By Janet Goetze
For The Hollywood Star News
Ethnic studies are courses offered in colleges, but Madison High School students also may choose a class that examines the history and experiences of ethnic groups in the United States.
James Jeffrey-West, the teacher who developed the course, noted that 40 languages are spoken among Madison’s 1,100 students representing many backgrounds.
“Any student who takes the class should see themselves in the curriculum,” Jeffrey-West said.
Teachers at other schools also are recognizing value in expanding cultural and historical courses beyond the traditional European emphasis. Lincoln High School, for instance, offers an ethnic studies class and Roosevelt High lists a cultural studies elective examining the literature and history of non-white cultures in the United States. In recent years, social studies teachers at Madison have developed other courses that examine history from non-traditional angles, often following suggestions from students.
Those include the history of pop culture, the history of sports and gender studies, including how women and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer community have struggled for their rights through history.
After some of his students asked for a class for “sitting around, listening to music,” Jason Miller outlined a one-semester elective in pop culture.
However, it goes beyond music through the decades of the 20th century to include changing fashion, foods and media and how they have mirrored social change in the United States.
“It’s a way of examining how being a teenager has changed over time,” Miller said.
He’s learning a lot in his research through old radio dramas and about food, the teacher said.
“Bear lard,” he said, is an ingredient listed in one early recipe. He’s also trying out Jell-O salad, using a product commonly found in 1950s and 1960s kitchens for side dishes and desserts.
The one-semester sports history elective, Miller said, offers a way to understand how sports have shaped American culture. A focus is the rise of organized sports institutions and, the class description says, “how race, class, gender, ethnicity and religion have shaped the relationship between sports and society.”
Before the semester ends, each student selects a sports figure to research for written and oral reports. Investigating the subject also appeals to students who may not be drawn to typical academic classes, Miller said.
“A lot of struggling students come to school only to play sports,” he said.
Studying sports history gives them a subject they like and provides reading, research and writing avenues to follow, he said.
Gender studies is an elective that appeals to students aware of policy issues and controversies surrounding feminism, homosexuality and the changing roles of men and women in society, said the teacher, Camila Arze Torres Goitia.
Each student is asked to develop a workshop based on his or her studies, then present it to another classroom, usually including freshmen, Arze said.
Besides providing information, the workshops indicate to younger students that Madison is tolerant of the spectrum of sexuality, she said, noting that several students are gay or transgender.
A Madison junior, Felipe Jimenez, 16, elected to take the ethnic studies and gender studies classes because, he said, “They are very relevant now. I like discussing current events.”
As a person of color, Jimenez said, he found important information in the ethnic studies class. He also wanted to learn more about the experiences of other ethnic groups. In gender studies, he said, he’s learned about the suffragettes and their efforts to gain the vote for women. A wage gap between men and women also was a discussion topic, he said.
He recently completed the one-semester history of sports class where his research project focused on Pancho Gonzales, whom Jimenez first heard about in the ethnic studies class. Gonzales was a working-class kid from Los Angeles who became a top world tennis player in the mid-20th century when the sport was played mostly in private clubs.
Gonzales, who was largely self-taught, initially faced barriers in part for his Latino background, but school truancy and brushes with the law also were cited by some. Nevertheless, by the time he turned professional at age 21 in 1949, Gonzales had won six major amateur championships. He went on to win eight singles titles, five U.S. men’s doubles championship and, at age 41 in 1969, he defeated Charlie Pasarell in a 112-game match that was the longest in Wimbledon tournament history.
Another tennis player, Serena Williams, is the subject of Natoryia Arnold’s research project for sports history. The 17-year-old junior plays tennis herself and has felt the sting of racism that Williams and her sister, Venus, experienced as African-Americans in a formerly elite sport.
Coaches were fine but other students in her Portland Parks Bureau tennis class, Arnold said, “didn’t expect me to be good” and made remarks to “get under my skin.”
Arnold chose the sports history class in part because she enjoyed Miller’s teaching style in the modern world history class she took as a freshman. Miller goes beyond textbooks and lectures, Arnold said, underscoring an approach that Madison’s social studies teachers have adopted.
“He made the class really interactive and appealing to me,” Arnold said.