Tucson Ethnic studiesJswood-p1:: Tucson Magnet High School senior Evon Moreira,EVON MOREIRA, CQ, 17, middle with Honk sign, protests with fellow students and faculty(in front of her high school), a law that would ban Mexican American studies and other ethnic study programs at Tucson Unified School District schools, Thursday May 6, 2010 in Tucson, Ariz. The law is waiting for the signature of Arizona's Governor Jan Brewer, JAN BREWER, CQ.
5-6-10 Photo by James S. Wood

Ethnic studies has been around for over a century. Black studies, Chicano studies, cultural studies, multicultural studies—the name may have changed over the years, but a rose by any other name can still be a lightning rod for controversy. A new study linking ethnic studies to measurable student gains has sparked some interest in how to scale up such programs. While research finds ethnic studies works for some students, scholars in the field urge it’s good for all students—and the battle over ethnic studies rages on.

Indeed, today, school leaders and student activists, in communities of all sizes, are embracing ethnic-studies courses as a way to expand and diversify classroom content. Earlier this year members of the Providence Student Union, a youth-led organizing group, kicked off a new campaign advocating for ethnic studies for all high-school students. In making their case, student leaders called attention to the glaring disparity between the city’s public-school curriculum and the students it teaches; 90 percent of those enrolled in Providence schools are students of color. The student union’s review of a nearly 2,000-page history textbook found that less than 5 percent of the book was devoted to the contributions of people of color. “I’m Nigerian. I’m Muslim. I’m also an American,” the high-school student Latifat Odetunde told The Providence Journal, noting stories like his are what history books “leave out.”

But both Brooks and Charles state that this shift in knowledge and understanding is equally important for white students. Ethnic-studies courses dispel myths, Brooks said, and build connections among students as opposed to divisions. “Similar to students of color, white students have been miseducated about the roles of both whites and people of color throughout history,” she said, and culturally relevant lessons allow white children to “not only learn about people of color, but also white people’s roles as oppressors and activists fighting for racial change. This is very important because often whites feel there is nothing [they] can do to change racism.”

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(Photo: NYU Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies) 

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In many ways public schools are failing to support, strengthen, and uplift Black children. This is magnified when it comes to LGBTQ youth of color. It’s vital that we understand and address how race intersects with gender – and how some educators marginalize and stigmatize difference – so the story of two boys in Oxnard, California, is never repeated.

The victim was black, living in foster care, questioning his sexuality, and experimenting with cross-dressing. The accused was white; raised in a violent, dysfunctional home; and dabbling in white-supremacist propaganda. The murder gained national attention and garnered magazine covers—a child killing another child is particularly tragic and horrific—as it revealed an undercurrent of race, class, and sexuality. Like pulling a Band-Aid off a festering wound, all of these aspects were crudely exposed in McInerney’s 2011 trial for first-degree murder.

Ken Corbett, a clinical psychologist in New York City who has studied and written on gender identity and boyhood, was immediately drawn to the details of the case and traveled to California to attend the trial; he wanted to examine the many facets of King’s and McInerney’s lives that intersected and led to a gruesome end. His new book, A Murder Over a Girl: Justice, Gender, Junior High, is a story told through the prism of parents, friends, teachers, lawyers, and those like Corbett enveloped by this tragedy. He recently spoke to me about his search for answers.

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dual-language

November is Native American Heritage Month, a time to honor the culture, traditions and history of America’s indigenous people. One aspect of building a brighter future for tribal communities is the preservation and revitalization of Native languages, the focus of my latest piece that looks at efforts to teach students in dual-language programs — which are gaining traction and growing fast.

Nationally, bilingual education has been rechristened “dual-language programs” and is gaining fresh appeal. The templates of dual-language instruction vary—some programs transition students into English-only after several years while others emphasize ongoing two-language immersion at different ratios—but the common strand is an attempt to build literacy and proficiency in more than one language. The approach is found to outperform traditional ESL, where lessons are typically taught entirely in English. Research shows two-language instruction is linked to numerous positive and long-term benefits, including stronger literacy skills, narrowing of achievement gaps, and higher graduation rates. And the academic advantages of two-language programs even carry over to an unexpected group: children who only speak English at home. A Michigan State University study of Texas elementary students in 2013 found “a substantial spillover effect”—higher math and reading scores—for children from English-only homes who were enrolled in schools with bilingual education programs.

Beyond the politics are parents seeking a quality education for their children and the real-life costs of English-only education. The goals of dual-language are closely related and intertwined—better teaching models for non-English speakers, fostering cross-cultural understanding, and in special settings reclaiming disappearing Native American languages—and the approach is earning praise.

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