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Fairmont Change-Makers #1: Kate Linneman on Teaching Ethnic Studies


Lauren Levin of Rainbow Families conducted this interview with 3rd/4th split teacher Ms. Linneman, the first in a series about teachers, staff, volunteers, students, and families working to support equity and inclusion at our school: thank you to these Fairmont Change-makers!


Q: So you have done a lot for equity at Fairmont by teaching Ethnic Studies 3rd and 4th graders. Some people feel that young children shouldn’t be taught this subject. Because it’s too complex, or because learning about oppression will upset kids. How would you answer them? What approaches have you found to translate Ethnic Studies to 8 and 9 year-olds?

A:

First, I would say that Ethnic Studies, particularly for kids, is about so much more than the oppression piece. Yes, it's acknowledging harms, but also seeing the joy and resilience and culture of the many intersecting communities in our country and centering perspectives from within each of those communities, rather than only offering one dominant narrative *about* each of those communities.


Second, as for approaches, Kids have a deep, in-born sense of right and wrong and of justice. With texts that connect them to the experiences of children from different backgrounds, it's easy for them to put themselves in other people’s shoes and think about what's fair and what's not. To them, it seems simple. More often than not, I have kids saying “Why haven’t we fixed this yet? It's so obvious.” And once you've looked at it through this lens, it does seem pretty obvious, doesn't it? I tell the kids, the call for the next generation is to think about change, and how you want to participate in these structures and systems of power.


Q:

Are there any books that you particularly like for this age? Any struggles or liberation movements that you highlight?


A:

Being a kid who grew up on stories from the 60s and 70s, I definitely gravitate to all the people's rights movements happening at that time. Many ideas connect between these movements: self-determination, self-respect, respect for one's own culture, and asking for that respect from the dominant culture. I like to talk about Cesar Chavez and link his struggle to the Filipino farm workers his group was collaborating with.


We talk about segregation, particularly in education, because that's so real to their experience. One thing that's especially important in this community is going beyond a black-white dichotomy. A lot of what I got as a kid was main-line, white American history with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. added in as an after-thought. So we learn about the experiences of Mexican-American children in California, about Japanese internment, to understand that these same sorts of power moves have been used against all sorts of marginalized communities. Soon they can connect the dots without me leading them. For instance, they see anti-trans legislation and put it together with injustices of the past.


Q: Are there any other surprising or exciting connections you’ve seen kids make this year?


A:

One thing that’s been exciting is seeing kids grapple with big geopolitical issues. Having Tibetan students sit side by side with a student that spent their formative years in China and having them work out and co-construct the narrative that they want to take forward. We talk about colonialism at large, that the United States isn’t the only country that has done this. All world powers have engaged in imperialism: going out into other places and saying you belong to us now, and we're going to tell you how to live. That sort of thing is being done by all these large countries and it's leaving a mark on their and other children’s lives. It's interesting to see them understand and think through that history.


Q:

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

A:

This whole banning books, banning medical care, banning CRT, banning everything, it all fits together. There's no secret about that. But if someone were to ask me, you know, do you teach Critical Race Theory? I'd respond, damn right. And I'm not ashamed of it and I don't think it's inappropriate for children.


Q:

It's ironic, this claim that CRT says “white people are bad”, when actually CRT talks about systems, not bad individuals. Personally, I’ve found it empowering to understand how these systems function and that we can have an impact if we work together.


Before we’re done, I just want to say that Ethnic Studies was my kid’s favorite part of 3rd grade. They've always been interested in history, and it was amazing that they received such complex and nuanced teaching at 8 years old.


A:

That’s good to hear! Because when I got to college and started engaging with this subject academically, I thought, what if I had known this as a little kid? I was somewhat ahead of the curve as far as white people go because my dad was a minister during the Vietnam War and worked on integrating a church. So that history was a big part of how I was raised, but even still, I didn’t learn it in a systematic way, it was just crumbs from my parents. Once I got to upper division studies, I was able to look back at things differently, like the Ebonics debate in Oakland when I was a kid. It was so heated and I remember growing up talking about it and wondering what the big deal was. Ethnic studies gave me a lens through which to look back on things that I had experienced as a kid that were really confusing and upsetting, and to make more sense of the world I lived in.


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