Last summer before we left Seattle, I was a member of the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) Ethnic Studies Task Force which formed due to a resolution by the NAACP (after a long history of inequality within the district). The task force consisted of a dynamic group of educators, community members, and students determined to eliminate institutional racism in SPS. Implementing ethnic studies is just one step towards achieving this huge goal. However, the impact of a culturally relevant curriculum is well documented. When the curriculum reflects students’ life experiences they are more engaged in their learning and academic and critical thinking skills improve. They also build self-esteem.
One of the big push backs heard frequently about ethnic studies is, “What about white students?”
Research demonstrates ethnic studies benefits all students (regardless of ethnic background) because it contributes to greater cultural awareness and promotes equality.
During the task force meetings, my son’s school experience haunted me. My daughter benefited from attending some progressive forward thinking student-centered schools. She thrived – as did her self-confidence, curiosity, and love of learning about and trying new things. Although my son had a few great teachers, overall his schools tended to be more regimented, stale, and mainstream. The focus was on teaching to succeed on standardized tests and compliance. Not surprisingly, his level of engagement was dropping quickly. The curriculum was not culturally relevant or personally meaningful. Two things we know are critical for students to be excited about learning. Much of what we discussed during the task force meetings helped me decide that taking my son on the road would benefit him tremendously. My son was not thriving, getting excited about learning, developing his strengths, or connecting with his culture within SPS. Since middle school is a critical developmental period, I did not want to risk him becoming further disengaged from learning! So, we took the leap and dove into student-centered and culturally relevant learning – 100% of the time! First stop, Mexico! My son now gets to learn about a part of his heritage every day (we will get to the others in time)!
As a research scientist and educator, I love planning! However, I challenged myself to live a more relaxed lifestyle while on the road. We basically live day to day now. We will pick a spot of interest and head out with no set agenda, ready to greet what we meet. In Mexico, it seems there is frequently a surprise waiting. Last Sunday, we headed out to Mezcala Island (aka El Presidio) in Lake Chapala. We read there were ruins of an old fort and ancient tree on the Island. I jump at the chance to be out on the water, so between a boat ride and cool things to explore I was excited to check it out. From our last post, you already know the drive out to Mezcala is dramatic and bumpy. Once you make the turn towards the village, the roads quickly narrow. We came to an intersection and guessed at the way to the dock where we’d catch a boat to the island. We saw flashing lights ahead and the road seemed blocked off, we tried to back up and turn around, but a local passed us and got behind the police vehicle. We assumed they had more information than us and decided to follow. Why not? The cars started moving again, we could see horses up in front…the next thing we knew we were in a parade with no way to turn out! You can imagine the look on the faces of the locals as we drove the parade route. Ever feel like you are being looked at strangely? Well, this time we knew for sure we were not just being self-conscious!
Children to the rescue! A boy around eight years old asked us if we were going to the malecón. “Sí”, we responded. He pointed ahead and said “derecho”. Got it, we just need to go a few more blocks and then turn right. But that meant a few more blocks of being in the parade!! As you can imagine, the children thought this situation was hilarious and they ran along the van instructing us about where to turn. They continued offering guidance until we arrived in a parking area. We were incredibly thankful for our young guides and that the local people found our predicament humorous, not disrespectful. As we got out of the van, we were greeted by a man that runs shuttle boats out to the Island. We walked about a block down the road with him and he explained that it was a very important day. November 25th marks the day of resistance for the Indigenous people that held the Spaniards from over taking Mezcala Island from 1812-1816. Apparently, we had just been a part of the resistance celebration parade!
Within a few moments, our shuttle boat was ready for departure. Our young guides eagerly helped us board the boat. I admit I was a little relieved when the boat’s Capitan offered us life jackets – the lake was choppy and the boat had very low sides. The two young metro police that were also catching a ride also took the life jackets. Maybe, I wasn’t being paranoid after all? When traveling, I am frequently amused by how often I really have no idea what is going on. My Spanish is such that I can “get by” and know the jest of the conversations but the details are often lost on me. We approached a boat anchored offshore, for a moment I thought we might have to try to get ourselves from the boat we were on and into the other one! Instead, the man who had walked us down to the dock stepped into the other boat and said “good-bye”. Guess, he wasn’t our guide after all. The Capitan then turned the boat, picked up the pace a little, and headed towards the island. Although incredibly young looking, he exuded confidence and I relaxed a bit and enjoyed the short ride. Along the way, we saw Great White Egrets, Mexican ducks, and beautifully awkward White Pelicans.
From the very first steps, you begin to realize that Mezcala Island is an extraordinary place. We were the first boat to arrive that morning, so it was extremely quiet on the island. I immediately began to feel contemplative and calm. El Árbol de la Vida (Tree of Life) stands gracefully above a statue of the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos. I haven’t been able to locate an accurate age of the tree but locals gave us a range of 300 years to 1000s, so let’s just say it is impressive and very old. After an easy climb to the top of the hill, the fortress, chapel and soldier’s quarters came into view. As we wandered, I kept thinking I smelled food but there were no restaurants on the island and we didn’t see anyone else. However, there were some backpacks and cooking gear near a large tree in the middle of the fortress (also used historically as a prison). Although it seemed we had just arrived, the timer went off and the hour we paid our Capitan to wait was almost over. We were not close to being ready to leave, so my husband ran down to ask if we could stay an extra hour. Luckily, this was possible. As we continued to explore the island, a man in his twenties came up and started talking with us. He spoke some English but most of the conversation was in Spanish. He spoke slowly and used lots of gestures to help us understand, as he shared with us the history of the island and his tribe (Coca). It was during this conversation that we began to understand how fortunate we were to have decided to head to the island on November 25th. José said that many indigenous people would be arriving on the island for lunch and to celebrate thier culture and the resistance. He told us he had once moved away but is so happy to be back on the island – the land of his ancestors. Now, we understood why the backpacks and cooking gear were in the fortress. A festival was about to happen!
José asked us to walk over to a circle on the ground under a large tree. He said it was very special and that Indigenous people held ceremony at this location. He asked me to raise my hands to the sky and feel the power. I followed his lead and let the energy from the sun come into my fingertips and then I washed it along my body down to the earth. We repeated this together 3-4 times, he glanced over occasionally to see if I was still following his lead. The ritual was so familiar, it reminded me of those I experienced with Indigenous people in the US. I felt calm and connected. Reminded again that although we come from different cultures and are born on different land, we really are similar in so many ways. José asked if I felt the power, I responded, “Sí” and he began to share the story of the resistance.
Perhaps, the most famous part of the story was the four-year period where the Indigenous people fought off the Spanish army and navy. The Indigenous people created underwater barriers that destroyed the unsuspecting Spaniards’ boats. While the boats were sinking, the Indigenous people launched rocks to ensure the invader’s defeat. The Spaniards were embarrassed by being decimated by the Indigenous people, whom they outnumbered by several thousands! As he told the story, our new friend’s pride for his people’s resilience and creativity shone brightly on his face. After four long years, he told us, the people on the island began suffering from illness and eventually a surrender was negotiated. However, because of the long history of defeat, the Spanish authorities agreed that the Indigenous people would have amnesty, assistance in rebuilding their villages, and be awarded seed and livestock. The Spaniards honored this agreement, which was very rare! We were told that this success helped inspire others to continue the resistance, which ultimately contributed to Mexican independence.
José then invited us for a tour of the fort and to stay for the celebration. Unfortunately, it was time to return to our boat so we had to decline. We promised to return and he told us to look for him and he would tell us more about the Coca people. At this point in the conversation, he switched to mostly English and told us that it was important to him to know the history of his people and now he just wants to share it with others. On the drive back to town, my son and I had a long conversation about colonization. We compared and contrasted colonization in the United States to that which occurred in Mexico. Although our goal is to be as organic in our learning as possible we do create a framework to keep us on task. Since November is Native Heritage month, we already read and discussed colonization in the US at length. We talked about how US history continues to play out related to current events like the Dakota Access Pipeline and land grabs from tribal people. My son became curious about how colonization happened in Mexico, wanting to know more about the Coca people, and his own Mexican heritage. Instead of being “forced” to learn Spanish or being “bored” by it, my son listened attentively while José talked because he was interested and wanted to understand. And all of this learning occurred on a Sunday, which wasn’t even a day we do “school”. It is pretty spectacular to have the luxury of time, so teachable moments aren’t wasted and deep reflection is possible.
As part of our roadschooling, my son keeps a travel log. It provides him a framework for digesting what he learns and observes during our adventures. His travel log incorporates history (including from Indigenous and women’s perspectives) and life science. I also encourage him to go deeper and explore any aspects that are particularly interesting to him. Through this process, I can see clearly how his schooling taught him to only answer the questions asked in the prescribed format. I am still waiting for the day that my son is so excited by a new topic that I can’t pull him away, but we are only a few months into the journey and he must unlearn the 7 years of conditioning that taught him to fill in the worksheet, answer the test questions, and just get it done. However, I already see a change in the depth of the conversations we have and in our relationship.
How do you incorporate ethnic studies into your home- or world-schooling?
Teachers in public/private schools – How do you incorporate ethnic studies (regardless of if it has been officially implemented in your school)?