Sher Anderson Petty wanted to know “Where would I fit in the conversation?” When she found that she did it “opened my eyes.”
Sher Anderson Petty is a leader. Even in a group of educational leaders, she stands out by asking hard questions and interrogating ideas, while, all the time, building community and relationships with her peers. Sher came to Re-Imagining Migration through her long connection to Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, attended a virtual seminar in the summer of 2020, and continued her work as a fellow during the next school year. Re-Imagining Migration Executive Director Adam Strom caught up with her recently over Zoom to talk about the ways that Re-Imagining Migration has impacted her classroom, her teaching, and her students.
Getting to Know Re-Imagining Migration
Adam Strom: Hi, Sher. How’re you doing? Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sher Anderson Petty: I am Sher Anderson Petty. I am a fourth-generation public school educator. I currently teach at Newport Mills Middle School in Montgomery County, Maryland. I previously taught high school for most of my career.
Adam Strom: Sher, we met a couple of years ago when you came to the Re-Imagining Migration seminar. How do you think it’s impacted your thinking about your teaching?
Sher Anderson Petty: I will say that I think it has changed. It’s probably going to sound like I’m hyperbolizing, but I think it’s changed everything for me in the sense that one of the first conversations that I had with you and with Veronica Boix-Mansilla was about where I would fit and where students who look like me would fit in the conversation. And I felt very strongly, as you remember, about putting that in there. And I have to say that finding myself in the conversation in that moment, that week that we had together, really just opened my eyes just so much.
And my students, I always share what I do with my kids, what I’m learning and my confusions and curiosities. And in sharing my learning about migration and moving and immigration, it blew the lid off. It literally blew the lid off my classes. All of a sudden, we had this sort of unifying idea, this big understanding that sort of traveled with us throughout the year. And it is that we all move. We all migrate. Sometimes many times in our lives. Sometimes many times within our families and how that impacts us in our thinking and our learning.
Re-Imagining Migration in the Classroom?
Adam Strom: So, talk to me then about how did that come alive in your class? We’ve been speaking a little bit about your work the last semester of the year. In the middle of a really difficult year, right? What did that look like when you brought this into the classroom?
Sher Anderson Petty: I would say, since when we first met and being a fellow and getting this really great information, the challenge teaching in the virtual space [because of the COVID-19 pandemic], there’s obvious things that we can’t do, but I have to say that holding on to that unifying concept that we all move and that we all migrate was helpful. It gave us sort of an anchor for our conversations, for our units of study.
Sher Anderson Petty: Even when we had other themes to address, just this idea that we move, we migrate, sort of under the umbrella of change, made space for sort of the strangeness of the last few years. The being in the hybrid model one week and then being face to face another, and then going all the way back to virtual. And so having this idea that, “Yeah, we all move, we all migrate.” Things change really, was very helpful.
What does her classroom unit look like?
Sher Anderson Petty: So this year was a little unusual. I usually introduce Re-Imagining Migration much earlier in the year. I usually start the year, whatever grade I’m teaching, with crew building. And this idea that we are all crew, there are no passengers on this plane, we’re all working, and then that leads into the idea of change as a constant. And that leads into moving the ideas that we all have this thing in common, moving and migrating. So I typically start with that. I couldn’t start with that this year, so this year I ended my year with it, which was kind of an exciting twist.
We looked at the poem Home by Warsan Shire and we interrogated the concept of home, when home is a dangerous place. And in many of my classes, I had English language learners from Central America. And some students from places that are experiencing upheaval and violence and just a lot of political issues. And so there was a lot of resonance with that particular poem. And so from looking at Warsan Shire’s poem and interrogating this idea of home, we went into a literary analysis of her perspectives on home when home is a dangerous place. And it was a really cool way to end our year with a unit just on migrating and moving.
Because from there, we went into looking at westward expansion, and we used museum artifacts like the Thomas Moran’s Green Cliffs, Wyoming, I think it’s 1881. And we looked at that and we looked at the idea of westward expansion from the perspective of settlers, from the perspective of US military, from the perspective also of indigenous people. And we spent a lot of time on that, looking at the background because they had to write a narrative that was based on research.
Students researched various perspectives by looking at letters written by people from that time period. And again, a really great way to close the year. I typically would start the year with that, but ending the year with that was great. And then we wound up looking at another really great piece from Afro Atlantic histories at the National Gallery of Art from Romare Bearden, “Tomorrow, I May Be Far Away”. And that led to more personal ideas of home and where we’re from. And so then that was a nice segue right into “Where I’m From” poems.
Sher Anderson Petty: I love, love, love that this is a project for all of my students. I know that the title says it’s Re-Imagining Migration and that the larger focus has always been for supporting immigrant children. With that, and I love how this sort of openness in our conversation in the classroom and any of the educational context where I’ve had these conversations, I love how it makes everyone open up because moving and migrating is a human experience. And if you’re walking around on this planet alive, you’re going to move at some point. You may have migrated, but you’re definitely going to move. And so I love how that alongside of the visible thinking routines that we always use as we’re creating this culture of thinking that it sort of democratizes the learning and the thinking, and it just makes space for people to be open about parts of themselves in ways that perhaps they wouldn’t before.
Adam Strom: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it, Sher.
Sher Anderson Petty: Absolutely. You are totally welcome.