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Alumnae Spotlight: Shreya Sunderram on Activism in the High School Classroom

Shreya Sunderram (Barnard, B.A. in Political Science and Urban Teaching Certificate, 2019) currently teaches 9th grade Global History and 12th grade Government and Economics at the Urban Assembly Maker Academy in NYC. In 2018, she founded the inaugural Barnard Bold Conference which facilitates dialogue between students and faculty. BarnardHistoryBlog invites Shreya to share her insights on high school teaching and how history classrooms can be unique spaces of activism to empower and validate diverse experiences.

What led you to be a history teacher in a public school?

I grew up passionate about social justice issues but wasn’t sure what space was the best for doing the work I wanted to do. Then I found Barnard’s Urban Teaching program. That program gave me so much: it provided clarity on my theory of change, and showed me that the classroom is a powerful space where we can do the work of justice, especially in history. History when done right creates a sense of shared humanity and compassion. Education creates passionate, thoughtful individuals who are more likely to change the world for the better. Being a history teacher is inherently an activist job.

History courses taught in American high schools often get a bad rep for being irrelevant and lots of forced memorization. How do you view the value of history in education?

Yes, it’s often incredibly memorization based, Eurocentric, and one dimensional! As a South-Asian person, I never felt represented in my curriculum. I understand why history gets a bad rep because it is so easy to teach history that doesn’t reconcile systems of oppression and actually use history class as a vehicle to perpetuating oppression. History is so useful in that it can disrupt these systems of oppression because by representing inclusive and complete histories, we empower students and validate their experiences.

What are your thoughts on the relationship between online school and equity?

Teaching online is extremely different in that we don’t have access to facial expressions as we would in classrooms. It can also exacerbate anxiety in some students who increasingly stay silent during class.  We have many students who at the beginning of lockdown didn’t have access to Wifi or had to share iPads or computers with siblings.

I keep asking the question, “What is the purpose of the classroom?” Especially with the vast issues of equity are obvious in this remote setting. What I’m hoping is that COVID19 could be a moment of transformation within the school system. We’ve seen the SAT and regional exams being cancelled this year. We have realized that it is inequitable to administer these exams during the pandemic, but if we return to these exams in the future, nothing really has changed about inequity. The pandemic has exposed the inequity of the existing system, with privileged students enjoying access to resources like the internet at home that the less privileged do not, not to mention the privileges of attending a well-funded elite school. I’m hoping that this is a moment when our attention to these inequities built-in the educational system exposed by  the pandemic can continue beyond the pandemic.

How did you imagine teaching to be like?

It’s difficult to know the teaching experience 9 to 5 until you’re actually doing it every day. My first-year teaching was interrupted by COVID19 and teaching online has revealed to me how much agency teachers have to intervene in students’ lives. This is something I am thinking about as I navigate the school system. There are lots of moments of joy, even online, celebration, and happiness! I’ve thought a lot about the purpose of school- the space and the activities. My goal is to build a space where my students can comfortably express themselves and wield agency beyond school building.

What History class did you particularly enjoy?

I took a South Asian class with Professor Rao which was hands-down my favorite class. It gave me a sense of self and belonging. It really inspired my thinking about decolonizing education and decolonizing the classroom.

What is your teaching style?

I’m a younger teacher, and one of the best things about being a younger teacher is that it  is easier to instill a greater sense of trust. The traditional power structure between teachers and students, which can do a lot of harm,  chips away. I also go by my first name. There are many ways to relate to them but being a younger teacher puts me at an advantage when it comes to building relationships with my students. The relative proximity of our age  makes for a more open and honest relationship with a greater underlying sense of trust. That’s been amazing because I’ve had really meaningful conversations with my students. 

I would say that my teaching style centers on critique and exploration. Every class starts off with a series of questions that students co-construct, and we debate, discuss, and delve into history to find answers. I don’t believe in a history that teaches students that the world has one story and one right answer. 

Where were your go-to places at Barnard?

I loved the Urban Teaching program, so I hung out on the 3rd floor of Milbank all the time where I bugged the professors. The new library opened up in my senior year so I didn’t get to enjoy that for long. I also really loved Avery and East Asian. Diana was my go-to lunch spot and social area and I loved reading and writing here. 

How are you keeping in touch with your alma mater?

I never stop talking about Barnard. I was so excited when one of my advisees decided to apply ED to Barnard, and she got it in.  I am so excited for her! I told her all about the women’s college experience because it instilled so much confidence in me. I built a really strong sense of self and developed values at Barnard. Barnard gave me an incredible community, and I’m forever grateful. I stay in touch with the programs I was involved with on campus, and with the amazing sisters I gained during my time there. I still live with one of my college roommates.

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