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Author Interview: Growing Critically Conscious Teachers

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Angela Valenzuela agreed to answer a few questions about the new book she has edited, Growing Critically Conscious Teachers: A Social Justice Curriculum for Educators of Latino/a Youth.

Angela Valenzuela is a professor in both the Educational Policy and Planning Program Area within the Department of Educational Administration and the Cultural Studies in Education Program within the Department of Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Texas at Austin where she also serves as the director of the Texas Center for Education Policy and the National Latino/a Education Research and Policy Project (NLERAP).

Valenzuela is also the author of Subtractive Schooling: U.S.-Mexican Youth and the Politics of Caring and Leaving Children Behind: How "Texas-style" Accountability Fails Latino Youth.

LF: You write that the book came out of the Grown Your Own Teacher initiative. Can you tell us about that effort and the book's origins?

Angela Valenzuela:

The anthology, "Growing Critically Conscious Teachers: A Social Justice Curriculum for Educators of Latino/a Youth," examines the knowledge, skills, and predispositions required for higher education institutions to effectively educate the future educators of Latino/a children, children of color, and language-minority youth, in general. "Growing Critically Conscious Teachers" refers both to creating pathways into the teaching profession via our organic partnership model, as well as fostering teachers' critical consciousness.  There is no need to outsource education to the corporate sector or recruit educators from overseas. 

Our vision instead is to grow our own future educators from within our own communities, armed with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that no longer perpetuate what I term, "subtractive schooling," while also strengthening local capacity.  Asset-based pedagogies instead become a new default with a humanizing, social justice praxis that allows students to be transformative agents of change in the world.  That is, they must help students get out from under the dominant group's imposition of its monolingual, monocultural, and objectifying values, and ways of knowing and being that, drawing on Paulo Freire, domesticate rather than liberate.

"Growing Critically Conscious Teachers" reflects the history and work of the National Latino Education Research and Policy Project (NLERAP; pronounced "nel-rap"), a national consortium and nonprofit.  We are comprised of primary, secondary, and post-secondary educators, leaders of community-based organizations, as well as university and school district partners that work together to address, in a context of teacher, parent, and community empowerment, the teacher preparation and retention crises in our states and nation, as well as the underrepresentation of Latino/a teachers (7.1% nationally).  As one of our NLERAP elders out of one of our sites in Dallas, Texas, Hector Flores, wisely admonishes, "The teaching profession is the most important profession of all because it is the key to all the other professions."

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LF: What are two or three specific examples from the book that teachers can apply practically to their classroom tomorrow?

Angela Valenzuela:

Faculty using the text have already shared with me that they find the exercises that interrogate deficit thinking and White privilege useful. 

Bafa Bafa is the name of another fun but highly instructive activity on how we as individuals make assumptions about members of other cultures that are frequently distorted.  The exercise involves dividing preferably a classroom of 20 students minimum into two cultures, an Alpha and a Beta culture.  They convene separately perhaps in two different rooms and they develop their own respective cultures with their own norms, values, and customs. They can even come up with their own "foreign language," with made-up rules that govern its use. 

Then there's a series of "visits" made by perhaps two or three students from each culture visiting the other where they are supposed to experience a kind of culture shock because while exposed to the other group's culture, they are not taught it.  This happens two additional times with fresh sets of students visiting the other culture.  Alpha and Beta groups then convene separately to draw inferences from each others' cultures based on the visits each paid to the other.  Then the whole class comes together for a group discussion.

Students come to understand how stereotypes of other cultures get formed and perpetuated. It's truly fascinating and worth incorporating as a regular feature of the college curriculum. Most importantly, it helps everyone to realize that they have a lens through which they view the world and how this is consequential to assumptions that we make about members of other groups, and thusly, relationships, that in turn impact policies and practices that impact them.

Though time consuming, I highly recommend university faculty to consider having their pre-service teachers conduct an ethnography in a local community.  This fosters a deep sense of context that would be useful to any future educator, and professors themselves.  Participatory Action Research (PAR) prepares future educators to administer PAR projects that in their future classrooms at any grade level, transforms youth into researchers so that they can become more aware and conscious about injustices, while preparing them for college careers that are re-cast not solely as individual achievement, but as a perpetual process of community empowerment and uplift.

LF: How would you say the book's suggestions compare to the ideas of culturally sustaining pedagogy and/or culturally responsive teaching?

Angela Valenzuela:

"Growing Critically Conscious Teachers" is premised on the notions of both culturally sustaining pedagogy and culturally responsive teaching, but also goes beyond these massively important constructs to offer an organic, community-anchored framework through which this progressive kind of education can be accomplished.  It calls upon us as educators to forge common cause with community-based organizations that are in turn partnered with school districts and universities to develop pathways to the teaching profession.  This is a grassroots approach that helps us to sidestep the vacuous, objectifying, competitive framework enshrined in ESSA—and formerly, NCLB and our state accountability systems—that are jealously wedded to rating and ranking children and schools and in so doing, dehumanizing and objectifying them. 

In contrast, we advocate for grassroots collaboration and partnerships—old-style democracy, as it were.  In this vein, we hope that the reader will take away a sense of the infrastructural framework or architecture for the alternative that we advance, as it reflects years of important thinking drawn from our collective experiences in both the academy and our communities across the U.S.  With the help of earlier Ford and Kellogg funding, we continue to carry out this work across our GYO sites in Sacramento, California; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Chicago, Illinois; Brooklyn, New York; Dallas, Texas; and Austin, Texas.

LF: What did you learn from your work across these different sites nationally?

Angela Valenzuela:

In trying to get GYO efforts off the ground throughout the country, what became abundantly clear for us as an organization is that the investment needs to be in our CBOs where they lead these initiatives.  A CBO could be a civil rights organization, a non-profit, or simply a group that forms and moves into action at the local level.  Among the reasons why we think CBOs need to anchor the GYO educator agenda is that they have the greatest stake in whatever reform is advanced when they're almost always an afterthought. 

Relatedly, our approach contributes to sustainability over the long term. There is a lot of mobility in our universities and school districts.  You find your champions and invest in them and before you know it, they're either gone or "restructured," making for a poor foundation on which to pursue any reform.  Another important factor is that given the lack of teachers of color in our K-12 system, our current bureaucratic model leaves them with having to bear the burden of implicit bias and stereotypes that are often debilitating.

It is totally unreasonable for anyone of us to expect these teachers to excel in spaces of oppression simply because, in our minds, we in higher education, NLERAP scholars included, have prepared them well.  In the meantime, teacher retention remains a ubiquitous crisis—and we're not resolving this when we disregard educators' work situation.  Our teachers need support and here is where the community comes in.  It can partner with districts and universities to develop authentic, place-based curricula, prepare teachers, and forge pathways into higher education for students in ways that tap into, as scholar Tara Yosso theorizes, the community's cultural wealth.  In our own GYO site in Austin, Texas, we, too, are finding that our partnership supports dual language teachers that feel alienated in their own schools where speaking Spanish is not particularly valued.

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LF: The book discusses "participatory action research projects." Can you give an example of such an effort, how and why teachers would organize one, and describe how similar or different it might be to what some educators know as teacher action research?

Angela Valenzuela:

PAR is quite different from teacher action research.  PAR assumes that people who are impacted by a particular issue should be co-researchers from beginning to end. This is opposite a more common situation where, for example, "member checking" occurs for validity purposes but only after the investigation occurred.  Moreover, since students, as well as their families and communities, have the biggest stake in the outcome of a particular problem it tends to tap positively into students' own motivations to rectify injustices.

An example of PAR is from a chapter authored by Julio Cammarota where students in a Tucson Unified School District High School were punished for speaking Spanish in class, a widespread problem that surfaced in dialogue. They conducted observations, generated field notes, and they analyzed the data, identifying the relevant patterns or "codes." Drawing on scholarship, as well as their own experiences and observational data that they collected, the students developed codes like "English submersion" and "Spanish disadvantage" for drawing inferences on the labeling of youth as delinquent or deficient for speaking Spanish in class.

The students then created a role-playing skit that re-told a racist incident but which was illustrative of the broader problem.  After developing a script and strategy, they then presented this work to parents, students, and community across various gatherings, creating a reflective space where constructive dialogue could take place.  Community members were able to learn about their experiences while giving voice to comparable experiences at the work place.  All learned about language rights and how their rights are systematically violated in their schools and work places.

Through this process, the students learned about Arizona's anti-bilingual law and discovered that it only impacts teachers and not students.  Even if Arizona public school teachers are restricted from speaking languages other than English during instruction, this does not apply to students.  Just as importantly, the research process contributed to community awareness and empowerment while helping students to acquire research and presentation skills that help them to see themselves as knowledgeable, enhancing their academic self concepts, dispositions important in the college classroom.

LF: With the practical struggles and challenges that many teachers face on a daily basis, it can sometimes seem overwhelming to many when they hear that responding to social justice issues needs to be on their agenda, too.  How would you and your chapter contributors respond to that concern?

Angela Valenzuela:

Not sure about my colleagues, but I'll give this a stab.  My sense is that if social justice pedagogy of the kind that we advocate for in "Growing Critically Conscious Teachers" were the default in higher education, this question would not even get raised.  So clearly, higher education needs to engage in soul searching and transform itself in order to preempt this kind of question.  

Another thought is that since there are ways, big and small, to be social justice educators, it's probably the big ways that are more overwhelming than the small ones.  Everyday life involves choices and decisions in the classroom and at school that can and should involve a personal ethic of fairness, respect, and equity.  So being a social justice educator in itself doesn't quite strike me as the rub. However, especially for Anglo educators—and some teachers of color—relinquishing power would be.  A critically conscious teacher can no longer hide in the comfort zone that they only teach subjects as opposed to students.  Instead, they must re-tool to incorporate social justice pedagogy, as well as interrogate the extent to which they themselves are perpetrators of unjust policies and practices. 

They sometimes don't even see how policies like high-stakes testing and curricular tracking work to systematically privilege majority group children and youth, while under-privileging their minority counterparts.  And then to realize that these correlate to race, ethnicity, language, class, and gender can be an overwhelming thing to seriously ponder.  Entire educational histories and research programs are dedicated to addressing these institutionalized, embedded injustices.  Though difficult and challenging, an effective, social justice pedagogy provides no refuge in "individualism" or "color-blindness" as a legitimate discourse or ideology.  For all social justice educators have to consider the role that white supremacy and its logics, including Anglo-centric curricula, implicit bias, structured silences, and institutionalized forms of discrimination, have historically worked to stratify culturally diverse children for unequal futures.

That said, there has to be plenty of scaffolding and professional development for educators for them to go in this direction.  It also helps enormously to have enlightened leadership along these lines within a school or district that explicitly calls for ending all institutionalized forms of oppression for this not to be an insurmountable burden or responsibility for educators.  Ideally, as we suggest, this can get accomplished through strategic, meaningful partnerships anchored in our community-based organizations.  Ultimately, we can also grow our own leadership and policy makers from the ranks of our GYO teachers, too.

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LF: Is there anything I haven't asked you that you'd like to share?

Angela Valenzuela:

Yes.  I'm in policy.  I have struggled for many years, particularly in the Texas State Legislature, to eliminate not standardized tests, but high-stakes testing, and met with some success that I'm very proud of.  The reason that many of us get into policy is because we see the big picture and realize that systemic problems are oftentimes an artifact of inadequate or harmful policies that need to get remedied or eliminated altogether.  Another motivation is a frustration that many have working in and with classrooms and schools where the impact does not often feel or seem "systemic enough."  That is, we feel that while our contributions are positive, they are not widely felt across systems that need to be transformed.  This is a good reason for getting into policy.

However after working for well over 16 years in the legislature to kill bad bills and to get good ones to get heard and passed into law, I have come to feel that the legislature is frequently a weapon of mass distraction.  Every single session, it gets us all ramped up to oppose the most egregious legislation impacting our communities and they suck the energy and oxygen out of the good efforts of our civil rights groups and coalitions. 

Don't get me wrong.  We must continue to do this work, but none of those 16 years built a school, a partnership, or a civil rights, social justice curriculum like we are now doing in Austin, Texas.  And I honestly think that it is a strategy of the right to keep us on the left busy so that we don't "graduate" to taking on their pet projects.  Just as importantly, this work in the policy arena has the effect of reinscribing what truly are oppressive policy discourses and agendas.

I always tell my students that those of us in policy should perpetually be haunted by Audre Lorde's dictum, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house."  We all teach—and our graduate students learn—the master's tools and will continue to do so.  What we must always be mindful of, however, is that the current discourses valorize competition, individual merit and achievement, false notions of entitlement, mental testing, and uninspiring notions of reform like narrowing the "achievement gap," even when the metrics themselves work against our children.  In so doing, these discourses structure out what our communities really want. 

We want our children not just to achieve, but to thrive.  Nor do we want to be white.  We seek respect and full inclusion of our subjugated knowledges, histories, languages, identities, and ways of knowing and being in the world that have served us well on this continent for millennia.  I hope that our work inspires others to go deeper into their communities to form organic partnerships and grow the critically conscious teachers that we desperately need if we are to get out from under the yolk of objectifying and dehumanizing discourses that are incapable of giving us the liberation that we seek both for ourselves as educators and society as a whole.  Thanks so much for this opportunity to share.

LF: Thanks, Angela!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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