Opinion
Curriculum Opinion

Identity, Storytelling, and Culturally Responsive Teaching

By Michelle Nicola — June 28, 2019 7 min read

Michelle Nicola is a Spanish teacher and instructional specialist in the Portland public schools in Oregon and a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching recipient.

This year, I’ve become particularly captivated with the idea of telling empowering stories as one way to infuse culturally responsive teaching into my classroom. Last fall, I conducted Fulbright research in Veracruz, Mexico, with the goal of collecting Afro-Mexican stories that would empower students to reconsider their assumptions about identity.

What Is an Empowering Story?

The idea of telling empowering stories first came to me through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, and has been reinforced by leading educators such as Zaretta Hammond and Elena Aguilar. After I returned from Mexico, I attended one of Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching training sessions. She explained that enabling or empowering texts challenge dominant narratives about diverse populations and invite students to think beyond heroes and holidays. Aguilar, in her incredible book Onward, dedicates a whole chapter to the importance of telling empowering stories and includes practical activities to help school communities cultivate optimism.

To me, an empowering story is one that challenges students to rethink assumptions, stereotypes, and the way things are or “should” be; describes resilience but not necessarily winning; and acknowledges the complexities of being human. Empowering stories include many voices and perspectives, challenge notions of identity, complicate the good-versus-evil narrative that we are used to, and offer students blueprints for navigating life’s problems.

Below are examples of how I’m integrating empowering stories into my Spanish classes, using two stories that I learned while living in Mexico.

A Story of Crossing Borders and Cultures

In November 2018, I traveled to the small town of El Nacimiento in the state of Coahuila, Mexico. There, I learned a fascinating and powerful story, the story of Los Negros Mascogos. The story of the Mascogo people is one of crossing borders and cultures, of resistance and freedom. The inhabitants of El Nacimiento are descendants of enslaved peoples who escaped slavery in the United States and settled in Mexico, where slavery has been abolished by law since 1810. There is more to this story, but what is important to understand is that at this point in history, enslaved people, Native Americans, and abolitionists all looked toward Mexico as the land of freedom. The Seminoles, Black Mascogos, and Kickapoo people united to travel south and seek refuge there. In October 1850, the Mexican government recognized them as Mexican.

Classroom Connections

Los Negros Mascogos are not what my students immediately think of when they think of Mexico, so these stories are an opportunity for me to complicate students’ ideas of what it means to be Mexican. In the documentary Gertrudis Blues, Patricia Carrillo Carrera interviews Doña Gertrudis, one of the town’s former matriarchs. Doña Gertrudis was a mix of cultures; her parents escaped slavery in the United States along with the Seminole and Kickapoo peoples. They passed down their songs, songs reminiscent of spirituals, songs that Doña Gertrudis sang in English.

Doña Gertrudis’ identity cannot be summarized into a neat, one-sentence description. She was Mexican, part African, and part African-American. She spoke Spanish, sang in English, and cooked food influenced by soul food and indigenous recipes. Doña Gertrudis’ story adds layers of complexity to my students’ ideas of Mexico as the white sandy beaches and mariachi bands they see on postcards or during family vacations. Doña Gertrudis’ story is a Mexican story, and as such, deserves a place in our Spanish classroom.

In order to use this documentary in my novice-level Spanish class, I had to make adjustments to how I presented the material because the actual Spanish in the documentary is too complex for my students at that level to understand. First, students spent two minutes drawing what they think of when they think of Mexico. Then, they watched a 1-2 minute segment of the documentary and used sentence frames such as, “In my drawing, there is __________, and in the documentary, I saw ____________,” to compare what they saw in the documentary to their drawings of “Mexico.”

Casa Coyolillo, A New Generation of Activists

Though I traveled to several Mexican states, the state of Veracruz was home base. Twice a week, I traveled from the capital (Xalapa) to the town of Coyolillo, a town recognized for its Afro-Mexican ancestry.

There, a new generation of activists welcomed me to participate in their collective, Casa Coyolillo, a group of about 15 community leaders dedicated to promoting nonprofit and multidisciplinary alternative activities in Coyolillo, Veracruz, that contribute to solving socio-cultural problems and encourage participation, integration, and exchange of knowledge between different age groups, in a responsible and empathic manner. Casa Coyolillo creates initiatives of community interest that strengthen the collective identity of African descent and works at the national level to gain recognition and defense of the rights of Afro-Mexicans. To date, Casa Coyolillo has succeeded in forming an African dance troupe, a theater troupe, and African drumming classes. They have organized community events that preserve traditions such as Day of the Dead and Carnaval.

Daniela López Carreto, one of Casa Coyolillo’s leaders, told me that in order to awaken the interest of the people in their own heritage, she showed a series of video documentaries about the history of their town and the African presence there.

This is just one example of the creativity of the new generation of Casa Coyolillo activists. There are already plans for an anti-racism forum, a town mural depicting its African history, collecting oral testimonies, historical research projects, and school presentations that promote justice and anti-racism.

Classroom Connections

With the help of Casa Coyolillo, I was able to make connections with the local middle and high schools. I set up a letter exchange between my students in Portland and the students in Coyolillo. (For advice on how to set this up and avoid pitfalls, check out my blog post.) While letter exchanges are generally seen as an activity that is appropriate for world-language classrooms, I invite teachers of other subjects to seek out this type of cultural exchange, too. There is no better way to better understand a place, historical event, or group of people than through the collective stories of those who experience it.

In addition to the letter exchange, I again used images from Coyolillo’s most important celebration, Carnaval, to challenge students’ ideas about Mexican identity. I explained that in Mexico, a person’s phenotype was not always the best indicator of African ancestry because genetic mixing has been happening for the past 500 years. For this reason, anthropologists look to other clues, such as specific rhythms in music, versions of “traditional” Mexican food with a distinctly African twist, and cultural celebrations. After we looked at the images and watched a few videos posted to Casa Coyolillo’s Facebook page, we wrote, “I Am From,” poems in Spanish, using Coyolillo students’ poems as examples.

From Research and Reflection to Action

This summer, I will spend some time reflecting:


  • Where do my lessons tell empowering stories?
  • Where do they disempower students by confirming stereotypes?
  • How else can I include the stories of los Negros Mascogos, Doña Gertrudis, and Casa Coyolillo into the Spanish World Language Curriculum?
  • What other stories do my students need to hear?

The importance of educators making room for diverse, empowering stories cannot be underrated. While working with the high school students in Coyolillo, I printed five different images of José María Morelos, a Mexican war hero whose African ancestry was hidden for some time. I asked, “If you had to choose, which image do you think is closest to what the real Morelos looked like?” The majority of the class chose an incorrect image, one in which Morelos looks the whitest, saying, “That’s what most resembles our history books.” The stories we tell in our classrooms guide students’ understanding of the truth about the world, and when we make room for stories that complicate ideas of identity, we open the door for students to see themselves in the people and places of the past and envision their lives in powerful ways in the future.

Connect with Michelle, Heather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Quote image created on Pablo.

Photo image of students from Casa Coyolillo practicing African dance, taken by and used with permission of the author.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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