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Archive for January, 2012

[On Jan. 10, the governing board of Tucson schools voted to terminate the popular and enormously successful Mexican American Studies program, under pressure from the Arizona state superintendent of education. We have posted a number of updates on the attacks on this program, including a letter that Tucson teacher Curtis Acosta wrote recently, describing the impact on his curriculum. In this letter, Acosta continues the story. The Teacher Activist Group (TAG) network will soon launch a national solidarity campaign in support of the Mexican American Studies program. We will post details.]

Curtis Acosta

Mr. Curtis Acosta

Unfortunately, there has been little guidance and movement toward how my colleagues and I are to move forward in the development of brand new curriculum and the pedagogical changes that must be made. As I wrote to you all last week, anything from the Mexican American Studies perspective is now illegal for the former MAS teachers. We are being asked to use the district-adopted textbooks as the model for how to move forward. We have been told that we can still teach about race and sensitive topics, which is in contradiction to earlier direction from our school/site administrators, but we must be balanced and cannot reflect MAS perspectives, although this has yet to be defined.

In fact, Norma Gonzalez (one of my MAS colleagues) was specifically told that she “CANNOT teach or discuss in class anything that is specific towards the culture and background of Mexican American students.” This is an exact quote from her administrator. She was also asked to leave the middle school site that she is currently teaching and forced to abandon all her current students. Norma’s mere presence at her school is seen as unbearable to her administration regardless of her quality work, dedication to her classes and amazing relationships she creates with her students. This is the damage being displayed in our classrooms in order to fall in line with the political motivations behind destroying our program.

What is troubling for all of us is the fact that we have always been balanced, encouraged students to engage in critical thought, and embraced diverse voices and viewpoints throughout our curriculum and pedagogy. The direction from the district implies the opposite regardless of the many audits and observations that have proven otherwise.

To put this in a more concrete way, my classes were designed in a way that showed multiple perspectives and voices. Here is a short list of authors who are not Mexican that I use: Sherman Alexie, Jane Yolen, Junot Díaz, David Berliner, Angela Davis, Pat Buchanan, Ofelia Zepeda, Malcolm X, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jonathan Kozol, and Martin Luther King Jr.

This is critical since we see a common theme that administration across the district has told my colleagues and myself — we are all to avoid Mexican work and perspectives at all costs. However, these authors are a part of the same censored, banned, or illegal curriculum and this surely means we must abandon these authors and this curriculum, too. We are also forbidden to use the critical lenses to view the work which challenges students to develop academically credible arguments in order to support their own views.

Thus, when they tell us we may move forward and develop multicultural curriculum it feels like we are being set-up to fail. The district has been caught in so much double speak and contradictory language they have no idea how to move forward, and we have no confidence in trusting them as they give advice. As I have mentioned in other interviews I do not feel safe teaching The Tempest or “Beyond Vietnam” by Dr. King as I normally have for years, since it is clear that the district wants us to not only abandon the history and culture of Mexican Americans, but also the curriculum and pedagogy developed by Mexican American teachers. The only safe route appears for us to flee from any history or voices of color, authors that echo the themes that we had used in the past, and embrace curriculum that does not venture down those pathways. In other words, for my colleagues and I we must step back in the time machine to Pleasantville.

We are working without a net and there have been credible claims that two TUSD Governing Board members have told our district superintendent that any violations by teachers should be disciplined harshly and immediately. Thus, my colleagues and I feel that our jobs are very much on the line, and we have not been given any reassurance through specific criteria in curriculum and pedagogy of what is to be avoided and how we can confidently move forward with our students.

Yet our students remain dedicated to the restoration of the program and to have their voices heard. This week many of them participated in walkouts and an Ethnic Studies School was created for a day by the youth of UNIDOS, where many community members and professors from the University of Arizona donated their time to teach the youth. Above all else it is their education that matters, and this massive disruption in their lives and schooling is clear proof of how their futures have been dismissed and marginalized by local and state officials. The good news is that they are resilient and we all will continue to ensure that their future dreams are not compromised by the pettiness and spite of the tragic few that made this deplorable and shameful decision.

In Lak Ech,

Curtis Acosta

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Perhaps you’ve seen the wonderful film, Precious Knowledge, about the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson. One of the teachers featured is Curtis Acosta, along with his remarkable students.

In the letter below, which Acosta allowed Rethinking Schools to reprint here, he offers a perspective on the curricular repression that teachers and students are confronting in Tucson. For a flavor of what knowledge is outlawed by the new law, take a look at the essay assignment Acosta gave students about Ana Castillo’s novel So Far From God, excerpted below, and the changes that school district authorities demanded.

Rethinking Columbus bannedThere has been a lot of national attention paid to the banning of Rethinking Columbus and other books used in the Mexican American Studies program. But the book banning is just collateral damage. The real target of those in Arizona who have pushed the Mexican American Studies ban is critical, social justice teaching—teaching that is alert to issues of race, class, and culture, and that asks students to reflect on issues of oppression and struggle.

There is a kind of curricular ethnic cleansing going on and educators and people of conscience around the country need to stand in solidarity with Tucson students and teachers.

As Curtis Acosta indicates in his letter, teachers there are meeting to reflect on the kind of national support that would be most helpful. In the meantime, it’s up to us to keep this issue alive in our workplaces, unions, professional organizations, Facebook pages, listservs, and in local and national media we may have access to.

Bill Bigelow
Curriculum Editor


To my friends and all our supporters,

Let me try a few cleansing breaths before all of this.

First, I am deeply moved by the love, commitment and creativity to help honor our plight and support our fight. Thank you all so much and I apologize to all of my friends who I have not responded to as of yet. We all are overwhelmed here in Tucson and I need a new email system for organizing all the love. Muchismas gracias y Tlazocamatli.

Curtis Acosta

Mr. Curtis Acosta

This week has provided more challenges. The teachers have still not received specific guidelines for curriculum and pedagogical changes that need to be made in order to be in compliance of the law. TUSD leadership has asked the site administrators on each campus where our classes are taught to lead the process which means that my colleagues and I are all separated from each other, and have not yet come together as a group since the destruction of our program. It also is a way to divide and conquer since we are all struggling at our individual sites for clarity and consistency. To be more specific, I meet alone with my site administration, with only my union representative as support, but separated from my MAS colleagues who also work at my school. The district leadership has done this move to wash their hands of us and any accountability to us. However, they continue to send out press releases that claim that books that are now boxed in a warehouse are not banned, and that anyone can teach critical issues like race, ethnicity, oppression, and cultura, but do not mention the exception being the censored teachers in the MAS program. The double speak is unseemly and lacks honor. I am so happy that our friends around the nation are holding them accountable since the power structure in Tucson has made sure the local media tows the line. This has been the case for years.

What I can tell you is that TUSD has decreed that anything taught from a Mexican American Studies perspective is illegal and must be eliminated immediately. Of course, they have yet to define what that means, but here’s an example of what happened to an essay prompt that I had distributed prior to January 10th.

{Chicano playwright Luis Valdez once stated that his art was meant to, “…inspire the audience to social action. Illuminate specific points about social problems. Satirize the opposition. Show or hint at a solution. Express what people are feeling.” The novel So Far From God presents many moments of social and political commentary.} Select an issue that you believe Ana Castillo was attempting to illuminate for her audience and write a literary analysis of how that theme is explored in the novel. Remember to use direct citations from the novel to support your ideas and theories.

{Culture can play a significant role within a work of fiction. For generations in this country, the literature studied in English or literature classes rarely represented the lives and history of Mexican-Americans.} In a formal literary analysis, discuss what makes So Far From God a Chican@ novel and how this might influence the experience of the reader. Remember to use direct citations from the novel to support your ideas and theories.

The brackets indicate what I had to edit since the statements were found to be too leading toward a Mexican American Studies perspective. In plainer terms, they are illegal and out of compliance. A quote from a great literary figure, Luis Valdez, is now illegal, and a fact about education in our nation’s history is also illegal.

You can imagine how we are feeling, especially without any clear guidance to what is now legal and what is not, and what makes matters worse is that TUSD expects us to move forward and redesign our entire curriculum and pedagogy to be in compliance.

I cannot speak for all my colleagues but it has become clear to me that I must abandon nearly everything I used to do in the classroom and become “born again” as a teacher. At least for the foreseeable future, since the list of individuals that are waiting to pounce upon us at our first wrong step is long and filled with powerful figures.

However, we have not lost faith that we will overcome all of these atrocious, absurd, and abusive actions to our students and to learning environment centered upon love and academic excellence. Our students have already learned so much this year and this process is teaching them so much more. They are restless, ready to act and eager for their voices to be heard, and our community is equally supportive to their desires. Our lawsuit moves forward and the unconstitutionality of the law will be debated before Judge A. Wallace Tashima. Three of the four men who voted to disband our program will be accountable on November 6th since their seats on the school board are up this election. We are strong in spirit that a better day is ahead.

Lastly, there has been an idea put forward by my good friends, Tara Mack and Keith Catone, that there should be a national day of solidarity where teachers would teach our curriculum all over the nation. I will be discussing this with my colleagues in MAS this weekend and then to Tara and Keith. They have been amazing and fired-up to help, but I have had to navigate the Tempest in our classrooms and schools before more specifics come your way. The first day we are to be officially in compliance is February 1st, so that may be a wonderful, symbolic day to keep our spirit alive through the nation.

Respectfully,

Curtis Acosta
Chican@/Latin@ Literature Teacher (forever in mind and in spirit)
Tucson

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By Bill Bigelow

Rethinking Columbus bannedImagine our surprise.

Rethinking Schools learned today that for the first time in its more-than-20-year history, our book Rethinking Columbus was banned by a school district: Tucson, Arizona. According to journalist Jeff Biggers, officials with the Tucson Unified School District ordered that teachers pull the book from their classrooms, evidently as an outcome of the school board’s 4-1 vote this week to abolish the Mexican American Studies program.

As I mentioned to Biggers when we spoke, the last time a book of mine was outlawed was during the state of emergency in apartheid South Africa in 1986, when the regime there banned the curriculum I’d written, Strangers in Their Own Country, likely because it included excerpts from a speech by then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela. Confronting massive opposition at home and abroad, the white minority government feared for its life in 1986. It’s worth asking what the school authorities in Arizona fear today.

I called the Tucson schools this morning seeking a statement about why they ordered Rethinking Columbus removed from classrooms. The superintendent’s office referred me to Cara Rene, Director of Communications and Media Relations for the school district. Rene has not yet returned my two phone calls.

For the record, Rethinking Columbus is Rethinking Schools’ top-selling book, having sold well over 300,000 copies. And over the years many school districts have not banned, but have purchased Rethinking Columbus for use with students. These include: Portland, Ore., Milwaukee, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, Ont., Atlanta, New York City, Anchorage, Alaska, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Chicago, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Oakland, San Diego, Portland, Maine, Washington, DC, Cincinnati; Rochester, NY, Cambridge, Mass., Missoula, Montana, and the state of Maryland, as well as smaller towns like Stillwater, Minnesota; Athens, Ohio; Eugene, Oregon; and Estes, Colorado.

We published the first edition of Rethinking Columbus back in September of 1991, on the eve of 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas—what the Chicago Tribune promised would be the “most stupendous international celebration in the history of notable celebrations.” Rethinking Schools was determined to provide teachers with resources to prompt a more critical approach to the commemoration.

In our introduction to that first edition of the book (edited by Bob Peterson, Barbara Miner, and me) we wrote, “Why rethink Christopher Columbus? Because the Columbus myth is basic to children’s beliefs about society. For many youngsters the tale of Columbus introduces them to a history of this country, even to history itself. The ‘discovery of America’ is children’s first curricular exposure to the encounter between two races. As such, a study of Columbus is really a study about us—how we think about each other, our country, and our relations with people around the world.”

Twenty years later, these still seem like pretty sound reasons to “rethink Columbus.” And we would ask school officials in Tucson: Why not rethink Columbus?

What’s to fear? Rethinking Columbus offers teaching strategies and readings that teachers can use to help students consider perspectives that are too often silenced in the traditional curriculum. For example, in 30 years of teaching, virtually all my high school students had heard of the fellow who is said to have discovered America: Christopher Columbus. However, none had heard of the people who discovered Columbus: the Taínos of the Caribbean. That fact underscores the importance of teachers having the resources to offer a fuller history to their students. Further, it points out the importance of developing teaching materials that ask students to interrogate the official curriculum about what (and who) it remembers and what (and who) it ignores—and why?

Of course, the suppression of our book is only a small part of the effort by Arizona school officials to crush the wildly successful Mexican American Studies program in Tucson. The program itself exemplifies an effort to address critical questions about stories sorely lacking in today’s corporate-produced textbooks and standardized curriculum. Students in the Mexican American Studies classes will now be dispersed to other classes, according to the resolution passed this week by the governing board of Tucson schools.

Learn more about the important struggle to preserve this program at Save Ethnic Studies in Arizona, and in articles by Jeff Biggers, at Common Dreams and below. And see my Rethinking Schools blog, “Repeat After Me: The United States Is Not an Imperialist Country—Oh, and Don’t Get Emotional About War.”

Bill Bigelow is curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, co-editor with Bob Peterson of Rethinking Columbus, and author of The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration.

 

Other links:

SaveEthnicStudies.org

By Jeff Biggers:

Mexican American Studies Needs No Defense: It Needs More Defenders

AZ Ed Chief Compares Mexican American Students to Hitler Jugend

AZ Attorney General Says Ethnic Studies “Must be Destroyed”

Precious Knowledge

Profile in Courage: Mexican American Studies Director Sean Arce

Why AZ’s Ethnic Studies Should Matter to All Educators

AZ’s New Civil Rights Movement: Ethnic Studies

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by Bill Bigelow

One of the great silences in the mainstream school curriculum is the role that social movements have played in making this a fairer, more peaceful, more democratic world. If you think things are bad today, imagine what they would be like without the movements to abolish slavery, to demand women’s rights, to end unjust wars, to fight for civil rights, to defend the environment—or for workers to bargain collectively for a living wage and workplace dignity.

Bread and Roses CentennialOne of the most significant struggles for workers’ rights began exactly one hundred years ago, on January 12th in Lawrence, Mass., when thousands of textile workers began a walkout that would come to be known as the Bread and Roses Strike, as well as the Singing Strike.

You’re unlikely to find much more than a mention of this important strike in a typical high school history textbook, if that. But as Norm Diamond points out in his article for the Zinn Education Project, “One Hundred Years After the Singing Strike,” this was a remarkable struggle that united mostly young women workers speaking dozens of languages in a dead-of-winter contest with some of the richest men in the United States. And the workers won.

The Zinn Education Project includes a number of teaching materials about the strike:


The Zinn Education Project promotes and supports the use of Howard Zinn’s best-selling book A People’s History of the United States and other materials for teaching a people’s history in middle and high school classrooms across the country. The website offers more than 100 free, downloadable lessons and articles organized by theme, time period, and reading level. The Zinn Education Project is coordinated by Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change.

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Stan Karpby Stan Karp

Anniversaries are often cause for celebration… but the 10th anniversary of No Child Left Behind is mostly a time for damage assessment. A new report from FairTest sums up the fallout from the “lost decade of NCLB:” stagnating test scores, narrowed curriculum but not narrowed achievement gaps, extra collateral damage for the most vulnerable students and communities.

This massive, bipartisan, wrong turn in federal education policy has been a colossal failure, even on its own test-score terms, and the damage will continue until we force a change in federal policy.

NCLB dramatically expanded the federal role in education, but transformed it for the worse. It shifted federal policy away from its historic role as a promoter of access and equity in public education through support for things like school integration, Title I funding for high poverty schools, and services for students with special needs. Instead, it mandated top-down micromanagement of assessment and “accountability” policies that Washington had no clue about or capacity to do well. This bad law helped consolidate the shift of decision-making about teaching and learning away from educators and classrooms to state and federal bureaucracies.

NCLB’s mandate to test every kid every year in every grade and measure the results against benchmarks that no real schools had ever met was never a credible “accountability” system. It was an enabling mechanism for creating a narrative of public school failure and imposing sanctions that were not educational strategies at all, but political strategies designed to promote privatization and market reform.

This approach predictably produced profiteering and educational chaos. “This reads like our business plan,” said the CEO of Pearson, Inc., when he first saw the plans for NCLB. It’s been a gold-rush decade for textbook and test publishers.

But for schools, teachers, parents and students, it’s been a nightmare. NCLB’s testing mania seeped into every classroom and its sanctions fueled the rush to deregulated charters and teacher bashing. By the end of 2011, nearly 50,000 schools failed to meet NCLB’s absurd annual yearly progress targets. All 50 states had considered legislation rejecting all or part of NCLB and the law was almost as unpopular as the Congress that created it. The bipartisan coalition that originally passed NCLB was in shambles and the law was collapsing of its own weight.

Yet NCLB continues, zombie-like, to threaten schools with sanctions and bombard them with mandated tests. Like a bad Hollywood horror movie, it is also spawning sequels. Given an opportunity to learn from a decade of policy failure, the Obama Administration and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan instead doubled down on NCLB’s “test and punish” approach to reform. Much as it traded one destructive war in Iraq for another in Afghanistan, the Administration morphed one counterproductive set of education policies into another.

Obama-Duncan’s Race to The Top uses the same flawed test score tools to drill deeper into the fabric of schooling. Where NCLB imposed penalties on schools and students (e.g., grade retention, diploma denial), test-based sanctions are now increasingly targeted at teachers. Left unchecked, these trends will undermine the teaching profession and create a less experienced, less secure, less stable and less expensive professional staff.

Duncan has also pioneered new directions in bad policy, distributing federal education dollars through “competitive grants” to “winners” at the expense of “losers,” and bribing states to adopt the Administration’s unproven pet reforms. Unable to secure Congressional agreement to reauthorize NCLB, Duncan devised a dubious waiver process that will increase the pressure on 5,000 schools serving the poorest communities at a time of unprecedented economic crisis and budget cutting. While the waiver plan rolls back NCLB’s AYP (adequate yearly progress) system as it was about to self-destruct, Duncan’s new guidelines require states to identify up to 15% of their schools with the lowest scores for unproven “turnarounds,” “charterization,” or closure.

It’s increasingly clear that we will only get the changes we need in federal education policy when pressure forces them from below. We need to occupy education policy the same way we need to occupy Wall Street. This is one reason we should mark the 10th anniversary not only by redoubling efforts to get rid of this bad framework for federal education policy, but by remembering those who saw the disaster coming and sounded the alarm from the beginning.

While politicians and pundits led the race over the cliff, there were many educators and advocates who were speaking truth to power: the much-missed Jerry Bracey, Susan Ohanian, Alfie Kohn, Monty Neill and FairTest, Deborah Meier, Bill Mathis, Richard Allington, George Wood, and many others, including Rethinking Schools, saw through NCLB’s false promises and hollow rhetoric from the start. That’s worth remembering too as we chart the way forward to a better, post-NCLB future.

 Related Resources:

Rethinking School ReformRethinking School Reform puts classrooms and teaching at the center of the debate over how to improve public schools. This collection offers a primer on a broad range of pressing issues, including school vouchers and funding, multiculturalism, standards and testing, teacher unions, bilingual education, and federal education policy.Informed by the experience and passion of teachers who walk daily into real classrooms, Rethinking School Reform examines how various reform efforts promote — or prevent — the kind of teaching that can bring equity and excellence to all our children, and it provides compelling, practical descriptions of what such teaching looks like. Edited by Linda Christensen and Stan Karp.

Failing Our Kids

The long arm of standardized testing is reaching into every nook and cranny of education. Yet relying on standardized tests distorts student learning, exacerbates inequities for low-income students and students of color, and undermines true accountability. Failing Our Kids includes more than 50 articles that provide a compelling critique of standardized tests and also outline alternative ways to assess how well our children are learning. Edited by Kathy Williams and Barbara Miner

Coming soon!

Pencils Down: Rethinking High Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public Schools, edited by Wayne Au and Melissa Bollow Tempel.

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