In our teacher training programs (Donovan Urban Teaching Scholars at Boston College and The Boston Teacher Residency through UMass Boston), we both watched the documentary Precious Knowledge for the first time. We say the first time because, since then, we have each watched the film several more times, sharing it with colleagues, students, family, and friends. The film contains powerful messages about rehumanizing educational spaces for students, teachers, and families, about collaborative and culturally relevant pedagogy, and about the courage to teach emancipatory curricula in a country that fails to legitimize Chicano culture, to accurately and completely share Chicano history.
Precious Knowledge, a Dos Vatos film made by Ari Luis Palos and Eren Isabel McGinnis in 2012, chronicles the experiences of Tucson High School students taking La Raza Studies (also called Mexican American Studies or MAS) classes as the State Superintendent Tom Horne and other conservative lawmakers in Arizona attack the MAS program. These lawmakers claimed that the MAS curricula promoted the overthrowing of the US government and advocated ethnic solidarity rather than treating students as individuals. As HB2281 threatened the future of this innovative social justice program, which yielded gains in student graduation rates, test scores, college matriculation, and student engagement, students, teachers, and community members organized to educate lawmakers and the public about the content of the program’s classes and the value it brought to the Tucson High School community. The legal battle over the ban of the Mexican American Studies program continues today. The case is currently being heard for a second time by U.S. Circuit Judge A. Wallace Tashima in the U.S. District Court in Tucson.
We initially added Tucson to our trip because we hoped to meet with Dr. Curtis Acosta, one of the Mexican American Studies teachers profiled in the film. At the time we were planning our trip, we had no idea that our stop in Tucson would take place during the trial. We were honored that he made time to connect with us and answer our questions about his work.
We scheduled our sit-down for a Wednesday morning and, as the time approached, the two of us talked through all the things that we wanted to learn about Dr. Acosta’s classroom and his experiences agitating across the country. We organized our questions into three categories: background on the documentary and the ongoing legal battle, the pedagogy and curriculum shared by the teachers in the Mexican American Studies program, and resources for our identity and mural unit. We were excited and nervous to meet with someone whose story plays such a big role in our commitment to the work we do as social justice educators.
Dr. Acosta, who resigned his post at Tucson High School after the Mexican American Studies program was banned and is currently an educational consultant with Acosta Latino Learning Partnership, an assistant professor at University of Arizona South, and constantly traveling to organize and attend conferences and meetings that promote socially just classrooms and rehumanizing education systems, has a spirit that fills up the room. Watching Precious Knowledge, it is clear how captivating Dr. Acosta is as a teacher, and at a picnic table outside Exo Coffee, he is just as magnetic. While he could not discuss the details of the ongoing case, his body language and tone of voice made clear how deeply personal the fight is.
While telling Dr. Acosta about our project and goals, we explained that part of our initial grant proposal acknowledged that for students to thrive, they must see reflections of themselves in our classroom spaces, pedagogy, and curriculum. While the murals that we’ve seen along the way are artifacts that we will use to dig into themes of borders and walls with our students, this meeting with Dr. Acosta was a chance to plant our planning and pedagogy for the unit (and the year) in the culturally-rooted practices that made the Mexican American Studies program so engaging and empowering for Tucson High students.
We talked for two hours and, after hugging Dr. Acosta good-bye, we were consumed by the enormity of his stories and the work that looms ahead of educators and communities across the country. This conversation will continue to inform the way we consume art and artifacts on the rest of our trip, the planning for our Identity and Borders Unit, and the way we build classroom culture in our schools next year and beyond. With one day’s processing time, though, a few themes of our conversation have surfaced and are resonating with us in this moment.
The last question we asked was “What knowledge do you wish students came to you with? What do you wish they had read or interacted with before coming into your classroom?” He gave his answer in three parts.
First, he said, he wants students to come with a sense of self. He elaborated that he hopes that students have previous experience seeing themselves both culturally and ethnically in the curriculum before high school. For example, a queer Chican@ student reading about a queer Chican@ character affirms that such an identity is real, it has history valuable enough to be taught. Second, he wants students to understand that the classroom space is their space, and that their voices are necessary to co-construct the learning environment. Acosta likened himself to Tim Gunn from Project Runaway; his goal is not to tell students exactly how to design, but rather to ask questions that guide students to showcase their knowledge courageously and authentically. Third, he described how students need to feel well-loved and cared for as intellectuals and as community. The more classrooms that nurture young people as intellectuals, the more easily young people can take academic and personal risks and aim for higher academic targets.
While none of these concepts were new, the fierceness with which Dr. Acosta articulated them as foundational to student experience affirmed them all over again. They are indispensable [classroom] environmental factors that produce the deep learning that propels life-long civic engagement and intellectual pursuit. Beyond the Identity and Borders Unit that we are creating, these principles have to live in our Boston classrooms to allow equitable access to content for students of color, and all students.
We also asked about what the collaborative process was like for the MAS teachers as a group. Dr. Acosta used Ludwik Fleck’s concept of a “thought collective” to explain their work. He likened it to having many cooks working on a recipe, each person bringing their own skill set to the table and the end product reflecting all of the talent and perspective of the individual chefs. Every teacher has an individual style and can “nerd out” about content, yet they join in “a space of love and liberation” to learn together. For us, the most striking part of Dr. Acosta’s narrative was his description and examples of the deep trust and personal relationships that still exist within this community of teachers. To sustain this level of dedication to “true north,” their collegial community held them accountable and empowered them to be their best teacher-selves and to maintain the moral high ground when the political environment became toxic.
The most acutely honest part of our whole conversation, the one that got us both in the gut and the heart, was Dr. Acosta’s description of the fear that motivates teachers. He explained that it’s not enough to love and respect the young people in a classroom, that the driving force of effective teaching is the panic over what will happen if a student does not get where s/he needs to be academically. It is that particular fear that keeps us awake at night, that pushes us to continue to learn, and that motivates trips like this one–we make ourselves better so that more and more students get where they deserve to be.
Kat + Alice