Windows, Mirrors, and Wild Tongues
by Alicia Johnson
As a teen, Ms. Preciado felt like an outsider looking into the windows of her peers and the authors she read until she stumbled across a welcomed discovery in her new school’s library. These windows became worlds she would challenge as a student and eventually, as a teacher, activist, and parent. In this spotlight, she takes a deep dive into the topics of identity and social justice while reflecting on the authors that have and continue to shape the community and students she serves.
What role did reading and books play in your teenage years?
Reading and books played an important role because when I was a teenager, I went to Santa Monica High School instead of my home school, which was Dorsey because I figured I would be able to access better education. When I got there, I had trouble making friends. Sometimes I was the only Latina in the honors classes because I scored well on standardized tests and I had good grades, but people didn’t want to associate with me, so I’d go to the library.
They had a beautiful library. I’d just walk up and down the aisles looking through books, and then I started to really enjoy reading because I had the opportunity to choose books that I enjoyed. Also, I was taking like two to three buses to and from school, so I had a lot of time to do my homework and also just to read.
I learned to enjoy reading, and that was a way I dealt with the long commute and kind of being ostracized by my classmates.
What were your favorite books as a teenager?
[In the library] I saw that there were authors with Latino last names, which for me was a big deal because I don’t think I had ever read a text by a Latino author. This was ninth grade. I remember I started just looking at the last names...So I read a Gary Soto book, and I saw there were a bunch of different Gary Soto books, so then that was kind of the first author that I related to.
What are some of your favorite books now?
I have a core of books that I think really built me up as a person. One is [Frantz] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth because I used to be an activist organizer, and I thought I was going to start a revolution. I really learned from the struggles of African people. [I learned] the different phases of revolution and psychologically what would we have to do to change to be prepared to create a different world. [I learned] all the conflicts that arise when people have different interests.
The second one is the Assata Shakur autobiography because...I realized I had a lot in common with African people or African American people because that’s the neighborhood where I grew up. I think Assata Shakur spoke to the reality that I lived in. But, she had very concrete ways that she and the Black Panthers had fought to create solutions for problems that I was experiencing...She’s like one of my biggest role models.
She listed a bunch of books that she read as part of her development, and I went on and read those books and other Black Panther books. It opened up a door to all these people that had fixed communities at some point in time just like mine.
The third one would be [Gloria E.] Anzaldúa, Borderlands...I think that helped me develop my Chicana identity because I was always Mexican from South Central. That was my identity, but then I think reading her made me understand that I was a Chicana. That encapsulated a lot of my experience. Just not being Mexican and not being American but being this whole other type of person, like a Chicana, the historical implications, and the actions I was going to take because of my experiences that were based on my identity and history. That really helped me understand. It was very empowering for me to hear somebody write about “wild tongues cannot be tamed.”
Because that was something I had developed, a very wild tongue.
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that’s my fourth. I read that in college...I was teaching English and Know Your Rights to immigrants from everywhere like Fiji Islands, El Salvador, Guatemala and Know Your Rights to people from my neighborhood in South LA and other Chicanos. That book really taught me about my role in the movement and the role of education when it comes to liberation, and how education should be liberatory. If it’s not, then, that’s not the type of education that I want to be a part of.
It taught me about how to treat other people. [It taught me] how to see myself as a teacher but also as a student at the same time, and how to see my students as my teachers. I think that was very key for me to learn from the get go...Yes, I’d been in official schools for longer, but that didn’t make me superior to them. I always needed to put myself in place of a teacher, and that’s something I take to heart even now. How can I continue learning from my students as opposed to ‘I have so much to offer.’
Teachers are not saviors. My goal is never to save people because people have that belief. ‘I’m from a privileged background. I’ve had such a great education. I’m going to save these black and brown kids from Inglewood, or from South LA, or from wherever.’ My role is very clear. I don’t have anything to save. The only way we’re going to save each other is if we just work collectively. I think that really changed the type of teacher that I became, or just the way I interacted with people that had been to jail instead of college during their teenage years.
As a teacher, what does having access to culturally relevant literature mean to you?
It means everything to me because without culturally relevant literature, kids don’t read for the most part. If it’s irrelevant to them, they won’t read. I think I was lucky enough to go to schools that had libraries, and I was able to find books that were culturally relevant to me. Even when I did end up at Dorsey [High School], Dorsey has a beautiful library as well. I was able to continue reading.
We’re producing kids that are high performing on state tests but hate to read and don’t read on their own. What type of humans are we creating, producing, teaching, if our kids do not read? That says a lot to me personally. I don’t know who came up with this, but looking at literature as windows and mirrors. Books as windows where you’re kind of an outsider looking into someone else’s world and books as mirrors. When I heard that just recently, I felt like my whole life I was looking through a window into all these other worlds, all these other lives, all these other people, and I always felt like an outsider. Always. I felt like I didn’t belong.
Of course I didn’t belong in Santa Monica High School. The texts showed me I didn’t belong, movies I watched showed me I didn’t belong, so it kept me as a second class citizen. Just observing the world and not being able to participate or be valued. Once I started finding my own books, those were mirrors to me... I related not just ethnically or racially but in terms of class and in terms of income.
We need kids to be able to see that their lives are valuable. I think the message I got was that I wasn’t important. I didn’t have any heroes, I didn’t have anything important [and] worth documenting in a book. I think culturally relevant literature validates our existence. The fact that we do have historical events that matter beyond what we’re taught in history class. I think it makes us feel like we are valued and we’re important in this world. It’s just so important and so lacking.
How do books and literacy help students challenge the social issues they face?
I’ll speak for myself. I learned by reading that the Black Panthers dealt with the same social issues, but it gave me concrete ways to fix those issues. Sometimes we know something’s wrong, but we don’t know how to fix it. That book gave me ideas, like start a free lunch program. You need to read more books about other people in other parts of the world. You need to be in solidarity as opposed to being individual, which is what we’ve taught. You learn so much from books about how to fix society, and you learned how it failed and learn how it went well…[For example], you learned that the government brought drugs, so I’ve been very anti-drugs but for political, historical reasons. Not just because drugs are bad but because drugs have been used as a tool to break down movements at least here in South LA in my community.
I think books give us answers and give us a path, and we can choose from all the paths that books give us, what type of society we want to create. I know Assata read Karl Marx and Che Guevara, and I read those too. When it comes to police brutality, when it comes to poverty, what do you do? I have concrete answers to those, so I think kids can do the same. Find solutions to problems, and then create their own solutions. At least you have a framework or a foundation to create your own solution.
What impact has the Sergio Ramirez Social Justice Library had on your classroom?
On a small scale, I think as a teacher you always have your ideal library that you would have if you had access to funds. I think that I just sat and wrote a list, and then my dream came true, my nerdy teacher dream.
On another scale, it also honored the life of Sergio Ramirez. Sometimes death brings so much negativity that it was beautiful to see that death brought positivity, resources, knowledge, and empowering texts to kids.
I ordered a lot of Black Panther books...For Black History Month last year, I stopped teaching Spanish, and every kid in class was able to have a Black Panther book that they read, learned, and presented...I think it was really empowering to those kids. Last year I had a very small African American class. They were feeling unincluded and that the school’s curriculum was not invested in them, but I had all these books that they were able to read. It was just beautiful to see that they were into them. They were willing to have discussion, and I let them keep the books because I think that hopefully helps form their identity, and it opens them up to maybe wanting to read other books or each other’s books. There’s been a lot of positive outcomes from the library.
Was there an unexpected benefit of the library?
To me, one of the books that I put on the list was Revolutionary Mothering... I hadn’t read for a while because I was a new mom, and [with] teaching it is just hard to find time to read. I hadn’t found a book that I was really looking forward to reading, so I ordered that book, and that book changed my mom life. I was having trouble figuring out how to still be an activist and a mom. I had a daughter that was months old. That book talked about what revolutionary mothering looks like and what it looks like to go to organizing meetings and spaces with a child now as opposed to just by myself. I hadn’t been able to go to those spaces because I didn’t feel comfortable. I was nervous my daughter was going to cry, I wasn’t going to be paying attention fully, or people weren’t going to respect me because I wasn’t 100 percent present. I read that book and it gave me a lot of stories of different mothers in different spaces, like academia, organizing, and I related a lot to that and it encouraged me to participate.
This was back in 2015 to go to the organizing meetings for rent control. We started to see people were being displaced and rent was going up, so I started going to those meetings with my child who would cry... If it weren’t for that book, I would have left, and I helped with the beginning stages of fighting for rent control, which now we have on a very limited time scale, but I’m grateful to the library...I was able to contribute to Inglewood and halt the displacement of people because I read that book.
It’s been years, but now, we’ve barely won rent control...I’m just thankful that I was able to be part of the process, and I know that book played a huge role in my ability to feel comfortable because I was going to City Council meetings with a baby on my hip, and I don’t think I would have done that. City Council meetings you’re supposed to be quiet. I almost got kicked out for clapping, so imagine. That book allowed me to feel comfortable in spaces that I didn’t think were available for children.
What skills revolving around language, identity, and literacy do you hope students leave your class with?
I think one of the main skills that I want them to have is to be critical readers and to be able to read the world. This comes from Paulo Freire. Especially, for example, what’s going on in Venezuela. The media is very much focused on supporting the right-wing candidate that is being backed by the U.S. I need kids to understand...media literacy. They need to understand that this is just part of history and what the U.S. does when it comes to U.S. intervention and backing presidents that economically will benefit the U.S. I want kids to understand the world around them in a historical context, in an economic context. That’s what I would want kids to leave my class with.
Is there a legacy you hope to leave with your students?
I think my legacy is: Ms. Preciado really cared about us knowing what’s going on in the world and really believed that we had the power to improve the world through reading, through speaking your mind, through valuing your personal experiences in Inglewood or as a child of immigrants. Valuing who you are and using those as tools and legitimate reasons to make the world more catered to you.
We’d like to introduce you to Ms. Tirado. A literacy teacher in the San Diego area. Recently we touched base with Ms. T to ask her a little bit about herself, how her love of reading guided her to a career in education, and how that’s being passed on to her students!
Why did you want to become a literacy teacher?
I love to read and when I was younger my parents would not let us what a lot of TV so I would read! I remember going to the library getting to pick up a new book what the highlight of my week. I had a difficult childhood and reading helped me forget about all my problems! Reading just takes you so many places and you learn so much. That is why I wanted to become a Literacy Teacher!
How did you get connected with THE MJ PROJECT?
When I walked into a teacher’s classroom at the Hanford L4L School I saw a wooden bookshelf with an MJ PROJECT logo on it, and it had all these interesting books! I had to ask what the MJ PROJECT was, and I found out it was a foundation that donates books and bookshelves to students! I was so excited and started ordering books for the literacy class that I was and am currently still teaching. Every time we get a new book in for our library it’s like Christmas! I am so grateful!
How has your classroom library impacted your students?
The students are so excited to read and they start talking to other students about the books they have read and then other students want to read those books! It’s so awesome to see so much collaboration, reading, and learning! I feel like books bring people together. Especially shy students who do not have many friends, they start talking about reading books and they become friends!
I cannot thank the MJ Project enough all the books they have donated! I feel like the [classroom library] is more than a book it’s a connection tool, a magic key that can unlock so many doors!
His email signature concludes with the following quote:
Every child deserves a champion; an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists that they become the best they can possibly be.
-Rita F. Pierson
When we reached out to Mr. S and asked him a few questions about teaching and books, his answers confirmed why THE MJ PROJECT believes Mr. S, a.k.a. Smitty, is indeed a champion for his students.
Tell us a little about yourself and your students.
I teach in an Intervention Resource Classroom in California. I am married (to a teacher) and have 3 sons. I love teaching, coaching and learning as many new things as possible. The students in my class come to us for support in Social Emotional Learning. My co-teacher and I, help our students learn the skills necessary to be successful in school and in life. We also provide academic support in our students' core curriculum classes.
How did you become interested in teaching?
I became interested in teaching after years of coaching and working as a youth pastor. I realized that if I wanted to fulfill my life mission of impacting young people positively I would have to go where the young people are and not wait for them to come to church or join a team. I took a position as a truancy officer in order to get my foot in the door at a charter school. From there I moved into a position at my current school district working as a Mentor through our districts Safe Student Intervention Program. This program was directed at working with gang impacted and affiliated students. We focused on raising grades and attendance while decreasing incidents of negative behavior. Also, we worked in times of crisis in order to ease tensions between rival gangs across our district’s campuses.
What inspired you to work with special education students?
Initially when I started working in education I did not want to be a special education teacher. I actually was interested in becoming an English or History teacher. I became drawn to Special Education due to my work with at-risk and gang affiliated/impacted students. I realized that many of these students qualified for services and that they needed someone who understood them to advocate for them in the world of education. It can be very difficult to navigate high school if you have never been taught the skills or if no one around you has the skills to do so.
Many of the students I worked with in the Safe Student program were also in our special education program, so I approached our district Director of Special Education about eventually becoming a SPED Teacher. He asked me to apply for a position in a new program being started called an Intervention Resource Classroom. I was hired as one of the two teachers working in the classroom , and I love what I do. We teach students Social Emotional Skills and help students navigate the high school experience. I get to work with the student who, for the most part, have been given up on by their previous schools/teachers. That is why I became a teacher, to be a voice for the students who typically have no voice.
Your students just received a special classroom library with leveled books for readers of varying abilities.
How do you anticipate these books will impact your students?
This MJ PROJECT classroom library is going to help our students in so many ways. It is very difficult to find high interest books at the reading level that some of our students are at. Having these books will help us get students to read more and be able to complete some of their English assignments, as well as instill a love for reading.
What book inspired you to keep reading?
The one book that I remember reading as a young person that inspired me to keep reading is “Monster” by Walter Dean Myers. This book is an amazing story and helped me realize that books aren’t all “boring”.
What are you reading now?
Currently I am reading two different books. I am reading “3D Coach: Capturing the Heart Behind the Jersey” by Jeff Duke and “Field and Stream Outdoor Survival Guide: Survival Skills You Need” by T. Edward Nickens. The first I am reading because I love coaching youth sports and want to be the best coach I can be for my kids. The second I am reading because I enjoy the outdoors and one day would like to do a survival class and test my skills.
Do you have a favorite reading spot?
My favorite reading spot is on my couch in our “2nd living room”. We created this spot specifically for reading, and it is super comfortable.
The MJ PROJECT Blog is written by students, teachers, and MJ Project team members seeking to keep our supportive community in the know with regards to our most recent projects, grants, and programs.