Ethnic Studies from K-12: A Teaching Conversation

Having the opportunity to teach Ethnic Studies allowed me to find my voice. I had the chance to ask how teachers can bring in different perspectives that were not in textbooks.
Chrissy Emmons

High School Ethnic Studies Initiative Meeting

Speakers

  • Chrissy Emmons, Ethnic Studies Teacher on Special Assignment, Castro Valley Unified School District
  • Hasmig Minassian, Universal Ninth Grade Teacher Leader, Ethnic Studies & Social Living Teacher, and Lead Teacher of​​ Growth Hive, Berkeley High School
  • Jason Muñiz, Associate Director, History-Social Science Project, UC Berkeley
  • Joemy Ito-Gates, Ethnic Studies Teacher on Special Assignment, Berkeley Unified School District
  • Keith Feldman, Chair, Department of Ethnic Studies, UC Berkeley
  • Victoria Robinson, Faculty, Department of Ethnic Studies, UC Berkeley

Event Description

In March 2021, the California State Legislature passed Assembly Bill 101, adding an Ethnic Studies graduation requirement for all California high school students graduating during the 2029-2030 school year; it also states that high schools must start offering approved Ethnic Studies courses beginning in 2025-2026. The American Cultures Center, along with several other units and academic departments, is developing a campus-wide initiative to support high school teachers and districts in meeting the requirement rollout. 

On November 14, 2022, the American Cultures Center, the Department of Ethnic Studies and History-Social Science Project hosted a conversation with local middle and high school teachers for undergraduate students to learn about building a career as an Ethnic Studies teacher, given that they will be needed now more than ever. Some key discussion topics include:

  • What's a typical workday for an Ethnic Studies teacher?
  • What makes teaching Ethnic Studies courses different from other subjects? 
  • Advice for new Ethnic Studies teachers 
  • How can instructors engage students and families, especially when it comes to explaining complicated concepts?
  • What materials and sources do Ethnic Studies teachers use in developing their curriculum?
  • How do you effectively teach an Ethnic Studies course considering the various backgrounds and experiences of students in the classroom? 
  • How are students' voices centered and empowered in Ethnic Studies courses? 
  • How do you handle teaching sensitive topics in an Ethnic Studies course, especially topics that might be triggering for students?

Panelists' Recommendations for Future Teachers

What's a typical workday for an Ethnic Studies teacher?

  • Listen to the question and Hasmig's response (around 21:50): No day is typical. A typical day is you go into school, you walk into the building ... and you're immediately immersed in kids. You're doing four or five live shows a day...and doing it in your most authentic self. You're performing. You lose your voice. Your feet get tired. And you're constantly connecting - making hundreds and hundreds of connections. You have a plan, a structure. And then it changes. So your typical day is handling a lot of interactions while holding a space for the intellectual work that's happening in your classroom. And it's a constant dance between those two things. -Hasmig Minassian

How is teaching an Ethnic Studies course different from other subjects?

  • Listen to the question and Hasmig's response (around 24:30): Teaching Ethnic Studies is different from other courses because it's very personal ... When you're talking about culture, race, or immigration, it's deeply personal. So no word that comes out of your mouth can be accidental. It has to be very intentional because you have a lot of vulnerable hearts in front of you. You have to be very careful without making students seem fragile. So you have to balance between not making them seem fragile while still being sensitive and careful ... I haven't felt that way teaching government as I have with Ethnic Studies.  -Hasmig Minassian

  • Listen to Jason's response (around 33:30): You're never going to have to teach anything else that will challenge you as a person to be as self-reflective, especially about what you're saying and who you are. When you're teaching AP Government, you'll never have to have as much self-reflection as a day teaching Ethnic Studies. You're going to have to face yourself. You're going to have to do it on behalf of your students, if for no other reason than to model what that looks like to face yourself so they can see what it looks like, all the things you're insecure about, the areas you need to grow in and be vulnerable about. So you'll need to learn what it's like to be vulnerable in front of a group. We call that Tuesday. -Jason Muñiz

What advice do you have for new Ethnic Studies teachers?

  • Listen to the question and Chrissy's response (around 30:02): It's okay if you don't get through everything from your lesson plan. I might have a fabulous unit that I'm working on, but I might only get through three of the five things from that unit. But it's okay because we have the deepest, richest conversation on those things ... so I know it will stick with them. Like with any good teaching, you need to reflect on what worked and what didn't. Don't just reflect on the content but on how you're teaching it. It's a constant revision. I've completely changed how I'll teach everything from last semester. -Chrissy Emmons

  • Listen to Joemy's response (around 31:30): Be accountable for the words you use and the things you say. I learned that I needed to be humble and apologize to my students when I misstepped or caused harm. That is what strengthens relationships with our students.  -Joemy Ito-Gates 
  • Listen to Jason's response (around 34:30): Become a writer. Whether or not you think you're a writer because you're going to have to find a way to explain complicated concepts in a way that is accessible to people who have varying degrees of the willingness of wanting to know or being ready for what you have to say them ... [Teaching Ethnic Studies] is going to challenge the creativity that maybe you haven't realized you have yet. -Jason Muñiz

How do you keep students and families engaged, especially when explaining complicated concepts? 

  • Listen to the question and Joemy's response around 38:00: Give information to families ahead of time, such as newsletters, so they know what's going on. Families read them because they want to know what's happening in our children's classrooms. Make sure you're having open and honest communication with families. I received a lot of support for Ethnic Studies even though I did receive some pushback because there was a lot of communication, relationship building, and opportunities for families to be in the classroom to experience things firsthand. -Joemy Ito-Gates
  • Listen to Chrissy's response (around 39:50): Bring in your own personal experience. I might be explaining microaggressions to students, but when I give my own personal experiences about that, I see them leaning in closer and telling me, 'oh. Most teachers don't talk to us about that aspect of their life.' - Chrissy Emmons

  • Listen to Jason's response (around 34:30): You're going to become a writer. Whether or not you think you're a writer because you're going to have to find a way to explain complicated concepts in a way that is accessible to people who have varying degrees of the willingness of wanting to know or being ready for what you have to say them ... [Teaching Ethnic Studies] is going to challenge the creativity that maybe you haven't realized you have yet. -Jason Muñiz

Shadow a Berkeley High School Ethnic Studies Course

UC Berkeley students are welcome to shadow a Berkeley High School Ethnic Studies course (currently, there are up to twenty-eight sections). To learn more, please email Berkeley High School Instructor Hasmig Minassian (hasmigminassian@berkeley.net).