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Developing Critical Collective Consciousness Through High School Ethnic Studies


This study examines the development and implementation of ninth grade Ethnic Studies curriculum in a California school district. Ethnic Studies offers curricula that reflect the epistemological diversity of the United States population. Despite movements promoting multicultural education, the teaching and learning of Ethnic Studies is a contested arena at the K-12 level. The criminalization of Ethnic Studies in states like Arizona has led to movements to defend the discipline in universities, colleges, and school districts throughout the nation. The research on K-12 Ethnic Studies demonstrates that culturally relevant and community responsive curricula improve student academic achievement through innovative learning environments and effective critical pedagogies. Indeed, Ethnic Studies has been shown to improve educational experiences and outcomes for historically marginalized students, but what are the processes and challenges districts and teachers face when establishing these courses?

Developing a Critical Collective Consciousness through High School Ethnic Studies examines the emergence of high school Ethnic Studies curriculum in a large metropolitan area in California. Through a critical ethnographic approach, I conducted a four-year study of the curricular and political processes used to institutionalize Ethnic Studies in one school district. I analyzed qualitative data drawn from participant observation of teacher professional development, observations in six ninth grade Ethnic Studies classrooms, and interviews with teachers to illuminate the processes of developing and implementing a district-wide course. I document how teachers formed a critical teaching community, mobilized with students to expand Ethnic Studies throughout the district, and worked collaboratively to build Comparative Ethnic Studies curricula. I show that in response to variation in teachers’ knowledge and backgrounds, teachers formed in a district-supported teaching community with the purpose of building Comparative Ethnic Studies curricula and providing praxis-oriented professional development. Ethnic Studies teachers also addressed the problems of differential knowledge and orientation of race, power, and teacher positionality in the context of Ethnic Studies classrooms. Out of these discussions emerged critical race dialogue that led to teachers developing racial literacy and a critical collective consciousness, which, in turn, resulted in a collective identity and shared views on key elements of Ethnic Studies perspectives and approaches.

This dissertation also captures processes of interrogating hegemonic knowledge and counterhegemonic knowledge production within the Ethnic Studies classroom. Teachers rearticulated knowledge to help students understand how power relations operated within their lives and their communities. The opportunity to develop new curricula gave educators the space to grow as intellectuals in their teaching role. Throughout this process, they developed a collective ownership of the curricula and produced knowledge in accessible ways. Students also participated in producing knowledge. In the classroom, Ethnic Studies teachers engage students in the process of history-making, where students placed their familial and community’s stories within a sociopolitical context of American history. This study holds implications for the fields of Education and Ethnic Studies. The findings from this dissertation contribute to the growing research on socially relevant education and innovative approaches to serving historically marginalized students as schools and school districts expand their offerings of K-12 Ethnic Studies.

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