Shift in Ethnic Studies teaching better represents Latinx culture


“People of all colors (came) together united to fight for this department in San Francisco State and UC Berkeley, and later in high school,” said Menaka Gentle, Ethnic Studies teacher for Hive 6 of the Universial Ninth Grade (U9). The story of ethnic studies classes in Berkeley, which boasts the first ethnic studies college class and the first ethnic studies high school graduation requirement, is one of a united drive that is both all-encompassing and deeply personal. At their best, the classes become an invitation for students and teachers to weave their identities together into a cohesive portrait. 

In U9, teachers cover topics relating to culture, immigration, race, and gender, according to Rafael Piedra, a former teacher for the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program and current Ethnic Studies teacher. Teachers have some tests that are standardized by the curriculum, but within these four units, teachers have a lot of freedom to decide what they will focus on, and how they will discuss various identities in those contexts. 

“We have as much freedom as we want with the day-to-day; our systems, practices, and a lot of the curriculum can be altered,” Gentle said. Based on her assessment of the unrepresentative cisgenderd identities in the prescribed curriculum, Gentle was able to change it to better represent the diversity of gender. 

During Latinx Heritage Month, teachers are able to adjust their lessons to bring Chicanx and Latinx voices to the forefront. “During Hispanic Heritage Month … we watch some clips about Central America and really what the U.S. did (to) impact on countries (and) force people to seek asylum in other countries which are typically America. … That transition and that impact is a huge part of the curriculum,” said Gentle.

Teachers find that the flexibility of the Ethnic Studies curriculum gives them space to tell their own stories. Hugo Rios, an Ethnic Studies teacher for Hive 7, is Mexican on his father’s side and Salvadoran on his mother’s, and he feels like he is able to integrate his personal experience into his classroom. 

“I love to bring in my own experience as being the kid of immigrant parents and … connecting (students) to what I’ve gone through,” he said.

The fluidity of Ethnic Studies allows it to change to best represent those it involves. At the beginning of the year, teachers have students make life maps of their history, and throughout the year refer to those maps to inform the content of their lessons.

Gentle, however, feels that the one required semester of Ethnic Studies in U9 is far too short to try to include everyone’s experience, and that her own identity as a South Asian person is marginalized within her own curriculum. 

“I think that we could do a lot more with Asian American history,” Gentle said. “I don’t get to really bring up AAPI violence during the race unit … for example.” 

Gentle consoles herself with the thought that ethnic studies is not just a listing of past injustices and of present struggle, but a mindset for a more expansive understanding of the world. “We’re not going to be able to … teach every form of oppression… but hopefully I can inspire (students) to look further in their life,” she said. At a collegiate level, UC Berkeley’s Dr. Pablo Gonzalez, a continuing lecturer in Chicanx and Latinx studies with a PhD in anthropology and a bachelor’s in Chicanx studies, finds that his principles agree with the goals of high school teachers. “I’m very deliberate about (the students) I want to talk to. … It’s important that I reach out to them, that I offer more than what I’m teaching in the classroom,” Gonzalez said. His work centers around having students see him and each other as not peers or teachers but as “knowledge-providers.” “I let them know that (it’s) the initiation of a relationship that I begin when they step into my classroom and does not end when they graduate,” he said. In Gonzalez’s classes and in the ethnic studies classes at BHS, the goal is to have students leave knowing how to make the world a better place for each other. BHS teachers hope the identities of students can also find their ways into the classes. “Our second project … is called the ethnic cultural presentation project… (students) get to look at their ethnic identity … and do a deep dive into that specific culture,” Rios said. Part of the goal of these classes is to have the students come to a deeper understanding of themselves, and also of others.“It’s important for them to see that different perspectives fit into the classrooms and at the same time have them bring their (own) perspectives,” Piedra said.