Journal of Educational Controversy

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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Notes on the 16th Annual Educational Law and Social Justice Forum with Curtis Acosta, including Reflections on Student Responses

The 16th Annual Educational Law and Social Justice Forum with Curtis Acosta was held on May 14th at the Center for Education, Equity and Diversity, co-sponsored by The Journal of Educational Controversy and the Woodring College of Education. Around 70 participants, including Western students, as well as a class of students from a local middle school, were in attendance.

After presentations by Professors Kristen French, Veronica Velez and JEC editor Lorraine Kasprisin, a Skype session was held between students and Curtis Acosta. Mr. Acosta is a former Mexican-American Studies teacher from the Tucson Unified School District, where his curriculum was banned by the state of Arizona in 2010. Curtis Acosta is also a returning speaker and guest of Western Washington University, where he first spoke last fall to a large gathering of students, professors and other community members and activists. His presentation in October of last year focused on the criminalization of Latin@ youth and the struggle for social justice in education across the United Sates and was followed by the publication of his article, “Dangerous Minds in Tucson: The Banning of Mexican American Studies and Critical Thinking in Arizona,” in the eighth issue of The Journal of Educational Controversy. Student participants in our forum engaged in a lively dialogue with Curtis about his approaches to pedagogy, his work during and after the ban on MAS, his article in the Journal, and the effect that the ban had on his students.

As part of this forum, we provided participants with a think sheet containing quotations from Arizona state legislation that banned Mexican-American Studies in Tucson, as well as an exit survey. The Arizona state law, HB2281, passed in 2010 and quoted on the think sheet, prohibits “a school district or charter school from including in its program of instruction any courses or classes that”:
  •         Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
  •          Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
  •          Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
  •          Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.
Curtis Acosta cogently analyzes the rhetoric of this legislation in his article in the JEC, so I will not attempt to do so here. One of the more intriguing results of the multiple choice exit survey we provided, however, was that respondents were less likely to decide that the MAS program was in violation of HB2281 at all.


A wide majority of respondents decided, after the forum, that the MAS program was actually not in violation of the legislation that was passed in Arizona to ban it.

Interestingly, as well, respondents to the exit survey were very likely to disagree with the law completely (5) or mostly (7), with only three remaining undecided and only one participant saying that they “agree[d] with most of it.”  No respondents agreed completely with the law.


To quickly overview the rest of the results, few of the survey respondents had attended Curtis’ presentation last fall—only 5 out of 17. Mr. Acosta’s presentation last fall drew a crowd of several hundred, packing an auditorium, and this particular statistic begs the question of how representative we can assume the 17 survey responses are of the seventy participants in the spring forum.


At the same time, one of the respondents remarked (in the section of the survey provided for comments) on not having attended the fall presentation, but finding the spring one very helpful and informative: "I came into this entirely uneducated on the topic as extra credit for a class. Leaving, I question why these forums are not more widely advertised and why I haven't been to one before. These are so important, thank you for the opportunity." As this respondent points out, there could be a larger audience for forums and presentations like this one, especially with dynamic, intelligent and impassioned speakers like Mr. Acosta. Moving forward, we welcome any suggestions on how to draw on the larger community of committed activists, students and educators within Western and bring in more participants.

Only six out of seventeen respondents had read the Mr.Acosta’s article in The Journal of Educational Controversy previous to attending the forum. This is another issue which would need to be addressed moving forward with future events—how might we motivate students and other participants in forums such as this to become engaged with the issues at hand before they attend? In what other ways might we raise awareness?


The results of the question of prior familiarity with the banned books controversy in Arizona were more positive: only seven respondents said that they were “not at all” or “not very” familiar; whereas ten chose “somewhat” to “very familiar” with the banned books controversy.


Based on the results of the survey, no one felt disappointed with their own learning during the forum. Three participants said that they had learned some, eight said quite a bit, and four said they had learned  “a lot!” Curiously, there were two participants who filled out the rest of the survey and did not choose to select an answer to this question. For a group of nearly seventy student participants, it is interesting that only some chose to fill out the survey at all. Hopefully, in the future, the numbers of students involved in consciousness-raising events such as this one will increase, as will their investment in the issues at hand. All in all the forum was a success and many thanks are due to the folks at CEED, the rest of the Journal of Educational Controversy staff, the Woodring College, Curtis Acosta, and, most of all, the students who dedicated their time to participating in the forum and filling out the exit survey.


Here are the questions (reproduced in full) that several of the seminar participants who filled out the survey left for the readers of The Journal of Educational Controversy Blog. Please feel free to respond to any or all of their questions and offer suggestions for us in the future in the comments section of this post!

·      "How can we expect students to succeed or want to be engaged if we only teach one perspective? Students should see a reflection of themselves in texts that emphasize and embrace other perspectives and cultures as valuable parts of our society."

·      "If we are trying to teach American history to students then what's wrong with teaching it through a lens other than the typical European one?"

·      "How do we see legislators, officials and people in places of institutional power are telling us what type of critical thinking is encouraged vs. 'dangerous' (and then worthy of surveillance/erasure)?"

·      "Why do we fear the truth so much that we must rewrite history, only to be given negative labels when we try to learn the truth later?"

·      "To what extent can a public education address individual needs and curiosities of students, given the necessarily broad & diverse body that it must serve?"

·      "Who decides if social justice is 'just'?"

·      "I came into this entirely uneducated on the topic as extra credit for a class. Leaving, I question why these forums are not more widely advertised and why I haven't been to one before. These are so important, thank you for the opportunity."


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Celia Wilson said...

Amazing article! The law is bias and unfounded. To ban the cultural and historical aspects of any people is not American. I remember reading all sorts of material in school touting and praising Europeans and Euro-American history. Learning about all cultures and ethnic groups is important as we all help to build and sustain a strong America.

Thank you.
Celia