This District Tapped Students’ Histories to Create an Ethnic Studies Curriculum

Nov 05, 2019

In 1979 I was seven years old, a couple of years older than my twin son pictured above. In the downtown Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park that I grew up in, there were no murals of Filipino American history or dynamic swing sets anchored to poured-in-place rubber child safe surfaces. Instead, there raged neighborhood feuds between young brown men and women, fueled by internalized self-hate, violently projected horizontally upon all of us in the community. This was the backdrop of my K-12 educational experience. Over time, unaddressed through my schooling, I became conditioned to believe that this was inherently part of my community.

How might we tap into our students’ and communities’ wealth of knowledge, creativity and ingenuity, to problem-solve our most pressing issues?

I am the child of immigrant parents whose survival hinged upon multiple jobs and an extended family sharing limited space and resources. Along with most of my peers, I did not have an opportunity to face our history, to recognize our individual lives as part and parcel of a larger and ancient story and to imagine ourselves as participants in making and contributing to that history. I can’t locate exactly when, but I do know that at some point in my childhood, I surrendered to the lifetime of suggestion that my role in this American society would be peripheral—that my place in our world would be incidental, rather than instrumental. There was, after all, no evidence from the history books, nor from the teaching, that offered evidence otherwise.

Coming into consciousness about power and privilege has been a process for me, one where I’m continually examining how injustice is built into our lived experiences by design. After taking several ethnic studies classes in college, I began to earnestly reflect on my life with a race, class and gender (emergent) frame. Through these lenses, I was able to make important connections between myself, my family, my community, and other communities that live at the intersection of injustice and inequity—that carry the burdens of colonialism, dispossession and marginalization.

Shortly after college, I became a social studies teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). My critical lenses shaped my classroom practice and eventually led to my participation in a district effort to conceptualize, develop and implement ethnic studies for our school district. To us, our task was clear. We set out to create an educational experience that would guide our children to investigate and critically examine the histories of who they are and from where they come, so that they can better make sense of where it is they truly need to be going. In the SFUSD, we have worked to recreate a learning experience that centers the histories of our students and their communities.

Designing an ethnic studies course was personal for us.

Today, in furtherance of that task, we as ethnic studies educators ask ourselves this question: What if our children’s K-12 educational experiences were shaped by a commitment to foster—

  1. KNOWLEDGE (and LOVE) of SELF
  2. SOLIDARITY through mutual recognition and respect for all people, particularly those who are most marginalized and dispossessed
  3. SELF-DETERMINATION—develop children's and youth's agency to problem-solve their and their communities’ most pressing issues

What would this look like? How would we go about creating this? What would be the impact? How might we tap into our students’ and communities’ wealth of knowledge, creativity and ingenuity, to problem-solve our most pressing issues? This is the task we set out to accomplish. No doubt we have an infinite amount of work yet to do. Nevertheless, we have come a long way.

A Brief Overview

Designing an ethnic studies course was personal for us. As youth, many of us struggled to find meaning (and success) in our own experiences with schooling. We wanted to create a learning experience that would speak to our younger selves, to the students we were in high school. Furthermore, we could not accept the academic trajectory of too many of our students and we understood deeply the need for a dramatic shift in the way we (as a district) were teaching. Beginning with the 2008-09 school year, a small cohort of classroom teachers set out to design a ninth grade ethnic studies course that would be the starting point for our work to create the school system our children and families wanted and deserved. We were facilitated in this process by our scholar-advisor, Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, from San Francisco State University’s College of Ethnic Studies.

Ethnic studies works when done correctly; it not only narrows “the achievement gap” for students of color, but it also equips all students—white and students of color alike—with valuable 21st century skills.

As a district-supported pilot program, the course was intended to serve our most struggling students. Individuals who were either truant and/or performing with below a 2.0 GPA were selected to participate. Schools were incentivized with funding for one course if they offered at least two sections. Shortly after implementation, however, a declining district budget threatened defunding of the pilot program. The community (students, parents, community organizations, teachers and leaders) responded with a mobilization to the Board of Education with the express demand to not only preserve the course, but to institutionalize ethnic studies within the district.

Expansion

In 2014, an analysis of the student outcome data produced by the ninth grade course was conducted by Stanford researchers Thomas Dee and Emily Penner. The study made causal linkages between ethnic studies enrollment and positive student gains in attendance, overall GPA, credit accumulation, and measurable positive impact on student performance in mathematics and science. Bolstered by this report, and in response to community demands, the San Francisco Board of Education unanimously approved a resolution calling for the expansion and institutionalization of ethnic studies in the district. Furthermore, the resolution called for ethnic studies coursework to become a requirement for graduation within three years of the 2015-16 school year. Today, though still short of a graduation requirement, well over 1,300 students take ethnic studies coursework annually.

Ethnic studies resources from Newsela

In spite of some controversy at the state level, it is clear that the movement to bring ethnic studies to all public school children is growing at the district level. Many school districts throughout California offer ethnic studies coursework ranging from ethnic studies classes to full-blown departments. Ethnic studies works when done correctly; it not only narrows “the achievement gap” for students of color, but it also equips all students—white and students of color alike—with valuable 21st century skills.

I now find myself part of a broad movement that is front and center in reconstructing the telling of our national story. We seek a critical re-telling that centers the stories, the struggles and the contributions of people of color and other historically marginalized communities in the development of America. As the father of four brown boys, I have the responsibility to equip them to push back against the messages I grew up with that would assign them second-class status. As ethnic studies teachers, we are in a very powerful position to help re-imagine and re-create how we teach our children about the immense value of their own ethnic and racial identities in the context of our nation’s development—and beyond.


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