Pralines and Social Justice

Several colleagues from work recently visited New Orleans for training. And that got me thinking about Louisiana.

I come by my occasional use of “Y’all” honestly. It’s a part of my family history. Last summer we traced that history back to Louisiana, from New Orleans up the Mississippi River, to where my great grandmother spent her childhood. She was born in a flood year in a little house next to the river. A few years after her birth, that little house washed off the blocks into the river and the family was forced to move.

Their new home was on a plantation where they had servants, and, in the early 1900’s, my great grandma grew up with views about separation between white and black people. She told my dad she believed in “separate but equal”—and she truly meant equal. My dad did his best to convince her that separate never was and never would be equal.

Great Grandma’s father died when she was still young. The family eventually lost the plantation and relocated again.

I don’t remember my great grandmother, but I was close to her husband, my great grandfather. I adored him. My father adored him. I knew that Great Grandpa occasionally used racial slang my parents found unacceptable, and which we were never to use. I never heard my grandfather speak in a way that meant harm. His language came from his culture. I believe that if he lived now, he would have learned how to leave that language behind. He had a generous heart, and he loved people.

I believe that my great grandmother, who taught migrant children in a classroom near the border of Texas and Mexico, would now open up her classroom, and her heart, to any student of any color, background, or ability level.

People can change, and that’s the best I can hope for anyone.

People have a better chance of change when we can have open, productive dialogue about what is and has been hurtful and what can bring about healing.

Earlier this year, I had someone I respect tell me that the only problem with race is that we keep talking about it, and if we want to solve problems with race, we need to stop talking about it and just be color blind.

I disagree.

There was a time in my life when I naively believed that racial strife in America was a thing of the past. I have always been blessed to live around family members and friends from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. I had college roommates from all over the world. I’m fortunate to have been accepted by friends from a variety of nationalities.

I remember a night in college when I sat down with roommates from Japan, and we exchanged stories about our grandfathers who served on opposite sides during World War II. My roommates had heard their grandfathers talk about the devastation caused by the bomb. We had an open, honest conversation, and our respect for each other grew.

Perhaps I thought that open, positive conversations were the norm. You don’t know what you don’t know.

I didn’t know until our family became a multi-ethnic family through the miracle and gift of adoption. And then I knew. Then we faced unexpected micro-aggressions connected to race.

The truth is that I still don’t know what I still don’t know. I can’t imagine what struggles some people face solely because of the color of their skin, their neighborhood, or a perceived disability. The only way I can learn is through open dialogue. I am so thankful when others are willing to be vulnerable enough to share their stories with me. I do the best I can to listen and to ask how I can support.

Acknowledging injustices and atrocities of the past does not require me to accept the burden of guilt. Rather, it invites me to seek change to end injustice and inequality now. It gives me the opportunity to be more fully aware of the needs of fellow travelers on Earth.

During my teacher training I had a class on social justice in education. We were required to memorize the professor’s definition of social justice so that we could write it on our end-of-semester test. Here’s his definition:

“Social Justice is the ability to pedagogically execute fair and equitable classroom practices that result in opportunity, access, and democratic, participatory learning.”

Yeah. The vocabulary is intense.

Here’s what it means to me. Social justice means inclusion. It means giving equitable opportunities to every student, regardless of their language, culture, background, abilities, or disabilities. It goes beyond that too. It means expressing interest when a student shares something about their culture that is different from mine. Maybe that means asking them to tell me more about their holiday and how they celebrate. Maybe that means asking what makes them comfortable or uncomfortable. Maybe that means allowing myself to be vulnerable. Doing so lets me help every student feel safe, respected, and honored in my classroom. That’s my definition of social justice.

A little over a year ago I was walking around a souvenir shop in Natchez, Mississippi, when a man at the counter asked with the slowest Southern drawl I had ever heard, “Do y’all wanna buy some praw-leans?” His voice had almost a magical quality, as if to say, “There’s nowhere to go—not a care in the world. Time will stop for you in this moment.” I remembered my mom telling me that pralines were my grandma’s favorite treat, and I couldn’t resist.

I love authentic representations of culture, and sometimes I have a need to re-create the authenticity I have found in other cultures by cooking their food. Making food helps me feel connected to people.

I made “praw-leans” this Saturday afternoon as I thought about Louisiana, my family history, and social justice. I thought about social justice as I stirred and stirred and watched the candy thermometer rise. I thought about authenticity and inclusion and the sweetness of the result.

And all of that fused into the finished product.

There are invitations all around us—voices beckoning us to slow down, to stop and see people for who they really are; to put ourselves in their shoes, to break down barriers and to lift those who are tired of the battle. We have both the power and the opportunity to change time in this moment.

Do y’all wanna try some praw-leans?


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In Translation: I’ve Never Been So Proud of Any Class

Friday I had the kind of teaching experience that makes pre-service teachers want to teach and keeps in-service teachers in teaching.

On Tuesday I learned I was getting a new student–a refugee student who speaks no English. I immediately felt my own inadequacy as a teacher, but I tried to brush that aside with ideas for how I could include this student in my classroom and help him participate in our lessons.

If I’m honest, Wednesday wasn’t stellar. I see my students every other day and decided I could make Friday better. I planned to incorporate a Power Point with pictures into the lesson plan, and then I used the translator feature in Microsoft to translate the text from my Power Point into the student’s native language. I know that electronic translators have flaws, but I figured this was the best hope I had of communicating with my new student, who, by the way, is pleasant, alert, bright, and trying his best to make sense of his new world.

On Friday, I put up the Power Point with an explanation in English and the student’s language explaining to the class why I was using this additional teaching method. I told the class I wanted the whole class included in our conversations. I explained that the translation I was using was not perfect and might at times be confusing for our new friend, but it was the best we had, and we needed to try it.

My classes are currently mid-way through a project-based-learning unit I call “The Big Event.” They start by researching a variety of medical conditions that affect diet. We learn about MyPlate as well as safe food handling and kitchen safety procedures. The students make a healthy snack in the lab, and then I introduce the problem: We’re planning a large family party for a group of fictional family members, several of whom have specific medical conditions. The students must plan a menu that meets the needs of those family members as well as other criteria. On the last day of the unit, they get to cook some of the items from their chosen menu.

On Friday, the goal was for each team to make a list of healthy foods their fictional family member can and should eat, as well as a list of foods that person should avoid.

I told the class with the new student that even though I typically expected nothing more than a presentation of a list from each team, for this class, I was hoping they would also include pictures, which might help our new student feel connected to the content.

That’s when the magic happened. As teams started to research and build their lists, they began to pull me aside with questions like this: “Mrs. Coray, can we use the translator feature and make Power Points with pictures and translations of what we are talking about?” The whole class was a buzz of excitement. I was showing some teams how to use the translator feature in Microsoft, and other students were showing me how to make it better, and there was this whole-class, synergistic, collaborative effort that brought me almost to tears! Each team seemed eager to include their new friend in the conversation.

Our new student’s own team went even further. They pulled out their computers, pulled up translator apps, and began passing their computers back and forth as a way to communicate. One girl on the team with artistic talent drew elaborate pictures as they made their list in regard to their fictional family member, Uncle Jake, who was recently diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. As the team made their list, their art specialist drew a page depicting soda, candy, and baked goods, and another page with fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and foods made from whole grains.

I got an even bigger surprise when that team asked me if they could use the translator app to allow their new friend to speak when their team presented their list to the class. They would have him read his part in his native language with another student standing by as interpreter to read that same part in English. It was fantastic!

The team presentations were amazing, and more than I could ever have hoped for!

Just before the bell rang, one student on the new student’s team asked if he could also use the translator app next time we’re in the foods lab as a way to help his new friend participate with cooking.

Junior high students are often careless with their belongings, and I find all kinds of things left after class in my classroom. They never take papers with them if the papers do not affect their grade. I noticed as the bell rang how those beautiful drawings were left behind on the table. I also noticed how my new student carefully scooped up those drawings and tucked them in with his things.

It made me happy!