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Bringing History to Life

by Isabell Gilfoil

Gabby Silva

Have you ever thought about meeting a historical figure you’ve learned about in class? For Gabby Silva, one of her students got that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – due in large part to a class that Gabby designed as a second-year teacher. 

Gabby is a member of the 28th cohort of ACE Teaching Fellows serving at Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School. She teaches high school social studies, including 12th-grade government and ninth-grade ethnic studies.  

Gabby was teaching different history courses last year but was asked in January of her first year to create and lead a course on ethnic studies because she studied critical race and ethnic studies as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. 

“My college classes are where I fell in love with [the major], because as a second-generation American, as a Latina woman, it’s really interesting to see how that role of my identity intersects with everything we do,” Gabby said. “Kenneth Monreal, my mentor teacher and our dean of curriculum and instruction, came to me and asked, ‘Gabby, this is what you studied in college. Would you like to create the course?’ I was like, ‘I’m six months into teaching, but sure!’”

Gabby spent the nights of her second ACE summer on campus at Notre Dame in Remick Family Hall working on the curriculum for the class, covering every whiteboard possible with ideas on what she could teach. 

Without a blueprint to follow, Gabby had the freedom to think about what she wanted to teach her students and what sort of projects and assignments she could pair with them.  

“It’s a lot of document-based analysis, trying to get them to think critically about the world around them and see how they can advocate for both communities that they may identify as a part of, and communities that are facing moments of inequity and injustice in the United States.”

For one of her units, the students learned about identities and were beginning to talk about intersectionality and how it plays a role in one’s identity. Gabby used a metaphor of a four-way intersection to teach the students about different aspects of their identity. 

Part of this lesson was looking at different case studies – including Dolores Huerta, an American labor leader and civil rights activist who co-founded the National Farmworkers Association, the predecessor of the United Farm Workers’ Union. Students discussed Huerta’s most impactful identities with the intersection metaphor and evaluated how they were compounded in her work. 

Gabby moved on to other subjects in the class until two months later, when one of her students asked to speak to her after class.

“She said, ‘I just want to let you know I went to an event yesterday and I met Dolores Huerta and I told her all about the work we’re doing in ethnic studies and our lesson on intersectionality and your case study,’” Silva said. “My mind was blown for so many reasons, primarily that not only did she remember something we’d done in class, but she articulated it to someone who was the central aspect of our learning.”

Gabby’s student also mentioned she took a picture with Huerta and asked her to sign a program from the event. Not only did her student get a signed program, but Gabby also received a personalized signed program from Huerta.

“At the top it says. ‘To Gabriela, thank you,’ and at the bottom, it says, ‘Si se puede,’ which means ‘Yes you can,’ which was the motto for the United Farm Workers Movement. I was so thrilled because she’s been such an inspiration of mine for so long and such a large role in my family’s history in the United States,” Gabby said. “Having a student meet her and get that for me, it was something special. I was just so proud of her ability to truly share what we’re doing in here.” 

For Gabby, this moment showed her that the hard work and dedication she put into this course were paying off, and what she is doing in her classroom and teaching her students is important and impacting them and their families. 

“I think for me it was a mix of just overwhelming pride in my students and the work they’re doing both in and outside the classroom and the work they’re going to continue to do,” she said. “It’s definitely one of those moments where you see all of the hard work come together and say, ‘This is why what I’m doing is making an impact.’ It’s something they’re actually learning from and taking that outside to the world.”