Teamwork and People Power:
Liberatory Teaching in the Elementary Classroom
by Tony Osumi

(Amerasia Journal)

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In 1993, during my graduation ceremonies from UCLA’s Asian American Studies Masters Program, I said, "We shouldn’t have to wait until college to learn about Asian American Studies. We should start learning it in Kindergarten." Three years later, I was teaching Kindergartners and wondering, "Hey, how do you teach Asian American Studies to young children?"

But after almost five years of teaching, I have some ideas. Not so much specifically about teaching Asian American Studies as we currently know it, but about the larger goal of liberatory teaching: Education as a tool for social change. I’ve summarized these ideas into four general concepts:

1) Teach to the belief that education’s goal is to prepare students to build a democratic and more just society;

2) Make education relevant and meaningful by starting with students’ lives;

3) Organize the curriculum around collectively problem-solving the needs of the classroom, school and local community; and,

4) Liberatory teaching is a process that is not always quick, easy or comfortable. Expect opposition, but stay on course and pace yourself by placing your work into the historical movement for social change.

Each teacher must move towards liberatory teaching based on their own personality and teaching conditions. Currently, most of the examples about liberatory teaching involves older students in middle school and high school. Less is written about liberatory practices with elementary age students. Teachers are busy and writing and reflection take time. But each new example can inspire us. Revisioning education as a "practice of freedom" begins with investigating new alternatives.

To illustrate my evolution as a teacher, I’ve organized my experiences chronologically beginning with my first year of teaching. From each year, I’ve focused on the most relevant student activities. Instead of just a showcase of student work, I’ve explained the underlying discovery process for students and myself.

Some of the alternative teaching approaches in this essay include: students writing petitions and gathering signatures to improve their school; supporting striking Los Angeles janitors; publishing their own immigration stories; resisting textbook bias by creating their own Peoples’ encyclopedia; and rallying together to replace a classmate’s stolen watch. You’ll also follow along as a new teacher slowly gains the confidence and experience to transform the classroom into a community of learners practicing "Teamwork" and "People Power."

My hope is that by understanding how I’ve struggled - and continue to struggle - you’ll find it both easier and necessary to take your own steps towards liberatory teaching.

The First Year

I started teaching during the 1996/97 school year at Foshay Learning Center in Los Angeles Unified School District. I taught a multi-age Kindergarten/First Grade class. Like most new teachers, I was trying to survive the school year, keep things together and get the kids to read, write, add, subtract and not hit each other.

I started teaching having read some Paulo Freire in graduate school, but not really understanding exactly what he was saying. I understood the concept of "banking education," but when we started talking about "conscientização," he started to lose me. I had five and six year olds in South Los Angeles, not adult peasants in South America. If Freire represented liberating education, I was failing.

Journals like Radical Teacher focused mostly on secondary and college education. Rethinking Schools was great, but there was little guidance for a new and struggling teacher. Asian American Studies had helpful perspectives on the myth of meritocracy, the struggle for Ethnic Studies and the immigrant experience. But very little on how to teach.

At the time, I saw my role as an activist-teacher. For me, this meant getting involved in local off-campus issues. But teaching took so much time, I never really got started. Looking back, I can see my intentions were half right. It is important to get involved in local issues, but not alone. I should have made it possible for the kids to get involved too. It would take two more years for me to make this connection.

There were two small steps toward teaching for change I made that first year. The first had to do with using picture books to convey complex ideas and concepts. For young students, details about the Civil Rights Movement were less important than the message of people working together for fairness. Dates, numbers, and personal rivalries went over their heads. Feelings, not facts and figures engages five and six year olds.

Reading children’s books with new eyes, I saw that many could be reinterpreted in progressive ways. I used Swimmy to teach about teamwork, The Little Red Hen to emphasize the need to cooperate and Friday Night is Papa Night to talk about fair and livable wages. Once students were exposed to the ideas and vocabulary, moving on to more complex ideas was easier.

The second step led me and the students towards collective problem solving. First Grader, Ruby complained about being bullied by a second grade boy in her apartment. We ended up writing him a card telling him that Ruby was our friend and that he should treat her right. To let him know she had lots of friends, Ruby drew faces on the cover. A few days after giving him the card, Ruby said he apologized and they were becoming friends. This previous bully even asked Ruby to call him "Nice Boy." The fact that this was successful helped, but victory should not be a criteria for taking on issues. The important lesson was letting students work together to help another person in need.


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Updated: 11/1/03