Power to the Students

By Sacha Zimmerman

Liz Kleinrock ’05 spoke to Head of School Bryan Garman on a recent episode of Lives That Speak, the Sidwell Friends School podcast. An antibias and anti-racist educator and founder of Teach and Transform, Kleinrock is also a career classroom teacher, an AmeriCorps alum, a TED Talk speaker, and, as of May, the author of Start Here, Start Now: A Guide to Antibias and Antiracist Work in Your School Community. Here, she discusses why antibias work can’t be scripted, how parents and teachers can create racial literacy, and why scarcity is a defining feature of white supremacy.

BRYAN GARMAN: What was your first teaching job?

LIZ KLEINROCK: I got my first teaching job through AmeriCorps. I moved to Oakland, California, right after graduating from Washington University in 2009—so peak recession. But teaching was something that was still hiring. I taught for two years with AmeriCorps—one year in West Oakland, one year in East Oakland, 1st and 2nd grade. I did in-school literacy intervention and taught an after-school literacy program, but I had my own self-contained class of kids who I saw every day throughout the year. And after that, I moved to Los Angeles and got my master’s at UCLA’s Teacher Education Program. I student-taught 5th grade in South LA. I got hired as a founding lead teacher at a charter school in East Hollywood, where I taught 1st through 4th grades for seven years. And now I’m back in DC. I’m teaching 6th grade English here. So, at this point, I’ve taught 1st through 6th in the past 12 years.

BG: Most young people leave teaching within the first five years. What got you to stay?

LK: Teaching was really challenging, but I was also really excited to come to work every single day. I had one desk job before starting to teach, and I was just so incredibly miserable sitting in a little cubicle in front of a computer all day. With teaching, I love how social it is. I love that every day is different. To this day, I have not been able to find a creative outlet that fulfills me the same way that teaching does. Also, kids are just so much fun. They’re hilarious, insightful, and so smart. There are so many things I loved about my schooling experience at Sidwell Friends that I was able to bring into my classes in Oakland. Even just things like read-alouds. As a kid, I loved being read to so much; that was such an amazing part of elementary school at Sidwell Friends. Library time was one of my favorites. Being able to introduce my favorite books to my students and see them fall in love with them, too—it is just really awesome and magical.

The idea that there’s a Light in everybody is something we could all benefit from. So many students have come to me having accumulated so much internalized negativity and self-doubt, even kids in 2nd and 3rd grade, because they’ve heard so often from adults reprimanding them for things or telling them they can’t do something or they’re doing something wrong. Part of my practice in anti-biased work is flip- ping a lot of the descriptors that we use to identify students. Instead of saying, “English-language learner,” why don’t we think about students as “emerging bilinguals”? Viewing those languages as a gift instead of a detriment.

BG: What do teachers say is the biggest impediment to practicing anti-racist work in their classrooms?

LK: Fear is always the underlying cause— fear of your principal, fear of what par- ents and caregivers are going to say, fear of your own ignorance and not know- ing where to start. A lot of teachers have difficulty relinquishing control in their classroom, too. But that’s really necessary—to be able to let go and let students guide the conversation and their learning in order to make this work really authentic. Something I hear from teachers a lot is: “Where’s the curriculum? Can you give me a curriculum? Can you give me a binder or a script?” And I will never be about that, because in terms of being culturally responsive to your students, this work is going to look different every year because your students change every year. I remind teachers that the second anything becomes standardized—if it’s a test, if it’s a curriculum—it’s no longer responsive to your students. There’s a lot of fear around students saying something problematic or asking a question and a teacher not knowing the answer. But there’s a lot of power in telling a student, “I actually have no idea what the answer to that question is, but let me go look it up, or we can research it together.”It creates this really authentic learning experience that also de-centers you as the so-called “expert in the room.” We’re all figuring this out together.

Instead of saying, ‘English-language learner,’ why don’t we think about students as ‘emerging bilinguals’?

BG: How should parents talk to their kids about race?

LK: Being able to provide tools, strategies, and resources to make adults feel more comfortable talking with kids is really necessary. I tell parents, caregivers, teachers—you have to start with yourself. I ask parents to think about what they were taught about race when they were young, and what sorts of emotions or baggage might they be bringing into the conversation? A lot of adults today were brought up in an era of: “You don’t notice race. You don’t talk about it. You don’t point it out. It’s rude. So just pretend it’s not there.” And clearly that hasn’t gotten us anywhere productive. I know there are people out there who will say, “Well, if you talk about race, it’s just going to make people racist.” But if you’re going to try to cure cancer, you have to talk about cancer. You have to be able to talk about the problem in order to fix the problem.

An inquiry-based lens when working with your own children can be a really powerful entry point. You can say things like: “Hey, there have been a lot of pro- tests going on in our country. I’m curious, have you heard about Black Lives Matter? Has anyone at school talked about it?” Just offer your kids an opportunity to share what they know and ask questions. Then locate different resources so you can continue learning together. When I work with the parents and caregivers of my own students, I tell them about what we’re doing in class. I even write guiding questions for them: “Hey, at dinner tonight, try asking your kid X, Y, or Z. This is what we talked about today.” It also shows that what we’re doing in school and at home is a partnership; it’s not learning that hap- pens in isolation.

BG: What does creating an anti-racist classroom mean to you?

LK:I think first about making sure my students are racially literate. Do they actually know what race is? Do they know the difference between race and ethnicity? How much work have they done in their own racialized identity development? With young kids, it’s: Can you talk about what you look like and what other people look like with love and respect for each other? Can you talk about the reasons why people have different physical characteristics? We talk about why people have differ- ent skin color—because of the amount of melanin in our skin and the proximity our ancestors lived to the equator and who our own biological parents are. I want my students to know that concepts like race and gender are socially constructed.

It’s also important to focus on the ways race has been weaponized in order to harm people, looking at racist systems of oppression here in the United States and around the world. But we have to balance that out with the resilience that resulted from having to deal with injustice and oppression. When I think of an anti-racist classroom, I don’t think about a class- room that just talks about Jim Crow and enslavement and anti-Asian immigration laws. We should balance that with joy, power, and resilience. It’s also really important to hold onto the notion that being anti-racist is rooted in action. So, once you have this information, once you’ve developed this knowledge and understanding, what matters is what you go out into the world and do with it. What does it mean to align yourself with people who have been historically marginalized? How do you think about your own privilege and what you’re willing to give up in order to create more inclusive and equitable spaces for everybody? This is where kids get the most excited. They don’t want to just talk; they don’t want to just read—they want to do; they want to act.

BG: Talk about your recent participation in a Smithsonian event about the model-minority stereotype.

LK: We have to accept that there’s a lot of ignorance around Asian American his- tory. If you’re a product of U.S. education, chances are you did not really learn anything about Asian American history beyond maybe Chinese laborers building the transcontinental railroad or maybe the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The stereotype that’s called the “model-minority myth” seems like a good thing but is actually incredibly harmful. A lot of folks don’t know that there’s a specific starting point, an origin story, to the model-minority myth. It was coined in 1966 by William Peterson, a sociologist at UC Berkeley. His work was popularized when he compared the so-called success of Japanese-Americans with African Americans in the United States. It solidified this prevailing stereotype that Asians are industrious, rule-abiding, quiet, hard workers. He took Asian people as this monolithic group, stuck them next to Black folks in the United States, and basically said: “Look how successful they are. Black folks, why can’t you just excel the way Asians do?”

It drives this wedge between the Asian American and the Black community, and perpetuates an enormous amount of anti-Blackness. I’ve also seen far too many Asian Americans internalize this model-minority myth themselves. A lot of the work I do with Asian American communities is identifying that stereotype and dismantling it through education, interracial solidarity, and community building. The myth views the Asian American community as this monolithic group, when there are dozens of different countries within Asia.

And data, when we’re talking about different racialized groups, is almost never disaggregated. It might look like Asians are performing better than other com- munities of color in the United States, but when you break it down, the disparities are enormous. The average income for someone who is Taiwanese-American versus Laotian-American or from Myanmar or Butan, it’s enormous. And we don’t see that struggle. We don’t see what different Asian American groups have been faced with or what they’ve had to overcome. Ultimately, the model-minority myth perpetuates the idea that there’s only so much liberation or justice to go around. This scarcity is a defining feature of white-supremacist culture. It causes communities of color to spend more time fighting each other, rather than coming together to try to dismantle white supremacy.

BG: What should not go back to normal when we return to our classrooms in the fall?

LK: I would love for people to hold onto is this idea of giving each other a lot of grace and compassion. It’s so important to just allow people the space to breathe.We live in this very capitalism-fueled grind culture, where we think that if we’re not constantly producing something every minute of the day, then who are we and what are we worth? But we’re so much more than that. I hope people can still remember those things as we begin to open up again.

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