For this LA educator, teaching Asian American history and activism is personal

A student raises their hand in a classroom, students all wearing purple and sitting at circular group desks.
How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

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 incredible mind for science and engineering,” said the Los Angeles-based teacher, noting that he was eager to experience everything he learned. 

“One day during recess, I found him outside of the classroom door with his cheek pressed against the wall. I asked him what he was doing, and he said, ‘Today, our vocabulary word was texture! I’m trying to experience the texture of the wall.’”

She delights in students’ radical openness to those new textures, new ideas, and new people. That’s one reason Waite, who now works as an elementary school STEM curriculum specialist while pursuing her Ph.D. in sustainability education, is passionate about teaching about underrepresented communities. 

“I believe that young learners are perfectly primed to think about issues of injustice and also scientific inquiry due to their unique way of looking at the world,” said Waite. “They’re very passionate about what’s fair, what’s not fair.”

Growing up Asian American in Seattle, Waite says she rarely saw herself reflected in her school curriculum. “If I did, it was always like a very oppressed narrative,” she said.

Teaching, Waite said, was “a calling to counter the experiences I had, and to make it better for [other] children.”

But improving the experience for all students requires better training for educators, she said. “Our teacher education programs need to emphasize more anti-racism and social justice,” she said. “I think it’s 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 than in North America. I first started teaching as a fifth and sixth grade ESL teacher at a public school in Seoul, South Korea. I’ve also taught professional development for early childhood educators in Guyana. One of the reasons why I love Los Angeles is because of the local and global connections that always show up in the classroom. 

But the main reason why I became a teacher was because I wanted to make a difference. I believe that education and teaching have a larger purpose and a larger 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 never saw myself reflected or represented in my K-12 curriculum. On the rare occasion that Asian Americans were in the textbooks or were mentioned in a lesson, the portrayal was one of an oppressed people who silently accepted their fate. However, history tells us that this stereotypical portrayal isn’t true. Throughout history, Asian Americans have engaged in resistance and coalition-building against injustices. But this typically isn’t taught in schools. 

Much of the work I did to prepare to be a teacher, in undergrad and in my teacher preparation and masters program, was about unlearning the whitewashed narratives that were presented to me during my own K-12 education. 

My own K-12 education also showed me the importance of having teachers of color. From kindergarten until my doctoral program, I’ve only had five educators who have looked like me. In elementary school, I never really felt like I connected with any of my teachers or that I was seen.

What’s your favorite — or in your opinion, most important — lesson of Asian American history to teach and why?

Asian Americans have a long history of resistance, and this resistance has shaped our civil rights today. The nuts and bolts of each court case may not appear in early elementary school, but the concept they reflect of Asian Americans fighting for equality can. Here are some examples: 

  • United States v. Wong Kim Ark: This 1898 case affirmed that American-born people of Asian descent were U.S. citizens, and gave legal precedent for citizenship rights of historically marginalized U.S.-born people. A great book to use to teach this is, “I am an American: The Wong Kim Ark Story.” 
  • Korematsu v. United States: Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were given orders to report to assembly centers. Fred Korematsu defied these orders and was arrested. Legal challenges were filed, but his conviction was deemed constitutional. Scholars now regard this as wrongly reasoned, along with cases like Dred Scott v. Sanford and Plessy v. Ferguson. 
  • Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution is celebrated annually in California and 12 other states on January 30 to honor the legacy of Korematsu. Some great books to teach this are: “Fred Korematsu Speaks Up” and “They Called Us Enemy.” 
  • Related to Japanese American incarceration during World War II, the POV documentary “Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust” tells a story of historical dispossession: the dispossession of Indigenous lands; the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans; and the extraction of natural resources. Three communities rise up in solidarity to fight for environmental justice. The lesson plans I wrote for the film are available on PBS Learning Media

California also has one of the country’s largest Sikh populations; however, despite their rich contributions to the culture, economy, and industries of California, there’s a lack of awareness about Sikhs that can lead to bullying. Pre-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. It celebrated a group of people creating awareness and understanding but also showing them experiencing joy, which I think is really important.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received, and how have you put it into practice?

It isn’t direct advice, but the best example that has been set for me in my career has actually been from 5- and 6-year-old kindergarten students. I love their inquisitive minds, their unfiltered honesty, and the pure joy that they gain from things that we might find mundane. 

Young learners are perfectly primed to think about issues of injustice and also scientific inquiry due to their unique way of looking at the world. I also admire their courage and authenticity. We should all be like this, but as adults, we’re socialized out of it. 

What’s one thing you’ve read that has made you a better educator?

The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century” by timeless activist foremother Grace Lee Boggs. 

One of Boggs’ most famous questions is, “What time is it on the clock of the world?” She encourages us to think globally and to see how interconnected we are. Even with kindergarteners, I always had this question in mind when lesson planning or when preparing for learning projects. 

You have a busy job, and this is a stressful time. How do you take care of yourself?

Knowing when to say “no” is a skill that I’ve had to learn (and keep learning) over the years. And not compromising on the “no,” because “no” is a final and a complete answer. As educators, we are in a helping profession, and we want to help. However, you need to take care of yourself first and protect your own time and energy for your own mental, physical, and emotional health.

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