Interview with Jessica Lander, Educator, Journalist, Change Agent in the World

Thanks for taking some time to tell us a bit about yourself and your work, Jessica. I’m so glad we met between our mutual collaborator, Adam Strom, of Re-Imagining Migration.  I think our readers would appreciate hearing about what you do as an educator, journalist and overall change agent in the world.

First off, can you please explain to our readers why you’ve chosen to work in education?  And if you can encapsulate your reasons into a mission, of sorts, I’d love to hear it!

I currently teach history to 150 public high-school students, most of whom are recent immigrants and refugees who hail from more than 30 countries. Before that I taught English to university students in northern Thailand, leadership and critical thinking to young women in the capital of Cambodia, entrepreneurship to Cambridge-area teenagers, and a range of subjects to Boston middle-school students.

I believe that teaching is the single most impactful thing I can do to improve the world.  My students have incredible talents, creativity and ideas to share with the world and they care deeply about making their communities stronger. But they don’t always have the confidence or the tools to create the change they dream of making. As a teacher, I help young people discover and sharpen their civic voice and  realize that they have the power to make impactful, far-reaching change. I have seen time again and again in my classrooms around the world that once they discover their voice, they never lose it.

I understand you’re also a journalist.  Which articles that you’ve written align with the mission you just described?  (please link to some and describe a bit about each/how they link to your mission)

I have loved to write since when I was little – my 6th grade teacher had us write every week. I was drawn to creative non-fiction and journalism through learning the incredible stories of supposedly ordinary people. My first book, Driving Backwards, was an exploration of a small town in New Hampshire – once America’s most famous small town – and the stories of extraordinary everyday farmers.

These days I write primarily about education policy and see my journalism as powerful tool to advocate for my students. My journalism is often driven by inequalities I see or my experience as an educator.  I am particularly interested in the gap between policy and practice. A few of my more recent op-eds and articles include: A Young Refugee Becomes a Citizen, The Strengths of Immigrant Students, Keeping Kids out of Detention, and The Troublemakers.


In addition to my journalism, I’ve become deeply passionate about the importance of helping schools foster meaningful relationships with students’ families. Last summer I co-authored Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success with Harvard Professor Karen Mapp and Boston-based teacher Ilene Carver. In it, we set out to explore and document concrete steps we can take to best connect with families.  It has been exciting to work with teachers, schools and districts over the last year to develop and grow their practice.

In addition, you’ve also published some books that have involved your students.  Can you please tell us about that work and even forecast what’s to come in your book writing?  [also where can we buy your work for classrooms? links please :)]

A few years ago,  I designed a high-school seminar exploring our evolving understandings of diversity in America. Together, my students and I set out to explore the country’s evolving understanding of what it means to be an American. As my students read and discussed historical movements and events, they grew increasingly concerned by the rise in intolerance across the nation -- troubled by attempts to narrow what it means to be American. Their response was to decided that they wanted to help teach others about the history they were learning.


And so, they set about researching, writing, editing and finally publishing a book of their own: Defining Diversity. Each student chose to tackle and explain a key concept, federal law, or Supreme Court decision, which together trace the complex history of our country’s fight for equity. They explored topics ranging from the 13th Amendment (ratified in 1865) to the Violence Against Women’s Act of 1994; they dove into the history of Supreme Court cases from Korematsu v. United States in 1944 to Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015; and they teased apart and contextualized terms including unconscious bias, structural racism, and identity. And, perhaps most importantly, they wrestled with how to make these topics relatable for their peers -- making sure the language was understandable to students in 6th through 12th grade.


In the weeks, months and now year since we published the book, the students and I have shared Defining Diversity with more than 160 schools in almost all 50 states. Excitingly, it is being used as a classroom text in a number of middle and high schools as well as at least two colleges.


Last year, I taught another class of students in this seminar and we together set out to write another book that could be used by peers locally and nationally. Last June, we published the sequel, Achieving Equality. In writing this book, my students sought to shed light on a few of the many men and women who have worked to create a more perfect union. As my students note, activism has no age limit. The activists they profiled created change at age 6 and at age 86 -- a collection that is in no way comprehensive, but a snapshot of some of the brave people who made America better. In Achieving Equality, each student shares the story of one activist working to achieve equality—capturing a little of their life’s work and their methods for creating change—through writing and photography. Our hope is that there is much we can learn from the struggles these activists faced, the challenges they overcame, and the successes they achieved.


As we head into September, I’m excited about the upcoming project my students and I will be taking on - an exploration of their own personal stories and how those histories and narratives together tell the larger story of our country. I’m hoping to share more soon with the larger education community!


In addition to the books my Diversity Seminar students have written and published, I’ve also had the honor of helping my U.S. History students (who are all recent immigrants and refugees) publish a cookbook weaving together recipes, memories and journey stories. Last year we wrote Tasting History: Family Recipes and Stories from 30 Countries a collection of more than 100 recipes and essays! Their stories are beautiful, graceful and full of spirit. One Brazilian student, describing her favorite carrot cake, wrote “I like the cake because it reminds me of my grandmother, she always made it with love and a little bit of orange juice.”


The most memorable day was when most of my 100 students cooked and shared their recipes. I watched my students circle the room with curiosity and growing delight sampling each other’s childhood favorites, tasting spices and flavors they had never had and drawing connections between foods that spanned continents. I also came home with my stomach full of delicious food that day. I’m very much looking forward to publishing the second cookbook this fall with my new classes of students.

You asked too about where these books can be found. Defining Diversity can be bought from Harvard Book Store, and all of the rest can be purchased from me (proceeds will fund publication of this year’s books).

Finally, I happen to know that you’re an avid traveler having recently shared a trip home from an event for Re-Imagining.  Would you be able to speak about how your travels inform your mission as an educator? And where are you going next?

I have been incredibly lucky and privileged to have grown up traveling. From the time I  was six months old, my parents took me with them when they explored cities and countrysides overseas. Some of my most vivid memories as a child are of traveling with my family - sometimes we would even get pulled out of school to fly halfway around the world.  In this way the cultures, languages, histories, and peoples of the world became my classroom.


This early love of travel had a direct impact on the work I chose to do. In college I spent considerable time in Tanzania, learning, researching and writing about an incredible school in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro for my undergraduate thesis.  Six days after I graduated college I was teaching university classes in northern Thailand. I lived in Chiang Mai for a year, where I first fell in love with teaching and where I first began working with refugee students. Since then I have mostly worked as an educator in the Boston area (with an interruption to teach women university students in Phnom Phen, Cambodia) focusing on teaching and supporting recent immigrants and refugee students.


You ask where I’m headed to next - in November I’m off to celebrate my youngest brother’s birthday in Oslo, Norway where he is working at an international peace institute. My two younger brothers and I have each been shaped by our early exploration of the world, and my youngest brother is just beginning a career in international conflict resolution and peace building.  

In Confianza's work with change agents in schools, we use our structured, inquiry-based Action Cycle process to Ask, Analyze, Act and Assess around a specific issue of concern.  Our Action Cycle Guide for Implementing Equity, Language & Literacy Practices is now available for purchase.  You can also participate in our facilitated Confianza Cafe with a Certified Confianza Coach.  See our set of professional learning offering options.

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