Emily E. Smith is a fifth-grade social justice and English language arts teacher at Cunningham Elementary School in Austin. She was just awarded the 2015 Donald H. Graves Excellence in the Teaching of Writing award given at the National Teachers of English Language Arts Convention in Minneapolis. Smith created and founded The Hive Society, a classroom that inspires children to creatively explore literature through critical thinking and socially relevant texts.
In her speech accepting the award, Smith talked about a seminal moment in her career when she realized she needed to change her approach to teaching students of colour, one of whom told her that she couldn’t understand his problems because she is white. The following is an excerpt of the speech in which she discusses her transformation (and which the Washington Post has published with permission).
From Smith’s speech:
"I’m white. My classroom is not. Sure, it’s been my dream to work at an “urban” school. To work with kids whose challenges I could never even fathom at such a young age. And changing at-risk lives through literature is almost a media cliché by now. These were, however, how I identified myself at the beginning of my teaching career. I was a great teacher. I taught children how to truly write for the first time and share meaningful connections on a cozy carpet. We made podcasts about music lyrics and filled our favourite books so full with annotated sticky notes that they would barely close. We even tiptoed into the alien world of free verse poetry.
But something was missing. If you’ve already forgotten, I’m white. “White” is kind of an uncomfortable word to announce, and right now people may already be unnerved about where this is going. Roughly 80 per cent of teachers in the United States today are white. Yet the population of our students is a palette. That means America’s children of color will, for the majority of their school years, not have a teacher who is a reflection of their own image. Most of their school life they will be told what to do and how to do it by someone who is white, and most likely female. Except for a few themed weeks, America’s children of colour will read books, watch videos, analyze documents and study historical figures who are also not in their image.
Student news in pictures
Student news in pictures
1/19 UCL students ‘declare victory’ as 5-month long rent dispute is resolved
UCL said its offer to make available £350,000 for 2016/17 to fund accommodation bursaries for those students in most need of financial support, to freeze rent for 2016/17 and to reduce rent for some rooms had been accepted. Shelly Asquith, NUS vice-president of welfare, said: “Rent hikes will lead to more rent strikes, and now we know that rent strikes win.”
UCL, Cut the Rent/Facebook
2/19 Dutch university warns UK students to apply as soon as possible while tuition fees are still affordable
Maastricht University (UM) in the Netherlands has said British students will continue to benefit from fees of just £1,600 a year for at least the next two years. Once Britain has legally left the EU - and considering it does not join the European Economic Area - UM said its fees could still rise to as much as £8,360 a year for UK students.
Brian Megens/Maastricht University
3/19 UK risks losing over 33,000 much-needed female scientists each year
New research has shown almost a quarter of current female science students will not or are not sure whether they will pursue a career in science, equating to 33,371 students. Dr Steve Shiel, scientific director at L’Oreal UK & Ireland, said: “There’s no question that science needs women, and it’s disappointing almost a quarter of passionate young UK scientists are being put off before they’ve even begun their career.”
4/19 De Montfort University petition urges Government to protect residency rights of EU nationals post-Brexit result
A petition launched by the Leicester institution less than a week ago has already gathered 1,500 signatures as supporters insist EU nationals make “an enormous contribution” to ground-breaking research and quality of teaching. Rick Greenough, of DMU’s Institute for Energy and Sustainable Development, said: “Our colleagues from the EU are far too valuable as employees and friends to risk forcing or encouraging them to leave the UK.”
5/19 Exeter University staff and students subjected to verbal abuse post-EU referendum
Deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Exeter, Professor Nick Talbot, told ITV News the incidents were “terrible, reprehensible, and awful.” However, he said he believes the majority of people in the United Kingdom would “overwhelming reject that type of activity.” The university has urged anyone who experiences such incidents to contact police immediately.
6/19 Students turning to sex work to cope with rising tuition fees and living costs
More than half - 67 per cent - have turned to sex work to be able to pay for living expenses, such as food and bills, followed by 53 per cent who need the money to pay for rent, says NUS report. Another 35 per cent say their earnings are used to pay for university fees, while around a quarter use money earned to reduce post-graduation debt, or to avoid getting into debt.
7/19 Parliamentary debate finally triggered over Government’s controversial decision to retrospectively change student loans terms
The news will come as a pleasant surprise seeing as how the Government had rejected a petition just over a week ago, despite it surpassing the crucial 100,000 signatures it needed to make it eligible for parliamentary debate. Consumer champion, Martin Lewis, says: “Parliament has sat up and listened. With a new Government coming in September, there is still time for it to do a U-turn on this disgraceful policy and I, for one, will be pushing as hard and loudly as possible for that to happen.” The debate is set for Monday 18 July at 4.30pm.
Rob Stothard/Getty Images
8/19 Remain and Leave students have two main things in common when it comes to the Brexit result
A combined 91 per cent feel Brexit campaigners “insufficiently investigated” the impact on education, while 57 per cent think their university failed to provide adequate information on the impact of a Brexit vote. Chloe Burgess, director at GTI Media, said: “It’s inevitable opinions would be divided among the student body, but they all share a common interest in playing an active part in their country’s future. This political inclination will, no doubt, be further expressed in the coming months, as university and careers issues are increasingly brought to light post-Brexit.”
9/19 Thousands of graduates working in jobs that don’t require any qualifications
Over 50,000 new graduates are in non-graduate jobs, including lollypop ladies, factory workers and hospital porters, new figures have revealed, leading experts to question the value of costly university degrees in the Brexit climate, employment data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows.
Getty Images/Susan Chiang
10/19 Disadvantaged young people at risk of being put off university if Government raises tuition fees
Non-whites and those who receive free school meals are also more likely to choose low-cost university options if tuition fees are liable to change, says new report ‘Does Cost Matter?’ UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, says: “We risk creating a polarised university system of haves and have-nots where costs determines young people’s choices.”
Ian Waldie/Getty Images
11/19 Worrying trend of ‘drunkorexia’ on the rise among female students
It had been thought that ‘drunkorexia’, the trend of skipping meals in order to save calories to drink alcohol, was anecdotal.However, the practice is very much a reality - and becoming worryingly popular among young women, particularly university students - as it is revealed almost 60 per cent of female undergrads admit to drunkorexic behaviours.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
12/19 University to offer out-of-work graduates half their tuition fees back in cash
The University of Law (ULaw) says its new ‘100% for You’ initiative will also offer a half-price discount to its unemployed graduate lawyers should they wish to pursue a postgrad. Graduates must have been unable to secure full-time employment 9 months after graduation to qualify for the refund.
13/19 Gender discrimination present among students as young as 16, schoolgirls report
Over a third of girls aged 16 to 18 - 36 per cent - say they have witnessed gender discrimination in school. Startlingly, only one in five boys - or 19 per cent - believes a gender divide exists today. Michael Mercieca, chief executive of Young Enterprise, described how the gender divide “remains rife in our education system,” from girls lacking the confidence to pursue leadership roles and to expect higher starting salaries, to the “pervasive belief” STEM topics are more interesting for boys.
14/19 Government confirms funding for EU students in UK to be honoured after Brexit
The Student Loans Company said it has sought to reassure anxious students and applicants from home and abroad about how the EU referendum results might affect the funding of their courses. In a statement on Twitter, Universities Minister Jo Johnson said: “Current students and this autumn's applicants will continue to receive student finance for duration of their course. [The] UK welcomes EU students.” The University of Buckingham, pictured, has the highest percentage of overseas students, a number of whom are from the EU.
The University of Buckingham/Facebook
15/19 York University student gets public apology and £1,000 payout after making anti-Semitism complaints
According to The Sunday Times, 21-year-old law student, Zachary Confino, “suffered stress and narrowly missed a first-class degree” following comments made to him over a period of two years. The comments reportedly included anonymous messages posted to him on social media app, Yik Yak, as well as face-to-face name-calling. University spokesperson says: “The university is committed to preserving the right to freedom of expression while also combating anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and any other form of race hate.”
16/19 European Students’ Union will ‘stand together’ with UK’s young voters post-Brexit
Representing over 15 million students across the continent, ESU president says: “We hope the UK Government and the EU institutions will find a deal that won’t jeopardize students in UK, and that UK universities won’t increase tuition fees to compensate the loss of EU money.”
17/19 UK result would have been Remain had votes been allowed at 16
With 1.46 million 16 and 17-year-olds in the UK - and with that 82 per cent voting Remain - the number would have matched the 1.2 million difference between Out and In, potentially changing the result completely, The Student Room survey finds.
18/19 Access to social media sites more important to students than promotions and bonuses
Access to social media sites is so essential for students in their careers, they would also turn down gym memberships, subsidised lunches, company-provided smartphones, laptops, tablets and cars, and even healthcare and dental schemes, graduate careers app, Debut, finds.
19/19 Student homelessness in London is ‘a hidden problem,’ says academic
Patrick Mulrenan, senior lecturer in housing at London Metropolitan University (LMU), carried out research to find students across the capital are being forced to sleep on floors, stay with friends and relatives, or in council temporary accommodation. He said: We need to find out how many students are affected and encourage them to use the support that is available. We want to use this research to get the message out there that there is help available, and encourage students to tell us if they are homeless.”
I’ve been guilty of that charge. But things changed for me the day when, during a classroom discussion, one of my kids bluntly told me I “couldn’t understand because I was a white lady.” I had to agree with him. I sat there and tried to speak openly about how I could never fully understand and went home and cried, because my children knew about white privilege before I did. The closest I could ever come was empathy.
My curriculum from then on shifted. We still did all of the wonderful things that I had already implemented in the classroom, except now the literature, the documents, the videos, the discussions, the images embodied the issues that my children wanted to explore. We studied the works of Sandra Cisneros, Pam Munoz Ryan and Gary Soto, with the intertwined Spanish language and Latino culture — so fluent and deep in the memories of my kids that I saw light in their eyes I had never seen before. We analyzed Langston Hughes’s “Let America be America” again from the lens of both historical and current events and realized that the United States is still the land that has never been. The land that my kids, even after reading an excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter to his son that connected so deeply to their personal experiences, decided they still wanted to believe in. The land they decided to still hope for. The land that one of my kids quietly said would be changed by her generation. A generation of empathy.
We read about the Syrian crisis, analyzing photographs of war-torn faces at the border and then wrote poetry of hope, despair and compassion from the perspectives of the migrants. Many of my kids asked to write about their own journeys across the border and their [dreams] for a better future. One child cried and told me he never had a teacher who honored the journey his family took to the United States. He told me he was not ashamed anymore, but instead proud of the sacrifice his parents made for him.
We listened to StoryCorps podcasts by people from different walks of life, and children shared their own stories of losing pets, saying goodbye to a mother or father in jail, the fear of wearing a hoodie while walking to a 7-Eleven, and thriving under the wing of a single parent who works two jobs.
So as I stand here today I can declare that I am no longer a language arts and social studies teacher, but a self-proclaimed teacher of social justice and the art of communication with words.
Looking back, I think that my prior hesitation to talk about race stemmed from a lack of social education in the classroom. A lack of diversity in my own life that is, by no means, the fault of my progressive parents, but rather a broken and still segregated school system. Now that I’m an educator in that system, I’ve decided to stand unflinching when it comes to the real issues facing our children today, I’ve decided to be unafraid to question injustice, unafraid to take risks in the classroom — I am changed. And so has my role as a teacher.
I can’t change the color of my skin or where I come from or what the teacher workforce looks like at this moment, but I can change the way I teach. So I am going to soapbox about something after all. Be the teacher your children of colour deserve. In fact, even if you don’t teach children of colour, be the teacher America’s children of colour deserve, because we, the teachers, are responsible for instilling empathy and understanding in the hearts of all kids. We are responsible for the future of this country.
So teach the texts that paint all the beautiful faces of our children and tell the stories of struggle and victory our nation has faced. Speak openly and freely about the challenges that are taking place in our country at this very moment. Talk about the racial and class stereotypes plaguing our streets, our states, our society. You may agree that black and brown lives matter, but how often do you explore what matters to those lives in your classroom?
Put aside your anxieties and accept your natural biases. Donald Graves once said, “Children need to hang around a teacher who is asking bigger questions of herself than she is asking of them.” I know I’m going to continue to ask the bigger questions of myself and seek the answers that sometimes feel impossible, because my kids deserve it … you’re welcome to join me. Thank you."
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