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Not just students—but whole humans

When we bring our whole selves and all of our identities to the classroom, we empower students to write their own stories.

Author: Lucero Denisse Valderrama

  • Hispanic Heritage Month
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I am a poet, an immigrant, and a teacher. I was born in Mexico near the Texas border, I call San Jose, California my hometown, and I live in Kansas City. I wrap together all of these identities and others—daughter, sister, friend, woman.

In June, I published my first collection of poems, Soy Mujer. The 60 poems in this volume pull from my identities in all their facets, with scenes of immigration, politics, race and ideas of beauty. In writing I find a way to express what it means to live out my identities. It is therapy and art, a way to translate myself, know myself better, and to reflect that knowing to others.

Language has such beauty and power. As a sixth grade English Language Arts teacher, I work to offer the power of words and identity to my students, so they can control their own narratives, write their own translations, and advocate for themselves.

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Becoming a teacher

I have always loved writing. It allows me to capture images in a way that empowers me. In school, I was one of the few students who got excited for the poetry unit. I even started a slam poetry club at my high school that still exists today. That’s where I really started writing and performing. It allowed me to call attention to issues I saw in society, including the issues my mom and I faced as immigrants—the different opportunities available to me and to my younger sister, simply because she was born here and my citizenship came later.

I became a citizen in 2012, which allowed me to receive financial aid and become the first in my family to go to college. In high school, I was a student with Breakthrough Silicon Valley, a college-prep program for motivated students who might not normally have the opportunity to go to college. I became a teaching fellow with the program and then the dean of operations. I loved the organization’s work, and it was there that I got a call from Candice Wilson at the Ewing Marion Kauffman School in Kansas City. 

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EMKS is a charter school started in 2011 to fill a need for schools with a college graduating mindset. They recruit teachers nationwide to bring the best to their students. I was attracted by the college driven mission and knew how powerful that could be because of my time at Breakthrough. I decided to make the trek from San Jose to Kansas City.

I graduated with a degree in sociology and ethnic studies from Azusa Pacific University. I did not have a teaching certification, but the innovative program at EMKS paired me with a master teacher to get that training and practice.

This was my first job out of college, and I thrived on the mentorship. Now I lead my own classroom and I have been so excited and focused on building relationships. I knew if students trusted me, our classroom culture would automatically build to academic excellence.

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Learning starts with relationships

Kansas City and San Jose are definitely different. I didn’t grow up in this community, yet, I can connect with students based on how our experiences are similar. I was raised in a single parent family and my mom always worked two or three jobs. My sister and I were always at school or in after-school programs because mom worked at night. Money was always tight.

Many of my students have this experience, and we share those parts of our identity, whether they are Latinx or not. For some of my Latinx students whose parents don’t speak English, we share the identity of translator for our parents or other adults in the house.

For all of my students, I offer care and support. I let them know we’re going to work together, we’re going to come out on top, we’re going to learn. And—it’s going to be hard and it’s going to be fun. I love to learn from and with my students. Together we search for the truth.

The best part of teaching? Hands down it’s the relationships I build with students. Relationships come first. They are more than just students, but whole humans with lives outside of my classroom at this really vulnerable age. I expect and always believe the best for them and know they can do it. 

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Bringing my identities so students can bring theirs

I have always wanted to write a memoir. When the pandemic hit, I had already committed to writing one poem every day for Women’s History Month in March. By June, I decided to translate the book into Spanish. I never formally learned academic Spanish until I was in highschool, though I spoke Spanish at home. So, this was part of the challenge, a way to honor the proudly bilingual part of my identity.

When I published the collection, I just wanted people to read it. It still blows me away that so many people embraced my work. My coworkers at school were so supportive. And I told my students about the collection on the first day of school, when we all learned about one another. They were so enthusiastic. Now that we’ve been in community together for two months, they always want me to read some of my poetry. It’s really humbling.

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I love that I can show them this side of me and show them that “you can do this too.” I have a lot of artists in my class. I tell them, “You could have a painting hanging in the local museum someday!” I want them to expand their horizons and know that they can have fun and have success. It’s not one or the other. And I want them to know that I had to reach into vulnerable parts of myself to make my art, so they should not be afraid to do that too.

Mostly, I want my students to proudly embrace all of their identities. If they are bilingual, they can be proud of that. They can be proud of their names and ask people to pronounce it correctly. They can be proud of their art and their heritage. They can be celebrated.

As a whole human, I decide what aspects of my identity and culture I keep intact while also embracing the professional culture or the American cultural norm. When I present myself authentically to my students, they know they can present themselves authentically too.

My identity as a young professional, a writer, and an educator is still evolving. I am happy to be on this journey in community with my students. Together, we embrace the power of words and language to tell our stories and make our worlds. 

Follow Lucero

Lucero Denisse Valderrama is a writer, activist, and sixth grade ELA teacher at the Ewing Marion Kauffman School in Kansas City. In 2020, she published her first book of poems, Soy Mujer

Follow Lucero and learn more about her book: @_lucerodenisse