An Open Letter to Teachers as National Hispanic Heritage Month Ends

Dear Teachers,

As you know, Hispanic Heritage Month just ended. If you are like me, you spent hours researching how to showcase the contributions of Latino Americans in your curriculum. You Googled. You read. You spoke with your local librarian. It took a lot of time, but you didn't mind because it was worth it. But now, the month is over and you can go back to your normal lessons???

Hopefully not. Hopefully the month was a catalyst into truly celebrating the significant contributions of Latino Americans throughout the school year, because highlighting and studying the work of Latino artists and leaders only during a designated month isn't just marginalizing; it's insulting. (Imagine receiving thousands of texts and Facebook messages, and having countless articles written about you in honor of your Birthday - only to be ignored you for the rest of the year?)

Here are three ways that you can celebrate Latino heritage year-round in ways that are truly honoring.

1. Embrace your unique role.

Embrace your unique role, not just as teachers, but as cultural curators. You are the gatekeepers of culture for your classroom, the determiners of what your students will consider "normal" and "abnormal." You are the ones who help your students interpret history, question ideas, and the premises upon which those ideas are based. You are the ones who decide what (if anything) will be considered "other." In this role, you have the power to create a culture where cultural diversity is the norm, and exclusion is not.

In March, one of my high school students posed a pointed question: "Why do we read so many African American authors?" In a thoughtful, matter-of-fact way I replied: "Well, we were just in Black History Month, so I wanted to celebrate Black authors during that month, and I haven't stopped." His question illustrated that reading a plethora of artists of color was abnormal to him, something to be questioned. But what was more troubling was what wasn't questioned. Why didn't he ask his other teachers why they taught so many Caucasian authors? And why wasn't that considered either abnormal or problematic? That interaction refueled my determination to expand the diversity of voices that I introduce to my students.

2. Recognize that cultural diversity impacts student achievement.

In "Reconsidering the Inclusion of Diversity in the Curriculum," Thomas Nelson Laird writes that students who feel excluded from the full education experience "struggle to learn," and that those who feel included struggle as well. In other words, when some members of the class feel excluded, it affects the learning experience for the entire class. Gilda Ochoa, Pomona College Professor of Sociology and Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies, explains why inclusive curriculum matters.

"They (ethnic studies curriculum) tend to be relevant to (ethnic) students, and students tend to be more engaged, and this engagement spills over to education overall. So they see themselves not just as students, but as those who contribute."

Yes, Latino students benefit from studying their heritage and the contributions of Latino Americans, but so do Caucasian children, and Native American children. All children benefit, as do teachers. I'm currently combing through The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. My perspective is expanding, and I enjoy introducing my students to writers and leaders whom they most likely wouldn't learn about otherwise.

I must admit that it's time-consuming and a bit frightening to introduce literature written in historical periods and countries that are outside my area of expertise, but I'm willing to learn alongside my students. And if a student asks a question that I don't know the answer to, (which inevitably happens), then I just turn it into an OTL - Opportunity to Learn - and quickly say, "Well, look that up for homework and share the answer with the class tomorrow." It works every time.

3. Examine the Who, the What, and the How.

Look at what you teach, who you teach, and how you teach to identify places where you can increase diversity. Start with the who.

In Infusing Diversity and Cultural Competence into Teacher Education, authors Aaron Thompson and Joe Cuseo write that diversifying who is taught is crucial because traditional curriculum "largely ignores the contributions and perspective of non-dominant groups."

As your classroom's cultural curator, you have the opportunity to expand your students celebration of Latino heritage beyond César Chávez and Frida Kahlo to lesser known influencers like Rick Najera and Achy Obejas. You can do this whether you are teaching the humanities, or math or science. It just takes intention, time and effort.

Next is the what. Here are some questions Professor Ochoa encourages us to consider:

  • What are we teaching?
  • Whose story and whose history are being centered in our content?
  • Are we still working from a framework that is Eurocentric and just adding in other ideas?

If we are to create a curriculum that truly expresses the voices and points of views of various cultural groups, then we must examine the what with the same care that we examine the who.

Lastly there's how.

"Are we creating a student-centered space?" Ochoa asks. "Are we allowing students to ask questions and share their perspectives?"

Since hands-on, experiential learning is critical for student success, why not give students opportunities to share their heritage and experience others' cultures? Consider sponsoring an art or video contest where students share why members of their families either immigrated to the US or chose to remain in their home countries? Or, create a learning circle where students can share how their family history connects with important dates in world history. This will transform your students into active learners and leaders, while infusing your classroom with the richness of their cultural experiences.

Creating a curriculum that is truly inclusive is hard work, but if we embrace our role as cultural curators, together we can create an environment where students never think to ask a teacher why they study so many artists of color.

Why would they? It's the norm.

*****

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