I Stress Less and Sleep More at a Hispanic Serving Institution
By Charise Pimentel
During my 13 years of working at Texas State University, I have taught the same courses over and over again, and for my undergraduate multicultural education class in particular, I have taught it every single semester, and often two sections a semester. Despite my many years of experience as a college professor, I cannot say that class preparation or syllabus design is effortless or stress-free. For this class, I teach pre-service teachers about tough educational equity issues with a central focus on how U.S. schools perpetuate racist practices and outcomes. Needless to say, the stakes are high, as inevitably what I teach in this class will make its way into K-12 classrooms and impact the educational experiences and outcomes of youth for many years to come. Realizing the significance of this class, I continue to wrestle with, and yes lose sleep over, how to best deliver a race-centered curriculum that is both meaningful and that prepares teachers to become change agents in schools.
In this chapter, I 1) examine my ongoing struggle to teach multicultural content through a critical literacy perspective, 2) discuss how my stress level is alleviated as my courses become more diverse, and 3) provide un cuento from one semester in particular when I had the unique experience of teaching a course that contained primarily Hispanic, bilingual students.
Whether teacher educators realize it or not, they are preparing teachers to enter school systems that replicate the racial order of the larger society. To be clear, schools do not operate in isolation of the racist society in which they are embedded, and as such, schools are institutions that produce inequitable policies and practices that impact students’ educational experiences and outcomes. Educational scholars have documented and theorized the racist nature of schools by focusing on the relentless racial achievement gap that U.S. schools have produced since the inception of public schooling (Valencia 3; Howard 12). In a teacher education program, teachers must be made aware of the sociopolitical context of schools and further realize that their acts of teaching are never apolitical (Freire 42; Zinn 27). In my own attempt to center my preservice multicultural education class on the sociopolitical context of schooling, I develop curricular materials and pedagogical practices that draw from Paulo Freire’s concept of critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy is a problem posing, democratic, and transformative approach to teaching in which teachers and students work together as they seek to understand and transform the various oppressive conditions that shape the opportunities, experiences, and social positioning of all members in our society.
A key component to Freire’s critical pedagogy is his conceptualization of literacy. Unlike conventional ways of understanding literacy, in which people passively consume the various messages or “texts” they are exposed to, Freire’s concept of critical literacy involves an active, analytical process in which people “read” texts in an effort to better understand how power, inequalities, and injustices are produced through the texts they are reading. As Freire puts it, critical literacy refers to one’s ability to not only read the word, but the world. Ultimately, the goal of critical pedagogy and critical literacy is for students to take an active role in their education, so they can deconstruct and transform the asymmetrical power relations that define our schools as well as all other aspects of society.
A critical literacy approach to teaching is not a novelty by any means. Such pedagogical practices have been detailed in a variety of books, some of which include: Mary Cowey’s Black Ants and Buddhists: Thinking Critically and Teaching Differently in the Primary Grades; Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell’s The Art of Critical Pedagogy; Candace Kuby’s Critical Literacy in the Early Childhood Classroom: Unpacking Histories, Unlearning Privilege; Julio Cammarota and Augusine Romero’s Raza Studies: The Public Option for Educational Revolution; Angela Valenzuela’s Growing Critically Conscious Teachers: Social Justice Curriculum for Educators of Latino/a Youth; and Vivian Vasquez’s Critical Literacy Across the K-6 Curriculum. Other scholars have built upon Freire’s work as they advance various iterations of democratic and transformative pedagogies, including critical media literacy (Funk, Kellner, and Share 7), racial literacy, (Twine 130; DiAngelo 62), equity literacy (Gorski 221), and coalition pedagogy (Pimentel and Pimentel 115). I draw from all of these conceptualizations of critical literacy as I have my students critically examine how schools produce inequities and how teachers can work as transformative agents in schools.
The Struggle to Implement Critical Literacy
Teaching about social injustices such as racism, poverty, language discrimination, and immigration are not easy tasks by any means. Taught through a critical literacy perspective, this material often challenges students’ core beliefs in equal opportunity, meritocracy, and the pursuit of happiness. As a result, many of my students do not readily accept my teachings, but rather pose a variety of challenges to the course materials and perspectives. Some students will outright deny that the injustices I focus on even exist. In extreme cases, I have had students state that my focus on these issues actually perpetuates and exaggerates the problem by bringing attention to what are otherwise minute problems. In these cases, students argue that the problems would essentially fix themselves if people, including myself, would just stop making such a big deal about them. One student, for example, stated that “I am sure there are some cases of racial discrimination, but as minorities increase their numbers in schools, these incidents will fade.” Further, some students divert the class discussion to other topics or if they do focus on school inequities, they might blame the problems on students and their families, also known as deficit thinking (Valencia, 20). Other students deescalate the magnitude of these issues by making random, unrelated statements. For example, when I asked my students to write a brief statement on how they were feeling about the racism that was occurring on our own campus (e.g., racist flyers that were posted around campus), one student wrote, “How do I feel? I’m hungry!” and had nothing else to say about the flyers or to the clearly emotional responses other students were having to them.
From what I have gathered over the years is that students (often White, middle class, English monolingual students) who have not experienced injustices are often unaware of them and will sometimes go so far as to deny they exist. For many, if an injustice does not affect them in an adverse way, it does not become part of their consciousness, and if an injustice is brought to their attention, they may go to great lengths to explain it away. Consequently, I sometimes struggle all semester long to convince students that the injustices do exist and the sooner I can do this, the sooner we can start working on transformative practices that aim to address these injustices. As part of my course preparation process, I scour resources from multiple outlets, trying to find current and relatable material as well as develop innovative ways to make this material meaningful to the mostly white students who have had the privilege of never having to consider these issues. In the end, I pull together a collection of academic articles and books, films, news items, interviews, social media posts, blogs, and other various webpages. My goal is to provide the material from multiple angles with the hope that I can create entryways for students to critically examine the sociopolitical context of our schools and society.
Pedagogically, I try a variety of strategies, including class activities that put students through simulated classroom experiences that decenter the English-only, Euro-centric perspective they have grown accustomed to. For example, I have students read multicultural materials and I deliver tests that focus on the multicultural knowledge they are often denied in their K-12 schooling. Additionally, I teach segments of my class in Spanish, at which time I deliver brief lectures in Spanish, administer quizzes in Spanish, and require students to communicate with their peers as well as write in Spanish. Based on my students’ capabilities to function in a multicultural and bilingual classroom environment, I will segregate students, and in some cases, dumb down the curriculum for students who cannot keep up by giving them coloring sheets and crayons. Additionally, I will change their names to something that is easier to pronounce in Spanish. These are all things that take place in K-12 schools, and as my students undergo this process, they often come to realize what many K-12 youth experience and become eager to make schools more equitable, especially for language minority students.
As I stated at the beginning of this chapter, the teaching of this class requires much research, planning, innovation, reflection, and evaluation. While such a thorough teaching process should ideally result in the execution of a successful class, I am often left questioning the effectiveness of this class in reaching its diverse student population. As I have already discussed, I often struggle to convince the White European American, English monolingual students about the inequities that students of color and/or linguistic minority students experience in schools. Perhaps more concerning, however, is the possibility that I cater too much to whiteness in my class, thereby perpetuating the inequitable educational experiences I seek to overthrow. With this being said, I must consider to what degree my teaching practices may fall short of building upon the critical literacy perspectives of my students of color. This is a perplexing endeavor, considering that I work at a Hispanic Serving Institution and my ultimate goal is to prepare teachers who will advocate for Hispanic and other underserved students in U.S. schools. Needless to say, these are the dilemmas that keep me up at night.
Un Cuento from a Bilingual Class
While my teaching dilemmas are ongoing, as I teach 1-2 sections of multicultural education every semester, there was one semester in particular that I had the opportunity to teach a bilingual class to a cohort of pre-service teachers who were all bilingual in Spanish and English and with the exception of one student, were all Hispanic. I taught this class as part of a teaching block that took place at a local elementary school when one of my colleagues was on developmental leave. Much like the multicultural education class I describe above, this bilingual class also focused on the sociopolitical context of schools and we particularly focused on the politics of language in schools, examining such topics as: language discrimination, language loss, the racialization of language, the inconsistencies and short-term commitment of bilingual programs in schools, and the benefits and successes of bilingual education. However, unlike the struggles I experience in my multicultural classes, the Hispanic students in my bilingual class all had first-hand experiences with language discrimination and racism in schools and could all identify with the topics we covered in class. During our first week of class, for example, I had students write a language biography that they then presented to the larger class. This assignment resulted in an emotional class experience in which students shared their K-12 experiences, some of which included: being held back a year due to their home language, being placed in special education, being told not to speak Spanish, being ignored, ridiculed, sitting in classes not understanding the language of instruction, segregated from White, English-speaking students, and missed opportunities to participate in bilingual education altogether because their parents declined this option, recalling their own horror stories of being bilingual in U.S. schools. In essence, we had reached a point of critical literacy in the first week of class that it often takes me an entire semester to achieve in my general multicultural classes. From here, the students were able to focus their attention on how to position themselves as change agents in schools and were eager to challenge and transform the sociopolitical context of schooling.
Based on my diverse teaching experiences at Texas State University, there are important implications for all instructors across campus. First, we must realize and build upon the full range of experiences and perspectives of our students. Our students come to Texas State University with diverse experiences, perspectives, and identities. As referenced in my class descriptions, I as well as others must ensure that we are building upon the advanced critical literacy skills that many students of color have. Indeed, teaching multicultural content requires a delicate dance—maneuvers that aim to build the critical consciousness of some while engaging the critical consciousness of others. Also important is that professors should not do this work in isolation. We need to hire more faculty who work from a critical literacy perspective as well as provide ongoing professional development opportunities on these topics to faculty who are already here. Too often, faculty who are teaching from a critical perspective are doing so in isolation from what other professors are doing, and as a result, students do not get a consistent experience, or worse yet, they are learning uncritical perspectives that continue to normalize the Eurocentric, English-only perspective. My discussion in this chapter also speaks to the importance of maintaining a diverse student population on our campus, as diverse students come with a rich set of knowledge and this provides all students the opportunities to learn from others’ experiences and perspectives, not just from that of their professors.
About the Author
Charise Pimentel is an Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction within the College of Education. Her areas of specialty include: Race and Education, Bilingual Education, Multicultural Education, and Critical Media Literacy. The courses she teaches include such titles as, Multicultural Teaching and Learning, The Politics of Language, Bilingual Education Principles and Practices, and Literacy Education for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Children.