What Are San Diego Students Learning in Ethnic Studies? Racism, bias, privilege

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On a recent rainy day in City Heights, Sharon Apple began her ethnic studies lesson with a question for the students: What comes to your mind when you think of slavery?

Many of the 25 Hoover High School freshmen in the class typed the words “black,” “strings,” and “strings” on their Chromebook laptops. Others typed in “racism”, “bought and sold” and “not fair”.

“It’s interesting that you all think of slavery like that,” she said after reading the words aloud. “But did you know that slavery didn’t start here in America with the Africans? Most of the students answered “no”.

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“It started with our indigenous peoples… here on this earth. They were the first slaves here, ”Apple continued. “We are going to look at the forgotten slavery of our ancestors, because what earth are we on? … Land of Kumeyaay.

In Ethnic Studies classes at the San Diego United School District, high school students learn things rarely discussed in class, such as Native American slavery, the origin of the n word, and elements of prejudice and implicit privilege.

This is the purpose of ethnic studies, say the teachers, for students to see history from the perspective of traditionally neglected groups, especially African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans. It is about examining past and present injustices that are typically not addressed in typical school curricula, teachers said.

“There are some uncomfortable truths in history that will make us feel bad at times, and that’s what we call empathy,” said Wendy Ranck-Buhr, head of educational support for San Diego Unified, earlier this year. “If you don’t know the story, you have to repeat it.”

Until now, ethnic studies has been offered by a few local districts, but it will soon become compulsory for all public high school students in California.

Earlier this year, heads of state reached an agreement to make ethnic studies a condition of graduation from the class of 2030, which will enter high school in 2026.

At the same time, a national and conservative push is underway to eliminate or regulate discussions about race and similar topics in schools. Parent groups and politicians claim it is a Critical Race Theory, a college-level discipline that deals with legal theory and examines how racial discrimination is perpetuated by law.

Critics allege that ethnic studies and other anti-racism efforts in schools divide people, generalize about race, indoctrinate students in favor of liberal ideologies, and make white students feel guilty.

Advocates and educators respond that ethnic studies is not about shaming students; it’s about uplifting them by fostering empathy and celebrating who they are.

Hoover High School teacher Sharon Apple teaches the introduction to ethnic studies to ninth grade students. Here is an example of a student’s life roadmap displayed in class.

(Nancee E. Lewis / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

Apple, who has been teaching for more than two decades and was named District Teacher of the Year last spring, said she teaches ethnic studies so her students can feel validated.

“I want my students to see value in themselves. I want them to know they are worth it, ”Apple said. “And when I teach them who they are… they know they’re not alone; they know it’s not just them who are going through the struggle.

This is important for students of color, who make up three-quarters of San Diego Unified students, but who often haven’t learned much about the history of their predecessors, advocates say.

Ethnic studies for all

While outrage against ethnic studies has increased at school board meetings and on social media this year, the program is far from new at San Diego Unified. Teachers have taught and developed ethnic studies in the district for the past 14 years.

The district had its first version of an ethnic studies course in 2007 at Lincoln High School. The school had reopened after a major renovation and included an introductory social justice course that teachers developed for the school’s Social Justice Academy. The course would become a precursor to ethnic studies.

In 2015, the San Diego Unified School Board decided to expand ethnic studies to the entire district and assembled a committee of experts and educators to guide this expansion.

In 2019, the school board voted to make ethnic studies a requirement for graduation, two years ahead of California officials who approved legislation in October to make it a statewide requirement. The San Diego Unified graduation requirement began with the Class of 2024, which are now in second year.

San Diego Unified now offers Ethnic Studies-influenced English, World History, and US History courses, in addition to its Introductory Ethnic Studies course.

The district plans to take it a step further with an initiative approved by the school board last year called Ethnic Studies for All, which will infuse themes and teaching strategies of ethnic studies into curricula at all levels, has said Ricardo Medina, a San Diego Unified Ethnic Studies resource. teacher.

Some of these themes include examining the people celebrated in the program, exploring the identity of students, examining societal structures, and encouraging students to work for a better future, he said. .

“I want them to know they are worthy”

At Hoover High, Apple showed his class a 12-minute video on European slavery of indigenous peoples in the Americas, which spanned from the 15th to the 19th centuries. She then asked the students what they thought, felt and wondered about the video.

A student asked why people would want to have power over others. Another student wondered why indigenous slavery was not mentioned in textbooks. A third student asked “how it all ended”.

Apple asked his class more questions for them to research: Why did it take so long to end Native slavery in the United States? And why is indigenous slavery not widely known or discussed?

“That’s the whole point of what ethnic studies are supposed to do, isn’t it?” Apple told the class. “When we talked about this idea of ​​racism, remember, we talked about the fact that they excluded some stories of people who were not part of the mainstream culture, and that’s a story that was excluded… And so we bring it back, that’s right, we tell you the whole story, not just parts … It honors the struggles of our indigenous peoples.

Ethnic Studies at San Diego Unified goes beyond history. Much of the course involves students examining aspects of their identity, be it their age, race or gender.

“When students don’t know who they are, they start engaging in dangerous activities like drugs because they’re trying to figure it out,” Apple said. “You have to know your relationship to your history, to your community, to yourself to grow, and ethnic studies is the way to go. Ethnic studies is about self-love, not just for students of color, but for all students.

According to teachers, one of the first classroom activities for teachers is to share with students the origin of their names, so that they can establish mutual understanding and respect before tackling more difficult topics like racism. .

At the start of the school year, Apple students drew “road maps” of their lives. Some students wrote that the road was “smooth” for them when they got good grades, hung out with their siblings, and went to Disneyland with their families. Some students wrote that the road was “rough” for them when their parents got divorced or deported, when they moved to the United States and struggled to learn English, or when they couldn’t stay focused. during distance learning.

In a class activity on Identifying and Addressing Prejudice, Apple displayed words to the class one by one, such as “overweight,” “female,” “black,” “disabled,” and “Muslim,” then asked the students to write down the first thing that came to their mind.

Her students also took a test written by researchers to detect implicit bias and discovered microaggressions, which are subtle and often unintentional examples of stereotypes, such as assuming that an Asian-American person was born in another country. .

Apple asked students to read Jamaica Kincaid’s short story “Girl” and write a similar article from their own take on times they were stereotyped.

In a class activity on privileges, Apple students walked to positions in the classroom where they were asked to take a bead for each of a list of statements that applied to them, such as : “I never wondered where my next meal would come from. from and when ”,“ I’m not afraid of being paid less than my colleagues for my gender ”and“ I’m not afraid of people finding out my sexual orientation.

Afterwards, the students examined the number of pearls they each had. Students then discussed what a privilege is and how a person might use their privilege to help others.

The last unit of the Ethnic Studies course invites students to complete a project in which they advocate for positive change in their community. They could do this by starting a student club, for example, or making a presentation at a community forum or petitioning officials about an issue.

Apple said it noticed that some students had difficulty understanding or identifying with class discussions because they felt those topics did not apply to them. For example, she said, some students reported never having micro-aggressively or experienced racism.

“Some of them really can’t connect to this,” Apple said. “It is difficult for them to understand or identify with what they have seen in their communities because they are in more homogeneous communities. “

Some students in her class said they thought ethnic studies was a good opportunity to learn what “really happened” in history.

Hoover High teacher Sharon Apple greets ninth grade students as they enter her classroom for an introduction to ethnic studies

Hoover High School instructor Sharon Apple greets her ninth grade students as they enter her class for the Introduction to Ethnic Studies on a recent Tuesday in December 2021.

(Nancee E. Lewis / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

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