The Personal is Political… and Educative

“What if people told their stories, and memories became sacred texts?”


I wrote those words in response to my reading of This Bridge Called My Back, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa.  As I read the different pieces in this anthology, the theme of storytelling as a political and educative tool emerged.  It was the first time that I grappled with the possibility that my life, my experiences, could become texts from which I could create teachable moments.  The academic world, which extends to early childhood education, is obsessed with rigor and standards.  If the goal of education is to prepare students to navigate the complexity of the world in which we live, should not our stories become part of the cannon we teach?

Let me tell you a story…

One afternoon, my students were enjoying a few minutes of quiet time in order to reflect and decompress.  I needed to step out for a moment so I asked another teacher to stay with the students while I was away.  She was new to the school, and so I asked her if she would introduce herself.  What is important to know in this story is that this teacher identifies as Asian American.  She also teaches Mandarin in the lower school, but not to my students.  As she introduced herself, one of my students said, “Wow, you sound American.”

Words are powerful, and they can hang in the air, sucking the oxygen out of the space.  The teacher was stunned, and I quickly said, “Ouch.”  “Ouch” is the word that we use in our classroom when someone’s words or actions make an impact.  The ouch may not be immediately defined, but it lets the class know that we must stop to address an important matter.  I followed the ouch by saying that I needed a few moments to gather my thoughts, and that we would address what I was feeling in a few minutes.

I took the final few moments of quiet time to gather some information regarding the concept of microaggressions.  For those unfamiliar with the term, microaggressions are often described as small paper cuts that represent all of the times that someone says or does something that further marginalize you because of your identity.  For example, when a person of color is asked where they are really from (because New York cannot possibly be correct), the question reinforces the notion that an American identity is exclusively white.  In the case of my student, his statement reflected his understanding of this teacher’s Asian American identity as perpetually foreign.  She could not be from here because her Asian identity contradicts his understanding of what it means to be American.

I invited the students to the meeting area.  I introduced the students to the concept of microaggressions, sharing the definition and some examples.  Then, I shared stories regarding moments during which I experienced these “paper cuts.”  Some of the students made connection signs with their hands as I shared my stories, and then began to share their own stories of marginalization.  As we shared our stories, my students began to reflect on the moment in the classroom, and on other moments in their lives.  They made connections, and they developed a deeper understanding of the world.  .

Now, I am not one to rely on Wikepedia as a source of information, but when I looked up the word education, here is what came up:

Education in its general sense is a form of learning in which the knowledge, skills, values, beliefs and habits of a group of people are transferred from one generation to the next through storytelling, discussion, teaching, training, and or research.

Even Wikepedia identifies storytelling as the first tool of education.

The most revolutionary act one can perform is the telling of our stories.  When we do, we define ourselves, our experiences, and in doing so, create and recreate the world.  Mitsuye Yamada, in This Bridge Called My Back, stated, “What is personal to me is political.” I would add that the personal is not only political, it is also educative.