Curtis Acosta, Shakespeare, teaching and MAS

by David Safier

Picture 2Before I get long-winded, the most important takeaway from this post is an excellent article by Curtis Acosta, "Shakespeare is banned for Chican@s in Tucson." It's in the online magazine La Tolteca published and edited by Ana Castillo, author of the novel "So Far From God," one of the books that the ex-Mexican American Studies teachers have been warned against using.

The article by Acosta, one of the displaced MAS teachers, is as interesting for its analysis of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" as it is for its discussion of the closing of the MAS program and the strong suggestion he stop teaching the play if he wanted to stay out of trouble. Shakespeare's (probably) final play can be read as an allegory for the Europeans' early contacts with the indigenous people of The Americas and the attempts to dominate the inhabitants, a process which was in full swing in Shakespeare's time. If you want to know more about this interpretation of the play, read the article. I'm moving on to other things.

First, as a retired high school English teacher, I can tell you, not many high school teachers can write a lengthy piece of this quality. Any K-12 school that has a teacher with Acosta's intellectual gifts is fortunate, so long as that person is an effective teacher. And from what I've heard and seen, though I've never been in his classroom, I'm reasonably certain Acosta is a very effective teacher. Students are fortunate to have the opportunity to take his classes.

So when I read the notes Mark Stegeman made while he observed Acosta's class — the notes were entered as evidence by John Huppental in the current court case deciding the future fate of MAS — I have to question his analysis. Stegeman wrote in his notes that Acosta "is mostly relating to kids, not educating them." But he also observed, "During group work kids are engaged and seemingly on task. They seem enthusiastic." And later: "In the end quite a few students participate."

Stegeman is an Econ prof at UA. Reluctant, low achieving students of the kind Acosta sees in his classroom every day don't make it to university classrooms. So Stegeman probably doesn't understand how nearly miraculous it is that students who aren't at the highest motivation and achievement levels are engaged and enthusiastic in class, let alone during group work — put kids in groups, and they're very likely to goof off — and that there's lots of student participation, which means they feel secure and empowered enough to think their ideas are worth raising.

Before I retired, I taught the top students in college prep English courses. With those kids, I could teach from a chair in the middle of the double horseshoe of desks that formed my classroom. So long as I challenged their intellects, they wanted to participate. Once I introduced a topic, I often played conductor as much as teacher, pointing to students who had their hands raised eager to have their say, making sure everyone had a chance to participate that wanted to, occasionally clarifying points the students made or adding extra information.

I also taught classes with the students who weren't in the top classes. I was as much a song-and-dance man as a teacher. I was up on my feet, animated, visibly enthusiastic, trying to draw the kids into the discussion, tolerating — even using — student wisecracks if I could finesse them into something that would help move things along. If a student went off topic, I'd sometimes follow that tangent for awhile, both to encourage the student who raised it and to get other students involved. If at the end of any given class, I could say the students were engaged and on task during group work, they were generally enthusiastic and lots of people participated, I considered that class a success. For Stegeman to criticize Acosta for not teaching for the full period, like, say, a university prof would, shows his naivete about the nature of K-12 teaching.

According to Stegeman, the students were writing about a chapter from Luis Alberto Urrea's "The Devil's Highway." Acosta related what they were writing to what they had written earlier about The Tempest. I never tried teaching The Tempest with any of my classes. It's not an easy text. And with the type of mixed class Acosta had, with students whose academic levels were all over the place, I wouldn't have considered it. Yet they tackled The Tempest. You can find out how in Acosta's article (The "how," relating the play to the MAS coursework and the experience of many of the students, is the key, I think, to why it worked). That's not even to mention Urrea's book, which isn't easy either.

If Acosta can teach literature at that level of difficulty to classes including reluctant learners and keep them engaged, enthusiastic and participatory, my hat is off to the man. If he does some clowning around and palling around in the process of getting the students involved, if that's part of his peagogy, I commend him for it. And I will venture that one of the reasons he is able to pull it all off is that the MAS curriculum is engaging enough to the students, they're eager to learn using a variety of sources they might not accept as easily in a more general course.

Does Acosta do too much proselytizing in the class for my taste? Would I have approved of all his pedagogical decisions? I don't know, I haven't been in his class. I'm sure if I sat in, I'd find some things to criticize. I'm also sure if Acosta could go back a few years and sit in on one of my classes, he could give me some tips as well. And if the two of us were in the back of one of Stegeman's classes, I'm sure we could point out ways he could improve his teaching strategies. I'm reasonably certain of this: Acosta combined his teaching skills with the students' latent interest in the MAS curriculum to bring them out and to convince them to engage with literature that most people would say was over their heads. It's a damn shame the opportunities for students and teachers afforded by those courses are gone.

NOTE: Mark Stegeman often comments on my posts. I imagine, though I don't know for sure, he might comment, rightly, that his notes were taken as the class was going on, so each of his comments was about a specific moment, not an overall analysis of the class. If he wants to raise that point, fine. There are other parts of the notes I haven't covered I would be happy to go into.

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