Motivated by the topic of this year's Yale Institute -
Latino Cultures and Communities
- I looked at my 8th grade curriculum to see if I could develop a new unit. I knew that in each school marking period, I find myself less prepared to develop lessons, answer questions, and guide student research on topics related to the history and culture of Latinos in the United States. I had an opportunity to fill the gap - or at least address it. The Midwestern school system I grew up in some years ago did not focus much on Latin America except when we studied the Panama Canal and the Rough Riders. My 8th grade students should do better. On a wider level and as a school system, we should appreciate and better integrate the history of these diverse cultures especially as the numbers of Latino students in our school, in our city, and in our nation increase from year to year.
The 7th grade social studies curriculum in New Haven focuses on world cultures. Students arrive in the 8th grade with some exposure to the cultures of Latin America from the previous year. The curriculum begins with Latin America and the meaning of culture. Students are introduced to the five themes of geography
through a study of Central and South America. Students learn about location, place, human environment/interaction, movement, and region through a general introduction to life and culture in these regions. The standard for the first marking period reads: "Students will understand how location, place, human/environmental interactions, movement and regions are intertwined with the characteristics, meaning, and development of culture through a study of Latin America and the Caribbean."
Students who reach the 8th grade remember basic vocabulary -- what is culture, agriculture, irrigation and hopefully the five themes -- and their geographic knowledge has increased, but they haven't studied the interaction and collision of these cultures with Native Americans and Americans over time in North and South America. The approach has been geographic and cultural rather than historical. Ironically, Latino culture today, in its broadest sense, could include elements of all these groups: the Spanish, African, indigenous people, other European and American!
In an average class of twenty-six 8th grade students, perhaps six or seven students are of Latino descent - and their families are still strongly connected to roots in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Columbia, Mexico, and other locations. Ironically their awareness of the contributions of Latino ancestors to the history and culture of America is quite weak. When we studied the Florida Cession of 1819, followed by the Mexican-American War in 1848, all of the students were quite surprised to learn that so much of the "continental" United States had been under Spanish control. They were even more surprised to learn that the ancestors of our Hispanic or Latino students might possibly have longer historical ties to the American past than any other group in the classroom.