StoryCorps Interview with Elizabeth A. Davis
Interview of Elizabeth A. Davis for StoryCorps National Teacher Initiative, 2011
Deborah Menkart (DM) 0:02 My name is Deborah Menkart. I’m 54 years old. Today is August 21, 2011. I’m in Washington, D.C. And I have known Liz Davis since 1995, longtime friend, colleague, fellow activist in D.C. schools.
Elizabeth Davis 0:25 My name is Elizabeth Davis. I am 60 years old. Today’s date is August 21. I’m in Washington, D.C. My relationship to my partner is good friend since 1995, as she said, in the Writing Project.
DM 0:43 Great, and I’m really looking forward to this focused opportunity to talk with Liz about her life and work as a social justice educator. I think many people know Liz for her work in the broader city advocating for teachers and for better education for all children. But I’m interested in finding more about her work in the classroom with students because she’s an activist both in the classroom and in citywide. And so I have a few questions. And first, I’d like Liz, if you could tell me about your life, what life experience led you to teach from a social justice perspective. This is clearly a lifelong endeavor.
Title IX Complaints in My First Year Teaching
Elizabeth Davis 1:21 It is. And I think about growing up in the south in the segregated school system, and one of the reasons why my mother chose to move to Washington, D.C.
But my very first year teaching in Washington D.C., was at Jefferson, and I did not know that I was one of the first female teachers teaching a non-traditional course for women. I taught drafting at Jefferson Junior High School. And the principal asked me to return to personnel because he did not want a woman teaching a shop class in his school. So I reported to the main office to headquarters, and we pronounced that I was sent back and they asked me to go back to the school and informed him that I was to stay there.
So basically, I had to fill out a Title IX form of sex discrimination, which was not a good way to start my first year as a teacher.
But that wasn’t enough because the second semester, when my students changed, the girls were informed that they could not enter into any of the woodworking or metalworking or printing classes. And I challenged that with another Title IX complaint on behalf of my female students.
Of course, I don’t need to tell you that that gave me sort of a really rough start at that school. And I basically spent the rest of the year fighting for my job.
But from that point forward, and even though I was transferred to another school, I observed a lot of structures in the school that I had been assigned that violated student’s academic rights, as well as teachers’ contract rights. And I simply was not willing to go along with the violations, so consequently, I had to figure out a way to be a great teacher, while challenging the injustices that I had to in the structures that were in the school. My life as a teacher, and it’s been over 35 years now, has been about that. And it’s important to me that I maintain that irrespective of the reform initiatives that somehow forced teachers to compromise their philosophy about social justice.
DM 3:55 And is there something that you think in the way that you were brought up? Because all teachers face these challenges, so what led you, do you think, to respond to them the way you did as opposed to other people who try to conform to the system rather than challenging?
My Own Political Education
Elizabeth Davis 4:11 A part of it was the way I was brought up. My parents taught me that it was important to stand up for what I believed in. It was important to demand that I be treated equally, no matter in what situation.
But a lot of my practice as a teacher stem from books that I read in school, even in high school. Malcolm X was one of the influences. One of the books that influenced my thinking about the type of teacher that I should be, and later on, leaders that I studied in college, Kwame Nkrumah, because that was a part of the student movement at my campus.
So those practices continue throughout your life, those things that you learn, you can’t forget them. So, and of course, it becomes difficult to operate within a system where you believe one thing and are sort of forced to do another, or you work in a system that is for an institution that will challenge your own values and your philosophy. So you have to find a way to thrive within that, but at the same time, not compromise your own value system. [Audio clip ends here.]
So there are a lot of influences. The Writing Project was a huge influence on me in 1995, when I met you, Deborah, in the Writing Project. The speakers that you brought in, one in particular was Enid Lee. She had a tremendous impact on me, even though I was having conflict in my current school I was assigned at that time, because the conflicts seemed to follow me.
I mean, it’s going to happen when you challenge structures or rules that sort of maintain the status quo in schools, and there are a lot of them come to mind. But when I think of all of the things that have impacted me and influenced me as a teacher, there are a number of them — people, books, other teachers who believe the same thing and in my collaborating with teachers such as that, it gives you a support system and the will to continue.
And that’s important for me because at some point, you feel like you really want to just fold up your tent and go home. But you end up discovering that there are teachers who felt the same way, and my having the ability to collaborate with some of them, whether they were in D.C. or other cities that helped a lot.
StoryCorps Staff 6:56 Do you mind just giving me a little bit of background about what the Writing Project is?
Elizabeth Davis 7:08 The DC Area Writing Project is one of the sites of the National Writing Project. And Deborah, at Teaching for Change, was one of the sponsors of the first writing project in D.C.
I joined the Writing Project because I wanted my students to become great writers. In the process of my having them to write letters about some of the issues that they were confronted with in their school, I discovered that their writing skills were not as. . . And of course, even in my class, when we did writing activities, I realized that I was not a good teacher of writing. Even though I love to write, I quickly realized that I did not know how to teach students to write because the process I use actually turned students away from writing — red-lining their papers, correcting it at the very beginning.
And the Writing Project basically provides us a way for teachers from any content area to learn how to integrate writing effectively in their subject area. And writing is a powerful tool. It is a powerful tool for connecting the dots in what students learn. And it’s also a powerful tool for teachers who purport to be social justice teaching, because I wanted my students to write for authentic purposes — write your city councilmen, write your mayor, write to your mother and father, write to the principal. So that was one of the best, I think, most valuable tools for me as a teacher. The Writing Project to this day, I’m still affiliated with the Writing Project. And I encourage teachers to join the Writing Project. The ones that do, it really changes the way they teach and think about writing.
StoryCorps Staff 8:59 Just follow up one question — what’s it like if someone is a professional for years to realize you’re not good at something that you’ve been doing?
Elizabeth Davis 9:08 You mean in teaching writing?
StoryCorps Staff 9:10 Right. What’s that kind of realization like — “Oh, this is something I know I love, but I still need to get good at teaching it.”
Elizabeth Davis 9:16 Exactly. Well, certainly I was able to relate to how my students felt. It sort of put me in the position of a learner and I had more of an understanding of the pain that students felt when they were asked to put pen to paper.
And it also made me realize why students were reluctant to write because of the fear of their own words and their own voices. I didn’t trust even now. I struggle with putting pen to paper at first. I know I have ideas that I want to share, but it made me understand how students felt when we asked them to write.
And then, of course, it also helped me to understand why students plagiarize so much because they trust the words of an author, but they don’t trust their own. And the last thing is it showed me how the way we teach writing basically discourages students from writing. It discourages them from actually trusting their own thoughts and their own ideas and opinions because we basically edit their work before we even see what they’re trying to say.
DM 10:41 Right, we don’t treat them as real writers,
Elizabeth Davis 10:43 No.
DM 10:43 Real writers draft and draft and draft.
Elizabeth Davis 10:46 Absolutely.
DM 10:46 And kids, we start editing.
Elizabeth Davis 10:48 Exactly. And the Writing Project, this is what taught me how to put the editing at the end of the process instead of at the beginning, like I had been doing.
DM 11:00 Right, that’s the beauty of the Writing Project — you spent five weeks with other teachers writing and you write every day.
Elizabeth Davis 11:05 Absolutely.
DM 11:07 And as a shout out for Howard, it’s now based at Howard University and still continues in partnership, the local one.
Elizabeth Davis 11:14 It’s interesting that this morning, I read an email from the gentleman that I referred to the Writing Project. He wrote a reflection and in his reflection, he talked about how I encouraged him to do it. But he said, “I think that she was punishing me by asking me to join it, but I feel so much better now that I’ve done it. And I’m more comfortable with writing and teaching writing in my classroom.” And he is the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning teacher. So he admitted that he was quite nervous about being in a setting with teachers.
DM 11:45 It was language arts and history –
Elizabeth Davis 11:47 Absolutely. And I explained to him that I was in the same position because I was actually intimidated by being in an institute that summer with language arts teachers, and some of the best in the city.
DM 11:48 Well, that actually brings us into thinking about then the impact you are having in your classroom with students. And I was wondering if you could share a story about a time when you were successful in getting students to really explore an issue and address an issue of injustice in their own lives or in their school or their community.
Engaging Students in Studying and Preserving Their School’s History
Elizabeth Davis 12:19 Right. And you know, the one I’m going to talk about is my seven years at Sousa Middle School. And
I think I had been teaching at Sousa for five years before I knew anything about its history.
And I think the Post one day reported that Sousa had been designated as a national historic landmark and it indicated that it was one of the subjects of Brown vs Board of Education. And I shared it with my students and they thought, “So what, we don’t care, Ms. Davis, about that,” but at the same time, they were working on designing a model of a school. It was for a School of the Future design competition. And they were to basically design and build a scale model of a school that they wanted to attend, a new Sousa. And I thought this was an opportunity for them to teach about the historic landmark designation, and maybe, you know, it’ll help them understand why you may not want to change the features of the school or change the design of the structure.
But they simply were not interested in the history of the school. I had a copy of the case, the Bolling v. Sharpe case, which I read and decided to write a short story, you know, sort of detailing some of the facts in the case, and sensationalized the beginning of the story about a young Black boy that sued the principal. And of course, at the time, the students were not in love with the principal we had and frankly, nor was I, but when I shared the story, before I gave them the copy to read, it was about three pages, I said, “Did you all hear about the student that sued the principal?”
And they said, “Mr. Lipscomb?”
I said, “I’m not going to tell you his name, but he sued the principal because the principal told him that he was too black to come to the school.”
And they said, “What?! That must have been Antonio!” And they went on with trying to guess.
And I said he lived right up the street on Ely. They said, “Ms. Davis, who is it?” I said, “Here, read the story.” And I didn’t put the date in there, the year, until the third page. They were reading feverishly the story. Finally one little girl said, “This happened in 1951!” And I said, “Yes, it did.”
But they asked questions. They wanted to know more. And I think that began their investigation into the Bolling case, which led to, in their research, led them to the Plessy case. I mean, how was “separate but equal” installed by the Supreme Court, and that went on to Brown v. Board. But when they built their model, they decided that they wanted to maintain the structure because it was a historic landmark.
And of course, some people from the neighborhood, I invited them into the classroom from the Historic Society to talk to the students about what it means to be a historical landmark, how would a community save a landmark or a building that had been designated because the school system was going to raise the school and build a new model. And, of course, the students wanted to know, “Well, we didn’t think that could happen because it’s a historic landmark.” I said, “Well, it can happen if the community doesn’t stop it.”
And they said, “But why won’t the community stop it?”
I said, “You’re the community. So what are you going to do about it?” And, of course, they want it to rest on it and say, “We’re children, we can’t do anything.” I said, “But your parents can.” And even though I was saying this, in my heart of hearts, I didn’t believe that the parents had the power to do it. But when the students said, “But the parents don’t even know,” I said, “Why don’t you tell them? Why don’t you write a letter to them explaining why this school cannot be?” So they did. They wrote letters to their parents and took them home. And in order for them to get credit, they had to have it signed.
And they actually began a campaign in the school to get signatures from students. And they wanted those students to take a letter home and get their parents signature. Well, the students were not interested. When they went around to the classrooms to talk to the students, the students said, “We don’t care about that.” And I said, “It’s because you haven’t really -” “Why are you passionate about it?” “Because you know the story, you know how important it is. And you know how important it is for us to keep the school as in this community.”
So they actually did a campaign-out day, a full day of spotlight on Spottswood Bolling, where they went in teams of three, because they were afraid to go alone, and they shared the story in each class. Finally they were able to get signatures from their classmates and talk to parents. But the really exciting part was when the architects, who had charge of the project, came to present their plans to the community. I asked the students to attend the meeting. And when they did, of course, the architects came with these elaborate, beautiful pictures of the new structure.
And it was exciting to see them, but the students kept asking the question, “But will we remain a historic landmark if we did that?” And finally the gentleman from the historic society, Mr. Wilson, who attended the meeting, stood up and said, “You know, students, you all remember the conversation we had that if you compromise the integrity of the structure in any way that you will lose the historic landmark designation.”
So the students said, “Well, this is going to compromise the integrity of the structure.” And do you know, they had to change the plans. The parents voted to keep the school as is and to simply gut it and renovate. But when my students presented their model, they presented it at the American Federation of Teachers where the jurors for this competition sat 24 of them in a room.
For two hours, they asked the students questions about their project. And of course, I’m sitting there [laughs], I did not think that they were ready because the three schools they were competing against had structures that look like architects themselves had done them, and I sat there and thought, “Oh, we don’t stand a chance!” But, of course, we had a team of four, only four students could sit on a panel representing the entire group. And that morning, two of them dropped off, and the other two wanted to also, but I had to actually promise the parents. One parent said, “He has a doctor’s appointment after school.” I said, “I’ll bring him to that appointment, but we really need him to come. We only had two of them left.” And so, here we are with two members, and they were the youngest. But they knew a lot about the Bolling case.
So when the judges asked, “Why did you maintain your building? I mean, it looks like the old school. Yeah. What did you do?” And he said is — I will not forget this day. He stood up and said, “Our school was the subject of Bolling v. Sharpe. It’s a landmark school. I mean, it’s a historic landmark. We can’t change any part of the outside of this building because if we compromise the integrity of the structure, we will no longer be.”
And the judges said, “Alright.” And of course, they began asking questions about the case because they honestly, none of them knew about the school’s history. Now they were short on talking about potable water and — but they were able to talk about this case, and how it related to Plessy and how — they won first place. And of course, there was a $2,500 check. And I just remember driving them back to school. I was just completely stressed out and exhausted. But they had the check, the large one, pasted to the back window of my car. So while I was driving, I couldn’t see out the back [laughing].
That was one of the most, I think, most fulfilling projects that I’ve done with students, not because they won the competition, but because it spilled over into other things after that. [Audio clip ends here.]
Because when they decided to renovate the building, the school was given the option to move the students into a swing space during the renovation process. The principal, who, you know, some of them were given lots of autonomy to make decisions, and he did not have a parent, a PTA, that was fully engaged, and it was by design.
He basically asked two parents if it was okay for him to keep the students in the school. And he justified it to them because they really didn’t understand. He said, “Because if we move into a swing space, we may lose a lot of our students. A lot of them won’t come to school, they’ll be late. They won’t be on time to all of the worst case scenarios,” is basically what he painted for them. So they voted, “Yes, let’s keep them in the building.”
During the renovation, a two year renovation project, could you believe it? And even when the teachers met with the principal and a few people from downtown. And I’ve asked each of the teachers and had just basically told them what it was going to be like. Please vote “no.” Well, they did. The majority of them voted “no,” only a few voted “yes.” And of course, they simply overrode that. They said it’s really a parent decision and the parents voted “yes,” too.
Halfway through the school year, I had students take digital pictures of the conditions, the drilling. The principal arranged to have a portion of the building that had not been used in 15 years, a basement, had the rooms renovated and divided, one classroom into two, giving one room with heat, one without windows which were used to sort of shut or seal — no air conditioning — in this school.
So there you had a school with no windows in some classrooms, no heater in some classrooms. And classrooms that were being occupied were on the back of the school. So on the front, they had men with suits taking asbestos shooting it down. I mean, the entire front of the school building, the windows were gone. So people driving by assumed that the school was empty. We used the parking lot as the playground.
DM 22:56 And so what did the students do?
Elizabeth Davis 22:59 The students took their case to the city council. They first went to the Board of Education. They took their testimonies. They gave their testimonies and they also attached to their testimonies, pictures that they had taken around the school. The ceiling in the cafeteria simply caved in on top of the workers. There were five gallon trash cans catching leaking water all over the building. The window well had flooded. Water had been sitting there because it backed up. Classrooms had rodents because mice were running all over the building when they were gutting the building.
DM 23:34 Students were documenting all of this?
Elizabeth Davis 23:36 Yes, they documented it with photographs. And of course, they talked about it in their testimonies at the board. The result of that was the superintendent sent a crew the next day to clean the building, what they thought was like a band aid. But when the students had an opportunity to go to the city council at one of the hearings, they did the same. And that’s when two of the council members came to the school. They walked through first with the principal, who gave them the scenic route.
And later, with me when I gave them the route of where the students actually would be working. And the final conversation with them was, ”
Would you want your students, your children to come into this building?
And they wanted me to feel good about getting a newly renovated school. And that was their response to me and I finally said that I’m excited about it. But the question I’d like to know is would you send anyone that you cared about into this facility to learn and they both said, “No.” And the last question I gave them was in the parting: “Why do you think it’s okay for these students to be in here if you would not want your own? Think about that. You don’t have to answer it.” And one of those council members is now our mayor, at the time but —
DM 25:05 What impact do you think this had on the students? Because your students that were both going through this whole process, have you seen any lasting impact on the students?
Elizabeth Davis 25:19 It has. I was in the building before we moved. We finally were moved into Shadd. And it took not only the council members visit, but it also caught the attention of the Marshall Heights Community Organization. They came into the building and we did a walkthrough, and they began to meet with the state superintendent. And of course, the pressure became too much.
We were moved into Shadd Elementary School, but in the process of teachers packing up, two students who had attended the school the year before came back and they wanted to come in, but security would not allow them to come in. And the security guard came to my classroom and said,
Ms. Davis, there are two of your students outside who are trying to see you and the way they wanted to convince me that they should be allowed, they said that they are the reason why their school was being renovated. And they went on to tell me the story about how their actions led to the renovation of this building.
And I just had to smile, and I thought, to know that they actually had a part in it because some of them, even though they went before the Council, they even went before the Senate. They were invited. They were observed on DC TV at the Council hearing by Congresswoman Norton and she wanted them to come to the Senate Commemorative Anniversary of Brown and talk about the Bolling case.
Students challenge current injustices: 50 years after brown v. board
And, of course, at that meeting, they met Senators Pelosi and Kennedy and they wanted them to come to the Senate Commemorative Anniversary Celebration of Brown v. Board and they did. I had eight students at that ceremony. And, of course, they were all told that they would be able to speak and they had their speeches ready. But the one asked, because of time, they had 40 some senators on stage, but they asked one of them to speak, the youngest, Kayla, and Kayla did not get up. None of them actually wrote about the facts of Bolling — they wrote about Sousa and the fact that 50 years after Brown, Sousa is still segregated and is deplorable.
And in Kayla’s words, I can remember her saying, “And it’s your responsibility”, as she pointed her finger at the audience. She said, “And it’s your responsibility to make things better. So it’s really ridiculous that I’m attending Sousa, 50 years after Brown, and after Bolling, with the library with the same books that white children used when they attended when it was segregated. And it’s exactly like the schools that Black children attended, then you must take responsibility and change this some degree.” And I thought, wow, and, of course, I was not aware that I was to speak. Actually, it was not a plan for me to say anything, simply for the students. But the shift was now it’ll be you and one student.
And naturally, I had no notes, no script, no nothing. And I wanted one of the students to share theirs. And they wouldn’t because they said we wrote this, you’d have to think of your own words.
And I recall, sweating, I just it was just a nightmare because I think I had on shower shoes, denim skirt. And I remember the train ride over, the little caboose, or whatever it’s called, under the tunnel over to the executive side of the Capitol. And the students were running around the little train and they were excited and I was stressed out and they couldn’t try and decide where they wanted to sit, which section, and I was yelling, “Get in any one! We’re ready to go!” and I plopped down and I was the only one that was left with three other people who were polished and suited and I was looking crazy and frustrated. And so they were just glaring at me like you are now, Deborah. And I had to say, so I felt like I was just a little like no, and I said, “Hello, how are you today?”
And she said, “Hi, you’re the teacher from Sousa.” I said “Yes, I am I Ms. Davis.” And she said, “Meet Senator Daschle.” And he was sitting to my left but I did not see him because I couldn’t see, I was just, they were there, staring at me.
So I turn and say, “It’s a pleasure meeting you, Senator.”
He said, “I suspected that you were the teacher when I saw you running around the train chasing the children.”
And it was such, I mean, he thanked me for bringing in his students but you when I got on the stage to say my two minutes of comments, I thought about how I felt teaching the students about the case. And the emphasis put on segregation.
And I was concerned that they were going to get the idea that, well, we can’t really learn anything. Really, we can’t really get a quality education unless we’re sitting in class with white students. And I didn’t want them to go away with this notion that you can only learn if you’re sitting in a classroom with white students. And that quality education has nothing to do with — it had a lot to do with the resources.
And that in the end, because Kayla had a problem understanding, “But, Ms. Davis, we’re still segregated, we’re still segregated.” So and I can really go to any school I want, but I don’t understand. And of course, explaining de facto segregation to them took us to another level.
But the comment I made at that ceremony, it really, what came up for me, it was, that was my concern. And I said, and the bottom line is, I had to wonder why was that important to me?
And what why was it important for me to make my students understand that that is not the case, that I wanted them to get the point that the money follows white children, it seems. And it still does, that’s what created the de facto segregation.
So if after all is said and done, if the resources to quality teachers, leaders, school buildings, were available to ALL students, that wouldn’t even be a conversation. And I hope that to this day that those students will take what they’ve learned, because I certainly did. I learned a lot from even teaching that I learned a lot about my students. And I learned a lot about myself. And it really caused me to even rethink what it means to be a social justice teacher.
Is it enough for me to teach students how to remember facts and dates, and regurgitate information for a test? Or did it mean more for me to teach students how to take what they learn in a plan to solving real problems that they were confronted with at the time, and that they will be confronted with later and how to navigate through some of the stuff that they will have to navigate through? [Audio clip ends here.]
And I suppose, one of the important things that I took away from the Writing Project at the institute that summer, was a way to talk about those issues. In school, we’re caught with colleagues, irrespective of their race, because I noticed that there were conversations that simply could not take place, and they don’t take place even now. And now it’s even more important because you have teachers who are coming from different socio-economic backgrounds, racial and ethnic backgrounds, different places, and they’re coming with perceptions that are shaped by things they’ve read, heard, preconceived notions are basically going to help determine what they teach and how rigorous it’s going to be, and what they expect from students.
So the Writing Project enabled me to be able to have honest conversations without putting walls between myself and other teachers. And I didn’t know how to do that. That one speaker, Deborah, that you invited that summer, Enid Lee, that she simply — I was going through some — I really had a difficult summer because I had been transferred that summer. And it was an involuntary transfer, and it was punitive, which is most of the ones that I’ve had except the last. Because, of course, the project at Sousa, the principal informed me before the project ended after the students were seen on C-Span and when they went before the council and the board, he informed me that I would be transferred. That’s, I mean, it wasn’t —
DM 34:34 No good deed goes unpunished [laughing].
Elizabeth Davis 34:36 Right. I mean, it wasn’t even I mean, he wasn’t trying to be subtle about it – “You will be leaving!”
DM 34:44 The listeners should know D.C. is a colony.
Elizabeth Davis 34:47 Yes, absolutely.
DM 34:50 So it does sound like it’s a combination of the Writing Project, which does create a community of teachers, which Linda Darling-Hammond said was what matters most right? Learning communities for teachers and D.C. has very few of. And then Enid, who is editor of Beyond Heroes and Holidays, with a focus on anti-racist education. So bringing those two together.
Elizabeth Davis 35:13 Absolutely, absolutely. The first article I read was Enid’s article. It was an interview in Rethinking Our Classrooms. And it talked about why she chose to use the term anti- racist education as opposed to multicultural education. And I felt that, but I simply didn’t know how to frame it. Because I felt really artificial teaching about Native American History Month and Black History Month, simply about the people, the food —
DM 35:49 Costumes.
Elizabeth Davis 35:50 And the costumes, and the music. And beyond that, that’s it. I mean, there was never a discussion about why is it even necessary to have to have these separate holidays about ethnic groups or races in it. She really helped me to rethink how to form even a community of teachers who could have those discussions, because it is quite necessary right now. It’s, I mean, even then, but now it’s more so.
DM 36:21 And we just have a few minutes left. Is it typical? Do those conversations happen intentionally? We have now in D.C., a lot of white teachers working with children of color. Are there structured conversations about race?
Elizabeth Davis 36:34 Absolutely not. No, those conversations, come up with questions. We have a collaborative planning time throughout D.C. in the morning. It’s not really collaboration that we do. It’s sort of like a monologue where teachers sit and listen to the administrator.
And they really don’t get to meet and talk to each other. There’s no time in the day, but they have a planning period, which they must use to plan. So that collaborative time in the morning is not where teachers actually collaborate with each other. But the questions that they raise in those meetings to the leadership in the school opens up opportunities for conversations.
Thinking to one that occurred this week, where four teachers were asked to talk about what to do. They talked to the new teachers about how to manage your classrooms. And of course, I was not one of the four teachers asked, but of course, I spoke from the audience. And what I wanted to share, as I looked around the library, we have a population of students that are about 80% African American, 15% Hispanic, and we have some Asian students, and a growing population of Asian students.
But the teachers, the new teachers, the questions they raise indicate that they have some, there are some ideas that they already have. And when those ideas come to me, I felt the need to say to the new teachers, and in a way that would not make them feel as if it was a negative. I wanted them to know that the students come to them, that they’re coming from different places and cultures, even the African American students. And you are going to discover that if you actually check, ask yourself, do you have ideas about who they are already?
And one of the mistakes I made as a beginning teacher was to try to make my students, clone them into who I was. I wanted to, I felt that I needed to fix them, and fixing them meant making them who I am, I wanted that, that’s how I would fix them. I’m the perfect person, this is who you should be, and I’m here to do that.
As they come to you already, they’re ready to learn. The only thing we need to do is teach them the content. But please respect who they are and where they come from. And use that as an asset in helping you to teach your content because their lives have got to be a part of your class.
And when it’s not a part, they’re going to let you know. And they will let you know in ways that you will call bad behavior. But it’s really not. It’s a way of saying, “No, you’re leaving me out. You’re putting me in the margins of the lesson. I don’t want to be there and you’re not respecting who I am.”
And, of course, I shared Linda Christensen’s [lesson for the] poem that I read in her book, “Where I’m From,” as a way for teachers at least to get a start for finding out who are your students and let them know who you are. But let them know that who they are is okay. And I’m not here to make you into someone else or clone myself. I think I’ve deviated from the trail.
DM 40:00 No, because it sounds like you’re talking about how you learn. You encourage other people to learn from their students, as well.
Elizabeth Davis 40:05 Absolutely.
DM 40:05 It’s a real learning community.
Elizabeth Davis 40:07 Absolutely.
DM 40:08 And I think we’re about —
StoryCorps Staff 40:09 We have to wrap it up. But is there anything you guys want to say to each other as final thoughts?
Elizabeth Davis 40:13 Well, I’m gonna give Deborah a chance to talk. I haven’t given you a chance to say anything. And I feel like I’m talking too much. But I suppose, Deborah, the Writing Project, the teachers that I’ve met through other organizations that have as a result of knowing Deborah, it has been one of the most powerful support systems for me, in ways that I cannot describe.
Even to this day, I was asked why I said, I can’t say “no” to you. The work you do is meaningful, and it resonates for me. And that’s another reason why I can’t say “no,” because any opportunity I have to collaborate with people of like mind who understand, you know what it is we should be about teaching for liberation, teaching students how to think outside, but critically, read between the lines, question, interrogate your teachers, don’t accept the status quo, challenge and justice yourselves.
And it makes a lot, it makes me feel good when students pay me a compliment by saying little things like Ms. Davis, whenever a principal comes into your room, you don’t stop saying what you’re saying. You continue on. And the student has said that had no idea how that elevated me and for one of my students to acknowledge that, it is so much. And it was small to her, but to me, it just made my day.
STUDENTS LEARN FROM WHAT WE DO
And it also let me know that students are watching and learning lessons that we’re not teaching. They’re learning lessons from our actions.
You know, how we respond to rules that violate our rights. They watch how we respond. I know they do because those students who were in that school said, and I’m surprised that the teachers are not saying anything, or doing anything. And I thought, how distressing to hear that because I was thinking the same thing. Students are learning lessons from us, not just from what we’re teaching in that lesson plan, either. So we have got to model the behavior that we want and being a good citizen has got to be modeled along with being a good teacher. We’ve got to do both. [Audio clip ends here.]
StoryCorps Staff 42:27 Lovely place to leave it.
Elizabeth Davis 42:30 Thank you.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
April 12, 2021