Table of Contents

    Cover Story
  • Free What's Your Story?

    Student identity on the walls in Philly

    By Joshua Kleiman, Charlie McGeehan

    A high school English teacher and a media arts teacher team up to teach a unit on identity. Students combine personal writing with vivid photography, creating large banners that become public art.

  • Features
  • Free Uchinaaguchi: The Language of My Heart

    By Moe Yonamine

    Returning to her home country of Okinawa at 13, Moé Yonamine was hit by a teacher for speaking her Indigenous language. She reflects on the history of colonial oppression in Okinawa and the importance of keeping culture and language alive.

  • Language Is a Human Right

    An interview with veteran activist Debbie Wei on language education in the Asian American community

    By Grace Cornell Gonzales

    Educator Debbie Wei, co-founder of a folk arts-based school in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, describes her journey—from growing up as the child of Chinese immigrants who never spoke to her in their native language, to advocating for heritage language programs.

  • Sabrina's Story

    Parents and teachers work together on inclusion

    By Kate MacLeod, Julie Causton, Nelia Nunes

    Third-grader Sabrina isn’t thriving in her self-contained special education classroom. Her parents believe that she would do better in an inclusion classroom, and they collaborate with teachers and staff to make it a success.

  • Free Medical Apartheid: Teaching the Tuskegee Syphilis Study

    By Gretchen Kraig-Turner

    Students in a bioethics class are horrified to learn about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, during which African American men were denied treatment for syphilis. They draw connections to other medical injustices and write their own codes of ethics for medical research.

  • Push Out: Racial Dynamics at a Turnaround School

    By Christopher B. Knaus

    A teacher educator is hired as a mentor by a turnaround school’s new principal. He soon realizes he is being asked to cover for getting rid of an excellent teacher of color.

  • Free All American Boys

    An interview with Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

    By Renée Watson

    Two authors collaborated to write a nuanced novel from the perspectives of two young men—Rashad, who is Black, and Quinn, who is white. The novel gives teachers a powerful tool to discuss police brutality and racism with students.

  • Departments Free
  • In Our Hands

    By The Editors of Rethinking Schools
  • "Water Is Life" Teaching for Solidarity with Standing Rock

    By the editors of Rethinking Schools
  • Education Action
  • Betsy DeVos: Swamp Denizen Named Secretary of Education

  • Resources
  • Our picks for books, videos, websites, and other social justice education resources.
  • Good Stuff
  • My Night at the Planetarium

    Reviewed By Rachel Cloues

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Language Is a Human Right

An interview with veteran activist Debbie Wei on language education in the Asian American community
Language Is a Human Right

Debbie Wei

In addition to her many years teaching English language learners and as a curriculum specialist, Debbie Wei is a founding member of Asian Americans United and the founding principal of Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School in Philadelphia. She is currently elementary school director at Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica, California.

Grace Cornell Gonzales: Let’s start by talking about your background as an educator.

Debbie Wei: I never envisioned myself as a teacher because I didn’t have great school experiences. I fell into teaching by accident. I wanted to be a community organizer. In Philadelphia’s Chinatown in the late 1970s, a lot of people were immigrants from Hong Kong and they spoke Cantonese. So I got a college fellowship to go live in Hong Kong for two years to learn Cantonese.

But this was right after the Vietnam War. When I returned to Philadelphia, there were many refugees from Vietnam, from Laos, from Cambodia. There were also some Haitians and Cubans. There was no longer a dominant language among immigrants in the communities where I was working and living, and I didn’t speak any of their languages. But I could communicate with the kids because they were going to school and acquiring English. I thought, “Well, if this is the group that I’m going to be working with to try to change conditions in the community, why don’t I become a teacher?”

I got certified through a program where you could work in a school and get your certification at the same time. I became an ESL (English as a second language) teacher and I fell in love with teaching. A few years later, the School District of Philadelphia published a pretty horrific diversity handbook. It included statements like “Puerto Ricans like to eat tacos.” There was already an African American studies department within the district, so the Latina/o and Asian communities organized to demand that the district hire a multicultural specialist for each of these two constituencies. Many community members asked me to apply for that position. I became a curriculum specialist in multicultural studies for the next 13 years.

I was still organizing for educational justice during that time and working with an organization called Asian Americans United. We talked about how to make schools immigrant-friendly, and we decided after many years that we needed to create a model school. Starting the charter process was not an easy decision because politically we were concerned about the role of charter schools in public education. However, after a multiyear decision-making process, we decided to go ahead and start Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACTS). I was the founding principal. I held that position for five years and then I stepped aside, knowing that I’d still be around if they needed me.

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