My name is Emma, and I am a junior English major and Education minor from Littleton, Colorado. On campus, I am a writing center tutor, editor for Cipher magazine, and work with the Public Achievement program at North Middle School. This block, I am in ED 235 "From Multicultural Education to Critical Pedagogy: Civil Rights in U.S. Public Education" with Professor Tina Valtierra, and I'm excited to share my experiences!

Posts by Emma

Final Class Takeaways

As class is over and break begins, I wanted to take a second to compile a list (albeit, a very disorganized one) of the most meaningful insights I have gained from my engagement with texts, my classmates, my professor, and the educators and students we have had the privilege to watch as they live the realities that we discuss in class. We have only scratched the surface of multicultural education and critical pedagogy this block, but, as a future teacher, these are principles I want to keep in mind and continue to practice and build upon for the rest of my life, both in and outside of the classroom.

1. Multicultural education extends to all levels of a school’s environment, from representations of people on the walls and in textbooks, to tracking, to school culture and disciplinary policies, to relationships with parents and community members. Implementation of multicultural education, therefore, requires school-wide commitment, not just to talking the talk, but to walking the walk. This includes continuous opportunities for mentorship and professional development. We saw a really powerful example of this in the teaching community we observed at Manual High School in Denver, where Humanities department leader and teacher Will Anderson described a collaborative and caring environment where teachers had time during the week to come together and support one another’s work and personal lives, as well as the space to be themselves in the classroom. He described this as one method to counteract teacher burnout and frustration with policies and inequities that negatively impact urban schools and the lives of their students every day. In addition to these school-wide supports, individual educators must be committed to being vulnerable about their growth and positionalities, and engage with their communities and work towards social justice outside of the classroom.

2. Multicultural education is rigorous, but not in the way that just reinforces the performance of whiteness as a measure of success. Students can practice academic skills as they examine their own communities and circumstances, read challenging texts by diverse authors, investigate historical systems of oppression, express themselves in various mediums, question dominant sources of information, and work towards social change. Multicultural Education requires teachers to have high standards for their students, and provide equitable scaffolding and resources for each student to achieve those standards, not just those with the privilege to have been served by our unequal education system.

3. Multicultural education is assets-based, at its core. This requires a critical shift away from perspectives which position students’ cultures and communities as a deficit and detrimental to their academic success. While this is thinking that has largely been discredited and abandoned at the level of academia, that does not mean that its impacts have been erased from policy decisions or teacher mindsets, even those who claim to be committed to multicultural education. Classrooms must engage with issues of oppression that influence their students lives; students are experts in their own experiences, and can benefit from access to language to describe those experiences and explicit acknowledgement that they are influenced by historical and deliberate patterns. An assets-based pedagogy demands that this must be accompanied by highlighting acts of resistance to oppression and leveraging the strengths and funds of knowledge of students and their communities.

4. Critical praxis, as defined by Paulo Friere, requires a constant, cyclical process of identifying a problem, researching the problem, developing a collective plan of action to address the problem, implementing the collective plan of action, and evaluating the action, assessing its efficacy, and re-examining the state of the problem. Teachers can foster this process in students as a means of addressing inequalities they notice in the world around them, and must also constantly engage in critical praxis themselves in their decision-making, lesson planning, and interactions with students. Critical praxis is key to disciplinary strategies like restorative justice (facilitated conversations with all parties involved in an issue that is aimed are developing a solution, not just a punishment) that aim to mitigate the impacts of teacher and systemic bias on the school-to-prison pipeline.

5. I wanted to end with the quotes from readings that have resonated with me most this block, as the educators who wrote them have had years of experience with the work of critical pedagogy, and can speak to it far better than I can after one month of learning. As argued by Brazilian theorist Paulo Friere, the primary goal of education is to restore humanity in response to dehumanizing systems, and Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell speak to the pain of doing so, and the love required to do so, in the setting of the American education system.

  • “The developing counter-cultural community of practice intentionally targets alienation, intellectual disenfranchisement, despair, and academic failure to be replaced with large quantities of community, critical consciousness, hope, and academic achievement” (Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell).
  • “Audacious hope stares down the painful path; and despite the overwhelming odds against us making it down that path to change, we make the journey again and again. There is no other choice. Acceptance of this fact allows us to find the courage and the commitment to cajole our students to join us on that journey. This makes us better people as it makes us better teachers, and it models for our students that the painful path is the hopeful path” (Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade).

Lessons from Mitchell High School

During every period of the Language Arts class we observed at Mitchell High School last Friday, the school’s negative reputation in the Colorado Springs community was brought up as a topic of discussion– both by the teacher, Rob Lessig, and the students themselves. Mitchell’s low test scores mean that the state has them on watch, and a video of a student fight recently received a disproportionate amount of local media attention. I bring up these negative narratives not to give them any more time and space than they have already occupied in the Colorado Springs discourse around education, but to make explicit the message that students and teachers at Mitchell High School constantly receive about themselves: that they are failing. But, as M.R Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell point out in their book The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for moving from theory to practice in urban schools (which, by the way, has been a veritable bible of teaching practices for social justice transformation that I am cursing myself for renting from the bookstore instead of buying), urban schools fail in a system that is set up for their failure. Though Colorado Springs is not exactly a metropolis, we discussed in class how “urban” is often used as a whispered stand-in to describe any school, like Mitchell, that has a high population of students of color and students from low-income households. Duncan-Andrade and Morrell stress the urgent need to reform the “Politics and Economics of Failure” on the broad level of policy; in short, they argue that our education system is constructed so that some schools must fail, that resources are allocated inequitably to schools deemed failing, and that practices which measure failure and police students’ behavior and “intellect” such as standardized testing and the school-to-prison pipeline are biased against students of color. But they acknowledge that upper-level change won’t happen for a while, and that on the ground, right now, urban schools, teachers, and students themselves are involved in actively constructing counter-narratives to the grand narratives told about them by an inherently inequitable system.

This work of creating counter-narratives was exactly what we saw in action at Mitchell High School. We got the opportunity to participate for one day in a project led by CC student Jubilee Hernandez, where students created art pieces representing various forms of oppression that were auctioned off that night at Cornerstone Arts Center to benefit a scholarship (previously set up by a group of students at Mitchell) for DACA students. The juniors and seniors in the class were practicing sharing their artist statements, which we were lucky enough to get to hear. Students created pieces representing mental health issues, socioeconomic disparities, the treatment of undocumented immigrants, the sexism of their school dress codes, the impacts of labeling and judgement, and more, while many directly took on the education system which they felt has served them inequitably. They were angry at the fact that standardized testing practices are racist and inaccurate measures of anything, much less intelligence, and that testing was narrowing their school’s curriculum and impeding their creativity and self expression. They were proud to be students at Mitchell, despite their frustration with their school’s lack of resources, and knew that the grand narratives told about them were wrong.

The art show at Cornerstone to support DACA students and art activism

Last year, I was lucky enough to witness another example of change-making at Mitchell High School. I was involved in the Public Achievement program, where Colorado College students coach high schoolers as they create projects that address injustices in their community and world, but outside of Public Achievement, many seniors that year created capstone projects for essentially the same purpose. At an end-of-year event meant to showcase their hard work and build bridges between students and policy-makers, students presented their projects to members of the Colorado Springs Community including representatives from the school board. It was one of these groups that set up the aforementioned Dreamers scholarship, while other groups proposed projects tackling environmental issues, sex trafficking and mental heath awareness, even establishing free childcare and mentorship programs at their school. Mitchell also serves as a Community School and an essential local resource, with a food pantry and health clinic that’s often used as a place where students in the school’s Public Health program can get experience. All of this is to say that Mitchell students are actively involved in their community- a community that often does not have very positive things to say about them. The system certainly isn’t perfect, and the function of Mitchell High School is influenced and impeded by resource allocation and other forces out of their control, but there’s a lot of positive things to say about Mitchell and its students, things which they know, and live, on a daily basis. I was really humbled by this opportunity to have just a tiny entry point into the work that’s happening at this school, and to continue to learn from the counter-narratives they tell as a response to a system designed for their failure.

Empowering Examples of Student Organizing

Throughout our class time last week, groups of us watched documentaries, gave presentations, and taught 90-minute lessons in a project called Teaching for Social Justice. Two of the documentaries (Precious Knowledge and The Children’s March) profiled examples of student organizing that, as our class agreed, everyone should know about. We are young people and students ourselves, and have a lot to learn from examples of students enacting social change in the face of structural barriers, requiring critical awareness of their agency and position in the world. In the wake of Friday’s Climate Strike, these students’ dedication to change-making is, though it sounds cliché, incredibly inspiring. Watching these documentaries taught me that explicit analysis of young peoples’ movements is an essential part of a transformative education geared towards promoting both personal growth and collective social change. So here are some quick and grossly oversimplified summaries of these examples of student activism, as a tiny, tiny start:

The Children’s March

Where: Birmingham, Alabama

When: 1963

What: The Children’s March was a student demonstration conducted at a pivotal point in the Civil Rights Movement that often goes un-reported in mainstream narratives of the movement. Thousands of students, after being covertly trained in non-violent tactics by NSLC leader James Bevel and organized via secret radio codes, skipped school and marched from the 16th Street Baptist Church, protesting gross racial injustice in their city. Despite being urged by their parents and influential Civil Rights Leaders not to protest for their own safety, the children exercised their civic agency anyways. They were uniquely positioned to do so because, unlike their parents, they did not risk losing their jobs; however, the risks and consequences of their activism were still monumental. Students were arrested in droves, and the county jail was filled with almost 1,000 school-aged children on the first day. By the second day, police, led by Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor, resorted to violence, unleashing fire hoses, dogs, and batons on groups of student protesters and continuing to make arrests so large-scale that they were taking students to the jail in school buses. Students were not deterred, and continued to protest in staggering numbers throughout the week, effectively bringing the “normal” workings of Birmingham’s institutions to a halt.

Outcomes: Students were released after intense national public pressure, stemming from President Kennedy himself, after footage of the police brutality was widely publicized. It took images of children being attacked to spark public outrage over racism in Birmingham and across the country. Negotiations ended in the government of Birmingham’s agreement to desegregate public spaces, promote nondiscriminatory hiring practices, and facilitate ongoing public meetings between black and white community leaders. The KKK’s bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church months later, killing three young girls, was a tragic and violent form of retaliation against the success of the Children’s March, which is cited as one of the catalyzing movements for the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and an inspiration for movements across the nation far into the future.

Precious Knowledge

Where: Tucson, Arizona

When: 2009

What: For years, the Mexican American/Raza Studies program at Tucson High School, which emphasized students’ knowledge of their own cultures and value of their life experiences, unity and love for humanity based on the principles of Paulo Friere, and social justice via organized action and critique of oppressive social systems, had been contributing to high levels of student engagement, increased test scores, and higher graduation rates among mostly Chicanx and Latinx students. However, during the 2008-2009 school year, State Superintendent Tom Horne initiated HB 2281, which would ban the program on the grounds that it separated students based on race (any student could join the classes, and traditional practices of academic tracking often segregate students by race anyways), and promoted “anti-American” values. The film tracks the bill’s advancement through various levels of government, exposing public officials racist opposition to the program, masked in the colorblind narrative that students should not learn that they are oppressed and that all students have equal opportunities and should thus be educated in exactly the same way. Most importantly, Precious Knowledge highlights students’ peaceful and impassioned protests to keep classes that felt relevant to them as individual and cultural beings.

Outcomes: Though HB 2281 passed, and the ethnic studies classes were outlawed, students built love and solidarity among themselves and their communities and gained critical skills in public organizing and civic engagement. The movement to promote rights for Latinx students in Arizona schools continues to this day, largely spearheaded by the activist group, UNIDOS. In 2012, HB 2281 was declared to have been “motivated by racial animus” by a federal court.

Talking about talking about race

Over my time at CC, I’ve taken most of my classes in humanities and social science departments, where intersectional identities and racist systems of inequality are frequent topics of discussion. After class, I often find myself processing, alone or with friends, how the conversation went– what we said, how we presented ourselves, how the impact of everyone’s participation (or lack thereof) was influenced by their positionality in the classroom. Especially in the English department, I’ve done my fair share of complaining about people’s academic flexing, and white boys’ long and often problematic anecdotes only loosely connected to whatever books we are reading. But this Monday was the first time I’ve had a formalized discussion in class (which is called “From Multicultural Education to Critical Pedagogy: Civil Rights in U.S. Public Education”) about how conversations about race can play out in classrooms, often in unproductive and harmful ways.

I would first like to point out that I am a white student, and most of our conversation, which focused on the impacts of white fragility on discussions about race, spoke directly to me, allowing me to critically reflect on how I participate in class. This was likely old news to many other people, and I wish that we had read and talked more about the experiences of people of color and discussions about race and racism that are free from the constant influence of whiteness. Yet, as our professor pointed out, roughly 80% of the teaching workforce in U.S public schools is made up of white women, so the impacts of white fragility on classroom conversations have likely saturated most of our school experiences. The texts we read and talked about (including excerpts from White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo, and Race Talk by Derald Wing Sue) explicitly named things I have felt and done, noticed and not noticed, in conversations both within and outside of the classroom.

We discussed the fact that many white teachers, both in K-12 and higher education, feel ill-equipped to facilitate conversations about race, and may avoid the topic entirely, or mishandle discussions. Whiteness and white supremacy, thus, become unstated ghosts upheld through classroom interactions, often in the name of Eurocentric constructions of “politeness.” Even in classrooms which claim to be dedicated to multicultural education and inclusive curriculum, these conversations can be deemed taboo or controversial, and often do not happen at all. Race is scary and uncomfortable to talk about for white folks because it can reveal our unearned privileges and unconscious biases. Ultimately, white people, especially at an institution like CC, are terrified of being called racist. As was talked about in the readings, and as I’ve seen in myself and others, they can often manifest this fear in harmful ways– by withdrawing from conversations about race, getting defensive, reacting with overly-emotional guilt that is burdensome to everyone listening (and paints the crying white girl as the victim of “attack” from anyone who calls her out), or talking way too much in an effort to prove just how ardently not-racist they are. This puts students and teachers of color in the tokenizing position of having to explain, represent, and comfort in the face of overwhelming white fragility, a point that I have heard brought up time and time again across campus, but that never seems to change. And it probably won’t, until CC continues to take critical steps to diversify and support students of color, and white students who take part in classroom discussions take a good hard look in the mirror. I learned through this lesson that, as a student, family member, friend, and employee, explicit conversations about conversations are important, and require a constant cycle of work and self-reflection.