Transcript of the episode “Teaching the ‘isms’: Students’ lived experience in context”

Amy H-L: [00:00:15] I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. 

Jon M: [00:00:16] And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guests today are English teacher, Jillian McRae, history teacher, Sam North, and 12th grader, Alaysha, all from Ossining High School in Westchester County, New York. Jillian and Sam co-teach a year long college level course, SUNY Racism, Classism, Sexism: A Popular Approach, and Alaysha is one of their students. Welcome Jillian, Sam and Alicia.

Sam N: [00:00:42] Great to be here.

Alaysha: [00:00:44] Thank you. 

Amy H-L: [00:00:46] Tell us about Ossining’s demographics, including any recent changes.

Sam N: [00:00:52] So Ossining has a very mixed population. Historically, it’s always been a town that is more mixed than other towns around it in Westchester County. Currently, the majority population is Latinx, and primarily an immigrant community that is coming from Ecuador. Then there is a significant Black population and a significant White population. But the majority population currently is Latinx.

Jillian M: [00:01:20] We would say though that the population has definitely shifted from a White majority, in terms of numbers, it’s really over the last 10 years that we’ve seen a shift from a White majority and also Blacks as being the majority minority in Ossining. And that shift, as Sam was saying, is now Latinx, Latiné, as our majority majority. And then we have Whites, probably next Blacks, Asians, and then multiracial families as well.

Jon M: [00:01:54] Jillian, Latiné may be an unfamiliar term for many of our listeners. Could you talk about it a little bit? Why you use it?

Jillian M: [00:02:00] Yeah. This is a recent schooling for us. Sam and I have been teaching together for about 15 years, and we’ve attempted to, at least in our course, talk about the significance of language and how language and terminology is so important. And, you know, I think that we were one of the first in the building to even move away from Hispanic and to Latino as a kind of all encompassing term to describe the experiences of those who are also in the Caribbean, et cetera, and so forth. Most recently, we hear Latinx as part of talking in terms of being gender neutral for those within the  Latiné population. And then one of our students this year said, wait, like the letter x really has nothing to do with the Spanish language and is an Americanized like placement. Okay, let’s give gender neutrality to Spanish speakers, but the X you know, pronounced  in Spanish, like doesn’t even, it’s not even part of our language. And so she introduced us to the concept, which we are slowly using and using Latiné as a gender neutral. So then the end of the word is an e with an accent over it as a gender neutral term that is authentic with the Spanish language. 

Sam N: [00:03:20] Yeah. And as you can see, as Jillian said, I’m still learning. I tend to forget and I’ll use Latinx, which again is an improvement over the times when I sometimes still say Hispanic. We’re all learning.

Amy H-L: [00:03:35] Sam and Jillian, where did the idea for the course, SUNY Racism, Classism, and Sexism, come from? And why did you decide to offer it?

Sam N: [00:03:45] Yeah, that’s a fun story. Well, it comes out of the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, um, which is not a fun story. Okay. In 2005 Hurricane Katrina happens in August. And so we came back to school in September. And at the time, I was teaching a course which was called Race, Ethnicity, and Identity. And Jillian was teaching a course on pop culture. And we were, you know, separate. I was in social studies department, she was in the English department. And one of our colleagues, who is a videographer for the district, he wanted to film some students talking about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and all of the issues about race and class that were made evident because of the, you know, how the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the government’s failure to respond and issues with criminal justice and all kinds of things were coming to the forefront nationally. And so he talked to us and we decided to bring our classes together in a larger group so that we could have this discussion about Hurricane Katrina, and he filmed it to put on the local school television channel. And it just went really well.

We enjoyed the opportunity to bring our classes together. We seemed to kind of work well together and feed off one another and the conversation. We had a similar willingness to kind of tackle issues that are sometimes difficult to talk about with students. And so anyway, long story short, we liked it. We talked about informally meeting maybe once a week. After that we’d bring our classes together. But the next day I showed up at her doorstep with my class and I just didn’t stop coming. And that was it. Whether she liked it or not, we were joined at the hip.

Jillian M: [00:05:31] And if I could just add, and it was great and yes, he just had his students in tow and we just made room on the floor for his students. But I think another thing that was happening, because we  had had informal conversations before then. Sam, typically, especially during that time, was teaching AP and AP 11 and his class, his SUNY race class, at that point, it was primarily white. It was a lot of white students who were taking his class. I had a lot of students of color who were taking pop culture and literature. And so it was nice to bring these classes together in that way. And then to begin to talk like very pointedly about, you know, who’s taking AP level and college level classes and who’s not, you know, I was teaching like an English 12 elective at the time. And so it was nice, not only for Sam and I to come together, but for our students to come together in a safe space.

Jon M: [00:06:27] Alaysha, why did you decide to take the course? 

Alaysha: [00:06:30] Well, I had heard about it my freshman year, I think. And it just kind of interested me because those are the kinds of topics that I like talking about. And I kind of liked expanding on it and learning more, like as much as I can, since I didn’t really know much. I was only like 15. So, yeah, that was just a class I really wanted to take. So when I was able to fit it in in senior year, I was definitely happy.

Amy H-L: [00:07:00] Oh, why do you think other students take the course?

Alaysha: [00:07:04] I want to say for the same reasons that I take it, to expand their mind, maybe look at things in a different way, and seeing you hear people’s perspectives on different things, you know.

Amy H-L: [00:07:17] What’s your sense, Sam and Jillian?

Jillian M: [00:07:21] We’ve gotten it all, you know, we’ve had years when kids come charging in the room, like I’m ready to get my racers on. Like, I’m, I’m just ready to go. There is something. I’m going to use the word special. Right. But there is, there’s something about offering a senior elective. And so as Alaysha was saying, right, and you hear about the course. That’s typically how our course gets out there. We don’t really sell it. It’s a lot of word of mouth and we’ve become part of the institution of Ossining, you know, formally, since like 2005, 2006. And so, you know, here it is. It’s the senior level or upper level course. And I think just in terms of my reputation and Sam’s reputation, I hope, you know, students know that we’re not a space of censure. We’re a space of kind of talking, how it is, you know, telling it how it is, sharing and wanting to hear from students about their experiences as well.

And so it is an outlet. It is something that our students do say that they wish they had the opportunity to take when they were younger. But I don’t, I don’t necessarily know either if Sam or I are geared toward a younger population, either just in terms of the way we speak, the topics that we have. It’s great fun.

Sam N: [00:08:38] Yeah. Again, it’s because I think there is a very compelling argument that can be made to broach these topics much, much younger, but I’m not the man for the job. This particular age group is so smart and they’re so thoughtful and they’re so curious and they’re, so they’re that just that much more mature that they can really handle the kind of level of discussion that we want to bring to the table. Right. Obviously, if you did it at a younger audience, you would have to make it age appropriate and educationally sound in that regard.

Amy H-L: [00:09:16] The title of the course is ” popular approach.” What does that mean?

Jillian M: [00:09:21] So that was, that was really a nod to us getting together. As Sam mentioned, he was teaching a course. It was like SUNY Race, Ethnicity, and Identity, and it was through SUNY Purchase. And then when we brought our forces together for good, and I was teaching a pop culture and literature class. So, you know, there’s a nod to an attempt at least to bring in what students are consuming, right, like what’s on their Instagram feeds, right. Like what are they looking at on Tik Tok, like what are the the movies that they’re watching, the music that they’re listening to, the lives that they’re living? There’s an attempt to bring that into the class environment to then break down, okay, what are the institutional isms that we see happening in your world, right. Like my philosophy as a teacher, for any class, is to help students think critically about the world around them. And especially, with this layer of looking at race, of looking at class, of looking at gender, of looking at age, and looking at positions of power and these institutional ways in which we do it. So we wanted to make sure that we stay true to kind of always bringing in and allowing students to bring in their lived experiences so that we can apply the same lens as well.

Amy H-L: [00:10:37] Could you give us an overall sense of the curriculum?

Sam N: [00:10:41] So the title of the class is sort of a window into the broad issues that we address. So we’re gonna look at racism. We’re gonna look at sexism, we’re gonna look at classism, but we’re also gonna, you know, the title would be too long if we talked about all the isms that we address. We look at agism and we look at ableism, we look at linguisism, issues with language and the privileging of English in certain situations, among others. And so that is the kind of overall plan. 

And then the way in which we do it is by basically focusing on systems of power. So when we talk about sexism, for example, we’re trying to understand the fundamental power dynamic that’s functioning in a system of sexism or racism or ableism. So in other words, how is the system set up? Who is winning in the system, who is losing in the system, and what is the history of it? How is it functioning now? The main focus of what we try to do is to, rather than look at people who have been historically disadvantaged by these systems, you know, which there’s of course, relevant reasons to do that. But very often in that exercise and focusing on the ways in which certain groups have been disadvantaged, say for example, women in a sexist system have been disadvantaged in these different ways. Yeah. That’s important. That’s relevant. But if you only do that, you are ignoring the other side of the coin, proverbally, which is, you know, how are men benefiting from the system. How was the system designed by men to essentially maintain male supremacy? And how how has that happened over time? And what ways has it been challenged and what ways has it survived those challenges and expanded its reach, right? So that is really the fundamental backdrop into which we look at all of these different isms. That makes sense.

Jillian M: [00:12:39] And we attempt to layer it in such a way that we’re offering an intersectional approach as well, right. So we’ll talk gender, we’ll talk gender differences, we’ll talk history. You know, the ways in which power is represented socially, culturally, economically, and all of these areas. But then, you know, from sexism, we’ll go into heterosexism, right. And like define from there and offer students this intersectional approach so that students also recognize that they are intersectional beings and may, in fact, feel privileged or be privileged in some spaces and then experience marginalization and othering in other spaces. We get students coming in and it’s kind of, we don’t want to buy for like, who has the saddest story or who can play, you know, the saddest song. It’s about understanding how these systems of power and privilege have intersectional bases in between.

Sam N: [00:13:37] Yeah, and this is, this is the importance of, you know, a lot of the literature and research work that we bring into the class and have the students engage with because, you know, you look at a piece by Audrey Lorde and she talks, as Jillian is mentioning, about this notion of intersectionality and how, you know, you may be benefiting from, and a lot of us will focus on the ways in which we are disadvantaged and forget the ways in which we are sitting in privilege and may in fact be causing or contributing to the disadvantages of other people, right, because we’re too focused on the one way in which we are in a subordinate position. So these are really hard and really personal topics that often don’t get discussed in high schools or lots of other places.

Jon M: [00:14:26] Do you lose students, students who just shut off or who are afraid to talk?

Jillian M: [00:14:31] Yeah. And I don’t know if I could even preface this with like pre COVID and then, you know, during COVID, because there definitely is a difference in terms of teaching these topics through a screen via face to face. But yes, to your question, and again, we’ve been teaching this for 15 years. We have played with it. I mean, we continue to shift our syllabus, right. That’s part of like, again, being in touch with what our students are experiencing or what’s happening in the world. Or adding in new pieces of literature or articles to analyze. And, you know, in the beginning, like being taken by our students’ energy, like let’s talk race, let’s talk race. And we would talk about race first. And then we get to this notion of white privilege and we’d have our white students just kind of like turn off, right. Like we’re not like they’re not ready for that, they’re not, we’re not ready to talk like white supremacy yet.

And so Sam and I, through trial and error, honestly, you know, we’ve developed a way, and again, this is like that notion of intersectionality at work, but also like scaffolding. And we have found just through trial and error. Alaysha, you can let us know if this works, but you know, we try starting with gender first, right. We start actually with like defining the notion of a binary, what is our understanding of opposites and the way that opposites have been created in a sense, the gender binary of males and females. And not only do we have these opposites, typically in their construction, one has some value over the other, right? And we can do the same with White and Black. We can do the same with life and death, any kind of binary system. So we start there and we enter into these discussions talking about gender, because we think our students have an understanding of male privilege. They may not use those words, right. But they have some kind of understanding in terms of the privileges bestowed to men financially, historically, culturally, socially, et cetera, and so forth. And so we have found that if we ease into the discussions of power and privilege and we start with gender and then we transition into race, we have found that a lot of them stay with us. It doesn’t mean that they don’t push back, which we love. That’s why we’re here, too, is for the pushback. But we definitely, I think, keep them on their toes and keep them thinking in terms of, oh, wait, if we’re like discussing gender in this way, what’s it going to be like when we begin talking race in class?

Jon M: [00:17:02] Alaysha, do the discussions carry over to conversations outside of class? 

Alaysha: [00:17:07] I take the things I learned from in class outside of my class. Like I discuss with my friends often about different kinds of topics that we talk about in class. But since half of us are virtual and half mostly most are in-person, usually when everybody leaves, I don’t really know. I’m not really that close to anybody. Like in our in-person class, I’ll usually like talk to Ms. McCrae and Mr. North after it for a couple minutes.

Sam N: [00:17:35] I think that’s an area where COVID really has had a negative impact, because what happens in school is the conversation doesn’t end. You know, with one of these calls, you know, a zoom call or a Google meet, you shut it down and it’s basically over. But when we’re all together in class, kids are hanging around and they won’t leave the classroom. They keep talking, they walk out the door, they’re talking to each other still, they run into their friends and they’re talking about it with their friends that go to the cafeteria. The conversation continues. I don’t think, unfortunately, you have as much of that at this particular moment.

Jillian M: [00:18:10] If I could add though, and times are changing. Sam and I will joke, like we know how to ruin Thanksgiving for you guys, right, like we can prep you in terms of when grandma and grandpa come in and like all the, an auntie and uncle and all the relatives come in. And like, if you want to start some stuff and stir some things up for Thanksgiving, like we know exactly what to do. And some of the activities that we do in class, we’re like go home, do them with your family, like do them with your friends and, you know, start stuff there as well. So that is our hope, that those conversations continue into a lot of other spaces.

Jon M: [00:18:47] So my next question is probably also a little bit different in the era of COVID, but I was curious whether the conversations either this year or in past years, whether they carry over to the other classes. So, you know, whether students report that they’ve been having carry overs. Sam or Jillian, do you get a sense from colleagues or from students of how much this extends in the more structured classroom setting, beyond students talking about it among themselves?

Jillian M: [00:19:18] Yeah. So I’ll again, reflect kind of pre COVID. So Sam and I, even during this time, we have an open door policy and we have teachers who come and sit in on our classes, like when they have free periods. And so, you know, there are other educators in the building who will just come in. We have a principal who who’s retired now, but, you know, he would walk the building often and he would always say, you know, like he would find comfort coming into our classes. Again, even if we were starting things or pushing students in a way. And I’ve gotten that feedback from actually a lot of our colleagues who kind of support us and support what we’re doing and our administrators who have done the same.

So I do think that there is like a leaking of SUNY Race into other, right. And I have colleagues. I’m an English teacher. I’m also an instructional coach at the school. And so it’s a necessary thing. It’s on the minds of a lot of educators of how to be more culturally responsive, right, like how to be more engaging with students and their lived experiences. And I think, in short, because I’ve had so many years doing this work with Sam and in this particular class, I have a lot of ideas about how to have those discussions, the texts to read, how to read them, the discussions to attempt to engage in. So I definitely think that there is crossover. I think Sam and I, because together we’ve also created a number of other classes, which we haven’t been able to run because SUNY Race has been so popular. But we’ve created a number of classes, including the Black experience through literature and history crossing borders, which looks at race, class and gender outside of the United States. And Sam this year has a “Doing Time” criminal justice class.

So I think we vibe off of one another in class and we’re kind of like, oh, we need a class on that. And then, you know, the following year, one of us is trying it, or at least trying to get one of our colleagues to try it.

Amy H-L: [00:21:15] Does the course help students and perhaps adults in the school as well to engage in ethical decision-making?

Sam N: [00:21:26] So I would, and Alaysha can speak to this as well as a student in the class. But I would say that’s certainly a goal that we have as the educators in the classroom. We’re really focused on, you know, one of Jillian’s famous things is once you’re aware, you’re responsible, right. And one of the things that we find is, we really try to impress upon people, how systems and power function. One of the ways in which systems of power function is by being unexamined. And so the people who are in positions of power are very often unaware, right. Many of us are now familiar with Peggy McIntosh’s work, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” right. I mean, it is white, it’s a white knapsack. It’s very clean. Um, no, actually it’s very dirty, really. Anyway, her work of course exposed many White people to the notion of White privilege and all of these things, the ways in which we carry this privilege without ever knowing about it. So a big part of what we try to do is make sure that you know about it, that you are aware of the privilege that you carry. And then that puts you in the position of having essentially to make a decision, like, who are you going to be now, now that you know the privileges that you have that are unearned, that you didn’t ask for, you know, it’s not your fault, but you have them nonetheless. And because you have them, somebody else doesn’t. What are you going to do about that? And I’m fond of saying, if you now know, and you decide not to do anything to make the world more equitable and ethical place, then that makes you a jerk, you know, now I can call you a jerk because before you didn’t know, but now you know, and now you’re not doing what you could be doing to make the world a better place for other people rather than yourself.

So that’s really, I think our main goal is to give them the knowledge and then to try to give them the tools to think about how to go ahead and make these changes. We don’t know what the answers are. We’re hoping that they will, right. You know, I’m an older guy, I don’t have all the answers and they’re the new generation that are going to come up and really hopefully make the kinds of changes that maybe my generation hasn’t been able to make yet, right. So I think that’s a big part of what we try to do.

Jon M: [00:23:47] Does religion come up in the course?

Sam N: [00:23:51] Funny. We were talking about that today, again.

Jillian M: [00:23:54] You can go ahead, Sam.

Sam N: [00:23:56] Yes, absolutely. You know, one of the ways in which we talk a lot about, it’s in the Audrey Lorde piece, this notion of, you know, that there’s this kind of mythical norm that exists in society, that is a white person, a male, a Protestant Christian, somebody who has means, somebody who is able bodied, right, and that norm is used as the standard by which everyone else is measured. And if you don’t fit in that, then you are a part of those various other classes of people. And going back to the binary, that binary of you’re the norm or you’re the other is always a hierarchical binary, right, with the norm being privileged. In there is, of course, this kind of privileging of Protestant Christianity in the American context. And so it is something that comes up in discussions about the immigration, for example, of originally, you know, Irish or Italian Catholic immigrants coming to this country and not necessarily being considered, even though they were light-skinned or of European descent, not necessarily fitting into the definition of Whiteness at the time, because they were not Protestant Christians, for example.

We’ve also talked a little bit about how, and this has comes up in class, how certain religious groups have been racialized historically. So Jewish people, of course, by Hitler and Nazi Germany, the racialization of Jews. And then also thinking about, you know, I’m half Jewish, on my father’s side, but we’re not religiously Jewish. So there’s a kind of an ethnic component to being Jewish. So that’s a conversation that we have as well, the difference between being ethnically Jewish, and what does that mean, culturally Jewish versus being religiously Jewish. And is there a difference there or are they connected? How so? So those are some of the ways in which I think it comes up in our class.

Amy H-L: [00:25:52] What kinds of materials are the students reading or watching?

Jillian M: [00:25:56] We attempt to give them a variety, an offer, right, the notion that really like anything can be analyzed. A lot of our college level texts will come from like certain readers. We use like a Race, Ethnicity and Society reader, we’ll use some articles from there. We’ll pull a lot of articles from The New York Times, from New York Magazine, just in terms of, again, the relevance and making it accessible to students.

And then we actually, we are privileged to have a very nice sized library and we’ve accumulated again, over the years of our working together, what I think is a nice diverse collection of books that students can choose from. And again, pre COVID, right. It’s kind of like, I just open up the book cabinets and like students have a go and we do these independent book reads and we haven’t decided how or what we’ll do in this particular sense, but we offer everything from Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, “Random Family” is such a good one. We have Michelle Alexander’s, help me with titles. Thank you. “The New Jim Crow.” We have Ta-Nehisi Coates and we have some older stuff. Yes. “Between the World and Me.” And we have Amy Tan, right, cause we wanted to give students a variety. One of my favorite authors, this is also problematic, and we talk about that, you know, Junot Diaz and his short story collection, “Drown,” and “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”  So we offer them a variety of things. And then again, it’s because I’m an English teacher, right, we’ll throw in a poem. When we talk the Black White binary, we’ll do Sharon Olds’s “On the Subway” to talk about, okay, let’s talk about darkness and lightness and how she’s pitting these binary opposites, you know, with this encounter of this older White woman and this Black young man on a train and like begin to break that down and analyze that. And then we’ll also add in, you know, a documentary or two. We’ll look at commercials, we’ll try and analyze anything and everything. And again, to help students also see the ways in which we can look at these instances of power and privilege throughout our lived experiences.

Amy H-L: [00:28:15] Alaysha, what have you liked most about the course so far?

Alaysha: [00:28:18] I love all the discussions we have. Like I’m not really like, the work is fun, I guess, but I’m more, I’m more of a, in the moment, let’s have a conversation about it. Like when we just talk in our classes, I feel like that’s when we have the best, that’s what I have the best time, honestly. 

Jon M: [00:28:35] Were there any conversations in particular that really had an impact?

Alaysha: [00:28:39] I guess the one we had just talked about Monday. When me and another student were talking about when it comes to dating preferences with other people and like how when it comes to Black girls, we’re not necessarily picked all the time because of the negative stereotypes that come with, um, being in the Black race, but how other races of women are seen as more desirable as we are.

Sam N: [00:29:14] You know, one of the elements that came out in that discussion, which I think was quite powerful, that Alaysha and another student were talking about, was the, you guys said it better, but it was, it’s one thing to not want to date Black girl, but why do you got to put her down, too? Right? That was kind of the thing that was coming out a lot, that oftentimes Black boys would say they didn’t want to date a Black girl, but then they would go on to say why. And it would always be these negative comments about Black girls.

Jillian M: [00:29:44] So within that discussion, we can like layer it, right, in terms of the construction of beauty standards, like how beauty standards have changed over time. How like using the language of students, there’s this thing, right. Students will talk about like being slim thick, right. And like thick is spelled T H I CC, but like the right of being like you’re both skinny and thick at the same time. And so how do you, how do you manage that, right? We can give them the language of a double bind that women or female identified people find themselves in, this structure that’s been created for them that says, wait, no, this kind of texture of hair is cute. This width of nose is too much, all the stereotypes, right, that I have about a certain type of people. We haven’t even gotten there, but we will, Alaysha, I promise you. And then we can talk about the social capital of being like a cool Black boy, but Black girls don’t have that same social capital, right? Like the Black boy may be invited to parties and to hang out, right. He’s he’s got like this cachet of cool, but Black girls don’t have that same access. And why is that? And so, yeah, it wasn’t like our lesson plan, but that’s where the kids took us for Monday’s discussion, and that’s where we went.

Jon M: [00:31:00] You know, as, as you’re talking, I’m in a book club and we just discussed last night, this book “Shapeshifters” by Aimee Meredith Cox and the subtitle is “Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship.” It’s really very interesting. And just, off of the conversation, you were just mentioning, it’s something that students might find interesting.

Jillian M: [00:31:19] I’m writing it down. Thank you.

Sam N: [00:31:23] I will, just to say, as Ms. McCrae said, it was not part of our plan, that happens a lot. That’s when the best things happen in the class that especially happens. Again, it happens more often in non COVID times, but there are things that kids want to talk about. And we love that because, while it takes us maybe off of the plan for that day, There’s always a way to tie it into something that we already had planned to get to at some point, right. But if that’s what they want to talk about at that particular moment, we’re not going to stop it.

Amy H-L: [00:31:59] As co-teachers of different races, sexes and ages, are you consciously modeling relationships between people who visually appear quite different?

Jillian M: [00:32:10] We try. It’s our hook to the class. It’s how we model for the students. I talk about my Blackness. I talk about, I think like we tell stories, too, about our families as well, or our families are very integral to, like, our teaching selves. And so as a single mom of a biracial daughter, right, like I’m bringing that into class. Sam is bringing, you know, his family and his stories and those dynamics into class as well. And then the dynamic that we have in terms of playing off one another, I think works as well. I think what we attempt to do is really say anything and everything to one another. So students know that they can do the same, right. Like we will push. Sam and I won’t always agree. We’ll, we’ll push back with one another so that students know that it’s safe to do the same thing. We bring ourselves into the classes, we run our experiences, so that hopefully again, students feel and see that they can do the same as well.

I think that what also really works for this class is the intentionality that Sam and I have had and continue to have, to say that we want to work together, that we weren’t two teachers who were put together and told you have to do this. Hey, we both had interests and like minds in terms of this particular field. And we had both done some teaching on our own doing it, and coming together was very much organic and intrinsic and something that we both want to do and want to continue to do. So I think that helps. Every co-teaching pair isn’t magical. And sometimes we don’t have magical days either, but there’s like a desire to be there and engage students in this material.

Sam N: [00:33:55] Yeah. But I think that we sort of fell into it in some ways, right. I had heard legendary stories about Jillian before I’d ever met her, you know, and so I was probably just looking for somebody who I could teach with that would, you know, I can learn a few tricks from, because I was already hearing about, you know, kids were talking about it and she was getting Black and Brown kids up moving around doing reenacting Shakespeare. Colleagues were talking about it, too. And so, you know, I think that part of it was just being attracted to somebody who was innovative and interesting and exciting and could draw in kids. And for me, it was also, as she mentioned earlier, a lot of my students were White kids because of the courses that I taught. And at the time, when we first started out, we both started around the year 2000, 2001, and back then the White student population was the majority population. But you could see the by 2005, the handwriting was on the wall that that was changing fast and it was going to continue to change. And, you know, even from my beginning there, I was always uncomfortable being in an environment where, you know, there was a huge minority, if you put the Latiné population with the Black population, it was bigger than the White population. Anyway, long story short, I was uncomfortable kind of being in these classes that we’re drawing in primarily White students. So that may have been a little intentionality, although I don’t remember thinking about it in those terms.

Amy H-L: [00:35:23] So, what does Ossining do as a district to increase equity and implement culturally responsive education?

Jillian M: [00:35:31] I want to say from the start, Ossining has been very supportive of us. You mentioned earlier, I was like writing notes because there was a question in, in terms of like the impact, right, the impact for our students, but also impact for our colleagues. And I just, I want to also very much like admit and be transparent that this is work, right, and sometimes what we’re doing, it seems futile. I’ve had moments in class, I leave class, I’m in tears. I’m like, “Oh, they’re not getting it.” Like, this is really difficult. Like they’re not understanding, right. Like I’m talking about students, how can they not see it? And then we’ve also, Sam and I have had the privilege of doing workshops with our colleagues, right. And in this same vein to talk about the shifts that are happening in Ossining, to talk about how we need to reevaluate our curriculum or our methodology of teaching our curriculum, you know, and making sure that we’re centering our students, et cetera, and so forth.

But I think it’s very difficult to teach teachers. There’s like a cliche, teachers are the worst students. And I think, especially high school teachers, it’s hard. They’ve been doing things a particular way for a very long time. So just know that we have had pushback. We’ve had pushback from parents, right. We’ve had pushback from community members who were just like, what are you all doing in that classroom, right. Why is my child coming home and ruining Thanksgiving for everyone? Like, what is this? What is this that you’re sprouting in your class? So I want to say a, like, not an easy road to toe, but we are still committed to it. And I have found in my 19 years, Sam has been here 20, that Ossining school district has been supportive. I think that Ossining has done a lot in the realm of attempting to be culturally responsive and sustaining, right. Ossining is great. Teaching this class in Ossining is great.

 You can go back in time and look at when Ossining, our mascot was the Indian and we were one of the first schools to let that go, much to the chagrin of the larger community. Community members who were still wearing Ossining Indians shirts, right, like still trying to kind of bring that in, right. Why did we change, and these other schools haven’t changed? So Ossining was at the forefront of that. Ossining was on the forefront for the Princeton Plan for desegregating schools, by getting all kids on all buses and moving around, right, to these different schools. So that even though the community is segregated in terms of where people live, they attempted to desegregate the school. So Ossining has been on the forefront of doing a lot of that. And I think it’s the beauty of Ossining, but then there’s also the curse that there are these layers of incidents, you know, race riots that happened in Ossining in the seventies. So Ossining has been there and they’ve called outsiders in and consultants and like, let’s do reports, let’s talk to the kids and let’s find out like what we need to do. And we need to diversify our texts and our exemplars, et cetera, and so forth. And there’s like this legacy, and I don’t know if it’s Ossining. I don’t know if it’s education, it gets like real cyclical, you know, you’re kind of like, wait, we did this already. Yeah. We did this diversity report in 1990 and now it’s 20 21. Like we’re still talking about this. So, you know, I recognize in doing this work, right, change is incremental. But I think that sometimes we get caught in a cycle of talking, of bringing in consultants, of let’s try something else. And we haven’t finished trying what we said we would try for the first three years. And so that’s part of working within an institution and working within a system.

 So definitely not perfect, but let me also give a shout out as well. It’s on the background, January 6 happened, right, this insurgency at the Capitol. And I have teacher friends who work in a lot of different spaces and some of my teacher friends received emails that were like, you cannot talk about what happened essentially, right, like in January 6th, or if you talk about it, remember to stay as unbiased as possible, right, you have to remain as objective as possible. And I was very proud on January 7th when we received like a list of resources in terms of how to talk about January 6th with your students, right. We weren’t going to keep it hush hush. We have the freedom, Sam and I have had the freedom to create and adjust and readjust our syllabus. As long as it meets SUNY Albany’s vision, we can kind of go in and we are allowed to do so. Right there is that element of trust, which I think is necessary with your teaching staff, to like, make those decisions and do what you need to do to get your students thinking.

Jon M: [00:40:23] Thank you so much, Jillian McRae, Sam North, and Alaysha of Ossining High School. 

Sam N: [00:40:29] Thank you. 

Amy H-L: [00:40:30] And thank you, listeners. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or review. This helps others to find the show. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles, and to subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use and workshops or classes. We work with consultants to offer customized SEL programs, with a focus on ethics, for schools and youth programs in the New York City and San Francisco areas. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week. 

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