Fall 2016


Teaching Social Justice to Fourth-Graders

Gabriel Aquino brings multicultural education to students of Smith River Elementary School in Del Norte County.

IT’S A BASIC COMING-OF-AGE STORY about a Mexican-American girl whose family lives in a small one-bedroom house. But when read to a group of fourth-graders in a Del Norte County classroom, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros became a catalyst for cultural mindfulness.

“The book sparked an interest in different lifestyles and what was happening to their peers,” recalls Gabriel Aquino, a Liberal Studies Elementary Education major. “There was no judgment. They were giddy talking about their backgrounds and hearing about how other people live.”

Exposure to diverse perspectives, discussion of cultural differences—that’s the point of multicultural education, which students like Aquino have learned to apply in the classroom through an innovative course created last year.

The undergraduate class, Critical Multicultural Children’s Literature, was developed and taught by School of Education Professor Marisol Ruiz. Education students often teach traditional subjects (math, art, science, etc.) in local elementary schools to gain experience. However, Ruiz’s class—a first at HSU—gave students the chance to teach multicultural education to children.

The way she sees it, the class is her response to racial incidents and a need in schools.

“I created this class because I heard some students in local community schools were attacked and being called the ‘N’ word,” says Ruiz. “Young kids need to see themselves represented in literature, history, science, and math; to see that the norm is diversity; and to learn to not only respect each other but to learn from each other.”

The key to this awareness and understanding, she says, is multicultural education. The goal is to create a path toward a more socially just society.

Born out of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s, multicultural education incorporates the perspectives of diverse cultures across all disciplines by what’s taught, how it’s taught, and who teaches it.

For students, multicultural education could mean, for example, exposure to children’s literature that tackles topics such as race, class, gender, religion, and abilities. For educators, that could mean including multicultural and social justice instructional materials, and also making schools more open and welcoming to the community.

At its heart, multicultural education’s goal is to create a more just world for all students, especially historically underrepresented youth, and to arm them with critical thinking skills so they can help make the changes they want to see in society.

For Ruiz, change begins with HSU students. Skeptical at first, some were concerned kids wouldn’t be interested in discussing weighty social issues.

Not so, says Smith River Elementary School teacher Luis Pelayo. He took Ruiz’s class through HSU’s teaching credential program and worked closely with her on his master’s thesis. Cultural issues come up, he says, and at the most unexpected moments.

“I presented a word problem in which a girl made more money than a boy,” he recalls of his fourth-graders. Some boys didn’t believe he could make less. I told them that in the real world, women make less than men doing the same job. They were shocked and realized it wasn’t fair.

“All of a sudden, a math lesson turned into a discussion on salaries. So no matter what’s taught, it’s important to address social issues right then and there.”