An English Teacher Reflects on Being A Student Again in the NEH Summer Seminar

Holly Takashima. Photo by Keith Miyake.
"I am embarrassed that I have not taught Asian American film or literature in my classes before; I honestly didn’t know what was out there. The materials I’ve been exposed to in the seminar work on many levels."

English teacher Holly Takashima, a participant in the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar, notes how being in the shoes of a student again during the seminar was an unexpected valuable lesson. The NEH Summer Seminar, co-taught by Chi-hui Yang (CAAM’s former Festival Director) and Jennifer Hayashida, is a seminar for K-12 teachers to learn more about using Asian American film and literature in their classrooms. CAAM is the largest distributor of Asian American films, with more than 200 titles. Check out CAAM’s Films for Educators for a list of titles we distribute.

My name is Holly Takashima. I’ve been teaching English for six years, first at a K-8 charter school in New Orleans, then at an independent residential school in Estes Park, CO, and most recently at a large public high school in Nashville. All three schools have had a diverse mix of students, but this past year in Nashville was particularly rich with difference; I had students who hailed from Kurdistan, Mexico, Nepal, Vietnam, Uganda, Haiti, Honduras, Japan, Guatemala, Burma, El Salvador, Kenya, and Iraq, in addition to Tennessee and other states.

I applied to the program in part because I felt my curriculum and teaching were not doing my students justice. It was apparent that there was an abundance of experience and knowledge in the room, but I struggled to bring my students’ realities into our learning in a way that fostered meaningful engagement with each other and our many stories. I witnessed interactions between students that stemmed from assumptions around identity and a lack of cultural context, and I fumbled through helping them think outside themselves, outside of a solely and intensely personal self. I often felt like we were just scratching at façades, but I didn’t have the facility to help us see them as such; we were standing on icebergs, not recognizing the depths below.

The discussions I’ve had in the seminar for the past two weeks have given me new language to articulate the problem I was feeling: I wanted to help my students locate their identities within a larger social context, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t know how to make visible the invisible systems we operate within and so often feel, but can’t articulate. I didn’t know how to complicate the surface of things taken for granted. I didn’t know how to create a space where we could question how the deep histories of our lives shaped our present and related to the deep histories of others, making the personal political and vice versa. I had such richness in my classroom, but I was squandering it. I was not doing the difficult and scary work of helping students truly talk and listen between differences to create community and new ways of thinking.

The summer seminar hasn’t given me perfectly boxed solutions to all these things I don’t know how to do. I won’t walk away with anything I can take and simply impose on a new context, a new school, or a new unique group of students. It has given me something better though. It has exposed me to texts (written and visual) that are so inherently complex that they manage to open up spaces and questions that I couldn’t figure out how to get to before. And it has given me the gift of walking in a student’s shoes, if only for a few weeks. By participating in the seminar, I have been pushed to live inside the questions these texts inspire and to experience speaking my thoughts about them, however uncomfortable or awkward I might feel.

This experience of being a student again has been a bonus to the seminar: a hidden curriculum that has proved just as valuable as the explicit one. As a teacher, it’s easy to ask students to take risks and not really understand the stakes. I forget how vulnerable it is to be a student, and how that vulnerability increases in direct proportion to the complexity of the material. I forget how hard it is to speak up when you don’t know exactly what you are trying to say. How hard it is to stay present, listen carefully, change your mind about things, or even worse: leave them unresolved, ambiguous. This seminar helped me to remember. I will carry those insights back to the classroom, along with a treasure trove of written and visual texts, and a renewed commitment to creating space for conversations around them.

I am embarrassed that I have not taught Asian American film or literature in my classes before; I honestly didn’t know what was out there. The materials I’ve been exposed to in the seminar work on many levels. I can teach them through an Asian American framework, as the seminar has, or I can adapt the framework to something that makes more sense for the students in front of me and the constraints of school mandates and district initiatives that I happen to be working within. A short film like Leslie Tai’s Grave Goods can be interrogated through a lens of Asian American migration and intergenerational relationships, or it can be examined through the universal human experience of death, loss, and mourning. It could also be the entry into a unit that meditates on the concept of the archive and the meaning of material things, which then leads to a deeper analysis of artifacts in a novel and helps us understand symbolism and theme. The possibilities are endless, and I am excited to start exploring them with students. In other words, (to paraphrase Grace Lee Boggs in Grace Lee’s film American Revolutionary): I am ready to make my path by walking.

—Holly Takashima