WLRN 91.3 | by Wilkine Brutus | April 12, 2021
Palm Beach County’s Teacher of the Year says Holocaust education and Black history help broaden her students perspective about the world.
For the past 14 years, Toshimi Abe-Janiga — who is originally from Japan — has taught English, Black history, and Holocaust studies to predominately Black students at Riviera Beach Preparatory and Achievement Academy.
Abe-Janiga, Palm Beach County’s Teacher of the Year, has been helping her students navigate literature on discrimination and human solidarity — and it all started when one student persuaded her with a book he had just finished reading: “Night” by Elie Wiesel.
“And he said, ‘I never finished this book, but this is the only book that I completed. So you got to read this one,” Abe-Janiga said. “I didn’t read the book at that time. And of course, I didn’t know so much about the Holocaust. I knew it, but I didn’t know the details.”
Abe-Janiga, 59, who was a major in English and Japanese literature, said that experience with the boy inspired her to attend workshops, write grants, acquire more education resources, and become an expert in Holocaust education — all in an effort to help students connect history to the present.
She says exposure to different cultures and perspectives helps her students widen their view about the world and challenges the way they see themselves in their own community.
Many Americans go abroad to teach English in East Asia and Abe-Janiga recognizes that it’s usually not the other way around. Her journey still captivates her students today.
In the early 1990s, when Abe-Janiga arrived in the states, she developed international study abroad programs and coordinated ESL classes at Lynn University — until she joined the alternative education system.
She says the Holocaust studies elective at the alternative high school was first taught by Brian Knowles, Manager of African, African American, Latino, Holocaust and Gender Studies for the School District of Palm Beach County.
Abe-Janiga, who also runs an SAT and ACT bootcamp, says when she picked up the mantle, she dedicated her time to find all sorts of ways to make Holocaust education lessons relatable to her students. The kids, who are usually from under-resourced, low-income communities, are able to understand anti-Semitism and the history of systematic persecution.
“When I break it down and they really understand because they face systematic struggle every single day,” Abe-Janiga said. “So I think I’m lucky that I can teach the Holocaust at this school because they know what the pain is.”
Riviera Beach Prep Principal Mark Simmonds was born in Jamaica and raised in Riviera Beach. He says the combination of African-American history and the Holocaust elective is one of many ways to broaden their perspective.
“We want them to understand education is the foundation. Once you are educated you are no longer a person that society can now just look over,” Simmonds said. “My kids feel sometimes that this world does not have a place for them.”
Simmonds says his school has the responsibility to “educate our children not only on our history but the history of others.”
“My students know about slavery but sometimes do not know that others have suffered from genocide,” Simmonds said. “It helps them become more sensitive to the struggles of others.”
Abe-Janiga says when she won the Teacher of the Year award, her students held the trophy like they had won. It felt like a “family win.”
She says living in both Japan and the U.S. also widened her own perspective, as she continues to navigate present-day Black history and literature. Her students recently discussed the writings of Civil Rights leader U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who passed away last year.
She’s all too familiar with feeling unseen in the U.S.
“I’m from a different country and I can see very differently from outside and also that I would see what’s happening as a minority,” Abe-Janiga said.
“And in my language, too, I have a heavy accent. When I teach English, I always use the audio tape, but not my accent,” she said, laughing her way through her statement.
Abe-Janiga urges her students to leave their city, state, or country to expand their minds.
“And you will see the good parts and bad parts,” she said. “And always you can improve [yourself] if you know both.”
Image: Toshimi Abe-Janiga, Palm Beach County’s Teacher of the Year, teaches English, Black history, and Holocaust studies at Riviera Beach Preparatory and Achievement Academy.