How has race and intersectionality impacted your life?
It's something I think about every single day, and that I've thought about for as long as I can remember—from when I was a little kid, Black and biracial and raised by a White mom in a 85 to 90% Black elementary school. I was not just aware of how I was different from other people, but other people would bring it up to us. It informed every way I saw myself, positive or negative.
Moving forward through life, I understood a little bit more deeply that I get to own my identity, and I get to name who I am. In high school, my sister and I found out that our school district had labeled all of us by race—and we were labeled White to fit quotas, because our mom was White. That allowed for me to reclaim my own identity, and also really come to terms with the fact that being such a light, Black biracial person, I was able to have all these experiences and opportunities that my darker friends did not have. Like, I was pushed to go into the gifted and talented program. I was in the top track in school. That was a constant thing in my life.
When I became a teacher myself, I was teaching very young toddlers, not even two years old, and I wanted to make sure that any and all of my students could see themselves and decide who they are. That nobody else would get to decide their identities. I'm still unpacking how race and intersectionality have affected me, but it has informed every big decision I've made as an adult, at least.
Why is talking about race in the subject(s) you teach necessary?
I love doing this work with younger kids more than adults … They do this work very authentically.
I mean, it is so necessary... This year, I'm working with different grade levels from toddlers to middle schoolers, but I still spend most of my time working with six to nine year olds. And I think that so many times people say, “Kids are too young to talk about race. We don't want to influence them.” When really, the most important thing we can do is teach young folks how to recognize racism, and be able to talk about identity. And they can't talk about it, if they don't have the language.
So I spend a lot of time sharing the language. We'll do math work that talks about statistical data. In science, we'll study scientists of the global majority, or those who are spanning the intersections. It's just so important to include it in every single thing that we teach, and also to have time where it's explicitly taught. Like, this is the time we're going to talk about identity. This is a time we're talking about race, and racism, and anti-racism. To not just show that it's important, but that it's something all of us need to constantly be working on, and working together on.
I love doing this work with younger kids more than adults. They don't get hung up around the language, or past experiences, or worrying that they're going to say the wrong thing. They do this work very authentically. It just comes from the heart. They're so justice-seeking too, already wanting to do this work. You just have to allow for it to happen for them. Tell Me Who You Are describes a heart-mind gap—if we can teach this with our youngest students, then they won't have that gap at all. It's just all working together.
What was it like teaching this lesson or unit plan?
The last lesson is about identifying and naming race. We talk about skin color and move a little bit into colorism. That was really, really fun. We did it with some of the kindergarteners at our school—which was the youngest age I've done that kind of longer lesson with. They were a group that needed to move around a lot. It was like one of those times where they were all very much huddled together in circles. Really excited to explore skin color. They were just very drawn into the work. That's where their curiosity lies. So that was a really great experience.
With the other lesson, it was more about breaking down language. It was with a small group of middle schoolers who have been wanting more and more work. So they've been discussing the stories, doing more research from that, or tying it with other literature. I really enjoyed expanding the work that I used to do with kids, and having a very concrete text for it.
What was it like using Tell Me Who You Are for different age groups?
It was so fun with the kindergarteners. They were just looking at the pictures with people. We pulled out the map of the United States, and talked about where they were from. They were really interested in Massachusetts—“who lives around here?” Or, “my grandma lives in Michigan!” “Who is from Michigan?” It was nice to see, like, there aren't just Black people in cities! Then, if we read a little bit, they’re also like, “hey, this person likes to do this, this person likes to eat that.” Making those little connections.
With the older students, it felt right on their level. They got to dive deeply into it. Even just saying, “hey, just read about this one person today”... or reading a 30-page chapter. They were able to connect with stories, but also the length of the stories was just right. Our art teachers this year also did an intense collage picture with middle schoolers, and it looked kind of like what the graphic artists did in Tell Me Who You Are. So they were able to feel connected even more creatively.
It's so visual, which is really great. It can work for every age group. With six to nine year olds, I would do something very similar to what I did with the kindergarteners. I even think with toddlers, they love looking at people. You can ask, what do you see? Here's language we can use when we're talking about people and describing ourselves. It’s very accessible, even with the youngest. Which is awesome.
How did your community react to your work?
Give [families] a lot of resources, in case they can continue the conversation at home. Articles on how to talk about race, free webinars from EmbraceRace, children’s books.
The community was really receptive to it. The middle school teacher was really excited, she got a couple of other copies of Tell Me Who You Are. It was fun even walking into a room, and seeing kids reading it. I think my role this year as the Director of Curriculum and Instruction even gave it a little more weight—when I talked to teachers like, “hey, I want to schedule some time to do this work with your students,” they were much more open to it, than if I had just been a teacher like I was last year.
For families, I find that the more information you give them up front, the more easily and readily they receive the work. Just paint the picture to them. This is what we'll do, what it looks like. Give them a lot of resources, in case they can continue the conversation at home. Articles on how to talk about race, free webinars from EmbraceRace, children’s books. There weren't any complaints this year.
What would you like to tell any educator looking at your work right now?
Tell Me Who You Are is so expansive, in a way that every school should have it, no matter what age and grade.
Do this with your younger students—because then when they become adults, they won't have to start from the very beginning.
It's possible. Doing race literacy and equity work can feel really awkward. Keep practicing. Every time we do it, it's going to be different. We won't have all of the answers. But if we work with our students, it will become very obvious and clear that it's the work to be doing, regardless of the age group.
Tell Me Who You Are is amazing. Using it with the kindergarteners opened up a whole different thing... It's so expansive, in a way that every school should have it, no matter what age and grade. I carry it around with me a lot. I just pull it out of my backpacks, leave it on the kitchen table sometimes. That’s fun.
Tiffany M. Jewell's lesson plan:
TYPE: Lesson Plan
TITLE: Disrupting the Single Story CONTENT AREA: Building An Antiracist Lens
GRADE LEVEL(S): 5 to 8 (and above, including educators and families)
DESCRIPTION: Continuing with our three-year study of identity, the history of racism and antiracism, students will build their antiracist lens by examining the single stories we’ve been told and those that are left out of history, silenced, ignored, etc. Students will grow their liberatory consciousness and expand their critical lens, while being empowered to tell their story as a way to disrupt the single story we’ve all been conditioned into.
Click below to download a PDF of Tiffany M. Jewell's full lesson plan.