Educator Spotlight: Being the Change

Sara Ahmed believes that as adults we have the responsibility model the behaviors, values, and attitudes that we hope to instill in youth. Yet, too often, even in the most prestigious schools, there is a huge gulf between our rhetoric and our actions, we say we value compassion, but where is it in what and how we teach?

Sara works as a literacy coach at NIST International School in Bangkok, Thailand and has taught in urban, suburban, public, independent, and international schools. Reading her work, and following her on twitter, I admire her passion for making sure we value our students, not just as learners, but as humans first. Sara and I spoke about teaching Shaun Tan’s wordless graphic novel The Arrival for one of Re-Imagining Migration’s very first blog. Her new book is Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension. Despite the thousands of miles between our locations, I recently had the chance to interview her about her work via google doc.

Adam S: Hi Sara. One of the first blogs on the Re-Imagining Migration website was an interview with you about the book The Arrival, this time we get to talk about your new book. Before we go there, can you tell us a little bit about your experience as a student? I know your parents are immigrants, did that impact your experiences in school?

Sara Ahmed, author of Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension

Sara: Hi Adam, thank you for taking the time to talk to me about Being the Change!

So, my life as a student was pretty Americana. We grew up in a middle-class suburb of Chicago. When we didn’t take the bus, we walked or rode our bikes to school. I was a Girl Scout, sold candy to raise money for school fundraisers, read for rewards from Pizza Hut (Book It!) and the local library and participated in Jump Rope for Heart. I was the youngest of three and coming through the schools after my big sisters, Samira and Asra meant that I had a lot to live up to! They were both awesome all-around students and paved the way for me with the teachers. I was super involved and had a strong social circle. I played sports from the age of 5 and I would say that was probably the most formative on my life.  And I love sports. I learned a lot through that channel as a student-athlete. My dad was my soccer coach growing up and I loved that until basically I was a tween! There were a handful of times where I can remember feeling othered as one of a handful of brown kids-and the only Indian-Muslims in town but, and I can only speak for my experience, that tends to subside when you are an athlete in school–especially when it is something that was embedded in the culture of your town the way it was in mine.

This is all really to say that being the kid of immigrant parents means that you try and assimilate to the whatever the narrative norm was in our town and that was white, middle-class. Assimilation affected my relationship with my parents far more than it did my experiences in school. Something had to give and I still feel the sting of it today because what gave for me was the way I treated my parents, dismissed our culture, language, and our religion. It’s not something I am proud of.

Something that will always be with me: My friends would pick me up in the mornings for school and I remember running out of the house quickly, embarrassed, so as not to “smell like the fried onions” as I used to say to my mom.  There was one kid -in our friend group- that would try and take off the accent of my parents, comment on our “weird food” or its “smell”. Subtle racism masked as a joke, but still racism, in that he was using my identity to target me …for his comedy hour. Because you’re among friends you laugh it off; I didn’t have any other tools to use at the time.

Looking back I am able to see that is because my parents’ identity/our identity as a family was not centered as the norm. Lots of first generation kids, kids of immigrants go through this. They push back against their family identity, they stop speaking their mother tongue language because society sends them messages about what is “normal”  what is expected and you quickly learn the game of how not to get yourself othered. It’s astounding what immigrants give up and in many ways heartbreaking because identity, language, can be the first thing to go when you have already lost so much and it is one of the last things you are holding on to.

But I loved my time in school. My best friends from middle school are my best friends today. I am still in touch with my coaches. And I had the greatest teacher in high school, Mr. Dryden, who taught me that asking questions, examining who gets to tell our collective history, and that having a healthy dose of skepticism when you are taking in information are tools you will always need in life. For what it’s worth, he is why I am an educator today. And this book is dedicated to my parents, grounded in the way I have observed my father throughout my life navigate his own social comprehension and the way he helped others with theirs just by being himself.

Adam: Sara on your bio for Heinemann Publishing it says that as a teacher your “classrooms were designed to help students consider their own identities and see the humanity in others.” What did that mean in practice? If I were walking into as an observer, what would I see that would reinforce those values?

Sara: Well first, if you walked into my classroom as an observer, hopefully, you would not be able to spot me, Adam! It would look like kids all over the room tucked into a bean bag, at a table, across a rug with a story, a personal history, or a text where they are uncovering truths. And the reason that matters is because from day one school was about their personal identity. Who they are. How and where they learn best. And what that means to be a member of a larger community where everyone’s identity matters and is at stake. In practice, we used books, magazines, newspapers, and every form of art in my middle school classroom. Like any teacher that cares if there students get a well-rounded unbias (or I should say multiple-bias) perspective, we made sure that we collected as much information and story about whatever inquiry we happened to be diving into together or as individuals. In practice, you would see a lot of discussions of varying form and size. You would hopefully see me leading from behind and that really meant spending a great deal of care building rapport, social comprehension skills, literacy and discourse skills and then getting out of their way. My goal was to teach them how to think, to understand and hear one another, and speak for themselves, so no one else would do it for them. Kids have their own voices.

Adam: I love the subtitle of your book, “lessons and strategies to teach social comprehension.” That’s a great term, social comprehension, did you make it up? If not, where did you find it and what does it mean to you?

Sara: Thanks! I have a great team behind me at Heinemann that caught the essence of this book. Social Comprehension is a hybrid of terms and ideas already being floated out there. Ideologies sometimes turn buzz words like social literacy, culturally responsive, social awareness, social justice. Then there are reading comprehension strategies in the classroom: asking questions, determining importance, synthesizing. I really just hashed it out with my editor one day when we were trying to decide what lessons that I have taught are in the book and why those lessons? What is this greater work that we are asking people to do. I don’t think I get to coin the term but it did come out of the conversation we had– that we teach all of these reading comprehension skills in school that we hope kids take with them as lifelong readers, but there are skills we need today in and out of the classroom having to deal with how we see ourselves and how our identities informs a lot of the choices, bias, and judgements we make in our social lives. I actually researched (really, “Googled”) the term more after the fact and there are some texts out there grounded in cognitive sociology. Maybe this book is more of my version, based on my experiences with kids and in my own life.

Adam: Sara, is there one idea or strategy from your book that you think is essential for people teaching about immigration, and immigrant-origin students, in our polarized times?

Sara: That’s a great question. The book builds from the individual looking in with the support of lessons in Chapter 1 and 3 (Affirming our Identities to seeing our own Bias) to taking that understanding of the self and looking out, realizing that we are in these/many communities together every single day. So, we must honor the experiences and identities of others as truth in very much the way we see our own, you know? In the beginning of the book, I am really trying to get teachers and kids to take a close and honest look at themselves and then to see the humanity in others through these lessons. But to answer your question, I feel like if kids and adults have explored those lessons which I believe to be building blocks for this work, then they can really look to Chapter 4, 5, 6 to be able to learn, ask questions, reflect and raise awareness about immigration. Identifying bias, seeing themselves and therefore the humanity in refugees, and moving beyond our assumptions is what the lessons of these chapters call for. Much of this book and lessons like Identity Webs and the Universe of Obligation are what I carry with me from my years with Facing History and Ourselves. For me, they are touchstone lessons in this work that pushed me to self-examine me and my world.

Sara, I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to do this. Someday, our paths will cross in person, until then, keep up the good work!

Thanks so much, Adam. Thank you for your work and leadership with Facing History and Ourselves and now with Re-Imagining Migration. I always look to both organizations for stories and new knowledge that bring us a little closer while moving us forward in the work of social comprehension.