By Elaine Pritzker
When armed rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol in January, Tiffany-Anne Parkes faced her history class students through a computer screen — a mix of Black, brown and Latinx high schoolers — and asked for their thoughts.
“If that was us, we’d be dead.”
It was a chilling response. It also served as an affirmation of why Parkes teaches history and, in particular, why she teaches the history that history books often leave out.
Parkes is a high school teacher at Harlem Village Academy in New York City. She writes her own curriculum – infusing the culture, food and stories she remembers from her childhood visits to Jamaica, a cultural crossroads resulting from a history of colonialism. She’s trying to change a system that covers the black history narrative of slavery and the civil rights movement without making important connections to the present day.
She’s brought in young adult author Laurie Halse Anderson to speak to 11th graders about the character of a young runaway slave in Halse's fictionalized account of the American Revolutionary War. She showed the class the documentary “Black in Latin America” by Henry Louis Gates Jr. when teaching the history of the Haitian Revolution.
Her desire to engage students in new ways of viewing history originates from her own experiences in learning. As a child, she was curious, confident and eager to try new things. But as she got older, she lost momentum in her studies.
“I just wasn’t interested in anything that was being taught,” Parkes said. “I didn’t see myself in the literature that I was reading or the history I was studying.”
She wants her students to see themselves and recognize that their own history is part of all history. Her classes often leave them asking, ‘How come I haven’t learned this before?’
Parkes, a journalism alumna who also took graduate classes in the Department of English, was inspired by the way associate professor Donna Weir-Soley and senior associate dean Heather Russell ran their classes and pushed their students to be better. In their classrooms, Parkes began to see history and literature through the eyes of people like herself.
Parkes went on to pursue a Ph.D. in Literature at Howard University, wanting to become a professor. Halfway through her first year, while tutoring undergraduate students at the campus writing lab, Parkes had an epiphany.
“I was like, how are these freshmen coming in here and writing like this in college?" she said, disappointed by what she felt was sub-par work. "It was painful to read.”
Realizing that teaching on the high school, not college, level is "where I needed to be," Parkes spent six years working at a school in D.C. and one year at an alternative school in Brooklyn's Brownsville neighborhood before moving to Atlanta and becoming director of a center for kids expelled from public school. She also dabbled in her second love of cooking, catching the attention of more than a few Atlanta food critics and giving rise to her start-up Pienanny.
Now back in New York City at Harlem Village Academy, a progressive network of schools focused on inspiring students to pursue a successful and equitable future, she calls the forced work-from-home pandemic situation a mixed blessing. While virtual learning has made it challenging to get teenagers to stay excited, it’s also given her a lot of time to reinvest in Pienanny.
For someone whose progressive passions haven’t always been welcome, she’s paved her own path to success and now is doubling down to ensure her students learn that history belongs to them and so do their futures.
FIU@Home: CONNECTING CULTURE AND CUISINE
Self-taught chef Tiffany-Anne Parkes had a simple desire to feed the people around her. But it became a gateway to exploring her own history and culture while riffing on ingredients and style.
Her first official pop-up dinner in Atlanta caught the attention of area food critics. It got her on Eater Atlanta’s 2017 list of top picks for the biggest dining surprises of that year. The event was noted by editors for its inclusive approach to simultaneously decolonize and reinvent their own culinary heritages. In 2020, Parkes landed her Jerk Turkey Shepherd’s Pie in Bon Appetit’s Thanksgiving issue.
This spring she’s collaborating with Heckler, a collective of artists, to host a COVID-safe pop-up dinner series featuring large scale installations. The core of the dinner is about conversation, connection and of course – good food.
As part of the FIU@Home educational series, the Education Outreach team in the College of Arts, Sciences & Education encourages people create their own pie crust.