On today’s blog, I share my conversation with Author & educator Naomi O’Brien whom I had on my podcast last December. She’s a great person who shares her love of literacy and her impact on all of us is a joy. Read below.
JE: Hello everyone, my name is Jebeh Edmunds and welcome to the Cultural Curriculum Chat! Today, we have a wonderful guest, I am just so happy to introduce to you another rockstar teacher, Mrs. Naomi O’Brien! I am seriously fangirling right now! Naomi is a wife, a mom, author, creator and presenter, an educator who currently lives in Los Angeles, California. She enjoys using her creative skills to teach students how to read and how caregivers and other educators teach important lessons to children. So, welcome to our show, Naomi!
Naomi: Thanks so much, I’m so excited to be here!
JE: Thank you! So, please share with our audience, you know, what’s your story and how did you grow up and perceive multicultural education?
Naomi: Yeah, so my story is that I’ve always really enjoyed my upbringing in the fact that my parents are not American, they’re from Antigua and Saint Kitts in the Caribbean. So, I always was very aware of ‘this is my culture, this is not my culture’. Because our home was very much Soca music playing, Caribbean cups, and I became very aware at an early age that that is not what was going on in my other friend’s homes.
Another unique layer to that is that my dad is in the army for 20 years, so we traveled around and lived in so many different places and met so many different families from all over the world, and it was kind of this culture shock actually when he retired and we were off of an army base because it was all segregated, like I grew up with my neighbor who was from Korea, this other neighbor was from Hawaii, this neighbor was from India, this neighbor was from Germany, and then suddenly it was a very “Oh no, where did all the culture go? It’s not like this in the real world, outside of the army base?” I got to see a lot of cultures and I feel like well my education wasn’t exactly multicultural, my lived experience was just due to my family, visiting family in New York, going back to the Islands to visit people, and just living in my neighborhoods. So, I felt like I was able to see that contrast and kind of say, “I’m not represented at school”, or “my neighbors not represented at school”, and probably picked up on things that other children normally wouldn’t, for sure.
JE: Hmm, definitely. And, it’s kind of neat, because I grew up in a Liberian household too, so that Soca music, I remember that as a child too, and I loved that. And, also, when you talk about not having that representation in your classroom, that sparked something in you, didn’t it, to create something? Not quite knowing yet, right, but knowing that there’s something missing there. And, let’s talk more about that now, with your experience going through our school system in the United States, what were things that you observe, you know? Like, when you talked about things that were missing, did you have BIPOC teachers in your space growing up, in your childhood as well?
Naomi: I really didn’t. Something I did have though is a lot of male teachers, especially in elementary school which isn’t always everyone’s experience, but no they were largely just white educators, probably were and we lived – I was born in Texas, we lived in Germany, we lived in Louisiana, Washington State, Georgia, and then eventually Florida, and it was largely White, not until I got to high school that I got some teachers of color but even then it was a majority White experience, and that was something – like talking about like race and different cultures are something my parents are very open about, so it’s something that my mom would point out all the time and she was constantly telling us “you need to carry yourself this way, you need to speak this way, because you will be perceived this way in America by Americans”, you know. And, they have to figure that out when they came from their Island which is 100% Black people, they didn’t have those issues and then to come to the States in their early 20s and suddenly realize “Oh wow, there’s different rules here, and people treat you differently here”, where they never had to deal with that. I mean, they probably have the colorism issue going on but not just the hierarchy of colors.
JE: Yeah, in that, the nuances, correct? That, those underwritten rules when you come in as an immigrant, of knowing how to perceive yourself and how others will perceive you. That’s powerful.
Now, as a creator and author, what tools have you used to create this space? Tell us more about your Reading Like a Rockstar platform with our audience.
Naomi: Yeah, so it really just started as a place to share, just straight-up regular reading ideas but as I grew in that space and as I got to explore social media and Instagram more, and I saw other teachers and like really White teachers with bigger accounts, some of the stuff they were sharing was so problematic, or it wasn’t multicultural or it wasn’t accepting or inclusive of everybody. And I was like “that’s a really big problem”, and I was always searching for that person with a really big platform that was going to do something about it, that was going to be the example. And, it wasn’t happening, and I was like – and I was really small at the time but I was like “I can be the example, I’m not seeing it, so I’ll be that” because he just would put out there “50 books you must read to your students this schoolyear”, and it wasn’t representative of everybody at all, you know? It’s like Children and Animals, and then it was like where are the students of color, where are different genders, different abilities, different body sizes, just different languages even, it just wasn’t missing? So, I was like okay, well I can step into that role and kind of like say the stuff that I wish that I saw because these people are influencing so many other people’s classrooms and not necessarily in the best way even though that wasn’t there intent, you know? So, that’s when I really started to share about and as I saw more problematic things or the way people would make fun of student’s names, and usually that’s going to be the name of the student that isn’t a typical American name, and it was like that’s just showing me that you don’t value culture and you’re not thinking about maybe that parent gave that child that name for a reason that is special in their culture, and it’s not typical for you but it is as typical and special, and an honor in their culture. So, just having to post up about that and hoping to open people’s eyes because these people are in those classrooms impacting other people’s children, you know? And I was like I have to say something, I can’t just not say anything, and it’s kind of like what I wish my teachers saw when I was little because something I always talked about with one of my best friends, is I don’t think a single teacher of mine ever even knew where I was from, they didn’t know what was going on in my house, no stories or lessons were even brought up about like where I lived except for like “Transatlantic Slave Trade, and they went to the Caribbean first before they came here” but other than that, I was never seen or represented, and I was like I can like make a difference like well in. From that, people were really hungry for that, it’s like it was kind of like they didn’t know what they didn’t know, and then once they had a place to learn from, they were excited to learn more. So, that’s really how I grew.
JE: I am just so proud of you because your work and even your partnership too with Teaching With an Apron, it’s just – even the biggest topic too, especially in honor of Indigenous Heritage month, the First Thanksgiving, I loved your unit “Fact-or-Fiction”, you know, and when I taught 5th grade there was a lot of those multiple lenses that I tried in my classroom to share with students. And, how you have it laid out where kids can look at pictures and decipher and ask these open-ended in-depth questions, and as educators we really want our students to think critically but how you craft it Naomi, and your partner, you take it up another level. I mean, it’s like wow! Even as an adult, and your young self, you’re self-reflective of wow, this is the stuff like what you said, what you didn’t know and now you’re hungry for. And, that’s what I’m excited of your work to share with my audience too because this is stuff that’s actionable, it’s right in real-time that teachers can download right away and share, parents can use the materials as well to have these conversations with their kids. I feel like in this multicultural space right now with education of all kids, parents are very stuck and overwhelmed and as a mother yourself – you’re a mother of two boys and so am I – as a parent, what do you want their teachers to know?
Naomi: Yeah, well thank you for saying that about the lessons because that is something we go out of our way to make sure it’s happening, like really put it back on the students, present the facts, and then put it back on the students to have these critical discussions, like we’re not here trying to change people’s minds but give them all of the information. Because, we think about the single narrative we were given growing up of this is what happened, memorize it, take it for the test, and that’s that. But, that’s like no, like history should be this debate, it should be all these thoughts and perspectives always, who is missing, is there bias going on here, is this factual to get to like arrive at your conclusions. But then, as you go along, it is definitely something – I wouldn’t say a battle with – but it’s something that is always at the forefront of my mind, what my son is going through. My oldest one is in 2nd grade right now and my youngest one is 3 but even with that, we just got a little flyer saying the 3-year-olds are going to have a Thanksgiving performance, and that immediately made me say “oh my goodness”, and I have to go and ask what are they going to be singing about, are they going to be dressed up like indigenous people because if so, we’re not going to be participating and you shouldn’t do that and here’s why, which luckily it wasn’t that, it’s just about being thankful. But, there’s this constant stuff that you’re up against that is traditional or classic, or people just think “oh, it’s just good fun” – so, there is, constantly, like that, looking through homework and making sure that stuff is accurate so that I can talk to the teacher about it or talk to my son about how “hey, your work said this but this wasn’t necessarily true.” Honestly, I haven’t had too much of that, so that’s been really good. And, I don’t know if the teachers love it but I always say “hey, I know this month is coming up, I created these resources, use if you can” I never say like “I hope you use these”, I’m like “use this if you can”, and they’ve always been appreciative in the grade level so far.
JE: Oh, definitely! And you know, being in the classroom as well, it is so fast to keep up with our pacing guides and our standards, and benchmarks that we have to achieve, and I constantly when I was in the classroom, looking for resources to still fulfill those standards and benchmarks but also have that critical eye of “who is missing?” “Why aren’t we talking about their perspective?” “Who can I invite from the community to share that perspective so the kids have that multi-faceted view?” And, I love that because as a parent, you’re seeing things and you’re knowing months are coming up, and you kind of hold your breath a little bit going in, okay, is this teacher going to be culturally responsive or am I going to have a little conversation with her or him, off on the side. And, even as a parent, I know my boys are like “oh, here we go, mom, why do you want to know, why are you asking?” It’s like “Is this play coming on again, because I remember that play in the 80s, and it didn’t go, you know”, so, those are the things –
Naomi: …and then I’m like “well, I can’t just stop with my son”, I was like “now I have to talk to the teacher too because what about the other kids?”
JE: Yes, because, and you know as a teacher and I know there’s going to be teachers that are excited about your help, and there will be some teachers with that push back because one, I’ve given that excuse but they’re afraid, you know, they’re used to oh, this is my bucket for this particular subject, now you’re going to have to audit my bucket now? It’s like yeah, we got to get rid of that bucket. But, I love, like I said, the big takeaways that you have with your work, your social media presence, that’s how I found you and it’s positive, and it also has those questions too of having those reflective moments. And, I really thank you for that. I love your depth and complexity, critical thinking resource because when I taught primary grades, a lot of our students that were in that middle, you know were getting what they needed but the kids that needed that extra push. You know, I had a first-grader who was reading The Hobbit – loved him you know! And, his parents were college professors, but like I wanted to give him that extra push. And, what you do for those kids in that small group that need the extra push, I have to thank you for that, because I love how you have that space for them where you’ve got the multiple perspective sunglasses icon, and the detail, and the what, and the who. You can take that resource and craft it to the stories and the literary work that they’re already doing, but you’re taking it up a notch. And so, how do you do that, that extra critical lens for your other multicultural work with your civil rights movement, and your Navajo co-talkers – is there something you could give advice to the teachers as well for those extra students that really need that push?
Naomi: Yeah, and so Depth and Complexity is my absolute favorite. And, I would suggest, if anyone listening has not heard about it or learned about it, to just do a quick Google search of it and just start to like really take in the questions, like there’s usually so many questions down that you can like take baby steps to dive into it, and I would suggest starting with one icon, you introduce it to your students, and over time you will see how it changes your students’ thinking. And, I post it for everybody, because what’s so great about the framework of Depth and Complexity, is that it’s fantastic for those higher students that we can sometimes miss, but it’s great for everybody as well. So, it’s like it’s pushing everybody’s thinking and is including those higher students as well, and it just shifts the thinking. And, the examples that I love to use is the Three Little Pigs, which is just the most basic book I could think of but if you apply Depth and Complexity to it and you’re thinking about the Wolf’s motive and how the characters changed over time, and how would the Wolf from The Little Red Riding Hood think about the Wolf from this story, and you’re thinking about different perspectives, and you’re adding in the ethics of it with “Is it okay for the Wolf to be hunting the Pigs”, and “Is it just predators and prey, or is it bad guy versus good guy?” It just gets them thinking in such different ways about stories, and then you truly see them over time applying that thinking to different stories, and then even bringing it outside of just literature and then like social studies, you can bring it in to social studies, the same thing – “How did this law change over time?” “How did customs and this country change over time?”, “What are the different perspectives?”, like “We think this about the Vietnam War, and what did Vietnamese people think about it? And, that’s something for me, I’m like we never learn about it from that perspective, and you never even thought to consider it because you weren’t pushed to consider it, you know? So, I just love like incorporating that in as many places as possible to like just help kids think critically and help them to start to do it on their own even when I’m not there.
JE: Oh. Love that, Naomi! Love, love, love that!
JE: So, just another quick thing – What else do you want educators, parents, to know about multicultural education for all of our kids?
Naomi: Yes, I would love for them to know, I see a lot of multicultural education accounts and people talking about it, and it’s usually only centered on books. And I would love for them to know that it can be incorporated into everything. Even just your classroom management system, to be multicultural, just taking in consideration who’s in the room, the different practices, different beliefs, different backgrounds, how do they do things in their home and how can you incorporate that into the classroom. LaNesha and I, we wrote a book “Unpack your Impact”, and in part of it we say that our students are expected to just drop their culture at the door and mold to the culture of the classroom, and if she was – and the teacher’s culture, which may or may not match the student’s culture. So, they’re at a disadvantage if the teacher doesn’t take anything about that child into consideration. And, we think about the decor in our classroom, we think about our lessons, like how can you get to know your students and then incorporate stuff from their backgrounds into your lessons and like you said, we have standards we have to teach, sometimes people have to teach curriculum with fidelity, and that’s fine but then like if you have to teach about the Gold Rush, teach about the Gold Rush and then share a different perspective. What else is going on in the world at that exact same time in this country or the state that maybe your student is found. It is bringing different types of learning with it, and just consider like all the underrepresented cultures and backgrounds, because we don’t even have people who kind of push back and say ”Well, my class is all White” – so, it’s like if you have the dominant culture, then you have an even bigger job to make sure you are exposing them to all of these different cultures because you don’t want them to be that child that grows up, has never been exposed to anybody, and then mistreats people or thinks it’s weird, or you know segregate themselves from people based on differences because they never had the chance to explore how beautiful diversity and inclusiveness is. But, just making it more than just books, and really making about it in everything. And even culture, this is something that whenever I like, well we the PD, it’s like when I talk about the culture people think about food, language, race, things like that. And it’s like culture is food but it’s also who cooked it, where did you eat it, what was it seasoned with, are you eating with your fingers, a fork, chopsticks, like it’s every single thing. So, it’s just like even broaden your thoughts and like sense of like what culture is.
JE: And Naomi, it is – it’s more than a recipe. And, I love that; who’s cooking, what utensils are being used, how is it seasoned, how is it prepared? That takes it to a whole another level. And, I really love how you say, it is! It’s more than just books, and in your day-to-day routines, classroom management strategies, how we greet each other. And, I also agree to with the majority culture in the classroom, I always say – don’t assume. That child might be with a multicultural Liberian auntie who may be blonde hair and blue-eyed like myself who had nieces and nephews that are Scandinavian, but you can’t assume that it’s that dominant culture in your class, and I love that how you have to be proactive because when they do encounter people that are from different walks of life, they might have the segregated feeling towards different groups. Oh, wonderful! Love that tip!
JE: Before we go, any other tips and tricks? I love that you can promote different cultures. I love that about, you know, going more in-depth of how things are prepared with food – what else could we do?
Naomi: Yeah, I always say with any child, with any age – start with their culture first. Because, you can get that buy-in. You can help them see ‘this is a part of your culture’, ‘you do have culture’, because some kids are like ‘I don’t have any culture’ – Yes you do, here’s what it is, here’s why it’s really important. Celebrate it, and do it early. Like, we do it the first few weeks of school now instead of like “Oh, and about me, what’s your favorite color?” We’re like “What’s your culture, what’s your background, what’s your language, how did your family dress, what’s your religion, do you go to church, do you not go to church?” And then when you learn about other cultures throughout the year, with Hispanic Heritage Month that’s coming up, and Italian-American, and Indigenous people – they can care about other cultures because they can connect it back to “well, this is important in my culture.’ So, even though that isn’t for me, I can understand why it’s important to them, and this respect can be build, and this curiosity, and this appreciation even of ‘that’s not different’, or ‘that’s not weird, it’s just different’, like ‘Oh, I do it this way, this person in my class does it that way’, and it’s really cool to learn about all these people that by the end of the year they’re just really taking in culture and appreciating it all year long.
JE: All year long. Oh, I love it! Naomi, before we go, where can our people find you?
Naomi: Yes, you can find me on Instagram, @readlikearockstarteaching on Instagram and then @readlikearockstar on TikTok. I’m not on TikTok as much but definitely Instagram is spot to be, and then I also have a website which is readlikearockstarteaching.com. We have lots of blogposts about culture and depth and complexity, and lots of fun resources too.
JE: Oh, wonderful. Thank you so much, Naomi, for this talk, and thank you audience for listening to the Cultural Curriculum Chat with Jebeh Edmunds. We’ll see you next time for more fun educational resources that you can use everyday. Thank you!