Nationally Acclaimed Teacher’s “Bee Hive Society”
By Amy Gu
A classmate shared with me a Washington Post feature on Ms. Emily E. Smith, a blonde-haired blue-eyed woman sitting cross-legged amongst students with skin darker than hers. The feature introduced Ms. Smith’s fifth grade language arts and social studies pedagogical journey that began five years ago, when she realized that only through empathy and compassion would she even come close to understanding the bleak alienation her non-white, working-class students experienced.
Ms. Smith seemed like an unreachable hero, but a closer read of the article brought to my attention that her class (which she calls “Hive Society”) was located in Cunningham Elementary in South Austin, only a 40-minute drive from Southwestern and a zero-minute drive from the segregated heart of the Deep South.
Last Friday morning, Dr. Alicia Moore, junior Jeana Garcia, and I met a bespectacled, jeans-wearing Ms. Smith inviting us into her two-roomed classroom.
Students moved independently about the rooms engaging in a common set of activities, like bees in a hive. The walls of the rooms bristled with beehive-themed decorations, many framed quotes, and college banners for the “class of 2023.”
Ms. Smith had assigned her students to read a poem, for which they would find an overarching theme, take a picture of architecture that symbolized this theme, and find an article online about a current event related to this theme. Students came to Ms. Smith with printouts of articles about immigration policy, police justice, and other relics of today’s civil rights movements.
Jeana and I stayed to watch Ms. Smith greet each student of the next class enter the class as they sat on the floor to read the same poem, “I Look at the World” by Langston Hughes.
“What’s ‘oppression’?” a student asked me, referring to Hughes’ described “walls of oppression.” How could I explain something that we experience constantly, like air? He understood immediately as Ms. Smith described oppression as pushing down on someone below you.
“I think these ‘walls’ are figurative and also literal. Like internment camp walls,” another student said.
During recess and lunch, Ms. Smith showed Jeana and me a board displaying her students’ versions of William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” and Hughes’ “Let America be America Again.” One student wrote about a photo, the only reminder of his mom that remains ever-present. Another asked America to bring his father across the border, since he has tried to cross 17 times. Another said she is white and Latina and proud to be so.
In the empty classroom, Ms. Smith talked to us more about the authors her students study (Langston Hughes, John Legend, Gary Soto, Sandra Cisneros, Jaclyn Woodson, black civil rights activists, journalists exposing the humanity of undocumented immigrants, women soldiers, and Middle Eastern teachers. The students learned about hope and determination from people who looked and lived like they did, people who gleaned hope and determination in the face of the same oppressions these students experience.
Ms. Smith explained that she succeeds a family of Southwestern alumni but she was not accepted into her parents’ alma mater because of relatively low SAT scores on an otherwise competitive resume. Despite this personal loss, Smith still prioritizes creative and community-based learning over polished test scores. Students take tests for the district, she said, but not for her class.
“I, as a teacher, value brilliance. Just not on assessments as I felt Southwestern did when they looked at me,” Smith said.
Smith attributes her current growth as a social justice teacher to collaborative research with Detra Price-Dennis, Assistant Professor in Elementary Inclusive Education professor at the Teachers College of Columbia University, and Kathlene Holmes, doctoral candidate at University of Texas.
“They’re integral in my pedagogical growth and also serve as role-models and mentors to both me and my kids,” Smith said.
Teaching, she explained, is exhausting; with sadness as a natural side effect of the empathy teachers need to teach students like hers. Smith said she had fostered one of her students the year before and that her students live in a food desert. While Smith and other educators meet regularly to implement social justice in public education, these efforts often go unpaid monetarily.
Despite the challenges that come with teaching social justice, Smith said she would continue to cherish teaching social justice. She hopes to one day to see students above the poverty line, with higher footing on the socio-economic hierarchy, empathize with experiences of Langston Hughes and students of Hive Society.
“Those are the kids who need to learn about kids like ours,” she said. “Our kids know what it’s like to be poor, black, Latina, or orphaned whether we learn it in school or not.”
Perhaps a first step in accepting this challenge is by learning from teachers like Ms. Smith, who use their authority to listen to and amplify her students’ voices.