Julia Torres is a Librarian and Language Arts teacher at a public high school in Denver, Colorado and writes and publishes on Medium.com for her students and the wider audience. As an advocate for all students and public education, Julia facilitates workshops and professional conversations about equity, anti-bias/anti-racist education, culturally sustaining pedagogies, and literacy in the digital age.
I met Julia at the 5Sigma Conference at the Anastasis Academy in Colorado. As soon as we started talking, it seemed like we had always known each other. I sat in her session about teaching tolerance and knew that I had to connect with her. We kept in touch, saw each other at SXSW, and just had to follow up with a podcast. Enjoy the podcast and what Julia wrote and shared below.
Let’s talk about you and your family.
I am originally from Southern California, but when I was a teenager, I lived in Brazil and this changed my life. My father died when I was young, and my mother raised me. She is bilingual (Spanish and English), so she taught me Spanish from birth. In Brazil, where I lived for one year and have been traveling on an almost-yearly basis for the last 23 years, I learned Portuguese, which I consider to be the language of my heart. As such, multiculturalism and multilingualism is a big part of who I am. I currently live and teach in Denver, Colorado where I am lucky to work in the largest (and only urban) school district in the state. I have taught Language Arts since 2005, and am currently what is termed a teacher-librarian. My main job is to help students re-ignite their passion for reading by finding new and creative ways to introduce them to books, authors, and the written and spoken word.
What was it like when you were young and in school?
When I was young, I remember liking school because I was a very curious person. I was also always in a book. I have always been a passionate reader and a secret writer. I remember school being easy because I was one of those kids who just knew how to do school. Language arts was always really easy for me, but math was where I struggled. My math classes traumatized me. Friends who are math teachers now chastise me all the time for labeling myself as “not a math person”, but I still think it’s true! I cried a lot because of my math grades. I was that person with all As and a D bordering on an F–in math class. I remember school being about impressing the teacher with how well-behaved, obedient I could be, and how well I could do what they wanted. I definitely suffered from “pretty brown-girl syndrome” in which we are taught to be quiet, obedient, and twice as skilled as anyone else…I internalized the lesson many Black women are taught by society, that you have to be twice as good to receive half as much. Half as much pay, praise, half as many rewards. I knew that I would always be punished for the slightest misstep, and rewards would seldom if ever come my way…only after working very, very hard. It is for this reason that I consider myself and so many other Black women I know to be masters of our crafts. We often have no choice not to be.
What is your passion? What you love and want to learn?
Every once in a while, I read books about metaphysics and/or astrology. I read one recently called “Astrology for the Soul” that offers a pretty simple way of calculating your North and South Nodes. I won’t go into that for folks who don’t believe in such things, but the basic message was that I am at my best when I’m with children or teaching people how to best serve children. When I read those words I was SHOCKED. It said that IN PRINT. It blew me away. It said a lot of other things, like I’m supposed to be working with words and literature because working with such things would be gifts I would be given to help me with my primary mission of working with children, but the way this has all manifested lately is that I just love helping kids love reading again. Too many of our children in what are labeled “Title 1” “Low-income” or “Hard-to-Serve” schools–and I use those labels begrudgingly, because no situation is that simple, right?
But anyhow, I will use the language I have to say that too many children in school environments like mine have had their love of reading systematically stolen. The high-stakes culture of testing coupled with an unhealthy and irrational fixation on forcing “The Classics” down students’ throats leads to secondary students in grades 6-12 associating reading with pain, suffering, insecurity, in short, misery. I dedicate every day to doing something about this. Part of it is because I love reading so much, and I consider it an honor to be paid to help children love it too, but a bigger part is that I know that their ability to fully participate in life will be dependent upon their relationship with words. Take somebody’s language away, and you’ve taken away a huge piece of their humanity. As so much of my work is oriented toward anti-racist teaching practices, I believe that this work is an essential part of liberatory education.
My speech from Ignite Denver 2018 – “Love is a Verb: Education is Liberation”
How do we, all of us, celebrate our differences? And then teach our children to do that?
We should definitely teach children to celebrate differences, but in order to celebrate them, you first have to learn not to fear them. Humans are wired to fear differences. But, what are we here for if not to evolve. I don’t jive with the folks who say, “This is my lizard brain, that’s just the way we are wired. There is no moving beyond it.” I disagree. I think we are at this stage in human evolution where we can and should work to move beyond it. That’s what this global interconnectedness and the great thing called the world wide web has afforded us–a chance to work together, connect, share passions, and make the world a better place.
The Educator Collaborative Gathering Fall 2018 https://youtu.be/f4OZsj4hJBM
Who are your favorite authors?
I recommend Jesmyn Ward–all Jesmyn Ward. Her books will change your life both with the stories that are told, the emotions they will bring out of you, and the sheer craft behind them. Lately, I’ve been working hard to go back in time and fill in some gaps from my miseducation, so Assata Shakur’s new Autobiography is helping me to do that. It is not only Black people who need to reclaim our history, but all people also need to reclaim whole slices of history that they were not fed. Go get after them. As for YA or kid lit, I can’t pick favorites, but I’m definitely on an Ibi Zoboi kick right now. She has an anthology coming out called Black Enough that needs to be part of EVERY creative writing class everywhere– probably every 9th grade English class. It’s just a bunch of dope, beautiful, creative people who came together to write these beautiful stories of Blackness. The Poet X is another one that will change your life. It speaks to the bilingual soul, and despite what has historically been the case, more and more of us are bilingual. Monolingualism is not a thing, so folks need to stop referring to students as “monolinguals” when they are such themselves. Just because a student only speaks Spanish, but YOU only speak English does not mean they are somehow deficient and you are not… Two more: Jason Reynolds–all Jason Reynolds books and Trevor Noah–Born a Crime along with some books on my table.
What does librarianship look like these days?
I am far from the expert. I can tell you that I have been at it that long, but I know that librarians are a very underutilized asset. I know that there is a disturbing trend across the nation where secondary librarians are retiring and not being replaced, and I think that is extremely sad. The teacher shortage is really sad, but to me, the deliberate destruction of libraries is criminal. A society that steals language, love of that language, and the joys of reading for pleasure from children is a society that robs itself of its future. We may not see the error of our ways yet, but what we have done will catch up with us. It is a mistake to think that just because the world is moving in a digital direction, the old-time pleasure of reading books is no longer valid. Yet, I manage Project Lit Montbello and encourage reading and find the greatest selections for our kids to read. Here are a few books for #MontbelloReads:
Julia E. Torres is a Language Arts teacher at a public high school in Denver, Colorado. She finds humor in everyday moments with her family, friends, and students she teaches. Julia’s favorite genres to read are biographies, historical fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction. Julia has had the great privilege of traveling to Mexico, Canada, Iceland, Bermuda, Switzerland, Germany, France, Italy, and Costa Rica. She lived in Brazil as a teenager and continues to be close to her adopted family and friends who live there.
Many pieces that Ms. Torres writes and publishes on Medium.com are for her students to read, and the wider audience of her peers in the field of education. She believes in students having a reading and writing teacher who is also a reader, and a writer. As such, she does her best to model the types of writing she asks students to produce, then shares them with a real audience, as real writers do. “Ms. Torres”, “Miss”, “Torres”, or “Mama T”, as her students call her, enjoys teaching writing primarily because the field is constantly evolving in both content, and form. She also feels that now, more than ever is the time for students to develop their voices and use them to produce positive change. Julia feels that helping students develop their own personal writing voice and style is the gift that keeps giving. She remains passionately committed to amplifying student voices by any means possible. Teaching, aside from her family, is Julia’s greatest love. As an advocate for all students and public education, Ms. Torres regularly undertakes speaking engagements, facilitates workshops and professional conversations about equity, anti-bias/anti-racist education, culturally sustaining pedagogies, and literacy in the digital age. She also serves on several local and national boards and committees that promote educational equity and progressivism.