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Conversation with a Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Educator about what it means and what it looks like

RE-Center Race & Equity in Education Executive Director, Natalie McCabe Zwerger sat down with long-time educator, Jillian McRae to discuss CR-SE and how it manifests.

RE-Center: Jillian, tell us a little bit about your work.

Jillian McRae: I am a public high school teacher. I've been teaching at Ossining High School for 20 years. Still in this game. My certification is English 7-12 But when I started at Ossining, I was really afforded the luxury to begin teaching seniors very early on, and because of that I developed a number of classes, first on my own. And then in collaboration with a social studies teacher, I first developed a pop culture and literature class for seniors to try and get them to think critically about the world around us. I was doing some units that delve into notions of the other and I thought this is an entire class, in and of itself. So, I also developed a Caribbean literature and history class, to meet the needs of our West Indian students who didn't see themselves or their experiences reflected. And then in 2005, which was so timely, Hurricane Katrina happened, and I was teaching my pop culture and literature class, and a white Social Studies colleague, a cis male was teaching a race, ethnicity and identity class, and one of our colleagues, Martin MacDonald, who was a videographer, wanted to videotape some students talking about Hurricane Katrina, and all of the “isms” that come out of that disaster. So our classes just happened to meet at the same period, and he asked if we could bring our classes together and we did this kind of like very old school Oprah/Phil Donahue thing, you know Sam and I have microphones and we're talking to the kids and passing the microphone, for this video, and it was a great success. I had a lot of students of color, taking my pop culture class and Sam had a lot of white students who had him for AP. This disparity in access to APs is one of the issues that our school contends with still. Well, the next day Sam was knocking on my door with all of his kids in tow, and they came in and it's a classroom, made for 30 and now we have 55 kids, and kids are just chillin on the radiator and on the windowsill, and they just never left. So that year we informally started a SUNY race class, and the following year, we made it formal through the University of Albany and so that has been our most popular class- it's called SUNY Racism, Classism, and Sexism. We've alternated between having it for juniors and seniors or just seniors depending on our availability and what else we're teaching and then from there we blew it up, and we created and co-taught SUNY Crossing Borders which is essentially about racism, classism, sexism, outside of the United States. We co-created and co-taught SUNY: The Black Experience, and we did Latinos in the US- that’s the name of it on the SUNY campus. For us it was very much like the Latin and Caribbean experience. And we did a couple of other things like a senior research project, but all of our classes are essentially bringing notions of race, class, identity, systematic and systemic issues to the forefront and allowing our students a college-like experience within a high school setting.

RE-Center: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about their culminating projects and how they have a voice at the end of the course that pulls everything they've learned together.

Jillian McRae: So, I think our intentional spot is to talk about power and privilege in a way that we don't typically talk about in mainstream culture. We typically focus on those groups who have been marginalized and highlight those experiences and we like to flip the coin and let's talk about the ways in which people have been empowered and privileged throughout time and that is very jarring for students. You know we offer them alternative definitions of what being racist is- the notion of power plus privilege plus history plus institutional policies, etc, and so forth. It can be very new for our students and we allow them various entry points into these various definitions and discussions. Their culminating project is an investigation of “ism,” so they get to choose an “ism,” they can also create their own “ism.” We've had students think outside the box and talk about Hoodism-like where's the hood in Ossining, but delving into how “the hood” has been created and maintained. What are the visual markers? What's present in hoods that you don't see present in other neighborhoods. What does a bodega stand for and what does it symbolize and what does it create and how does it help a community versus communities that don't have to rely on this kind of central corner store? So, the students think about, create, and investigate some kind of “ism.” They do some research, talking to the smaller school community or the larger Westchester community in terms of how they see that “ism,” how it's maintaining some systems of power, how it's keeping some people in and or some people out, and then they offer some recommendations in terms of addressing that “ism,” they'll do a presentation. Now in COVID days, things have changed a little bit in terms of the ways in which we present but we've had presentations for the entire school body, offered presentations for administration when kids thought about “isms” that are happening in school like who's in the timeout room, who gets pulled out of class, or sent out of class and why, looking at access and agency, and who has access to technology and who does not etc, and so forth. So, actually one of the ones last year, we had students who did sexual harassment in the workplace, and the workplace they chose was Ossining High School, and they sent out a survey and it was anonymous and asked educators to respond and 70 responses came in from educators talking about being harassed in Ossining High School, and in a variety of ways- issues of power- being feminine in that space perhaps, being petite in that space, and experiencing the microaggressions that happen and, as we want our projects to do it blows up and it gets people talking and I received several emails from folx, but I think it got people talking thinking- reinventing and addressing some issues that perhaps they weren't aware of. So you know we start some stuff, but it's purposeful, because we want to see some change that happens as well.

RE-Center: Can you share a little bit about the course that you designed for this year?

Jillian McRae: This year I'm bringing back The Black Experience reinvented as To Be Young, Gifted and Black. I want this course to center joy, and I want to talk about the Black experience as a joyful experience, and not one that is just solely looking at the deficits, the marginalization, the vulnerability, but the strength, the beauty. I'm also asking my students, who are juniors and seniors, to co-create this curriculum with me. I have some big ideas like Black luminaries, Black beauty, Black spirituality, but I'm asking my students what questions they have when they hear these topics. What ideas, what can you add to the conversation? And so using that as a framework that is essentially what's going to dictate our class. Their questions will be our essential questions, their ideas will guide what we do in this class and so, as I always do, I see myself as a facilitator in these discussions, but based on what it is they want to do- that's what we'll interrogate, that's what we'll analyze.

RE-Center: Can you describe for us what CR-SE means to you? 

Jillian McRae: To be culturally responsive, especially in a contemporary context is to be able to look at the local, national, and global communities and recognize that our populations continue to shift and change, and so our teaching has to shift and change alongside it. Students have to navigate their immediate lives and situations, but we should also prepare them for the Black and Brownness of the world around them.  This has implications for not only what we teach, but how we teach, and culturally responsive and sustaining education attends to those needs.  It attends to our students who are living in a particular place, and time as their intersectional selves, and who have to be prepared for global citizenry.  

RE-Center: If you were offering advice to a school or district about what is required for courses like yours to thrive, but also to create the conditions where young people are empowered in the ways that you have described,what would you offer?

Jillian McRae: The first thing is relinquishing power. It's truly deconstructing the teacher/student dynamic. History and tradition shows us that the teacher is the center of knowledge even in terms of the placement in the room. What we have to do is get rid of this. I mean I consider myself a lifelong learner. I learn so much from my students, and the lives that they are living right within their particular social, cultural, political context. I think at a certain point I realized I don’t want to change kids’ minds; I want to impact the way they think about things. So I have to give them options. I want to give them various points of entry. I had a colleague that once said, you know you can give a kid an eight pack marker set, you know the Crayola markers that come in a box of eight and they can draw like a very pretty picture but what happens when you give them 64? What becomes possible? I want to give them all the colors we can come up with together. And I need this community of learners to be willing to come in and share and think and talk and push back and do all the things. That’s the whole shift in power. Also, administrative trust. The trust that I am going to do great things in my classroom. I have an open door policy so that people can see exactly what's happening.

 RE-Center: I'm wondering if you can leave us with some of your inspiration, maybe current stuff your reading, folks so you're connected as mentors, and what are your offerings for folks who are trying to find a way to be nourished as a part of their commitment to equity and racial justice, wherever they are on their journey.

Jillian McRae: I majored in English  in undergrad and I double minored in Africana Studies and Urban Education, and I went to University at Albany, so it has come full circle because my courses are offered through Albany (that's just by happenstance) but I remember being on campus and Edwidge Danticat was coming in and Junot Diaz and, they were talking about their first books. Their work was and is so instrumental for me. I’ve always had a foundation in Black and Brown authors. I love literature of “Other” voices like Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni-these are still the people I go to and I use. I want to expose my students to Black and Brown scholarship as well. We did a lot with Gholdy Muhammad last year (as a school district). There was a centering of how to think about curriculum in terms of  identity, skills, intellectualism, criticality, and joy. Melding it with Bettina Love, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Sonia Nieto- that was what we did. I am reading The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone by Heather McGhee now.  That, and My Broken Language by Quiara Alegria Hudes. 

RE-Center: Can you speak about how you move in relationship with your students’ parents and caregivers?

Jillian McRae: Great question. I have an open door policy that goes for my colleagues, administrators, and parents and caregivers and I share that at back to school night, every year. I mention to parents and caregivers that I hope my students, your children, talk about our course content at home. It’s the critical thoughts I forewarn parents and caregivers might have because that means that their child is thinking and they're willing to talk about it.  Their children might start some stuff over Thanksgiving dinner, and that’s okay, but they are thinking and engaging critically in dialogue.

RE-Center: Any final offerings for folx who are thinking about Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Practices in action like the ones you have offered?

Jillian McRae: You just have to do it.  For educators out there who are finding (or lost) their footing because I believe we live in a time where anyone can say whatever they want (hey, internet) and they also can’t say a thing for fear of being “cancelled” (hey, internet)- we have to do it. We have to engage students in these “courageous conversations” and units of study so they can be better prepared to work within the world (whatever work they may do).  We want to actualize our students as full human beings, so we can’t fear the human experience.  Bring that into the classroom. Allow space for contradictions, questions, wonderings, ramblings. Listen. Learn. Do it again. We owe it to our kids to help them navigate the world we have been complicit in maintaining. 

Jillian is a Racial Justice Strategist & Coach Consultant with RE-Center Race & Equity in Education. Hear more from Jillian in this CRE Story , this Podcast, and Podcast.  


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