
Spanish lends itself to examining the prejudices and stereotypes we hold. My school is very homogenous, very white, and very wealthy. There is a lot of racism, and as my own childhood shows, children are products of their parents and the societies that they're growing up in. We as educators have to be that other voice that says like, “Hey, wait a minute, there's other ways of thinking out there. Let me show you some of them.”
I’ll tell you a story from when I was learning Spanish. At the time, I was really involved in this church, and I was really religious. We went on this mission trip to Guatemala, and I knew enough Spanish to talk to the people we were there with. So we’d gone around the houses, giving people rice and beans and giving all the kids candy, and in our minds, it was God's work. It was sharing the gospel. And I was talking in Spanish to our hosts, and they were just like, “Gosh, you guys need to calm down. You dump all this candy on people, but that's not what they need.” At the time, I was thinking we were doing good things.
And they were like, “You just swoop in, and you don't really think, and then you just leave a week later.” I realized what they were saying was that we were doing this for ourselves. We were not doing it for them.
For me, studying Spanish opened my own eyes to a lot of things that I hadn't realized before. That's another reason I just think it's so messed up. How cool would it have been for me to have my own teachers talking about that, or to have had any kind of guidance? I was stumbling without knowing anything in a lot of these discoveries. Now, I feel like guiding students in this way is incredibly necessary.
What was it like teaching this lesson or unit plan?
Over lunch, I rethought the discussion aspect of the lesson: I turned it into a Pear Deck.
Honestly, to begin with, as a White woman, it was scary. I was like, who am I to be doing this, to be talking about this? You know, you're scared of putting your foot in your mouth, and saying the wrong thing. I had to check myself, because the ability to have that fear is privileged—that if I felt uncomfortable at any moment, I could say, “Well, I'm not doing this.” But for People of Color, there is no opting out.
I was just reminded over and over of what Justin in Tell Me Who You Are went through to bring him to say that oppression has to do with all. So anytime I was sitting there thinking, who am I gonna be doing this, it helped me remember I am the right person. The public shouldn't have to do this. Our students shouldn’t have to educate their peers, or even their teachers—because, unfortunately, there are plenty of teachers who are racist.
I was surprised by the curiosity that students showed. I was surprised by how open they were. Many said, “We were thinking about this. We've never had these conversations before.” It was nice. I was a little nervous, because you just can't plan for everything that someone's going to say. What if I don't know how to handle what someone says? What if I don’t have the perfect response? But these things aren’t about perfection. We learn from our students just as much as they learn from us.
One example is when I was teaching “Understanding Culture.” In my first two classes, I tried to have these group discussions right off the bat. It was okay. But it wasn't exactly what I had envisioned a group discussion looking like—talking about race can be scary for some students initially. So over lunch, I rethought the discussion aspect of the lesson: I turned it into a Pear Deck, which takes a slideshow and lets students log on and interact with it. In my last two classes of the day, I posed a question like, “How would you define culture?” and everybody could type their answers. I could see who said what, but when I projected them onto the screen, it was all anonymous. Later on, we had two people talk and share. Or, they formed groups of five and shared the group's thoughts with the class, as opposed to assigning specific ideas to specific people. I thought that as a starting point, the guise of anonymity might encourage students to share, and it went a lot better. I didn’t have to display every answer, either.
How did your community react to your work?
It started a lot of cool conversations in my own department. A few other teachers were really interested in Tell Me Who You Are, and we even decided we wanted to start a club around the idea of sharing stories and celebrating identity.
At that time, we learned that my district already had a club called Student Voice, designed to empower high school students from diverse backgrounds with cultural awareness and leadership skills. We joined, and we realized quickly that there was a reason nobody knew about it: they weren't really doing anything. It was four people that would eat lunch together once a week. So we helped work through the idea of a club, and recruited people. We have about 15 members now. We started exploring our own identities, and we read through the part of Tell Me Who You Are where it describes how to share your own story, alongside a couple other resources. Before everything got derailed with the quarantine, we had also gotten a bulletin board, and we were going to post pictures and stories where people could go read them. Just participating in the CHOOSE Champions fellowship spurred on this entire trail, and brought these conversations within my department to the forefront.
Our school as a whole has been receptive, too. We had another teacher, a [non-Black] English teacher, say the N-word in her class. They read a book with it inside, and someone recorded her saying the words, cut out the context, then sent it around. She came to our group and said, “I need help. Here's what happened. Here's what I've done. What can I do better?” The administration recognizes it's something that our school and our teachers need. They’re thinking about how we can bring this awareness to the staff, because students need these conversations, but teachers also bring ourselves, our own biases and prejudices, into the classroom.
What would you like to tell any educator looking at your work right now?
Teaching these lessons and engaging in this work isn't a performance that you put on.
Two different things. That it takes courage to teach these lessons, just like it takes courage for students to participate in it honestly and openly. Sometimes, we go into things wanting to change an entire school culture, or an entire group of people overnight. But that's not how it works. By teaching the lessons, we can plant seeds and water them. You may never witness their growth, because it may be down the line.
The second thing is to be yourself. Teaching these lessons and engaging in this work isn't a performance that you put on. It's a conversation that you have between you and the students. If you recognize the humanity in that, and be prepared for mistakes, you'll be okay. You don't have to be perfect. Just because you’re a teacher doesn’t mean you need to have all the answers. But if you do hear something upsetting in class, you have to acknowledge it. Our silences just make us complicit. Speak up, even if you don't have the exact words.
REBEKAH COLE'S Lesson plans:
TYPE: Lesson (two days) TITLE: Understanding Culture CONTENT AREA: World Languages - Spanish 1
GRADE LEVEL(S): 9th Grade
DESCRIPTION: This lesson is designed to take a deeper look at the concept of culture, prompt students to think about their own experiences, and create a foundation for talking about race/culture throughout the school year. Students will explore their own concept of culture, its myriad visible and invisible aspects, and analyze how that plays out in the various TMWYA stories selected.
Click below to download a PDF of Rebekah Cole's full lesson.
TYPE: Unit (series of lessons) TITLE: Backyard Culture CONTENT AREA: Spanish I GRADE LEVEL(S): 9th to 12th Grade
DESCRIPTION: This lesson is designed to follow the “Understanding Culture” lesson. In “Backyard Culture” students will take a look at the cultures that exist all around them (i.e. in their own backyard - school). Students will explore what life is like for immigrants in the US.
Click below to download a PDF of Rebekah Cole's unit.