How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their work.
Five-year-olds have a very literal way of understanding the world, says Kimi Waite, who spent her early career in a kindergarten classroom.
“One of my students had an amazing mind for science and engineering,” the Los Angeles-based teacher said, noting that he was eager to experience everything he learned.
“One day, during recess, I found him in front of the classroom door, his cheek pressed against the wall. I asked him what he was doing, and he replied: ‘Today, our vocabulary word was texture! I try to experience the texture of the wall. “
She rejoices in the students’ radical openness to these new textures, these new ideas and these new people. That’s one of the reasons for Waite, who now works as a primary school STEM curriculum specialist while pursuing her doctorate. in Education for Sustainable Development, is passionate about teaching underrepresented communities.
“I believe young learners are uniquely prepared to think about issues of injustice and also about scientific inquiry because of their unique way of seeing the world,” Waite said. “They’re very passionate about what’s right, what’s not.”
Growing up in Asian-American Seattle, Waite says she rarely saw herself reflected in her school curriculum. “If I did, it was always like a very downtrodden narrative,” she said.
Teaching, Waite said, was “a call to counter the experiences I’ve had and make them better for [other] children.”
But improving the experience for all students requires better training for educators, she said. “Our teacher training programs need to put more emphasis on anti-racism and social justice,” she said. “I think it is fundamental that teachers are trained.”
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How and when did you decide to become a teacher?
I wanted to learn about different places and education systems around the world that were different from those in North America. I started teaching as a fifth and sixth grade ESL teacher at a public school in Seoul, South Korea. I have also taught professional development for early childhood educators in Guyana. One of the reasons I love Los Angeles is because of the local and global connections that always show up in the classroom.
But the main reason I became a teacher was to make a difference. I believe that education and teaching have a larger purpose and a broader goal of advancing social justice and environmental justice.
Tell us about your own experience with school and how it affects your work today.
As an Asian American, I have never seen myself reflected or represented in my K-12 program. On the rare occasions when Asian Americans appeared in textbooks or were mentioned in a lesson, the portrait was one of an oppressed people who silently accepted their fate. However, history tells us that this stereotypical portrayal is not true. Throughout history, Asian Americans have engaged in resistance and building coalitions against injustice. But this is generally not taught in schools.
Much of the work I did preparing to become a teacher, both at undergrad and in my teacher preparation and masters program, was to unlearn the whitewashed narratives presented to me over the course of my own K-12 education.
My own K-12 education also showed me the importance of having teachers of color. From kindergarten to my doctorate, I had only five educators who looked like me. In elementary school, I never really felt like I connected with any of my teachers or was seen.
What is your favorite – or in your opinion, most important – Asian American history lesson to teach and why?
Asian Americans have a long history of resistance, and that resistance has shaped our civil rights today. The cogs and bolts of every court case may not appear at the start of elementary school, but the concept they reflect of Asian Americans fighting for equality may. Here are some examples:
- United States vs. Wong Kim Ark: This 1898 case asserted that American-born people of Asian descent were American citizens and set legal precedent for the citizenship rights of historically marginalized American-born people. An excellent book to use to teach this is “I am an American: The Story of Wong Kim Ark.”
- Korematsu v. United States: Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were ordered to report to assembly centers. Fred Korematsu defied these orders and was arrested. Legal challenges were filed, but his conviction was ruled constitutional. Scholars now consider this to be ill-motivated, along with cases like Dred Scott v Sanford and Plessy v Ferguson.
- Fred Korematsu Civil Liberties and Constitution Day is celebrated annually in California and 12 other states on January 30 to honor Korematsu’s legacy. Some great books to teach this are:”Fred Korematsu speaks” and “They called us enemies.”
- Linked to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, the POV documentary “Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dusttells a story of historical dispossession: the dispossession of indigenous lands; the forced expulsion and incarceration of Japanese Americans; and the extraction of natural resources. Three communities are mobilizing in solidarity to fight for environmental justice. The lesson plans I wrote for the film are available at PBS learning material.
California also has one of the largest Sikh populations in the country; However, despite their rich contributions to California’s culture, economy, and industries, there is a lack of awareness about Sikhs that can lead to bullying. Before the pandemic, a Sikh Coalition volunteer came to my kindergarten class and my students learned about Sikhs in California as part of a state history lesson. They used coloring pages of Sikh children as superheroes. He celebrated a group of people creating awareness and understanding, but also showing them the experience of joy, which I think is really important.
What is the best advice you have ever received and how have you put it into practice?
This isn’t direct advice, but the best example I’ve been given in my career has actually been from 5- and 6-year-old kindergartners. I love their inquisitive minds, their unfiltered honesty, and the sheer joy they derive from things we might find mundane.
Young learners are fully prepared to think about issues of injustice and scientific inquiry because of their unique way of seeing the world. I also admire their courage and authenticity. We should all be like that, but as adults we are socialized by it.
What is one thing you have read that has made you a better educator?
“The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the 21st Century” by Grace Lee Boggs, Elder of the Timeless Activist.
One of Boggs’ most famous questions is, “What time is it on the world clock?” She encourages us to think globally and see how interconnected we are. Even with kindergartens, I always had this question in mind when planning lessons or preparing learning projects.
You have a busy job and it’s a stressful time. How do you take care of yourself?
Knowing when to say “no” is a skill I’ve had to learn (and keep learning) over the years. And don’t compromise on “no”, because “no” is a definitive and complete answer. As educators, we are in the helping profession and we want to help. However, you must first take care of yourself and protect your time and energy for your own mental, physical and emotional health.