“If I learn how to speak Russian, I can speak to Russians, and they can smile at me. Even if it’s not perfect, I’m trying. It’s like an honor for them. ‘You’re learning my language. You’re coming to my world, my territory. You’re becoming Russian.’ You have the right to come into these circles. You have the right to give your opinion. You have the right to order food, to get a taxi. You don’t speak the language, you’re intimidated. But you do, and you have the right.”
Each week for two years, this podcast has had on it guests who, no matter their personal or professional backgrounds or professions, have had one foundational point: through language, we stand who we are in the world. You can see from Jenniffer Whyte’s quote, above, that she stands firmly in that perspective; you will see it as you access her website and her podcast.
Through language, we define who we are. Through language we define if we are worthy of love or respect; if we are capable or not; if we have a circle to which we belong or if we are to be considered an outcast; if we have a future. Perhaps the language we use to define ourselves has been given – or thrust – upon us. Perhaps the words we use in the secret of our hearts are ones we chose based on our interpretation of our experiences.
Through language, we define boundaries. We choose who is in our circle, and who is not. We choose behaviors that meet with our approval (what can be defined as one’s culture) and those that do not; and through language we discern if we want to learn more about others’ behaviors or if we we label them alien and avoid them.
And for these two years, we have seen that those engaged in the love of and the use of language — education, business, community-building, social justice, media — have a basic assumption, spoken or unspoken: everyone belongs.
In this podcast the additional emphasis Jenniffer Whyte brings is that we bring this assumption, this invitation to each other and to the world despite (or indeed because) we are all wounded in some way, we all are suffering in some way, and we bring our offering of inclusion to others who are also wounded in life.
Language is the powerful gift of invitation to wholeness, inclusion, and healing.
In a time when language is weaponized at an ever-growing level of hurt and separation, I have sought to bring to listeners the voices of those whose lives are spent in using language as a vehicle for inclusion, joy, healing, opportunity, and acknowledgement of the unique and amazing spirit found in each person.
I invite you to go back and listen to previous guests’ podcasts, taking a look at the titles to see what appeals to you based on your life and experiences.
I invite you to go forward with me, as we launch on some new ways of considering how language brings hope into the world.
You are an important part of what we will do next, for we have to do it together. The world needs to understand both the unique role of language and those steps which can bring healing into the lives of individuals and their communities and societies.
I look forward to our work together.
Enjoy the podcast.
Scroll down for full transcript.
Thank you for always focusing on the possibilities, opportunities and the power of language and what it can do for us individually - and collectively!
If you've never done #cliftonstrengths, yourself or with your team, don't wait any longer. Norah Jones of FLUENCY CONSULTING is the one and only to do it! It's all about your super powers: finding & using them to affect positive change in the world. What's not to love?!
Yes, @NorahLulicJones definitely has the talent of "bringing out" the best in others or allowing them to showcase themselves in the best light! Thank you for directing the spotlight on others who have great stories and talents to share with others.
Your podcasts are exceptionally relevant and applicable, thought-provoking and insightful, easy-to-follow and enjoyable!
You have an immense talent to draw the best from your participants.
Norah knows how to LISTEN - she really "hears" the message - and the interview is richer because of it. New questions come from the hearing.
Want to hear more? Access previous episodes, and get to know the wonderful people I talk with through the It’s About Language page, or by clicking on the Podcast tab above. You can also find this week’s episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter.
As a certified Gallup Strengths coach, I can provide you or your organization personalized coaching to discover and build on your strengths.
I provide workshops, presentations, and talks that inspire and engage through powerful language insights, and I pair those insights with practical applications for the lives of educators, learners, businesses, and faith-centered organizations. I’d love to share ideas with your organization or group, and develop an event tailored to your objectives.
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0:00:00.6 Norah Jones: When you speak with Jenniffer Whyte, when you watch her talk with others as she does her podcast. When you see what she puts up on social media, there’s a liveliness and a sense of focus and joy and just sheer creativity that’s really very compelling. And I know that you’ll feel this right through this podcast today. Jenniffer Whyte has her podcast, Afro-Latina Teacher in the Rural South, which she produces both in Spanish and in English, focusing on her life experiences, getting from the Dominican Republic through a variety of stages into Alabama. She also then brings that sensitivity of what language and movement mean to all people, to her work as well as to her podcast. You’ll see how multi-dimensional Jenniffer is in her care for humanity, and then the surprising directions that her focus has taken her. You’ll enjoy this podcast very, very much, and I hope that you will have a chance to, through both this podcast, through my website, Fluency.Consulting, and through her website and podcast. Get to know Jenniffer better.
0:01:20.5 Norah Jones: Hi, I’m Norah Jones. Welcome to It’s About Language. So what is language all about? Well, it’s about learning and sharing, opening doors in education, work, and life. Language is about creating communities and creating boundaries. It’s all about the mystery of what makes us human. So our conversations will explore that mystery and the impact of what makes us human. It’s about language in life, it’s about language at work, it’s about language for fun. Welcome to the podcast. I’m really excited today, because here at the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, in a room that’s overlooking the beautiful ocean here in Puerto Rico, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I have a podcast partner right across the room, The Adventure with Jenniffer Whyte, and I’m gonna be promoting her podcast as well. It’s been wonderful to be in the room with her, and she’s been interviewing people for her podcast, Afro-Latina Teacher in the Deep South.
0:02:30.7 Jenniffer Whyte: In the Rural South.
0:02:31.7 Norah Jones: In the Rural South.
0:02:33.8 Norah Jones: It’s interesting that… Okay, I’ve got it now, Jenniffer.
0:02:36.3 Jenniffer Whyte: You got it now, you got it.
0:02:37.4 Norah Jones: Okay, so how has it been here? Has it been… Tell us about why you’re doing that podcast, tell us about yourself, and tell us also how it’s been going here at AATSP for you.
0:02:49.4 Jenniffer Whyte: Well, so first, let me start with AATSP. I’m really excited to be here today. It’s really an honor to be in Puerto Rico. I’ve never been to a conference that’s out of the mainland, so seeing it here, it makes you feel, I don’t know, more special, like “Whoa, the teacher’s gonna get away and see a different sight.” It’s not just the United States, it’s like out of the mainland, so I really love sitting here and seeing the beach outside and just having that island feel reminds me of home in the Dominican Republic. So I really love AATSP, and yesterday, I went to the awards ceremony, and that’s the first time I’ve ever been to the awards ceremony, and I realized that “Man, this organization just confirmed that they support their teachers.” There were like over 13 teachers, probably, that got an award for stipend to be here, and I was one of those recipients. And I thought, “Oh, I thought we filled out, and they voted on who got it.” No, everybody got it. And I thought, “Man, these people love teachers. Teachers are sometimes struggling. They can’t get out. They can’t leave. They can’t go to workshops. They have to pay it themselves,” you know? And seeing that the organization is supporting… To me, it says a lot. Love, Sherry, love that. I can give her an idea, and she runs with it. She’ll say, “I’ll get back to you,” and she comes back. So that means a lot to me too, how she values our opinion.
0:04:01.7 Jenniffer Whyte: So that’s with the AATSP, and then with the Afro-Latina Teacher in the Rural South, I started for two reasons. First of all, I wasn’t good at creating resources, yet, ’cause I didn’t have a lot of time. So I thought maybe if I could focus on a podcast, I could say what I wanna say, and teachers could still use it. So the podcast is in English and in Spanish. So one episode is in English, and then the next week, it’s supposed to be in Spanish, so that way, teachers can grab both episodes, and they’re not exactly the same. So if I have an episode on culture shock, the following week is on culture shock without an interview, and it’s probably just me talking about culture shock, but students can grab that, listen, and see the differences or something like that.
0:04:36.2 Jenniffer Whyte: So I started as well, because I think that my story is a little different. There’s not a lot of Afro-Latinos in my area in Alabama. And I see that a lot of Afro-Latinos congregate in New York, Chicago, DC, and all these different areas. There’s even organizational groups. We don’t have that. I don’t have that. And I think that my point of view is a little different, and then my point of view can be different because I grew up in Miami, New York, and lived in Atlanta, and then migrated to Alabama, I kept going upper south, but still, it’s like it feels more deeper south. I think that it’s just a different point of view, different perspective, so when I interview people, it’s like, I’m constantly like, “Oh yeah, we’re in Alabama.” This is how it’s done, or me being in Alabama, this is how it’s done, but I remember New York, or I remember Dominican Republic, and my memories of the other places really take part of who I am today.
0:05:29.2 Jenniffer Whyte: And that’s very valuable to many teachers. I’ve interviewed a lot of teachers at this conference that said, “I don’t have a culture.” And I said, “I don’t believe that. Have you traveled? You’re in Puerto Rico. Have you traveled?” “Oh yeah, I taught in Italy, I taught in Greece.” I said, “Well, how is it that you don’t have a culture?” It’s like, culture is everywhere, and you living in Italy, Greece, and all these different places, now it’s part of you. You have part Greece in you, you have part Italy… Italian in you. And this is what I love about the podcast, because you get to dig deep into people’s… You know, just… What can I say? Like, their cultural world, and notice that it’s a lot bigger than what they thought.
0:06:08.9 Norah Jones: That opening of the minds of people even as they are speaking to you is very powerful. How does that work, also, when you are in your classroom? How about students? Or continue to work here with the adults that we’re coming across, because we are talking about educators, but what do you find to be especially powerful concepts or stories in working with students?
0:06:38.5 Jenniffer Whyte: With students, I started first with the funny stories about my life. My students think that I’m just strange, they said I’m the most extraordinary person they know. So I said, I believe that you guys have been in Alabama, I’ve been… [chuckle] okay, but not, all of them have just been in Alabama but they travel, but it’s been like they grew up there and they’re not migrating to different places, not most of them. So I like saying my stories that are funny, and I like doing that in the target language. For instance, I would walk in the classroom in the target language and I’ll say, “Oh no, I had three pigs in my brand new car last night.”
0:07:12.1 Jenniffer Whyte: And then all of them will just stop and be like, “What three pigs?” Cerdo, cerdo. What is…
0:07:17.4 Norah Jones: And they’re looking up the word.
0:07:19.2 Jenniffer Whyte: Yeah, they’re looking up the word in their phone. “You had three pigs in your car, you just got a brand new car.” And I’m like, “Yeah, my husband bought three pigs. We went to pick up three pigs way in this city that there’s no people like me. There’s no people like me. I was scared. And we were driving and it was dark, it got darker and darker and darker and darker. I couldn’t see anything. And then all of a sudden, we arrived at this gate and it’s closed, and then we’re knocking on the gate with some stick, like please open the gate. Then the gate magically opens and we’re going through this gate but we’re afraid because we’re thinking, Oh my goodness, they could really kidnap us and we would never be out again.”
0:08:00.1 Jenniffer Whyte: Okay. We’re just picking up these pigs from this announcement that I found in the newspaper. [laughter] So we go through this gate and the people we found were the sweetest people ever in Alabama. I call them my pig cousins now. They call me pig cousin, I call them pig cousins, and we’re just cousins. And they really embraced my husband and I, they helped us round up the little pigs in my car because that was the only place we could put them. And that’s how we started our pig farm, with the three little pigs. So with this story, the kids would later on say, “Hey, how are the pigs?” I said, “Well, ask me in the target language. Como estan los cerditos?”
0:08:36.1 Jenniffer Whyte: What are their names? And I even said, “Can you help me name them?” And they helped me name the pigs, even though I didn’t use those names. I used my daughter’s name. [laughter] I said will you help me name the pigs? And then now, the pigs are huge and the pigs are having babies, and now I have the mother with me and I have eight pigs. Well, actually, we had a birth and it was eight pigs.
0:08:56.9 Norah Jones: Wow!
0:08:57.8 Jenniffer Whyte: So when I go back to school, I’m about to give them my pig update, and I’m gonna say, oh! Ocho porquitos nacieron en julio.
0:09:06.4 Jenniffer Whyte: And they’re gonna be like, “What is she talking about?, porquitos?
0:09:08.3 Jenniffer Whyte: She used Cerdo, now she said, what is that? So it’s like I’m just expanding the language by using cerdo, porquito. And then by me saying these crazy, I call them the stupid stories, ’cause they’re stupid ’cause they’re not written down, they’re just out of the blue, and I would come and say that, and I think that those stories for me have been really impactful. It feels like I’m putting them in my world, I’m putting those kids in my world. And sometimes as teachers, we are afraid to let kids in our world. But there’s things that we can share publicly that’s not gonna affect us in any way. I mean, really? Something happens to your car, it breaks down, that’s a normal thing, you could talk about that in the target language and it’s not gonna be embarrassing or anything. But I say some embarrassing things, I just go there. [chuckle] I just go ahead and go there with the pigs in the car. And then the kids are like, “Well, is your car… Does it smell bad?” And I’m like, “Talk to me in Spanish. How do you tell me, is it smell bad?” No, it’s been detailed. My husband went ahead and detailed the car. So today, it looks brand new again. And they’re like, “Oh my gosh, that’s crazy. How do you say that?” Esta loco, esta loco porque…
0:10:12.9 Jenniffer Whyte: Why did he put three pigs? ‘Cause we don’t have a truck. Nobody let me borrow a truck. All these things lead to the discussion. So then I would say, “Anybody here who has a cow? [laughter] Anybody here who has a cow? Alguien tiene una vaca?”
0:10:25.4 Jenniffer Whyte: And I will say it out of the blue. They’ll be doing an assignment, “Anybody here who has a cow? Alguien tiene vaca?”
0:10:30.4 Jenniffer Whyte: And we’re in the rural South, I could talk about this. “Oh, si, senora Whyte.”
0:10:36.0 Jenniffer Whyte: My granddad, he owns cows, he has like 50 cows.” And I’m like, “Tell me, tell me in the target language that you have 50 cows.” He tells me. Then I’m like, “I wanna buy one. I wanna buy a cow. How can I buy a cow? How can…Como puedo comprar….
0:10:47.6 Jenniffer Whyte: And then there’s these stupid conversations that have to do with the rural South, but it’s like, I can’t do it in New York City, who has a cow? I would have to say who has a, I don’t know what. I haven’t been out of New York for so long, I don’t know what to ask. But these stories really, and they are about my life. But these stories have been really amazing to share. And today I’m presenting at 2 o’clock, and it’s about stories of struggle ’cause I’ve emerged from the stories, the funny stories, to having a deeper relationship with my students and sharing stories of struggle. After George Floyd, this is when this started to happen. Because I thought, okay, it’s great that it’s all funny, but it’s time that we open up a can that we haven’t opened yet. And in Alabama, we don’t really talk about George Floyd a lot. We don’t talk about anything that has to do with anything drastic in the world. I know the last time we talked about something was the shooting in Florida, and that’s the only time I heard chatter. And I’m like, Why don’t we talk about George Floyd? It’s sad.
0:11:50.3 Norah Jones: What you have just described is a very powerful classroom experience, the folks that listen to this podcast include those that have not been in the classroom for a while, that are in businesses or organizations where language is something they may think about. You’ve described a situation that’s quite different than I think most people will have experienced at least some decades ago. Learning about language, I call it, versus learning language, or using it as a living item. People that are not inside the classroom understand how that language learning transforms students expectations on what they’re going to do with language as a tool rather than as a topic, ’cause not so many people have studied language as another topic.
0:12:44.7 Jenniffer Whyte: That’s a really good idea, because some people are really good at studying the language. I’ve heard people that went to college, went to high school, studied it and they got it, but most of us aren’t like this. We’re hands-on people. We gotta listen, we gotta be in the moment. I just came from Italy, and I had to use Google Translate, but then sometimes I had to just remember the vocabulary I had already used from asking for a taxi, or asking for numbers, or just remembering the numbers and everything, and I think that this way of learning, that’s not writing or reading, just the input. It’s really important, ’cause the output has to come out. That’s why when I’m teaching, it’s like I’m inputting, but then they have to do the output, ’cause they have to perform and tell me what I’m saying. And I’ll say, “What am I saying? What am I saying?” So anyone out there that’s learning language, this is really important. The watching of the TV, watching movies in Spanish, songs, taking a note pad, writing. You can write. Or listen to things over and over. Sometimes that helps as well. But it’s not a traditional way, but it’s a way I insert it in the classroom, because it’s not a grade either, it’s that I’m thinking that the way I’m teaching them is gonna be a way that when they travel to Spain, ’cause my students are the type that they travel, so they can use it, and it wasn’t on a test. It wasn’t something that was really on a test.
0:14:04.2 Jenniffer Whyte: So I think that this is really important, but sometimes it depends on your mentality, because if you’re not actively wanting to learn, it may not stick with you. You’re just probably, “Oh, let me just tell her that I have 50 cows. Let me just please her and tell her I have 50 cows.” But that’s not what I want. I want them to look it up, and tell me that it sticks. So that when I ask again, “Who has a cow?” “Oh, I have 50… ” “Hey, you told me, remember you’re the one that told me you have 50 cows. How do you tell me you have 50 cows? ‘Cause I forgot who told me,” And I would say stupid things like that like “I forgot. Who is it that has 50 cows? Oh, so and so said that he had 50 cows. How do I say that in Spanish?” “Oh, so and so said he had 50 cows.” “So and so you remember. Oh.” And kids are like that. “Oh, gosh, now I gotta tell you how many cows?” “Remember I told you already. You told me. You told me that you had… “
0:14:57.4 Norah Jones: It’s taking communication seriously.
0:15:00.5 Jenniffer Whyte: Yeah, it’s taking it a little serious, because honestly, they don’t. There’s not… I haven’t encountered that love of language. I haven’t seen that. I haven’t seen…
0:15:11.3 Norah Jones: Why is that?
0:15:11.4 Jenniffer Whyte: I think it’s because they’re in a struggle where they have to pass all these subjects. They have to pass Math, Reading, Language Arts, Science, and they’re tough languages, and when they come to my class, it’s the relaxed class. It’s the class that it’s like, “Oh, it’s gonna be fun. That’s cool. Let me just pass as I go,” just like they use the same method they do with the math and the science, they use it for me too. It’s not something that it’s gonna grow with them. “Okay, I need math, ’cause I got a pass that AP exam. I need science to pass the AP. I need this to pass the AP, the history, I gotta know this.” But it doesn’t mean that it’s gonna stick, and that’s why I have to do a lot of repetitions and come back and do these stupid things and rap, and I don’t know how to rap, but I’m more constantly beating my best to wake them up, because they have to be woken up, and I feel like they need to survive in my class. If they’re gonna be there, they gotta survive.
0:16:03.8 Norah Jones: Now, you have a lot of energy. Anybody that’s listening to this podcast, you do have a lot of energy. And people come to conferences in order to learn how to become more themselves, and learn new things and apply them. When you talk to your professional colleagues in World Language classrooms, how do you give them hope that if they’re not Jenniffer Whyte with this high energy, that there are pathways for them to have the impact you’re looking for in your classes and have it in theirs?
0:16:47.9 Jenniffer Whyte: You’re such a good… You’re good asking these questions. I feel like okay, yes, I do have high energy and I understand that a lot of teachers don’t. But I feel that when I share with the teachers a part of my life, and I bring them into my life, into my world, I feel like we have a connection. That’s my number one goal when I’m presenting. And or giving a keynote speech. I want that audience to connect with me, even though I’m from another place, another world, I look differently than them, we can connect. And that’s what my goal is. Once I connect, then I can go ahead and tell them, “Hey, look, I struggle here, I struggle there.” So whatever picture they had of me, “Oh, she’s so energetic, oh,” and a lot of people have told me, “Yeah, she thinks she’s all that, she just has this perfect life,” and this is not my colleagues, of course, but other people. And then it’s like, “You haven’t connected with me, because if you connect with me, you notice that I have two autistic teenagers. One of my kids ran away from home. Yeah, we pastor a church, and I have had rape victims in my church.” It’s like, Okay, when you hear that stuff in your face, it’s like, “Okay, sorry, I’m connecting with you now. Alright, tell me. Tell me what you want.”
0:18:02.1 Jenniffer Whyte: And that’s why I empower teachers to, “Hey, whatever you’re going through, show kindness to your students, that’s what they need. I need that, you need that.” So I show kindness to the participants in my audience, and I tell them to express this kindness, to students, ’cause they’re going through these struggles that we don’t know, and you’re going through struggles.” They don’t want a teacher yelling at them all day, or they want someone funny that they can come into an environment, and that’s the type of hope I give to them is like, “Look, look at me. Look at my shoes. How about you? What are your shoes like?” Like I told someone this morning, I said, “My Struggle is racism. I go through racism a lot. My husband and I, we go through the racism,” and I was speaking to the white teacher, I said, “Your struggle might not be racism, but you have a struggle.”
0:18:48.0 Jenniffer Whyte: We can connect there. Okay. You’re not that much different than me. We both struggle. She’s like, “You’re right, I’m not free from struggle, but I am privileged,” and then she said that word and I’m like, “Woah.”
0:19:00.3 Norah Jones: Yeah, that’s…
0:19:01.0 Jenniffer Whyte: I don’t hear that a lot. I don’t hear that a lot, and I said, “Yeah, yeah, you are. But still, you still have to struggle, you gotta go home and deal with somebody, you gotta go to work and deal with somebody, you’re not free from it.” So if I could just connect with them there that it’s like I want that White teachers can look at me and say, “That’s my sister. That’s my cousin.” And that’s what I do in Alabama. When I’m in Alabama, I find the thing we have in common. So since I farm and we have pigs and chickens and stuff, anybody else that farms, they’re like my family. When we go boating, there’s a boating community, we might be the only people of color in the water, but there’s always these other people that are not Black helping us get our gear going or “hey, you need it for help,” and it’s always been like if you’re part of a certain community, they don’t see the color, it’s like you’re part of it. And that’s the positive part I wanna see and I want the teachers to have that they’re positive about certain things because we can be negative.
0:19:58.7 Norah Jones: Fun and interesting Jenniffer Whyte is, huh? Thanks again for listening, and please do visit my website fluency.consulting, take a look at Jenniffer’s bio and her resources, listen to all my podcasts and especially connect up with my sponsors, please. I’d like to thank Avant Assessment for helping to make this podcast possible. Avant Assessment helps to make a lot of things possible in language and life, especially its powerful assessments to measure proficiency and to achieve those certifications that help us to move forward in our educational and work world and language. I’d I like to thank Freestyle Languages with its innovative approaches that are really effective in helping individuals, businesses and students of all types to meet their language needs, and the coalition of community-based heritage language schools who supports those who have come from a heritage background in language and culture, to keep that language going, keep that identity going.
0:21:06.3 Norah Jones: So please, again, visit my website, fluency.consulting, check it out and consider it being a sponsor or a donor yourself. Thank you.
0:21:20.3 Norah Jones: For the language is the tool to build community, and so when you share, what are some of the… You’ve alluded a couple of times to the struggle, you mentioned about your artistic children when you contemplate the life that you live, what are some of those deep experiences that you bring that you share, and mention that idea about not over-sharing in some ways.
0:21:46.0 Norah Jones: Right, but again, come back and tell the listeners here what it is that you do work with, why it is that you got into the position that you are in Alabama. Why is that? What is it that you are bringing to the folks when you talk about yourself and your experiences, your background.
0:22:05.5 Jenniffer Whyte: Yeah, I think that the main subject that I’m bringing is that no matter where you’re at, you don’t have to be totally happy with where you’re at, you don’t have to be totally… How can I say? Perfect. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but out of that comes love and kindness, and out of that comes experience and you become smarter. I feel like I’m becoming smarter every day, the more I have to juggle John Doe here and Sally and they’re throwing things at me, I have to become more smart, I have to become smarter, I have to become more tolerant, I have to know how to fight at a certain time, I have to be wise. I have to, I had one young person come up to me one time and said, “Why do they matter?” And he meant, “Why do Black lives matter?”
0:22:48.4 Norah Jones: Interesting.
0:22:48.5 Jenniffer Whyte: Why do they matter? Okay, all my experiences in my life had to come to that moment because I can’t get upset. I have to be able to say, “Hey, do you care about me?”
0:23:01.3 Jenniffer Whyte: “Yeah, I care about you.”
0:23:01.5 Jenniffer Whyte: “Do I matter?”
0:23:03.3 Jenniffer Whyte: “You matter.”
0:23:05.6 Jenniffer Whyte: “Then they matter.” I can’t overthink it. I can’t do this big explanation, “Look, they matter, hey, let’s go rally.” No, no. Do I matter? Can I come to… Then my next question was, “Well, can I be your mom? Can I be White? And do the things she does and do the culture.” And so she’s like, “No, you’ll never be that.” I said, “Okay, would you ever be George Floyd’s cousin?”
0:23:31.0 Norah Jones: Powerful questions.
0:23:32.1 Jenniffer Whyte: You know, “would you ever be that if that person was your cousin, how would you think differently of this group of people.” Trying to knock down that bias violently in my head, but in a tender way, the most tender way I could, trying to win this person over to, “Hey, love people. It’s okay.” We can love everybody. So it’s like, “Okay, that was cousin, and they had their foot on the neck.”
0:23:55.3 Jenniffer Whyte: “No, but they had real drugs, they had drugs in their mouth, they had drugs, and then in their system they had drugs. “Shh… Go back, cousin, that’s cousin. You knowing that stuff, which I don’t know if it’s true or not, cousin if that’s cousin, is that right?” And I said, “I’ll give you five minutes.” And I go do my thing and come back, “I’m sorry, I have to apologize if it was cousin.”
0:24:20.3 Jenniffer Whyte: And I thought of cousin Larry, and that happened to cousin Larry, he’s the most intense person in my family I would be fighting against that. I said, Well, that’s how I feel. I said that’s how I feel.
0:24:31.3 Norah Jones: Yeah, you just used, you’re demonstrating something here. We’re talking about the use of language.
0:24:38.1 Jenniffer Whyte: Yes.
0:24:39.6 Norah Jones: Language with that, you reframed it. You then give some time for the thinking to happen. Do you think that your background, knowing the languages that you know, having the experiences in the cultures that you had, have made a difference in the way that you approach this? Are these the kinds of things that you feel that… Is it you that does this? Or do you think language also plays a role here?
0:25:07.9 Jenniffer Whyte: I guess language is important because I can’t just word things any kind of way, if I would have said this another way, and I said, “Hey, what is your problem? Why are you talking to… ” there’s no way, that gets cut off right there. Yes, I think the experiences, language does play a good part, me knowing how to use the language is very important them being able to understand me, ’cause if I had an accident where they couldn’t understand me, they wouldn’t even come to me in the first place, they’ll be like, “Oh shit, I don’t understand what she’s saying, so I just blow her off.” Me knowing the language to a proficiency that they can understand me is important as well.
0:25:44.1 Norah Jones: Interesting.
0:25:44.8 Jenniffer Whyte: I believe so, but I think my secret weapon is having a relationship with God. I ask God for wisdom a lot, and I don’t think Jenniffer Whyte herself could come up with an answer like that. I was nervous to get an answer like that, for someone to say, Why do they matter? That’s like, Well, I need to write a book about that, [laughter] but it’s like, Okay. Who would ask that question, and it’s like, Whoa, I had to just calm down and I wasn’t even hyped or anything, I was just like, Let me take this slow, but I had a second to come up with an answer, and if it wasn’t for experience or wisdom, it wouldn’t happen, you know.
0:26:18.7 Norah Jones: Powerfully said, thank you. And so, you know, we jumped into Jenniffer Whyte here at this conference, and what you’re speaking about today and what you’ve talked about in other presentations that you’ve done, or at least a few. Let’s go back for just a second. Your background is from the Dominican Republic?
0:26:37.6 Jenniffer Whyte: Yes.
0:26:38.1 Norah Jones: And here you are in Alabama. Give us a little journey…
0:26:41.1 Jenniffer Whyte: Oh lord. [chuckle]
0:26:42.1 Norah Jones: Of Jenniffer Whyte’s life and what… Honestly, the role of being a Dominican by background in what you do in a language classroom and your students lives.
0:26:53.9 Jenniffer Whyte: Yes. Okay, so born in Dominican Republic. My sister was born in New York, so when my parents were in New York, they had to go back to the Dominican Republic with my sister, so I was born after that. Then I got naturalized at two months old, I don’t remember the process at all, then flying in an airplane back and forth, it’s like The culture then was you could send your baby on a plane by themselves, and I would fly by myself on an airplane with stewardess and I grew up… I was little, but I would always be holding the stewardess’ hands, walking with the Captain, sitting at the cockpit and just being treated special ’cause they couldn’t lose me ’cause I’m the child and the unaccompanied minor, and to think that I’m afraid of flying now, it’s weird ’cause I’ve been flying since I was little, but my mom and dad worked hard in New York, so I had to be sent back to the Dominican Republic back and forth. So I grew up with some kind of expectation that I’m going to be great. I don’t know how this happened, It’s me and my sister.
0:27:50.7 Jenniffer Whyte: My sister, she’s awesome. And she’s an actress in New York. But I remember, I don’t know what they told her, but I remember my grandma saying, “Sit down and write, you need to learn Spanish, write, we’re gonna put you in kindergarten,” so I was in kindergarten. Write, write, write, write letters to your mom, they made me write letters in Spanish, I had to perfect that. You’re gonna learn the English over there, but here you need to learn the Spanish, so I learned how to write really young, I was writing. And they always said, “You’re gonna be awesome. You’re gonna be great and you’re gonna get us out of here.” And I didn’t understand what that meant, didn’t understand what that meant. But that expectation, you’re gonna get us out of here. Okay, I’ll get you out of here, [chuckle] what the heck is that, sleeping with a mosquito tent and having no electricity, having no running water, it was normal for me. And then going home to New York, where we have running water, there’s no mosquito tent, but then we’re in a violent community, we’re in Washington Heights. That was normal too. So this uncomfortable state is normal for me, it was fine.
0:28:50.4 Jenniffer Whyte: There’s love there. Who cares about the rest? Mosquito tents are fine, so it’s like, it got me through to that journey of then finally my mom says, “Okay, you’re gonna stay here in New York, no more Dominican public.” And I’m like, “No, I need to go back to my mom.” It’s like, you’re not really my mom, my mom is over there. That was my grandmother. We call her mama, so she said, “No, I’m your mother.” And I’m like, “Well, not really, that’s my mother. She’s the one that raises me.” And then she had to stop that and then I started just staying home, I stopped traveling so much. And I had to adapt, so I got sick in New York, had to… It was pneumonia, I can’t stand the cold weather, so they moved to Miami, so that was our migration from New York to Miami, and stayed in Miami for a lot of time in my life, learned English, ’cause I never learned English in New York. New York… They just did, they passed me… It was an education system that was flawed, so they never helped me. I never learned English, never. So when I got to Miami, I’m in the third grade, they said, “You can’t pass a standardized test, you’re in third grade, you don’t speak English.” Couldn’t speak English, couldn’t spell my name, so they put me down to the first grade, and I was mortified.
0:30:01.3 Jenniffer Whyte: I’m like, no, in Dominican Republic they graduate at 15, I’m gonna graduate at 18, that’s horrible, that’s old. But not knowing that in the United States you graduate at 18 anyway, [chuckle] so I’m like, no, mortified. So, put me down to the first grade, that’s where I finally started learning English and I started becoming an interpreter, and that’s how language came to me, is reading all the signs in Spanish, every sign in the street, reading them in Spanish, Sesame street, being an interpreter at the doctor’s office, at the immigration office. Once I knew a little bit, my mom would send me with people, “Hey, Jenniffer would go with you and translate,” and it’s like, uh, trying to learn big words, what doctors are saying, what lawyers are saying. It was like a forced language, like I have to have this expectation. Oh, you’re awesome, you’re smart, go go, go. And I’m like, “No, I’m not. I just don’t know this language, I’m trying.” So trying to do… I had never had that point in my life where I was scared to speak English because I was forced, it’s like I just had to speak it.
0:30:53.0 Norah Jones: Had to.
0:30:55.1 Jenniffer Whyte: So, went there and just lived in Miami all this time, and Miami is a competitive area where there’s thousands of kids. My graduating class was about 2000. So for you to get the top of the class or for you to get an award, you competed, and all these people have the same thing in their head, we’re immigrants, we gotta prove that we’re the best. Cubans are better, Dominicans, Nicaraguans, we’re all competing. And then there are the Indian people, and then there is… All of us competing to get this prize and this was it. My drive was competition, competition was my drive, but it wasn’t like a ugly competition, it’s like not trying to sabotage people, just try to get there. So that was part of my culture growing up in Miami, that was embedded in me deeply, the competition.
0:31:37.1 Jenniffer Whyte: Then fast forward, get married, move to Atlanta, move to Atlanta because there was too much competition in Miami, so my husband’s like, “We’re bilingual, let’s move to Atlanta where we have opportunity.” Go there. That was a culture shock for me, being around Black Americans.
0:31:51.5 Norah Jones: Interesting.
0:31:52.4 Jenniffer Whyte: African-Americans that are not Black people, that are not Bahamian, Jamaican, even Blacks are in Miami, but they blend in with all the Hispanics. They blend… They just seem to blend in. They all speak some kind of Spanish, the soul food is different than going to Atlanta where it’s Black American, that was a culture shock for me. And then going from Atlanta to Alabama where my husband was stationed in the military, in Anniston, Alabama, that was the total shock. Going from all of this to this to meeting real White people, I didn’t know who they were. White people, for me, were Cubans, like, “Oh, Cubans, those Cubans.” Some Dominicans are White too, so it’s like, White people were Dominicans, Cubans, Nicaraguans, there’s White people everywhere, just like there’s Black people everywhere. Well, my thing is, I didn’t know there were White people that were White. So I go to Alabama and I find these White people and they tell me things like, “Oh yeah, Black people just eat fried chicken and watermelon.” I’m like, “Huh?” And then the Black people is like, “You know those White people are devils.” So I have these two messages, I’m scared of both, and my husband’s like, “Don’t be afraid of these people, they’re kind. Some people are kind. We just have to get used to being here.” But I was scared of White people, scared of Black people.
0:33:04.0 Norah Jones: That’s a tough place to be.
0:33:05.5 Jenniffer Whyte: Yeah, yeah, it was hard, but finally found my groove, I said, “You know what, maybe I should be the bridge to the White people and the Black people and the Mexicans, ’cause there’s no Dominicans or no Caribbeans.” And then had to learn about Mexicans, I had to learn how they operate. So it’s like, I was always trying to be the bridge between those three, and that’s where I’m at right now, present day, Alabama. I feel like in my community, I’m a bridge, blacks, whites, Mexican. If there’s a hair show for the Black community, I invite Blacks and Hispanics to come and volunteer for the Black hair show because Black people do amazing things. If the White church over here has a pancake breakfast, we invite, we’ll be those people that show up that are not White, and we bring the people. Mexican too, every time they have a quinceañera, bring them in. So I feel like I’m a bridge and it has helped, and even though I still have people that hate me and don’t like me too much, I’ve learned to be okay with that.
0:34:01.9 Norah Jones: How did you learn to be okay with that? And tell us also about the folks that are walking across the bridge of Jenniffer.
0:34:08.7 Jenniffer Whyte: Oh gosh, that was hard. It took a lot of crying, a lot of self-acceptance to accept that I’m okay, I’m okay with my accent, my language. People made fun of my language a lot, I had women that would say, “What’s she saying? What’s she saying? I don’t understand what she’s saying.” And I’m like, “I’m right here.” And I’m like, “You can ask me.” And they don’t understand what I’m saying, so they would mock my voice. I cried a lot. At one time, I had a nervous breakdown. I wanted to quit the profession, I wanted to quit being a teacher, but then I said, “What am I gonna do if I’m not a teacher? I could work at Victoria Secret, be a lively, panty seller.” I don’t know, but it was like, it took me traveling, it took me dealing with more adversity. The more adversity I got, the stronger I got the thicker skin. Some people say, “Jenniffer, get out of there, move out, that’s toxic.” But they don’t understand. Toxic environment for me is making me stronger. As long as it’s not making me sick, I think it’s making me stronger. I can help others that are in the same environment to hang in there. I don’t have it as bad as the ’60s where Martin Luther King was there. We have the Freedom Riders, we have the Freedom Riders Monument in our city, and that monument, someone ran into it and it’s like this, and it’s so sad, because in the middle of the grass, it’s like someone went on the grass and hid it.
0:35:36.7 Norah Jones: And out of the way.
0:35:36.8 Jenniffer Whyte: And as I’m looking at this monument, it’s like, “Yeah, this is where I’m from, but that’s okay, at least that monument is still there.” Like I gotta make it positive. “Yeah, someone came in and run over the monument, but it’s still there.” And that’s what I have to see, I have to see the positive of it. Even though sometimes it makes me cry when I travel to Puerto Rico and I think of home, I do feel sad.
0:35:55.1 Norah Jones: Why’s that?
0:35:55.5 Jenniffer Whyte: Because I’m around these teachers that they accept everybody. World Language teachers, that’s the dream world for me. Coming here, it’s like, no one looks at me funny, nobody says I’m extra, nobody says I’m talking too fast, nobody is saying I’m waving my hands too much, it’s like… And I don’t feel them thinking it either, like the looks, I don’t get the looks, they’ve traveled too, they’re just world, global citizens like me. We’re all the same, and they’re White, and they’re Black, and they’re from different countries, but we’re all the same. So that’s what I think back home, and that’s when I ponder, “Yeah, I need to move out of there.” But then I have to remember, “No, I can’t. I have too much invested in there. I’ve grown so much.”
0:36:38.9 Norah Jones: How do we bring the world citizenship that you’re experiencing here at this conference into the lives of people that don’t come to such conferences or who may not have the opportunity to have traveled or… I’ll just leave that as an open-ended moment there, how do we help people to realize this is not a threat, this is a joy? How do you do that, Jenniffer?
0:37:07.5 Jenniffer Whyte: I think that AATSP is doing it already. They give stipends to teachers who are traveling. I think maybe we need to reach out to those teachers who have never been to a conference and talk to them directly, not a blanket statement, not an email that says, “Hey, you haven’t been to the conference? Join us. Fill out the application.” No. It’s like, “Hey, Norah, you’ve never been to this conference. Sign up for this thing right here. Come on, let’s go. You come with me.” I’ve heard a lot of teachers here, “I got bullied to come. I got bullied into coming.”
0:37:37.2 Norah Jones: Interesting.
0:37:37.4 Jenniffer Whyte: And it’s like, yeah, it’s a good way of taking a teacher to come, but you need to pay their way, their way needs to be paid, then once they experience this, they’re gonna be hooked. They’re gonna find the way. It’s like the drugs, when people are hooked on drugs, they sell their TVs, they do whatever it takes, we don’t experience that, but anyway, I’ve seen it before, where they do whatever it takes to steal everything, to go… Well, we do whatever it takes to get here, to Puerto Rico. So same way with those teachers, I think that we need to be more intentional with individuals, not an email that it goes to everybody, and that takes all of us to invite that one teacher, to choose a teacher that, “Okay, look, there’s a scholarship here, apply for it, maybe if you get it, we can get… Let’s apply for another grant on the side, let’s see if you could get the plane ticket paid for, let’s see if you could get this paid for.” And get those teachers over here, and that’s how I got here.
0:38:28.6 Jenniffer Whyte: That’s how I got here.
0:38:30.0 Norah Jones: And it reminds me of how you talked about talking to that individual 50 cow student in your classroom, right? And that individualization. When that person goes back, what do you envision? Not necessarily for that individual person, but the concept of growing this vision. You’re investing yourself in this, Jenniffer, with your podcast and with your work and with your 50 cow kid.
0:39:00.1 Jenniffer Whyte: Yes.
0:39:02.0 Norah Jones: What is your vision for what happens when people leave here? How is this world gonna be changed, little by little?
0:39:12.3 Jenniffer Whyte: Let’s see… Well, I guess I envision… Like, I can only envision how I leave… When I leave here and I go back home and I’m empowered. Despite of anything I see, I’m empowered to change. I feel like when I come to conferences, and I’m saying this with a smile on my face, ’cause when I come to conferences, it’s like, “Yeah.” I’m like, “Yeah!”, like I’ve been to a cheerleading pep rally. And I’m like, “Yeah, let’s do this!”, and… Doesn’t matter what happens, I’m gonna do it. Then I have all these conference sessions in my head, and then I get overwhelmed because there’s so much stuff, and I’m like, “How do I apply all of this to it?” But then I have to take chunks of it and remember it, write it out again. Try to take those notes, write ’em again. “Okay. This I can apply to this unit. This I can apply… ” Do the strategic planning of all the stuff I learned. So just strategically plan everything, and I’m thinking maybe teachers do it like this? I don’t know how they do it, but that’s how I have to use the money that I used to come here. I need to use that and tease that knowledge, and I don’t want it to go away.
0:40:12.4 Jenniffer Whyte: So I need to use it and just see how I can apply it to the different units that I’m gonna teach, and how can I use teachable moments? How can I surprise students in a unit and say something, you know, out of the blue, and… And I try to plan that out. And I’m already planning, “Okay, next year.” I think as I come every year, and I think of teachers as they come every year, it keeps ’em going, keeps ’em excited. I think that if they only go one time and then they have to wait four years to go again, I think they lose it.
0:40:41.3 Norah Jones: The energy.
0:40:41.8 Jenniffer Whyte: They lose the energy, they lose the excitement… I don’t know how their districts are, but if it’s like us that we don’t have a district where there’s rural language teachers united somewhere, that we can meet somewhere, no, we have a state. And the state gets together, and they get together once a year, and they do online things, which is great, but it’s not this community of “help me”, so it ends up being that the Spanish teachers seem like they’re competing against each other for different schools. It’s like, “No, we gotta come together.” So I think that being here has even helped me tell those teachers, “Hey, let’s join this Facebook group so I know what you’re doing. And you’re in another school, in a non-private school, but you’re in a public school, but let’s see if we could collaborate together.” And it hasn’t taken off yet; I’m still trying to get that. But I already did the Facebook group, but I’m still trying to get my own community together, that if us Spanish teachers could stick together… It hasn’t happened yet, but this gives me… Like, I still don’t feel like I’m gonna leave it alone. I can’t feel like that because I’m here.
0:41:44.0 Norah Jones: Yeah, yeah. And it was interesting, I was gonna ask you to talk about lesson plans for students, and with your ability to be in front of people, your… Well, practiced fearlessness, so I’m gonna say, as well as natural fearlessness. It’s kind of like a lesson plan for teachers too. First, join community. Get support. Work together.
0:42:03.3 Jenniffer Whyte: Yeah. Work together.
0:42:04.7 Norah Jones: Some school systems do have faculty staff that work together very well.
0:42:09.0 Jenniffer Whyte: That’s good.
0:42:09.6 Norah Jones: And others are very separated out, so that building community is going to be key. Alright. Jenniffer. Here we are. You’ve got a chance to exhort people. You’ve got a chance to invite people. You’ve got a chance to say that thing, what you have to say before this episode can come to an end. What is it that you’re going to be sure that you’re saying to people?
0:42:43.3 Jenniffer Whyte: Let’s see… It’s not related to rural language, but rural language is important. Rural Language is important, our language is important, and through our language, I feel that no matter what you go through, what your life is like, you have the power to imprint those students, imprint lives. And kindness is the way to do it. Just always stop and listen. Always remember that someone is going through something. Students are going through something that you probably don’t have any connection to or don’t have a clue about. And I think that my overall message is that. It’s like no matter what anyone thinks of you or what… You don’t look like them or you don’t speak like them, that you’re still human. And humans have certain characteristics: They need love, they need food, [chuckle] they need air… You know, they need these basic things; they need language. And if we could just think about the basics of life, then I think that we could stop being so overzealous about other things, you know? Sometimes, we forget about the basics, that everyone needs love. We look at the TV, we don’t see that. We don’t see love. Politicians are tearing each other down, and we don’t see that examples in our leadership. But I think we need to go back to those basics. Everyone needs air, love, [laughter] language… You know, food…
0:44:02.4 Norah Jones: Why do people need language?
0:44:04.8 Jenniffer Whyte: People need language because they need to be able to communicate the best way they can, in the most comfortable way they can. So you know, I’m thinking… When you said that, I was thinking about speaking Spanglish, and when I go see my cousins or my friends from Miami, we switch to this Spanglish. And it’s my connection to my culture, the English and Spanish together, being bicultural. It’s important to me, so that language connects me to those people. Like, we’re speaking like that, others understand us, but sometimes, some people don’t understand. We’re talking so fast that they don’t… They only understand the language they understand. And I think that language is a beautiful vehicle to secrecy; like secrecy, being able to write something and no one understands it, that’s cool. It’s like tapping into another world.
0:44:52.1 Jenniffer Whyte: If I learn how to speak Russian, I can speak to Russians, and they can smile at me. But if I speak to Russians in English, they’re probably gonna look at me like, “What’s wrong with you? Speak Russian.” But I can get a smile from someone, a warm one, if I can try to speak Russian. Even if it’s not perfect, I’m trying. It’s like an honor for them. “You’re learning my language. You’re coming to my world, my territory. You’re becoming Russian.” As you learn a language, you become that culture. That’s why those teachers that say “I don’t have a culture,” I’m like, “I don’t believe you. You know Greek, you know Italian, you’re part Italian, you’re part Greek.” And I don’t know if you feel like that too, Norah. Don’t you feel like you’re a little Russian, you’re a little Hispanic, you’re a little… [laughter]
0:45:32.7 Norah Jones: Absolutely, absolutely.
0:45:34.5 Jenniffer Whyte: Like, you have the right to come into these circles. You have the right to give your opinion. You have the right to order food, to get a taxi. You have the right… You’re not intimidated because if you were… You don’t speak the language, you’re intimidated. But you have the right. You can puff up a little bit and say, “Hey, I speak this.”
0:45:49.6 Norah Jones: Language is your key to opening that door.
0:45:51.8 Jenniffer Whyte: That’s right, exactly, exactly. That’s how I feel about language too. I feel like I’m honored, honored. I was thinking about it today. I’m like, “I’m so honored I can speak English. Wow. Sesame Street, thank you. [chuckle] Thank you, thank you.” All those struggles I had with learning to speak English, it was cool, but… And I spoke horrible, but I’m like, “Yeah, I got to learn how to speak English.” And then I kept Spanish. And I’m improving in Spanish, ’cause I didn’t leave it there, I kept studying it. So I’m always learning Spanish. So I wanna learn another language. It’s like, it’s just… Now that I went to Italy, I’m like, “Oh, I gotta learn Italian.” I love Italian people. I feel like I’m part Italian, so how could I be part Italian if I can’t communicate with them? And these people are lovely. You end up loving these people, and it’s like, “Okay, I gotta communicate. I have to learn the language.”
0:46:37.4 Norah Jones: You honor them…
0:46:38.9 Jenniffer Whyte: Yes.
0:46:39.4 Norah Jones: You honor yourself.
0:46:41.0 Jenniffer Whyte: Yeah.
0:46:41.4 Norah Jones: Jenniffer, it’s been a pleasure having you today as a guest.
0:46:43.2 Jenniffer Whyte: Oh, thank you. It’s a pleasure… It’s a pleasure chatting… [laughter]
Norah Jones: I hope you enjoyed listenting to Jenniffer Whyte in this podcast as much as I enjoyed conversing with her. In the coming weeks and months we’re goin gto be taking a look atsome of those themes indeed that Jennfier and others of my guests have covered…taking a look at how language affects how we feel about ourselves, how we feel about our communities, and how we have an impact on the world.
Norah Jones: Until we meet again, then, please check out my website, fluency.consulting, for information about all my guests, and check out my sponsors, please, and to consider ebing a sponsor or a donor yourself. Until next time.Become a Sponsor