How has race and intersectionality impacted your life?
I’m Asian American and female. Being female brings its own special set of unique circumstances and challenges, even within the Asian American community. Intersectionality, interestingly, also affects different communities within the “Asian American” group. I’m American, and as a second generation Filipina American, I have different experiences than, let's say, a first generation Korean American or third generation Japanese American. The challenges differ based on ethnic groups and immigration status.
The intersection of race and gender has affected the way I see power, and how power works in my interactions with others. And depending on what context I'm in, as an educator, I can also see all of this at work. I advise an Asian American student group at my school, for example, and it's interesting to see the ways in which Asian American female students have different struggles compared to the Asian American male students. Both of these groups require a different type of care and compassion when unpacking their different identities.
Why is talking about race in the subject(s) you teach necessary?
The way we read and respond to texts is firmly rooted in our identities.
Once you're in the classroom, I think teaching intersectionality is critical. You need your students to become critical thinkers; we need them to think with complexity. No one is ever one thing. My students listen to podcasts, read articles, and they’re just very engaged with identity work. Seeing and understanding the complexity of intersectionality will prevent them from forcing each other into bite-sized headlines or stereotypes.
Overall, unpacking identity through a critical lens is part of everything that I do as an English teacher. It’s critical literacy. I believe that the way we read and respond to texts is firmly rooted in our identities. The more that we can understand what makes us who we are, and really unpack who we are, in the sense of how we've been socialized, the better we can understand our responses to texts—whether those texts are pieces of fiction, poetry, or even the news.
What was it like teaching this lesson or unit plan?
I chose poetry, as opposed to prose. That tricky interpretation work is what we do with people every day.
I think poetry can be one of the most accessible and also inaccessible genres for kids. For some students, I think it’s accessible because poetry is often lyrical, beautiful. It really packs the punch in terms of teaching kids about word choice and poetic devices. And, you know, there's just so much to unpack in every line. Plus, it’s in a nice, small package. On the other hand though, it can be inaccessible because oftentimes they look at it, sort of like when they might see a painting in a museum, and they feel like they're supposed to have one right answer about it. Or there's some deeper meaning that they haven't yet discovered. But that’s similar to the way we look at people, too, right? So that's one reason I chose poetry, as opposed to prose. That tricky interpretation work is what we do with people every day.
Also, the poems that I selected are ones that are representative of voices that are not always seen or heard in a traditional English classroom. There's a lot of talk about knowing the “canon.” And typically when people talk about the canon, they're speaking about books like Shakespeare, Hawthorne, and Fitzgerald or whoever. But poetry can capture voices, especially for students of color, that are similar to ones we don’t hear often. It’s a different mechanism through which students are able to express their voices more freely, as opposed to a personal narrative, for example.
Students responded very well to my lesson. Sometimes personal, real lived experiences are missing in an English literature class. Fiction can be real, too, don’t get me wrong, but nonfiction has a different kind of solidity. Tell Me Who You Are has real people who are speaking their truth. Kids can relate to that, especially kids who may not feel comfortable or have ever felt comfortable speaking their truth. In TMWYA, they can have a mentor. Adding poetry to this just adds another access point for them. It all works really well together.
What would you like to tell any educator looking at your work right now?
How do I help bring back these kids if they're experiencing my class, or my teaching, from the margins?
One of the most important things we can do as educators is to really think about who is sitting in our classrooms. So much of anti-racist work is built on relationship building. You can only build relationships with people when you know them. As an educator, I ask myself every day how, in the next forty-five to sixty-five minutes, am I building trust? In what ways? Am I showing kids that they can trust me so that they can speak their truth, so that they can show up at home and in the classroom authentically? And when I say whole and authentically, I'm especially thinking about kids who might experience marginalized identities in the classroom. How can I think about which students have the most marginalized experience? Or for whom is what I'm doing the least successful for? And then ask myself, how do I help bring back these kids if they're experiencing my class, or my teaching, from the margins? How do I recenter my instruction to invite them in and to build that trust? And I say this, especially for students, again, who have marginalized identities and students of color, but I also think about students who are White. I'm also responsible for them as an educator, so how can I hold space for them to unpack who they are, too? So building dialogue, being able to talk across the difference really requires intentional and patient relationship building. I would encourage educators to really think about prioritizing relationships first, not just between you and the students, but between the students themselves. That should come over everything.
Tricia Ebarvia'S Lesson plans:
TYPE: Lesson (full class) TITLE: Identity Through Poetry and Prose CONTENT AREA: English and Language Arts
GRADE LEVEL(S): 9th-12th Grade
UNIT DESCRIPTION: In this lesson, which can be spread out over 1-2 class periods, students will make connections between poetry (Alberto Rios’ “A House Called Tomorrow”, Jacqueline Woodson’s “February 12, 1963”, and Chen Chen’s “When I Grow Up I Want to be a List of Further Possibilities”) and prose (essays from TMWYA) in order to deepen their understanding of how our past experiences (related to family, history, culture, race, etc.) affect our identities.
After identifying connections and common themes, students will reflect on how the texts and themes apply to their own identity and experiences through writing.
Click below to download a PDF of Tricia Ebarvia's full lesson plan.