Large expanses of perfectly trimmed grass, gargantuan brick buildings with rust-colored roofs, and downtown streets lined with palm trees – one thing was for sure, Gabriella Corales was not in central Texas anymore. Corales, a first-generation college student from San Antonio, remembers her first day at Stanford as if it were a scene from a movie. As her classmates introduced themselves, one stated that his father worked at the Pentagon, another boasted that hers was a Harvard professor.
“And my dad,” Corales recalls, “is in prison.”
Unlike many of her Stanford cohorts, Corales grew up in poverty, and while having an incarcerated father put a strain on her, emotionally and academically, she never saw her relationship with her father as a hindrance. Looking back, Corales chooses to focus on her love for her father and the growth that came from that struggle: “It made me the person that I am today.”
Additionally, completing her undergraduate degree at Texas State had also prepared Corales to hold her own among the best of the best in education research. But when the pressures of balancing part-time teaching, developing a thesis, and clambering through mountains of homework consumed all of Corales’s free time and became too overwhelming, she would take a trip to the beach and watch the waves dance on the shore, her grandma’s words lingering in her mind: “You’re going to be someone in life, and education is your way out.”
Now, after earning her Masters in Education from Stanford, Corales teaches 11th grade American Literature at Impact Academy in Hayward, California, and she shares her success story with her students, many of whom are also first-generation students of color. This new role at Impact Academy has given her the freedom to create an innovative curriculum tailored to students from all backgrounds. Her goal: to train them to think critically about the pressing issues that our nation faces. Corales first realized the importance of critical thinking while she was at Texas State, where she pursued degrees in English and Communications.
During her first semester of college, Corales sought advice from a professor who has a passion for educating Chicano-American students, Dr. Jaime Mejía. She asked him which skills he thought were fundamental for high school students to succeed at the university level. He replied simply, “They need to know how to read. They need to know how to think, and they need to know how to write.” Corales puts this advice to use daily at Impact Academy.
One especially effective unit on activism, Corales’s favorite, employs all of these skills. Taught after her Civil Rights unit, in an effort to give students a picture of what fighting for a cause looks like, the activism unit allows students’ to use their individual passions to guide their learning. In an end-of-the-year project, students choose a research topic that influences their generation and is problematic in our society. Their final product – a video, speech, artwork, or any other medium the student finds effective – should propose a solution to reduce or bring an end to that issue. The school invites family, friends, and community members to hear the students present. In the past, these exhibitions have been moments of pride for Ms. Corales. One student courageously admitted to having been abused in childhood. Another confessed his struggle with an eating disorder and pleaded for his audience to reduce the stigma surrounding men with crippling body image issues. The topics are often personal, so students are excited to research, write, and present their solutions.
As this unit also demonstrates, Corales’s approach to American literature isn’t typical of most teachers. She tries to relate every iconic novel or literary movement to things that are still affecting adolescents today. Additionally, by featuring prominent authors of color in her curriculum, her largely Hispanic and African-American students see experiences similar to their own being discussed and hailed as important to American literature.
Corales recognizes that many teachers fear bringing sensitive issues into the classroom, but she doesn’t hesitate to teach students to think for themselves and understand complex problems in America. She understands that once students leave the classroom, they are immediately bombarded with news and social media sites, and they will need to be able to make informed opinions. “So, while we have [students] in our classrooms,” Corales reasons, “let’s prepare them to talk about it.”
Corales’s story, from San Antonio to Stanford, is a symbol of hope for her students. By sharing her experiences at Texas State and the $30,000 Rockefeller Fellowship award that allowed her to attend Stanford, she encourages students to set high goals for themselves and to take charge of their education, especially those who are first-generation or those whose families struggle to support them. Just as her grandmother taught her, she wants her students to believe that they too can overcome imperfect childhoods. “If I can get to this place in my life without being prepared,” Corales tells her students, “imagine how far you can go.”
By Sammi Yarto, English Minor