“Ms. Eby, you’ve never had Tajín?”
“You just HAVE to try Wingstop!”
“Do you have Starbucks in New Hampshire?”
During my first year with ACE at Our Lady of Guadalupe in East Los Angeles, my middle school students were continually shocked, and rather amused, by my ignorance of the places, foods, and traditions they found commonplace in LA.
I grew up in New Hampshire, where I shoveled snow, celebrated maple syrup season, and ice skated on frozen lakes in February. New Hampshire was as unfamiliar to my students as LA was to me.
I was initially unsure about how we were going to relate given our different cultural upbringings, but I ultimately decided to lean into these differences so that my students could teach me about their experiences, and I could share my own.
Throughout the year, I shared bits of my background with the hopes of creating an environment that empowered students to do the same. When my mom came to visit in October, I invited her to my classroom. I gave my sixth-grade homeroom students the opportunity to ask her questions, and she was promptly bombarded by them.
“How long did it take to fly here?”
“Does it snow a lot in New Hampshire?”
“Do you have In-N-Out? Chick-fil-A? Jack-in-the-Box?”
Students continued to list every fast food chain they could think of until I brought their interrogation to an end and–much to their dismay–insisted that we return to our math lesson. Apparently my mother’s visit made an impression, as students still ask me about her a year later. In this moment and others throughout the year, I was struck by my students’ genuine curiosity about my experience growing up in New Hampshire.
As I shared pieces of myself with my students and school community, I learned so much from them in return. One of my favorite cultural experiences of my first ACE year was preparing for Día de Muertos–a holiday that holds great significance in Mexican culture but was new to me at the time. All teachers were encouraged to construct altars in their classrooms to prepare for the upcoming celebration. I explained to my students that I was unfamiliar with the tradition, and they lit up when I asked them to describe their altars at home and give advice about how to make one for the classroom.
“You need papel picado.”
“We like to put food out.”
“You can’t forget a cup of water!”
Students brought in pictures of their loved ones to place on our altar, and I placed a photo of my grandmother alongside theirs. Through this co-construction, I felt fully invited to take part in the celebration. My students and colleagues similarly welcomed me into other cultural and familial traditions throughout the year. Through sharing experiences ranging from processing down Cesar Chavez Avenue flanked by mariachis and aztec dancers to distinguishing among varieties of pan dulce, my students and colleagues took me in and enriched my worldview.
During this back-to-school season, when I find myself stressed about covering all the standards, creating the perfect lesson plan, or impressing Erin Wibbens when she comes to town, I remind myself of the bigger picture: creating a classroom culture that is genuinely welcoming so that my students know that they are loved. I can’t be a perfect teacher, but my mission as an ACE teacher is to seek to spread God’s love through the relationships that I form with my students. I can build this relationship by being open to learning about the interests and cultures of each student that walks through my classroom door. Doing so isn’t easy, but I’ve learned that simple things, like trying Tajín on my watermelon, are good places to start.