Professor Natalie Sforza: Learning from My Students

English Professor Natalie Sforza shares lessons on race and racism she learned from her students.

I have taught at Fisher for a long time.  About 15 years ago, in EN101, we were discussing a photo in our textbook of Elizabeth Eckford trying to make her way into a white high school.  The photo shows the anger of the white students, especially Hazel Massery who was screaming at her.  I was explaining the history of the photo for the students who were not familiar with the Little Rock Nine.  

In the front of the room sat my most vocal, eager student.  He is an African American man, and the seat right in front of me was his seat.  He seemed frustrated with my telling of Eckford's story, so I asked him what was up.  He said, "Miss, we don't need to still keep talking about this stuff.  We are over it.  It's the past."  

The room was organized into three rows of tables.  He was in the front center desk, and no one else was behind him.  When he made this comment, I was prompted to look at the classroom, and I noticed something, for the first time, that was startling.  I asked him to turn around and look at the class.  What we both noticed was all the white students in class were in the first row, and all the students of color were in the third row, separated by this almost empty row in the middle. 

The student responded with, "Damn, Miss."  We smiled at each other, and then we continued the discussion on the photograph.  

Elizabeth and Hazel with arms around each others shoulders

That was the first time I noticed the racial divide in my classroom.  The second time was a few minutes later.  I showed a photograph taken of Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Massery as adults.  It showed them smiling with their arms on each others' shoulders.  Simultaneously, the white students said, awwww, or that's nice, and the students of color showed anger and, quite frankly, horror.  We talked about the differences in our reactions and concluded that Eckford was quite extraordinary to forgive.  Many of us acknowledged that we would not be capable of doing so.

The next class, I walked into the classroom and noticed the student, who sat in the front center of the room, was at a table with a white student.  I said, "you changed your seat!" He said, "I'm integrating, Miss."  

Since that day, I knew that I had to be more conscious of including writers on my syllabus who reflect the faces in the classroom.  I knew that it was important to not assume what students know about history, that multiple points of view are essential, and that students should see the success of people who come from the same backgrounds.  

So, in this effort, I am always reading. I know that I also have a lot to learn.  I know that I did not get a well-rounded view of history and literature in school.  I take suggestions from librarians, colleagues, my own research, and my students.  I ask my students, what do I need to watch, read, or listen to, and I try to make my way down the list because their voices are important.  Then I share what I have learned and discovered with my students.  I would encourage my colleagues to do the same if they do not already.

 Professor Sforza is an Assistant Professor of English at Fisher College and English Coordinator. She has taught at Fisher College since 2000. She helped run the tutoring center for seven years, has taught all levels of English writing and literature courses, and regularly teaches the Common Experience. Her favorite courses to teach are freshman writing, Multicultural American Literature, and Women's Literature. Professor Sforza is faculty advisor to the Yoga Club. Her teaching philosophy is centered around the idea that all students are welcome in her classroom where different perspectives, ideas, and voices are valued.

  • Student Life