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In Arizona, Questions Persist on How to Teach History

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In Arizona, Questions Persist on How to Teach History

In Arizona, Questions Persist on How to Teach History

Photo by Devin Browne

Zinnia Marquez, 15, plays Sor Juana de la Inez, a colonial poet of New Spain, in Maria Chacon's history class. Of the current teaching climate in Arizona, Chacon says, "Teachers in Arizona feel like they're under the gun, constantly being watched."

PHOENIX -- When State Superintendent John Huppenthal banned Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program in June, he said it was because the program – which students can take instead of regular American history -- promoted resentment towards a race of people. “Reviewed materials repeatedly referr[ed] to white people as being oppressors and oppressing the Latino people,” he told reporters.

The Tucson Unified School District is appealing the ban, but Huppenthal’s decision still comes with ramifications for educators across the state, many of whom are now re-evaluating the way they teach history.

Syd Golston is a social studies specialist with the Phoenix Union High School District, and when she looks at the standard American history curriculum, she often feels that something is missing.

“We believe that American history as taught today is less relevant to our many Hispanic students than it should be,” Golston wrote in a federal grant application. “The situation is much like that for African-American students before the 1960s, when black history research began to fill in the deficits.”

The U.S. Department of Education saw her point, and awarded Golston's district the grant last year. The funding, she says, will train teachers in Phoenix to teach history in a way that is more relevant to the district’s majority Latino population – not by creating separate Mexican American studies classes, as in Tucson, but by incorporating more of Arizona’s story into the larger American narrative.

“I really believe there will come a time when the story of this part of the world will be also included and that’s what this grant is all about,” Golston said. “It's about getting the traditional American history that our kids really need -- many of them are the children of immigrants and we are their source of the American story -- along with the story of their ancestors, who lived here too.”

Starting this year, when Maria Chacon teaches her students at Central High School about Jamestown, in Virginia, she teaches it in tandem with stories about mission life, in Arizona. A lesson on Ann Bradstreet is also one on Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz – both colonial women poets, one of New England, one of New Spain.

Even though Ann Bradstreet is a much more common character in American history textbooks, almost all of the students in Chacon’s class only recognize Inez de la Cruz. Her face is familiar to them, because it’s on Mexican money.

“It’s a woman,” Chacon tells them. “She’s dressed as a nun.”

“But on the bill…” one student begins, confused. “In Mexico, I always thought she was a dude.”

“Yeah, I thought it was a dude, too,” another student admits.

“No, it’s a woman!” Chacon says. “And she’s awesome.”

Meanwhile, other educators and education activists in Arizona are also looking at standard American history curriculum and finding something very different missing – that of American exceptionalism.

On the very same day that Chacon presented her lesson on colonial feminist poets, parents, school board members, and tea party activists met in Mesa to discuss how to get schools more excited about Constitution Week.

Activist Wes Harris was also there, presenting his plans for a new school he’s starting to be called The Freedom Charter School. He'll be the school's history teacher.

“I’m upset about the way we teach history, because we’re not teaching the history of the U.S. from the vantage point of a proud history,” Harris said. “We’re teaching it as though it were something that was evil and not proper. Did people do things incorrectly in those days? Yes, absolutely they did. Did the majority of people rise up against those inequities and right them? Yes, they did.”

Harris' charter school plans to open in 2013. Around the same time, Chacon hopes to create her own Mexican American studies class in Phoenix -- though as an elective and not as an alternative to American history.

Devin Browne was a reporter for KZJZ's Fronteras Desk.