By Alex Ng
The Journey to Ethnic Studies Visual Arts
This journal is where I am documenting my thoughts as I embark on the journey of revising all of my classes from decent Visual Arts curriculum with some Ethnic Studies themes and content integrated throughout, to true Ethnic Studies Visual Arts at all levels: curriculum, pedagogy, and classroom culture.
How it All Began: Living and Teaching in South Korea
I’ve been teaching Visual Arts at the public high school level for four years now. Prior to these four years, I lived abroad in South Korea for two years, teaching EFL (English as a Foreign Language) in 7 different public middle schools. My middle schools ranged from tiny rural schools of fewer than 100 students to a 500+ all-girls middle school in the heart of the city of Gongju. I taught 6th, 7th, and 8th grade and typically saw each class once a week. I was a teacher on the go. Each morning I would bus (or taxi if I woke up late!) to a different school in a different town or neighborhood in the city.
I went to South Korea to experience teaching firsthand. I knew I had an interest in teaching, but I had never done it before. I also knew that having an interest in teaching at the age of 24 was not the same as having a life-long passion for teaching. I went to South Korea to teach, learn, and decide if teaching was something I wanted to pursue as a career. My contract was for one year. If at the end of that one year I felt good about moving forward with teaching, I would return to the US to pursue a Master’s in Teaching degree. I ended up taking two years to reach that conclusion. One year was enough for me to realize that I might be good at teaching and had the passion to get better at it, but not much more than that. The second year showed me that I was growing as a teacher and building the stamina to do the job day-in, day-out without burning out due to unending failure. More on this later.
My two years of living and teaching in South Korea were truly transformative. For the first time in my life I was outside of the United States and seeing the world from beyond the US-centric worldview I grew up with. In fact, America is not the center of the world, very few of our mores are truly unique to US culture, and America is very much not the envy of the world either. This was also the first time I was surrounded by diverse people whose racial backgrounds did not end in ___-American. Growing up in Seattle I was blessed to have friends and close relations from across a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds. But most of us were still rooted in the American milieu. As an Asian American I was already acutely aware of having my own two feet planted in (at least!) two different cultures. In addition, a decent liberal arts education at the University of Washington had equipped me with the language and thought of critical theory and critical race theory (not to mention a pretty sweet Interdisciplinary Visual Arts & English Literature education). This education, combined with my own upbringing as an Asian American growing up in South Seattle, gave me the grounding to examine my lived experiences critically, to reflect, and to grow.
Nonetheless, living in South Korea, in the small city of Gongju, immersed in the tight-knit expat community there, for the first time in my life I shared space and dialogue with people born and raised in other countries such as South Africa, Sri Lanka, Ireland, Australia, and of course, South Korea: people with a perspectives on life not grounded in US-centric thinking. I learned a hell of a lot. I could go on and on about my life in South Korea and how my worldview was challenged and transformed, and perhaps one day I will, but this journal is primarily about teaching.
Picking up on my failures: in two years, I taught hundreds of bad lessons, probably fewer than ten good lessons, made so, so, so many mistakes, learned a handful of important lessons for myself, and ultimately decided that this whole teaching thing was definitely something I wanted to pursue further. South Korea is where I made most of my rookie mistakes. I often question how good a teacher I was for my students. Actually, I don’t. I was a bad teacher. I was a bad teacher but not for lack of trying. I tried, and failed, pretty much every day. I do think I succeeded in motivating my students to engage with their English language studies, but that’s about the only positive impact I can claim to have had on my students. On the other hand, I personally learned a great deal. It is entirely fair to say that my students taught me far more than I taught them. I hope this will continue to be the case for the rest of my teaching career.
A Brief Stay at Western Washington University
At the end of two years I returned to the United States, briefly to Seattle, then found myself living in Bellingham, Washington and attending the Master’s in Teaching program at Western Washington University. For the first time in a long, long time I was surrounded by whiteness. Perhaps for the first time ever, I was surrounded by whiteness without the ability to retreat to an established POC space with faces I knew and people I shared a history of lived experience, love, and mutual understanding with. Thankfully, my time at WWU was brief. The most I can say about my experience in the Woodring College of Education’s Master’s in Teaching program is that I was able to tailor the experience to my interests. The professors demonstrated flexibility and trust in giving me autonomy to direct my own teacher education. At the same time, several racist events prompted me to get involved with the campus community beyond what I had ever imagined. Many meetings, discussions, practicums, boring classes and exciting conversations later, I was a graduate of WWU with a Master’s in Teaching degree!
Writing this now in the year 2020, I recognize that I am not the same iteration of myself who graduated from WWU in the year 2016. Still, who I was in 2016 was a culmination of the previous 28 years of lived experience. Below are excerpts from my teaching application cover letter written right after I graduated and provides a good summary of my thinking on myself as a teacher at that time:
My name is Alex Ng. I am Chinese-American, born and raised in the south end neighborhoods of Seattle, Washington. My K-12 education took place entirely in highly diverse, high needs public schools and communities. As a student, I learned firsthand what it feels like to struggle, to have unrealized potential, to see other students not make it, and to see some students succeed in spite of all the systems that sometimes work against them. These experiences have shaped who I am as a person and a teacher. I carry them with me each-and-every day as I pour all of myself into my work. I aim to recognize and validate who students are: their lived experiences and identities, while working to help them become better versions of themselves.
As a graduate student in Woodring College of Education, I helped the secondary education department navigate several internal issues around inclusion and culturally responsive teaching. In doing so, I learned how to build relationships with my peers and professors within the college. My work within Woodring led to me serving on the University President’s Taskforce for Equity and Inclusion where I was able to continue this work on a larger, systemic scale. In this capacity, I learned a great deal about the interconnectivity of all the different efforts across the university to address important issues of equity, inclusion, retention, and representation.
I believe students have the potential to transform their communities. I want to help them along the way. Simply put, I want to find an educational community where my voice can make a difference both to the community as a whole and in the lives of individual students who struggle to envision their own success.
In the midst of my final quarter at WWU an old friend and Visual Arts teacher at Franklin High School reached out to me. He was going to take the next year off and wanted to know if I would be able to fill his position for the year. Some quick coordination later, I was a fresh-faced student teacher at Franklin High School teaching Visual Arts with the mutual understanding between myself and my friend that I would be hired as the Visual Arts teacher for the following year while he enjoyed his well-earned sabbatical.
Fast Times at Franklin High School Part One
My semester of student-teaching was wonderful, deeply exhausting, and highly motivating. I was teaching again after enduring a year and a half of almost nothing but grad school academic minutia. Three days into my student teaching placement cooperating teacher handed me his gradebook and told me I would be teaching all his classes for the rest of the year with the exception of his after school muraling class. I was finally where I wanted to be, teaching every day, teaching content I loved to students I loved, at the school I graduated from, and I loved (almost) every minute of it!
It was while student-teaching at Franklin High School that my attempts at teaching content relevant and responsive to the lives of my students began in earnest. My friend and cooperating teacher gave me a wide berth to teach what I wanted, how I wanted. With my newfound freedom, I created and taught a project called “Art That Speaks” where students briefly learned the history of art & protests with a focus on the art of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and the Hong Kong Yellow Umbrella Democracy Movement and the aim of creating their own protest art. I tried to highlight each cause and how strong visual iconography helped to express the message of each protest movement. Once the learning targets and focus skills were communicated, students were tasked with creating their own protest art, a large-ish painting that expressed their message on a topic of socio-political interests to them. Students created paintings about reproductive rights, body consciousness, BLM, environmental justice, teen mental health, gender representation in ballet, and more. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was my first, teeny-tiny, novice teacher, baby-step towards Ethnic Studies…
Stay tuned for future installments from Alex Ng. In the meantime, follow him on Instagram: @mr.alex.artteacher.