Critical Praxis

By Amy McClellan and Doug Baer

Of recent, we have had the fortune to collaborate with powerful people and change tact, avoiding a collision course with the annals of time and a legacy of “more teachers harming students.” Trapped in a seemingly sea of whiteness, we glimpsed on the horizon a building swell, a swell that would grow into a wave, like that of a tsunami. The aftermath of tremors from a fault line in Tucson Unified School District, a wave surging to the Greater Puget Sound region, spilling onto the school districts of Seattle, Edmonds, Shoreline, and Mukilteo. Though, as with all threats, bulkheads of resistance emerge, designed to weaken the impact of the impending change. Holes and cracks can’t keep all the water out. We will rise. Together.

Several school districts in Washington state are sideways-hugging the idea of incorporating Ethnic Studies, and creating space for change and liberation, while others will maintain a fortified white-washed bastion against it. Some districts will choose to adapt and grow, while others remain stuck in an antiquated, post-industrialized, racist schooling program that attends to the needs of some students, while harming the lives of many of our students. As good fortune would have it, we landed in districts that appear concerned with making the desperately needed changes, centering the lives of our students of color and moving to humanize the system of education. 

Mukilteo School District formed a committee comprised of seven educators from its three high schools, Assistant Superintendent, and Director of Curriculum, with the charge of creating and implementing an Ethnic Studies course; initially to be rolled out Fall of 2019, but quickly realized it was unobtainable because of the much-needed teacher growth, and thus pushed out to Fall of 2020.

Mukilteo School District’s Ethnic Studies committee intends to design a sustainable model, a program not designed for merely checking boxes, but a program with the flexibility to eventually go across all content areas, and vertically through all grade levels. The committee is grateful to not be alone in its journey, to be able to collaborate with members of neighboring school districts—some in infancy stages like Mukilteo, others in adolescent phases.  

A newly formed, committed group of like-minded educators from Edmonds, Mukilteo, and Shoreline gathers throughout the school year to lean into culturally responsive and anti-racist teaching. Jeff Stone, Ethnic Studies Lead in Edmonds, and the principal organizer, shared after our initial 2019-2020 gathering, “There is nothing more inspiring than a room full of educators, in the middle of November, engaging in after school learning meant to disrupt white supremacy.”

During the November gathering we worked in small groups, attempting to define and understand Ethnic Studies.

Draft of our Collective Thinking Thus Far from First Inter-District Gathering, 2019-2020

Additionally, we read “What is Ethnic Studies Pedagogy?” and “Ethnic Studies 10 Common Misconceptions” both found in Rethinking Ethnic Studies.

“This book is food for the movement. It is sustenance for every educator committed to understanding and enacting Ethnic Studies. We take this gift as a guide for the needed work ahead.”–Django Paris, James A. & Cherry A. Banks Professor of Multicultural Education, University of Washington

We began to identify the needed skills to hone, and knowledge to cultivate in order to become anti-racist and culturally responsive educators within the realm of Ethnic Studies.

Draft of Skills and Knowledge from First Inter-District Gathering, 2019-2020

Attending these monthly inter-district meetings continues to be a place where critical learning moments occur, much like those experienced at the inaugural Ethnic Studies Institute, summer 2019.    

Along with the meeting’s agenda, often the value of the gatherings is in the intimate conversations and connections formed with other educators on the same journey. Amy McClellan, Shoreline School District, shares the following about our November gathering:

Being transformed by collaborating with our Ethnic Studies inter-district community gives me space to explore the messy work and be vulnerable, and self-reflective.  Being with fellow Ethnic Studies Educators supports me to be more courageous and continue to grow and be pushed beyond being just “culturally responsive” or “multicultural.”  I’m learning to lean into critical praxis with the goal of centering the lives of my students; empowering their agency so we can collectively disrupt and dismantle the system. 

My journey of attempting, through my practice, to be an Ethnic Studies educator is murky and challenging and I often get in my own way. I belong to the 89% of white educators in Washington state, and was schooled by educators who looked like me and centered the western European narrative, hence forming my bias. Being able to come together to decolonize my teaching with colleagues from neighboring districts is invaluable. Shoreline School District is in its infancy in how Ethnic Studies will play out. To have space to dialog on moments like the following, helps me know better and thereby do better. Last October, I attempted to help students deconstruct the myth about Columbus by posing the research question: Should we celebrate Columbus Day, Indigenous People’s Day, neither or both? 

Discussing this assignment with a colleague from Mukilteo, who is also learning and growing in their Ethnic Studies practice, the following ponderings came to light.

We wonder: 

  • Did the wording of my research question give legitimacy to Columbus, who was a genocidal murderer? Would I ever ask a similar question if it was a day to honor Pol Pot, Andrew Jackson or Stalin? 

  • Did I play it “safe” by not solely centering Indigenous People’s voices, and did I give too much space for Columbus Day? Did I fall into the pitfall of trying to remain “neutral” as an educator, and present multiple perspectives, thereby discounting the system of oppression and my position of privilege?
  • Did I hope my students would “get it” and see the injustice through the content, and by reading about the Taino’s lives and culture and the Day of Mourning Movement?
  • Did I want to give a platform to the experiences of the Italian Americans and their desire to be “American” but fall short in really unpacking the racial history and assimilation? 

As Paulo Freire states in A Pedagogy for Liberation, it is “through dialog, reflecting together on what we know and don’t know, we can then act critically to transform reality.” This experience solidified that for me. Being able to come together and be reminded of my bias and positionality is humbling albeit a fruitful and necessary part of the work.  

Together we can embrace the rising tides of change, harness our collective communities, and strive to center voices of students. Unpacking our bias and continuing to explore avenues by which to disrupt the system remains the challenge before us.

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