Elías Valverde, a social studies teacher at Fort Worth's Paschal High School, spent a recent morning talking to his ninth-graders about the history of La Gran Plaza.
The popular Fort Worth shopping mall with more than 200 stores has gone through several changes over the years. Today, it caters to the city's growing Latino population. In a city of 895,000 people, around 35% are Latino.
Students point out the many items you can find there: elotes or grilled corn sold by food vendors and quinceñera dresses, the dresses worn by girls celebrating their fifteenth birthdays.
“Now La Gran Plaza is breaking the mold of malls,” Valverde said. “And this is not just here in Fort Worth, they’ve done it in other parts of the country, too, where the demographics of the people have changed the population, so they’re adapting to meet the new population.”
Valverde's point is to make the students think about the larger significance of the Fort Worth shopping center.
“It lets the students know that they’re a part of history,” Valverde said. “They may not have picked up on it before in seventh- or eighth-grade social studies or earlier, but now with this new curriculum overlay, they’re going to see that yes, Latino history has played a part, African American history has played a part, and that’s part of what makes our country great.”
By curriculum overlay, he means two new curriculum guidebooks created for the infusion of Latino studies and African and African American history and culture across all grade levels.
David Colón, associate professor of English and Latino studies and Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies at Texas Christian University, is one of several academic consultants the district hired to develop the Latino studies and the African and African American history and culture guides. Fort Worth ISD also got input from the community through a series of stakeholder meetings.
“It’s not meant to be separate because Texas has its standards for social studies,” Colón said. “What they wanted was in places where it would fit, where we could be more inclusive on the history, the economies, the stories of Latinos in the United States, to basically cover blind spots and infuse our curriculum with a more accurate history of our people.”
Take the American Revolution.
“When students study the American Revolution,” Colón said. “Most students don’t study very much about say Bernardo de Galvez, who was the governor of Spanish Louisiana, who funded numerous battles that the Continental Army won against the British in the Midwest.”
Colon points out that Galvez had a battalion that included Native American and freed African Americans at a time when regiments and battalions were segregated.
Fort Worth is one of several Texas school districts that offers an elective Latino studies course in high school. And the State Board of Education is considering offering a course on African American studies statewide, modeled after a class Dallas ISD created.
While these classes are important, Fort Worth ISD wanted to make this content available to students before high school. During the 2018-19 school year, 84,332 students were enrolled in the district. Of that, 63% were Hispanic, 22% were African American, 11% were white and 1.8% were Asian.
Joseph Niedziela, the district’s director of social studies, said this additional material could help the students become more engaged.
“In looking at our standards and our textbooks, we know that the history that they’re taught, with those resources alone, they don’t always identify with,” Niedziela said. “And so what we want to do is we want to bring in a history that they can identify with.”
The more students can see themselves in the material they’re studying, he said, the more likely they’ll want to learn it.
“It’s an absolute necessity that we have this type of curriculum in place and we create opportunities for conversations that don’t ordinarily happen and provide a structure and a safe place for those conversations to happen,” Niedziela said.
Back in the classroom, Valverde puts that into practice as he asks his ninth-graders to split up into groups and discuss what they’ve learned.
Leslie Casique, whose parents are from Guanajuato, Mexico, said these discussions could actually help her relationship with them.
“You learn things you didn’t expect to know,” she said. “You can relate more to your parents now.”
By understanding where her parents came from, she said, she can better understand history.