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California recently mandated ethnic studies courses as a graduation requirement for schools across the state. In 2030, all students who graduate from a California high school will have taken at least a semester course in ethnic studies — an academic discipline that elevates non-dominant cultural histories and examines the effects of race and racism in modern society.
This is a promising development. Ethnic studies courses have been shown to have a meaningful impact on educational and civic outcomes for marginalized students of color.
But the effectiveness of ethnic studies courses depends on how well they are taught, and the challenging work of implementing ethnic studies curriculum lies ahead for California schools. If implemented poorly, the benefits of ethnic studies instruction will fail to materialize.
Additionally, expanding ethnic studies courses to serve all students in California will be a heavy lift for teachers and schools, many of whom have scant expertise or training in ethnic studies content, pedagogy and curriculum development.
To better understand the challenges even the most seasoned ethnic studies teachers face as they design learning experiences for their students, we talked to veteran educators in California. Over the summer of 2019, we interviewed two teachers, a district specialist, and an assessment manager as they created an ethnic studies curriculum for their school district to get their professional insights on the process.
In our discussions, three tensions stood out: (1) the balance between encouraging students to be their own thinkers and coaching them to challenge dominant narratives (2) the question of which marginalized narratives to elevate, and (3) how to facilitate students developing knowledge and skills through multiple means of communication.
Because ethnic studies courses aim to elevate counternarratives — the stories and experiences of more marginalized groups — and help students better understand how social structures and power dynamics can affect more marginalized populations, teachers have to provide a safe space where multiple perspectives are respectfully examined and discussed. “We can’t just be spouting ideology,” one teacher remarked. Teachers have to balance developing lessons where students can express varying ideas while encouraging discussions of anti-racism and social justice.
Teachers also face the challenge of which narratives to include in their curriculum. With a multitude of cultures, stories and counternarratives to choose from, teachers must make difficult decisions on which topics will be discussed in the allotted semester time frame. The educators we spoke to sought to elevate oppression, resistance and strength in marginalized communities. And although they sought to focus significantly on the Black experience given the centrality of anti-Blackness to racism in the United States, they also sought to connect to the experiences of the student population and other racial groups.
Finally, teachers are challenged with providing opportunities for students to demonstrate traditional academic literacy while also elevating nondominant cultures and modes of communication. Academic literacy in schools tends to focus on communication by reading, writing, speaking and listening in dominant American English. Ethnic studies teachers must try to balance creating space to demonstrate these skills, while also providing nondominant forms of literacy such as oral presentations in the form of songs, raps, spoken word and open discussion. The educators we interviewed focused on creating an equitable, academically rigorous curriculum — including reading materials by ethnic studies scholars rich in complex language and sophisticated argument — where students receive the support they need to be successful.
In the course of our research, we worked with these educators to explore how these tensions could be resolved while developing a unit on race and sports. We designed the following question to be posed to students: Do sports challenge or reinforce oppression in society? Through this question, students would be required to think about and examine race and oppression and be allowed to arrive at their own conclusions through the process of curricular inquiry.
To make their classes as inclusive as possible, the educators skillfully wove together stories from different marginalized communities. For example, they considered the ways white supremacist ideologies in sports could dehumanize Black and Native peoples in similar ways — framing them as “savages” less deserving of rights and privileges. The instructors elevated stories of successful women in sports to help demonstrate how multiple identities such as gender and social class in addition to race shape social experience — i.e., how a woman/low-income person experiences Blackness differently than a man/wealthy person does. The teachers centered the Black struggle as an essential nexus of racism in the United States but examined other experiences of racial and gender marginalization as well. They explored not just oppression, but celebrated strengths and resistance in marginalized communities.
The teachers also sought to develop academic language and prepare students to read complex texts while simultaneously elevating other forms of communication — poetry, speech and cultural symbolism.
These veteran educators skillfully navigated the potential tensions of ethnic studies — open-ended argument, centering the Black experience and elevating the experience of multiple narratives, and developing dominant and nondominant visions of communication. In so doing, they designed a curriculum with the potential to reap the profound benefits of ethnic studies inquiry.
Arguably, ethnic studies curriculum cannot be standardized because each school community is unique. Each teacher will need to design specific lesson plans that meet the needs of students in their contexts. There will be challenging tensions that emerge, but as we saw with the veteran teachers, these tensions can be overcome and the positive impacts of ethnic studies courses on students can continue to be profound.
Suneal Kolluri is an assistant professor at the UC Riverside School of Education and a National Board Certified teacher. Leslee Edwards is a researcher and middle school teacher in Chicago. Their research on ethnic studies curriculum development was recently published in The Urban Review.
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