Last week marked the beginning of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from September 15 - October 15. While Hispanic Heritage Month may not get as much attention or targeted marketing as other national month-long observances, it is a great time to recommit to supporting Latino students in our classrooms. Hispanics are the fastest growing population group in the United States and, therefore, the fastest growing population in our public schools as well. Approximately 2.9 million Hispanics are enrolled in U.S. High Schools but face dropout rates 65% higher than their white peers and almost 40% higher than their Black peers. All this to say that it’s important that we, as teachers, take time this month to consider how we can rise to the challenge of supporting our Hispanic students.
In surveys and statistics, “Hispanic” is an overarching, ambiguous term that contains mountains of diversity. This group represents people of hundreds of different races, national/ethnic backgrounds, language groups, religions, and citizenship statuses. Hispanics even use a long list of different terms to describe ourselves, which can further complicate terminology - latinx, latin@s, chicanos, hispanos, gurises, mexicanos, dominicanos … the list goes on and on. Not to mention that categorizing this diverse group as “other” or a “minority” also denies a long history of interconnected Indigenous cultures and the impermanence of changing political borders.
I use the term “Latino” in this article because it’s what I identify with and feel most comfortable using, though I know the complexities of the term leave much room for debate. However, without getting too caught up in the labels, here are five actionable steps teachers can take in the next 30 days to support their Latino students.5 Things You Can Do This Month to Support Your Latino Students Click To Tweet
1. Get to know students and celebrate diversity.
The beginning of the school year provides a flood of new faces and the opportunity to build new relationships. As with all students, it’s important to celebrate diversity among Latino students rather than place them in a box. It may go without saying, but not all Latinos eat tacos. My family is Uruguayan, and we shudder at the taste of anything spicy. Even within nationalities, there are so many different regions and cultural specificities. Most of the Latino students at my school are Ecuadorian, but I have quickly learned that the students from the highlands have lived a totally different life than the kids from the coasts. Likewise, there are indigenous Latinos, Afro-Latinos, white Latinos, and mixed Latinos, who all encounter different experiences navigating the racial hierarchies in the U.S.
Lastly, don’t assume citizenship status. A student who speaks perfect English may, in fact, be undocumented and face additional barriers to their education path. About 1.6 million children in the U.S. are undocumented, while an additional three million are native-born citizens but have parents who are undocumented. On the other hand, a student who has recently immigrated to the U.S. may struggle with the English language but may, in fact, be a U.S. citizen or naturalized resident. As you get to know your Latino students, keep an open mind about their lived experiences. They will represent a wide range of races, cultures, and socio-economic backgrounds.
2. Start the year with an eye toward relevant curriculum.
Growing up, I remember relishing the few paragraphs of my high school history textbook that discussed South America. This curricular betrayal sent me to college seeking more understanding of my heritage and my history. There are so many resources to bring Hispanic heritage into our classrooms. However, many classes still lack basic inclusion, let alone celebration, of Latin American topics. Hispanic Heritage Month offers a great opportunity to celebrate Latino leaders, stories, and histories, but it should also set us on a path of planning relevant curriculum for our Latino students throughout the year. What Latino authors can you include in your classroom library? How can you incorporate Latin American history (beyond the Aztecs and Incas) into your curriculum? Check out the NEA’s website for curricula for all age groups as a place to get started. According to recent data, only 20% of Latinos 25-29 years old have obtained a college degree. Maybe the first step to keeping our Latino students enrolled and engaged in schools is to make sure the school’s curriculum recognizes and empowers them.
3. Go to bat for EL Students.
While only 28% of Hispanic students in public schools are identified as English learners (EL), about 77% of all EL students are Hispanic. Therefore, supporting EL students and programs in your school will also, most likely, mean supporting Latino students. This can look like utilizing EL instructional approaches in your classroom, but it can also mean fighting for structural and systematic changes.
Take, for example, the beginning of the school year in my EL World History class. On the first day of school I had 37 students who needed help getting their schedules changed, finding their lockers, and picking up their devices at the tech office. Some new-to-country students have also never been part of a “traditional” schooling environment before, which presents further barriers and challenges, especially when everything is in a foreign language. So lend a hand and take the extra step for your English language learners. Help your student get to their next class, advocate for a schedule change that will benefit them, or use Google Translate to provide preliminary instructions for a classroom task. The more ways EL students feel seen and safe in our schools, the more they will be able to focus on academics and thrive.5 Things You Can Do This Month to Support Your Latino Students Click To Tweet
4. Support culture and promote extracurriculars.
A few weeks ago, Bad Bunny made headlines for being the first non-English speaking entertainer to win artist of the year at the VMA’s, but Latin music is still far from making its way into the mainstream. While KPop and Hip Hop have found their way into the lexicon of popular American music, reggaeton and cumbia are yet to break through. For this reason, the Latino students at my school even hosted their own “Latino Prom” last year because they knew that the school’s DJ would not be playing the music they wanted to listen to and dance to.
As teachers, we can’t change the trends of the music industry, but we can always support and validate Latino culture both inside and outside of the classroom. Whether it’s in the drumline or on the soccer field, supporting your Latino students goes a long way. If they are talking about a Mariachi band they perform in on the weekends or a traditional Quechua dance troupe they practice with, ask them when you can go see a performance. Who knows, next thing you know, you may be invited to more quinceaneras than you can count!
5. Reach out to families.
As teachers, we hear this all the time, but for Latino families in particular, making connections with the school is extremely important. Results from the National Household Education Surveys found that Latino families - even those who are Spanish speaking or have low educational attainment themselves - are as likely or more likely to be involved with their child’s education than White families. I, too, have noticed that a disproportionate number of parents at conference night are Latino, and the question they ask more than anything is, “Is my child being respectful in class?”
Education is a family affair, and breaking down barriers to involve Latino parents can make all the difference for their students. If your school doesn’t have a Latino Family Liaison yet, push your administration to create a new position. Additionally, advocate for more Spanish-speaking staff and Latino teachers, which will make a world of difference for your EL students, Spanish-speaking parents, and the school community in general. Liaisons and staff who are able to connect more families with traditional support systems can help us tackle disproportionate dropout rates affecting Latino youth.
Overall, educating Latino students comes with unique benefits and challenges. Hispanic Heritage Month is an important time to reflect on our impact as educators and to set intentions to support and empower our Latino students throughout the year. Whether it be through curriculum changes or seeking deeper relationships with students and families, even small efforts can produce radical results.
Kristen Sinicariello is currently in her seventh year of teaching at a high school in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As a Social Studies teacher, she is passionate about taking a diverse approach to history while helping students unpack bias in a rapidly changing world. Before stepping into the classroom, Kristen spent time as an outdoor educator and wilderness guide, and continues to find most of her opportunities for learning and personal growth in the outdoors. Currently she also keeps busy as a girls soccer coach, a union communications leader, and a Social Justice Club supervisor.
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