Banning Critical Teaching in Arizona: A Letter From Curtis Acosta

Perhaps you’ve seen the wonderful film, Precious Knowledge, about the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson. One of the teachers featured is Curtis Acosta, along with his remarkable students.

In the letter below, which Acosta allowed Rethinking Schools to reprint here, he offers a perspective on the curricular repression that teachers and students are confronting in Tucson. For a flavor of what knowledge is outlawed by the new law, take a look at the essay assignment Acosta gave students about Ana Castillo’s novel So Far From God, excerpted below, and the changes that school district authorities demanded.

Rethinking Columbus bannedThere has been a lot of national attention paid to the banning of Rethinking Columbus and other books used in the Mexican American Studies program. But the book banning is just collateral damage. The real target of those in Arizona who have pushed the Mexican American Studies ban is critical, social justice teaching—teaching that is alert to issues of race, class, and culture, and that asks students to reflect on issues of oppression and struggle.

There is a kind of curricular ethnic cleansing going on and educators and people of conscience around the country need to stand in solidarity with Tucson students and teachers.

As Curtis Acosta indicates in his letter, teachers there are meeting to reflect on the kind of national support that would be most helpful. In the meantime, it’s up to us to keep this issue alive in our workplaces, unions, professional organizations, Facebook pages, listservs, and in local and national media we may have access to.

Bill Bigelow
Curriculum Editor


To my friends and all our supporters,

Let me try a few cleansing breaths before all of this.

First, I am deeply moved by the love, commitment and creativity to help honor our plight and support our fight. Thank you all so much and I apologize to all of my friends who I have not responded to as of yet. We all are overwhelmed here in Tucson and I need a new email system for organizing all the love. Muchismas gracias y Tlazocamatli.

Curtis Acosta

Mr. Curtis Acosta

This week has provided more challenges. The teachers have still not received specific guidelines for curriculum and pedagogical changes that need to be made in order to be in compliance of the law. TUSD leadership has asked the site administrators on each campus where our classes are taught to lead the process which means that my colleagues and I are all separated from each other, and have not yet come together as a group since the destruction of our program. It also is a way to divide and conquer since we are all struggling at our individual sites for clarity and consistency. To be more specific, I meet alone with my site administration, with only my union representative as support, but separated from my MAS colleagues who also work at my school. The district leadership has done this move to wash their hands of us and any accountability to us. However, they continue to send out press releases that claim that books that are now boxed in a warehouse are not banned, and that anyone can teach critical issues like race, ethnicity, oppression, and cultura, but do not mention the exception being the censored teachers in the MAS program. The double speak is unseemly and lacks honor. I am so happy that our friends around the nation are holding them accountable since the power structure in Tucson has made sure the local media tows the line. This has been the case for years.

What I can tell you is that TUSD has decreed that anything taught from a Mexican American Studies perspective is illegal and must be eliminated immediately. Of course, they have yet to define what that means, but here’s an example of what happened to an essay prompt that I had distributed prior to January 10th.

{Chicano playwright Luis Valdez once stated that his art was meant to, “…inspire the audience to social action. Illuminate specific points about social problems. Satirize the opposition. Show or hint at a solution. Express what people are feeling.” The novel So Far From God presents many moments of social and political commentary.} Select an issue that you believe Ana Castillo was attempting to illuminate for her audience and write a literary analysis of how that theme is explored in the novel. Remember to use direct citations from the novel to support your ideas and theories.

{Culture can play a significant role within a work of fiction. For generations in this country, the literature studied in English or literature classes rarely represented the lives and history of Mexican-Americans.} In a formal literary analysis, discuss what makes So Far From God a Chican@ novel and how this might influence the experience of the reader. Remember to use direct citations from the novel to support your ideas and theories.

The brackets indicate what I had to edit since the statements were found to be too leading toward a Mexican American Studies perspective. In plainer terms, they are illegal and out of compliance. A quote from a great literary figure, Luis Valdez, is now illegal, and a fact about education in our nation’s history is also illegal.

You can imagine how we are feeling, especially without any clear guidance to what is now legal and what is not, and what makes matters worse is that TUSD expects us to move forward and redesign our entire curriculum and pedagogy to be in compliance.

I cannot speak for all my colleagues but it has become clear to me that I must abandon nearly everything I used to do in the classroom and become “born again” as a teacher. At least for the foreseeable future, since the list of individuals that are waiting to pounce upon us at our first wrong step is long and filled with powerful figures.

However, we have not lost faith that we will overcome all of these atrocious, absurd, and abusive actions to our students and to learning environment centered upon love and academic excellence. Our students have already learned so much this year and this process is teaching them so much more. They are restless, ready to act and eager for their voices to be heard, and our community is equally supportive to their desires. Our lawsuit moves forward and the unconstitutionality of the law will be debated before Judge A. Wallace Tashima. Three of the four men who voted to disband our program will be accountable on November 6th since their seats on the school board are up this election. We are strong in spirit that a better day is ahead.

Lastly, there has been an idea put forward by my good friends, Tara Mack and Keith Catone, that there should be a national day of solidarity where teachers would teach our curriculum all over the nation. I will be discussing this with my colleagues in MAS this weekend and then to Tara and Keith. They have been amazing and fired-up to help, but I have had to navigate the Tempest in our classrooms and schools before more specifics come your way. The first day we are to be officially in compliance is February 1st, so that may be a wonderful, symbolic day to keep our spirit alive through the nation.

Respectfully,

Curtis Acosta
Chican@/Latin@ Literature Teacher (forever in mind and in spirit)
Tucson

Rethinking Columbus Banned in Tucson

By Bill Bigelow

Rethinking Columbus bannedImagine our surprise.

Rethinking Schools learned today that for the first time in its more-than-20-year history, our book Rethinking Columbus was banned by a school district: Tucson, Arizona. According to journalist Jeff Biggers, officials with the Tucson Unified School District ordered that teachers pull the book from their classrooms, evidently as an outcome of the school board’s 4-1 vote this week to abolish the Mexican American Studies program.

As I mentioned to Biggers when we spoke, the last time a book of mine was outlawed was during the state of emergency in apartheid South Africa in 1986, when the regime there banned the curriculum I’d written, Strangers in Their Own Country, likely because it included excerpts from a speech by then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela. Confronting massive opposition at home and abroad, the white minority government feared for its life in 1986. It’s worth asking what the school authorities in Arizona fear today.

I called the Tucson schools this morning seeking a statement about why they ordered Rethinking Columbus removed from classrooms. The superintendent’s office referred me to Cara Rene, Director of Communications and Media Relations for the school district. Rene has not yet returned my two phone calls.

For the record, Rethinking Columbus is Rethinking Schools’ top-selling book, having sold well over 300,000 copies. And over the years many school districts have not banned, but have purchased Rethinking Columbus for use with students. These include: Portland, Ore., Milwaukee, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, Ont., Atlanta, New York City, Anchorage, Alaska, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Chicago, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Oakland, San Diego, Portland, Maine, Washington, DC, Cincinnati; Rochester, NY, Cambridge, Mass., Missoula, Montana, and the state of Maryland, as well as smaller towns like Stillwater, Minnesota; Athens, Ohio; Eugene, Oregon; and Estes, Colorado.

We published the first edition of Rethinking Columbus back in September of 1991, on the eve of 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas—what the Chicago Tribune promised would be the “most stupendous international celebration in the history of notable celebrations.” Rethinking Schools was determined to provide teachers with resources to prompt a more critical approach to the commemoration.

In our introduction to that first edition of the book (edited by Bob Peterson, Barbara Miner, and me) we wrote, “Why rethink Christopher Columbus? Because the Columbus myth is basic to children’s beliefs about society. For many youngsters the tale of Columbus introduces them to a history of this country, even to history itself. The ‘discovery of America’ is children’s first curricular exposure to the encounter between two races. As such, a study of Columbus is really a study about us—how we think about each other, our country, and our relations with people around the world.”

Twenty years later, these still seem like pretty sound reasons to “rethink Columbus.” And we would ask school officials in Tucson: Why not rethink Columbus?

What’s to fear? Rethinking Columbus offers teaching strategies and readings that teachers can use to help students consider perspectives that are too often silenced in the traditional curriculum. For example, in 30 years of teaching, virtually all my high school students had heard of the fellow who is said to have discovered America: Christopher Columbus. However, none had heard of the people who discovered Columbus: the Taínos of the Caribbean. That fact underscores the importance of teachers having the resources to offer a fuller history to their students. Further, it points out the importance of developing teaching materials that ask students to interrogate the official curriculum about what (and who) it remembers and what (and who) it ignores—and why?

Of course, the suppression of our book is only a small part of the effort by Arizona school officials to crush the wildly successful Mexican American Studies program in Tucson. The program itself exemplifies an effort to address critical questions about stories sorely lacking in today’s corporate-produced textbooks and standardized curriculum. Students in the Mexican American Studies classes will now be dispersed to other classes, according to the resolution passed this week by the governing board of Tucson schools.

Learn more about the important struggle to preserve this program at Save Ethnic Studies in Arizona, and in articles by Jeff Biggers, at Common Dreams and below. And see my Rethinking Schools blog, “Repeat After Me: The United States Is Not an Imperialist Country—Oh, and Don’t Get Emotional About War.”

Bill Bigelow is curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, co-editor with Bob Peterson of Rethinking Columbus, and author of The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration.

 

Other links:

SaveEthnicStudies.org

By Jeff Biggers:

Mexican American Studies Needs No Defense: It Needs More Defenders

AZ Ed Chief Compares Mexican American Students to Hitler Jugend

AZ Attorney General Says Ethnic Studies “Must be Destroyed”

Precious Knowledge

Profile in Courage: Mexican American Studies Director Sean Arce

Why AZ’s Ethnic Studies Should Matter to All Educators

AZ’s New Civil Rights Movement: Ethnic Studies