Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.
Torie Anderson, a master English teacher at Davis Aerospace Technical High School in Detroit, had been teaching a novel that included some curse words. After class ended, a paraprofessional who’d been observing the class stayed behind to say that Anderson should tone it down.
Her response was to write a children’s book about what it means to speak truth to power even when it’s hard for others to hear.
Anderson, who studied children’s literature as part of her master’s degree in education, had written for children before, but this time she was determined to get her work published. Her book, “Revolutionary Girls” was illustrated by her mother, Carolyn Anderson. Aimed at younger readers, it focuses on the power of speaking out against injustice. Anderson self-published the book this month through Mascot Books.
We spoke with Anderson about her book’s origins and themes, making her lessons relevant to her students, and rethinking the nation’s founding documents for Generation Z.
Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited.
How did your book come about?
So I was reading a novel with my ninth-grade students here at Davis, and it had some profanity.
The profanity in the novel, in my opinion, makes the work more authentic. But there was a resource teacher in the room, and she approached me after class and told me she thought it was inappropriate for students to be reading this novel.
She said, “I get it, you’re very radical. You’re very revolutionary. But you know, I just don’t feel that transfers to the classroom.”
Usually I don’t have enough time to write. I give my students 100% of myself throughout the day, to the point where I don’t have anything left for me. But that day I went home and I wrote a poem called “Revolutionary Girl.” I was thinking, ‘what does it mean to be someone who speaks out using their voice?’
It rhymed, which I don’t usually do, so I deleted it. But a few days later I recovered it from my Google Drive, because I thought it might make a good work of children’s lit.
How have your students reacted to the book?
You know, I haven’t really talked to my coworkers or students about it. There’s a unit in our curriculum called “Power, Protest, and Change.” I was going to save it for then.
Can you tell me about the moment when you decided to be a teacher?
I’ve always been a writer. But in the 12th grade I had a teacher at Pershing [High School in Detroit], she would always let me hang out after class, and I would help her check papers. And I just thought, well, I love to read, I love to write, and I wouldn’t mind trying to inspire others to love reading and writing as much.
To me it’s so powerful that as a teacher you are able to spark something within somebody that they’ll carry them with them for a lifetime.
Would you tell me about one of your favorite lessons to teach?
Whatever I do, I have to make it culturally relevant to my students, because realistically, if it’s not relevant, they’re not going to care.
My district just adopted a new curriculum, and my first unit in 11th-grade English was all about documents. Most of my students are black, and so from a historical perspective, something like the Declaration of Independence wasn’t written for my students. I had to make it relevant.
The Declaration is essentially the colonists writing to King George and telling him, ‘we don’t want to be with you anymore and here’s why.’ So I had my students rewrite it as a breakup letter. And they got a little extra, but they still capture the message the colonists were sending to Great Britain.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
The most difficult part of my job is knowing that as hard as I try, I’m not going to reach everybody. I can plan and I can give 100% of myself, and I’m not going to reach everyone. I burned myself out early in my career, feeling like I had to save everyone.