Dr. Chrislaine Miller Reflects on Access to Education, Valuing Multiple Narratives, and Making Students Feel Seen
Chrislaine Miller has taught in many different settings, from the Oakland public school system to a Pre-K through 12th grade independent school and at The University of California, Santa Cruz. But there’s one common thread running through all those experiences and into her Castilleja classroom: she makes students feel valued.
“There is so much joy in middle school,” Dr. Miller says. “I love teaching my students about history. I want to touch base with them every day. I want to hear their ideas. If you can say you have joy in your workplace, something is going right.”
Dr. Miller’s own middle school years were starkly different. “I did not have teachers who talked to me,” she remembers. “My experience was not ideal. But I certainly can be the teacher who sees you, who wants you to do well in school, who wants you to do well in whatever you choose to do in your life.”
A daughter of Haitian immigrants, Dr. Miller watched her parents struggle as they started over in America. Back in Haiti, her mother had a nursing degree and her father worked as an engineer, but in the United States, that education didn’t translate. Eventually, her father did become a civil engineer in California. Her mother also tried to restart her education and career in the new country while raising four children, but could not.
Growing up, Dr. Miller didn’t know any other Haitian Americans in her California town, and she found little in her school curriculum that connected with her Caribbean and African American identity. “I didn’t grow up in a school that taught anything about African American history or culture,” she says. “I had friends who came to my house, and they’d be like ‘What is your mother cooking?’ My family was not making traditional African American foods. We ate a lot of fish, plantains. And for the most part, up until high school, wanting to be accepted, I didn’t talk about my Haitainness. I have this dual identity that then gets subsumed into American perceptions of Blackness.”
Then, in college, all of this changed. She discovered courses in African American narratives and writers like Toni Morrison. “I was very surprised to learn that there is this whole literature, history about Black people that I didn’t have access to growing up,” remembers Dr. Miller. “That opened up the world that I didn’t know.”
Eventually, her undergraduate professor and a graduate student at her University of California, Berkeley teaching fellowship encouraged her to pursue a PhD. Dr. Miller went on to write a doctoral dissertation about the experience of African American laborers who migrated to Haiti in the 19th century and assimilated.
Now, as a history teacher, Dr. Miller encourages her 6th grade students to remain curious and appreciative of each other’s unique perspectives, which captures one of Castilleja’s Teaching and Learning Antiracism Competencies, Valuing Multiple Narratives—defined as valuing the multiplicity of life stories, experiences, and perspectives, even when those narratives compete. Dr. Miller wants her classroom to be a place “where diverse experiences are not only welcomed, but celebrated,” she explains.
She hopes that all children can access opportunities and mentorship. “I have three siblings. I’m the only one who had these opportunities, in these spaces that have traditionally not included me,” she points out. “We need people to pass the torch and recognize the potential [in others].”
In one class project, Dr. Miller’s students learn about the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Students investigate a climate-related topic from the perspective of the country they’re assigned to represent, be it Myanmar or Russia or India. They debate, negotiate, and write a resolution to convince peers to agree to their solution.
In doing so, they’re learning to understand that their own viewpoint—and the US approach to sustainability, for example—is just one of many.
“It gives the kids a deep understanding of the world and issues that have transcended time,” Dr. Miller explains. “They might be representing a country that has very different ideas and values than what they may know. We might have differences in culture, but we are coming together as delegates to solve global problems.”
This UN project helps students tackle complex conversations and connect modern-day issues with the material they’re learning in her world history class about ancient civilizations and empires.
“They’re such readers and thinkers,” says Dr. Miller. “They’re learning to compromise, to get along with others that may or may not agree with them. If we give students opportunities to engage in this process of diplomacy and international relations, they will rise to the occasion. The process is really kind of magical to see.’”