The sight of high schoolers clapping and chanting in an explosion of collective energy could easily be mistaken for pep rally before the Big Game.
But these students at the Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles aren’t getting psyched up for a football game. They are mentally preparing themselves to do battle against a different type of foe -- colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, and other manifestations of “white supremacy” – with a chant that begins:
(Si Se Puede) Si Se Puede!
(Holla Back) We Got Your Back …
This “unity chant,” which includes Spanish, Swahili and Native American phrases expressing support and solidarity (translation here), is used by some teachers of ethnic studies as an icebreaker before tackling such heavy-duty classroom topics as identity, oppression, power, solidarity and systemic racism. In the video link provided in the state’s proposed curriculum, the chant is led by Los Angeles consultant and educator R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, one of the authors of the 2019 proposed model curriculum that was rejected by state officials as too ideological.
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Another chant recommended by the California Department of Education is called “In Lak Ech.” It invokes the names of Mesoamerican deities, including Hunab Ku, identified with the Christian God, and Xipe Totek, an Aztec deity associated, according to Britannica, with human sacrifice, as it celebrates “transformation, liberation, education, emancipation.”
The chanting, clapping, stomping and yelling ritual is part of a proposed ethnic studies model curriculum that the California Department of Education is set to adopt this month. Adoption would clear the way for the state legislature to vote on a bill making ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement for all 1.74 million high schoolers in the state.
Unity chants are just one of the many ways in which ethnic studies is unlike anything most students have ever experienced in public school. According to practitioner Theresa Montaño, a professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at the California State University, Northridge, ethnic studies require students to come to class with “humility” and ready to do “emotional work.”
Montaño said her students come to her traumatized from taking math classes, and doing ethnic studies helps heal their psychic wounds by empowering them through social action projects and by participating in activities such as storytelling, poetry writing and talking circles where students take turns holding a “talking stick.”
Ethnic studies is a broad category that runs the gamut from literature survey courses to social justice activism. About a third of California’s proposed curriculum, which exceeds 1,000 pages, is a listing of ethnic studies courses already offered in more than 300 high schools in the state: African American Studies; Black Gold & Black Soul: Oral Expressions in African American Culture; Honors African American History; Latin@/Black Studies; Chicano Mural Art; Chicano Literature in Español; Mexican American History; Vietnamese American History; and Native American Studies: Contemporary Perspectives.
What distinguishes ethnic studies from conventional classroom work is not only the content but also the hands-on pedagogy that requires students to embrace and act on what they are taught. In California, high schoolers enact mock trials of white supremacy for crimes against humanity, write lists of demands to school administrators, and teach social justice activism to middle schoolers.
An introductory ethnic studies course in the San Francisco Unified School District has students learn to about themselves in terms their intersectional identities, participate in grassroots community organization and “explain the dynamics among internalized, interpersonal, and institutional oppression and resistance.”
Students conduct a grand jury investigation to address the question, “Who was responsible for the physical and cultural genocide of California Indians?” They study the history of racial stereotypes by learning about eugenics, then analyze contemporary stereotyping in popular culture to understand how stereotypes are reproduced and perpetuated.
In a unit on community organizing, students “produce a manifesto that lists and justifies their demands for reform of the current education system.” Students then prepare a lesson about the changes they would like to see in the educational system and as part of the class, they teach the lesson to middle school students.
In San Juan High School in Citrus Heights, Calif., teenagers “chart their own intersectionality” as they “interrogate” multiple structures of hierarchy and inequality, rooted in critical race theory.
One of their assignments is creating a pamphlet for distribution in school challenging ethnic and gender stereotypes and offering strategies “for disrupting and subverting the negative effects of stereotyping.”
The purpose of the course is for the students to implement “a systematized campaign for social justice at their school,” the course description reads. “Students will also study how to gain political power through activism, organization and mobilization.”
A number of California’s high school courses in ethnic studies appear to be based on college-level classes. Kids taking the Salinas Union High School District’s Introduction to Ethnic Studies course, for example, will attain fluency in such key terms as systems of oppression, privilege, resistance, consciousness, classism, ableism, cultural appropriation, colonization, social construct, praxis, otherization, hegemony, white flight and gentrification.
Readings and documentaries include selections from “The Black Panthers: Ten Point Program”; Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”; Oscar Zeta Acosta’s “The Revolt of the Cockroach People”; Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth”; “In Prison My Whole Life,” a film about Mumia Abu Jamal, convicted killer of a police officer; and Sacha Jenkins' “Burn Motherfucker, Burn!” among many other titles in the annals of revolutionary material.