Meyers: Ethnic studies curriculum opens a door for all of us to be seen
An image of a local protest in favor of ethnic studies. Photo courtesy Peter Ortiz

Education is critical to acknowledging and addressing the historic and current inequities and systemic racism that exists in our country. The Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum recently approved by the California State Board of Education opens the door for a new generation of Black, Native American, Asian and Latinx students to finally see themselves and their own stories represented in the classroom.

Other marginalized communities—Sikh, Armenian, Arab and Jewish—are also celebrating inclusion as part of an inter-ethnic bridge building section in the model curriculum.

It didn’t start out that way. Nearly two years ago, the first draft of the model curriculum flattened and distorted Jewish identity to that of a white religious minority, taking little note of our global peoplehood, history, diversity and oppression. There was no mention of antisemitism as a form of hate, despite dramatically rising rates in California and beyond, including the 2019 hate attack on a synagogue in Poway, CA, that left one woman dead and three injured.

The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) in Silicon Valley, a collaboration of synagogues and Jewish agencies in Santa Clara County, worked together with our statewide collaborative network, the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California, to strongly support the teaching of Ethnic Studies and the development of a strong model curriculum. We also advocated for Jewish inclusion as one antidote to antisemitism and the marginalization of Jewish students.

To be sure, the curriculum isn’t perfect and there remains community division over just how good (or flawed) it is. However, as one speaker at the State Board of Education meeting remarked, “we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

We are part of a larger contingent of diverse ethnic and religious communities–Jewish, Arab, Latinx, Black, Native and Asian—who see tremendous value in the milestone accomplished by the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum. We are ready to move to the next chapter.

We believe there are two essential steps that will allow a good curriculum to achieve the desired outcomes listed in the opening chapter of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum and help students “see themselves as active agents in the interethnic bridge-building process we call American life.”

First, our diverse ethnic and religious communities should spend time in civil discourse learning about each other and what they hope their students will gain from ethnic studies. To get to this point, each community focused on their own needs, but now we have to listen and understand each other. This civil discourse will help heal divisions and provide a critical foundation for the success of our students and teachers.

Second, an ethnic studies curriculum requires teachers to facilitate difficult conversations that at times can be uncomfortable.  Quality teacher professional development in the art and science of infusing ethnic studies in their curriculum is absolutely essential in this effort.

To learn more about what this could look like, JCRC members interviewed Professor Mark Felton, professor of teacher education at San Jose State University. Together with Dr. Marcos Pizarro and Dr. Luis Poza, he is leading a teacher residency program on teaching ethnic studies at Overfelt High School.

In this yearlong program, ethnic studies teachers and university student teachers are immersed into pedagogy for teaching ethnic studies that introduces three key concepts: Community, Agency and Voice.

The classroom must become a Community that is safe, inclusive, real and vulnerable. Students must have Agency and see themselves as change agents, avoiding cynical outcomes and instead encouraging hope and belief in working within the system. And importantly, students have a Voice, and hold valuable resources that benefit society. We believe that this kind of quality training can help ethnic studies teachers bring about a transformative experience in the classroom.

We are reaching out to our partners in Silicon Valley’s diverse ethnic and religious communities to join with us in this process. The door has been opened for all of California’s communities to be seen and appreciated, and for equity and justice to have a platform for the next generation.

Susan Meyers, Ph.D, is the emeritus dean of the Connie Lurie College of Education at San Jose State University. She is also a board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Silicon Valley.

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