“Why are we reading so many stories by women?” a student asked me one day, without raising his hand. I don’t remember, but I might have been mid-sentence at the time. Usually, I would correct such an interruption and point out how rude it is to interrupt someone or to speak without raising your hand, but I thought this was an important question, and one that needed to be addressed.
“Well, who did you read last year?” I asked. The students started calling out names like Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, and were expecting me to be impressed that they remembered so many authors. I just sighed and said, “All dead, white men. They’re really great writers, but this year, we’re going to focus on reading some perspectives you haven’t seen in literature yet.” During the school year, we were able to read many stories by women and people of color, and my students left with a greater knowledge of the world around them from authors who represented their gender and culture.
I’m a firm believer that students need access to a diverse curriculum. When they see their gender and culture represented in the curriculum, it not only increases tolerance but it gives them a sense that their culture is important, too. Last year, when the Tucson, Arizona school board said schools had to disband their Mexican-American studies programs, I was saddened to see that so many students would not be given the access to a curriculum that would privilege their heritage, and so many other students would not be able to learn about a culture that is an important part of our country. A year later, teachers and students in the Tucson area are feeling the program’s absence.
In an interview with NPR, teacher Lorenzo Lopez talked about his experience teaching the course, and what he believes the lack of the course is doing to students now:
Lopez says he tried to instill in his students a sense of pride in their Latino heritage, in the hopes that it would empower them. He used music, literature and current events to awaken the kids to politics and civil rights. He says his students loved the class.
But in January, after a contentious community debate, the school board handed down an edict: Its members told Lopez and the rest of the Mexican-American studies instructors in the county to stop teaching the class and switch to a more standard curriculum.
“It was horrible,” Lopez says. “It was heartbreaking to have students who’ve experienced this class in the first semester, and know the potential and know what they should be getting … and just have to stop.”
Lopez says students were pleading for him to teach the class anyway, but he couldn’t. Now, Lopez teaches traditional social studies, history and government.
Lopez himself first got into teaching because he took a Chicano/a literature course in college which made him feel like he was reflected in the curriculum and he wanted to share that experience with young people. Now, he can’t, and his students cannot see themselves reflected in the new curriculum, either.
Students need to see that they — and their cultural heritage — is valued in school. In such a diverse country, it is also important that students learn about other cultures and see the world through perspectives that are not their own. Gone are the days when all we learn about are the “dead, white men.” We need to start teaching curriculum that is reflective of the students sitting in our classes.
It is my hope that Tucson schools eventually brings back their Mexican-American studies programs, and that schools around the country adopt similarly diverse curriculum, and soon.
Photo Credit: Fibonacci Blue