Tell Me Who You Are: Windows and mirrors for our students and ourselves

Originally posted on the Using Informational Text to Teach Literature blog

by Susan Chenelle, NJCTE blog editor, and Audrey A. Fisch, NJCTE President

Thinking of the works we read with our students as “windows and mirrors” has become a popular way of conceptualizing why and how we diversify our curriculathanks to Emily Style who named the concept in 1988. In “Curriculum as Window and Mirror,” she wrote:

“… [S]tudents’ educational diet is not balanced if they see themselves in the mirror all the time. Likewise, democracy’s school curriculum is unbalanced if a black student sits in school, year after year, forced to look through the window upon the (validated) experiences of white others while seldom, if ever, having the central mirror held up to the particularities of her or his own experience. Such racial imbalance is harmful as well to white students whose seeing of humanity’s different realities is also profoundly obscured.”

Through the work of individual teachers, teachers working collaboratively with colleagues, groups like DisruptTexts and ProjectLit, and professional organizations like NCTE, our curricula are becoming more diverse. In addition, we continue to ask ourselves how we use texts in our classrooms, given the disparate teaching contexts each of us faces, the students we are teaching, and the events of the world swirling around us. 

While we turn to works of fiction and their characters to humanize past, present, and visions of the future, our students still can struggle to connect with stories about times, places, and people that are far off from their own experience or to realize that fictional stories are derived from the experiences of real people. 

As we have found, informational texts can help students connect fiction back to and enrich their understanding of the real world. We experienced this when discussing Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun with Susan’s sophomores. Until we shared with them excerpts from a report by the City of Chicago on acts of violence and harassment toward African-American families who had moved into previously white housing developments in the 1950s and 1960s, many of them believed Hansberry’s play was just a made-up story.

Style’s article is helpful again in understanding this:

“In considering how the curriculum functions, it is essential to note the connection between eyesight and insight. … no student acquires knowledge in the abstract; learning is always personal. Furthermore, learning never takes place in a vacuum; it is always contextual.”

The remarkable array of voices collected by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi in their 2019 collection, Tell Me Who You Are: Sharing Our Stories of Race, Culture, & Identity, can provide just such personal context for a wide range of works, both fiction and nonfiction. Following their graduation from high school(!), Guo and Vulchi traveled the United States, starting in Anchorage, Alaska, in July 2017, and completing their journey in Charlottesville, Virginia, in February 2018. Along the way, they interviewed more than 500 people and recorded their stories in their own words. Bound together, these stories, each with a photograph of its teller, present a beautiful encyclopedia of the people of the United States, featuring unique experiences, histories, and perspectives that many readers – both adults and students – will not have heard before and/or will recognize themselves in.

Particular excerpts readily lend themselves to connections with texts frequently taught in ELA classrooms. Butler, a man from Montgomery, Alabama, tells the story of his mother, Aurelia Browder, who was the lead plaintiff in the federal court case that overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and legally ended desegregation. This story would provide valuable context for students reading Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice; while Guo and Vulchi’s interview with present-day students at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, provides powerful connections with Melba Pattillo Beals’ memoir Warriors Don’t Cry

Louise from Seattle tells of being interned with her family, and all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, just six months before she was supposed to graduate from high school. While she shares her experience of the concentration camps, she also talks about her life afterward and how she feels about being an American now. Louise’s story is an obvious complement to Farewell to Manzanar. The story of Claudette, a rising chef from Chula Vista, California, meanwhile, provides a real-life role-model similar to the heroine of Elizabeth Acevedo’s With the Fire on High.

Tell Me Who You Are provides a wealth of windows and mirrors that allow readers to see aspects of ourselves in others and to see how each of our identities shapes our views and experiences of the world. Each story is short, usually 2-3 pages, so it can be easily accessed once a week or so, allowing students to meet new people and consider their way of living in the world. This collection is also a very human and accessible illustration of intersectionality, a concept Guo and Vulchi return to frequently as they narrate their journey as two young BIPOC women talking to people all around the United States. (The website of CHOOSE, the racial literacy organization they founded, also provides a rich array of resources, including profiles of teachers and K-12 lesson plans across all disciplines.)

Finally, as we began writing this, we shared in the widespread tributes to Beverly Clearly, who passed away this week, at the age of 104.
 In her honor, let us continue to give our students opportunities to read stories they can see themselves in, to encourage them to “embrace their too much-ness,” and to write the books that they want to read. And let’s continue to create the ELA classrooms we and our students need and want.

Tell Me Who You Are: Windows and mirrors for our students and ourselves

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