‘Often Imitated, Never Duplicated’: Black Womaness in the Classroom

This piece originally appeared in EdWeek.

This month, I’ll be featuring the voices of female educators in honor of Women’s History Month. More written about this is here.

Guest post by Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price.


“Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Ms. Aryee-Price, you’re not going to believe this. I’m writing an essay that was assigned to the 8th graders!”

You see, that’s Aida. A seventh grade, Afro-Latina student of Dominican descent whose thirst for knowledge reminds me of myself at her age. She gives me life within an oppressive system I find myself having to navigate and negotiate every day.

As a Black woman teacher who is also a numerical minority in my district, I often feel like a sea otter in a bed of sharks that are waiting to attack and devour me at any given moment. Making the wrong move, uttering the wrong sounds will cost me my life. That’s real. My Blackness and womanness intersect in ways that I cannot escape, so survival becomes the ultimate goal. My students are my survival.

I grinned; her enthusiasm for school gives me a unique kind of energy that keeps me coming each day.

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In a classroom discussion about The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton and the protagonist, Ponyboy’s obsession with Gone with the Wind, I encouraged students to critique this problematic story of the Old South. Aida’s constant questioning and wondering led us into a brief exchange.

“Next year,” I shared, “you all will read To Kill a Mockingbird, a text that explicitly tackles racism, power, privilege, and what justice looks like for some…”  She was intrigued.

I could see the wheels spinning in Aida’s head. In the only way that she could express, she blurted out, “I’m going to read that book.” And she did.

My hope is in the children I teach each day. Our language arts classroom discussions center their lives, their stories, and the experiences of people who look like them. It is important they get to see themselves represented in the classroom. It is important they get to see humanity in its fullest form and what happens when an oppressive system attempts to dampen their hopes and desires. And it is equally as important for them to see when people like them fight this oppressive system: win, lose, or draw.

 So when Aida told me that she did not pass language arts class last year, I questioned how that could happen. What went wrong? Did our system fail this child? How can a system that is not intentional about educating students of color, predominantly Black and Latino, succeed? Having a colorblind approach to teaching our students not only invalidates their lives but discourages them from seeing the divine and magic within themselves. As a Black woman who teaches mostly Black and Brown students, and as one who approaches the classroom from an anti-racist and social justice lens, it is imperative that my students see the divine in themselves. That’s their survival.

Unfortunately for many of us, we are born into this white heteropatriarchal society. It’s an oppressive society that we have all inherited, so anything counter to that reality runs the risk of being silenced, isolated, and defeated.

And because we were all born into this unjust system, we cannot escape it’s oppressive ways unless we actively and collectively work to disrupt it. As women, we internalize this oppression, and see it manifested and perpetuated in various forms between our daily interactions with each other. But as a Black woman in this system, I need to go into work fully armored.

So yes, I will be punished more harshly than my white male counterparts, and even more severely than my white female counterparts. No “bad days” because that courtesy is rarely, if ever, extended to me. There is no room for me to mess up. No do-overs, even though others may be allowed that courtesy.

Therefore, I stride into my classroom knowing that the world is going to be unforgiving to my students. So I forgive them endlessly. Yup, seventy times seven, I forgive each of them. I walk into my classroom knowing that the world has very little love for them. I shower them with love. I strut into that classroom knowing compassion sees them not. So compassion and empathy are the center of the approach I take with them.

I remember the very first comment Aida made to me when she introduced herself, “Language Arts is my worst class, Miss. And I don’t know how to write well. I just want to let you know that.” I smiled because I saw something much more brilliant in her than she thought I did.

Now, Aida has not only proven her ability to write well, but one of the other eighth grade teachers has collaborated with me by allowing Aida to sit in on her class discussions of To Kill a Mockingbird and to complete the work assigned to the eighth graders. If only you could see the pride on her face.

We sat over lunch last week to discuss the book. I remember sitting there, deep in conversation and seeing the determination in a child who needed to see herself represented in her classes. She needed others to see and know her brilliance. Aida knew it; the rest of us were slow to the party.

I am consciously aware that my Black womanness informs my teaching and my approach to engaging the learners in my classroom. My Black womanness is acutely conscious of the ways in which oppression intersects in my daily life, in and out of work, and the lives of my students. And that knowledge and awareness cannot be duplicated or experienced by those who do not share in this.

It is because of my experience as a Black woman that I commit to justice within and outside the walls of my classroom. This is not to say that white teachers cannot do this work; they must. There just needs to be more intentionality when approaching the classroom. It must be free of paternalism, and full of self reflection, equity-driven, justice-driven anti-racism education.

I spent most of my years in public schools in the United States without having one Black teacher until my senior year of high school. I was desperate to see someone who had a similar experience as a Black woman, so I took accounting, a subject I hated, only because I wanted to experience having Ms. Holloway.

I envied the students who had Ms. Mack as a teacher, or Ms. Bolden as a guidance counselor. Those students appeared to be seen, heard, encouraged and loved so much more. I longed for that in school. As a teenager, I immediately recognized their value and power and wanted to be that for my students. Hence, it should come as no surprise to me that my students understand the value I hold for them, even if others pretend they do not know. But in the words of Fabulous, we’re “often imitated, but never duplicated.

Image via Flickr.


Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price is a grade 7 Language Arts teacher, a part-time Organizational Development Consultant with the NJEA, and a member of EduColor. As a partner and mom of two, Okaikor still finds time to do the work she truly loves: community and teacher organizing that centers anti-racist principles and social justice.

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When Higher Ed Means Going Through Hell

This post originally ran in Education Week.


 

 This month, I’ll be featuring the voices of female educators in honor of Women’s History Month. More written about this is here.

Guest post by Sydney Brady.


“Take martial arts,” my mom says, “or you’re probably going to die in college.” While this is obviously hyperbole on a very inappropriate level, it is true on so many others.

What are the statistics we, as high school seniors, look at when we apply to colleges? Acceptance rate, rejection rate, graduation rate… and date rape? While there’s a 14% chance I’ll get accepted into the school of my dreams, there’s a 25% chance I’ll be raped or sexually assaulted while I am there.

And isn’t that horrifying?

On Pinterest, the college survival kits for girls recommend not only cute pens and notebooks but also Mace to, at most, frighten off my inevitable attacker.

When you enter “how to prevent college rape” into the Google search bar, the third article that pops up is from The New York Times. It says that the risk of rape was lowered in colleges when females took a class on how to protect themselves from potential attackers. But measures like these only allow women to be reactive once a sketchy situation occurs. These techniques fail at one key aspect: they don’t teach men to be proactive and not rape in the first place.

And isn’t that horrifying?

I read a draft of this speech to my mom and asked her if it sounded good. She replied with a grimace, saying, “It’s horrifying… but true.”

And isn’t that horrifying?

The woman who has raised me for 16 years has come to accept the fact that for me to advance my education, I will have to go through hell. My mother has accepted that the pearls on the gates to my dream school only bedazzle an iron frame that locks me into a one-in-four statistic.

Shouldn’t I have the right to walk through campus, free from gripping my bag a little tighter when I leave the library at night, free from being scared of footsteps behind me, free from having worry about screaming, and Mace-ing, and rape-whistling? But the reality is that I won’t be free.

And isn’t that horrifying?

So while I will protest martial arts, as I hate them and am uncoordinated, I will reluctantly go. After all, statistics show that I may be gearing up to enter the most traumatic experience of my life.

And isn’t that horrifying?

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Sydney B. is a junior at Kauai High School. She is a diehard fan of J.K. Rowling, and a self-proclaimed master of Harry Potter trivia. When she’s not in school, she can be found running at the track or feeding her fish slices of cucumber.

 

 

I, Woman, Teacher.

This post originally appeared in Education Week.


 

This week marks the beginning of Women’s History Month. I am interested in hearing from other female teachers about how their gender identity affects their practice in the classroom. Please contact me if you’d like to share some of your thoughts.



IMG_8494.JPGWhat does it mean to be a woman in education?
I asked myself on a run this morning. For all my discussion about “identity,” I realize that I have actually done very little reflection about my gender identity as a teacher. I deconstruct it occasionally in my personal life, but I haven’t really thought about what it means as an educator.

I think it’s important to remember with this month, as with all months devoted to a group of people, that simply because it’s “[_____] History Month” doesn’t mean that the conversation is only about the past. It is important to know not only where we come from, but also consider how this aspect of our identity influences the present spaces we are in with our students.

Here’s the thing I realized: I know that being a woman in education (where I am in the majority, which also has interesting implications), is important and affects the way I interact with my students and my work. I just have no. idea. how.

I am eager to keep reflecting and hopefully hearing other’s thoughts on the subject. All I have right now are a few moments from over the school year.


“WOO-woo!” A sharp, high whistle pierces the air. My students and I all instinctively turned towards the street and watch the truck slowly stop twenty feet ahead of us at a stoplight.

Back on the field, a few girls and I roll our eyes instinctively. I am surrounded by my fifteen upper-classmen drama students, and we are stretching on a field bordered by a busy street. While the whistle doesn’t surprise me, it does fill my stomach with a white-hot rage. It’s frustrating enough when I am whistled at on a street while running or merely trying to get from point A to point B. It is infuriating that someone felt it was their right to harass my underage female students.

I look back at them, then back at the truck. “Was that the car that did it?” I ask, knowing the answer– the window is still open, a man’s arm hanging out with a sly face occasionally peeking back and laughing, as though he is daring me to say something. My girls nod.

I look back at them, think for a moment, then begin moving towards the car. I briefly turn to my students and lob my room keys at one of them. “Go back to the classroom. I’m going to go have a talk with them.” The kids cheer briefly as I run over, before heading upstairs.


“I just…” she trails off. One of my ninth-graders sits above my desk on a stool, reading her paper rough draft to herself. In a paper about love, she has revealed an emotionally abusive relationship she was in. She wants to finish the paper by writing about how she learned to love herself.

“I just… I don’t know how to write about myself. I feel weird talking about what being strong feels like,” she finally finishes.

I take a second, understanding her sentiment completely. “Why do you think it’s hard?” I ask.

“It… feels weird,” she shakes her head.

“I think a lot of times we as women are told not to write about ourselves or what we like about ourselves,” I offer. “Because, you know… the patriarchy.”

She smiles. We have often talked about “the patriarchy.”

“I think writing about yourself can fight against that,” I continue. I look at my own computer, full of open drafts that I, too have abandoned because they felt “weird.” I look back at her, “Maybe writing about ourselves can be a radical act.”

She thinks about it, then nods her head.


“Ms. Torres, do you ever wear make-up?” A student asks me towards the beginning of the year. With the exception of the first day (where I wore slacks, a button-up, and a bow-tie), I rarely go beyond combing my hair and throwing on a pair of baggy jeans before school.

My regular day-to-day wear consists of ripped jeans and UFC gym attire. I often mention to my students that I am headed to an MMA class or off for a run or to lift weights.

All of this is with purpose. At some point, I began to see traditional, stereotyped forms of femininity as weak– or, at least, as vulnerable. To be feminine and pretty meant to conform to societal norms that seemingly put me in a place of oppression.

So, I gave up those things. I rarely wore makeup. I no longer danced Salsa. Instead, I ran and punched. I decided to see how much I could lift or how fast I could run. I tried to subvert the patriarchy by showing I could mimic its forms.

I look at my student and laugh. “No, not unless I have to,” I said. Then, in a mock-conspirator’s whisper, I say “I’m a bit too busy to worry about stuff like that.”

The student laughs, and I do too. Then I catch the gaze of another female student. She is often well-dressed and wearing make-up. I don’t know if she has heard me, but I can’t help but wonder how she would feel about my comment. Would I have embarrassed her? Shamed her? Angered her?


Now, I am forced to hold up a mirror to my own ideas of femininity, power, and vulnerability. It took years to let go of the idea that my identity as a woman was tied to dressing and looking a particular way. If I am trying to subvert the patriarchy then I would hate to be complicit in the myth that femininity is somehow weak.

I am challenging myself to stand in that mirror and love the feminine, “girly” side of me as much as the one that runs marathons and talks sports with my students. I worry that to do anything less would send a detrimental and subtly misogynistic message to my students. Instead, I want to reclaim that aspect of identity as anything but weak, and see it for its full worth as wonderfully and beautifully powerful.

5 Cool Things: 2015 Reflections and 2016 Resolutions

When I started this blog last year, I began it with the intention of forcing myself to write once a week. I had no idea whether it would stick– I had been on tumblr since 2009– and barely considered myself a writer.

A year and a day later, and the world has certainly changed since that post. In my early and mid-twenties, I was big on sweeping, long-form resolutions posts. Unfortunately, I have to get up in four-and-a-half hours to get on a plane, so here’s a quick summary before I forget.


 

Five Cool Things I Did in 2015:

1. I started seeing myself as an actual writer, and so did other people. I obviously didn’t need other people’s validation, but it certainly helped. Getting paid actual money to write for EdWeekTeaching Tolerance and other sites was the first time I felt like writing was more than a hobby and something like an actual part of my career.

2. I created space for myself, including buying this domain name! I was worried at first, but pushing myself to create that space lead to lots of opportunities for me.

3. I continued to love my job. It is so great. It feels like home. It also inspired me to find side-jobs that are not promo-girling and actually benefit who I am and my growth. I pushed my own line of thinking and began to understand my role as an educator.

4. I am still learning to love my body and that’s okay.

5. I HIT THAT SUB-4 MARATHON AND BACK-TO-BACK MARATHONED OHHHH YEAHHHH.

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Yay! Obviously, there are a billion other things: family time, friend time, falling even deeper love with my guy. These are just some of the things.


Six 2016 Resolutions

1. Make more connections, especially with local educators, but also continuing to deepen the ones I’ve found online.

2. Become a better and more diverse writer. I’ve written mostly about education, which I love, but I’m already starting to expand my writing horizons.

3. Make space and time for people I love. I tend to get caught up in the digital world and less so in the real world. Time to try and change that. I obviously love the people I’ve met online, but I don’t want to neglect the human people in my life!

4. Be a better teacher. Always. I’m already thinking about next year, but I still want to finish this school year strong! Time to make sure the things I talk about are more than words and truly part of my practice (I think they are but I think I could get better).

5. Deepen my relationship with Christ. I’m going to write more about this next week, but I’m committing to taking time in 2016 to truly refocus and strengthen my relationship with God. I’m already planning on trying to do an eight-day silent retreat at an Ignatian house this summer. We’ll see how it goes.

6. Run a faster half-marathon, but keep a healthy detachment from running! The past two years I had specific running goals: first to run a marathon again after my break, and then to sub-4. Now that I’ve hit that, it’s time to think a little differently.


I am very excited to move into the new year surrounded with so much love and joy. After a wonderful two weeks with my family, I’m excited to spend tomorrow with friends and my partner. Here’s to a restful, successful and blessed new year.

When You Realize You Are Complicit

The post initially ran in EdWeek Teacher as “The System Wasn’t Built for Us”


First, it was the lack of an indictment for Sandra Bland’s death. Then, it was the lack of an indictment for Tamir Rice’s killing.

As days and verdicts pass, I am only able to ask this question: if the basic structures built for “safety” will not protect us, then what will? 

Moreover, as a teacher, what does this question mean for my students and for me?


For students:  Students need the space to learn about and discuss these stories, as well as process what is going on. Thumbnail image for 17130711447_ca7635c0cb_o.jpg

I’ve seen some teachers say, “I don’t know how to talk about this, so I’m going to move past it.” That fear is understandable, but we must also understand that silence is compliance, and silence is violenceWhen the system is failing, we are compelled as educators not to act as “a cog in a wheel,” as John Dewey once said. We must support our students as they deal with and question the mechanisms in our society that allowed this to happen. We may feel rage (which can look like a lot of things), and that’s okay. Even acknowledging current events, as well as our own frustration and lack of answers can be powerful (Teaching Tolerance and Youth Radio had some great resources if you’d like to do a more in-depth lesson).

Even if your students, like mine, may not directly feel a personal connection to these stories, part of our job is to expose them to questions regarding the larger world and teach them to empathize with communities frustrated and hurt by these situations. For students with whom these events hit closer to home, it’s important to remember this, from Ta-Nahesi Coates’s Between The World and Me:

…all our phrasing – race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy – serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.

If racism is a “visceral” experience, the space to heal from it is all more important.


dewey.jpgFor educators: We must begin to reframe our understanding of the system that we work in and, thus, are compliant in. Current events have only strengthened my belief that, frankly, the system wasn’t built for me and other people of color or people from marginalized backgrounds. The system will consistently perpetuate existing hierarchies of power.

Unfortunately, our current education system is one of those hierarchal structures. We can either remain silently and willingly compliant, or we can question and change the powers that be at work in our schools. The questions might appear small at first: whose values am I measure by in a teacher evaluation? Do my students feel like they have a voice at my school? Are the parents I work with feeling valued?

As we move forward, though, those questions will get bigger, and the commitment to the work gets stronger. Hopefully, all educators (and administrators and entire communities) will understand this: our job is not to feed content to students. Our job is to prepare young people to dismantle systems that are currently failing them, and help them uplift the voices, and ideas that showcase the best of their generation. 


Recently, Trent Gillis of On Being posted a reflection about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final Christmas sermon. King’s feeling that we were a “bewildered human race. We have neither peace within nor peace without…” resonate now.  

The sermon goes on, though, to reminder us of the need for hope:

Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying I still have a dream, because, you know, you can’t give up in life. If you lose hope, somehow you lose that vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of all. And so today I still have a dream.

I leave these words here, as a reminder of what we must hold dear in 2016. Our students still have dreams. We do too. We must continue to push so that those dreams can reach the full majesty of their potential.

 

Protest image via Flickr: Fibonacci Blue
Quote image via Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price.

 

Students as Change-Makers: Pushing the Edge Podcast

Earlier this year, I had the chance to speak to the amazing Greg B. Curran for his podcast Pushing the Edge. We talked about what I’m learning and want to learn more about regarding student voice and agency, as well as the term “minority.”

You can listen to the episode here or find it on iTunes here. I had such a good time recording it, I hope you take a listen! Plus, I sound like a SoCal-hippie teacher about 25% of the time (28:15 is my favorite, and I would like, “Man, are we teaching kids to think about the SYSTEM?!” to be on a t-shirt), which PJ and I had a good laugh over.