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Together We Rise: Why Teaching Ethnic Studies Matters To Our Students

For this week's edition of Impact Monday, we feature TFA alum Emilio Solano, whose Ethnic Studies curriculum in L.A. has empowered his students to view history through a lens of social justice.


By The TFA Editorial Team

October 5, 2015

Every Monday, we'll bring you a story from our 25 years that illustrates the impact that our network of corps members and alumni have had on education. This week, we feature Emilio Solano (Los Angeles '10), who created an Ethnic Studies curriculum that has empowered his students to view history through a lens of social justice. (ABOVE: Emilio taking his students on a college trip to Stanford.)


Very early in my teaching career I came across a quote from author Junot Diaz. He explained, “If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”

In fact, one of his purposes in becoming an author was that “I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”

These words stuck with me. I am the son of a man who grew up in a Mexican family of migrant workers and a woman who grew up riding horses. Their backgrounds could not have been more different, but they both played an integral part in ensuring that I knew where I came from and was proud of that history.

My father told stories and forced my siblings and me to sit through long (and sometimes boring) documentaries about anything Latino while supplementing them with such classic movies as La Bamba, My Family, and Selena. Meanwhile, as I grew up in a middle-class and predominately white neighborhood with my mother, she reminded me that being Mexican made me special, made me different, than everyone else I went to school with. It was an advantage—not a disadvantage.


A Mirror for Others?

Fortunately, I had these two rocks in my life because I did not see myself in many contexts outside home. In middle school, my mirrors were our security guards and my basketball and baseball coaches. As far as the content we learned as students, Martin Luther King Jr. got two pages in our history textbook, and Cesar Chavez somehow merited only one paragraph.

And this is the danger; when we do this, we tokenize King and Chavez. We recycle their stories and hold them up as the “end-all, be-all” of the Black and Latino experience in America over the last 40-plus years, which is not the case. We end up ignoring countless other narratives of people of color that could resonate with our students.

Heading into Teach For America after graduating from Willamette University in Oregon, I hoped to become the mirror for my students I didn’t have in school. Critically, I also recognized that while I may share an identity with them, our stories, backgrounds, and languages might be drastically different.

And I realized very quickly, at a school in Inglewood that was 97 percent Black, that I couldn’t rely on a shared identity. Instead, I needed to hold the mirror for my students, not be it.


The "Why" of Education

One of my students asked me (off-topic) if slaves had built the White House. I gave him the classic first-year teacher response: “That’s a great question; you should look it up and get back to me!”

Something deeper was happening here. How could I be teaching U.S. History in a meaningful way, to my 100 percent Black eighth grade class, when I didn’t even know if slaves built the White House? (They did, by the way.)

I felt my students calling out for the “why” of education. Why does it matter to them? Why do they need to know these things? I delved into my curriculum and concluded that as a class, we would view U.S. History through a Black History lens in every step possible. For example, how could we relate the treatment of Irish immigrants and Mexicans, during and after the Mexican-American War, to the thoughts and ideas of Black slaves?

When I moved to a predominately Latino school in Echo Park, I began to utilize primary sources as a means to empower my students to be the writers of their own textbooks, while comparing them with secondary sources to analyze different interpretations. I saw that rigor existed in allowing their stories to shape their understandings and learning.

Building a Critical Mindset

The last two years, I’ve been lucky enough to teach an Ethnic Studies elective class to our sixth through eighth grade students, who mostly identify as Latino, Black, and Filipino. I have an administration behind me that believes in culturally responsive pedagogy and social justice.

We give them space to tell their stories and where they come from. We talk about everything from identity formation to the lasting effects of colonization. We discuss the meaning of the American Dream, code-switching, stereotypes, and assimilation, as well as lesser-known stories about important people of color.

We prepare our students with a critical mindset as they move through middle school and enter high school. Kamarie, one of my Inglewood students, showed me the importance of this when she connected our learning of the Reconstruction Amendments to her own research of Malcolm X. She enlightened me that Malcolm believed while the amendments physically freed the slaves; mentally and emotionally, they were still under control in a white-dominated society. She reached out on her own to gain the knowledge she craved.

Setting Up Widespread Impact

I recently spoke at the Educators Conference about my Ethnic Studies curriculum, which I currently implement for Grades 6-8 and shared with the audience. We've added a Media Literacy class and are currently developing a K-5 curriculum, with our ultimate goal to make the material applicable and available on a wider scale. That’s the impact we can have as far as building critical thinkers.

Now I've heard the arguments of indoctrination and bias when a teacher is leading a class in these types of topics; that is not my goal. Rather, with the recent controversy surrounding the elimination or framing of certain terms in textbooks and AP classes, my objective is to make sure all people—especially the oppressed—are represented as fairly as possible to our students nationwide.

I’ve come to an understanding that one of my purposes as a teacher was not what I originally thought. Selfishly, I wanted to be the person, or perhaps the mirror, that had been missing in my students’ lives.

Living in two different worlds, school and home, I know what it’s like to be that little boy who holds so tightly to his culture in a classroom that doesn’t seem to value it. For my students, I want to ensure that they never feel “monstrous.” When they look around the room, when they read, and when they analyze, I want them to see themselves reflected in what they learn.


I am from my aunt’s yummy mole

to the hot homemade posolé.

From delicious fritada

to “Ay, mija no es nada.”


I am from the lost Aztlán

to the tasty flan.

From Moctezuma’s pride

but Hernan Cortez’ blood Is what I try to hide.

–Xochitl Morin, sixth grade, 2013