Noah Carey-Smith, a student of Byron Flitsch at Aveson School of Leaders in Altadena, California, read and responded to the YES! Magazine article “When This Teacher’s Ethnic Studies Classes Were Banned, His Students Took the District to Court—and Won.” In this interview with Curtis Acosta, the Tucson teacher activist takes you inside his former ethnic studies classroom. Acosta shares how his school district’s “rehumanized” Mexican American Studies Program helped empower students by connecting their learning to their history and who they are. Dropout rates fell to almost nothing—until the Arizona Legislature banned it.
Writing Prompt: Describe a teacher or a classroom experience that helped make learning joyful and meaningful for you. Conversely, what message do you have for teachers and administrators who make learning tedious, even painful? How could they make learning more interesting and inspiring?
To Learn Is To Live
When the teacher says to the class, “Pull out your science books and turn to page 16,” the whole class groans, not because science is boring, but because this kind of educational environment makes science seem more like an enemy than a friend. Experiences are “teachers.” They teach us that every day you walk out of that door, there is a world outside waiting for you to change it. I believe that education is the best way to change the world, and that learning must be creative and inspirational to help students find their passion.
For me, self-directed learning has influenced my education for the better. Self-directed learning allows students to be their own advocates for what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. When I was in the fourth grade, our teacher, Ms. Jenelle, introduced us to the Passion Project. The project allowed each student to follow a chosen passion and take action to make his or her community a better place. Ms. Jenelle guided each student with individual meetings so they could access their knowledge and let their ideas flow.
My chosen project was on scholars. Scholars were enlightened people who knew and understood the complex affairs of the world. I wanted to follow the footsteps of the men and women who escaped from the prison of conformity. Wise and knowing scholars challenged us to be compassionate towards all people. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” By designing a bullying assembly for my school, I believe I challenged myself and others to be compassionate towards all people. Nobody should face bullying alone, and that’s why I wanted to do something about it.
The learning environment at Aveson allowed me to explore the bullying dilemma that has plagued schools and students across America for years. I chose to design the assembly in order to understand and address this problem. Creating the assembly gave me a glimpse into the world of bullies, victims, bystanders, and allies. Everybody had a different story to tell. The assembly showed my school that no one in the dark and desperate world of bullying is alone. To prepare for this experience, I spoke with teachers and brainstormed ideas with them. They helped me put the whole thing together, gave me support, and let me venture into the thrill of making my ideas happen. This learning environment allowed me to turn a real dilemma— bullying—into positive action. I was able to show my school how harmful mental and physical abuse could be. I concluded my bully assembly with the teachers holding a circle of lights surrounding the students. This action symbolized how an educational community can illuminate students’ lives and ignite their imaginations. This moment showed me how privileged I am—what a gift it is to experience the untold wonders and joy found in each day.
Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Even Albert Einstein, who was one of the greatest thinkers in the history of the world, thinks that knowledge cannot teach as much as imagination can. According to Curtis Acosta in his YES! Magazine interview, “When This Teacher’s Ethnic Studies Classes Were Banned His Students Took the District to Court —and Won,” “On the first day you walk into a very sterile room filled with unbelievably vibrant young people. But I think the teachers sometimes put up walls and they’re afraid to get close to students.” Teachers should make a concerted effort to get to know each of their students and help them imagine how to change the world and become the heroes of tomorrow.
For better or for worse, teachers are strong influences on students. If a teacher is handing out worksheets all day, how is that student’s mind going to be pushed beyond his or her comfort zone? A student’s learning should revolve around creativity and how to help change our world, which needs all the help it can get. The teacher who cannot acknowledge the importance of imagination and creativity is a bad teacher. Learning is about having a thirst to explore new ideas. An important place where this can happen is in schools, where the pure, beautiful bud of knowledge gets to bloom.
Dr. Seuss once said, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better it’s not.” He was right! Things are not going to change unless inspiring people take action. By “inspiring people” I mean teachers. Inspired kids are smart kids. Good teachers always want what’s best for their students; they want them to succeed in life and grasp hold of their dreams. Good teachers help students take baby steps, which gradually become big leaps. They read them their first Bob Books and help them with their first math problem. An inspired teacher can change their students and the world, but a boring and tedious teacher can’t. To learn is to live.