This may be the first time I’m linking a Valerie Strauss feature to my blog because she and I rarely see things the same way. But the Texas teacher featured on the Answer Sheet blog at the Washington Post today captured my mind and heart today. Emily Elizabeth Smith, 5th grade teacher from Austin, Texas, gave a speech in which she shares about the moment her student said, “you can’t understand because you’re a white lady.” Not only did she truly hear his words but she allowed them to transform her approach to teaching. All of us as people, and especially white teachers of diverse populations, would be wise to try some of what Smith came up with to help understand and honor the lives and stories of the students in her classroom. So grateful to know that we have teachers like Ms. Smith who have discovered the infinite power and importance of 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.