Retelling American Education Through Minorities’ Experiences

UT Austin students gain a different view of the American educational system in Professor Luis Urrieta’s Sociocultural Influences on Learning course. Urrieta teaches about the U.S. educational system through the lens of minority groups’ experiences. Instead of seeing education as a way to fill a gap or deficit in underserved communities, Urrieta wants students to “reframe education from the perspective of cultural wealth.” Urrieta’s asset-based approach to teaching about minority communities reflects a key aspect of the Cultural Diversity Flag’s goal to increase “familiarity with the variety and richness of the American cultural experience.”

Professor Urrieta began teaching this course 13 years ago as a broad critical history of education. This semester, the course (taught primarily in Spanish for bilingual pre-service teachers) focuses on the past and present experiences of minorities in the education system. Urrieta begins the semester by helping students understand the history of minorities in American schools. With that foundation, he takes students to Austin’s Zavala Elementary, which was built for students as a segregated school for Mexican-American students, to help them understand how communities shape minorities’ experiences. Over the course of the semester, the students reflect on these experiences and their personal experiences of race in American education.

Urrieta’s approach to the history of American education challenges most of the established narratives his students know. The class examines the narrative of meritocracy in American education and how that narrative doesn’t fit many minorities’ experiences in America. Although challenging these narratives can be uncomfortable for many students, he wants students to understand that these institutions do not benefit all communities equally.

Urrieta challenges the established narratives by showing students counter-stories from history. By sharing these less frequently told stories, he hopes to help students understand how the education system can perpetuate, rather than solve, inequities. One of the counter-stories they examine is George Sanchez’ civil rights activism for Latinx communities. The class visits the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at UT Austin to look at their archives of Sanchez’s work. Studying his reports and photos on Texas’ segregated education system gives the students a deeper insight into how minority communities at the time were treated in schools. The documents show how minorities interacted with the education system and how those interactions shape education in America today.

Urrieta gives context to these historical narratives by leading students on a community walk of Zavala Elementary school as a class. Zavala Elementary was built as a segregated school for Spanish-speaking children in 1936 and is flanked by several public housing projects, which were among the first in the nation. Going to the school and walking through the neighborhoods surrounding it is an intimidating experience for some of the UT students. Urrieta explains that some of his students are worried about their security, and parents have even (in the past) emailed Urrieta asking about their child’s safety. For other students, visiting the school and neighborhood feels like going home.

For Urrieta, interacting with schools’ communities and understanding their neighborhoods is essential to an asset-based approach to education. Urrieta’s students can see how inequality creates barriers to education by walking through the neighborhoods around Zavala Elementary. However, Urrieta’ intention for this exercise is not to expose them to these communities’ shortcomings. His specific directive is that they seek out the communities’ cultural wealth.

Over the course of the semester, Urrieta’s students also volunteer by tutoring a child from a list of approved schools and community-oriented programs and spend at least ten hours with them. They meet the child’s teacher and guardians to talk with them about their hopes and dreams for the child and what they think about the child’s education. These personal interactions with members of the community allow the students to understand some of the children’s cultural assets.

At the end of the semester, the students analyze, describe, and reflect on their experiences in the school’s community in a field report. Throughout the semester, Urrieta engages the students in critical reflection about their experiences with race and education. Graduate students from the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies do a workshop for the students on racialization. In the workshop, the students learn about how race and ethnicity are constructed. The students also write four reading reflections and an educational autobiography in the course. The workshop and critical reflection exercises allow students to deconstruct and question some of the narratives they associate with education in America.

Throughout Urrieta’s course, students reflect and critically analyze race and education in America through various learning experiences. Learning about educational pioneers like George Sanchez gives students a counter-narrative to the history of education in America. The students deepen their understanding of the current education system by visiting and volunteering in schools that serve minority communities. Seeing minority communities’ interactions with the education system gives students a first-hand experience of the student’s assets from their communities and the barriers they face in their schools.

Professor Urrieta’s class challenges many of his students’ assumptions on American education and minorities communities’ experiences in the education system. Although this experience can be difficult for many of his students, Urrieta believes that “making the power structures in education visible” is critical to understanding the past and present of our educational system. By challenging students’ assumptions about American education, Urrieta helps them understand how they can engage with these communities and understand the barriers to education in their communities. Urrieta hopes that as future educators, his students become advocates for the minority students in their classrooms.

The Center for the Skills & Experience Flags provides resources and support for the general education shared by all undergraduates at UT Austin.

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