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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Ethnic Studies Courses Benefit All Students’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 17, 2017 11 min read
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The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What are the benefits of ethnic studies classes, and what are your recommendations for how to teach them?

Students of color comprise more than half of the K-12 student population in the United States today, so one would think that the number of ethnic studies classes would be growing. That belief is correct. However, their growth has been under attack at the same time.

Today, Tony Diaz, Ruchi Agarwal-Rangnath, and H. Richard Milner IV contribute their commentaries on the topic. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Tony and Ruchi on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might be interested in a collection I’ve developed of related resources: The Best Posts On The Value of Ethnic Studies Classes.

Response From Tony Diaz

Writer, activist, and professor Tony Diaz is the lead writer and editor of the textbook The Mexican American Studies Toolkit. He also hosts the weekly radio program Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, and is a political analyst for Fox 26 Houston:

My first job as a child was to learn English as fast as I could and as well as I could so that I could translate the outside world into Spanish for my parents.

I didn’t know I was code-switching. I didn’t know I was Chicano. I didn’t know this was my internship for the multicultural, multimedia era we are in, but it was.

I was lucky because I had a facility for language and my parents were no longer migrant workers, following crops across the country. My father worked for the railroad which meant we had a fixed address, and I didn’t have to pick in the fields like my sisters and brothers had.

I did well in escuela, but even from a young age I knew that nothing from my home mattered at school. The important information flowed to us not from us.

That was until I was a junior in college. That’s when, for the first time, I read a novel written by a Latino: Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas. Before that I thought the adage “Write about what you know” was a myth. For the first time, I experienced a literary world that I knew. The characters spoke English, Spanish, and Spanglish; they were urban Latinos dealing with urban issues; and they had nerve. That book unleashed my voice.

In the past, we had only anecdotal evidence that Ethnic Studies worked.

Some of those were simply our personal accounts, like mine.

Others took the form of thrilling prose or poems as in the case of Lorna Dee Cervantes, Emplumada; MacArthur Fellow Sandra Cisneros House on Mango Street; Guggenheim Fellow Dagoberto Gilb The Magic of Blood, Carmen Tafolla Curandera.

But that was not enough for most administrators. Well, now, we have scientific-proof as well.

Research from Stanford University indicates that culturally relevant courses at San Francisco Unified School District decreased truancy and increased student performance.

Now we have textbooks, too.

I’m the lead writer and editor for the textbook The Mexican American Studies Toolkit. Just last month the Texas Education Agency confirmed that my textbook met the state requirements for the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills and the English Language Proficiency Standards. I’m now consulting with teachers to implement the book even if they are not familiar with MAS. In the case of Texas, over 51 percent of over 5.2 million students are Hispanic. Yet today’s Latino student is in much of the same situation as I was as a kid.

Of course, some folks might still not believe Ethnic Studies works.

Dr. Nolan Cabrera and a team of scholars released a report about the former K-12 MAS Program at TUSD, published in the Arizona Education Journal. The findings demonstrated that students enrolled in MAS saw higher grade point averages and were more likely to graduate.

The findings had to be thorough because they were also provided as evidence for the Arizona Supreme Court case challenging the statute that outlawed the Ethnic Studies Curriculum that led to that success.

Opponents of the course accused the Tucson K-12 Mexican American Studies program—which included works of Cisneros, Tafolla, and Gilb—of promoting the overthrow of the government.

And in the summer court case, the state of Arizona paid for only expert witness whose sole job it was to try to shoot holes in Dr. Cabrera’s findings. He could not.

But that also shows that to some people no matter what evidence is presented they may never accept Ethnic Studies.

Let that sink in. MAS has such a potent effect on our students that it made our intellectual advancement a threat to some people, so they tried to make it illegal.

Response From Ruchi Agarwal-Rangnath

Ruchi Agarwal-Rangnath is an assistant professor at University of San Francisco and vice-president of the National Association of Multicultural Education. She recently authored the book Social Studies, Literacy, and Social Justice in the Common Core Classroom: A Guide for Teachers and co-authored the book Preparing to Teach Social Studies for Social Justice: Becoming a Renegade with Alison Dover and Nick Henning. A former elementary school teacher, her teaching and research interests focus on justice-oriented teaching, social studies education, and critical literacy:

When I was a child, I grew up thinking I was different from most of the other children at my school. In all the books I read, Sweet Valley High, Nancy Drew, Ramona Quimby, no one looked like me, no one had a family like me. The curriculum in school was also the same. The textbooks represented a history I was not a part of. It was easy for me to feel disconnected from school.

This is where ethnic studies comes in. Ethnic studies in elementary classrooms offers students the opportunity to examine and explore multiple perspectives, honoring and respecting the different groups and people that have contributed to our society. Ethnic studies benefits all students by working to develop critical thinking and self-esteem. Students are given opportunities to question what they read and think critically about mainstream forms of knowledge. Secondly, ethnic studies also expands and diversifies classroom content. By teaching ethnic studies, students juxtapose texts from different perspectives, questioning whose voice is heard and not heard. Voices that are often silenced and marginalized in textbooks are honored and respected in the curriculum. Thirdly, ethnic studies courses dispel myths, working to build connections among students opposed to divisions. Students learn the stories of courage, resistance, and solidarity, learning to believe that they can be agents of change.

My recommendation for teaching ethnic studies is to encourage students to think critically and continually question what they read. Ask them questions such as, “Whose perspective is heard in this book and whose is not?” Questions such as this challenge students to think critically about the biases in books, especially our textbooks. Also, think about ways you can integrate resources that share the perspectives of those often marginalized or silenced in textbooks. Pictures books, photographs, newspaper articles, guest speakers, interviews, images, simulations, and texts, including children’s literature may offer valuable perspectives and histories that students would not learn about in the mainstream curriculum.

To begin to build your library in a cost-effective way I would suggest looking for various picture books that share narratives of groups commonly excluded from mainstream texts, as well as using publications such as Rethinking Schools and Teaching Tolerance. Both have a collection of writing and reflections that can offer a different perspective to that in your textbook. Howard Zinn’s A Young People’s History and Ron Takaki’s A Different Mirror for Young People are also great resources for upper elementary students.

Response From H. Richard Milner IV

H. Richard Milner IV is Helen Faison Endowed Chair of Urban Education as well as Director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh. His most recent books, published by Harvard Education Press are: Start Where You Are but Don’t Stay There: Understanding Diversity, Opportunity Gaps, and Teaching in Today’s Classrooms (2010) and Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms (2015). He is a coeditor of the Handbook of Urban Education (2014) and editor of the journal, Urban Education:

Recently, I was conducting a professional development session on Culture and Teaching, and I sensed resistance from some of the teachers in the room. As I probed I learned that some of the teachers were “struggling” with the idea that I was suggesting that they should center culture in their instructional practices. What I conveyed to those teachers was that they were in fact centering culture (their own) through their instructional practices every day albeit unconsciously, but they were excluding some cultural groups in their work if they were not thinking seriously about students’ wide range of cultures and their cultural practices. From my view, ethnic studies are a real necessity and benefit to our educational system. Because of the permanence of racism, sexism, xenophobia and other forms of discrimination, we need opportunities for all students to examine their own and other people’s real indigenous history to disrupt so many of the lies they have been taught about themselves and others.

However, I believe ethnic studies should be conceptualized and practices far beyond a few classes sprinkled through a curriculum. But rather, ethnic studies should be ingrained in the very fabric of the entire curriculum. Indeed, the current affairs of what students have the opportunity to learn in most learning environments in the U.S. are inundated with Western studies. Thus, ethnic studies can broaden the scope of a curriculum and provide opportunities for students (and teachers) to build knowledge, insight, and understanding about people who have been perpetually understudied in the classroom, exploited, and misunderstood otherwise. As students learn and build their knowledge, they are able to develop transformative dispositions to fight against injustice and the status quo as they work to improve the human condition for all.

Strategies for Teaching

So much of good teaching is about educators’ ability to deeply understand themselves—their own worldviews, beliefs, mindsets, and practices that influence the curriculum. Thus, educators need to study themselves and build a community of critical colleagues who will push them and hold them accountable as they develop and enact curriculum practices. Moreover, as teachers, we must remember that learning never stops. It is critical for teachers to engage texts to deepen their knowledge but also to learn from communities they are teaching. This learning should include not only domestic interactions they have as communities are experts of their experience but also international opportunities where they might spend considerable amounts of time learning with communities.

Indeed, educators who are truly committed to ensuring that a more inclusive, relevant, and responsive curriculum is developed that includes points of view, contributions, and contractions beyond traditional canonical texts, will work to make ethnic studies part of the institutional and systemic fabric of students learning opportunities—not just in a single or multiple class offerings.

Thanks to Tony, Ruchi, and H. Richard for their contributions!

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