Chicago Public Schools announces Latino and Latin American Studies curriculum

Yesterday, Chicago Public Schools and the district’s Latino Advisory Committee announced the Interdisciplinary Latino and Latin American Studies Curriculum.  The district describes it as a “comprehensive opportunity for quality instruction that meets the needs of all CPS students and gives young people a greater sense of self-awareness through the study of Latino and Latin American heritage and culture.”

The curriculum was released on the internal CPS Knowledge Center in February so teachers could begin using the lessons this year.  Wednesday night, CPS organized a celebration at the National Museum of Mexican Art.  Someone described the gathering to me as “scripted.”

I believe in these efforts to include more Latino and Latin American culture in our schools—especially in an era when we need to defend ethnic studies.

However, these efforts by CPS and the Latino Advisory Committee remind me of “Columbusing,” the art of discovering something that’s not new.

Latino and Latin American Studies has been in CPS for years.  In 2006, I was hired at a selective-enrollment high school to launch their Latin American Lit elective because students asked for it.  Other schools offer the course, too, as an elective usually.  We’ve had Latin American History in the neighborhood high school where I am now for years.  Curriculum like this isn’t anything new.

Zapatero a tus zapatos (Shoemaker to your shoes)

While I respect the efforts of the curriculum creators, the curriculum is basic—too basic for what we know about teaching and learning in the 21st century.

An essential part missing in the 9th and 10th grade literacy lessons (11th and 12th not available yet) are instructional experiences that evoke some type of reasonable emotional response in students to help them engage with topic at hand.  In any learning experience, we have to feel it to learn it.

Good teachers evoke memories, intrigue, skepticism so students begin to see how abstract or unfamiliar texts might relate to them.  Starting the unit with “Today, we are beginning a unit on the Latin American revolutions” (as the lesson plan indicates) doesn’t do it.  This is where students need to engage with something audio-visual, sensory, poignant.

Honestly, the lessons look like something from the 90s when standards-based lessons and unit plans emerged.

The lessons don’t seem to take into account the 21st century reality of our learners.  If these lessons included evocative experiences, students who live far removed from many of the realities presented in the texts would see how meaningful these lessons can be.

No todo lo que reluce es oro (All that glitters isn’t gold)

While well-organized and well-promoted, this curriculum lacks learning experiences that help transform students’ lives.  In one lesson, these are suggested questions for small- and whole-group discussions:

  • How did Frida and Diego complement each other in their relationship?
  • How did they challenge each other?

Honestly–who cares? (I know that offends everyone who loves Frida Kahlo.  Sorry.)

Here is an opportunity to have a discussion of about how relationships encourage and limit a person’s ambition, dreams, or self-identity.  Better discussion questions would be:

  • How does Frida and Diego’s relationship reveal the influence one person can have over another?
  • When is that influence positive?  When is it detrimental?

These are the discussions students need to have today if they are truly going to gain the greater self-awareness this curriculum claims it will provide.

Another suggested question is “How has your life been affected by one or more of the unit themes: politics, personal experiences, relationships and travel/movement?”

The trap here is obvious—we’ll go around the whole room to hear everyone’s answer.  Or we’ll do the tired ol’ think-pair-share.

This is an ineffective question because it promotes Facebook syndrome: it’s important to me, so it’s gotta be important to you. This question is not set up to engage students in deep conversations.  It promotes unengaging small talk.

Questions for small- and whole-group discussion need to be open ended with many possible answers if they’re truly going to promote discussion.  Furthermore, they’re more meaningful and productive when the conversation is grounded in some type of text.

In the lessons, I see few questions that challenge students to selectively gather info, contemplate multiple views, and then decide what to believe, communicate, or do.  Moreover, I’m skeptical about how many of these lessons will help students grow academically or in social-emotional ways.

Unos saben lo que hacen, y otros hacen lo que saben (Some know what they do, and others do what they know)

An essential element that does not appear in the 9th and 10th grade lessons are explorations of contemporary issues faced by Latinos in the U.S.

A few years ago, CNN’s Latino in America reported some inconvenient truths.  Young Latinas, for example, face some of the highest rates of depression and suicide attempts.  Soledad O’Brien’s reporting revealed that most of the time, these rates can be attributed to conflicts between an immigrant mother and an American-born daughter who struggles in between cultures.

These are topics I and other teachers have included in our writing classes so students understand the current challenges Latinos and Latinas face.  These social issues, unfortunately connected to many of our students’ lives, can merge the gap between what may seem like old, boring stuff.

I’m also struggling to find 21st century assignments in the curriculum where students communicate their insights.  I’m looking for podcasts, for example, that educate our community about important issues in the Latino community.

I see most of the curriculum being a paper and pen experience: “Analyze the author’s use of repetition and imagery in this poem and explain how and why he uses these particular words and images.”

The curriculum strikes me as a neutralized, politically correct attempt to explore the complexity of Latino and Latin American Studies.  This is quite ironic when so much of Latino and Latin American Studies is about insurrection and demand for change.

What bothers me most is that this is the first major contribution by the district’s Latino Advisory Committee—which did not include teachers when it was first announced.  I don’t know who the members are now.

Last year, a committee member told me that teachers were not included because they did not want teachers to be put in uncomfortable situations with their employer.

Yet, THIS curriculum is what’s been accomplished so far?  Where is the controversy that justifies alienating teachers from this committee?

If the Latino Advisory Committee intends to influence significant policy, the members need to push CPS to have Latin American Literature as a core English option in high schools.  After my students and I proved the academic merit of Latin American Lit at that selective-enrollment high school, the class that started as an elective in 2006 became a core English option for students who choose to take it.  And not only Latino students take the course.

If the Latino Advisory Committee members truly want to make a difference in the lives of 46% of the district’s population, the members need to be more innovative and revolutionary in their policy recommendations.

Update 3.8.15:

I’ve exchanged a few emails with CPS leaders.  I’ve been able to express–as I did above–that there is value in adding this curriculum and I understand the flexibility teachers have.

My feedback is that if this is curriculum is going to be a guide, it should be of higher quality.  Yes, there are some good texts–absolutely.  My feedback deals with the poor enduring understandings and the questionably engaging essential questions.

If we’re going to have this as an example, which it should be, then let’s ensure the enduring understandings, the essential questions, and the performance assessments are of the highest quality to increase the chances of student and teacher engagement.  Good teachers can figure out the rest of the details.

I also think there could have been some suggestions to include Latino & Latin American texts alongside some canonical texts, which increases the chances of this being more accepted  and implemented by more people.

Perhaps if the Latino Advisory Committee had included teachers who already teach these courses at the table, some of these ideas would have surfaced earlier.

My question remains: Can the district consider making Latin American Lit (and African American Lit) core English options for students in all high schools?

Finally, out of all the issues facing Latino students in CPS, a Latino and Latin American Studies curriculum is not the issue that most needs to be addressed.  Look at the murals, the music programs, the reading lists in many schools.  There is a Latino presence.  I don’t understand why the Latino Advisory Committee made this curriculum their first public priority.

Update 3.10.15

In the spirit of fairness and open communication, I’m sharing the district’s response to this commentary:

“I wanted to share with you that several elementary and high school teachers were involved in the creation of the ILLASC. These names can be found in the first couple of pages in the intro of the curriculum under ‘Teacher Collaborators’.

We also had several outside entities review and provide feedback:

  • The National Museum of Mexican Art
  • Puerto Rican Culture Center, Jose Lopez
  • Northeastern Illinois University, World Languages & Cultures
  • Chicago Teachers’ Union

As the CEO mentioned this curriculum serves as a beginning guide to teaching and thinking across the Kinder to 10th grade classrooms. It was fully intended to be flexible so that teachers could make it their own while providing a foundation and entry point to teachers across grade levels. As we roll the documents out with professional development this spring and summer, and as the curriculum is used throughout the district it will morph and grow based on teacher input and use.

Thank you for your feedback to this really important work.”

Also, please read Catalyst-Chicago’s article on this curriculum. The rich intertwining of voices shows the complexity of this issue.

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