By Alex Ng
This multipart 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.
Part Two picks up where Part One ended: the start of my year of teaching at Franklin High School after having student-taught there 2nd semester of the 2015 – 2016 school year. Rather than recollecting the whole year, I am focusing on experiences that directly influenced my journey towards Ethnic Studies.
Fast Times at Franklin High School, Part Two: Identity & Authenticity in Teaching
My relative “youthfulness” and status as a POC who grew up in the area and graduated from FHS helped lay down a foundation of assumed shared experience and shared values with my students that I’m not sure I ever fully deserved. One day after school I shared these thoughts with a veteran teacher and dear friend who taught in the classroom next door. I confessed to her that while my classes were going well, I didn’t think I was a very good teacher, and I felt students had an inflated positive impression of me based on my youth and connection to the school. She told me it wasn’t about whether I was a good or bad teacher: what mattered is students knew I cared. That sentiment meant a lot to me. Assumed or well-earned, I was relieved to learn that at least students knew that I cared about them.
As a young teacher I had not yet developed a thoroughly examined teaching philosophy to inform my classroom management. However, I did believe in the importance of consistency, de-escalation, and repairing relationships as critical components to classroom management that also recognizes the humanity of students. In the first week of school an argument broke out between two seniors, one Black male and one Black female student during my 3rd period Beginning Drawing and Painting class. In the middle of class, the two kids got into an argument that quickly escalated into threats to beat each other up. Moving quickly, I physically inserted myself (all 5’4” of me) between the two kids and used the best calming voice I could muster to de-escalate the situation. After they had both returned to their seats and settled into shooting daggers at each other with their eyes I called each over to my desk one at a time for some quiet conversation. Each agreed to move on and get along and from that day forward that’s exactly what they did. I enjoyed watching the cooperation and gentle ribbing that became norms in their relationship from then on. I think both students appreciated that I did not escalate the situation with how I intervened or pursue any kind of discipline. As a result of this moment, some depth was added to our relationship, and they would go on to be two of my favorite students.
Still, it is the students I failed to reach who haunt me. My biggest failing was with four 9th grade Black girls I didn’t serve well during my year at FHS. My failure was rooted in my inability to build interpersonal trust with them. Instead, they saw me as yet another fake adult who couldn’t be trusted. In fact, this exact sentiment was expressed to me several times. Their lived experiences as young Black girls in Seattle Public Schools had taught them that they couldn’t trust adults at school, and that trusting adults would lead to them being betrayed. One student told me exactly this: she learned not to trust adults at school because they are all snakes. For her final project in Beginning Drawing and Painting she created a painting of a close-up of her eye with a heap of adults in the iris of her eye all consumed by a great fire. Her painting was a direct reflection of her well-earned distrust of educators. While I appreciate that my class inspired her to express her feelings and reflect her lived experience thru art, I was never able to defy her expectation of educators or earn her trust. In the end she didn’t complete her painting, did fail my class, and left as sure of me as an adult who couldn’t be trusted as she was of all her past teachers.
I can’t claim any successes from our experiment, but I did learn something about myself: right or wrong, I am an educator who is willing to take risks and do things that I think are important.
Another memory that still resonates with me is a funny interaction between myself and one 12th grade Black male student who had lived a very hard life including the loss of both parents, drug and alcohol abuse, and domestic violence. This kid was more than three times my size and had experienced more trauma, racism, and hardship in his 18 years of life than I had in my 28. One class period, he was working on a cut paper collage project and expressing a great deal of frustration to me about the exacto knives we were using for this project. While I was trying to demonstrate to him proper knife skills, he accidentally poked my index finger with the tip of the exacto knife causing a touch of bleeding. He was quite shocked and apologized right away but in a very casual voice which suggested to me a lack of genuine concern about the condition of my finger. In return, I joked that he just stabbed me(!) but that I would be alright. This strange incident of a student drawing blood somehow became a bonding experience for the two of us.
This mammoth of a kid and I would go on to have a meaningful, fun, but often contentious relationship. We bonded over both having lost a parent (or in his case, two) after I shared with class one day that my father had recently passed away from a heart attack. Second semester he would complete a painting portraying drug and alcohol abuse which was the only artwork he made that year that he was proud of. I distinctly remember how invested he was in this painting and how frustrated he would get while painting it. He always signaled his frustration the same way: by pounding his fist against his table. When a loud, declarative thud echoed across the room and half the students jumped in their seats, I knew he was having a hard time. At first, I would go over right away to help him. But I quickly learned that he was not in a place of listening or learning when at peak frustration. So, when I tried to help him right away post fist-meeting-table, we would end up arguing. He was convinced that the paint and brush would magically respond to me but not to him. This, in turn, made me frustrated with him!
I after much contemplation, I decided to take a different approach. I mean, we could only get into the same back and forth argument so many times. He wasn’t frustrated at me; he was frustrated at his own perceived shortcomings. His frustration was stopping his learning, but I couldn’t magically make his frustration go away either. What ended up working was this: first, his fist would rain down on the table. Second, I would go over to him and quietly say something like, “I can see that you’re frustrated right now. I’m going to leave you alone until you’re feeling ready to let me help me. When you’re ready, call me over.” Then, after several minutes of quiet stewing and releasing his frustration, he would call me over and I would be able to work with him without us arguing. This became our normal routine, and in time there were fewer fists and more smiles. This painting reflecting his own experiences with drug and alcohol abuse was the only artwork he chose to keep after graduation. I still remember the smile on his face as he tucked the painting under his arm and walked out of the art classroom for the last time at the end of the year.
Politics, race, and racism were particularly strong currents running through the 2016 – 2017 school year. I recall frank conversations with a group of 12th grade Black female students about racism simmering underneath interactions between school administration and Black students. In short order this group of young women in my 6th period class and I developed enough trust between us for them to challenge my racial equity literacy and have heavy conversations about the presidential candidacies of Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Similarly, a group of Latinx students in my 6th period class would often talk with me about Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric, the brewing anti-immigration sentiments in the country, and how they felt as young Latinx kids in a society that routinely signaled to them that they didn’t belong. One Latinx senior would go on to write a letter in response to Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric for a Humanities class assignment. He brought a draft with him to class and we spent more time that day talking about his letter than we did his artwork. Through these interactions I was learning how important it was for me to be authentically present with my students. They brought all their identities to class with them every day and, as their teacher, it was important for me to see and accept their identities. I felt compelled to do what I could to help them bear the various burdens that are unfairly thrust upon BIPOCs in America.
Franklin HS has a sizeable Asian student population comprised of a mix of Asian-Americans like me who were born in the U.S. and Asian immigrants who are more culturally grounded in their home countries than America. Some of my Asian students looked at me with wide-eyed wonder. It was as if they couldn’t fathom being taught by a fellow Asian (or Asian-American) who had similar life experiences to their own. A group of Asian students in my 4th period Advanced Drawing and Painting class were particularly interested in hearing about the two years I spent living and teaching in South Korea. At one point I was asked to speak at the Asian Student Association’s after-school Lunar New Year festival. I can still shamefully recall fumbling my way through a mercifully brief and improvised speech on the New Year traditions in different Asian cultures and the variety of delicious food provided that night.
Later in the year, a colleague was struggling with a rift in one of her Humanities classes between her Black and Asian students. She shared this with me during lunch one day and I, perhaps foolishly, offered to speak to her class. In a remarkable show of faith that can only exist between colleagues who trust each other, by the end of that lunch we agreed on a plan: she would supervise my class while I would meet with her class to discuss this rift. It turned out that class was 5th period and about to begin in a matter of minutes! So, we did as we said we would. I got my class started by telling the kids what they would be working on while I was next door before heading to my colleague’s class. She explained my presence to her class and then walked over to mine, leaving me to do whatever it was I could to help address this impasse.
The whole class full of students sat before me as I sat at the front of the room. I began by simply offering to listen. Things started with one Black student describing the issue to me. Then more Black students shared their understanding of the situation while I continued to listen. Next, a Pacific Islander student shared his view of the conflict, then a couple of Latinx students, and finally some Asian students began to share their perspective. The rift between my colleague’s Black and Asian students was rooted in Asian students being silent during class discussions on the historical and ongoing oppression of Black Americans. Black students felt that the silence of their Asian peers signaled their disinterest in the topic, and that their silence made understanding each other impossible. In turn, a handful of Asian students expressed that their silence was how they engaged with difficult discussions. They also expressed that silently listening is a common form of engagement prevalent in Asian cultures and that it did not signal disinterest but rather learning and reflection.
Once I felt I had an understanding of the situation I began to offer my own thoughts, framed very much as my own thoughts, not solutions. As an Asian-American I understood well the default behavior of silently listening instead of vocally engaging in difficult discussions. Although I can’t claim to be prone to this behavior myself, it is something I culturally understand. To the Asian students I tried to emphasize that silence does not help create shared understanding or, more obviously, discussion. Although in their minds they might be having all kinds of meaningful reflections and realizations, if those aren’t shared no one else will know or benefit from them. I also emphasized how deeply personal these discussions were to their Black peers and that their silence was actively creating conflict and confusion. It was understandably difficult for Black students to be charitable towards silent conversation partners when the topic was of such personal importance to them.
In the world of education there is so much student-focused talk about authentic engagement, authentic assessment, and authentic voice. But how often do we question the authenticity of our own identity in the classroom?
I also intuited that the silence of Asian students was also partly rooted in the perception that they did not see themselves reflected in the struggles and oppression of Black Americans or America’s racial landscape as a whole. I shared this thought with the class and mentioned the history of Chinese exclusion, race riots in early Chinatowns on the west coast, and the use and erasure of Chinese labor to build the intercontinental railroad to emphasize that Asians and Asian Americans are very much a part of America’s racial history and have their own histories of oppression and resistance. Over the course of the class period many thoughts were shared, and I was eventually able to facilitate Black and Asian students listening and responding to each other. I recall one student reflected that although they had gone to school with each other since elementary school, they had never discussed the racial dynamics amongst their peers like this before. After the period ended my colleague and I debriefed the situation. I can’t claim any successes from our experiment, but I did learn something about myself: right or wrong, I am an educator who is willing to take risks and do things that I think are important.
It is important to address the pervasive anti-Blackness that runs through non-Black communities of color. I could feel inklings of this in the deep divide and distrust between the Black and Asian students in my colleague’s class. The silence of the Asian students was confirming for Black students what their lived experience had taught them: that their non-Black POC peers were not their allies, that anti-Blackness lived in their hearts and minds. As an Asian American and educator of color I continue to confront this truth within myself. Nothing in life has aided me more in dismantling the anti-Blackness that lives within me than teaching Black students. They deserve better than to sit in yet another classroom with yet another teacher who is blind to their own prejudice. As educators, we must acknowledge the reality of Anti-Blackness within us. We must admit it, interrogate it, unlearn it, and commit ourselves to doing and being better.
Looking back on my year at Franklin, I feel I was generally successful at building positive relationships with my students, the overwhelming majority of whom were BIPOC. Much of this success was rooted in authenticity, consistency, and acceptance. Students could come to class every day and trust that I would be who I said I was. If students saw me care for one of their classmates one day, whether it was discussing complex matters of race and racism in America or showing compassion for a student’s personal struggle, they could trust that I would do the same for them another day. They could come to class every day and know that I saw and accepted them and their identities. As I mentioned previously, I was also somewhat of a novelty at Franklin and that did help to build positive relationships with students. I suppose there were not many young Asian, male FHS alumnus teachers with a dyed hair fauxhawk working at Franklin High School at that time.
The importance of bringing my identity into my work as a teacher was quite possibly the single most essential lesson I learned in my year at Franklin. The closer my teacher identity is to my personal identity, the more authentically present I am in the classroom. I have learned to ask myself again and again: is my teaching in line with my values? Are the things I say I care about present and alive in my teaching? In my classroom? In my interactions and relationships with students? In the world of education there is so much student-focused talk about authentic engagement, authentic assessment, and authentic voice. But how often do we question the authenticity of our own identity in the classroom? Identity is one of the core tenets of Ethnic Studies. For me, the work of understanding this tenet began by turning my gaze inward. In my year at Franklin, I was often challenged by my students: challenged to be a teacher worthy of their trust and respect. Some students afforded me the assumption of trustworthiness but most needed evidence: they needed proof that I was who I said I was. With notable exceptions, I feel I earned the trust and respect of nearly all my students by being just that: authentically myself.