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On the Podcast: Reflecting on Diversity in High School and in College with Heinemann Fellow Julie Kwon Jee

JulieJee_and_StudentsToday on the podcast we’re handing things over to Heinemann Fellow Julie Kwon Jee. Julie is in the final year of her fellowship, and currently teaches high school literature, writing composition, and AP English literature in LaGrangeville, New York. She is dedicated to creating safe classroom environments where students flourish and become lifelong readers and writers.

Read More from the Heinemann Fellows

In today’s episode, Julie is joined by some of her former students who have since entered college. They reflect on how diversity showed up during their time in high school, and contrast that with their experiences in college.

Julie: Hi, this is Julie Kwon Jee. I'm a Heinemann Fellow for the 2018 and 2020 cohort, and I teach 10th and 12th grade ELA, English Language Arts. I decided to use my time with my action and research project to look at the question, "In what ways does a continuous exploration of identity, via literature and personal reflection, increase engagement and encourage students to become active participants in choosing the books they read, both inside and outside their classrooms?" We looked at books through our independent reading units, through book clubs, we worked on increasing the number of diverse texts in our summer reading lists, and we're currently increasing the number of diverse texts in our curriculum for the 12th grade advanced placement literature class.

I had an opportunity recently to have my former seniors visit my current seniors and share about life after high school. So I asked my students to help me with this podcast, and talk a little bit about three things: Their own experience going from Arlington High School and entering college, their exposure or lack of exposure to diverse perspectives in the curriculum in high school, and in college, and their thoughts about the need for exposure to diverse perspectives for young people.

For this first part of the podcast, I spoke to several students. I'm going to introduce them to you. Mars D. is a freshman at the University of Tampa. Mars identifies as non-binary, and as a mixed-race Filipino. Victoria D. is a freshman at Western Connecticut University. She is in her BFA program for Musical Theater. She identifies as a white, straight, Catholic female. Emily K. is currently a junior at Ithaca College. She is a Documentary Studies and Production major with minors in Women's and Gender studies, Sociology and Graphic Design. Spencer K. is currently a freshman at Princeton University, and he is a Molecular Biology major. Charlie L. is a freshman at the University at Buffalo and he is an Engineering major. And Brianna M. who is currently a freshman at the University of Maine. She is a Psychology major and she identifies as white and female.

Victoria: So, I was in a theater club in high school all four years, and the biggest thing was everybody was trying to be like one another, so it was kind of a cookie cutter idea of who the perfect student looked like. And then transferring into college into a program where there was only 12 kids, everybody was so different and they specifically picked people that were different from one another, that had different identities, came from different backgrounds, had things that made them different and special. So, going from high school where there was one idea of how you were supposed to be, and there was tons of kids, and everybody tried to be kind of the perfect student, going to college, and learning how to be your own person, and the fact that you were chosen because you are who you are and everybody kind of respects your identity, and what makes you special, transferring from Arlington to college.

Spencer: And I know for me, in Arlington High School, I was a member of the lacrosse team, and I think from that experience I was able to see firsthand almost the opposite of diversity, maybe intolerance, is that the word I'm looking for?

Julie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Spencer: Okay, and I think hearing some weird comments about certain groups of people, I think I was able to immediately know what not to look for in college. And making that transition, I think it was almost nonexistent when I went to college. I think that, I don't know if it's something that solely exists in high school, but I think people in college, at least through my experiences, have only been accepting of other people, races, backgrounds, all different walks of life. Everyone just cares if you're a good person, and I found that was definitely the case at some points in Arlington. But I think I was still able to experience people who just weren't able to see who a person was just because of how they looked on the outside.

Charlie: So piggybacking off of what Spencer was saying, I very much agree. I thought that Arlington, a school of about 3,500 students, was a melting pot and there was definitely some intolerance here. And then going to University of Buffalo with 30,000 students, an even more melting pot on a worldwide scale, I found that at the [inaudible 00:05:19] was a lot higher, there were a lot more self expression. And it's interesting how, when the melting pot increases in size, how more accepting people become.

Brianna: I do feel that high school was not the most accepting place for anybody because it was very cliquey and sometimes it just didn't feel welcoming. When I went to college, it was extremely different. No one cares about the clothes you wear or how much money you make, as long as you are who you are and you're trying to build up other people, not only yourself, and you're all kind of working together to make such a great environment because you've lived there and you're with these people all the time, you want to make it the best that you can be. I've met so many wonderful people. One of my friends is from Serbia and I've learned so much. I'm trying to learn Serbian on my downtime. It's just amazing because we have so many people in Arlington, it's so big, but there's just so many more people when you go to college and so many different backgrounds, it's amazing to learn about everybody.

Spencer: And if I can chime in really quickly, I think, I love Charlie's use of the word, melting pot. I think that again, when college did expand in size and there are so many international students, I think that I was able to learn so much. With this big melting pot, I think when everything's so different about everybody, the only commonality is being nice or being human, that kind of... I know that might be a little, "Oh, peace, love and happiness, we're all humans," but I think in a melting pot trying to find the similarities between people, you really have to go back to basics and that literally you see through anything that other people might have prejudices about.

And the whole international student thing, one of my best friends, she's from Ethiopia, she grew up there her whole life, English is her second language, and I think that just doesn't matter. When I first met her I was, "Oh that's so cool," and I just keep forgetting that she just grew up in a completely different country, different continent across the Atlantic, and it just doesn't matter. I think college really retrains your brain to expect diversity, appreciate it and not have any preconceived notions about it just because people can be the same thing as you.

Julie: So, do any of you feel like when you first went to college and you encountered diverse perspectives or different identities, that you had preconceived notions and then it took a little while for you to understand the whole person as opposed to that single story that you knew about that person going back to Chimamanda that teaches a story of just having one perspective? Were you able to kind of widen your perspective of different identities once you entered college because you had this wider experience?

Brianna: I think for me, when I went to college I was able to find more people who are like me and more people who had similar identities to me. Whereas in high school, especially when you are in a small town, in a small school, there are a lot less people who are like you. But going to college, I was able to find a lot more people who were like me, in like an LGBT sense, and then also like a racial sense, a lot more people I could relate to and find solace in our similarities.

Emily: I also think it was really interesting for me coming in, going to Ithaca College, it's predominantly white, it's a private school, predominantly people with money, upper-class higher upper middle class, and a lot of these kids have never been exposed to any diversity. Coming from Arlington, we have a fair amount of diversity, but going to Ithaca, I kind of felt like it was less diverse and also just navigating other people's experiences of, they thought that Ithaca was extremely diverse and their perspectives and how they navigated. That was super, super interesting.

Julie: Before you went to your respective colleges, many of you were exposed to diverse perspectives or not exposed to diverse perspectives. Going back to what Emily said on with her peers at Ithaca, what was your own personal experience in terms of understanding other perspectives while you were in high school? Arlington has some diversity, it's 75% white, but there is diversity here. The staff is 95% white. So in terms of your professors that you have in colleges or the people that you interact with on a daily basis or weekly basis, how do you think you were, in a way, prepared for kind of venturing out of Arlington and to the spaces that you're in right now?

Mars: I believe that Arlington is absolutely above average job of the Global One, Google Two classes because learning about the different religions really gives people enough insight to go into the real world and they meet people [inaudible 00:10:31] they're more relatable, more understanding.

Spencer: I really like Mrs. Jee, how you mentioned the faculty because I feel like that's something that might be overlooked sometimes with diversity. I think people focus on students and they focus on how the racial makeup, like the people learning, but also the people teaching is important because I think people from diverse backgrounds like to see not just white teachers teaching them, because then it might feel like that job opportunity might be inaccessible if you're not white. And I think that's an important lesson and I think I should've mentioned this before. I go to Princeton University and the faculty there, I don't know the percentages, but two of the four courses I'm taking, they are not American and they are not white, my professors. And I think that alone is, that half of my courses are not taught by white teachers. It's something that I just didn't experience in Arlington. I think it's cool to every once in a while hear about a different culture. I love my Spanish teacher. He's Colombian and I feel like I, I love having a diverse perspective.

Emily: Also being a white heterosexual, cisgender woman, I've had a lot of those teachers, those role models. So, I've always found I've learned more effectively or the most effectively from people who are possibly like me and I never have to really think about what more diverse students, how they learn best. And I experienced that in Ithaca. I've had professors who are a part of the LGTBQ community and where people of color and, having those open, honest conversations, I'm a Women's and Gender studies minor, and these things normally happen in those classes. We talk about how people learn best and how people from more diverse backgrounds struggle in high school with teachers who weren't like them. So I think that was something that I was introduced to in college from Arlington because my teachers in Arlington, a lot of them look like me. A lot of them identified similarly as me. And I realized that other students, when I went to college, that was really difficult for them. And I think that was really eye opening for me.

Brianna: For me, Mrs. Jee was my first Asian teacher, my first actually teacher of color. And as an Asian person, that was kind of world changing for me because it didn't feel like the professor would not be able to understand my perspective, because I know that she's gone through a lot of the same experiences that I have and she understands it. And so, I guess it doesn't feel as alienating as having an entirely white set of faculty because it does feel incredibly alienating and like nobody can really understand what you're going through. But having a teacher that does actually makes it an entire world of difference. All of my professors right now at college are white, which is like, it feels like they don't really understand what it could be like to go through that, which they probably don't.

Julie: I find that interesting that you say that. You said I was your first teacher of color or Asian teacher because I had you in my class when you were a senior in high school. So that's 13 years of education and then in the 13th year I was lucky enough to have you in my class. So thank you for sharing. One thing that I would like all of you to maybe think about is, what are your thoughts about the need for exposure to diverse perspectives for young people in high school and beyond? Now that many of you have been out of high school for a number of months were a number of years, looking back, what advice would you give students who are still in high school?

Brianna: It is really important to learn about all these different diverse perspectives and really understand and accept them so that you know how to interact with them when you experience these people in the real world. Once you leave high school and even leave college, these people are all around in the real world and you need to know how interact with them because as the world changes, people change and it can really destroy a person's world if you don't know how to interact with them properly, like trans people or people of color. Jokes and things that you say may seem all right in your circles, but once you leave those circles, you talk to real people. These things can harm them immensely and I feel like introducing these perspectives in the classroom to young people really prepares them to experience these people in real life.

I would say be as open to everybody as possible just because someone is a different color than you or believes in a different God or anything like that that does not make them less human. Everyone is on this earth. Everyone is here to connect with each other, make relationships, make friendships. When you graduate college here and they get a job or something, you're going to come across so many different people from either all over the nation or all over the world and it's very important that you have at least somewhat of an understanding about them or where they come from so it is easier to communicate, and not necessarily be on good terms with them, but just understand each other and to be able to better the friendship or the relationship because I just think that's extremely important.

Victoria: I think it's the overall thing is just to be kind to everyone. The biggest thing in my life is my faith and in high school I felt that people made fun of me or judged me or thought I was crazy. I think being around people who have gone through high school and have matured, being in college, it's so much more accepting. I think that the biggest thing is just to respect the things that are important to others. Even if you are not a person of faith or you don't believe in God, but that's a big part of somebody else's life, it's really important to be kind to that person and to respect the things that are important to them.

Emily: I also think starting the conversation is really important. People get uncomfortable when they talk about people who aren't like them, but the reality is people of minority communities of diverse communities and they want you to ask, they want to talk about it. They would rather you ask then you assume, misinterpret things or misrepresent them or their community. The reality is we're humans and we don't all look the same. We're not all the same. We don't all identify the same and that's okay. We're equal. We're not the same. We don't look the same. But starting the conversation is the first step towards people feeling comfortable to recognize that. We see color. We see that people are different than us and that's not a bad thing and people get uncomfortable. They get defensive. They're like, "I'm not sexist, I'm not racist, I'm not homophobic, I'm not [inaudible 00:17:50] ." And you can not be all those things but you can still recognize that people are different than you.

Spencer: I like what Emily said about starting the conversation. I think English classes hold a really important role in high school, especially to introduce different walks of life. And I know Mrs. Jee's big project that she's been working on has been diversifying her classroom. I remember discussing in her class how every once in a while in Arlington classrooms may seem almost homologous. There's a chance that you will have an all white class of students, which just I don't think happens in real life that often, being in a group like that. And I think the best way to prepare for the real life situations in college, with coworkers and things, is like those books that show perspectives, that start different conversations.

For instance, the book we read, I remember it was, "Everything I Never Told You," is about a Chinese American family and I think that I was really interested in hearing about the different practices. There's just a different way of life. I think that I was able to see those differences and respect them and understand them, but also see the similarities. I think of myself as a very open minded person. But for some that might not be as...

Person, but for some that might not be as open, then having that conversation about what a Chinese-American family lives through, might make them more tolerant to a Chinese-American human that they'll meet. They might be able to maybe understand them more, or not have any prejudices against them. To be able to see like, "Hey, they live a normal life too." If that makes sense?

Julie: I mean, it makes me happy to hear you say that, Spencer, because, "Everything I Never Told You" was actually the first book that I taught that was by a non-white author, and that was last year. And that's not that I'm counting independent reading books, but I talked about this with my classes last year, where books that I'd be teaching were by Socrates, McCarthy, Shakespeare, Ipsen. So, for me it was a shift in that, What is the cannon? What literary cannon? What is accepted in classrooms? And it's good to realize that you can't just have this wall of what is literature blocking students access to diverse perspectives because that's really important in forming who they are as people and their understanding of people around that.

Spencer: And I have to say it was a really good book.

Julie: It is a great book.

Mars: So I was going to say I think the point, the main point we're trying to... I'm walking around here is, people are scared of what they don't understand and exposing people from a young age to different perspectives of people that come from different cultures is good because it leads people to new... each other regardless where they come from or where they're going.

Julie: Any thoughts about the books you've read in high school or books that you're reading right now or anything in terms of literature and the importance of this understanding of different perspectives in the literature?

Emily: I've noticed since I've started diversifying my own library, I've realized I kind of don't want to go back to single monotone perspectives. I've read this point of view a thousand times about, I don't know, one White girl in high school who, I don't know... was just figuring herself out. I think I feel like I've read that book a thousand times and once you kind of break out of that and read something from the point of view of someone else, you kind of realize, there are a lot more interesting stories to tell and a lot more interesting things to learn about, that you can through literature cause you can really learn about anything possible, through it. And so I feel like you should take that opportunity to your advantage and really expand what you know.

I'm not an active reader. I don't enjoy reading. I [crosstalk] sorry... but I have spoken... My roommate is, she loves reading but she loves telling me all these books she reads and she has a list of authors from different countries that she goes on a lot and she'll read a book for each one and then tell me about it. She'll get so excited. She's like, "This father's from India and here... What about this?" And she just loves engaging in different [laugh] she loves engaging in different lives. If nobody.... it can't be physically. But she likes taking in all of the information about all those religions and all this other stuff and it makes me want to read [laugh] about it all because if I can have a first... Exactly. If I can have a firsthand experience with somebody as I would prefer and have an actual sit down conversation with them and ask them questions, it is another outlet as a way to get to know people even though you're not actually meeting them, which I respect entirely.

I actually just finished a book, it's a play, a few days ago, and it's fairly new and it's "Fairview", I don't know if you've heard it, Mrs. J. I actually have a copy for you.
Julie: Look at that... Great.

It was going to be a surprise present but... [laughing] But it's by Jackie Drury. She's a Black playwright and... I don't want to spoil anything but, I read it for my "Dangerous women in Dramatic Literature" course for my Women in Gender Studies minor, it's an incredibly interesting course. There was controversy over whether we should have read it or watched it because... I'm going to spoil it [crosstalk] at the very end it's... They "break the fourth wall" and it's about... this African-American family and without going into the whole synopsis, at the very end they ask every White audience member to come up on stage and there's this whole monologue that happens and it really separates the White people from the not White people and the difference typically is jarring.

And we were talking about what that impact has and from reading it and then actually moving your body and we discussed how it's kind of crazy how it takes someone physically moving themselves to understand that difference. Meanwhile, people of color, they sense that all the time because they are the minority, typically. And the difference of reading that and actually doing it... completely different impact. And I wish that I experienced that and actually saw the play before I read it. But yeah, so it's very up and coming. It's very, very interesting. It literally just came out.

Spencer: That sounds really powerful, being in a auditorium where maybe it might be a majority of the crowd just moving and trying to fit on stage and also that did make me think about... I think literature is a really important, most analogous experience sometimes to experiencing a culture but also that can happen through plays and through TV shows, movies.

You can get sometimes an accurate glimpse into what life is like through a different upbringing and I watched a show on Netflix "Raising Dion" about... It was a single black mother and I thought it was really cool, I just thought it was a good show but I Googled it really quickly and there were rave reviews from these Black TV show critics and they were like, "This is a great show to accurately represent... I'm glad to see representation in TV" and I think that's a very up and coming... there's so much inclusion and diversity now in television and I say that comparatively, more than there was. I think, of course there still can be more. I'm still seeing all White casts, which I just don't think is realistic at this point. And I hope things keep moving this direction because I love new plays like that. And I love TV shows like that.

Victoria: Jumping off of what Spencer said, in the Theater community, in the Broadway community, a really big thing that is starting to happen is color-blind casting and gender-blind casting. So rather than every role being the White person or if it's a role for a male, now if a female fits the role, then that's who will get it. And casting directors are being blind to what the color of somebody's skin is and how they identify and if the person is right for the role, then that's who will get it. And I think that that's really cool because a while ago a lot of people didn't have opportunities and they would look at a role and want to play it so bad, but say, "I can never play that" and they'd never cast somebody who wasn't White in that role. And now on Broadway especially, there are so many people of color and I think it's really cool because now so many different people get way more opportunities than in the past.

Isabel: I would like to thank Emily for bringing up the point of how minorities are always aware that they are the minority and... I don't mean to be upsetting by saying this but it's kind of... I am aware, in this room that Mrs. J., and I are the only like people of color and it's not like necessarily a bad thing, but it is something that you are always aware of. It's really good when literature brings up that point and makes people see that minorities always feel this but this is the reality.

Julie: I think, going along with what Mars was saying, there is... the teachers here at Arlington are taking a look at how AP classes and honors classes are one way or more, have quote-unquote the model minority Asians in their classes and there isn't enough representation of Black and Brown students. So that's something I appreciate you bringing it up because here I have my students who are from my 12 AP Literature class and this is something that, we as teachers, we as a faculty have to look at as well and what doors will be closing to Black and Brown students here at the high school in terms of just access, opportunities, just these are questions that we need to examine ourselves to every corner of the school. So I appreciate you saying that... So since I'm going to wrap it up a little bit, I really wanted to thank all of you for coming and having a conversation after having another conversation in the classroom with my students. But I appreciate each of you,so much, and thank you so much for coming and talking and sharing your opinions and these perspectives.

In the second part of the podcast, I will continue the conversation with three more of my former students, Ryan, Isabel and Kat. Ryan H is a senior at the United States Military Academy at West Point and he is currently a Cadet Lieutenant.

I did want to add a note that opinions not expressed, nor taught by West Point, the Army and the Department of Defense. Isabel P is a freshman at California Institute of the Arts. She identifies as a mixed Mexican-American Cisgender woman and Kat S is currently a senior at Wilkes University. She is a fourth year Doctor of Pharmacy student and she identifies as a White female.

Isabel: Well, I can go first... as a White presenting Mexican-American woman. My school is very liberal. CalArts is... very open and accepting of kind of any identity in any form. During orientation, we would go around and your introduction was, your major, your pronouns. It was very kind of making sure everything was established. So we were introducing each other and knowing each other by our preferred introductions and other parts of orientation were addressing the diversity and addressing how to go about including diversity without forcing it, which I think is really important and it's definitely an interesting kind of perspective being White presenting. But, there's definitely, I've talked to other White presenting Hispanic people, some within the acting program, some without, and it's definitely something that I've come to terms more with being at college because of how accepting they are and willing to talk about all of these different identities and different aspects of your identity, because the school is so open with identity.

Julie: Were you surprised when that's how you were asked to introduce yourself, that it centered how you saw yourself or were you... Was it a pleasant surprise or were you expecting?

Isabel: Definitely, I was... I wasn't necessarily surprised, but it was definitely, Oh well good. I was, I was glad that that was something that was right off the bat introductions and like this is, this is something that we're openly talking about and openly addressing because I think it's important. I think it's really important and I feel like there were definitely people there, especially in orientation that were a little uneasy and a little shocked and that coming from different backgrounds are coming from different States or places or whatever it was that were unfamiliar with it. So it was definitely interesting the first couple of weeks as people got used to that new way of introduction and the new way of dealing with people, the new way of introducing themselves or making sure they're referring to people in the way they want to be referred to and respecting their identities and stuff like that.

Kat: So my experience with Arlington was very... I think Arlington is very unique in that it has so many people and so many different aspects of life that you can have a lot more of growth, in high school, I think here than most other high schools. So my roommate was one of 52 people and didn't really find out who she wanted to be like when she graduated until she went to college. Whereas mine, I think I expressed myself more in high school and found out more of myself than I could have in other settings. But I also... So I'm in a medical oriented field, which is mostly men and then going into Pharmacy and having females be put into the class and it's just being a woman is getting entirely different in the medical fields.

Ryan: Yeah. For me, school I go to, it's a US Military Academy. Going into the Military Academy straight out of high school was very different, only because in high school there's sort of... It's still considered the civilian world where a lot of people are allowed to have political opinions. Students are encouraged to be... find resources, be comforting to one another and sort of, guide each other and be there.

In the military sense, it's very different in that there are certain cultures within the military that just see you as a body, a person that is there to do the work, the will of the government, of their superiors. And that's about it. So in terms of... just even demographics, school demographics on into high school, the way it's made up is very indicative of the overall population of the area. West Point pulls from all across the country and that's not to say that there's still majority White cadets, officers in the army as a whole. That's especially more so in my case, because I already know where I'm going after West Point and it's considered a Combat Arms Branch where I'm going, it's Armor. So I'll be with tanks, a cavalry units, helicopters, things like that.

Ryan: Combat Arms units more so have White officers than they do of any other minority and that's just for the army as a whole, but it's even more apparent in Combat Arms. So for me, having... knowing that, I will be, definitely a statistical outlier in that sense.

Julie: Do you want to share how you identify yourself?

Ryan: Yes. So on my moms side, I'm White. On my dads side, I am Black. However, I've always had trouble with identity, if that makes sense. Just even by the way I talk, people would've said you are White. You're not Black in any sense. Just like by my own complexion, just by the way I behave, the things I do and sometimes it's like... really, these are the metrics in which I'm being judged on via my race and how I identify? Very much so it's the narrative is if one race says these sort of comments it's unacceptable, but if another says it, then all of a sudden it becomes acceptable.

Julie: Have you been able to explore different aspects of your identity in this setting that you're in and in what capacity?

Ryan: Very much more than I was in high school because there are more outlets in college clubs, sports activities that you can reach out and kind of identify yourself more. My roommate now, he's one of my closest friends, he's Black and even with him, I've grown to actually understand who I am, as a person. Things that I normally wouldn't have otherwise known because I grew up in a White household, going to still predominantly White high school, I really didn't have the opportunity to learn these things about myself. So I really got to understand different things about culture, different things about music, arts, fashion, things like that that out even just like either enjoyable or just understanding what it is that I didn't get to know before.

Julie: Kind of bouncing off of what Ryan said, what were your thoughts about your exposure or lack of exposure to diverse perspectives when you are in high school and how did that really affect... just your experience when you entered college or in the real world?

Kat: So in high school I think there are a lot of opportunities, I would say, here more than other places, but not being exposed to... as they said at a predominantly white high school, you're not exposed to a lot of things. In my school now we have to have diversity training because they have enough people come in and go to work with our community, which is mostly African-American or Hispanic or mostly just speak Spanish. They have a lot of errors and a lot of reports about people not understanding diverse concepts. So we have like mandated diversity classes and I think having the exposure younger, like high school or even younger than high school, it'd be a lot more advantageous, especially for people going into the medical field who are going to be dealing with that a lot.

Julie: And how do you identify, yourself?

Kat: I'm White.

Julie: And then, when you were kind of going through the school system, do you feel like that you were exposed to diverse perspectives or diverse identities? Would you feel that your Whiteness or your White identity was more affirmed in the books that you read and the experiences that you had, all the way through high school?

I would say you can always have more experience with diverse opinions. I don't think that we...

Always have more experience with diverse opinions. I don't think that we were the worst, but I also think it could be much better.

Isabel: Yeah, I would definitely say that especially in the arts and especially in theater, the theater is still struggling to diversify. It's still pretty, pretty white. It's still pretty white or white presenting. And going to a school like Cal arts that is pretty diverse and allows for shows to be put on and performances to be put on that are from diverse creators that are from diverse perspectives and from this kind of experimental viewpoint and encourages experimental art and diverse productions is really important and encourages the perspective to be widened.

And I think especially in high school and at this school where it is predominantly white and when theater is already predominantly white, I definitely ended up kind of boxed in. So getting out to California and getting out to a diverse school was definitely eye-opening and kind of like, Oh right, I can be a creator with this identity that I have and I can also incorporate that identity. I don't have to be quote on quote white. I can be Mexican-American and use that and show that. I don't have to kind of fit in with everything else just because that's what's given. So it's definitely, it's an interesting predicament kind of with industries that are predominantly white and working towards kind of breaking out of that box.

Kat: We're in a position where we can expose people to that. Like with our program especially and I feel like with our size we should definitely be one of the ones that is doing it.

Julie: What do you think would be some steps, some stuff that we can take, here at this high school or just in terms of preparing students, in terms of just kind of understanding that this is not a true microcosm of what the world is like. What do you think would be a thoughtful way of preparing students?

Isabel: I mean, I think, at least from my perspective, encouraging in the theater classes that we offer here, encouraging diverse playwrights and encouraging experimental work. It's definitely at a high school level, is challenging. Because some of these works, some of the experimental works definitely have more mature themes to them. But it's real and it's real life and that's, I feel is more important than sheltering young people to what the world is actually like. And I think it's also putting on shows that encourage diversity, which is hard without forcing diversity, because that's also a hard line to walk.

Julie: Yeah, I know that, the drama teacher here has reached out to the student equity team to kind of take steps towards that. So I appreciate what you just said.

Isabel: Which is important .

Julie: Which is very important.

Kat: Just show people that it's a possibility that you can do that. Just have like interest.

Isabel: Yeah

Ryan: One of my classes I actually took this past semester was world religions. It's kind of an oddball class, if you think about it in the grand scheme of a military Academy. But it was under the history department and one of my final assignments I had to do was a paper, actually. It was sort of like a synthesis essay where I had to find a historical topic and have it tied to religion somehow and then actually like try to make an argument that has like some sort of like intellectual or interpretive dispute. So what I ended up doing, since my instructor knew I had an interest of Marvel comics cause I had on the back of my laptop, all my stickers. He's like, write about Marvel comics and tie it to religion. And I was like okay, so this man is asking me like one of the most impossible tasks, okay. Surely enough, I did. I wrote this paper about how from the eighty's until the early two thousands Marvel comics actually had an allegorical narrative about antisemitism. And I got an A on this paper. I don't know, I might publish it. We'll see.

It's very critical that we teach students how to critically think and be able to synthesize these things because it's not only an important skill like in my army profession where you have to critically think, but the ability to take two seemingly unrelated things, bring them together and to form one cohesive thought is very powerful. And that's something that you accomplish through diversity. And the best way I think you can go about doing that is to actually pursue teaching critical thought like that, but at a much earlier age. Especially coming from high school because that serves as an asset, that sets you up, that prepares you as an adult going into college as a college student, as a graduate student, these are very important skills to have. And it will show when you make your final projects, papers, things like that and your future instructors will see that.

Kat: It'll probably show in your life as well. Having that exposure, not even just as a college student and just being a well rounded adult.

Isabel: And going off of both of that, Ryan and Kat. I think, like in my intro to critical studies class, my curriculum class that I had this past semester, our readings are, the classes intended for us to look at these things, look at articles and look at readings that we analyze and then figure out how it relates to our art practices, and to our arts studies. So we'll read an article about accessibility and performance spaces, and how most theaters and most performance places aren't accessible, or aren't meant for bodies that can't move through spaces without a wheelchair or whatever it is.

And put that idea in your head that maybe when I'm putting on a show or putting on this piece, that's in the back of my mind. That as I'm creating this piece I also need to be aware of audience members or performers even that may need extra things to be able to witness this performance, or to be able to enjoy the performance just as much as any other able bodied audience member or performer. And that kind of thinking should start earlier than college, I think. That kind of analyzing a piece of text and being able to relate it to your own life or being able to relate it to your own interests and your own identities in your own work is really important to being able to understand the world better.

Julie: I really like you say, with the example about accessibility to theater spaces, because I think once you have exposure to different articles and different readings, sometimes you come to realizations that you just can't unsee. You know, you see like, Oh, so then the next time you walk into a theater you're like, Oh, this is what I'm missing. Or when you're looking at a Marvel, you're watching Marvel, you're like, Oh, this is what I'm missing. And it just kind of adds that piece into place that you never thought about. I appreciate what you have to say about that.

Kat: It was one of our activities as well. So even just thinking about that, but when I said mandatory classes, I've had to take many of them and one of them was you all stand on one side of the room and if you identify with whatever the buzzword is that the person says, you walk to the other side. You learn a lot about people from who walks to the other side or who is too scared to walk to the other side. And it's just a lot of things that you don't think about and then once you hear it, you can't unsee.

Julie: I wanted to thank all of you for sharing your thoughts. You've given me a lot of food for thought myself, because as a teacher, I think in a school that is predominantly white, Arlington is 75% white and the faculty's about 95/97% white. There's a lot of things that I can do as a teacher to try to help increase the different that my students are as exposed to. When you think about it, and I'll just leave this as a final question, but when you think about the spaces that you're in right now, what do you think has been provided for you there that you don't see here? That really made you feel that diverse perspectives were welcome.

Ryan: So in terms of resources, at least at the U.S. Military Academy, they're very good at providing cadets with resources to exceed, especially early on. And they have this thing that we call a CEP, it's the center for enhanced performance, but they provide small classes, about half a semester long. These classes are held to give you skills like speed reading. They give you time management or just regular academic habit building. And then they also provide counseling services, they give they have these special chairs that are some sort of meditation thing that people can come to and sit in and listen to it for a little bit. Every so often they'll have ice cream socials, they'll have service dogs brought in, things like that. But what the Academy recognizes is that there's, in having diversity, there is a disconnect between the education levels provided across the country.

New York has this common core, at least you know this is a big thing and down South they don't have that. It's a lot of free education sort of deal. So, even the disparity between Arlington high school and Poughkeepsie high school up the road. It's just the amount of finance that goes into, this is a large district, there's a lot of taxpayers, there's a lot of money that goes into this school. Poughkeepsie high school can't say the same thing. There is a difference in the education, the value, the quality of education that each person has. Colleges recognize that and that's why they kind of provide resources to mitigate that risk, the gap, that going into say a calculus class, not everybody is up to speed on basic fundamentals of math.

And you can trace that back to their earlier education obviously. But the fact that there are resources is very helpful, and seeing it only within the confines of this school district or Arlington, mainly. I've gone from overlook to Titusville to Arlington middle school and then the year of the high school. So I've been confined to this one district and you don't really see that. But then once you come to college, it becomes a lot more apparent because then you start thinking about logistics and things like that as you know, adult things come up and what have you.

Julie: The history of the disparity, the reason why the resources diverted red lining. 

Ryan: Especially in history, we talk about white flight. Especially from fifties, sixties, seventies when a lot of rich white families had left through the suburbs and the urban communities are left behind. They don't have the same finance level. They are left with practically nothing. Just looking at Arlington high school, it's largely suburban where these families come from. Gibson high school is a largely urban area and so, the difference there is very apparent. You see it in day to day. Just looking at New York city, the education problems that happen in New York city, so much so that when you take an exam to go to college, your college entry exam, you can be said even with high schools I think, you can be sent all the way across the city to some other school, just for the sake of it, because education levels are so different. Whereas, if everybody had the same level of financing all across the board, you wouldn't have that problem.

Julie: Lack of equity is definitely apparent in the local school district.

Isabel: Yeah, I think it's interesting the resources available to us at my school, they offer mental health counseling, which is a pretty big deal coming from that school, I think because the artists tend to beat themselves up a little bit. And the process is a little rough to get those services, but they're offered. And I think our teachers, my teachers within the acting school, at the end of each semester, all of the acting teacher's kind of get into one room. They sit in a conference room for like five hours and talk about each and every student. We each get individual evaluations about our performance and our mentors. We get mentors that kind of individually check up on us over the semester, to make sure we're progressing the way that we should be, make sure everything's all right.

So we do get a lot of one-on-one, which is amazing. Which, also means it's really expensive, I'm going to be in a lot of debt. I already know a girl in my studio that can't come back next semester, because she couldn't get the money to come back. So it's definitely for the training that we get and for the dedication that we get from our teachers and the amazing stuff that we get, it's really expensive. Coming from a place of privilege that I am able to experience that is definitely like, it's a lot.

Julie: I think there's a lot of topics that we might touch upon in the classroom setting or just in passing conversations, but we don't really necessarily, would delve deep into things that create inequities or privileges that we do have here at the high school. So I think definitely that would be really good to talk about it.

Isabel: And the college setting, especially, you get lots of different people coming from different backgrounds. People coming from, there is a guy in my studio that went to a college in Wisconsin for a year, dropped out, moved to LA, made a movie, and now he's at [inaudible 00:15:20]. He's 21, he's a transfer. There're other students that went to performing arts high schools for all four years. There's, there's other students like me that went to public high schools with theater programs. So there's definitely, you get people coming from all different levels of experience, trying to meet on this playing field.

And I think the easiest way to do that is to come in with an attitude and a perspective of, I don't know anything, I know nothing and I'm coming here to learn as much as I can from these people that are here to teach me the skills that I'm trying to get so I can succeed on my own. And that kind of attitude I think has really helped me. Also interacting with other people that have different identities that I do, is that I know nothing, these people can teach me.

Julie: I appreciate everything that we're learning from all of you, because we can have a conversation like this, I don't normally have the opportunity to have conversations like these because I don't make enough time for it. So I think moving forward it would be really valuable for me in my teaching practice to bring a lot of these topics that we're talking about into our discussions in the classroom Because it connects with literature, it connects with your lives and as all of you can attest, it connects with the lives you're going to lead after you leave high school, and I think that's really important. So, I did want to thank all of you once again for taking your time to talk to me and to share your thoughts.

Our thanks to Julie and to her students, Mars, Victoria, Emily, Spencer, Charles, Brianna, Ryan, Isabel and Kat. And a special thanks to Jerry Sheedy at Arlington high school for his time and expertise. You can follow Julie's work on Twitter at  @mrsjjee. Special thanks to Gerry Sheedy of Arlington High school for his assistance in the production of this episode. 

Read More from the Heinemann Fellows

juliekwonjeeJulie Kwon Jee is a National Board Certified Teacher dedicated to creating safe classroom environments where students flourish and become lifelong readers and writers. She currently teaches literature, writing composition, and AP English Literature at Arlington High School in LaGrangeville, NY. Julie serves on several teams and committees in her school district, is a founding organizer at EdCamp Hudson Valley, and is a member of the Hudson Valley Writing Project (part of the National Writing Project). Julie is a pioneer in integrating technology and digital tools into literacy learning, and in 2013 was nominated as one of 40 top innovators in education by the Center for Digital Education. Through her robust range of work, Julie seeks to lead by empowering others and bringing equity into the classroom.

Follow Julie on Twitter @mrsjjee 

Topics: Heinemann Fellows, Podcast, College, Diverse Books, Heinemann Podcast, High School, Identity, Julie Kwon Jee

Date Published: 03/08/20

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