A boy told his teacher she can't understand him because she's white. Her response is on point.

'Be the teacher America's children of color deserve, because we, the teachers, are responsible for instilling empathy and understanding in the hearts of all kids. We are responsible for the future of this country.'

Photo by John Pike. Used with permission.

Emily E. Smith is no ordinary teacher.

Fifth-grade teacher Emily E. Smith is not your ordinary teacher.

She founded The Hive Society — a classroom that's all about inspiring children to learn more about their world ... and themselves — by interacting with literature and current events. Students watch TED talks, read Rolling Stone, and analyze infographics. She even has a long-distance running club to encourage students to take care of their minds and bodies.

Smith is such an awesome teacher, in fact, that she recently received the 2015 Donald H. Graves Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Writing.

It had always been her dream to work with children in urban areas, so when Smith started teaching, she hit the ground running. She had her students making podcasts, and they had in-depth discussions about their readings on a cozy carpet.

But in her acceptance speech for her award, she made it clear that it took a turning point in her career before she really got it:

"Things changed for me the day when, during a classroom discussion, one of my kids bluntly told me I "couldn't understand because I was a white lady." I had to agree with him. I sat there and tried to speak openly about how I could never fully understand and went home and cried, because my children knew about white privilege before I did. The closest I could ever come was empathy."

Smith knew that just acknowledging her white privilege wasn't enough.

She wanted to move beyond just empathy and find a way to take some real action that would make a difference for her students.

She kept the same innovative and engaging teaching methods, but she totally revamped her curriculum to include works by people who looked like her students. She also carved out more time to discuss issues that her students were facing, such as xenophobia and racism.

And that effort? Absolutely worth it.

As she said in her acceptance speech:

"We studied the works of Sandra Cisneros, Pam Munoz Ryan, and Gary Soto, with the intertwined Spanish language and Latino culture — so fluent and deep in the memories of my kids that I saw light in their eyes I had never seen before."

The changes Smith made in her classroom make a whole lot of sense. And they're easy enough for teachers everywhere to make:

— They studied the work of historical Latino figures, with some of the original Spanish language included. Many children of color are growing up in bilingual households. In 2007, 55.4 million Americans 5 years of age and older spoke a language other than English at home.

— They analyzed the vision of America that great writers of color sought to create. And her students realized that our country still isn't quite living up to its ideals. Despite progress toward racial equality with the end of laws that enforced slavery or segregation, we still have a long way to go. Black people still fare worse than white people when it comes to things like wealth, unfair arrests, and health.

— They read excerpts from contemporary writers of color, like Ta-Nehisi Coates who writes about race. Her students are reading and learning from a diverse group of writers. No small thing when they live in a society that overwhelmingly gives more attention to white male writers (and where the number of employees of color in the newspaper industry stagnates at a paltry 12%).

— They read about the Syrian crisis, and many students wrote about journeys across the border in their family history for class. The opportunity particularly struck one student; the assignment touched him so much that he cried. He never had a teacher honor the journey his family made. And he was proud of his heritage for the first time ever. "One child cried," Smith shared, "and told me he never had a teacher who honored the journey his family took to the United States. He told me he was not ashamed anymore, but instead proud of the sacrifice his parents made for him."

Opportunities like this will only increase as the number of children from immigrant families is steadily increasing. As of 2013, almost 17.4 million children under 18 have at least one immigrant parent.

Smith now identifies not just as an English teacher, but as a social justice teacher.

ethnicity, responsibility, empathy

Teaching in a racially and ethnically diverse world.

Photo by John Pike. Used with permission.

Smith's successful shift in her teaching is an example for teachers everywhere, especially as our schools become increasingly ethnically and racially diverse. About 80% of American teachers are white. But as of last year, the majority of K-12 students in public schools are now children of color.

As America's demographics change, we need to work on creating work that reflects the experiences that our students relate to. And a more diverse curriculum isn't just important for students of color. It's vital for everyone.

As Smith put it, "We, the teachers, are responsible for instilling empathy and understanding in the hearts of all kids. We are responsible for the future of this country."

This article originally appeared on 12.07.15

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Almost 10 years ago, Stephanie Land and her baby daughter Mia had no choice but to check into a homeless shelter.

Stephanie was fleeing an abusive relationship. She had no family to turn to, and she couldn't afford a place of her own. For the next three months, she and Mia lived in the Port Townsend homeless shelter in Washington.

Stephanie knew she needed help — and that's why one of the places she turned to was the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program(SNAP).

Applying for SNAP benefits can be an an ordeal under the best circumstances, but it was even more challenging for Stephanie because she lacked internet access. Thankfully, her persistence paid off and she soon began receiving benefits to help her pay for food.

Photo via iStock.

Her SNAP benefits were usually $200 to $300 a month — a mere $7 to $10 a day — and it was often all she had to pay for food.

But the SNAP benefits went a long way for her family. Mia was a picky eater, so Stephanie had to get creative to make sure she was getting as much nutritious food as she could afford. Sometimes that meant adding vegetables and a homemade sauce to packages of instant ramen to get Mia to eat them.

It was a process, but ultimately, SNAP, along with other welfare benefits like health care and child care, helped them stay afloat while Stephanie looked for work.

Photo via iStock.

Unfortunately, looking for work was easier said than done during the 2008 recession.

"All the jobs that were available during normal child care hours were more professional jobs," Stephanie recalls.

The only jobs she could get were entry-level, minimum-wage jobs that usually involved her working late hours, when affordable child care services are rarely available.

This balancing act of working low-paying jobs, caring for her daughter, and living on welfare wore on Stephanie. But she knew that college could be her ticket out of it.

The Land family in their studio apartment in low-income housing. Photo via Stephanie Land.

Stephanie applied for and received the Pell Grant and the Women's Independence Scholarship, which helps survivors of domestic violence pay tuition. She also took out student loans.  

While these helped significantly, she had to keep working because the federal benefits she needed to survive — like food stamps — would only continue if she was working at least 20 hours a week.

As a full-time student and single mom, working that much proved near impossible. But Stephanie kept pushing forward, relying on her resourcefulness and persistence to make it to each next day.

"I learned the only person I really had to depend on is myself," she says.

[rebelmouse-image 19345897 dam="1" original_size="400x400" caption="Stephanie Land. Image via Stephanie Land/Stepville." expand=1]Stephanie Land. Image via Stephanie Land/Stepville.

Stephanie didn't feel comfortable turning to friends for support during this time because she knew some of them believed that people who rely on federal benefits are lazy, entitled, and refuse to work hard.

It's a hurtful stigma and, unfortunately, one that many believe about people who have no choice but to rely on programs like SNAP.

"Being on food stamps and on Facebook at the same time, you learn what your friends really think of people on welfare," Stephanie explains. "You learn pretty quickly not to offer that information readily."

While Stephanie is proof positive that this stigma's message is false, she still felt embarrassed about needing federal assistance. In fact, it was that discomfort that made her all the more determined to change her situation.

After six years of hard work,she graduated with a bachelor's degree in English and started making a living wage writing.

Stephanie and Mia. Photo via Stephanie Land.

She wrote about various aspects of her day-to-day life, like working as a house cleaner and being a single mom living on $6 a day.

"I found a niche that not too many people can write about from a first-person perspective," Stephanie says.

She can  provide a window into a world that's often just speculated over rather than clearly seen. Many people push away the idea of poverty because they want to believe it could never happen to them. Through her insightful writing, though, Stephanie has proven no one is immune.  

"While it’s terrifying to come out and openly admit those things, it was also something people needed to read about," Stephanie says. "Especially from someone who doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of what people connect with someone living in poverty."

When an article Stephanie wrote for Vox about cleaning houses went viral, she got a call from a well-known literary agent the same day asking to sign her. A year later, she was offered a book deal.  

Today, Stephanie lives in her first real house with her two daughters.

"It was quite a moment finally watching my girls play in a backyard," she recalls.

But, she says, she'll never forget those years she lived in poverty.  

Stephanie with her daughters Coraline (left) and Mia (right). Photo via Stephanie Land.

She's written about her experience for a number of publications, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. She's also a regular writer for the Center for Community Change, whose mission is to help improve low-income families' lives. And she's received a number of emails from people who were, or currently are, dealing with the issues she's faced, thanking her for giving them a voice.

As a result, she looks at the world through a different filter — one of compassion for everyone she comes across.

"I try not to make any assumptions about other people’s lives because it’s so easy to suddenly be in that place where you have nowhere to go," Stephanie explains. "And you never know who’s going through something like that."

If you or someone you know is living in poverty or with food insecurity, a good first step for them to take is to call 211 or check out 211.org online. There, you can find information about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as well as many other federal assistance programs.

What happens when you have a childhood dream to be a writer, but your test scores tell you it's not in the cards?

For Alexandra Penfold, she became a writer anyway — and a successful one at that. Penfold is a literary agent and the author of children's books like "All Are Welcome" and "We Are Brothers, We Are Friends."

In a viral tweet, Penfold shared an image of a self-evaluation she wrote in fourth grade. In scrawling cursive penmanship, it reads: "Writing. I love to write and I hope to become an athor [sic] someday."

Below that image, she shared a photo of her fourth-grade state writing assessment. It shows a score of 4 out of 8 and reads: "This student is minimally proficient in writing."

"This weekend I sorted through some papers my mom saved from my childhood," Penfold wrote. "The top one is my 4th grade self evaluation. The bottom, my 4th grade state test score."

Her final sentence makes an important point: "Random House published my 6th book last week. #MoreThanATest."

Standardized tests don't tell the whole story — and sometimes they tell an inaccurate one.

According to the Center for American Progress, which looked at 14 districts in seven states, some students in the U.S. take as many as 20 standardized tests each year with an average of 10 tests in third to eighth grade. While such assessments may be useful tools in some ways, far too much weight can be placed on them. Some very bright kids simply don't test well. Some skills develop later for some kids — without any effect on the quality of those skills in the long run.

Imagine if Penfold had taken her writing test score as some kind of gospel indicator of her ability. Far too many kids find themselves fretting over test scores, and far too many adults put too much stake in them.

Penfold's tweet reminds us that goals and hard work far outweigh measurable skill or talent.

If you are a parent or teacher of kids who worry about how they perform on standardized tests, show them Penfold's tweet. And then show them some of the responses to it as well. Kids need to hear stories of people who didn't do well on tests or who didn't appear to show great promise in a field they loved, but who ended up triumphing all the same.

For instance, this person who hadn't tested well and "was a clutz in the lab" and whose teacher tried to steer them away from science earned a doctorate in chemistry.

And this person who had tutors her whole life and whose principal told her mother she wouldn't go to college graduated from university with honors and become a published author. As she wrote, "You are the only person that's allowed to define you!"

A person's potential can't be measured in a test score.

A test is a limited method of measuring a limited set of criteria in a limited time period. Let's make sure kids understand that and teach them that what really counts is what they believe they can achieve and how hard they're willing to work. People like Alexandra Penfold prove it.

Libby Scott's mom Kym said her 10-year-old daughter "hardly ever" would chose to read or write.

Libby has autism, and her mom said part of the symptoms include rarely reading or writing.

Photo courtesy Kym Scott.

So when Kym saw that Libby had written a fictional short story, she wanted to rally support for her.

She took to Twitter to share the story, titled "The Life of a Perfectionist."

In just a few hundred words, Libby describes a fictional character's struggle to get through her day and the difficult interactions she has with strangers who aren't aware of her condition or how to interact with her.

"I notice that my candles are in the wrong order; the cleaner must've done it," the character says. "I think to myself I don't want to get up as I am so comfortable. I reluctantly climb out of bed to adjust my candles."

Libby's character finds comfort in a song until she becomes upset by the word count and reaches out to Taylor Swift.

"The next morning I realise my favourite song doesn't have exactly 100 words, it has 98. My heart stops," she writes. "A few hours later I find myself writing to the singer telling her how I felt. I got a reply from her saying 'I am sorry but I cannot change the lyrics of my song, lots of love Taylor Swift.'"

Through this fictional character, Libby discovered a way to explain a part of her own experience having autism.

And Twitter users swiftly responded with praise. What started as a simple gesture of support quickly went viral. In less than 48 hours, more than 40,000 people had liked Kym's tweet and nearly 20,000 had retweeted it.

"I had no idea my little bit of writing would go so far, but I’m really excited and pleased," Libby says. "Especially if it helps people see a different viewpoint of autism and if it can help them understand a family member better."

Alan Gardner, a TV presenter in the U.K. with autism, had some simple and poignant praise for how Libby was helping others.

Children's author Ann Cleeves chimed in as well with some words of support that would mean a lot to any writer, let alone a 10-year-old putting her work out into the world for the first time.

Libby even received praise from the head of Condé Nast International, one of the most powerful publishing operations in the world.

Kym posted a second story from Libby and even helped her create her own Twitter account.

Storytelling is one of our most powerful tools for better understanding one another.

By sharing her writing, Libby is building bridges of understanding and empathy with others.

"For too long autism has been misunderstood and autistic people made to try to fit in, which adds hugely to their anxiety," Kym says. "The most important thing we can do for autistic people in my opinion is stop trying to make them fit into a neurotypical world and to allow and encourage them to be their very best autistic selves."

Libby on the right. Photo courtesy of Kym Scott.

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