Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Tucson Festival of Books: Q&A with Augustine Romero and Julio Cammarota

Posted By on Wed, Mar 12, 2014 at 3:00 PM

When Arizona's fine crazy-land legislature passed HB 2281 in 2010—the anti-Mexican-American studies law that targeted Tucson Unified School District's Mexican-American studies program—their handiwork did more damage than hurting some of our city's students and ending a successful program that was increasingly reaching more students at its height with a proven track record helping students graduate and move on to college.

Left behind in the rubble is a community and school district torn apart, as well as friendships and organizers who once stood together only to breaking each other's hearts. However, right now there remains work to do while we wait for a Ninth District Court of Appeals decision on a failed lawsuit against the state that will hopefully strike the law and for TUSD to stop fighting the implementation of a court-ordered desegregation plan, which includes full-implementation of culturally relevant curriculum with Mexican-American and African-American studies classes.

And that's why a new book published by University of Arizona Press, Raza Studies: The Public Option for Educational Revolution edited by Augustine Romero and Julio Cammarota is needed. It tells the program's origin story without malice or pretense or even hiding from its ties to the UA's Social Justice and Education Program. Really, we've had so many outsiders come in, interfere in the movement, try to take some ownership over what was built, dismantled and fought for, seems like a book with truth behind it is need now more than ever.

This book is exactly that—an attempt to tell the story with truth and not just through Romero or Cammorota's perspective—albeit their part of the story is very important. Romero currently works in TUSD as director of the Department of Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Instruction and is co-founder of SJEP. Cammarota is a UA associate professor of Mexican-American studies, and the author of Suenos Americanos: Barrio Youth Negotiating Social and Cultural Identities.

The book serves as both history and how-to guide that illustrates the importance of critical multicultural curriculum and education. Inside are chapters by Nolan Cabrera (Cabrera report was presented to the TUSD governing board, administration and State Superintendent John Huppenthal's office multiple times. The report explicitly showed that the classes did increase test scores and graduation rates), Andrea Romero and Anna Ochoa O'Leary looking at resiliency and stress faced by undergraduate students in the face of the anti-ethnic studies laws (pay attention, Texas.)

I'll be moderating a panel with Romero and Cammarota at the Tucson Festival of Books this weekend, Saturday, March 15, 10 a.m., at the Nuestra Raices tent off the mall. But we are going to get things started a little early with an Q&A.

See you on Saturday, you and all those wonderful, wonderful books:

There's always been a lot of discussion in the background or claims on how Raza Studies/MAS began in TUSD, was it important to either of you to explain SJEP's part in the development of the program?

Augustine Romero: Mari, the discussion around this question did not start until the start of the SES (Save Ethnic Studies) the help of Julio and our students established the foundation and structure of the MAS program. Yes, when I came aboard in 2002 the department existed, but was a shell of a department, and for all intents and purposes existed in name only. For instance, there was no theoretical framework, there was no vision, and there was no mission. All of those things plus much more were created after I took over the program. More reality is the fact the Sean Arce was very rarely part of the discussions I was having with confidants, as I was theorizing the development of the department and all of its projects.

Julio: Well the SJEP added the action component to Paulo Freire's notion of praxis, which is critical reflection and action. There was reflection going on in MAS classes prior to the SJEP but the SJEP really added the action component, which helped students grow intellectually. When the students were engaged in praxis, the SJEP and MAS really took off. Students were connected to their learning, and word got out that this was the class to take if you wanted to make a difference. You would be surprised but a lot of young people want to improve the world in which they live. The SJEP became the opportunity to make that possible; it empowered young people to voice their concerns about education and society. However, the SJEP students not only voiced their concerns but actually took action to bring about change.

When did you start working on putting the actual book together?

Julio: We started about four years ago. Right about the time HB 2281 was passed.

How did you pick the different academics and writers who contributed? By topic or request?

Julio: We sent out a call to many different folks, academics, educators, community members and youth. Most people were interested but the academics were better situated to take advantage of the opportunity. They were more prepared to actually write something.

Augustine: It is important to note that the SES teachers were invited to contribute and most had originally agreed to participate. However, over the course of time they on their own accord withdrew from the process.

The past couple of years have been difficult for the community, do you see this book and its message being helpful in moving us forward or more of an academic example of how to put a program like this together?

Augustine: Both, the truth is a powerful tool, and it is only challenged by those who have something to gain by the spreading their lies. The book is based upon the truth. If someone wants to understand how to develop a similar program Raza Studies can help them do that. If people want to move forward let’s do so from a position of truth versus the mythologies that have been constructed by various groups of people.

One of the chapters ends with a section asking Forward, how?, where do you see TUSD, CRC and SJEP moving forward? How?

Augustine: MAS’s theoretical framework known as Critically Compassionate Intellectualism is ground in many of the same theory within the culturally relevant and culturally responsive frameworks. For intents and purpose if we follow the tenets of these frameworks we will ground ourselves in many of the same principles and ideal regarding our newly created lens of what is consider equity and excellence in education. In fact, what has been lost in this debate is what is best for our historically underserved and oppressed student groups. We had some very powerful and effective answers, but these answers actually answered the question. There are a lot of people who want to credit for asking the question, and who are simultaneously looking for the same old wrong answers that have been packaged differently or have been given a new and clever name. However, they are not seeking real answers. If they were seeking real and honest answer our program would have never been eradicated. In fact, the reciprocal would be true. There would be a similar program in every school in Arizona. That’s the truth!

Finally, what is the most important message that both of you want and hope to convey with the publishing of this book?

Julio: The important message that I hope to convey is that education should be way more than learning about facts, figures and concepts. Education also should be about accessing freedom, reinforcing self-determination, engaging one's community, uncovering lost or stolen histories, and forming a critical consciousness in which students know the true causes of oppression and know how to address these causes.

Augustine: I would add that the dream of academic equity and excellence is possible for our historically underserved communities. Today, more so than ever we know this to be true! We must recognize the reality that our historically underserved students are not inherently “at risk.” Rather, our systems; especially the educational system inherently create risk for these students. This is a historical fact! We need to flip the paradigm upside down, and ask how the system creates risk for these children. From this point, we then start the structural transformation and transcendence's that are needed to create a structure of equity and excellence for our historically underserved student populations.

From Raza Studies: The Public Option for Educational Revolution edited by Julio Cammarota and Augustine Romero © 2014 The Arizona Board of Regents. Reprinted by permission of the University of Arizona Press.

Preface: Revolutionary Education in Tucson
Augustine Romero

Classroom Visit: A Visit by an Unknown Brother

It was late April 2002, and I was getting ready to have my students go through an exercise wherein they evaluate the historical and modern-day impact of the Fourteenth Amendment, rewriting it in a way that creates greater equity for historically oppressed ethnic and social groups. As the students were rushing in, I saw the principal, Dr. Tom Scarborough, in the doorway. I immediately thought, “Oh shit, what did I do now?” In most cases, the only time Dr. Scarborough came around was for evalua- tions or when I said something or offered a lesson or exercise that some- one, usually a conservative (anti- intellectual) teacher, complained about. Dr. Scarborough immediately said that he had brought someone by to observe my class. This was not unusual. Even back then people would request to come by or Dr. Scarborough or someone from the central offi ce or the college of education would request a class visit. However, the visit on this day would turn out to be most unusual. Dr. Scarborough intro- duced me to Dr. Julio Cammarota and said they wanted to observe my class. I of course obliged the request. As we had many times before, my students and I did our thing. We dialogued and we pushed each other to go beyond low- level or superficial thoughts. The students made numerous arguments regarding the white-b lack binary, and how they as Chicanos or Mexican Americans and their communities and ancestors have not experienced the same level of access and opportunity as the vast majority of whites and some blacks. I recall one student that I will call Santos Angelo stating, “I do not want to make this a competition or create problems with my black brothers, but when people think about racism they usually think about whites being racist toward blacks. Most of the time people do not realize the racism whites put Chicanas/os through.” That was a pretty good explanation of the white- black binary. After the class, Dr. Cammarota stated that he enjoyed the session, and that he would like to get together for coffee. I said that I would be happy to join him. For the next few minutes we talked about critical race theory. Dr. Cammarota said he had not thought about using it in a high school classroom. I told him that I had been using it the classroom for the past seven years, and the students drew genuinely strong connections between critical race theory and their own lives. We agreed to get together.

Café y Teoría Revolucionaria

A week or so later, we met at a café near the University of Arizona. The fi rst part of our conversation focused on who we w ere and what we believed in. He discovered that the two of us were not necessarily the greatest high school students, which led both of us to the community college to start our academic careers. Also, we shared the same passion to fi nd out how to better serve students like ourselves who had strong academic capacities but were intentionally let down by a system constructed to marginalize, ex- clude, or exploit us as a means of perpetuating America’s racial and social order (Delgado 1999; Romero 2008). This led to a conversation about our intellectual influences: Freire, Darder, Fanon, Said, Bell, Delgado, Spivak, Derrida, Foucault, Kuhn, Bell, Tollefson, hooks, funds of knowledge, critical pedagogy, and critical race theory. This conversation took us to our shared belief that we could create an educational setting wherein students became scientists studying their social conditions. We both recognized that students’ intellectual capacities and knowledge construction capacities have been grossly underestimated, and in most cases intentionally ignored and subverted. We talked about how the communities from which our marginalized students derive are fertile with intellectualism, blossoming with the capac- ity to engender intellectual ability, and ripe for intellectual pursuit. Unlike our larger society, we believed that the communities of the historically marginalized and exploited are fi lled with intellectualism. Julio and I left this meeting knowing that we wanted to work together. We agreed that we should get together soon.

An Opportunity to Transform and Revolutionize Education

n between meetings with Julio, I met with Dr. Becky Montaño, who at the time was TUSD’s deputy superintendent. During our meeting, she asked if I would take over the district’s Hispanic Studies Department (changed in 2002 to Mexican American/Raza Studies, and changed again in 2008 to Mexican American Studies). Dr. Montaño stated that given the mandates of No Child Left Behind, the district needed to close the achieve- ment gap for Latino students. She had mentioned this in a previous meet- ing. She then said that as the program director it would be my responsibility to design a program that would close the achievement gap between Lati- nos and Anglos. I told Dr. Montaño, “I can do this.” This assignment gave me carte blanche in the design of this program; it opened the door for the creation of the Social Justice Education Project (SJEP); it gave me license to leave my own thumbprint on the curriculum and pedagogy; and it created the opportunity to rethink and re-c reate our continuing education opportunities for teachers (Redemptive Remember- ings and the Institute for Transformative Education). To say the least, this was an incredibly exciting time.

Café Mocha y Revolución Educativa

I remember rushing to the second meeting with Julio in total excitement about the news I was going to share. We met again at the same café. It was warm in early summer, but unlike most days the heat did not bother me. All I wanted to do was get the work started. Julio and I exchanged greetings, and I immediately stated, “I have good news.” I told him about my meeting with Dr. Montaño. Right away he cracked a big smile, saying, “Do you know what this means?” I said, “We have our project.” Right then we started to formalize our thoughts about what it was that we wanted to create. One of the things we immediately agreed upon was that we were not going to dumb down the curriculum. What many people have failed to understand, but what we both knew from past experience, is that if teachers want to maximize the cognitive demands (rigor) we place on students, they must be relevant—a deeper sense of relevance than is included in the standard educational literature (International Center of Leadership in Education). For us it was critical that we create pedagogical and curricular artifacts out of the lived condition of
our students. This meant that we needed to problematize their lived con- dition (Freire 1994). This was also where we could construct rigor. Unlike the mainstream understanding of rigor, we construct rigor through the lens of being liberatory or revolutionary educators. It is this lens that helped us understand and respect the intellectualism of the students, and through this proc ess we also recognized the importance of helping more students understand that the world does not have to be stagnant, rigid, or preordained. On the contrary, we hoped to help our students realize that our world is a space of transformation. More importantly, we hoped to help them recognize and understand that they are the agents of this transforma- tion, which raises hope, which in turn continues to increase both transfor- mation and hope. We understood that the intellectualized (rigorous) pro cess of problem posing (Yosso 2006) and cycle of critical praxis (Duncan-A ndrade and Morrell 2008) empower students to create an educational opportunity that is both truly relevant and rigorous. Both of these proc esses require the highest levels of intellectual engagement (see Bloom et al. 1956) and the highest threshold of relevance. In short, both proc esses require a signifi cant amount of evaluation, synthesis, and creativity, and our defi nition of rele- vance is how subjects are directly relevant to the lived condition of our stu- dents. Above and beyond the mainstream paradigm, we believed that these pro cesses offer an elevated sense of empowerment for our students by giving them an opportunity to name, challenge, and begin the proc ess of overcom- ing their lived structures of oppression. This was the basis of our conversation during this meeting. We knew that our students would rise to this opportunity. We talked about how this project needed to be truly revolutionary and emancipatory, and stated then that we could not apologize for these pursuits, and that regardless of what happens we would never compromise the mission and calling. It may seem kind of silly, but we actually shook hands and promised each other that we would pursue this mission con sangre.

Bringing My Camarada into the Mix

As we started to construct this experience, we needed a place to h ouse the project, and we needed to partner with the right teacher. I had one in mind, who I knew would be the perfect match, Lorenzo Lopez Jr. He was a graduate of the high school where we housed the project, and he had been a teacher there for three academic years. During the 1999— 2000 school year, I was Lorenzo’s cooperating teacher, and during our semester together I found him to be highly motivated, incredibly intelligent, and decidedly relevant. However, Lorenzo’s primary asset was how easily the students connected to him. His authentic, caring, and nurturing nature drew students to him. They knew he was a real person who was interested in who they w ere, and they caught the sense that he truly cared about their well-b eing. As time went on Lorenzo and I shared many lunchtime conversations, in which I grew to appreciate Lorenzo’s decision to become an educator. I grew to appreciate him as a man with strong convictions, a strong sense of service, and a strong sense of community. It was easy to see, feel, and under- stand why Lorenzo had decided to become a teacher, and why he chose to teach at his alma mater. For Lorenzo to return to Cholla was much like my return to Tucson High (my alma mater) fi ve years earlier. It was a return home. We w ere not taking a job; we were coming back to invest in the future of our commu- nity, to return to the place that had let us down, the place that had histori- cally failed our community, our parents, our tíos and tías, our primos and primas, our vecinos, and our children in the current condition. This return became our small battle to change things for as many students as possible.

Moving the Vision to Fruition

After the meetings with Julio and Larry, I met with Dr. Montaño to share the proposal that Julio and I put together. I gave a short description of our plan of the SJEP and she asked a few questions. I remember leaving that meeting not quite sure what to think. Dr. Montaño did not seem as excited as she had been during other meetings. I called Julio and told him about our upcoming meeting with Dr. Mon- taño, also mentioning my concern about her demeanor. Julio agreed that we needed to be extremely sharp for the upcoming meeting. Over the next week Julio and I met twice. About twenty minutes before our meeting Julio showed up at the offi ce and I said, “There is no way she is not going to like this proposal.” Never- theless, we were ner vous as we entered Dr. Montaño’s offi ce. As soon as we sat down, she said, “Tell me about this idea.” She added, “I have read the proposal, but I want to hear your thoughts.” Julio jumped right in with the idea that remedial education has failed because of its repressive and ste reo typical (mis)understanding of children it has relegated to the margins and the bottom rungs of our society (Delgado 1995, 1999). I added that in a hypercapitalist society the very same people have been exploited for profi t (Delgado 1995; Cass 2005). I went on to say that these (mis)understandings have constructed extremely low expectations of our historically under- served children. We intended to fl ip that paradigm on its head. We in- tended to elevate the curriculum, and we intended to make it relevant by superimposing it upon their social conditions and lived experiences. Julio brought up our ideas about youth participatory action research (see chap- ter 6; Cammarota and Romero 2006, 2011; Cammarota 2011) and how through this methodology we believed that we could drastically elevate the level of relevance; because of this relevance we could dramatically in- crease rigor; and, most importantly, because we believed that these chil- dren have the capacity to create knowledge (Delgado Bernal 2002; Romero 2008), we could give them the opportunity to represent themselves as in- tellectuals (Romero 2008). We went on to talk about how we would incorporate elements of the funds of knowledge (Gonzalez, Moll, and Amanti 1994), Freirean meth- odologies (Freire 1994), our understanding of authentic caring (Valenzuela 1999), how critical race theory could be used to design curriculum (Yosso 2002), how we could help our students reframe and transform the praxis with regard to the status quo (Solórzano and Delgado Bernal 2001), and how this project could create the opportunity for our students to construct counterstories (Delgado 1989). We believed that it was critical that our students rewrite the hegemonic narrative that has been written about them. This project would give them the opportunity to tell their own sto- ries, to insert themselves into the curriculum, and to construct learning around their understanding, their realities, and their needs. In the end, Dr. Montaño’s response was, “When could we get started?” We decided to start in the fall of 2002, and she agreed that Cholla high school would be a good place for the project. She asked us to set up a meet- ing with the Cholla administration as soon as possible. She concluded by saying, “If you have any trouble, come back and see me.”

Overcoming and Educating the Naive Consciousness

Previously Julio and I had talked to Dr. Scarborough about the SJEP. He liked the idea and was prepared to implement it at Cholla. However, by the time we received the blessing of Dr. Montaño, Dr. Scarborough had re- tired and new leadership was in place. This meeting with Cholla leadership was rocky. None of these folks understood youth participatory action re- search, critical pedagogy, funds of knowledge, cultural studies, critical race theory, or any of the elements of truly transformative education. In fact, most of this leadership team operated from a defi cit discourse orientation. After many questions and a lot of explaining, one of the administrators expressed his primary perspective by saying, “Auggie, what are we going to do with twenty- fi ve or thirty kids running around here pointing out prob- lems? We can’t have that type of thing going on.” Beyond the issues of engagement and relevance shown by this scenario, at a minimum the ex- pectation of the administration is to fi x educational issues, especially those that have created barriers for students learning and the pathway to aca- demic success. So my response to this administrator was, quite simply, “Fix the problems.” Needless to say, at this point the project did not have a home. As she instructed, I went directly to Dr. Montaño. Fortunately for our students, she was able to convince the administration to green- light the project. We started the SJEP with Lorenzo Lopez Jr. and seventeen of our students on the fi rst day of school in August 2002. What a blessing.

La Creación de Critically Compassionate Intellectualism

We w ere blessed in that we w ere able to implement all of the theoretical and academic elements we talked about in those early meetings at the café. We had borrowed all these pieces from the theories and practices of others and we had many of our own theories and practices that we knew to be successful. But while these pieces as an aggregate created a new experi- ence, we had not formally named or defi ned this experience. On a warm day in early May I walked into our classroom when I was not scheduled to be there. I arrived before the students so that I could talk to Lopez about an idea I had. After a short conversation Lopez said, “Go for it.” As the kids walked in, many said things like, “Romero, what are doing h ere?” or “You are h ere on the wrong day, Romero.” I remember one say- ing, “Romero, you are confused. You aren’t supposed to be h ere until tomorrow.” We laughed and I said, “I got it right because I am here with a huge purpose.” We got settled in and I stood and said, “I’ve got one question for you. Why are you still here?” At fi rst the students looked confused. I threw it out again. “Why are you still h ere? Why do you still come to this class? We have been working all year, and we want to know why you come to this class.” It took a few seconds, but the responses started fl owing, and as they came I wrote them on the board. The primary theme was “what you teach us,” which I formally named SJEP curriculum. For this theme students responded with statements such as, “You guys teach us about us, about our culture, about our history. You guys teach us how we can change things, and you guys teach us how we can stand up for ourselves and our gente.” The next theme was “how you teach us.” I labeled these responses as SJEP pedagogy. The responses for this theme were, “You let us talk out things. We can talk with guys about the things we are learning. We can ask real questions, important questions. You guys really want us to think. You guys want us to fi nd our answers. You let us connect things (academics and social realities) together, and you want us to fi nd the root of the problem.” The last theme that emerged from this dialogue was “how you guys treat us and our parents.” I labeled this SJEP parent- student- teacher interactions. For this theme stu- dents said, “You guys understand us. You relate to us. There is respect in here. Man, all you guys care about us— we can tell. My dad likes you. He feels respected by you all. My mom feels respect too. It’s like you guys ap- preciate us and our families. You guys don’t trip on things. I think this is because you understand us and what we are going through. My parents don’t feel down with you guys, and there is cariño with you guys.” It was this dialogue that became the framework of the critically com- passionate intellectualism model and how we did things in raza studies. This understanding manifested itself in our redemptive rememberings, in the restructuring of our teacher institute (the Institute for Transformative Education), in our Ce Ollin Parent Encuentros, and most importantly in the everyday classroom experience of all the students we serve. It is impor- tant that we thank Adelita Grijalva and Kim Dominguez for their contri- bution in our struggle for academic excellence and equity.

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