Ever since I heard the news about a law in Arizona prohibiting the teaching of ethnic studies courses in public schools, and banning one of the books we sell (Rethinking Columbus), I’ve been wondering what it was like to be a teacher there. What did enforcement of this new law look like? How were the students reacting? This morning I received this email from Curtis Acosta, who now teaches English (formerly taught Latino Literature) at Tucson High School. His message is heartbreaking and frightening. I asked Mr. Acosta’s permission to share his message with Tikkun Daily’s readers. He agreed.
The question that I’d like us to answer is this: What do we do about it? At the end of his letter, I’ll provide context about the law that is at the root of this situation and ask that question again. What do we do?
Dearest colleagues and supporters,
Forgive the lack of communication as of late, but the new situation that we have been handed since the dismantling of our Mexican American Studies program has been overwhelming. In fact, I am fairly certain the reason why my family and I have been sick so much recently is in direct connection to the stress of this situation.
I want to thank all of you who have pledged your support through the No History is Illegal campaign or the other petitions that have circulated. Your testimonials have been inspiring amidst the chaos in Tucson and our students were thrilled to see so many dots on the globe. It is another act that has helped them feel that people care since our district administration has shown little sensitivity to their pain. They did find the time to visit some of our classes to give a thinly veiled threat that students will be punished if they continued to actively protest during school time. One student leader, Nico Dominguez, was threatened with suspension after a respectful, yet critical, statement to the four members of the school board who voted to eliminate our classes. Fortunately, we were able to advocate for him and make sure that there was some accountability for the administration to follow due process and magically the threats disappeared
As far as in the classroom, I have been exposed to a word that I have never heard before in any of our Mexican American Studies classes, and that word is “hate.” On three different occasions I have heard my students comment that they hate something that we were doing in class. First, it happened as I wheeled in the district adopted textbooks into our room over a month ago. I heard two girls say, “Ewww” and another student say, “I hate reading out of those books.” I have never taught out of textbooks in my 16 years of teaching so I was struck by the rawness and veracity of the comment. This happened again yesterday in class when a young woman refused to write an essay citing that she feels dumb when she reads out of the textbook and hates it. Finally, a young man in my senior class was taking a quiz at the end of the first Act of Macbeth and said he hated these types of tests. Of course, these are all district approved instructional materials that I was encouraged to adopt in my classes in order to avoid discipline and possible termination. The students know this, but they still yield visceral reactions that break my heart
In a similar note, you’ll be happy to know that upon the first monitoring session of my class last week, I was found to be in compliance. Of course, when I asked for written criteria or an evaluation instrument that was used to make such an assessment, none was provided and no answer was given. For over a month we have tried to get written expectations and have been ignored. Thus, we now have monitors entering our rooms with an invisible checklist for compliance. This will only get more dangerous for us in the coming weeks since the State is now getting involved. Since my last message, the Arizona Department of Education has informed our district that we will be undergoing unannounced observations for our compliance by specialists. This is without the criteria for our safety being defined, and our district still isn’t sure who these specialists will be, nor their qualifications or experience in public education. We were also forced to box up more materials for the state including PowerPoints, texts, and even copies of a vocabulary list I use with my students.
We are in uncharted waters in terms of vagueness and our district remains consistent. Their meager defense of our program during the appeal process is closely related to the open door policy they have given to the state department of education. They have continually played Pontius Pilate in this struggle and we are convinced this will be why justice will prevail. As many of you may know, the Arizona legislature continues to target teachers with outlandish legislation about teacher language and partisan instruction. We have told our colleagues for years that our situation is precursor to the types of government intrusion that could happen to us all. During this spring, I fear we will see such a statement become prophecy.
In the meantime, thank you all for keeping us in your thoughts and actions. Our students and community refuse to embrace this awful reality as permanent and are hopeful that our classes will return.
Mr. Acosta was forced to toss out the curriculum he’d been successfully using because the school superintendent had declared that it violated Arizona’s Revised Statute 15-112, which states, in part that:
A school district or charter school in this state shall not include in its program of instruction any courses or classes that include any of the following:
1. Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
2. Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
3. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.
One of the books banned from Tucson schools was “Rethinking Columbus.” One could imagine that looking at what really happened to Native Americans when the Europeans “discovered” America didn’t turn out all that well for Native Americans. Might some in the classroom feel resentment towards a race of people based on that history? Oops! Better not use that book. How about looking at America’s economic reality, where a small percentage of people own a massive majority of the wealth. Might a poor child who doesn’t have enough to eat feel some resentment towards a class of Americans upon learning that reality? Oops, better not teach “If America Were a Village.”
Mr. Acosta’s description of observers coming in and giving a thumbs up or thumbs down on whether he is in compliance with this new law is creepy. This isn’t about whether he is a good teacher or not, whether his students are engaged or not, but about him having to be cautious about every word coming out of his mouth to make sure no one can accuse him of violating this ridiculous law. His safest bet is to say “Class, open to page 47 of your state-approved textbook and read through page 56 and then answer the quiz questions on page 58. Raise your hands when you have finished and I’ll collect your papers. And remember… NO TALKING!” Whew! That’s a safe way to go. And if I remember correctly, that’s exactly what I HATED about so many of my classes in High School.
Emboldened by their success in eliminating ethnic studies, the same crowd is back in Arizona’s senate with a new proposed law that would further limit teacher’s speech. While I don’t like to be overly dramatic, this stuff all reminds me of very frightening regimes in places like Vietnam, China, Russia, and Germany. Yet this is happening in 21st Century America!
If you need to learn more about this situation, visit some of these links:
- Tucson Weekly – Legislature Introduces Bill to Curb Naughty/Partisan Language in Schools
- New York Daily News – Ethnic Book Ban Even Includes Shakespeare
- The New York Times – Rift in Arizona As Ethnic Studies Class Found Illegal
The situation is clear, the results are terrible. What do we do about it? Please share ideas of what we can do to change this situation in Arizona and keep it from spreading.