What’s the first question you’d ask if someone woke you after being asleep for 100 years?
This is the type of question English teacher Alexandra West asks to start her sixth-period multicultural literature class at La Salle-Peru High School. Answers vary widely – from asking if Chick-fil-A is still around to “can I go back to sleep?”
While it seems like a fun, silly way to start the class, West said their question of the day is a meaningful way to get to know her students and engage them in class.
“This is how I get to know them, what’s going on in their lives and what’s happening,” West said.
The class focuses on analyzing American literature from a wide variety of people, including refugee authors, immigrant authors, authors of color, women and more with themes of guilt, redemption, coming of age, conflict and war.
“I always tell them we’re looking at the human experience here in this literature class,” West said. “Because that’s what literature is, it’s the human experience.”
West said part of teaching and learning about the human experience is getting students to relate to the material. She said she shares her own life experiences, from her travels to her experiences in life as a woman of color, to help students connect and encourage them to share their own stories.
“Being a woman of color living within this community was hard,” West said. “I faced racism, I faced all of those things. Stereotyping, whatever it might be.”
West, an L-P graduate, said she was lucky to have a great group of friends in high school who stood up for her whenever she was bullied because of her race. While she was grateful to have those friends, she said she needed to find her own voice, too.
“I think the biggest obstacle was figuring out how to navigate racism and navigate being authentically me,” West said.
She motivates me. I can be bad on my homework sometimes, but she motivates me to really do my homework because she helps me out a lot, so I feel like it’s necessary for me to give back to her by turning stuff in on time, doing my assignments the correct way and giving it my all.”— London Cabrera, a La Salle-Peru High School senior
The decision to attend Aurora University for her teaching degree was one of the best things she could’ve done, West said. There, she met people that helped her find her voice and lead her to where she is today.
West said she shares that story and others from her life with her students. Showing them her own vulnerability helps encourage her students to share their own life experiences, West said.
“I have to be vulnerable, too,” West said. “I share my experiences with them so they’re willing to share their experiences with me.”
Senior Antonio Rodriguez is one of the students in West’s multicultural literature class. He said he likes her passion and said she creates a friendly atmosphere where he can talk freely and collaborate.
“She wants us to get good grades so she pushes us to get the good grades and makes us be accountable,” Rodriguez said. “Whereas other teachers will kind of hold my hand still, she just lets you go off and if you have questions come back to her. She makes you do the things first before you ask questions.”
West said she also tries her best to lead by example. She said she’s always pushing her students to leave their comfort zones, try new things, admit mistakes and meet new people.
“Sometimes we don’t leave our bubble, our comfort zone,” West said. “And we have to leave our comfort zone every once in a while and experience new things in ways that are different from what we normally do.”
West said one of her hobbies is travel. Her most recent solo trip was to San Diego for spring break, and she said her students were worried about her traveling by herself and said she can’t do that. She told them that, yes, she can, and that it’ll be a great new experience.
“If I want them to be uncomfortable in something, or to learn or say I’ve made a mistake or be courageous, then I’ve got to do that, too,” West said. “I want them to be curious about the world and I have to show them that I’m curious, too.”
West said she comes from a single-parent household, and understands what it’s like not to always have a parent at all your games. She knows some of her students may not be eating dinner every night or have the best clothes or good running water.
“As I see students in this room,” West said, “I understand that their backgrounds are different.”
Senior London Cabrera said West is “super supportive and super helpful,” and always quick to say hello in the hallways and ask how his day is going.
“She motivates me,” Cabrera said. “I can be bad on my homework sometimes, but she motivates me to really do my homework because she helps me out a lot. So, I feel like it’s necessary for me to give back to her by turning stuff in on time, doing my assignments the correct way and giving it my all.”
Cabrera said West has taught him to never give up, even when life gets difficult.
“When the road gets bumpy, it’ll get smooth at some point,” Cabrera said. “So just keep pushing, keep trying and you know there’s always gonna be another day.”
West said her favorite part of teaching is her students. She said they students likely won’t remember the themes or figurative language she taught them, but said she hopes they take away a new perspective and a bigger capacity for empathy and compassion for others.
“They’re charismatic, they’re silly, they’re fun,” West said. “Do they like to read? No. But are they reading? Yes. I really love when I get that reluctant reader to read ... and I have a lot of those. But I can say a lot of them are reading, and whether they want to admit, they’re reading, which is wonderful.”