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To whom it may concern,Many of my art students are fans of Miley Cyrus and just last week they asked me, “Ms. Lee, you’re Asian…were you offended by Miley’s slant-eyed photo?”  I had not seen the photo but I told them that when kids made that face at me growing up, the intention was mean-spirited and never funny.

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So I googled the photo and read all the comments and hoopla surrounding it.  I also read her comment on her web site saying that she was only being goofy and that it was taken out of context.  I think that when an Asian person looks at this photo it brings back sad and painful memories of being taunted for having features that differ from western looks.

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Ms. Cyrus will never know how that feels since she is not Asian.  She is too young to remember how Asians were depicted in media prior to the 1980’s and  that awareness of multicultural perspectives was hard won and something young people like her may take for granted.  Perhaps she is too young to understand how a single gesture can spread racist attitudes and turn back the clock on understanding racial diversity.   I hope that her managers, Disney and any other parties responsible for her public image will take into consideration that a celebrity and role model of her stature needs to be educated about diversity and social justice.  This is a teaching moment for Ms. Cyrus, her friends, my students and the rest of the world.

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Historically, genocide and racism was and still continues to be propagated by grouping people through stereotypes and names.  Like the Asian kid in Ms. Cyrus’ photo, once you become a stereotype your individuality and identity are lost.  This is how you lose your voice and ultimately your civil rights.  Please consider how to best handle this  scandal.   What started out as just a goofy picture has seeped into my classroom and even into the conversations at the teachers’ lunch table.  It is unfortunate while we have elected the first African American president in the US,  a pop culture teen celeb can undo so much of the message of looking beyond the color of a person’s skin with a silly party photo that was released on the internet.   Please consider the power that Ms. Cyrus has over my young students and the message she sends when her actions are not responsible.
Best Regards,
Nanci Lee

 ealexander2One of my co-workers, a teacher asked what I thought about Elizabeth Alexander’s inauguration poem.  It got me reflecting on her words and here is my response:

It’s a language poem.  She approaches big ideas with phrases and idioms without being grandiose or corny.  I know many did not care for the lack of cadence and beauty of the reading but I’m an art teacher so I can only speak about how she was able to paint a broad canvas with so few words.   Every day words telling us that this day marks a turning point where our country can be directed by light and love. That it is a choice, a new beginning, a possibility for mending this country. What I like about this poem is that it is cyclical and unending, implicating the audience and the new administration in the course of history.  Reminding us that this day was made possible by others who at some point chose to find the higher path.  And so it continues from this day forward amidst the noise of racism, war and media (see intro).   “A teacher says, “Take out your pencils. Begin.”  This is a praise song for teachers, farmers, soldiers, people of all races and a poem about love before nationalism, relgion and retribution.  It is a poem about social justice and peace.

Here is a transcript of the poem:

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others’ eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

ALEXANDER: A farmer consider the changing sky; A teacher says, “Take out your pencils. Begin.”

We encounter each other in words, Words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; Words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, “I need to see what’s on the other side; I know there’s something better down the road.”

We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by “Love thy neighbor as thy self.”

Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.

I rode a TWA not a UFO

I rode a TWA not a UFO

When my family came to America, we made our home in Atlanta, Ga.  Years later I would ask my parents, “For the love of God why didn’t we stay in Hawaii?”  I grew up in a black and white city where Asians were treated like aliens from another planet.  They knew 3 things about me:  Bruce Lee, Chow Mein and Ching Chong.  I rode public transit to Kindergarten and attended an all black school.  There were two white kids and me.  I had a crush on a little girl who was popular.  She had a big dimple, lots of pretty accessories in her braids and I could stare at her for hours while she sang Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.  I watched the Jackson 5 and I remember dialing the operator to get Michael Jackson’s phone number so my friend and I could tell him how much we loved him.  I wanted to be black.

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But I never got used to the name calling and wondered why being “Chinese” was such a bad thing, even though I’m Korean.  I remember a situation at the A&P the first year we were in the states. While I was standing in one of the aisles, a black kid, maybe 9 years old snuck up behind me and said, “Chioneese!”   He yanked my two braids so hard I fell flat on my back.  I remember my dad running after him.  When my dad worked at the Magic Market while attending language school, he di not think twice about chasing a black man down the street who was trying to steal a six pack of beer.  He got shot in the leg during a hold-up and still that didn’t stop him from chasing down these guys…gun or no gun. I wondered if he was still trying to catch that boy at the A&P.

my sister played the chesty nurse in the school Hee Haw play when she was in 7th grade.

My sister played the chesty nurse in the school Hee Haw play when she was in 7th grade.

Despite these negative experiences, I can’t say I held any resentment against black kids because I was hassled by white kids too.  At age six, we moved to Rome Georgia, a rural farming community.  I found myself in a classroom where I was the only non-white student.  The name calling continued but lessened considerably, but kids stared at me all the time.  I remember a little girl in my class reaching out to touch my hair to see if it was real.  There were some Koreans in the community and I had a B.B. gun and became a regular red-neck Korean.  We lived in a trailer and my dad drove a Pinto and with a CB radio.  My handle was “Dancing Queen.”

I think there's just one kind of folks.  Folks.  - Harper Lee

I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks. - Harper Lee

When I saw “To Kill A Mockingbird” and saw the way Scout and her friends had the freedom to run around and explore on their own, it reminds me of growing up in the deep south.  I hunted birds, made forts and talked with a hick accent.  I probably would have ended up pregnant at 16 like some of my neighbors had my parents not decided to move us back to Atlanta when I was 12.  By then, my father had saved up by working as a welder in a nuclear power plant in Surry, Va.  My parents found a nice ranch house in a good school district in an Atlanta suburb.  So in 6th grade I found myself in a classroom full of rich white kids.  The most ethnic groups there were Greek and Jewish students.  The American Dream at last!

Are your grandparents growing rice in your backyard?

Are your grandparents growing rice in your backyard?

I was a stranger in a strange land once again.  Everyone wore Izod shirts and monogramed sweaters.  My sister and I could wear the clothes but still couldn’t get it right.  There was always something that set us apart from the American mainstream.  In Korean culture it is customary to live with your grandparents.  My grandparents plowed our entire back yard (before growing your food became fashionable) planting peppers, lettuce and anything you could fit on an acre.  I remember how it was considered an eyesore to our neighbors and how I was embarrassed about it.  And everyone played soccer at my school.  I had never gone to soccer camp nor played before but  your popularity depended on it.  I remember praying trying to make a deal with God that if I could be good at soccer, he could take away my drawing skills (I was the best drawer in class).  When I started high school, they started busing black students to our school.  This was in the 80’s and it caused quite a stir in the community as residents worried about property value plummeting on their homes.

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So I grew up wanting to be black or white or from any country people could point to on a map.  When I told people I was from Korea, they had no clue.  And if they did know, they would ask, “Are you from North Korea?”

Are you a commie?

Are you a commie?

How has this affected my outlook about diversity?   I learned that discrimination is not race-specific and that  ignorance and lack of exposure to other cultures is often the culprit.  And as much as political correctness has gone overboard at times, I still marvel that in this lifetime, I was able to see so many gains in multicultural awareness.  When colleges and schools began offering courses about other cultures and teach students about people of color, fostering inquiry about the politics of race and when people of color began to be portrayed in the media as individual personalities in their own right rather than stereotypes that is when I felt included in American culture.  When the Korean comedian Margaret Cho gained popularity  I understood her appeal to gay men all over America.  Once I finished school and was living on my own in the city…not far from where my family started started their life in the  US… I had a lot of gay friends.   You could say I was a fag hag.

I never had to pay for a hair cut in the 90's

I never had to pay for a hair cut in the 90's

I had a lot in common with gay men despite our racial and gender differences.  We understood what it felt like to be an outsider,  to be discriminated against and called names.   I want to clarify that not all my friends were hairdressers.  Some are photographers, filmmakers,  computer programmers, foot models, gamers…well you get the picture.  I do believe that gay and lesbian rights is still lagging in most schools.  It’s still a culture of  “don’t ask and don’t tell.”  These students will always feel invisible until teachers can become better educated and accepting of gay and lesbian students.  It seems like the final frontier in most schools.

Some time ago, a friend from Bryn Mawr College began sending me books.  They changed my life forever.  It started with this one:

"Long hours she sat looking in the mirror, trying to discover the secret of the ugliness, the ugliness that made her ignored or despised at school, by teachers and classmates alike."

When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can't erase what you know. You can't forget who you are. -"The Three Sisters" Sandra Cisneros

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It’s books like these that helped shape and understand my value system.  By reading stories by writers who could tell me about their experience of oppression and assimilation, I became empowered through my own unique heritage and identity.  I realized that my own immigrant experience allowed me to empathize with others who have been marginalized in their life.  I have lived in a trailer park, an upper-middle class neighborhood.  I went to school with poor kids, rich kids, black kids, white kids.  It is easy to remember the negative encounters and painful memories of my early years when I felt like Ellison’s Invisible Man.  But having lived through it, I feel fortunate to have such a broad cultural background and rich experiences.  It was a National Geographic kind of life, trying to figure out how to assimilate.  I think having that kind of marginalized experience gives you an edge because you become more sympathetic to others who are cast outside society.
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Check out Kip Fulbeck’s HAPA project and you will get a glimpse of how some people are responding to the question, “Who Am I?”  http://www.seaweedproductions.com/hapa
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I am 100% American

I am 100% Korean

I am 100% Red Neck

I am 100% Feminist

I am 100% Daughter

I am 100% Underdog

I am 100% Part of the Problem

I am 100% Part of the Solution

I am 100% Liberal

I am 100% Single Mom

I am 100% Student

I am 100% Teacher

I am 100% Rich

I am 100% Poor

I am 100% Conformist

I am 100% Rebel

I am 100% Consumer

I am 100% Anti-Consumer

I am 100% Guilty

I am 100% Innocent

I am 100% Pacifist

I am 100% Agitator

I am 100% Unjung

I am 100% Nanci

Who are you?

Song Yoo Kwon Orphanage

Song Yoo Kwon Orphanage - Seoul, Korea

In order to create an environment in my classroom that embraces diversity – a place where students can learn to appreciate other cultures – I must revisit the events of my own childhood and analyze the formative experiences that shaped the way I view myself and others.  I hope this self-reflection will help me to become more sensitive in my interactions with my own students and force me question my own belief system as we are all guilty of holding biases about others at one point in our lives.

To start at the beginning, I was born in a Korean Seventh-Day Adventist orphanage.  The photo above resembles a concentration camp, no?  My parents were in-house professionals so we lived here.  Keep in mind that for post-war digs, this was better than most places.  My father was a teacher at the orphanage and my mother worked as the resident nurse.  For many orphans, my folks were their only parent figures. My family (father, mother, older sister and me) lived in the quarters facing the living barracks where you can see part of the tile roof on the lower right hand corner of the photo.  Shortly after, the church built a larger, more comfortable building for the orphans and that is the place I remember most.  Here is a view of the perimeter fence and mountains.  How rural the city looks in those days!

View of mountains from the newer orphanage building

View of mountains from the newer orphanage building

Although we left the orphanage to make our journey to America when I was four, I still remember many of the children I grew up with and feel fortunate to have had so many little companions growing up.  Many of the orphans were love children fathered by American soldiers stationed in Korea.  There were half African-American Asian and Caucasian-Asian children at the orphanage and a few kids with special needs.  But aside from their physical differences, it is their personalities or situations I recall..like the chubby, dark-skinned orphan boy who always passed gas during prayer, a pretty girl named Tiffany who had uncharacteristically curly hair, sharp chin and alway wore a shirt with a checkered giraffe.  There was a boy named Timmy who always sang a Korean airplane song, “Ta Ta Ta Ta Bee En Gi!”

My sister (front row left) with a diverse bunch of children at the orphanage

My sister (front row left) with a diverse bunch of children at the orphanage

I also remember two older girls who babysat my sister and I when my parents had to work.  One was named Eun Hee who had glasses and was very kind to us.  Somehow I always got stuck with the other girl, Baik Sul Hee who always scowled under her bangs and was not very nice to me.  Recently, Eun Hee visited my parents around the Christmas holidays.  When I held her hands and looked at pictures from the orphanage, I got a little choked up.  It was as if I had been reunited with my long-lost sister.  She was still the kind girl who took such good care of us.  I wondered what had happened to Baik Sul Hee.  I wanted to tell her that I didn’t hate her so much now for the mean things she did like pinching me super hard when I was four.  It couldn’t have been a picnic walking in her shoes.

second from left is my sister and I am seated 5th from left.

Sitting with orphan brothers and sisters. I am seated bottom second row, 4th from left and my sister is 2nd from left. Eun Hee is top, 2nd from right and Baik Sul Hee is seated to her left.

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Do we still need Black History Month?
I once taught at a school that served a predominately African American, middle class population. At the time, the minority count among faculty members numbered 6 White and 1 Asian (me).  During Black History Month, I was on the Multicultural Committee and was asked to do a MLK poster contest. I turned it down, citing reasons based on National Art Educators Association’s stance about how poster contests promote the wrong message about creativity and art.  One of the members said, “If your child was Black then you would do this contest.” This passionate response led me to think about the stages that might occur before an oppressed group can achieve feelings of empowerment. There must be healing and a sense of conciliation, where one must feel vindicated for all the wrong-doings of the past. I understand this in a similar context because my parents survived the Korean War and lived through Japanese annexation.  Under colonization, they had to give up their birth names and were given Japanese ones. The defensiveness and suspicion that all is not equal is hard to shake in one generation. I should mention there were many teachers at that school who WERE empowered and considered Black History Month as a celebration of an important part of American history – an opportunity to reflect on Dr. King’s message that segregation and racism must be avoided regardless of the color of our skin. Before I continue, I want to state that I do not personally know what the Black experience is like and cannot say I know what Black people went through, but I think in general terms, when people experience oppression, they must go through these stages of grief, anger and identification before moving on to equal footing and a sense of empowerment.  I think our country is still a works in progress on the equality front.  Just consider the recent Democratic elections and the media blitz regarding a Black man and White woman running for office.  Although Obama won, our conversations reflect a nation that is still grappling with racial and gender biases.

I want to add that I did the poster contest after all.   When I presented the winner of the “best” poster, I took this opportunity to highlight Dr. King’s message of hope and peace for all children.  I pointed out how our hero found inspiration from an Indian man across the globe, named Mahatma Gandhi.  And that oppression, racism and discrimination is found everywhere, not just in Selma Alabama or the US.  When you consider the Gay Rights Movement, People with Disabilities Movement,  Roe vs. Wade, Youth Rights Movement, Women’s Movement, Tiananmen Square protests and so many other important events, many have ridden on the coattails of the African American Civil Rights Movement and continue to do so. Until Social Studies textbooks in our schools provide an inclusive view and pervasive model of American history that is not specific to White history and until there is equality and a recognition that discrimination still exists today whether socioeconomic or based on how recently you immigrated here, we must continue to highlight the achievements of Black History and the Civil Rights Movement.  If it were up to me, Native American History Month would be on the calendar as well.  This is necessary to present the true facts and voices of all people involved in the history of America.

the medium is the message

the medium is the message

This week at a faculty technology consortium meeting,someone joked,  “We have representatives for all the grade levels here and also the art teacher who represents “art and …….  entertainment.”   Although spoken in jest, there is an element of truth that art is regarded in our society as entertainment.  And because our culture is driven by entertainment, it is useful to incorporate media in the art classroom.  Films, animation, sound art, online interactive sites are engaging ways to teach art and social awareness while entertaining 21st century digital natives.

Here is an excerpt I found on Youtube – an interview of John Lennon given by a fourteen year old boy –  that is a good example of how media can influence young people to think about art, diversity and social change.  Imagine if our schools turned out students who ask these kinds of questions!

You can hear Yoko Ono’s voice at the end of the recording… I hated her growing up because people used to say, “Hey Yoko Ono!”  It was only after a boyfriend gave me one of her books that I began to appreciate her her artistic contributions.  I am finally able to see what a profound compliment that racial slur had been all those years.

"Burn this book after you've read it." - Yoko

“Burn this book after you’ve read it.”  – Yoko

 

Gee, NCLB Bill, you did away with social equity from poor schools when you became law.

Boy: Gee, NCLB Bill you are a sad scrap of paper, you did away with social equity in poor schools when you became law.

Since the inception No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, I have been asked by friends and folks on the street, “As a teacher, what do you think about NCLB?”  My reply always turned into a series of emotion filled rants.   By now we all know it is not working but if you’ve wanted to put your thumb on the reason why, check out Institute For Language Education Policy site and read the piece by James Crawford.  Crawford explains why No Child Left Behind is bad for public school reform by starting at the beginning when Bush and Rove rode the presidential ticket promoting education reform that would eliminate achievement gaps.  This  resulted in a law that targets teachers, schools and children as main culprits of the failure in pubic schools.  He points out that the federally mandated No Child Left Behind law diminishes civil rights through its shift in language from equal educational opportunity as found in the former federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act to eliminating achievement gaps as found in the current Act.  Because educational equity addresses segregation, poverty and equal access to resources – issues that would require action (input) from policy makers and elected officials.  Instead,  achievement gap connotates action in terms of measurable results through standardized tests (output).  By adopting this kind of language, the burden rests on schools with no additional funding from the government.   With no accountability placed on policy makers who control the resources and budget to address the gross inequalities and lack of resources in some public schools and in society, schools are told to buck up, increase learning or face the consequences.   Crawford states, “this is a diminished form of civil rights” and feels that minority students are given less time in class to focus neccesary English language classes like ESL because they are spending most of their time preparing for core content found in Standardized tests. 

Source:  http://www.elladvocates.org/media/NCLB/EdWeek6jun07.htm

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About ten years ago when I decided to become an art teacher, I wanted to work in the front lines championing art as a vital part of education in public schools. My aim was to prepare students to understand and actively participate  in discussions and projects concerning visual literacy and democracy through art.  I have alway embraced the teaching of multicultural education as an inherent and valid component of education for all students across the socioeconomic divide.  Recently, I enrolled in a Master’s program and find myself back at the beginning where it all started.   Somehow, my intention to include social justice in my pedagogy dwindled when the demands of motherhood and choosing the right school for my son led me away from the trenches and onto greener pastures where I am able to focus on myself, my family and have access to top notch professional development and resources made possible by sizable endowments.  This blog is my breadcrumb trail back to find the fuse that lit the spark.  Will it lead me full circle or take me on a parallel journey where I can pursue similar goals with a different population of students?  These issues are important for everyone regardless of race or socioeconomic background because teachers have the responsibility to teach tolerance, multiculturalism and social justice in all schools if they are to prepare future citizens for the realities of co-existing peacefully in an increasingly diverse culture.

No Child Left Behind and the events of 9/11 have contributed in homogenizing curriculum in the name of standardized tests and rallying a united front as a nation.  This has failed to teach students how to be active learners or to respect individual and societal diversity.  The turmoil and failure of No Child Left Behind lends a sense of urgency for teachers now more than ever.  And now that our country has voted for “the audacity to hope” for education reform,  it gives me renewed energy to pursue my own search for that initial spark that brought me to the teaching profession.  And while I wait with bated breath to see if the new Education Secretary will overhaul No Child Left Behind, I will teach lessons that highlight multicultural perspectives and how there is always a common thread in storytelling, art, history and religion among different cultures.

Northern New Jersey's Neo-Latino art movement is one of the 21st Century’s first Hispanic art movement
Northern New Jersey’s Neo-Latino art movement is one of the 21st Century’s first Hispanic art movement

It is difficult to talk about art and art history without including artists from different countries.  Here is an interesting article about how curators and art critics are having to redefine contemporary works and the meaning of American art in the 21st century.  With technology and globalization, artists collaborate internationally and are no longer bound by geography .  http://www.cnn.com/2006/SHOWBIZ/11/26/art.globalization/

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