Palestine in English Class

An interview with Kristia Castrillo by Jody Sokolower

Kristia Castrillo teaches 10th and 11th grade English at Balboa High School in San Francisco. She was a participant on the Teach Palestine Project’s June 2019 trip to Palestine. Jody Sokolower is co-coordinator of the Teach Palestine Project.

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The Interview

Jody Sokolower: Why did you decide to include a unit on Palestine in your 10th-grade English curriculum?

Kristia Castrillo: For a long time before I finally did it, I recognized that teaching about Palestine was something that I wanted to do. I realized that the Arab diaspora in general was missing from my curriculum, and it was something I wanted to address.

Over the years, I’ve have had Yemeni and Algerian students, Muslims from the Arab world and elsewhere, as well as Palestinian. Even amongst the non-Palestinians, there’s an awareness of Palestine as a political epicenter; it is an issue they connect to.

Participating in MECA’s Teacher Trip to Palestine created the right context for me to grow and for it to feel feasible. I don’t want to say feasible; I want to say the trip made me realize that I felt intimidated to teach about Palestine precisely because Israel’s public relations project has been so successful that well-intentioned teachers around the world feel intimidated to broach the topic.

Sokolower: How does your experience as an immigrant from the Philippines and as a Filipina activist affect your understanding of Palestine?

Castrillo: I left the Philippines when I was a teenager. As a college student in New York and then a young adult in San Francisco, I was formally and informally mentored by anti-colonial, anti-imperialist Filipin@ activists. So it’s not my being Filipina as much as it is the framework that I was able to develop, through study and activism and lived experience, to become an anti-imperialist Filipina.

As someone who feels and understands that my entire family, my entire personal history is impacted by colonialism, I can’t see things any other way. Whenever I’m studying another part of the world, that’s always with me. And that made it a lot easier to make sense of the story of Palestine, which in many ways is actually quite simple and quite similar to other examples of settler colonialism. Despite the fact that there’s been such an organized effort to make it seem like an anomaly—the one time when colonialism is justified.

So in the classroom, it was wonderful for me to be able to draw parallels between different forms of settler colonialism, different forms of land and resource theft, different forms of historic disenfranchisement. These are issues that my students are constantly struggling with. Whether or not they identify their own experience using those terms, my students recognize and feel the connections. Even those who are not growing up in a household where these words are used are well-versed in what they experience. And what they experience is different forms of an American police state and the justification of routinized violence against people of color and poor people. So they were excited to learn about things in a different part of the world that illuminated their own situation.

Sokolower: You centered your unit on Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem: Chronicles from The Holy City. It’s essentially a travelogue. Delisle’s wife is an administrator on assignment with Doctors Without Borders, and Guy is along for the ride. He wanders through Jerusalem and other cities in the West Bank and 48 Palestine, documenting his impressions in graphic novel form. I guess I expected you to choose something more explicitly pro-Palestinian or by a Palestinian writer. Why did you choose Chronicles from the Holy City?

KRISTIA: I asked other teachers about their experiences teaching about Palestine. And I decided there was something to be said about picking a text that doesn’t overtly claim a side. By the end it’s clear that Delisle’s sympathy is with the Palestinians, but that develops slowly over the course of the book. I thought it would be beneficial to my students for me, as a radical woman of color who has never apologized for how anti-capitalist my curriculum is, to lean on a white male author in this way. He is very much saying: Here I am in this situation with my family and I’m going show you what I see.

DeLisle models well is an ambiguous ally-ship. If I only show my students the perspective of outspoken, explicitly anti-colonial authors and artists from Palestine, I’m not giving them a flexible range of places to stand. And there’s a lot of power in in teaching a book with a narrator who doesn’t claim to know what the right thing is because then it challenges the reader to answer that for themselves.

Chronicles from the Holy City is also an observational comparison of different religions, cultures, and interpretations. We had very interesting conversations in which students shared how the religious climate in their home and community affected them. They were trying to make sense of the ways people choose to live, how we explain our existence and the meaning of the universe to ourselves, why we tell ourselves we have to obey certain rules, follow certain norms, abide by certain beliefs. Many of them are developmentally at the point of realizing that just because their parents have a specific belief system, that doesn’t mean that they have to. Or just because their teacher or religious leader has a specific belief, that doesn’t mean they have to. I’m always telling them that they’re both nurtured and trapped by the ways their families are raising them; it’s up to them to decide who they want to be as adults. For some of them that’s very scary, and for some of them that’s also incredibly exciting.

One more reason: I didn’t have a graphic novel in my curriculum. I teach a lot of heavy, dense text excerpts, so this was something different in terms of genre, and it gave the kids another way to process and learn. I knew that there were lots of videos, poetry, and articles that I could include to represent the Indigenous Palestinian experience and the experience of Palestinians in diaspora.

Sokolower: What were the essential questions for the unit?

Castrillo Here’s the list:
• Who’s history gets written and told?
• What does it mean to coexist despite difference?
• Does oppression justify revenge?
• Who gets to claim ownership to a place?
• How do people differentiate between their culture, their religion, and their politics?
• How do culture and religion affect peoples’ everyday decision-making?

I think one essential question missing is what we were just talking about: What’s the impact of a socially conservative vs a more liberal view of one’s religion?

Sokolower: How did you introduce the unit?

Castrillo: I introduced the core text, and described some of the other resources we would be exploring, including a video about Palestinian hip-hop, and poetry by Palestinians in Palestine and in the diaspora. I told them that for the final project they would be creating a short graphic novel, either in a small group or on their own.

I explained why I wanted to give them an Arab experience, a Palestinian experience, and why I wanted to expose them to a graphic novel. Some students were challenged by the idea of reading a graphic novel. Other students read lots of graphic novels on their own, so they were very comfortable with the format.

One of the first activities we did was a gallery walk. The goal was to unpack the idea of borders and walls, and to compare different borders and walls around the world. The US-Mexico border was, of course, in the forefront of our minds given Trump’s focus on building it. So that was a way for my students to connect to Palestine—a place where everyone is forced to interact with walls every day.

I put photos of the militarization of border zones, especially at the US/Mexico border and in Palestine, up on the walls around the room, and gave students 20 minutes to look at them and make comments on post-its. Then we had a whole-group discussion. The students spent a lot of time trying to understand how the walls in Palestine function: Why were Palestinians standing in line in these long cages? Where were they going? Why was there a wall snaking through the middle of Bethlehem? How did that affect the people who lived there?

They understood that governments build walls as a form of non-interaction with the outside world. They do it because they don’t want to deal with people they see as “other.” They want to block them from entering, keep them away. Before the discussion, fewer of my students understood that walls are not only defensive, but also offensive. We discussed the long-term impact for people living surrounded by walls. Most of them hadn’t lived in border cities or towns.

One set of photos pictured the Berlin wall and its destruction. They were curious about what happened because they think of the walls they know, like the one at the US/Mexico border, as fixed and permanent—parts of the landscape that have always existed and will always exist.

Almost all of my students are immigrants. So they identify with people who want or need to move across borders because that is the story of their family. They are very aware of racists like Trump who want to keep people out. So it was easy for them to empathize with the Palestinians waiting at border crossings, and even the ones trying to climb the wall.

Sokolower: How did you structure reading the book in your class? And then how did you integrate other resources?

Castrillo: Before we started reading the book, we spent a few days on basic Palestine/Israel history and terminology so they’d have a framework. I let them explore Palestine Remix, an interactive website with lots of historical and current events content. Then I passed out the books and gave them a schedule with reading targets for each week. Most discussion days, I’d give them reading time in the beginning of class. I’d say: “We are going to do a group activity that focuses on these 10 pages, so take 15 minutes to read or reread those pages.”

Although many students read the whole book and did the required annotations, other students just read chunks here and there. I oriented discussion days around the sections of the book that I thought were the most illuminating and gave us the most to unpack and chew on. In addition to small-group discussions and other types of responses, I wove in the opportunity to respond to the text with drawings and/or cartoon cels as a way to get them used to creating their own graphic stories.

The supporting materials were popular. We read selections from Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine and three beautiful poems from Lena Khalaf Tuffaha’s Water & Salt. I showed the videos Slingshot Hip-Hop, about the development of hip-hop as a form of resistance in different parts of Palestine; My Neighborhood, about the campaign to save homes in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem from being stolen by Israeli settlers; and School Run, about children in Hebron trying to get to school in the face of Israeli curfews. We also watched a music video made by teenage girls from Shoruq, a community center in Dheisheh Refugee Camp near Bethlehem.

The students got a lot out of the videos. Aside from everything else, seeing the landscape is so important. Taken together, the videos helped them make sense of the book and see Palestine from other perspectives.

About halfway through the unit, they began talking in class about the contradictions of our narrator’s position. “He gets to live in Jerusalem,” they said, “and he can go everywhere because he’s a French Canadian and he has a press pass. If he were Palestinian, it would be completely different. The girls from Shoruq, they can’t even go to Jerusalem, and it’s only a few miles away.”

In the book, DeLisle describes an Israeli tour guide’s justification for the closed streets, destroyed businesses and martial law in Hebron, and then in School Run my students saw little children climbing down ladders and dashing across the street to get to school. So, by the end of the book, when DeLisle’s alignment with the Palestinians becomes clearer, they had lots of context for understanding why.

Delisle’s book has many strengths, but it has some weaknesses, too. For example, there is very little female voice. Even his wife, who was in Gaza every day, doesn’t tell us what she sees. And Palestinian resistance and resilience don’t come across as strongly as I would have liked. So that’s another reason why the supplementary materials were important.

Sokolower: What other issues came up for the students about the book?

Castrillo: Most of my students were incredibly ignorant about basic geography in the Middle East and world history as it pertains to the Middle East. When they first looked at the maps, they said “Okay, so this is Israel and this is Palestine.”

Well, actually,” I responded, “according to Israel, it’s this, but according to Palestinians, it’s something entirely else.”

“OK, what’s the capital?”

“According to whom? I asked. “And exactly when are you talking about? You know, Trump, at least in his own mind, moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem. But the Palestinians don’t agree. The UN doesn’t agree.”

“So what’s the right answer for the quiz?
“I’m not telling you this information to quiz you. I just want to give you context.”

When they got frustrated and wanted clear answers, I said: “Maps and geography are political. The soil is the soil. We as human beings are the ones creating lines based on our own agendas. As you’ll see over the unit, Palestine is a clear example of the problems that can create.” That was a big philosophical point for some of them to wrap their heads around.

Kids who want to stay distant from emotions connected to what we study are challenged in my class. I push them to talk and articulate their feelings, to think about why they feel what they feel. In this Palestine unit, many of my students, particularly East Asian males, articulated more feeling, more internal conflict than I had seen in any other unit. I’d like to think that it’s a combination of all of the films, and the texts, and the stories we read that made them feel the need to take a moral stance. It causes personal anguish when you can’t turn away from violence or harm being done to people outside of your own. But being a full human being forces you to stand up for what’s right.

For most of the students, it was clear that what is happening in Palestine is wrong. They also saw that the original intentions of many of the Jews who decided to settle in Palestine, especially historically, weren’t necessarily bad. I was proud to see my students wrestling with the fact that this unit presented them with questions that don’t have easy answers. That felt very productive.

Sokolower: How did you structure teaching the students the graphic novel skills for their final project?

Castrillo: I gave them a long list of possible topics. They could write about Israel and Palestine, but they could also choose something else entirely. I asked them to focus on one main theme. A handful of the final projects were directly related to the book, but most were more personal, inspired by their own stories or those of their parents or relatives. One kid’s project was based on talking with his father and comparing their childhoods. I think that was a beautiful, healthy thing to do.

I gave them a basic template for the art, the parameters of what I expected in terms of story development, and an outline to help them work through the brainstorming process to come up with characters and plot in relation to their theme. I also reassured them that i wasn’t going to be grading them on the drawing style or the quality, although I did give them some specific parameters; for example, if it doesn’t have color, it should have shading. They could work alone or in a group of two or three. Once they had a synopsis, their characters, and an outline, I checked in with each group to make sure they were headed in the right direction.

From then on, it was work time. I jumped in occasionally to give suggestions, offer ideas. Many of my suggestions had to do with pacing: The action is moving too fast—slow down and add detail—or too slow—you need more action so we don’t get bored. I encouraged them to ask for feedback from other students. Peer feedback was informal this time, but in the future I’d assign points to giving one another feedback to democratize the work.

Sokolower: How successful were the final projects?

Castrillo: There were the one or two groups that did the bare minimum, but most students had multiple themes and a plot with some kind of climax. I didn’t get a lot of incredibly nuanced, profound stories. But I wanted to give them the opportunity to do something creative. And for many of them, a graphic short story was a totally new form.

My goal for this unit was not to test them on their understanding of the text or of the history of Palestine. It was to open up conversations about certain topics and then have them build on those conversations to tell their own stories.

One additional benefit of this approach is that, if I were pushed, a parent couldn’t say I was forcing the students to take on a certain perspective. In fact, I invited them to tell whatever story they want to tell.

When I chose the graphic short story as a final project, I predicted that some kids who hadn’t been engaged in writing over the course of the year might be super engaged with the visual aspect of this project. But that didn’t happen. The vast majority of students were engaged throughout the unit and it didn’t boil down to drawing skill. They did say they liked the option to work in a small group. During their creative planning meetings, I saw kids who were very quiet in whole group discussions talking through their storyboard decisions in great depth with each another.

Sokolower: How would you evaluate the unit?

Castrillo: When we evaluated the unit, the students said they were comforted by how flexible the possibilities were because some of them really wanted to tell their own stories. Others felt reluctant to write and draw from a Palestinian or Israeli perspective. This generation has an awareness of cultural appropriation that made them leery to take that on. Some students put themselves in the book by assuming the perspective of a tourist in occupied Palestine. They put themselves in situations where they had to make sense of what was happening as a character.

I approached this from the perspective of “I want to teach about Palestine because I want to fight for what is right.” But, at the end of the day, you have to start with a really good story. And I think if you start with a good story, everything will follow.

To me, that felt more possible than starting from the expectation that I was going to teach everything my students need to know about the past and the future we want to see for Palestine. I come back to the fundamental human rights that Palestinians deserve. I think the combination of the DeLisle and the additional resources meant my students could grapple deeply with the essential questions that drove the unit.

In hindsight, I see that projects like Teach Palestine are integral to giving teachers confidence. We all have the ability as human beings to root ourselves in a fundamental morality and say that one person’s experience does not justify their actions towards another. In other words, European anti-semitism, even the Holocaust, does not justify Israel’s colonization of Palestine.