Teacher to Storyteller

by | 04.30.17

A Q&A with Kristin Leong, TED-Ed Innovative Educator and creator of the ROLL CALL project. ROLL CALL explores the gaps separating students and teachers and celebrates the connections happening across these divides. The two questions guiding ROLL CALL: What do teachers have in common with their students (and students with their teachers)? Does it matter that students and teachers have things in common?

Can you tell us about yourself and why you started ROLL CALL?

Kristin Leong: I’m one of 30 2017 TED-Ed Innovative Educators from around the world, and a Washington State Teacher Leader Alumni. Currently I am with Town Hall Seattle, where we are working on launching an education initiative called Town Hall Ed to create a bridge between our arts community and our local schools. Until very recently, I was also a middle school humanities teacher. The inspiration for this project came in part from my senior project, called HALF, at Sarah Lawrence. I shot portraits of biracial and bicultural Americans ages 5 all the way up to 65 and had conversations with them about their experiences being mixed-race. This was obviously a very personal topic, because I’m half-Chinese and half-white. Working on HALF was such a powerful experience of empathy. Through the interview process, it became clear that most of us had never really talked about our experiences as mixed-race people before with anyone. It felt like a relief to be having those conversations.

Then last spring I taught a professional development on student-led assessments for teacher leaders from all over Washington. What I didn’t advertise, though, was that we were also going to be talking about race and the culture gap separating students from teachers. This wasn’t your typical social justice or racial equity audience – it was teachers, so a largely white, female audience. I was nervous going into the workshop, but by the end of it my emerging optimism was refueled and I was totally energized and inspired by my colleagues.

Ever since HALF, I’ve been thinking, “How do I recreate that? How do I take portraits and tell stories to bring people together, especially around topics like race and culture that we’re often hesitant to talk about?” So the combination of HALF and last spring’s PD really led the way to ROLL CALL. The ROLL CALL website has become this positive, hopeful home for portraits and stories of the teachers and students I’ve spent days, if not weeks, building relationships with and interviewing. I think their willingness to be vulnerable – to share their stories and let me take their pictures – really comes through in each profile. There’s a warmth and an openness there that I’m really grateful for.

What were you hoping to accomplish through ROLL CALL?

When I originally pitched the project to TED-Ed, I was all about it being measurable and focused on results. I said it would generate solutions for closing gaps between teachers and students. But as the project has evolved, I’ve realized its true success is the way the project is celebrating how teachers and students are connecting despite the gaps. Of course, I hope ROLL CALL in some tangible way contributes to closing the gaps between teachers and students.

This project has been a great reminder to me that the value is in the process, not the end product.

Why is ROLL CALL especially important today?

I think people are ready to have complex conversations now more than ever. In my lifetime, I have never seen our world more willing to talk about race and equity. I think it’s in the last two years – with our fight for marriage equality, with the rise of Black Lives Matter, with Twitter – that people are having conversations they weren’t having five or 10 years ago. It does feel like the perfect time for ROLL CALL. I remember when I was doing HALF in 2003, people were very shocked that I was approaching strangers on the street to ask them if they were mixed-race and if they wanted to talk about it. It was totally provocative. But now – and I feel like Twitter is leading the way – people are more willing to talk about who they are and what their experiences have been like.

How do you define equity, and what does equity look like to you in the classroom?

This project is all about equity. I think equity is understanding kids as three-dimensional people with lives outside of school. So in something basic like our classroom schedule: School ends at 2:30 or 3:30 p.m., and there is no school for the entire month of July. For single-parent families or families with two parents working full-time, that’s really hard. Our current school schedule doesn’t consider the student as part of an entire family that has a whole life.

For example, my family is multiracial and from Hawaii, and when we get together, we’re loud and talk over each other. It’s the way we engage and express love, and it’s rooted in our culture. But that cultural communication style doesn’t translate to our standard American classrooms, where children are expected to stay quiet and speak one at a time. Kids from different cultures come to school with different expectations of what it means to engage. To me equity in schools means understanding that our students are coming from whole worlds – whole cultures – and that they are three-dimensional human beings who arrive to our classrooms with histories and home lives.

What advice would you give to teachers who are trying to understand the importance of equity and how to incorporate it better in their own school?

My advice would be to start with the two questions we ask in ROLL CALL: What do you have in common with your students, and does it matter that students and teachers have things in common? I’ve been asking teachers these two questions for the last year, and repeatedly I’ve been surprised and inspired by how these two seemingly simple questions spark such powerful reflection and conversation. The old model is that teachers are expected to have answers. Thankfully, that expectation is evolving. We’re starting to understand that the most pressing questions don’t have correct answers. As a result, the role of teachers is shifting. Before we were responders. Now we have to learn how to be facilitators. There’s no right answer for making our schools more equitable, but inviting teachers to explore these questions is a simple and actionable place to start.

How would you answer the two questions you ask everyone in ROLL CALL?

The first thing that comes to mind is race. I had a lot of mixed white and Asian kids in all of my classes, and we talk about race and culture all the time. At the beginning of every year I ask my students, “Who speaks another language at home?” Then they take turns calling out all the languages they speak. Then I ask them, “Whose parents were born in a different country?” Then we do a quick shout-out to all the countries represented in our classroom. Even for the white, suburban kids whose families have lived in our state a really long time, they’re eager to share which cities their families are from. When I first started doing this intro activity, I was surprised by how eager all my students were to call out their languages and countries and cities – even the cool kids who resist the icebreakers. What I’ve realized is that everyone – students and adults, too – wants to be seen. Because our schools are so diverse, they’re a great place to practice sharing who we are and being interested in who others are. Sadly though, I think teachers are really hesitant to talk about anything related to race or identity in their classrooms for fear of saying the wrong thing and inviting conflict with parents or their administrators. That fear is holding back our teachers, our students and our progress.

And yes, it does matter that we have things in common. I think it matters that kids can see themselves in their teachers. I remember when I went to college, I was so excited just to see so many different kinds of people in my professors: women of color, queer people, lesbians, poets, New Yorkers – all these brilliant people who were defining themselves based on all of the interesting things they were pursuing instead of on their marriages or their jobs as teachers. I think about how powerful it would’ve been to have had more diverse role models when I was growing up.

Students are just figuring out what kind of people they want to become and how they want to present themselves to the world. How incredible would it be if our teachers provided lots of different models for what it might look like to be an adult someday? All students deserve to see adults who look like them in leadership roles. And all students deserve to have a wide range of adult role models in their lives who offer different perspectives than what they’ve grown up with. Teachers of color are not just for students of color. LGBTQ teachers are not just for queer kids. So yes, it absolutely matters that teachers have things in common with their students. And it also matters that students have teachers who are different than them. That’s why I started this project: I think all of these things and all different kinds of students and teachers matter a lot.

About the Author

Kristin Leong
Kristin Leong

Kristin can be found on Twitter at @kristinleong and through RollCallProject.com.

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