by David Safier
The local debate over Mexican American Studies has shifted from "Save it or End it?" to "Core course or Elective course?" Those advocating that TUSD take the MAS courses out of the core curriculum and making them electives — among them TUSD Board Pres. Mark Stegeman, possibly TUSD Ed Supe John Pedicone, possibly enough other Board members to constitute a majority — say MAS courses, most specifically MAS American History, aren't comprehensive enough to fulfill the core requirements. The students need a course with a broader scope and sequence so they will be able to comprehend the totality of our history. Let students take MAS history if they wish, the "elective" argument goes, in addition to the standard American History course.
My sense is, advocates for this concept, those who worry that students aren't learning enough about the broad scope of American History, haven't spent a whole lot of time as high school teachers, or maybe they haven't been teachers for many years. So, as someone who spent over 30 years in public school high school classrooms, someone who tried his hardest to understand what made his students tick, who loved (and continues to love) them and respected (and continues to respect) them, who wanted to help them become the best versions of themselves they could be, let me tell you THE SHOCKING TRUTH ABOUT HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS!!!!
They're not that into school.
Shocking, isn't it? Sure, some students hang on their teachers' every word and ask "How high?" when the teacher says "Jump." But many-to-most students view most of their classes as necessary evils, means to an end, or, in far too many cases, time spent in one of Dante's Circles of Hell.
Students sitting in classrooms, even those who appear to be paying attention, spend a great deal of their time out to lunch. Oh yeah, they may be looking right at the teacher, but at any given moment, their minds are elsewhere. "What am I going to have for lunch?" "I love my boyfriend/girlfriend so-o-o-o much (and when I get alone with him/her . . .)" "I hate my boyfriend/girlfriend so-o-o-o much (and I'm gonna tell him/her. . .)" "How am I going to get the money to buy . . ." "My parents are driving me crazy." "God, this class is boring!"
Yes, schools need to create curriculum with a coherent scope and sequence. It's not a bad idea to dot all the i's and cross all the t's when deciding what should be taught in a course. But anyone who thinks most students take in that entire scope and sequence is more out to lunch than the students.
I was a good high school student, yet the gaps in the "scope and sequence" of what I took away from my high school American History class make the Grand Canyon look like a teeny little crack in the earth. Articles of Confederation? What the hell is that? The Federalist Papers? The Federalist . . . who?
I have to say the same is true for the World History course I took as a freshman in college. I'm still trying to fill in what I didn't absorb back then. And by most standards, I'm an educated man.
So, those of you out there who were good, college bound high school students like I was and who remember yourselves as better and smarter and more attentive than you were (yes, your memories are faulty, trust me), try to put yourselves inside the mind of students who care far less about school than you did. Do you really think they leave an American History course with a scope and sequence in their heads? A coherent narrative of what happened here in the past 300 years? If so, you're deluding yourself. Many of them do just enough short term learning to pass the upcoming test, then let all those facts, figures and concepts slip down the memory hole as soon as the test is over. I wish it weren't true. I wish we could figure out ways to make students care more about what we teach them and make more of it stick. But wishes aren't facts.
The fact is, most students aren't that into school.
So. What if you could create a history course that gets them "into school"? That course — let's call it Mexican American Studies American History — may emphasize one part of American history more than you think it should, and that may mean it gives less emphasis to other parts. But it gets the kids excited. It gets them thinking. It gets them caring. It gets them walking out of class saying, "I don't want to forget this. I'm gonna talk about it with my friends, and I'm gonna tell my parents about it. And tomorrow, I really have to ask my teacher . . ." The next day, they come into class excited and interested. They pay attention. They don't want to miss anything. When they're in class, the rest of their lives takes a back seat to all this new, relevant, interesting stuff they're learning — or even better in some cases, they see the class and their lives intertwined into a seamless narrative.
Complain all you want that those students might not have the entire scope and sequence thrown at them just the way you want it to be thrown. But they're paying attention. They're reaching out and catching information and ideas that, in many classes, sail past the students, hit the walls and end up on the floor.
I'm willing to bet — and this is pure speculation, I admit — if on the last day of school, you took students from MAS American History and similar students from a standard American History course and gave them an open-ended oral exam on what they learned, you'd find the MAS students knew more, and cared more about what they knew. I'll even bet they would know more about curriculum drawn from the scope and sequence educators consider so important. You might object to their perspective, their pro-Hispanic slant. But maybe that's your problem, not theirs, if you think you have the right to decide not just what they should learn, but exactly how it should be framed.
And I'm willing to bet, if you gave an open-ended oral exam to those same students six months after the courses ended, the MAS students would leave the other students completely in the dust, because more of the course was hard-wired into the MAS students' permanent memories, because they were paying attention with their whole minds — and probably their hearts and their bodies as well — and they thought about it more when they left the classroom. The couses became a part of their lives. Can you say the same about most students who take a standard high school American History course?
Well taught MAS American History courses are doing as good a job teaching their students as the non-MAS courses, or maybe doing a better job, if we judge by results, not by predetermined inputs of the written scope and sequence of the course, or the number of minutes spent on the Articles of Confederation or the Federalist Papers.
To say students aren't getting the mandated core material because the course's emphasis is shifted toward their areas of interest, toward who they are, is simply wrong. The MAS courses deserve to be part of the core curriculum, and students who can benefit from the courses' strengths — especially those who are disinterested in school — should be encouraged to take them. It's foolish to discourage students by saying to them, "You have to take 'real' American History, and then if you want, you can take another history class we think doesn't teach you enough."