Monday, April 25, 2011

When it comes to educating Latinos, America needs to change its mindset

This article first appeared in the Austin American-Statesman's online website, Thursday, March 10, 2011.

Christine Granados, Special Contributor

I am a part of this minority-majority in Texas that the new Census figures have spotlighted. As a member of this group and as an educator, I believe we can no longer teach high school history, English, and social studies the same way we have been teaching these courses.

I say this speaking from my own experience of growing up in El Paso, a minority-majority city comprised of 80 percent Mexican Americans. As a Mexican American, I saw that the contributions of Americans of Mexican descent in Texas were ignored in the public school system.

In my formative public school years in the 80s, I did not read a single Mexican American author. This wasn't done consciously, and I'm not bringing it up to assign blame but to stress a need. Looking back on it now, this strikes me as odd. It was strange that in a town which shares a border with Mexico, a town that is populated by a Mexican American majority, in a classroom filled with brown faces, that not one brown face was represented in a textbook or in literature I read?

I believe this is part of the reason why I am an anomaly and not the norm. I graduated high school and college and earned a master's degree. The majority of the Mexican American students in El Paso or in Austin do not achieve this amount of education.

Is it any wonder that we are reading about educators who are having a difficult time reaching lower income students today? For the record, when most people or educators say "low-income students," it's a euphemism for Mexican American students. As a matter of record and fact, Mexican Americans are at the bottom of the wage earning scale and are considered low income, poor, or working class.

Now we have this large Mexican American population in the schools, but these students are not seeing themselves, their lives, their parents, their ancestor's contributions to this country in the literature and textbooks they read. Is it any wonder so many Latinos are failing or not at engaged in learning or in school?

They are disconnected because there is nothing that validates who they are or where they come from in their readings or in their society.

Teach students about where they come from with stories that reflect their lives and backgrounds, and you'll instill in them a sense of purpose, community and pride. It's that simple. The building block for their future, our future, is a student who has been validated, grounded, and supported by an educational institution. At a small university in South Texas, we are meeting this need headon.

Mexican Americans and their contributions have been ignored too long in this state, really in this country. We are

correcting that slight ourselves at Centro Victoria at the University of Houston-Victoria. We're a center for Mexican American literature and culture, whose main purpose is to promote the full spectrum of a literary arts education so that not only Mexican Americans will be better able to understand themselves but so that all Americans can too.

Centro Victoria has developed lesson guides for teachers titled "Made in Texas." The guide offers 30 weeks worth of lessons based on literature from writers of Mexican American descent.

Again, based my experience, and those educators at Centro Victoria traveling around the state, we are finding that these stories are reaching not just the general population students but connecting with the "harder to reach or teach" students.

Here is a direct quote from a teacher in an El Paso school district that is 91 percent Mexican American who has already adapted the guide into her curriculum:

"I have structured my curriculum so that we begin the school year reading short stories, then we segue way in to novels towards the end of the year. Last month when you visited we had been reading some classic short stories and the students were just HATING it. After you came and visited the class, I used part of the Made In Texas curriculum and it was a huge hit! We read the Lalo Delgado, Tomas Rivera and the Alicia Gaspar de Alba content and I had students coming and asking questions about the authors' backgrounds and one student even took a solo trip to the library to see if he could find more literature by Tomas Rivera!

"I can't thank you enough for putting together this collection and making it accessible to educators. Material such as this is making my students excited about reading, and is inviting them in to literature by speaking the language that they identify with and enjoy. I know that in January when they begin reading novels, they will be better prepared and more optimistic about the text in front of them."

Again, I speak from experience when I say, we Americans need to change our mindset and validate Americans of Mexican descent by teaching them how they contributed to this country.

Granados, who was born and raised in El Paso, is a freelance journalist.

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