From Tourist Hawaii to the 20th Anniversary

Lessons from Rethinking Schools

By Wayne Au

Illustrator: Mark Fisher

Illustration: Mark Fisher

In 1998, I first published the article “What the Tour Guide Didn’t Tell Me: Paradise and the Politics of Tourist Hawaii” in Rethinking Schools. The article promoted a critical rethinking of Native Hawaiian history and culture.

The life of the article and its resonance for educators reflects the important role Rethinking Schools has played in my life and the powerful model Rethinking Schools provides for teachers. In this way, Rethinking Schools has offered several lessons that have helped guide me over the years.

Albeit by proxy, my personal relationship with Rethinking Schools actually goes back to 1988. My wife, Mira, was a student of Rethinking Schools editors Linda Christensen and Bill Bigelow at Jefferson High School in Portland, Ore., and Linda has used examples of Mira’s writing in the pages of her articles and book.

Rethinking Schools’ Lesson #1: Student voice matters. Classroom activities need to relate to students’ lives and Rethinking Schools articles should reflect this.

Between what I knew of the politics and perspectives of the journal, their recently published book, Rethinking Columbus, and the impact they had on Mira’s life, I felt that I needed to connect with Rethinking Schools. So after entering the Master In Teaching program at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., I began student teaching under the guidance of Linda, a master teacher and editor of Rethinking Schools.

It was at Jefferson High School in her Literature and American History class that I first developed the work about Hawaii and colonization, and it was there that I experienced Linda Christensen modeling real, anti-racist, de-tracked, critical teaching in the classroom. It was also where I may have learned one of the most important lessons. Lesson #2: Critical teacher practice is important and it is possible.Social justice education can be a reality in our classrooms.

Illustration: Mark Fisher

In a way, the work on Hawaii that Linda encouraged me to develop echoes another lesson that Rethinking Schools has always taught. Lesson #3: Our curriculum has to reflect the diversity of our students and the world.

Bill and Linda, ever the watchful editors, encouraged me to write about what I was teaching because Asian and Pacific Islander curricula are all too scarce. As I started crafting an article about the importance of maintaining a critical, anti-racist perspective in teaching about Hawaii and the experiences of Native Hawaiians, Bill Bigelow became my coach, shepherding the article through the gauntlet that is the Rethinking Schools editorial process.

While working on that article, I began to glimpse the possibility that I might be a writer. This was an identity shift. I knew I was a teacher, and I knew I was an activist, but a writer? Upon reflection I have realized that, in many ways, Rethinking Schools made me a writer. Lesson #4: Teachers and students can be writers, should be writers, are writers. It is a matter of finding a voice and recognizing that we all have something important to contribute to the world.

There was a fifth Rethinking Schools’ lesson to be learned there too. Lesson #5: It is important that educators who are doing social justice work share their practice and perspectives with each other. Sharing does not only alert teachers to timely and useful resources, but it also creates community, gives us hope, helps us recharge for the struggles ahead, and forces us to be more clear about our politics and pedagogy.

This orientation also speaks to Lesson #6: I learned I needed to reach outside of my classroom, take part in education activist networks, and find strength and energy through the power of organizing. I co-founded the Puget Sound Rethinking Schools group in Washington state and Education Not Incarceration in the San Francisco Bay Area and took leadership positions within the National Coalition of Education  Activists. All three of these organizations have played roles in fighting for social justice in schools and communities at the local, state, and national levels (Note: Rethinking Schools’ lesson six-and-a-half is that social justice teaching is exhausting…)

Through both my writing and activist work, the Hawaii piece took on a life of its own. It landed in two books: Beyond Heroes and Holidays and Resistance in Paradise. In 2001, Rethinking Schools editors selected it to be included in Rethinking Our Classrooms, Vol. 2. This year, the most finished version of “What the Tour Guide Didn’t Tell Me” will be published in Teaching About Asian Pacific Americans: Effectiveness Activities, Strategies, and Assignments for Classrooms and Communities.

Examining the life of the Hawaii piece is fitting because Hawaii can serve as a metaphor for the importance of critical multicultural thinking and teaching. Hawaii compacts the 514-year history of the colonization of the Americas into just over 100 years, and represents a taken-for-granted piece of Americana that says Hawaii exists solely for the purpose of our vacations. Because of the legacy of U.S. imperialism, Hawaii raises important questions like: Whose lives matter in society and in the curriculum? Who is marginalized and why? How are categories of “us” and “them” constructed for students? How do we think about the roots of exploitation? How do we engage students in thinking deeply about these issues?

Illustration: Mark Fisher

Hawaii is an important subject of study in its own right, but the power of critical teaching around these issues is in their symbolic resonance of what they say about the entirety of our curriculum.  Rethinking Schools’ Lesson #7: Anti-racist, multicultural education is an absolute necessity in our teaching. It was at our inception 20 years ago and remains so now. Now more than ever, in the face of increasingly restricted, test-focused curriculum, teachers need to raise issues of inclusion and anti-racism if we are interested in working toward a more just society.

These days, things are different for me. I’ve left the K-12 classroom for the teacher education classroom and have become an editor at Rethinking Schools. As I spend part of my days in the academic Ivory Tower, I sometimes struggle with the tension of staying connected to the classroom. But the other members of the editorial collective, as well as the managing editor, Catherine Capellaro, help me keep my head on straight by not allowing me to get completely lost in the land of theory. My colleagues continually offer critical feedback on my language and raise questions about the classroom relevance of my writing, thus illustrating Rethinking Schools’ Lesson #8: In all of our work, we must be grounded in classroom practice.

I’ve been receiving emails from students who were in my Asian American studies classes three years ago at Berkeley High School in California, in particular a student named Ryan. I remember him as a brilliant writer who rarely spoke in class. He sat quietly in the corner, and he always seemed skeptical of the class content as we covered the more activist aspects of Asian-American history, identity, and politics. Some might have pegged Ryan, who is Japanese American, as a stereotypical “model minority.” But years later, when he was a senior, Ryan had started what he termed a “consciousness-raising group” for Asian-American students at Berkeley High. He’s now attending Columbia to major in biochemistry and Asian American studies. As he wrote in his email to me, “That’s kudos to your influence on me, two years ago.”

My exchanges with Ryan have touched me deeply. As teachers, our students always leave us (and, as in my case, sometimes we leave them), and the moments are rare when we get to see the impact we may have had on their lives. Teaching itself is an act of hope, a vote of confidence in people’s potential to grow and change. And Ryan demonstrated through his school organizing and activism a final Rethinking Schools’ lesson: Politics matter. We all have the power to carry our politics into our lives, into our practice, and into our world.

Wayne Au (, a Rethinking Schools editor, is a former classroom teacher who is currently working on his Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.