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Ethnic Studies: A curricular redesign with a faculty dream team

On first glance the Strub 113 classroom is a somewhat workaday location compared to the many newly renovated spaces flourishing on the same floor of the building—like the Senior Lounge, the redesigned art rooms, the flex spaces being used for study hall, and the new classroom carved from the corner of the library which has all of the aesthetic appeal of a childhood treehouse. But although Strub 113 is not displaying any element of physical redesign, it is a site for an exciting curricular re-think.
This room hosts Mayfield’s first Ethnic Studies course, which also happens to be the first class at Mayfield co-taught by several teachers. This dream team roster includes four of the most esteemed and dynamic members of the Mayfield teaching faculty, consisting of April Garcez, Dr. Anne Hartfield ‘77, Toi Treister ’82, J.D. and Tina Zapata. One teacher covers a unit and then hands the class off to the next teacher who covers their own unit material.

This Ethnic Studies elective was carefully constructed with the existing models and guidelines for UC-approved courses covering similar materials. It focuses on themes of social justice, social responsibility and social change, using an interdisciplinary approach to analyze the historical and contemporary issues associated with race, class and ethnicity in the United States. Mrs. Treister—co-teacher for the course and Mayfield’s Assistant Head of School for Academics—sees this class as an opportunity for students who are “curious about other cultures,” and also useful for those who want “to learn about these topics in a safe space.” 

On this warm September morning, 17 seniors and one junior file into Strub 113, all masked, most carrying hydroflasks and a few with steaming cups of coffee. Ms. Garcez welcomes everyone to take their seats. The students had already reviewed their homework from the night before, with video clips from PBS NewsHour, another from the Van Jones show, and one from The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. Since the class utilizes a university lecture-style format, everyone arrives ready for discussion on today’s topic: “bias.”
Bias is not a new term for anyone in the room. The idea has already been introduced and explored in their Theology, Social Studies, and Formation of Self (FoS) classes before. Le Anh Metzger ’22 explains, “I think that FoS helped me understand what we have been learning in this class, because the first unit of Ethnic Studies...which dealt with how you view yourself, how others view you, and the effects of bias...we talked a lot about in sophomore year FoS.”

Ms. Garcez shares a slide deck that emphasizes the biological basis of what we currently refer to as “bias.” “Our brains are biologically designed to perform these quick judgments unconsciously,” she says. “In early prehistory, this unconscious, streamlined thinking was a form of protection against threats from the natural world.” However in the modern world this instinct can also minimize “the complexity and humanity of others.” And Ms. Garcez says increased awareness is key, because with, “conscious effort, we have the power to change how we think.”  And bias is a universal human trait, and every individual or group is vulnerable to it.
 
At this point Ms. Garcez adds some complexity to the conversation. “Now that we know we all have bias,” she says, “would you prefer to be in a classroom when a teacher admits bias or not?”

The question is posed as purely hypothetical and this rhetorical device quickly stimulates thoughtful discussion that ties directly into the reading material and the videos. Students go on to talk about implicit and explicit biases, and tackle the challenge that many aspects of bias are often at the level of the subconscious. What would it look like if someone disclosed their biases in a classroom setting? Is that even possible? Or desirable? The class weighs the pros and cons of that scenario, and the limitations inherent in the enterprise.

Kate Thompson ‘22 wonders aloud about the need for a verbal recognition of bias, if the work of internal recognition has taken place in a deeply intentional way? She says her AP US Government class with Ms. Zapata, was “a perfect example.” She recalls, “Especially in a highly political class. I couldn't tell you a single one of her political stances and where she stands on the political spectrum."

Ms. Garcez agrees that Ms. Zapata has a disciplined practice in this regard, a talent that this class will directly benefit from, when she takes the helm of this Ethnic Studies class in Unit 4. 

The class is divided into six units. Unit 1 covers “Identity” with Ms. Garcez; Unit 2 covers “American Indian Studies” with Dr. Hartfield; Unit 3 covers “African American Studies” with Mrs. Treister; Unit 4 covers “Latin-X Studies” with Ms. Zapata, Unit 5 covers “Asian American/Pacific Islander Studies” with Dr. Hartfield, and the course concludes in Unit 6 which “Celebrates contributions and recognizes challenges” with Ms. Garcez. 

This multi-teacher approach is still being piloted at Mayfield, but was discussed extensively beforehand. And Mrs. Treister is thrilled the way this class has taken on this format. “I've been encouraging others to try this for some years now,” she says. “How awesome is it to have mini experts teaching you about a topic that they are either familiar with...instead of one teacher covering everything for an entire class in the traditional sense.” 

Among these staff members, this tag-team teaching approach is entirely new to some, and old hat to others. Ms. Zapata explains “I have co-taught an Ethnic Studies course at a public school with the principal of the school. It was a fun experience...I enjoy curriculum planning with colleagues.” This will be Dr. Hartfield’s first time using this approach, but she shares a sense of excitement for the project saying that her fellow teachers “may differ a bit in our methodologies and styles, [but] we are all in sync in that we have similar teaching philosophies, and I think we all respect each other and enjoy working together.” Mrs. Treister adds, “Education is evolving and it's important that we are evolving as well.”

Avalon Dela Rosa ‘22 described why she personally signed up for Ethnic Studies this inaugural year: “I was intrigued by the lecture style of the class itself. As a senior, I feel that any extra preparation I can get before college in discussion-based classes is exceedingly helpful.” As co-head of Student Diversity Council, Avalon feels the subject material is deeply relevant, adding she hopes ”to learn more about myself and my own identity along with learning how others identify themselves.” And although the topics explored in the class may address sensitive issues, Avalon said her education experiences at Mayfield thus far, “helped me feel more comfortable discussing heavy topics in the classroom environment.”

By the end of this class, Ms. Garcez hopes that students will be able to “examine and reflect and think much deeper about their interactions with the world, with their community” and regardless of the way they decide to interact and process the material moving forward, she also suspects “they will be changed after this course.”
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.