If ethnic studies is done right, it has the potential to teach us to love deeply, to fight hard and to stand in solidarity with communities of color.
By Aimee Riechel
Aimee Riechel, former member of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Advisory committee, has taught for more than 15 years in the San Francisco Unified School District, firstname.lastname@example.org. She holds a master’s degree in ethnic studies.
Robert Roth, Special to CalMatters
Robert Roth taught social studies in the San Francisco Unified School District for 30 years, the last six as an ethnic studies teacher, email@example.com. He retired from classroom teaching in 2019.
More than 10 years ago, San Francisco’s Mission High School committed to develop a robust ethnic studies program that was responsive to the demands of students, families and the community. Currently, most 9th grade students take ethnic studies and an ethnic studies elective is offered to 12th grade students that also gives them college credits through San Francisco State University.
Co-creating and teaching ethnic studies at Mission has changed our lives and our pedagogy. In each piloted course, we were overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of our students. They plunged right in and their voices filled our classrooms.
Teaching ethnic studies was a chance for us to break free from the strictures of a standard social studies class and to connect at a deeper level with our brilliant students. The classrooms became a buzz of excitement and intellectual activity. Students examined their own educational experiences and proposed changes to our school. They discussed the details of their harrowing migration to the U.S. They added their own stories about the criminal justice system as they analyzed Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.” As teachers, we had never been more challenged or more rewarded.
As educators reflect on the past year, we must be honest with ourselves and say that, now more than ever, all our youth need this type of educational experience, and they need a place to collectively consider the changes they want to create for their future.
While numerous studies have shown the academic benefits to ethnic studies courses, we have also seen its profound impact on our students’ sense of criticality and identity. For students at Mission High, ethnic studies classes are settings where their heritage and experiences are valued. Whether they are studying the social construction of race, the Chicanx-led student walkouts in Los Angeles in 1968, the rise of Islamophobia in the wake of 9/11, the movement for Black lives today, or are reflecting on the white supremacist takeover of the Capitol, students are able to critically examine the history and issues that most affect their lives.
For many students and teachers in California, ethnic studies programs, like the one described above, are non-existent in their schools. This is about to change. The purpose of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum is to offer an example of what an ethnic studies program can look like at school sites across the state. California students need to see themselves in the curriculum, and to be encouraged to think critically about the complexity of U.S. history, including the extraordinary struggles of people of color and their allies to overcome the effects of settler colonialism and enslavement.
Unfortunately, the current draft of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum does not align itself with the true purpose of ethnic studies. It is clearly misaligned with the purpose and principles of the discipline. There have been disturbing changes made to important language, frameworks and concepts.
For example, central to a decolonial pedagogy is a critique of capitalism, but the current model has erased capitalism as a system of oppression, replacing it with “exploitative economic systems.” How can we expect students to understand economic inequality in the United States without a critical analysis of capitalism?
Furthermore, Arab American studies, which – in line with decades of decolonial practice at universities nationwide – was housed in Asian American studies in the original Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, has been relegated to an appendix, and the original lessons jettisoned.
California students, particularly students of color, need an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum that is true to the legacy of the discipline: unapologetically anti-racist, decolonial and liberatory. Ethnic studies is not just content to be covered; it is a way of thinking and a way of seeing the world. If ethnic studies is done right, it has the potential to teach all of us to love deeply, to fight hard and to stand in solidarity with communities of color and their movements for justice. We owe this to our youth.
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