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What about Ethnic Studies?

created May 31, 2016 08:53 AM

by Beth Slutsky

Over the past couple of years there has been a lot of discussion about whether California students should be required to take an Ethnic Studies course before they graduate from high school.  Many districts have been offering Ethnic Studies courses for quite a long time, some making it a requisite for graduation, and others offering it as an elective.  When Ethnic Studies first developed as a discipline in the late 1960s and 1970s, it emerged in response to a concern that history and related social science and humanities-based disciplines did not adequately incorporate or reflect race and ethnicity into their scholarship and teaching.  In more recent years, debates have surfaced at universities about the necessity of Ethnic Studies as stand-alone departments given the significantly altered research focus of older disciplines that now center on race and ethnicity. Today, Ethnic Studies’ focus on intersectionality (the concept that emphasizes the interconnections between oppressive institutions like racism and sexism) as well as its inter-disciplinary ways of studying the past and present make it more relevant at universities.  Yet, in the midst of these debates about Ethnic Studies are K-12 level educators who want to be prepared to meet the Ethnic Studies desires of students.  In addition to students seeking Ethnic Studies courses, districts and teachers throughout California have expressed a great deal of interest in finding proper support to provide an accurate and rigorous Ethnic Studies curriculum.  California’s revised H-SS Framework is one of the few state documents that can offer concrete support for teachers.

The draft H-SS Framework provides guidance for Ethnic Studies as a ninth-grade elective course, which I’ll outline below, but just as importantly, it weaves Ethnic Studies into the fabric of what we consider to be a well-rounded history-social science education at all levels. One of the stated goals of the Framework is to make this document reflect the true diversity of the state. As students begin to learn about their local communities (starting in grade three), they are encouraged to consider the questions ‘who were the first people in my community?’, ‘why did people move to my community?’, and ‘how has my community changed over time?’ A variety of texts –including Amada Irma Perez’s My Diary from Here to There, recounting immigration told through a child’s eyes or Duncan Tonatiuh’s Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and her Family’s Fight for Desegration, explaining one of the most important school de-segregation cases in the state – are woven into an appropriately diverse study of communities.  The content, literacy, and skills (mainly continuity and change) involved in learning about one’s community from this ethnically rich and age-appropriate perspective certainly aligns with one of the key goals of Ethnic Studies: to teach a past that addresses a plurality of experiences so as to be recognizable to students.

Another elementary focus that aligns with this multi-faceted experience of California comes in fourth grade.  One of the most popular – and often dreaded – parts of 4th grade California history is the mission project, in which students are assigned to artistically recreate a specific mission as a way to learn about Spanish California.  This Framework advocates eliminating the mission project altogether because as it says: “Building missions from sugar cubes or popsicle sticks does not help students understand the period and is offensive to many. Instead, students should have access to multiple sources that identify and help children understand the lives of different groups of people who lived in and around missions, so that students can place them in a comparative context. Missions were sites of conflict, conquest, and forced labor. Students should consider cultural differences, such as gender roles and religious beliefs, in order to better understand the dynamics of Native and Spanish interaction.”  Thus, even as nine and ten year olds, students are learning about how power was negotiated and that race, class, and gender framed experiences.

By refocusing the content for elementary and middle school students, as well as developing the investigative skills that involve reading, comparing, and prioritizing pieces of evidence to make an argument, students enter 9th grade prepared for Ethnic Studies.  The Framework offers a multitude of suggestions for the conceptual organization of an Ethnic Studies course: “Given the interdisciplinary nature of this field, Ethnic Studies courses can take several forms. However, central to any Ethnic Studies course is the historic struggle of communities of color, taking into account the intersectionality of identity (gender, class, sexuality, among others), to challenge racism, discrimination, and oppression and interrogate the systems that continue to perpetuate inequality. From a history-social science perspective, students could study the history and culture of a single historically racialized group in the United States.  Examples might include a course on African American, Asian American, or Chicana/o and Latina/o history.  The course could also focus on an in-depth comparative study of the history, politics, culture, contributions, challenges, and current status of two or more racial or ethnic groups in the United States. This course could, for example, concentrate on how these groups experienced the process of racial and ethnic formation in a variety of contexts and how these categories changed over time. The relationship between global events and an ethnic or racial groups experience could be another area of study.”  Moreover, the Framework offers suggestions for research projects and multi-media expressions of Ethnic Studies.

Through stand-alone Ethnic Studies courses and the integration of this material into the broader history-social science course of studies, California’s students will now be exposed to a much more pluralistic exploration of the past and present.  Thus, regardless of how educators and districts proceed in deciding how to more deeply integrate Ethnic Studies into high schools, the Framework advances modes of learning about the community, national, and international context that very much reflect the goals of Ethnic Studies.