Just a few days ago I found myself in Castillo de Chapultepec, on top of a large hill in Mexico City. The castle was formerly a military academy, presidential and imperial residence, and is now the site of the Museo Nacional de Historia (The National History Museum). I had come to Mexico City to escape winter in New York, to eat a lot of tacos, and get a small taste of the city’s incredibly rich history and culture. Castillo de Chapultepec was an indispensable stop on this journey.
Having spent the past six weeks studying Mexico with my third graders, in a way I came to Mexico with the mindset of a student. The research and writing of my students had given me a glimpse of what Mexico City would offer. Walking through the city was like the ultimate field trip for me.
And as I walked through Chapultepec Castle I gained an unanticipated new perspective on what it means to be a student.
I took three years of Spanish in high school. Unfortunately, the instruction was less than stellar (Yes, mediocre teachers exist in the suburbs too!). But teaching in the Bronx and Harlem for seven years is a good way to brush up on your Spanish. That said, even after taking a summer intensive Spanish course, I realized during my week in Mexico City that I’m far from conversant.
I stumbled my way through conversations with taxi drivers, waiters, and vendors. But, wandering around a history museum where all the exhibitions were labeled in Spanish made my linguistic limits very clear. Without Spanish proficiency, I found myself only grasping the broad ideas of the history on display in the museum.
This caused me to wonder about the narrative of history I was ingesting. Whose history was I reading? Was it honest? Did it erase or distort certain perspectives?
Suddenly I felt the importance of teachers’ work in the classroom staring me in the face. As a third grade teacher, one of my biggest jobs is to make sure my students are reading proficiently by the end of the year. Struggling to understand the history of Mexico presented at Chapultepec Castle reminded me of why that job is so important.
I don’t just want my students to be readers. I want them to be capable of critical literacy. In other words, I want them to be able to call bullshit when they see it.
For now, as a third-grade teacher, I accept much of the responsibility to present my students with multicultural perspectives in my classroom. I make it a priority to highlight historical counter-narratives through stories like Encounter or The Escape of Oney Judge. But much of the history – and information in general – that my students will consume will be outside of a classroom. They will absorb much of this information through media and through their environmental messages like flags and monuments.
I want them to do what I could not in Mexico City. I want them to look carefully at the source. I want them to be able to think carefully about the story it is telling and the story it is not. Then I want them to decide whether they’re satisfied with what they’ve been told.
This critical literacy is perhaps the key goal of my teaching. Wandering through the beautiful halls of Chapultepec Castle I was reminded of the stakes attached to this objective. Without full literacy, I was only able to passively absorb a narrative that someone else had crafted. I couldn’t separate fact from fiction. I couldn’t distinguish reality from mythology.
It reminded me that for my students I want something better. I want them to be able to pursue the truth for themselves, because if they can’t separate truth from lies they can’t be fully free.