You’ve gained attention for incorporating self-empowerment and activism into your eighth-grade English classes, which are made up of students from across the city. How do you work in those kinds of lessons?
It always goes back to the text. If I read a story, I’m going to find something that relates to [some of] my students’ trauma. We read about a woman who did not speak for years because she saw someone get killed. I asked the kids, “Why did she feel that way?” Once I get them talking about her, I can then ask, “Have you ever felt that way? Do you know anyone who feels that way?” If I can figure out a way to pull out the social-emotional discussion points, then I can get them to open up enough for me to motivate them. I’m all about doing what I feel our curriculum is missing.
How does that compare to how other schools approach emotional learning?
A lot of schools are adopting social-emotional learning curriculums that are supplementary to [their normal] work, such as 10 minutes of meditation in the middle of the school day. There are so many ways to implement social-emotional stuff into every class, but no one’s doing it yet. So that’s what I’m modeling through my curriculum, and eventually I’m going to bleed that throughout the entire nation—that’s my plan.
You’re so open about your struggles with depression on Instagram and in your classroom.
Yeah, I’m pretty open about everything. The only thing I do not share is my love life. I’d rather have something I can keep for myself. But the depression—I don’t feel like it’s mine to keep. Depression is really our fight—it’s an American fight; it’s a universal issue; it’s something that so many of us saw our parents try to live through. We didn’t know what we were looking at. Now for everyone who understands it and has the courage to speak about it, it’s our responsibility to do so.
How does that relate to your relationship with reading?
I didn’t fall in love with reading until a few years ago when I didn’t get into my PhD program at the University of Maryland. I’ve always been a strong teacher because I love teaching and I love kids, but I was not grounded in theory. My professor was so upset when I didn’t get into the program, but she gave me a book by bell hooks and said, “Start with this—this is critical race theory.” And bell hooks not only helped me begin to read theory, but she helped me forgive my family members who had hurt me. She talks about mental health, shame in the black community, lack of love, and things that are direct results of post-traumatic slave syndrome. I read that and thought, “Woah! This is everybody that I’m around!” There were so many nuanced things that I began to see when I got into theory, and I got addicted to that fast.
Then I fell into my deepest depression in 2015 and I was unable to do anything but read. I found my sanity in reading about people who are bipolar and schizophrenic, and I was like, “Oh my god—this is me, this is my mother, this is my grandmother.” Reading really healed me. And these weren’t just books by black authors. You gotta read everybody. Because our stories are in everybody’s stories. I don’t give my kids as many books by black authors as people assume that I do. I used to do that before I began reading as much because I thought that’s what my students needed. Now I’m like, ‘I want you to read about this child in India whose mother was killed, and this little boy in Africa who had to escape, and this little girl in Mexico.’ I want them to see themselves in all of these people. And then we can bring it back to Baltimore.
What are some of the books that you’re teaching this year? How do you motivate students to read extra books that are outside of the curriculum?
We have to teach The Crossover, which is a narrative poem about a kid who plays basketball and his dad dies at the end. I think it’s a good book, but I don’t love it so I added three more. I have this chart that says Master Reader, and if you read five books in the marking period, then you’re a master. If you only read one, then you’re a reader. It’s not a competition; it’s more of a discussion. I let them know that not everyone is going to [read] five books. You may only do one, and that’s okay. And why did you only do one and someone else did five? When you go home, you have to help your mom; when they go home, they’re chillin’, so they have more time. We have these open discussions where we talk about how intimate reading is and how diverse we are as learners.
Tell us about last year’s after-school trip to the new Baltimore City Correctional Center with your Reading Club students.
The jail trip was big for me because we didn’t have books [in my classroom] last year. All the books I have this year came from a book drive on Instagram, and now there are enough for kids to read at home in addition to the class set. How does the city give the jail $32 million, but our schools are lacking? So I walked the kids down to the jail and let them see. Where are the playgrounds? Why do we have all these Chinese restaurants and liquor stores and carryouts? Where’s the actual supermarket? For the kids, it was eye-opening. I let them ask all of the questions.
How have your students affected your life?
The children that I’m teaching are my family. I don’t know how, and I honestly don’t care how, but the work that I’m doing is beyond me, and I take a lot of pride in that. It’s really an honor, and it allows me to trust the process. I had a student who was murdered at barely 22 years old and had a 6-year-old daughter. I can hear his voice saying, “Now I’m actually with you, Ms. Clay, while you’re dealing with these boys. You won’t lose another one.” I can feel that, I can hear that, I can see it in the butterflies, I can feel it in the wind, and I know that everything’s going to be good. That’s why, for me, I would call Baltimore ‘Charm City’. It’s like that witchy charm. And not witchy with a notion of scary, harmful magic. It’s the magic that most people don’t know is inside of them. And I get to pull that out of these kids, and they pull it out of me.