Regrounding the Classroom: Planting Seeds that Honor the Histories and Humanity of the Students We Serve
By: Mayra Valle
The impact and meaning of “The Rebirth of Our Nationality,” mural in Houston have guided me throughout my career. After working to inspire students who had been trying to process the words of a president who called their community members “criminals,” “drug dealers,” and “bad hombres,” I picked up my keys and drove 15 minutes to Canal St. These harmful stereotypes filled airwaves like white noise, and I needed to reinforce a different message, a truer message, of who we were and who we are.
We are scholars. We are educators. We are artists. We are believers. We are liberators. We are fighters. We are leaders. We are worthy.
Leo Tanguma’s mural “Rebirth of Our Nationality” (1973) decorates over 4,000 square feet of Canal St in Houston, TX. After decades, this mural began to wear the scars of the people it aimed to represent until its restoration in 2018. To some, it may be the backdrop to their daily commute, but to my mother and me it artistically captured “us.” It is an ode to the Chicane and Mexican history of struggle and resistance. It honors Indigenous roots, illustrates broken treaties, and showcases our survival within a complex history. Every few weeks, it became a place I visited to remind myself that we were more than the narrative we’ve been taught.
I have served as a facilitator and college counselor in Houston for years and over time, my conversations with students became more honest and often eruptive. They spoke candidly about the dangers of white supremacy and their fear of navigating predominantly white institutions for college. Our young people could only make sense of harmful rhetoric directed at them, by asking “what did we do?” As if to say, the harm inflicted on them must somehow be justifiable to be real.
It was at that moment, that I realized my position as a multi-partial facilitator and not a neutral one. I needed to sit with students in those moments, because I too, had some unlearning and relearning to do. In removing the mask of professionalism, we sat in our humanity.
With the political climate reaching a boiling point on Jan 6th, educators who knew about my facilitation background spoke with me about how to traverse these difficult conversations. For many, they didn’t feel equipped with the tools to begin dialogue because students identified much differently than them. For others, they felt too connected to the topic to fully engage with young people in a more impartial way. Both perspectives were valid, and I, alone, didn’t hold the tools to solely navigate this.
Through much self-reflection and peer collaboration, a few classroom norms emerged that have led to more fruitful student-centered conversations in the classroom.
Hold space to acknowledge and affirm student identities:
As educators, it is imperative that we acknowledge the voices, perspectives, and histories that are often erased from classroom resources and conversations. I do recognize that challenges may arise in some states, due to more strict legislation against Critical Race Theory or specific local curriculum priorities. However, the inclusion of truer and more complex narratives also takes the shape of inviting more personal conversations about how our young people process the world and what experiences inform their narrative.
Reiterate that students are the experts of their lived experience
The norms of professional writing often deter students from writing from their own perspective, and many internalize that it is improper to speak from the “I.” Reaffirm the power in speaking as the expert of their lived experiences, as it is non-refutable. Their personal truths lead to the deepest conversations, greatest connections, and exponential personal growth within the classroom.
Invite curiosity and inquiry:
It is imperative that we co-create spaces with students during facilitation. Although the facilitator may have a sense of where to go with a conversation, the students guide the path forward. Lean into inquiry and ask questions to better understand student’s perspectives when they step into vulnerability and share new aspects of themselves with us.
Welcome intellectual humility and pass the mic when needed:
In the classroom, I often felt like I had to have all of the answers. The more comfortable I became in my role, the less I felt committed to that self-imposed rule. When we feel like we can’t best serve through our lens, it is okay to say, “I don’t know,” and invite others to share the space. Feel free to connect with teachers, community members, district stakeholders, and families to step in, when we are unable to do so.
For some students, open dialogue may elicit feelings of nervousness about the unknown while for others it may stir up feelings of excitement about the possibility. As the classroom dynamic shifts, feel free to continue conversations with your students to check in on them. This allows students to know they have been seen and are appreciated for their contributions.
If art has the power to connect and inspire a mother and daughter across decades, critical dialogue has the power to motivate reflection from educators and co-create much-needed spaces of belonging for our young people.
Mayra’s journey as a first-generation college student led her to join the EMERGE Fellowship team in 2018. EMERGE supports high-performing youth from under-resourced communities to attend and graduate from the nation’s top colleges and universities. Today, Mayra is the Director of Learning and Design for the organization. She is responsible for supporting the professional development of staff and creating the curriculum for students in 5 Houston area school districts.
Through her participation in fellowships with Breakthrough Houston, The Bezos Family Foundation, Latinos for Education, and the New Leaders Council, Mayra seeks out knowledge to equip her with the skills to best serve educators and students in Houston.