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Mr. Juni’s East Side

What connects us all? What lived experiences do we share? How do we find joy through our struggles?

These questions guide me as I work with my Rocketeers to celebrate Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month. This month is not only a time to acknowledge the contributions, histories, and cultures of the AANHPI communities, but also an opportunity to explore, honor, and celebrate the interconnectedness between these communities and others. Growing up Filipino American around mainly Latinx and Southeast Asian kids in East San Jose, I learned very young how similar we all were. We packed last night’s dinners for lunch, we kept our home languages alive by teaching each other common phrases, and we wanted to make our families proud in school. This sense of connection has always been important to me. And one way it shows itself now is through the theme of my classroom: Mr. Juni’s East Side.

During the first week of my second Summer PD at Rocketship Brilliant Minds, our Kinder team started thinking about possible classroom themes. We brainstormed and listed the classics: Wilderness Animal Friends, Planets and Space, Under the Sea. But then I posed several questions in jest: “What about a San Jose Blue Jeans wall and each class was represented by a different article of clothing?! Or how about an Eastridge Mall wall and kids move to a new store as they pass a math fluency level?! Or what if all the labels were printed in a silver chrome Old-English font?” After a moment of silence, the subject changed quickly. Obviously, the idea truly never got off the ground at the time, and it lived in the back of my mind for a couple of years later. It was not until we came back to in-person teaching that I took the heart of those ideas and ran with it.

While coming up with ideas, I had dips of discouragement, thinking about outsiders and how they would perceive my room. When you walk in, the borders do not match. Each wall has a different color background. There is a lot of crafty paper decor held together with Roseart™ and some nerve. However, with intention and a very clear clarity of concept, I felt confident and propelled to move forward. My students would be the ones in here, so their experience would matter the most.

We are so fortunate to live at the center of so many Latin and Southeast Asian cultures that make up East San Jose. My classroom is a way to spoil the visitors with highlights of our city. As you walk down the hallway, you can see the chromed out “Mr. Juni’s East Side” sign on the window above stylized paper art depicting Mr. Rogers’ and Mr. Juni’s neighborhoods, respectively. You walk inside and you are immediately transported to Story Road. The boba data wall hypes up my favorite boba cafe, Tealyfe. The “Yummy Work” wall not only showcases high-quality student work, but also shines on East Side staples like pho, ice cream from the Paletero, King Eggrolls, and fresh fruit from the SJ Flea Market. A “Cruisin’ through the Module” Unit Wall covers the back wall to forever shout out Story & King and lowrider culture. It is like hopping on and off a Big Bus San Jose tour but without the price and motion sickness!

It made all the hard work worth it when I started hearing Rocketeers asking about what they saw on the walls. One time, while we were lining up to transition to the Learning Lab, one of our Rainbow Warriors looked up at the SJ Flea Market-themed OPs wall, pointed at one of the pictures, and roared “I bought my toy there!” Other students in a domino effect chimed in and all had similar sentiments. Even Rainbows who were typically more reserved started listing details of their favorite toys. I myself shared how my dad and I got bamboozled into buying a $100 red “Razor” scooter from a vendor (I’ll save that for another Thursday Reflection). More recently, one of our Broncos pointed to the Danny the Dragon paper art on the Word Zoo wall and asked “Can we ride that dragon?” Unbeknownst to them, the TK and Kinder team was in the middle of planning a field trip to Happy Hollow Park and Zoo! As I leaked the news early to them, their brown eyes lit up. Some were excited to go for their first time, others jumped at the opportunity to turn to a neighbor and tell them about their own experiences at the zoo, like what rides they rode and what animals they saw. I also shared that I have not been to Happy Hollow in 30 years so I was exceptionally eager to visit soon.

These observations led to finding common ground, where our Rocketeers got to know a little bit more about each other. The microcosm that we see in our classroom is what we hope to see out in the real world. We hope to see more dialogue that leads to further understanding and empathy towards people that are both similar and different to us. Through dialogue and awareness, we can find solutions to issues that affect multiple groups of people. Tragedies in the past would remain in the past and not be doomed to repeat themselves.

My classroom is a constant reminder of how proud I am to be from this city. My community reared little Ricardo, teaching him grit, resourcefulness, and humility. I hope students continue to see themselves and develop a sense of belonging as we share similar experiences. That in itself, to speak freely about ourselves and our identities unabashedly, is a form of resistance and activism. In a way, the classroom is also a promise to our kids. No matter where we go and find ourselves, we will remember that the heart of our identities grew in a shared space, nurtured and cultivated to succeed far beyond the city limits.

Published on May 30, 2024

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