Sunday, January 15, 2012

Teaching critical thinking in Arizona: NOT ALLOWED

 [Note: A chronological list of links to AICL's coverage of the shut-down of the Mexican American Studies Department at Tucson Unified School District is here. Information about the national Mexican American Studies Teach-in is here. The best source for daily updates out of Tucson is blogger David Abie Morales at Three Sonorans.]

Very early on Saturday, January 15, 2012, I read an article in Salon that said that Rethinking Columbus and the Tempest were being boxed up and removed from classrooms in Tucson, Arizona. They were part of the curriculum of the Mexican American Studies program in the school district. Due to the objection of some people in Arizona, that program has now been shut down.

On January 13, 2012, Bill Bigelow of Rethinking Schools wrote about Rethinking Columbus being removed. Within its pages are items by Native people, including
  • Suzan Shown Harjo's "We Have No Reason to Celebrate"
  • Buffy Sainte-Marie's "My Country, 'Tis of Thy People You're Dying"
  • Joseph Bruchac's "A Friend of the Indians"
  • Cornel Pewewardy's "A Barbie-Doll Pocahontas"
  • N. Scott Momaday's "The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee"
  • Michael Dorris's "Why I'm Not Thankful for Thanksgiving"
  • Leslie Marmon's "Ceremony"
  • Wendy Rose's "Three Thousand Dollar Death Song"
  • Winona LaDuke's "To the Women of the World: Our Future, Our Responsibility"

As the day progressed, I began asking colleagues if anyone had a complete list of the books being removed. As of now (Sunday, January 15, 2012), several people are trying to find out more about the books that are being taken away.

One colleague pointed me to an audit of the program that includes a lengthy list of books that auditors saw in the classrooms. It includes Sherman Alexie's Ten Little Indians and Tonto and the Lone Ranger Fist Fight in Heaven; it also includes Ofelia Zepeda's Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert

One thing I noted in my quick read of the audit is that the students in the program outperformed students who were not in the program. Further research led me to a broadcast on Democracy Now. On December 29, 2011, Amy Goodman quoted from the audit:
[A] Tucson Unified School District audit found its Mexican American Studies program gives students a measurable advantage over their peers. The audit was conducted by David Scott, the district’s director of accountability and research. In it, he wrote, quote, "Juniors taking a Mexican American Studies course are more likely than their peers to pass the [state’s standardized] reading and writing ... test if they had previously failed those tests in their sophomore year," and that "Seniors taking a Mexican American Studies course are more likely to persist to graduation than their peers."

The Mexican American Studies program was built on critical thinking. Students learned how to think critically, to question texts, to look at moments in history and portrayals of Latino Americans and American Indians from more than one perspective.

The books used in the program are terrific. Some are award winning children's literature, like Matt de la Pena's Mexican WhiteBoy

Some are by writers who are not Latino or American Indian. An example of that is Jane Yolen's Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast. I asked Jane yesterday morning if she knew whether or not her book was being boxed up. She hadn't heard anything. 

The list has some nonfiction on it, too. The auditors said that some of the books are not age-appropriate. According to the auditors, they belong in college, not high school classrooms. That, in my view, is bull. It is a convenient rationale for targeting those books that allows them to hide their fear of critical thinking. Nonfiction titles on the list include:
  • Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States
  • Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools
  • bell hooks' Feminism is for Everybody 

Opponents of the program argued that the classes were promoting resentment toward a race or class of people. That race or class of people is white.

In their (perhaps) unspoken words, thinking critically about America is dangerous and threatening to the existing power structure.

I'm pretty sure that Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie is not on the list. Towards the end of that story, Pa learns that the federal government wants squatters (he doesn't use that word) to get off of Indian land. They load the wagon and as they drive away, they look back and see that that "their little log house and the little stable sat lonely in the stillness." Pa says that it is a great country, "but there will be wild Indians and wolves here for many a long day."  Books like Little House teach readers to resent a race or class of people, too, but I doubt it is being removed from classrooms in Tucson. 

I'll post updates as I get them...  If you're in Tucson and saw books being boxed up, please write to me and provide me with titles. You can use my email address ( or the Contact option in the menu bar above, or, if you prefer anonymity, use the comment box below.

UPDATE, JAN 15, 2012, 12:50 PM, CST:
Due to queries, I uploaded a list of the books listed in the audit:
Mexican American Studies Department Reading List

UPDATE, JAN 15, 2012, 1:10 PM, CST:
Brenda Norrell of Censored News is covering the story and includes a response from Roberto Rodriguez.

UPDATE, JAN 15, 2012, 4:20 PM, CST:
For further reading:
  • House Bill 2281 -  "public school pupils should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals and not be taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people." 
  • Arizona District Court document on the Mexican American Studies program.
UPDATE, JAN 16, 2012, 6:50 AM, CST:
Precious Knowledge is a documentary about the Mexican American Studies program that includes powerful footage of students and teachers in the program, and, footage of state administrators who characterize the program and people in it as anti-American.  See the trailer and information about the documentary at Precious Knowledge.

Below is a 30 minute clip about the program. Some of it is from Precious Knowledge. The young man who speaks at the 1:58 mark talks about administrators coming into his classroom last week on Friday and directing teachers to box their books. One young woman who works in the library as an aide says that library copies of books will likely remain on the shelves, but that the teachers cannot teach the books. The young woman at 22:20 said it was heartbreaking to watch their teachers box the books. It concludes in a classroom. The teacher speaks with great emotion, which leads me to think that this footage was filmed after House Bill 2281 was passed. [Video source: Three Sonorans channel on YouTube]

Below is a clip of teacher, Yolanda Sotelo, talking about books and the events of last week. Administrators will visit classes to make sure the teachers are not teaching the banned books. [Video source: Three Sonorans channel on YouTube]

The Save Ethnic Studies website has an extensive archive of court documents, statements, transcripts, student work. 

For ongoing AICL coverage, read through AICL from January 15 to the present or go directly to specific posts by clicking on links below:

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Friday, January 20, 2012

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Monday, January 23, 2012

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

AICL Coverage of Arizona Law that resulted in shut down of Mexican American Studies Program and Banning of Books


Wendy said...

The point of the end of Little House on the Prairie is that Pa understands he was wrong to settle in "Indian Territory" (and that the government was wrong to tell him he could, which is at least the story as Wilder tells it). There's no question that the depiction of American Indians in the series is problematic, but I do not think it could be said to teach children to resent a race or class of people. Does it provide some harmful images and encourage misconceptions? Yes. But resentment is not one of them.

Brigid said...

Wendy, I loved the Little House books too, but the portrayal of Native Americans, while perhaps more sympathetic than usual for their day, still reinforced negative stereotypes - stereotypes designed to foster resentment of native peoples. That doesn't mean I beleive they should be removed from the shelves, just that if they are used in the classroom there should be some critical thinking taught along with them.

Anonymous said...

Ahh, resentment... A perspective not always based on facts. Such an inconvenient truth swarms the following perspective: "The Mexican American Studies program was built on critical thinking. Students learned how to think critically, to question texts, to look at moments in history and portrayals of Latino Americans and American Indians from more than one perspective." Really? If that were true, there would be no controversy. Ahh, critical thinking... Race resentment cannot be cured with race resentment.

linda said...

This is unreal. Where is the ACLU? There has to be a challenge to this absurdity. Reminds me of Miami's move to remove the two children's books about Cuba!

Anonymous said...

The mind is like a parachute. It doesn't work if it's not open.

Laura said...

"Really? If that were true, there would be no controversy." Because we know for certain no American bureaucracy would ever lie about anything, and threats to the power structure and status quo have always been allowed, encouraged even. Race resentment is a one way street on which only long-suffering white people may drive.

Arty B. Whelan said...

I feel myself channeling the lovely Michelle Obama right now. Situations like this make me WISH I could be proud of my country. What were they thinking? Why are (some) white people so afraid of being overtaken by other races? Because that's what this is about. Anyone who says this isn't about racism is full of baloney.

I agree; the ACLU needs to be all over this. How is this program not age appropriate? At what age must a child be before the blinders are removed from her eyes and she realizes that all the LIES she's been told about this country's "great past" are just that: LIES. Someone explain to me why it's okay to lie to children about history (in the way that we were taught that the Civil War was all about "states' rights"!) but yet it's not okay to tell them the honest to god truth.

Wendy said...

Brigid, I commented that there are problematic depictions of American Indians in the Little House books. I am not unaware of or in denial about this. There is zero evidence, either within the text or in supporting documentation, that these stereotypes were intended to foster resentment of American Indians (nor do I see that they do, regardless of the author's intention). In fact, there is one incidence of Wilder reacting with embarrassment when it was pointed out that particular passage was offensive. I am not a Wilder apologist. I can and do engage in conversation about the ways in which the books depict racist attitudes. But when I see inaccuracy in criticism, I point it out. Being inaccurate in no way helps the cause of raising awareness about racism in these books or others. It just makes those who would deny all criticism stop listening.

Meaningful discussion about depictions of American Indians in this series as "wild", and also as "noble savages", certainly have value.

Critical thinking goes both ways. And all issues surrounding American Indian stereotypes do not lead back to Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Wendy said...

Not that I wish to distract from the real issue at hand. I was obviously naive in thinking that no one who read this post could possibly disagree with what Debbie has to say about the issues in Arizona, but Anonymous proves me wrong, and it is scary.

Anonymous said...

I grow increasingly angry as I see the growing list of banned books. I think of how many of those books I was lucky enough to read in high school and that inspired my own career choice and shaped many of my own ideologies. Many others I read in college, and now teach in my own university courses. And yet, the majority I am using in my dissertation because they reflect the experiences and history of my people and other peoples.

I wonder how we could organize a venue (online) where we could give testimony on how these books have inspired us to critically think or otherwise empowered us.

Also, I wish that someone could get a hold of the entire list that the auditors compiled and post it online.

Wendy said...

Most-recent Anonymous, the trouble is that the kind of thinking you're describing is exactly what the lawmakers in Arizona don't want. To create such a website is just preaching to the choir.

Anonymous said...

I am so impressed with the students in the 1st video. Tucson should be proud of these leaders.