Interview: Arizona Ethnic Studies Teacher, Curtis Acosta

In Education on July 14, 2010 at 8:58 pm

[Printed originally from www.freshloveink.com]

Tucson High School Ethnic Studies teacher, Curtis Acosta talks to us about the Arizona ban, why they’re fighting and what makes them so “radical”. Enjoy.

What is the purpose of your ethnic studies class?

The purposes of our classes are varied, but our main objective is to rehumanize the academic experience for our students through culturally and socially relevant curriculum. It is no news flash that Latin@, African-American and Native American students have been historically marginalized and ignored in mainstream public school curriculum, and that the drop-out/push-out rates for our communities are far out of proportion compared to European-American students. The numbers are disturbing, unsettling, and as educators we have an obligation and responsibility to offer progressive pedagogical and curriculum changes to promote academic equality and achievement for all our students. That is what we have tried to provide our community and youth in Tucson.

Why is ethnic studies valuable to your students?

We have seen our students gain a sense of self that has encouraged them to be civically engaged in our community, as well as an academic identity that has inspired them to seek undergraduate and graduate degrees in college. Above all else, they see school as an extension of themselves, their family and community. Our classrooms depend on our students to bring their lived experiences into our spaces, rather than ignoring their lives, cultures, and languages and leaving them outside of the school gates. This allows us to critically analyze the conditions and situations in their lives to create empowered citizens. Our students leave our classes capable of contributing to a critical democracy with a will to seek action to create change in order to increase freedom, justice and equality for all.

What is the benefit of teaching ethnic studies to HS students?

For me, it is exciting to teach literature that reflects the lives and experiences for our students. Many times my students comment that it is the first time that they have ever enjoyed reading for a class, ever read a book that has been assigned to them or that they have never been able to identify with literature until our classes. I teach multicultural voices and my students identify with many of the situations in our books, novels, and plays regardless of ethnicity. However, I find my students’ comments interesting. Educators give much lip service to multicultural literature and curriculum, but if it is truly happening in all of our classes, why would the literature we study in our classes have so much more resonance and impact?

Are the teachers at Tucson High School radical teachers?

If teaching our students to honor the Maya concept of “In Lak Ech” or “you are my other self” and to treat everyone with respect, dignity and love, regardless of their feelings toward us, then we are radical teachers. If graduating Chican@/Latin@ students at over a 90 percent clip is radical teaching, then we will embrace the term.

What has been lost in this current debate is the success of the program to pass our state exam at a higher rate than other cohorts, the high graduation rates as I previously mentioned, and the vast number of students entering college. Compared to the national and state averages in these categories, our program is quite radical.

It is also important to note that in our entire district, our ethnic studies program only impact 3% of our students. At Tucson High, we offer the most classes but it is merely 14 sections of history and English at the junior and senior levels in a school that has nearly 3,000 students. I mention this to contextualize the question about Tucson High and to show that most of my colleagues are not ethnic studies teachers, but are incredibly supportive to the work we have achieved. Ethnic Studies teachers are a small group of educators in our district that have worked very hard with our students in reaching the success that we have obtained.

How does this fit into what is happening in Arizona?

Arizona has a history of racial tension with the Chican@/Méxican@ culture and population. The latest legislation has illustrated this to the nation, including the law that targets a small group of students, classes and teachers that we are discussing today. It seems absurd that legislators and politicos in a state that is still not one hundred years old can selectively ignore the greater history and cultural influences within this tierra. It is not as if the Chican@/Méxican@ community are a recent addition to the landscape of our desert, in fact the direct opposite is true. In this sense, the current political backlash is ahistorical and lacks intellectual credibility and human sensitivity. With that being the political backdrop of our state, it makes perfect sense that a state superintendent of public instruction would target the elimination of a program that achieves such documented success. We are living in strange times in Arizona like when Superman visits BizzaroWorld and everything is backwards.

What is the one thing you want to share with folks around the country who are watching what’s going on?

I would like the rest of the country [to] know that this isn’t about the books we read, but is a larger agenda by a handful of powerful people in our state that refuse to visit our classes or engage in a productive dialogue. We have invited these folks for years and have been constantly rebuffed. However, I would also like to tell your audience that we have successfully beaten back numerous attempts to end our classes from these same powers at be. We are a committed group of students, former students, families, community members, and teachers that will exercise our First Amendment rights in order to protect a space that is built around the concept of “In Lak Ech.”

What can people do to help?

We are preparing to challenge this law in court and will be organizing fundraisers for our defense. We are currently planning a hip-hop concert and art show to raise funding, so if anyone wants to donate their talents to the show and art auction they can contact us at saveethnicstudiesaz@gmail.com.

Soon, supporters will be able to stay active with news on our struggle and donate to our legal defense through the following social media outlets.





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