Teaching Hispanic American Heritage

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Updated September 15h, 2015

We’re in the middle of the 27th annual National Hispanic Heritage Month, which honors and celebrates Hispanic American history and culture from September 15th to October 15th.  President Lyndon Johnson approved Hispanic Heritage Week, which was later expanded to a month by President Ronald Reagan. Why part of September and part of October, rather than a full calendar month?  The day of September 15th is significant because it is the anniversary of independence for the Latin American countries of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. In addition, Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on September 16th and September 18th, respectively. But, Columbus Day or Día de la Raza, which is October 12th, falls within the first half of October.

More than 50 million citizens identified themselves in the 2010 Census as being Hispanic, or as having ancestors from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, or Central and South America. This is 3 million person, or 3%, increase from the 2000 Census.  Hispanic American children also make up a sizeable portion of our K-12 student population, around 25%. If 1 in 4 of our students is Hispanic, how are we teaching Hispanic heritage in our lessons? Teaching about Hispanic heritage is not only important for Hispanic American students, who need to see themselves, their identity, their struggles, and their successes reflected in curriculum—it’s also important for our non-Hispanic American students. They need to have a rich understanding of the cultures that define the United States and our world, and need empathy and understanding of their classmates and friends.

Research confirms the importance of a thoughtful approach to integrating the study of Hispanic Americans and other minority groups into the social studies curriculum.  Restricting the study of  Hispanic American history to a preordained  4 week period of time, hanging posters on bulletin boards  and telling end of chapter stories do not suffice. These strategies may have the effect of  presenting minorities as superficial tokenized heroes within the context of a dominant society (Fitchett, Starker, and Good, 2010). Such a heroes and contributions approach complements the majority culture, often by elevating a cultural heroes or icons that do not pose a serious threat to Western values. This can cause minority students to devalue their own cultural identity for the sake of the majority (Fitchett, 2006).

To counteract this tendency, Anand Marri, Associate Professor of Social Studies at Columbia University, suggests two guiding questions for teachers to reflect on when preparing lessons:

  • Who is and is not participating in democracy and on whose terms?
  • How wide is the path to participation?

Opportunities to infuse Hispanic American heritage while considering these questions exist throughout U.S. history. Discovery Education has resources to bolster culturally inclusive instruction.

  • Rather than treat Cesar Chavez as a hero in isolation, provide students context to analyze change over time, and the role of common people in a larger movement of Latino civil rights. This prompt from the Discovery Education Social Studies Techbook rightfully calls attention to Chavez as a labor leader, but also uses his words and ideas for student inquiry about their own individual action.
  • Students can also use a more modern example of labor activism to compare to the agricultural labor protests of the 1960’s. Many of our students have heard of the clothing company Forever 21, but likely do not know the recent activism of largely Latino Forever 21 garment workers in Los Angeles.
  • Many students might think the debate about public services to undocumented immigrants is a new one. Students can analyze the 1994 California Proposition 187, the rationale used to pass it, and the judicial action to rule it unconstitutional.
  • How wide is the path to participation for Puerto Rican Americans? On whose terms? An examination of the Jones-Shafroth Act, which granted Puerto Ricans United States citizenship in 1917, can help students answer these questions.
  • How has democracy expanded or contracted for Latino voters over time? Students can learn about the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which helped add 1.7 million Latino voters to the rolls between 1974 and 1984.
  • Many milestones in U.S. history are taught as if they were equally beneficial to all Americans, but a higher-level and more inclusive examination would have students think about how these milestones affected demographic groups in different ways. For example, teachers might facilitate a class examination of how the  New Deal affected Hispanic-American migrant workers, or how the GI Bill disproportionately provided upward mobility for white men.

This is just a very small sample of resources. Discovery Education has a more robust content collection for Hispanic Heritage month, found here.


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