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Cultural Fluency Initiatives

Critical Teaching in Action Conference 2009

Educators and students gather to share ideas on teaching social justice—and on helping to create a better future for Los Angeles.

By Sarah Scopio

"If you are an educator, social justice has to be part of your concern," says Mount graduate education student Meg Samaniego. "Particularly as a Catholic educator, it's part of who you are. "To explore this critical mandate, Julie Feldman-Abe, associate professor of education, gathered Mount students and faculty with community activists from across Los Angeles to share techniques for teaching social justice in the classroom.

The conference, aptly named Critical Teaching in Action, was held this spring at the Doheny Campus.

"Educators interested in social justice often feel isolated," says Feldman-Abe, who also directs the College's Center for Cultural Fluency. "I wanted to bring them together with our future teachers to share ideas, build community, and energize each other." The conference is an outgrowth of the work of the Center for Cultural Fluency. Housed in the Doheny Campus library, the center provides free teaching materials and resources for Mount faculty and local K–12 educators so they can add multicultural perspectives to their curriculum.

Living History

The day began with the story of a little-known fight for justice in LA's backyard. Seven years before the Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education caught the nation's attention in 1954, school segregation was being fought in Orange County, Calif. "I didn't understand why they wouldn't let my brothers and me in the nice school," says Sylvia Mendez, whose parents sued the city of Westminster, Calif., in 1945 to end the practice of sending Hispanic children to their own schools, separated from white children. In 1947, the court ruled in favor of the Mendez family, and California became the first state to end school segregation. Mendez vs. Westminster was later used as legal precedence for Brown vs. Board of Education.

Mendez was joined at the Mount's Critical Teaching in Action conference by Sandra Robbie, the writer/producer of an Emmy-award winning documentary, "Mendez vs. Westminster—For All The Children, Para Todos Los Ninos," which chronicles the family's story. "Before Sandra and Sylvia came to the Mount, I had never heard of the Mendez vs. Westminster case," says liberal studies major Isabel Gomez. "It was really eye opening. I was also impressed that Sandra Robbie took the initiative to go out and get this story told. Her passion is inspiring."

That's just the sort of reaction organizer Feldman-Abe hopes the conference will elicit. "Education is about action," she says. "Sandra and Sylvia are role models for our students because they decided to make this important history known. I always encourage my students to go beyond the textbook when planning lessons and think about what's not being included. To hear a living example of something that's been left out makes that point so powerfully."

Advocating for Change

Conference participants could choose among a variety of action-oriented workshops that explored the practical aspects of social justice education—such as "Defining Your Own Social Justice Mission Statement"—and showcased engaging curriculum—like "La Vida Lowrider: An Oral History Project"—that can be used in the classroom. "Social change requires imagination," says presenter Shiftra Teitlebaum from the nonprofit group youTHink who taught a hands-on workshop called "Integrating the Arts in the Critical Classroom." "You have to imagine a different way of life, a different world. Part of art making is that it forces you to problem solve and use your imagination."

To experience personally the transformative power of art, attendees literally took scissors and glue in hand to create "social commentary" collages from magazines and construction paper. As the finished projects were displayed on the wall, striking images of natural beauty overlaid with cars and family members separated by consumer goods spoke volumes about the artists' critical intentions. "I tend to shy away from making art because I don't think I am good at it," says junior Alicia Sterr, a liberal arts major. "But I learned that art is a powerful way for students to express themselves. I was challenged not to let my own feelings keep me from encouraging students to use art to explore important issues."

Storytelling is the method of choice for another nonprofit presenter, Facing History and Ourselves. The organization seeks to inspire youth through stories like that of Ernest Guevarra, a doctor in the Philippines whose childhood experiences with poverty propelled him to fight for the rights of the disadvantaged. Guevarra's story is one of many first-person narratives told on Facing History's "Be the Change" website which was unveiled at the workshop "Teachers and Students as Upstanders."

Graduate education student Mary Alice Cackler says she appreciates finding another online resource to incorporate into her curriculum. "I teach high school English," she says, "and I am always looking for ways to integrate technology into the classroom. This website is a great resource for teachers because it not only globalizes social justice, but it shows how individuals can make a difference. It was very inspiring."

Combining art and story in one, two Mount film and social justice majors presented their work in the "Film and Educating Social Justice Advocates" session. Junior Ericka Solis's film, The Water's Edge, tackled the problem of ocean pollution. "You can know all the information about an issue, but it is hard to present it to others in an interesting way," she told the group of educators. "Film allows me to be creative and hopefully get others involved in my cause."

Even the act of creating a film can be a learning experience, notes Pam Haldeman '86, professor of sociology and director of the Mount's film and social justice program. "Making a film allows students to come together as a group to advance an issue for social change," she says. "It can be as short as two or three minutes, but the process deeply engages students."

Spaces to Reflect

To ensure that the act of participating in the Critical Teaching in Action conference was an engaging process in and of itself, organizer Feldman-Abe incorporated two additional elements to the schedule that are rather unusual for a day-long educational event—a viewing garden and an idea café. Students in Mount instructor Jen Vanderpool's Fundamentals of Art course care about the environment. They wanted to find a way to make others care, too. "I have been teaching students that contemporary artists often design public artwork to raise awareness about an issue," says Vanderpool, who saw the conference as a great outlet for her class. "They really care about the world and wanted to make something that would get people talking."

So students gathered and decided to make a number of small art pieces that together would create a virtual garden of recycled materials. On the morning of the conference, their bottle-cap flowers and box-top butterflies were arranged outside the main auditorium to share a message about environmental justice. "We created the garden to remind people to care for our city," says Cynthia Vasquez, a freshman business major who helped with the project. "We made flowers out of water bottles, newspaper, magazines, and soda cans. We also made butterflies, because we wanted people to know that trash affects animals and insects too."

To help them share their own visions for change, conference attendees were invited during lunch to participate in The World Café. People gathered around large tables, each set up with pointed questions on a variety of issues designed to inspire group discussion. Everyone was then challenged to come up with their own answers before sharing their ideas with their peers.
Questions like, "What is the role of teachers in the struggle for social justice?" were met with honest replies, including one from a participant who wrote, "Teachers should create a safe place for all students... all students, not just students that are like you." Interestingly, some of the most challenging questions were met with the shortest answers. To the question, "How do we conduct ourselves when people are resistant to change?" one respondent wrote, "Humbly."

"The World Café is based on the idea that we can resolve anything through simple, meaningful conversation," says Feldman-Abe. "We decided to incorporate it because we've found that people often return from conferences wishing they had more opportunities to talk to one another about what they were learning." Adds graduate education student Alma Flores, "The café was a great idea because I felt part of a community of educators. I also learned some classroom strategies that are really practical, like using students' parents as a resource." Sophomore Roxanne Sanchez also loved the exchange. "It was an opportunity for us students to get networking experience and become aware of different issues," she says. "The Mount is really good about raising our awareness for social justice concerns."

Inspired to Action

Indeed, the Critical Teaching in Action conference was a source of inspiration for many that will hopefully carry forward in participants' ongoing work as educators and activists. "The conference was the highlight of my credentialing program because everything came full circle," says Flores. "It reminded me of why I wanted to become a teacher in the first place—because I want to make a difference and to believe that change is possible in the classroom." "I'm thrilled with the results," says Feldman-Abe. "Students were really moved by the examples of social justice work they saw and several said they plan to stay in contact with the educators they met. Our College places such an emphasis on social justice that it was the right place to bring these people together."

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