Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.
Julia Torres spends a lot of time thinking about whether students see themselves in the books they read for English class or check out from the school library.
She missed that sense of familiarity during her own teen years.
“Most of what I was assigned to read did not reflect anything close to my lived reality,” said Torres, a school librarian in northeast Denver
It’s part of the reason Torres, with three other educators of color, founded a grassroots effort called Disrupt Texts, which aims to make traditional school reading lists and curriculum more inclusive and equitable.
Torres, who works on a campus with five small middle and high schools, talked to Chalkbeat about the problem with books that focus on the suffering of people of color, her worries about gentrification, and the decision to double her library’s manga collection.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Was there a moment when you decided to become an educator?
I was a paraprofessional in Park City, Utah, and a friend of mine who taught eighth grade English gave me the chance to teach her class. It’s going to sound dramatic, but right after it was over I stepped outside the classroom and burst into tears because I just knew it was what I was supposed to do for the rest of my life.
How and why did you co-found the Disrupt Texts movement?
I am lucky enough to travel in the same circles as Dr. Kimberly Parker, Tricia Ebarvia and Lorena Germán. We spoke to each other regularly about meeting our students’ needs while engaging in the work of developing anti-racist curriculum and implementing culturally responsive pedagogy in English language arts classes. As female educators of color who had very similar experiences in the school system, it was only natural when we decided to support our communities by joining forces as leaders in the work.
Where can educators learn more about how to make their collections or reading lists more inclusive and reflective of their students?
We Need Diverse Books has a great resources section on their website. I also highly recommend exploring Lee and Low Books and the Teaching Tolerance anti-bias framework.
Can you give an example of a time when you substituted a book from the traditional literary canon for one you felt was more inclusive of your students? How did students respond?
I taught “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo in AP English and it was the only time I heard a male student come to my class and say, “Are we going to read today, Miss? That’s really all I want to do.” There was booing when I said we were going to do other things.
I can’t say that I “substituted” one text for another, but I can say that I made room in my syllabus and our classroom for Xiomara (the protagonist of “The Poet X”) and her story and I have no regrets about it.
Thinking back to your own high school experience, how did the literature you read in class make you feel included or excluded?
The only books I read about in school with people of color as protagonists were books about pain, suffering, slavery, or the civil rights movement. The book I loved most was Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which led me to her poem “Phenomenal Woman.” I felt very included in those moments, but they were fleeting and didn’t really happen until high school. Most of what I was assigned to read did not reflect anything close to my lived reality.
Society seems to have a fascination with pain experienced by people of color, both telling and experiencing it. Our educational system is one in which students of color all too often are compelled to relive trauma (our own or someone else’s) through the books they are assigned — for a grade. This is not only unjust, but can also be a cause of secondary trauma.
As a school librarian, how do you help students access books that resonate with them?
I work to make sure the collection has books that represent a range of lived experiences but also that they can see books with their lived realities reflected in a variety of ways. We have fantasy, sci-fi, graphic novels, and romance featuring intersectional stories and characters. It is important to me that our students read about their own lives and worlds but also better ones, and feel free to imagine themselves as anyone, anything.
What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes at the schools where you work?
There is currently a lot of gentrification in Montbello. You can drive past the new(ish) DSST-Conservatory Green High School and you’ll see a banner right on the front with a blue ribbon proclaiming it the No. 1 school in Denver. That is a bold statement. Though I’m sure the staff and faculty there work just as hard as anyone, I’ve been in the neighborhood long enough to know that there are a lot of conditions we face in my building just down the street that they do not.
I wonder about the criteria for making such statements or giving those kinds of awards. I also wonder how having an “award-winning” school might change property values and make folks more likely to move into an area and what “pushout” looks like for families in communities that have historically been underserved, underfunded, underresourced, and underrated.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At Back to School Night this year I learned from a student’s mother how much her daughter loves manga — Japanese or Japanese influenced comics or graphic novels. I knew that she liked it, but I didn’t know exactly how much. This conversation, together with encouragement from several other students, led me to double our manga collection and write a grant that allowed me to purchase even more titles.
What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to your work as a librarian?
I don’t know that I had any real misconceptions because my mother was a librarian so I grew up going to libraries. I love the work that I get to do in this community, which is something I didn’t get to experience as much when I was restricted to the classroom.
Last year, Angie Thomas — the author of “The Hate U Give” — Skyped in and we had students (and teachers) from three other schools join us on campus. Last fall, I gave away free books during a Halloween event and at Back to School Night. We’ll have three authors visit this spring, including Gene Yang, Minh Le, and Elizabeth Acevedo.
What are you reading for enjoyment?
I’m currently reading “Ways to Make Sunshine” by Renée Watson and “A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance, and Hope.” I’m also very fortunate in that I get to read and work on special projects to support books before they are released. My newest is a teaching guide for “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi that will be published by School Library Connection.
What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?
The students should always be your North Star. No matter what anyone says or does, do what’s right by and for them, listen to them and respond to their concerns. Help them realize their dreams, not fulfill your agenda, and you’ll be all right.