My Thoughts on TUSD's Elimination of Mexican-American Studies

I can't ignore the barrage of emails I've received about the recent ban on the Mexican-American Studies program at the Tucson Unified School District. Emails from Rethinking Schools, UNL's English Department, NCTE...the list goes on. Yesterday one email from Rethinking Schools (of which I am a subscriber) read:

"Did you see the news last week? On Friday, we learned that our book Rethinking Columbus was banned — along with other books used in Tucson's Mexican American Studies program, including Paulo Freire's A Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Rodolfo Acuña's Occupied America, and Elizabeth Martinez's 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures. So we're in good company.

School authorities confiscated the books during class—boxed them up and hauled them off. As one student said, 'We were in shock ... It was very heartbreaking to see that happening in the middle of class'" (Rethinking Columbus Banned in Tucson).

Confiscating books DURING a class?!? Really? That line fired me up. And while I haven't read Pedagogy of the Oppressed yet (it's in my pile of thesis books), I have read Freire's Education for Critical Consciousness...his ideas have opened my eyes to look at the way we educate students and to revise my curriculum and teaching methods to present a more just, relevant, and overall critical education for students. I don't always succeed in this, but I try everyday. So, I'm a bit outraged that his work would be banned (banning books has always seemed like a draconian concept to me). I couldn't put reading about this aside any longer.

Yesterday NPR featured an interview with TUSD Superintendent of Public Instruction, John Huppenthal. I listened to it tonight and read the transcript a few times...and I can't keep my mouth shut about this. Brace yourself..I'm stepping on a soapbox for a moment.

As I understand it, the program was hacked because it violated an Arizona law which bars courses that "'encourage resentment toward a race or class of people'" (Mexican American Studies: Bad Ban or Bad Class?). The district would be faced with massive fines if they left the Mexican American Studies program alone. Now I have several issues with this interview and the cut, but for sake of time...I'll key in on a few.

First, the host Michel Martin hits on an important issue. She asks a pivotal question: how do you measure whether or not a course creates or encourages resentment? Any event in history could cause resentment for a particular group of people. Currently I'm teaching the Civil Rights Movement, and I don't know how anyone can speak about this era in history without feeling some sort of sorrow, shame, and some resentment. Martin states, "I'm just wondering how you can teach something in a manner where you are going to guarantee what a student may or may not feel" (Mexican American Studies: Bad Ban or Bad Class). Part of my job as an educator is to reveal injustices in history, society, and culture. Many textbooks gloss over these events, and I'm sorry to say it, but many parents don't speak to their kids about these. So then who will teach kids about these atrocities in order for them to think about the impact and feel the weight of these injustices? If we don't teach them in school, how can we guarantee our students will grow to be productive and just citizens who don't fall into the role of an oppressor or one who is oppressed (a relationship mentioned by Freire that is chided by the TUSD superintendent). And when did students feeling become a negative concept? If students aren't allowed to feel emotions and then taught how to deal with them in an appropriate manner, they may never learn.

This brings me to my next mini-rant: With the advent of No Child Left Behind (thank you George Bush), the purpose of education has changed and not for the better. Honestly, I feel like the purpose of American public education has quickly become centered around getting kids to pass a series of tests that offer them few real-world skills. Do kids need to be effective readers and writers in order to be productive citizens? Certainly. However--does our current system adequately measure these skills? I don't think so. Districts are facing an incredible amount of pressure to get kids to pass these tests....I'm feeling it myself. After a conversation today with someone who will remain unnamed, I'm wondering how long I'll be able to keep teaching valuable units (that all line up with many of the state ELA standards) in my English classes---units like my Social Action unit which teach interviewing skills, business letter writing, news writing, using social media effectively, analyzing non-fiction documents important to our history, and how to effectively take action to make change---all practical skills that students are more likely to use in life--or my House on Mango Street unit which opens my primarily white students' eyes to Mexican American culture and what it's like to grow up poverty stricken in an inner-city---experiences many of them will never have. I predict that in a few years, I will be forced to scrap these units just like the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson, trading it for a watered-down, scripted curriculum designed to achieve a certain level of proficiency as defined by law makers who have little to no experience in education.

And the final issue I have with this ban on the Mexican American Studies program is that it looks (from the outside) as though a large reason why the course was eliminated was because it reveals the not-so-pretty picture of American history/culture. As Michel Martin states, this sudden change to a program that's been in existence for at least ten years is simply trading "one bias for another bias." We shouldn't hide our history...we should confront it in order to learn from it.

I don't like it, but I understand the era of cuts in a tight economy. But the issues above make me nervous to be a teacher in this day and age. The minute I'm forced to compromise my values and philosophy and neglect what's in the the best interest of kids, is the minute I'll have to rethink my career path. I pray I don't see that day, and I pray my own kids will receive a critical, just, diverse, and relevant public education....

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