How has race and intersectionality impacted your life?
How much time do I have? Race and racial constructions and racial systems of domination have impacted me as an educator from top to bottom. It’s impacted everything about my experience as a 20-plus-year-veteran of public school teaching.
In Denver Public Schools, when I walk into almost any classroom, the majority of kids are like me. That’s why I came into this work. We're over 60 percent Latinx and Hispanic kids. Probably about 75 percent, 80 percent of them are of Mexican descent. I have a Mexican dad, I have a Spanish surname, and my personal culture is very Mexican influenced.
When I reflect back on my own education, I never had a teacher of Mexican American descent. And, so, I started teaching. I always linked the struggles of kids from my neighborhood, Black and brown kids, to the fact that we didn't have educators that were like them.
When I first came into this work in 1999, I was beating a drum for ethnic studies. And nobody else took it seriously. One of my favorite writers, Tamim Ansari, wrote the book, Destiny Disrupted: The History of the World Through Islamic Eyes. Ansari writes about being on a textbook committee, and he's Afghani, and he writes about his experience being in a room full of people who aren't like him, and who didn't understand anything that he wanted to bring into this textbook. The quote that he said, that just resonated with me for over a decade, was, “My opinion was such a minority, that it was indistinguishable from error.” Most of what I've brought up in my first 15 years as a teacher felt like I was just wrong, because nobody else was thinking about it. Now, I'm starting to—finally, nine years away from retirement—recognize it. Like, no, actually, I know stuff that other people don't know. And I see the things others don't see. And that’s actually a good thing.
When I teach my AP World History class, I know I'm teaching it as a brown person, as a descendant of the original people of the Americas, who grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood. I show up as that person every day.
Why is talking about race in the subject(s) you teach necessary?
Sometimes, social studies is a throwaway subject in a lot of schools, because it’s just so complex, it brings together so many different disciplines: social science, anthropology, sociology, history, ethnic studies (which is also multidisciplinary itself).
How do we know what we know? ... The structural limitations of how we assign value to perspectives, it’s just very Eurocentric.
The best way to understand the role of social studies is to understand it as an epistemology. How do we know what we know? And how do we name what we know? We are so given to validating certain perspectives over others. The structural limitations of how we assign value to perspectives, it’s just very Eurocentric. For example, I suffered through an entire year of econ at the college level, and it was just like, this is wild, because it's got nothing to do with anything; it isn’t rooted in anything in my cultural identity! Nothing about race or capitalism.
It's all starting to bring me to this: the wholesale abolition of the educational system as we know it.
In social studies, think about primary sources. When we say primary sources, we tend to mean written documents, right? Written documents that have been verified by some other party. Well, that’s a very myopic thinking around how we know what we know, particularly in history. I grew up in a community that valued storytelling. And, so, are you telling me that my grandfather's stories of watching Pancho Villa ride into Mexico City during the Mexican Revolution are not as reliable as if he had taken a picture or written a letter? What if he never had those means of capturing history?
You have to do all of this intellectual contortionism to make it through this institution.
It goes all the way to the ivory towers of undergrad and grad schools, all the suffocating limitations of knowledge you have. You have to do all of this intellectual contortionism to make it through this institution while still protecting what is important to you, to your culture.
Many brown and Black young people come from oral traditions, from traditions where their first learning was, you know, sitting with elders and listening to their stories. That was their education. So, I think the way we look at social studies instruction is inherently racist, it welcomes a certain type of person into the classroom and tells that type of person that they're successful.
I've been reading a lot of Bettina L. Love and watching webinars around anti-racism and anti-oppressive practices in general. It's all starting to bring me to this: the wholesale abolition of the educational system as we know it. There’s just so much baked in it. And you know, history. History is everything. History is present in every discipline. Everything that you do builds on previous learning, and you can’t engage in previous learning, if you haven't studied history. So, if your epistemology around history is flawed and racist, your practices are going to be racist, and then, as a result, you're going to be racist.
What was it like teaching this lesson or unit plan?
For “Cultural Syncretism (They Know/They Don't Know),” the initial source focus was on this idea of syncretism. Tell Me Who You Are reminds us that we're all complex, that we're made up of this complex conglomerate of racial backgrounds, of social, cultural, religious backgrounds. In TMWYA, you also get into people’s personal interests, which don't always fit with how they’re perceived. So, I prompted kids to think about how you might be a Mexican kid, but how your experience of Mexican may differ from your Mexican parents, or grandparents. The nuances there, that’s what syncretism is about.
When we got into the silent “Chalk Talk” conversation for my cultural syncretism lesson, students really liked the ability to just reflect on someone else's story from TMWYA. They love stories. As they understand themselves, young people want to understand what makes up the people around them, too. Also, they loved “Chalk Talk” because they got a choice. They didn't all have to read the same story. They could go to a different one, and they could go in whatever order they wanted to. Students were able to sit and write ideas without worrying about being interrupted or repeating what someone else said. It was freeing and allowed them to reflect on a different level.
How did your community react?
The ideal teacher is a public intellectual. Not what we are now: reified, alienated cogs in an industrial capitalist machine.
I have former students that I haven't talked to in over a decade, but who reach out to me through social media and say, “Mr. Muñoz, the world is freaking me out, and you're the first person I thought of who can help me understand all these different things.” I had parents who would come in for parent-teacher conferences, and, after talking about the students’ progress, they’d say, “Can you help me, Mr. Muñoz? I don't know how to do my taxes,” or, “I don't know an immigration lawyer,” or, “How do I get a library card?”And so what ends up happening—if you have a trusting relationship with your community—is you become a public intellectual. That’s the immense role of an educator.
I learned about this idea of “public intellectual” in grad school. I read an important article by Henry David Thoreau. He stated that in order to have a just society, defined by equality and equity and freedom for all, we need a robust education system or public education system, which everyone has access to. Teachers play the biggest role in this. He said the ideal teacher is a public intellectual. Not what we are now: reified, alienated cogs in an industrial capitalist machine. Like, imagine us not just going in, generating lesson plans, but getting input, and then we have output based on the input. Imagine having support for when you go home—and, inevitably, all teachers do this—and just get stuck spending a lot of time thinking about your students, their families, things that are technically not in your job description.
What would you like to tell any educator looking at your work right now?
People who use TMWYA, they actually get a bigger classroom. That's the book. There's something universal about it. The deeper you read into it, the more relatable it is. And the more you get this deep sense of the world that you live in.
I was really frustrated at first, I couldn't get enough of the books. I tried for months and months. Eventually, my coach who is a woman of color, which always helps, you know, was like, “Alright, what were those books you’ve been bugging us about?” I ended up getting 30 copies for my classroom. My kids were so excited. My advice is, even if you’re the only one, the only educator of color, push for the resources you know will change your kids’ lives. Nobody else will.
Also, oh! I have this community organizing class, and they're all going to read TMWYA. Our first semester project is to create ebooks that are influenced by the structure of TMWYA’s interviews. I hope educators know that TMWYA can help students become more effective community organizers, because community organizing is nothing but friend-making, right? How do you connect with people for positive change? How do you find people that you can confide in, who trust you, who would work with you shoulder to shoulder? The book gives that answer: You get to know them on a deep level. If you teach your kids how to become community organizers, whatever that means to them individually, they can and will change the messed up systems that we live in today.
GERARDO MUÑOZ'S Lesson plans:
TYPE: Unit (series of lessons) TITLE: Tell Me Who WE Are CONTENT AREA: Social Studies, Student Voice and Leadership, Ethnic Studies, History
GRADE LEVEL(S): 9th to 12th Grade
This curriculum is project-based. This unit is not meant to be done piecemeal, but as an integrated study in intersectional mindset and advocacy.
This unit assumes that you, the professional, can connect this work to standards in your locality.
This unit assumes a SAGE mindset: student choice, authentic experiences and tasks, globally-conscious and exhibition to a real-world audience.
This unit assumes that your students are the ones who will generate knowledge and understanding. It is critical that you reflect upon, interrogate and, if necessary, set aside your assumptions about quality writing and storytelling for this unit.
This unit assumes that you have done the work to increase your racial literacy, and that you commit to growing with your students, not simply watching them grow.
Click below to download a PDF of Gerardo Muñoz's unit.
TYPE: Lesson (full class) TITLE: Cultural Syncretism (They Know/They Don't Know) CONTENT AREA: Social Studies, Student Voice and Leadership, Ethnic Studies, History
GRADE LEVEL(S): 9th to 12th Grade
DESCRIPTION: The larger unit aims to develop students’ understanding of the relationship between culture and history, and how history influences our understanding of culture. In addition, students will examine the process of cultural syncretism in the formation of traditions and practices.
Click below to download a PDF of Gerardo Muñoz's lesson plan.
Extra resource: The template below is inspired by this poem. CHOOSE Champion Marie DeAngelo has also shared resources for a similar activity.