Having worked in schools my entire career, I always look forward to one particular event that seems to be common practice in the elementary and middle grades: the biography project. I distinctly remember my own when I was a child. I was in the 7th grade and researched a military dictator in an African country (I can’t even bear to write this leader’s name). Here’s the thing: I remember almost every single line of my 2 minute speech. I can actually recite this to you 31 years later.
But, here’s my question: Why the f*ck did I research this person? He is horrible. Atrocious. Did terrible things to his people. But, guess what - my report had nothing to do with that.
As an adult, looking back upon that report, I had absolutely no context for who this dictator was. I had no idea what words like “kleptocracy” or “nepotism” meant. And, certainly, there wasn’t a single adult who took the time to really digest with me all of the ways in which this leader engaged in violence and murder. No, all I remember was that “he was a leader” of “this particularly country” and that I had to do a 2-minute report.
Now, as an adult, I can’t imagine assigning this dictator without diving into lots of contexts with students. As a teacher today, I would have talked in great detail about violence, crimes, and the dangers of leaders. I would never be so neutral. I would have made it clear that even a single person with power can do terrible things. And, I would encourage my students to also know that a single person with power can also do great things.
Though my own biography project was a failed experiment, today, I love being an audience member, sitting in the too-tiny chairs of a 2nd grade classroom with half my rear-end hanging off of the edge of the chair, and bearing witness to the joy and the nerves of young people with their props, their fake mustaches, and their index cards in hand.
As I worked closely with elementary school teachers who wanted to lean further into diversity, equity, and inclusion, we knew the Biography Project was a great place to start. For some teachers, they started by adding more people of color into the current list of choices. My friend Caren (*pseudonym) took it a step further: “This time around, for the Biography Project, I didn’t offer any historical figures who were White. No. They learn about White people all the time. Everywhere. In every single class. For this one project, this one moment in their learning, they were going to learn about a person of color.” Caren was terrified of the pushback she’d get from parents and families. Together, we played through scenarios of white fragility, white anger, and even prepared for some white rage. We prepared her comments ranging from “Um, Ms. Caron? Yeah, why can’t my child research George Washington or Helen Keller?” to “Wait, so you are going to push your liberal agenda on my 2nd grader??” We role played it all.
A few times, Caron almost backed out. “I know it’s important, Liza, but I just don’t think I’m strong enough to stand up to parents who don’t think this is important.”
The big day came for Caron to send out the biography project directions. She waited. And waited. And waited. Not a single parent pushed back (at least not publicly). The next day rolled around and her students began choosing their person to research.
That was the greatest Biography Project Day ever. That day, I got to hear presentations of about 14 people of color. Then, I went to the next classroom and heard 14 more — some of the same, but some new ones.
While I have been watching other people’s children do their biography projects over the years, I was so excited when it was my turn. My child was finally getting to do the Biography Project! Oh, you know I was excited!
I eagerly waited for my child to get off of the bus and asked him, “Okay! So, who did you choose? Who are you going to research?”
He replied, “Well. I’m kind of sad about this, Mom.”
I thought, “Maybe someone picked the person he wanted and he had to choose someone different.”
“Son, why are you sad?”
He replied, “Well, my teacher said that we should pick from the Who Is? series. And, well, I just didn’t see any about Filipinos. I really want to research someone who looks like me or who comes from my heritage.” (note: My children are also Puerto Rican, and there are only two books about Puerto Ricans — Roberto Clemente and Justice Sonia Sotomayor). To date, there are 163 books in the Who Is? series.
But, here’s where the teacher mis-stepped without even realizing it: “You should use the Who Is? series because if they are important, then they are probably in that series.” That, my friends, is what stuck with my child. That statement, which seems probably so innocent, is what he remembered about that day.
I mean, she wasn’t wrong. It’s just that she also wasn’t right.
So, my Puerto Rican/Filipino son came home with the disappointing belief that “If there isn’t a Who Is? book, then they must not be important.” He said to me, “So, Mom, does that mean that Filipinos and Puerto Ricans … does it mean that we aren’t important?”
I’m dying inside.
We had a conversation about publishers and the types of decisions that get made in board rooms. We had a conversation about ignorance and limited viewpoints. We had a conversation about how expensive it was to make books and that sometimes they pick the most popular people. We had a conversation about how to have agency and to find out our own information.
So we did just that.
My son and I came home and immediately Google’d “Filipino Activists” and learned about Larry Itliong, an activist for farmworker’s rights who worked in solidarity with Cesar Chavez (a name that more people know). Thankfully, there is a big movement in the West Coast to amplify the work of Filipinos and their role in activism. I’m forever grateful for Dr. Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, Gayle Romasanta, and Andre Sibayan for their book Journey to Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong.
Together, my son and I did indeed journey to justice. We learned about the ways in which Filipinos organized and fought for their rights and the rights of others. We talked about risk, courage, and challenges. We talked about standing up for what you believe in, even if it means risking your job. We even hopped onto YouTube to look for clips of Larry Itliong so that he really understood that Larry Itliong was a real person, and not just a character in a story.
“Mom, I feel really proud to be Filipino like Larry Itliong. I feel like being Filipino and being an activist is also who I am.”
I’m alive inside.
Windows and mirrors, y’all. Windows and mirrors. What opportunities exist for our students to see the world through another person’s lens? What opportunities exist for our students to see themselves represented?
So, what can we do as classroom teachers, educators and parents?
Think beyond what is available. It is true, as educators we are often limited by what is published. And, given our grade levels, we are often even more constrained by age appropriate content and reading level.
Find opportunities to expand the cannon. Do you work in a PreK-8 or PreK-12 school? What opportunities are available for partnering with students in upper grades who could assist in creating age-appropriate content? Align these projects with their Humanities or History classes and work collaboratively across grades to increase the number of biographies available to young students.
Create your “wish list” of books for your classroom and tap into your Parent Council or your local identity-based organizations. Start with good lists like We Need Diverse Books, or (given that it’s API Month) check out this list of YA books by Asian American authors. Connect with identity based organizations like local chapters of fraternities and/or sororities, professional organizations, and educational organizations who are often looking for service opportunities for their members.
Read, read, read, and read. Every summer I make my list of 12 books to read. I try to do a book a week during the summer months. Most summers, I focus intentionally on identity backgrounds or experiences. One summer, I only read books by Black authors. Another summer, only books with Asian and Asian American authors. One summer, it was more broadly "authors of color”. I can only connect my students to racially diverse content if I, myself, am versed in this content as well.
Think about the people you know, and then find their contemporary in another cultural background. So, we grew up knowing about Helen Keller, right? As a family deeply connected to a community who has benefitted from her life and work, I love Helen Keller. AND, Go look up disabilities rights advocates of color. Here is a great resource for you: https://fakequity.com/2018/03/08/disability-rights-so-white-disability-and-racial-justice/
Don’t box in choices. Yes, the Who Is? series is great. It’s easy. It’s age appropriate. It works really well for our young people. And, there are other resources. Maybe some students want to put the work in and find other books. Maybe some students want to go to their local library and look up other influential people. Give them choices.
Use social networks for advice, information, or suggestions. There are lots of great message boards, Facebook groups, or places to post (hello, Twitter!) for suggestions. If you are focusing on windows and mirrors for your students, ask the network for suggestions. Crowdsource!
The Biography Project can be a fun, interactive learning experience for our young people. But, what happens when we only provide opportunities to learn about white people and limit their opportunities to learn about people from racially diverse backgrounds?
What happens when we shift from who is to I am?
Peace and love,
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Aeriale Johnson (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle).