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Teacher Spotlight: Rosalie Reyes celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month by creating Central American curriculum to bring that rich culture, history to the classroom

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | October 2, 2019

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Rosalie Reyes

This interview is one in a series spotlighting Los Angeles teachers, their unique and innovative classroom approaches, and their thoughts on how the education system can better support teachers in guiding students to success.

Rosalie Reyes has always been proud of her Latin origin. Her parents are from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, but this year she wants to focus Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations around Central American history by launching the first-ever Teach Central America Week.

Reyes spent six years teaching in early education classrooms in New York City and Washington, D.C. Last year, she decided to take a new job as a coordinator of teacher engagement and professional development at Teaching for Change, a D.C.-based organization that offers classroom teachers opportunities to enrich their skills and creates lessons to help supplement pre-K–12 curriculum around social justice.

This year, Reyes led the development of a curriculum about Central American history so teachers across the country can bring it into their classrooms during the week of October 7-13.

“So more than 4 million Central Americans reside in the U.S. and yet there is an extreme lack of resources in most schools on Central American heritage that makes the rich history and culture of the region invisible,” Reyes said.

She thinks that given the recent migrant crisis at the border, it’s more important than ever for American students to understand what has led so many Central Americans to flee their home countries.

At one LA Unified high school, nearly 1 in 4 students were unaccompanied minors who emigrated from Central America, according to an LA Times article. The district received an influx of immigrant children from Central and South America in 2013-14.

LA School Report asked Reyes about what could be done better or what needs to change in the education system to allow reforms and innovation to take place in the classroom, as well as her goals for the 2019-20 school year. Her answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why is it so important for you to ensure that Central American history and culture be incorporated into the school curriculum?

So we at Teaching for Change want this campaign to encourage educators to teach about Central America. Well, we were noting that many of the educators also saw that this was something that was missing. There was a large gap and a disparity around different lessons and books available to them around (say) French-American history or heritage. So our students here and across the country were not seeing themselves reflected in their school experience. So we kind of organized and began to collect different resources to kind of make this available to educators across the country. So the Teach Central America website hosts resources on Central American history. We have lessons from early childhood education to 12th grade. Booklists available for all reading levels and they’re categorized by the different countries in Central America. We have resources around different films, poetry and art, so many different modalities and ways to teach about Central American history and the beauty of the culture of the region.

In teaching immigrant students, how helpful would it be for teachers to incorporate the Central American history curriculum into their lessons? 

I do have experience teaching immigrant students. So this is something that is very important to me. I would say that something helpful for educators is that you can’t teach what you don’t know. A lot of the times when we go into schools, kind of introducing this week of action, we either ask educators, we will hand out a blank map of Central America and ask them to fill in the map and ‘Can you name the seven countries of Central America?’ Many of the times a lot of our teachers have a difficult time naming the countries. So it really tends to be that kind of an eye-opening experience, their own schooling experience and this kind of invigorating time for them to explore it and learn with their students.

So it’s not something that we’re hoping to make educators feel bad about their own knowledge about the region because the reasons that we don’t know is that this is the continued pattern of this eraser in our curriculum. We aren’t taught this history and we’re really excited to kind of have our teachers grow with their students. And so that adults and our students are growing and learning together. Many of the ways that we do that is using history as a key to understanding, like the current events in Central America, especially given the current social, political climate and them receiving a big number of children from Central America.

As a way to counter that anti-immigration rhetoric that we’re hearing so heavily, we really want educators to explore that history, to explore the role of the United States in Central America and immigration. Kind of unpacking and exploring that history with your middle and high school students.

What do you think the public education system, like school districts or states, can do to better support teachers in better serving this immigrant student population?

So both on the individual and district level, we are hoping the school districts endorse the week, explore these resources, bring them into their teaching and learning communities. Because there’s is an absolute gap that we’re noticing and that it needs to be confronted on a district level.

How can parents and families benefit from their students learning this curriculum? 

I would say we use a lot of children’s literature to kind of explore different regions’ history and culture and the beauty that lives there. So we use that as a way to kind of introduce or explore these different countries and understanding that this can be where the families of some of the students we serve live. And make sure that no matter what race or ethnic background or where you live, that you are offering these windows for your children to know about these different communities.

What is your goal with this initiative?

I would say our goal is, we would love to see this in all schools. In our state (D.C.), if we could really, really push for like a mandate to make this part of the ethnic studies curriculum. To make it a necessity for all students to kind of learn and to really rethink who is centered in our curriculum and making sure that all of the students that we’re serving are represented in what we’re teaching.

So we also oversee, which is originally where we hosted many of our curated booklets and for the Central American-focused story. And we are urging publishers to address the scarcity of books about Central America and by Central American authors. There are really, really a lot of disparities in children’s publications, children’s literature publications and there is a large lack of books that are in print by Central American authors. So we are kind of hoping to organize educators and parents around this issue as we continue to talk about diversity in children’s literature.

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