Voices, Ethnic Studies, Movements, and Challenges…

There was a lot going on these last two weeks at school. It seemed that even more was going on after school hours. I had the privilege and great pleasure to watch students learn about very important matters in different spaces outside of the classroom. I myself may have benefited even more by watching all of this learning take place.

On Thursday night we had the distinct pleasure and opportunity to take a group of 20 students to the Japanese cultural community center to watch the 10th anniversary Voices of the People’s history performed by several actors and musicians. This important in seminal text was released my first year teaching. I remember going to Immanuel Presbyterian Church and watching Howard Zinn (rest in peace), who is still alive and well in the hearts and souls people, his spirit fiery with inspiration around the education of the complexities (read atrocities) of our nation’s history.

It has been a long time since I have seen kids light up with the essence of true learning and excitement. Not that I don’t strive for that in my class everyday, but to have a completely aesthetic experience, as Sir Ken Robinson would say, in the service of critical thinking and learning? Where you won’t be quizzed immediately after for retention but rather continually reminded of that moment when you were fully alive and connected (not separated) by time and space to other human beings, other lives. This is what I witnessed with my students.

Of course the star power of actors and musicians like Kerry Washington and Tom Morello helped connect the voices of the past; Sojourner Truth, Malcom X, Bartólome De Las Casas, Muhammad Ali, and more… to the hearts and minds of my students. These are the times when there is nothing greater than being a history teacher.

The next day I had the pleasure of hosting our Taking Action students film night. They were screening a very well made documentary on the struggles of students and teachers against the Tuscon Unified School District to dismantle their Ethnic Studies program. Precious Knowledge examined the most extreme and polarizing of ideologies that clash on the battlefield of current day educational reform. As I watched the movie, it was difficult to control my emotional responses to statements like:

With ethnic studies there’s a desire to develop ethnic solidarity. Uh… you know. This group, we’re the… we’re Latinos, that other group they’re the African Americans, that other group they’re the Asian Americans, that other group they’re the Anglos and so on… In the human being there is, uh, there is a primitive part that is tribal. And that will say, I want to be with members of my own tribe, members of my own race and that sort of thing. The function of civilization and the function of our public school system is to get people to transcend that… There are better ways to get students to perform academically and to want to go to college than to try and infuse them with racial ideas.” – Tom Horne, Former Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction

I can’t express enough how tired I am of the misguided (at best) and intentionally misrepresented (at worst) narrative of the state of race relations in this country, where many “well intentioned” people like to believe that we live in a “post racial” society where race and ethnicity (two different things) don’t matter any longer or as much as individual merit. And I wonder how we are to measure transcendence now! If I am helping to facilitate any type of transcendence in my classroom, it is of the type that helps students find agency to combat the dominant narrative of white supremacy that has them internalizing ideas about individual or collective success, like this.

The following Tuesday the students and teachers of Los Angeles, and in a rare moment the school board of Los Angeles, renewed my hope that the struggles towards a quality and dignified educational system is still possible when people organize and listen to the real stories that are being lived. People organized to ensure that what happened in Tuscon would never happen here in Los Angeles. Ethnic studies is now a graduation requirement in LAUSD.

Two days later, teachers, students, and community members rallied at 5 different locations around the city to voice our demands for quality schools that Los Angeles Students Deserve. 719a69f1-8d16-49bc-a6b6-6f5f18937b50 Our teachers and students, including our marching band, helped to provide not only voice but the soundtrack of our demands from the district.

As the last 2 weeks have provided me with plenty of challenging work in and out of the classroom, it is transformational learning experiences like these that keep me coming back for more… well… and the much needed time off.

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