How to Reach Every Student
by Jorge Pacheco Jr. | 05.2.18
I barely made it out of high school. It took a D-minus in geometry the summer after my senior year to graduate by the skin of my teeth. School was always so hard. I didn’t have the best experiences with some of my teachers, with peers or even with my ideas of myself. I ended up failing almost everything after first grade. I was put in Special Ed. People assumed I did not speak English and made fun of the way I looked and the way I spoke. Many of those people would probably be surprised to learn that I grew up to become a teacher myself.
I was always conscious of the fact that I was different. I am the proud son of two immigrants – from Mexico and El Salvador – and I also happen to be multiracial and multiethnic. Even though I didn’t have words to describe how I felt, I knew I didn’t feel welcomed completely, in my city or my country. I just couldn’t escape it, and both my grades, as well as my self-perception, took the hits.
Still, I knew I needed to keep studying. And by the time I went to community college, I was becoming aware of some of the forces at play in my experience growing up. I knew something was up, even if I lacked the vocabulary to describe it. I began to learn about the systems of oppression that led and lead thousands, if not millions, of kids to experience what I did. The discrimination. The tracking. The way some of my teachers consistently failed to support me. I found success in college, thanks to my family and mentors, and I realized my role is to enable other youth to find their own path and avoid what happened to me in school. So that’s what ultimately led me to become a teacher.
I started teaching second grade, and right away, I began trying to give my students the language to understand their experiences through the teaching of ethnic studies. Any subject area can be taught using an ethnic studies lens. Essentially, this raises students’ awareness of social structures that affect their lives – such as racism, classism and sexism – and, most importantly, how to navigate these structures, survive them and ultimately dismantle them so they can thrive.
A Stanford University study shows that ethnic studies programs increase high school graduation rates and raise overall GPAs. Moreover, ethnic studies programs help all kids – not just students of color – learn to make sense of and reflect on their environments.
Right now, ethnic studies isn’t as common at the K-8 level, and that’s where I’m trying to focus. I’m currently piloting ethnic studies in middle school. I’m a firm believer that it’s never too early to start teaching kids about empathy, love, race, class and gender, because if we are to build a more just and democratic society, it starts with education. We should start having these conversations when kids are in kindergarten – and even earlier! Then, by the time they get to middle school and high school, more kids of color will be likely to stay engaged in their own education. Giving students the tools to understand and strive for equity can help us take steps toward closing both the achievement and opportunity gaps.
Some school leaders are hesitant about rolling out these programs because of the risk involved. If you’re going to have a teacher, educator or specialist teach kids about race, class and gender, they really need to have a nuanced understanding of social processes. If we teach ethnic studies incorrectly or irresponsibly, we may replicate the same systems we mean to combat. And it makes sense that teachers with good intentions are hesitant about teaching ethnic studies.
Fortunately, there are a lot of resources available – with single lesson plans and even full units – that you can draw on. A great place to start is TeachingTolerance.org. From frameworks to unit-building tools, Teaching Tolerance has resources you can download and utilize in your lessons, covering topics that include race and ethnicity, religion, ability, class and immigration. It’s a great place to start to build and expand your understanding of these issues.
I’d also encourage you to communicate with your colleagues who are interested in this work. We can learn a lot from one another, all of it starting with asking and listening. When we recognize the importance of teaching ethnic studies and helping our students understand systems within our society and how they influence their own experiences, we also recognize the responsibility we have to learn and share with one another. No one does this alone.
And to that end, I just want to encourage you. We can’t let our fears get in the way. We need to teach many different histories to all our kids, so we understand what this country is about – the good and the bad. Educating students about systems of oppression is a way toward a more just and empathetic society. Toward a society that is much more inclusive of everybody.