In this episode, Alec and middle school teacher Jean Catubay interview fellow-middle school teacher Julie Ruble about how she talks to her students about challenging, relevant stuff without anyone getting hurt.
These kids they’re not bad. They don’t want to be bad people. They want to be good people. They just, if they’re in trouble, they’ve got a fight. It’s just where their brain is at. That’s kind of been my I T I mean, you know, I mess it up of course, but that’s sort of my, where I try to start from,
This is High Tech High Unboxed, I’m Alec Patton. And I’m co-hosting this episode with Jean Catubay who teaches seventh grade humanities at HIgh Tech Middle Chula Vista. Hi Jean
This is a new series that we’re doing on High Tech High Unboxed about facilitating tough conversations with kids. I’m talking about the kind of topics where if they came up at a family get-together, they might end with family members no longer on speaking terms. I first started thinking about this when the national protests started after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis. And a lot of people on Twitter were saying, “Teachers, you have to talk about this with your students,” which is true, but that conversation could go a lot of different ways. Were you thinking about that when the news broke about the protests and everything?
Oh, yeah, for sure. And I think even more so, because that was our very last week of school. And so to not talk about it meant that we would go a whole summer and basically not have those kids in our class anymore. And so that opportunity for that dialogue would have been lost if we had not caught it right away. And so, yeah, I definitely I’m with that statement for sure. And that feeling of having to talk about it, especially because of the timing of everything,
Were you nervous about it?
I mean, even as an adult, and to be honest, I have not watched the video. I’ve made very conscious choice not to click on it and I’m going to backtrack a little bit, ’cause I know like as a teacher I’ve always made it a point to like, whatever we talk about or show to kids, that we’re also looking at it. And we’re also talking about it as adults first. And so again, because of the timing, there was not much space for that. And we were really jumping into that conversation without that kind of background work done first on my own. So I felt like we were processing it a little bit together and that made me really, really, really nervous to have that discussion just because I didn’t know where the conversation was going to go because I, myself didn’t know what I thought about it.
Yeah. And I’m sure that there were teachers who showed that clip in class and I’m sure there are students who really did not need to see that clip in class, which kind of brings to the thing that I felt like I wanted to hear more about, which is like, I kind of think about the Hippocratic oath that doctors take, with teaching. And I don’t know the Hippocratic oath at all, but I do know it says “First do no harm.” And there’s a lot of ways that this conversation could do harm and that discussing the murder of George Floyd could do harm to students. Trauma’s the big obvious one that comes up.
There’s also like what values families are bringing into that conversation and hence what the kids are bringing into the conversation. Because we opened up that invitation for families as well. So there were a couple of parents and siblings who were also in that Socratic seminar that we held. And so again, widening the participants added another layer of like, “I don’t know what’s going to happen because I don’t know the viewpoints that they’re bringing in.” And so that also made me a little bit nervous, but again, like I do want to say that I have spent the whole year with my class doing Socratic seminar. And so being able to leverage the work that we did throughout the year as that closing conversation was definitely something that was like built upon. And it wasn’t something that I was just like, “Okay, let’s do it, let’s do it this week,” you know? And so I think that’s something to note. And in terms of like people who are listening to this, having structures in your class to have open discussion with kids is super important. So that when you do get to the quote unquote “hard stuff,” you kind of have those structures to lean back on. And so I was relying on that a lot for this, especially when it came to like pushing back on ideas and bringing in evidence from the text and those things like that. Those are things that like our students have had 40 something weeks of practice doing. And so I definitely saw that as like something that we could kind of lean on.
Yeah. There are no like quick fixes. You can’t suddenly turn your class into a class that’s able to talk about this stuff, but you also don’t have the option to say, “You know what? This conversation is too risky. I don’t feel like I know how to handle it, so I’m not going to bring it up,” just like a doctor, can’t say, “Oh, this person definitely has cancer, but I’m not really confident about treating cancer so I’m just going to ignore it.” That’s not “doing no harm.” And so you’ve got to talk about this stuff, but that also doesn’t just mean, “Okay, I guess I’m just going to jump in and do it.” There are ways to approach it. And that’s what this is all about. And so we’re going to be talking to teachers throughout the series who have experience in facilitating these scary conversations. Jean, you want to introduce our first guest?
Yes, I know and I love this person very much. So today we are starting with amazing Julie Ruble
Do you want to say who you are?
Like what kinds of stuff? This is an existential crisis
Like, teacher stuff!
Okay. I’m Julie Ruble, I’m a sixth grade humanities teacher at High Tech Middle Media Arts, and this’ll be my 12th year teaching, and my third year teaching at High Tech High. Should I say other stuff? Should I say like my masters? Should I say like my credential? Should I give my CV?
Julie’s been on the podcast before, in episode 14, where she talked about doing continuous improvement work in High Tech High’s teacher induction program. And Jean, you and Julie have some history.
Yeah. So we both worked at the middle school in Chula Vista and she got the position as the seventh grade humanities teacher. And I got the pleasure of working with her as her academic coach. And so it was just really beautiful to watch her work every day and just to be around her, in that space. And it’s just crazy because she ended up going to another school and now I’m teaching in that same exact class. And so to have that energy in the room just feels really good. And I’m lucky enough to like keep having opportunities to work together. And so that’s been really cool.
This episode is in three parts. We start with first aid, like a kid says something in class that, you know, could hurt other kids and you need to respond to it right away. Then we’re going to talk about planning. We get into how to design projects that tackle controversial subjects and also about creating a curriculum that isn’t just all about stories of oppression. And we’ll end by talking about the Gender Sexuality Alliance that B Wiesen founded at Julie’s middle school. Julie cofacilitates it and they are helping teachers to make their classes more inclusive and welcoming for everyone. And to kick it off, Jean asked Julie about an incident that she remembered from the year that she worked with Julie.
I don’t even know if you remember this specific story, because there’s just so many things that can happen in three years, but we had a kid who… And I don’t really remember the context of him saying it other than he’s a 12 to 13-year-old boy who just sometimes says things without realizing. And he had used the word “retarded” and you had went and right away was like, “Hey, we need to talk after class, come meet me in the office.” And I was like, “Oh man, what is she going to say?” Do you remember this story?
I think I do remember it now that you’re telling it. Yeah.
Yeah. Okay, good. We had one in the office and I was like, “Man, she’s going to go in on him.” And you did, but in the most loving and — I can’t even explain it. It was just so, like, you had the history of the word, right? So there was like a historical context to your explanation. And then you named that it was hurtful not only to someone who might be categorized as that, that was hurtful to you, it was hurtful to our community. And it just, it was so fast, but also so effective and so knowledgeable. And just that kid took away after that experience not only that you cared about him, but you cared about the community that we were building as a class. And there was no sense that like, it was punitive in any way. And it was so loving, but also like, “I don’t want to mess with Ms. Julie after this.”
And yeah, I just, I brought that up to Alec because I was just like, “Wow, I have that in my memory box of teaching moments that I’m like, ‘Okay, I want to be like that.’” And I guess the question around that is “How’d you do that?”
There are certain things that, you know, like middle schoolers just developmentally are designed to test boundaries. Their brain needs to test boundaries to figure out what is socially acceptable and that they need accountability for it because they need to understand what hurts people and how to repair harm and things like that. And so I have created over the years, kind of a toolbox for the r-word, the n-word sometimes comes up, calling things “gay.” There are just certain things that middle school kids are going to do. And so I have a toolbox. And it doesn’t work to come down hard on them and be punitive because then you’ve created teams and they’re on the opposite team as you and they double down. And so what actually works is starting with the premise that they are empathetic and they do care about others and that they just don’t know enough about the topic to show it yet. And so when you start from that and you approach a child like a fellow good human, and they can tell you start with that premise like, “Hey, I bet you had no idea about this, but I want to tell you about it because once you know about it, you’re going to realize that you might accidentally be hurting someone. And I don’t want you to continue to do that on accident. I want you to know.” I feel like one part of it is they’re grateful for you knowing that they’re good. Because so often they like feel like they go into those conversations, labeled a troublemaker. And another part of it is that it gives them an opportunity to not have a defensive posture while you’re sharing the history and the context of the words. For instance, in the calling things gay example, there’s an awesome GLSEN activity that I do with kids where it has them put themselves in the shoes of different students and teachers who might be in the room. You know, someone who is gay, but in the closet, someone who maybe has a gay aunt, someone who maybe is teased about being gay, but they’re not. And how each of those different people would feel when they heard you say that. And so when they’re going through these thought exercises or history or context, I just feel like they need to know that you’re their partner in it. I think that makes all the difference in whether they’re going to be receptive.
Yeah. I love that. And I’m wondering like, how did you come to like create these? Is it just from like experience and like just over time and patterns or was it, was this something that you were like, Okay, this is something that I’ve seen other teachers do and maybe drawn inspiration from that? And I’m just curious about the process.
It’s all stolen. That’s the thing is like as a white teacher, a cisgender teacher, I have to know my positionality and like, I’m not always going to understand harm until I read about it and look into it and listen to people’s stories, I’m not going to come up with the best strategies until I do work to figure it out.
Can you real quick say like what you mean by “positionality?”
Yes. So by positionality I mean the social identities and the conditioning you bring into the space. So just by being a white, cisgender, queer, American, English-as-my-first-language, middle-class teacher coming into the classroom, like I’ve experienced the world a certain way. And I just have to remember that the way I experienced the world is not default because you kind of grow up thinking… Well, some of us grow up thinking that the way you experience the world must be how everybody experiences it, um particularly if we’re white. And so it’s so important to recognize that you’re actually a product of all the conditioning that is somewhat based on your social identities, and so once you know that it just helps you to avoid some pitfalls and some things that you might be missing.
Jean, you have a message for new teachers about stealing.
Yeah. I feel that as a new teacher, there is this sense that you have to come up with everything on your own and that if you don’t, you’re a phony or you’re a fake, or that you’re not a quote unquote “real” educator. And so this is your pass that you do not need to feel that pressure to reinvent things. And that it is actually a teacher’s strength to look at the world — and not only like in teaching, but just anything in the world — and figure out like what you can hold onto and, you know, remix and change up and personalize for the children you are serving. And I feel like people think it’s quote unquote “easier” to do that. And maybe that has something to do with the guilt around stealing things. I don’t know, but you are not going to like fix the world with one class, you know what I mean? And you, as a teacher, being able to use all the resources available to you and to give yourself a little bit of self-care in terms of not having to break yourself every single day. I think that in and of itself is serving kids. Overextending yourself doesn’t do yourself any good, and it doesn’t do the kids any good. And so when you see something really great, hold onto it, save it, create a resource folder that you just drop a bunch of stuff in that you can look at later, but just collect, collect, collect, steal, steal, steal.
And on that subject in our show notes, we have that GLSEN activity about how using gay as an insult affects different people. We also have a video about understanding the n-word and lots and lots of things that Julie brought up. They’re all in the show notes. So check it out to give you a head start on that stealing. Now, there’s another kind of first aid situation that Julie brought up, which is about taking something that a student wrote. And I’ve definitely had the experience of reading a draft by a student and feeling like I don’t know what to say to this kid. And if I say something, am I imposing my ideology on them? What should I do about what they’re saying here? ‘Cause It’s making me really uncomfortable. Here’s what Julie says.
So a student wrote a poem about her mother’s experience as a veteran and it was a beautiful poem and it was full of her mother’s strong feelings about certain things. And I just really recognized that she was being really vulnerable, and it also included some things that were questionable factually about certain conflicts the US had been in. And so I, without her, before calling her over before talking to her, did my own research because I wanted to really understand the topic that she was thinking of myself. And then once I felt like I had a good handle on it, I called her over and it’s sort of the feedback sandwich where I wanted her to know that I really am so excited that you’re sharing this personal experience of your mom and you’re getting to talk with her about it, and this is going to be such an important piece of family history… And I did notice that in this one line, you said X and I wanted to look at that with you, ’cause I wasn’t sure if that was true and look at what I found. I think we should read it together and figure out what to say. And she was so nervous. I think she thought that I was going to tell her that her more conservative opinion was sort of not allowed in her poem. And so I think it was such a relief to her that I wanted her voice there and there’s this factual error — we can’t have factual errors, we need to look at the data and adjust. And so again, we were co-learners, she adjusted that part of her poem and she actually reflected after the project, and she said that she was really proud of sharing an opinion that she felt was bold, that might not be popular. And I was really proud of the fact that we had corrected a misconception that she had about the topic. And I felt like that was just a moment in her life when her opinions were changed by data and where she had a working, evolving relationship with someone of a different opinion. And so I just felt like that was really edifying for both of us.
And this is why Julie Ruble is my teacher muse. She’s so good at this.
Yeah. I’m not so good at it, frankly, which is why I wanted to ask her about a moment that happened in my class. And this happened a few years ago, but it just haunts me to this day. What happened was that we were talking about foreign policy and whether the US should intervene in Syria. And that got us into questions of what the moral thing to do was, and a student raised their hand and said, “I don’t see how America can be talking about us being a moral country when we allow gay marriage.” And it just came out of nowhere. I’d never heard the student bring up anything like this before it had nothing to do with the discussion. And I was just like, “Okay, moving on,” because I had no idea what to do. So I asked Julie what she would have done.
So here’s what I would do. And I am not saying this is necessarily what I think other people should do, but I know what I would do. So I’m just gonna admit it. I’m not going to “both sides” identities. There’s no both sides to people’s identities. And when I’m thinking about who in the room is centered and who in the room is paying the highest cost, the most marginalized kids in the room would pay the highest cost when that comment was shared. And so I’m not going to act like “let’s look at the data.” There’s not data saying that people’s identities are valid and valuable and protected, that’s just sort of our basic human premise. And so I know what I would do in that situation is I would call it out, given that it was a public comment and I need to make sure that the kids in the room who are paying the highest cost are protected and they need to be protected publicly. They need to hear it. They need to know that they’re safe. And so I would say, “Hey, that’s an inappropriate comment that makes it seem like some people’s identities are not okay. I want to talk to you about that. I want to make sure you understand it, but just to be really clear, we’re not going to, we’re not going to pretend like people’s identities are not valid and valuable in this classroom. And so I definitely want to talk to you about it. I want to hear your opinion, but it’s really not okay to make comments like that.” I’m just thinking about the queer kids in this space.It’s just not okay to make them feel like their identities are up for debate.
I mean, I think one thing comes up for me from that clip, and a lot of it has to do just backing up a little bit to the fact that like 80, what is it? 83% of the teaching workforce are white females, right? And in a society where that particular identity is so centered and protected, I think within the context of a classroom where you have a mixed group of students, and even if it’s not a mixed group of students, right, where maybe it is a classroom of all white kids, that point of calling in needs to happen because students need that modeled for them. If that’s not already happening at home, it has to happen somewhere, right? And think the part that Julie says about kids paying the highest costs are the ones that need to be protected, um I’m reading “We Want to do More Than Survive.” And Dr. Bettina Love talks about that. A lot of how as teachers, it is our duty to protect our students, not only to teach them, but to make sure that the magic that they have is not only represented and uplifted, but that it is protected so that when they leave that their spirit is still intact, right? And they’re not continually having experiences where they’re undermined or not seen because I’m myself as a woman, as a Pinay, I know what it’s like to feel like your identity is nothing in America, you know? And so, yeah, I really resonate a lot with what Julie just said.
All right. So that’s first aid and now it’s time for part two: designing projects. And there’s two key principles here. The first one is starting from data, which we’ve talked about a little bit already. And the second, which we’ve also talked about a bit, is thinking about what it’s costing your students to be in the room. And so first we’re gonna hear more about data. Julie’s about to talk about someone who influenced her approach to this. And she wasn’t sure how to pronounce her name so we can confirm that it’s Ayo Heinegg Magwood. She’s an educator based in Washington, DC.
We listened to her talk when I was in the GSE, And one of the things that she said that really informed a lot of my practice is that a lot of teachers don’t approach hard conversations because they’re really worried about backlash and one of the easy ways to prevent backlash, or maybe not prevent it, but at least be secure when you get it, is always starting from data. And so instead of starting from conclusions and opinions, the data speaks for itself with regard to racism in our country and things like that. And interpreting data, discussing data, drawing conclusions, and then creating arguments using data as evidence, those are all the things we’re trying to get students to do anyway. So it makes so much sense to start with data. And one of the teachers that I’ve seen do this really well, and I steal a lot from, is Edrick Macalaguim, and he did this activity where he spread out all of these pictures and graphs and numbers. There were lots of different media for students to look through, which is such an incredible differentiation, low floor, high ceiling access. And then he had kids do like a “see think wonder.” So, you know, at first you’re just noticing things about the data and this data all centered around white flight from Brooklyn during the construction of the cross Bronx expressway, which is earlier, it was like the 1950s and from the neighborhoods, it broke apart arose hip hop. So all of the data is centered around that. And so first you’re just observing the data. You’re thinking about what it might mean. You’re asking questions. And so students are having these really authentic conversations about how a person with a ton of money and a ton of power, Robert Moses, broke apart a city and produced or white suburb and largely people of color, largely poverty stricken inner city that was crime-ridden because of the infrastructure, broke apart neighborhoods that had incredibly diverse and thriving communities. So they’re having all these conversations we want them to have, but we didn’t start it off with a conclusion. We let them come to the conclusion. So we’re co-learners so that’s one of the things that I found really powerful is letting students come to it themselves and be outraged because it’s outrageous when they see the data.
And Julie uses this approach specifically, in order to talk about police brutality against black people,
We do it in that case, starting off with a shared text: there’s this New York times article, or it might be an NPR article, but it’s about how Philando Castile was pulled over 49 times before he was murdered by a police officer and reading that article together, we take like an informal poll. I’m always like, “So I’ve been pulled over six times in my life,” which actually when I talked to other white people is kind of high, but I also, you know, explain to kids that I do sometimes go a little bit fast. And so, you know, that’s part of it, but we poll some of like the white teachers around and it’s so like immediately, it’s so shocking to them. Like, we get zero, one, two and… 49? And in the article one police officer says, “Mr. Castille’s normally very friendly.” And we were like, NORMALLY?! Like how often, like, I don’t know, I don’t have regular interactions with police.
And just the fact that this police officer could say “normally,” like he saw this guy all the time. And so starting off with that shared text, we’re kind of noticing together some of the disparities and some of the things they’re noticing it, they’re pulling it out. And so starting from there, they are open to asking some questions. It’s not like they immediately arrive at a position that happens to be my position, but they’re just more open to “What does the data say?” And then I’ve curated a lot of places that they can go explore. Like, what is the issue? What is the data? What do the stats say? And so I find starting with the shared texts that highlight some of the points and statistics and things I want them to get at, helps with that. And then really trusting them to be able to like look at data and statistics and make conclusions.
And then also being open to them having different opinions than me — not about people’s identities, we’re not “both-sidesing” equal rights, but more so like realizing that if they’re really going to undo racist systems, they’re going to out-innovate me. That is where the revolution comes from is when they have a better idea and I let them take over. And so I have to let them be divergent thinkers, but I have to teach them how to start with data, draw conclusions, brainstorm ideas. So, anyway, that’s sort of how I address it when an issue is super controversial.
I guess a good follow-up question to that is when you’re looking at different activities and different structures to use for, for anything I guess, and when you’re planning things, what are your criteria?
One of the things I think is really important is to create… It’s kind of two-pronged: before you plan an activity, or when you’re planning, create a system of resources where you can check yourself. So this is like your personal anti-racist educator work. This is the reading that you’re doing, the educators that you’re following on Twitter, the conferences that you’re going to, this is your sort of continual education. I think that’s incredibly crucial for me. And so starting out, I have some frameworks in my head of what I’m looking for. I know I’m looking for something that doesn’t just ask them to talk about a topic without starting from data. I know I’m looking for them not to have to “out” themselves. I know I’m not looking for something that creates big emotions just to feel like I’m having a special moment in class.
Wait, you’re not supposed to do that?
Some teachers do! But you know, big emotions can be good. So I know some things I’m looking for. And then I think the second prong that’s so important is to create a web of accountability for yourself. And so Nuvia and I designed sort of aproject planning process. And at the end of it was “tune your project” and tune it with tools directly designed to catch racism, sexism, oppression, designed to ask who is paying the most in this activity and who is centered. And so some of the tools we come up with — we did NOT come up with these. We found some of the tools that we found for this are at the Stanford D.school has a liberatory deckthat gives you questions like “who is centered in this activity?” “Whose voices do you hear in this activity?” “Whose voices don’t you hear?” And so the liberatory design deck is one tool to take your activity through, to give yourself some accountability. There’s an awesome culturally responsive project tuning developed by Ana and Iza, and the the Ethnic Studies program at High Tech High Chula Vista. That’s another great tool for this and, you know, project tunings, discussions with colleagues, like it’s so important not to design in a vacuum because then you have all of the pitfalls of your positionality. And so instead of just being one person trying to design a perfect project for this room full of kids with diverse needs, you are doing the work at the beginning to try to understand all the diverse needs and then doing the work at the end to make yourself accountable and get more minds and more eyeballs on that project to make sure that it’s not going to accidentally harm kids because all of us have implicit bias. All of us have things we’re missing. And so the accountability piece is important.
Yeah, for sure. Like out of curiosity, ’cause I know that like you’re the type of teacher that you talk and you listen to your students in a way that like is so beautiful, and I’m wondering like what type of feedback — good or bad — have you gotten, like from these types of experiences or like these types of topics that you bring up with with your kids?
This is the thing about project based learning: kids love doing real things to really effect change. And so one example of feedback that really touched me was in this past project we did on social identity where kids were researching racism and police brutality before George Floyd was murdered. Whenthe protests started, again, one of the pieces of feedback I got from a kid who had done his research on that, was he shared that he had gotten to go to a protest and he was like, “I was so surprised that the stuff that I researched about, I could actually go to the protest and have an opinion on.” And like basically just like hearing that he was able to connect his research to action in the real world was really important to him. And so I always think about that when I’m developing a project, is if they’re going to hear about oppression, how are they really going to be able to feel like they’ve done something powerful in response to it? Because otherwise it’s just trauma. And so last year I remember one little girl who was actually really soft spoken and had never done spoken word before wrote this incredible poem about her experiences with race in society and just performing that the power behind her performance, the response of the audience, (because of course everybody was blown away because it was so powerful) and her follow-up after that, to me about how she said, she didn’t know that she could do that. And one of the reasons that she thinks she was able to is because of the influence of Natasha Hooper, who was a slam poet who came.
Yeah, Natasha’s great!
I know, I love Natasha Hooper. San Diego’s gem.
I think she won like the National Poetry Slam like a couple of years ago, right?
Yeah. And she’s second in the world. And being able to connect kids to people who they can look up to, and give them a powerful voice. Anyway, that’s what I feel like affects them the most. And so those are the responses that I’ve gotten is when they feel like they’ve actually been able to make a difference, they really care about that.
What do you do in event that harm or trauma does happen as a result of an experience that you have with kids?
Yeah, let me think about a time when I felt like I messed up. I worried with the really powerful spoken word I mentioned that that student did last year, it was so powerful that I could see she was going through big emotions to perform, big emotions, to write the poem. So I had already given all students total choice in the project so they could choose the social identity they were going to focus on. They could focus on something that affected them less. They could write their poem to be personal or not personal. And so there’s a lot of choice. Like one student wrote about being lefthanded. I mean, it was very open ended. So you can, you could make it not emotional for yourself. You could make it less vulnerable. But we, of course, we all learned about all of the issues and this little girl chose this, but I could still see that it was just taking a big toll on her. And that just worried me because I didn’t want her to feel like she had to like perform her pain at any time. And so in that situation, it was checking in with her and her mom. And I mean, just being really open about my worry about it and just saying like, “I am your teacher and you’re a student and I don’t want you to be feeling right now. Like, ‘Oh, this is my school assignment. I have to do it.’ Or I want to impress my teacher so I need to perform my pain.” And I was just really honest with her like “You’ve already done the project. And if you don’t want to perform it, if you don’t want to showcase it, if that feels too vulnerable or harmful to you, I don’t want you to.” And she, thankfully it was clear. Like I could, I could have seen it being that she was on the fence about it, in which case I probably would have encouraged her not to, but she was so enthusiastic. I could tell she was feeling super empowered, even though she was performing her pain. She was also feeling empowered by other people hearing her heart. And so in that case, it was easy to let her, you know, perform and she even asked to perform again. But I feel like just being really honest and checking in, but man, being proactive about recognizing when it is going to happen is so much better. You can’t undo harm, you know, you can try to repair, but that’s my big fear is the harm that can, of course, unintentionally be done with hard conversations.
I’m wondering too, because you’ve had, you’ve, you’ve been teaching for so long and you’ve taught in different contexts. I’m just wondering like a little bit, one on lmore specifics on like your teaching background and then like how having these different types of conversations has felt different in those different schools.
This is something I’ve thought a lot about because for a while I taught in small project based private or independent schools, and the student body was a lot whiter and a lot wealthier. And I kind of felt like my role there was to model racial development and dismantling white fragility because it’s not something they were necessarily hearing at home. I mean, some of them were, but they’re so young that they don’t feel some of the guilt that adults feel — white adults — when they encounter racism and they kind of wake up and so they don’t get the same defensiveness. And so starting them off, they’re making change. I feel like was valuable for their development. And I’ve realized like it was very important to me to move out of the private school system and to move into public schooling because it’s something I deeply believe in. And the challenge there is that, of course you have a much more diverse student body in every way: race, socioeconomic status, ability, sexuality, gender. And I think the challenge is that every conversation and every lesson costs everybody in the room something different. And so I really needed to make my position clear and I needed to tell students right away that I knew my position so that they could feel comfortable calling me on it. Like I know I’m a white teacher, I’m cisgender, these are some things that we’re all talking about. We’re all in discussion about. And so it’s not scary to talk to me about that, so knowing my positionality and making it clear and just trying to dismantle some of the hierarchy in this space so they felt comfortable talking about their identities, and then always asking in my planning, “Who is centered in this conversation, and then who does this conversation cost and how much, and how can I make sure that they can avoid the cost without feeling like it comes at a different cost of like the social stigma of opting out of an activity?” A great book that I’m reading about this is called Not Light but Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom. It’s by Matthew R. Kay. And he talks about this. Like he says, sure you have planned activities where kids can opt out, but first off, they’ve come to trust you. So they trust you leading them into this. And second off, opting out often requires you to speak up when maybe you’re trying to opt out because the whole thing is that you don’t want to be involved in the conversation. And speaking up is hard, especially for like a 12 year old. So I try to ask myself like, what layers have I included to where you can opt into something different or opt out without it being visible to other kids and without having to out yourself? So a great example of this, I feel like I’m talking too much, but should I tell you my example?
You’re literally the guest on the podcast.
She’s so used to the “share the air” norm.
I know, I’m like “Should I shut up?” Okay, a great example of this is this activity I use from the University of Michigan, where kids are talking about their personal identity and their social identity, but it’s such a structured conversation. And the really cool thing is the personal identity. You know, things like your favorite movie or your favorite color, they share in dyads to practice norms and set the stage so that when they get to social identity, they already know how serious and important the norms are. They’ve already practiced them. And then when they actually write out their social identity, it’s super private, they fold it, everybody folds it. And then they get to sort of rank which social identity they think about the most, which one they think about the least and some other rankings. And then instead of opting into sharing social identities, which would require someone to visibly opt out what the activity does that I think is really savvy, is it asks you to share one of your rankings.
And so everybody’s sharing one of the rankings, but they might be sharing the identity they think about the least. So maybe they could share a revelation that’s like, “Oh, I just realized through this that I don’t really think about my first language very much. It doesn’t really enter my head. And I didn’t think about it until I did this activity.” And they can talk about why they think that is, or they could be sharing a social identity they think about the most, which might be more personal. They could be sharing the social identity they think other people notice about them first. So there are so many options that it’s “challenge by choice.” And it’s not apparent if someone’s opting into something that’s more vulnerable or out of that, you know? And so those kinds of structures I think, are so savvy for making sure everybody’s included, but you’re not accidentally — case point in this book is that you’re not qualified to deal with some of the trauma that you dredge up trying to create “shock empathy,” as he calls it. Things like the “privilege walk.” And so his whole point is “structure your activities such that it’s not dredging up anything that kids don’t lead themselves to.”
And then Julie makes this related point…
White racial identity development is delayed, you know, in contrast to other peoples’. And so like I’ve realized that I think as a consequence of when we start realizing and waking up to oppression, no matter how early it is, it’s later than people of color have woken up to it. And I think our first impulse when we do that is to make sure our students see it. And I think it’s so important as a white teacher to remember that all of your students, aren’t white and some of them have been seeing it their entire lives. And so I am realizing that it’s just so important to remember that centering all your curriculum around the oppression of different identities is still centering whiteness. Like it’s still showing the creation of people’s identity based on oppression. And that is not people’s identity. You know, people are so much more than just their oppression in a racist system. So I look up so much to the ethnic studies program at High Tech High Chula Vista. And of course the ethnic studies revolution in colleges that they drew their inspiration from because it decenters whiteness and says, actually we’re going to study our identity without studying it as based on oppression. So I’m just thinking more and more about how I don’t want my whole curriculum to be a response to current events that still center whiteness. I want to both show how people’s social identities affect them in the United States and have a space where kids are studying and celebrating their own identities and basing the curriculum and joy and their power and empowering them for who they are. And so that balance is something that I am spending this summer looking more into. So it’s just something I have on my mind that I’m trying to be cognizant of.
We’re now the third and final part of this episode, Jean, what’s it about?
So in this next next part of the podcast, Julia talks about her work with the Gender Sexuality Alliance at her school.
So I love our little GSA, our Genders and Sexualities Alliance. We just call it club. We don’t have a name. ‘Cause Of course we couldn’t. ‘Cause We’re just like a mixed up bag of folx. But we meet during lunch. And one of my big realizations is that if you’re really going to empower kids, you have to actually give them opportunities to lead and you have to give them opportunities to lead adults, not just lead other kids. So I knew that I wanted to create opportunities like that for our GSA and we have focused a lot with our club on, okay, what needs to… Of course we have fun. We just have days where we just do face masks and potlucks, but we also think a lot about what needs to change about our school to make you feel more comfortable at school. And we realized that we do a lot of things that if other schools knew, they would be more welcoming to queer kids. And we also have a lot of the same problems that other educators might face. And so why not take our sort of High Tech High principle of co-creating solutions and things like that on the road and help schools think about how to become more welcoming to queer kids. We already know one solution to this research shows that having a GSA in your school helps kids identify faculty members that are supportive, that they can connect with and helps them have a safe space where they feel welcome. And so that already reduces some of the bullying and things that we see in schools without a GSA. So that’s one solution we knew we could share with other schools, other schools in High Tech High and beyond. But we also knew that these kids, when we talked to them about the problems in our school, they would say things like “They split us up for sex ed, and I don’t know where to go,” and stuff like that. That’s just like, “Oh my gosh, of course, we just need to listen to you. And that’s such an easy fix. We won’t switch you up anymore. Why do we do that?” And so we just realized that if other educators were hearing from kids, there’s a lot of low hanging fruit. So we put together a workshop where part of it is a presentation on just like gender and sexualities 101, ’cause a lot of educators are new to the ideas in terms. And then part of it is a dilemma consultancy where there’s a pair of GSA student leaders who have volunteered for this role, of course, who are with some careful norms going through a dilemma, consultancy with an educator about one issue that they see in their schools. So we’ve had dilemma consultancies about diversifying libraries. We’ve had dilemma consultancies about how to help faculty increase their basic proficiency with LGBTQ issues in terms and ideas.
We’ve had a lot of those kinds of things and the kids by and large first off, they just feel so empowered. The number one thing that educators take away from the workshops is just how good it was just to listen to the kids. And that’s so good for me ’cause I’m like, “Did you know, you could always do this? Like you can always invite a group of kids.” Like, you know, don’t try to select which kids are queer. Like, please don’t do that, but you can always — oh my gosh, I know you never know what people are going to do — oh teachers! But anyway you know, you can always select a group of kids or invite, “Hey, anybody who wants to come at lunch, you know, I’m gonna have cupcakes at lunch. If you want to come in first 10 people, I would love to hear what you thought about the lesson today, what you thought I could have done better, what you think I didn’t notice that you might’ve been feeling… For our students. It had a twofold effect in that number one, hopefully it’s increasing belonging for queer kids at schools across the country. Cause we did it at a conference where educators actually from across the world were in attendance, but number two, it increases their, their belonging in our school because they have an important leadership role. And so that was just something that, I mean, we loved that. It, it did both of those things and made them feel like you are treasured for who you are in our school. And in fact, can we hire you as a consultant because that kind of thing. So I liked that model for kids being able to share feedback and consult with educators. Of course they were prepped. Like we brainstorm questions together that they could ask about educators, school environment, one very important thing we navigated was this was a norm set that like, we’re not asking our students personal questions about their personal identity. That’s not why they’re here, but we also brainstorm with them, like if someone did accidentally anyway ,without realizing it, what’s the response? And we just did a lot of prep work to make them feel really comfortable in the space. And they were paired at the table, so they weren’t going it alone, but it was just a really valuable experience for all of us.
Yeah. Julia, like I’m just blown away by like how much resources you have just shared. I’m like writing them down and make a list of all later.
Well I stole them all…
And so what I’m wondering is, for the person listening, what advice would you give in terms of like, okay, they listened to this and like, oh yeah, I have all of these resources from Julia. Like where do you start?
Honestly, I feel like following a ton of activists on Twitter that I know and respect, really being involved in reading current activism. And actually not just current because I read The New Jim Crow, and like I knew after I read that, I was like, “I cannot not continue on this journey and make sure that I’m understanding the systems that are at work in our country.” So I think, but I think I’m tipped off to that by surrounding myself on social media and in, you know, my school environment, which I know that’s not possible for every educator, unfortunately, but on social media, it is more accessible — with people who I know are equity oriented, who are anti-racist, who are in continual progression. I feel like that’s where I start. And then following up by the personal journey of reading the books, following what’s going on in our nation and then thinking through, based on that, both the structures and the content of my classroom, because I think lots of times people focus on one or the other: structures or content. And I think it’s really important to think about both, but I think it, for me, I think it does start with social media. And I know the follow up question to that everybody asks is like, “Okay, how do you find out who to follow?” And like, I know like that’s, what’s hard. I think,uyou start slow, like follow me on Twitter and then I’ll show you.
Where can people find you Julie?
Oh no. Did I just say that? Never mind. I don’t have a Twitter. I’m just kidding.
I feel like, I don’t know if people should actually follow me on Twitter, where should they start? Like
I think they should!
They should definitely follow – of course they should follow you on Twitter!
Half the time I’m tweeting, like lascivious stuff about… Anyway. I’m always so glad my students have never found my Twitter. I don’t think they’re on Twitter. It’s so great. I think it’s because they’re middle schoolers, you know. I feel like pick a few people who you love, like Zaretta Hammond, Cornelius Minor, pick a few people, search for them on Twitter, follow them and then notice who they follow. Follow who they retweet. Exactly. That’s what I would do. I think
You’ve been listening to Julie Ruble interviewed by my cohost, Jean Catubay, and me, Alec Patton. Check out this episode’s show notes. They are packed with links to the resources that Julie talked about in this episode, as well as Julie’s Twitter handle, so you can get started on following her on Twitter. Jean and I are going to keep talking to teachers about how to have these tough, potentially traumatic conversations in class. Next up we’ll be checking in with the members of the La Junta Collective. So subscribe and be ready when that comes out. The music you hear right now is our theme music, “Agassi (Into the Spider’s Web) by Brother Hershel. Thanks for listening.