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How can toys teach both science and Hispanic heritage? This project explores that

·7 min read

Teachers, students and families have been coming together at one Fort Worth elementary school for the last 30 years to celebrate Hispanic heritage and highlight the contributions Latinos have made in literature, science, history and the arts.

It started when Eddie Arellano, then fresh out of college at the University of North Texas, noticed a lack of representation in educational content and proposed a student-led educational project that would include students from every classroom. Since then it has grown into a community-wide tradition.

“Now with technology, I believe we are seeing more of an emphasis on multiculturalism,” he said. “We didn’t really see a lot of that in our textbooks or in the media.”

With Dolores Huerta Elementary being a dual-language school, Arellano said that was unacceptable.

“I think that is the responsibility we have as educators, to make sure that the students see themselves in society in a very positive light,” he said. “And also to feel that they are part of this country and they can contribute to this country.”

The project is fitting for the school, whose namesake is an American labor and civil rights activist who, along with Cesar Chavez, co-founded the National Farmworkers Association. The organization is now called United Farm Workers.

Students and teachers choose a project each year that incorporates lessons students are learning already, connecting the content to the students heritage.

Personal connections

Marisol Herrera, a fourth-grade teacher, worked with students this year to explore the properties of traditional Mexican toys, including baleros (a cup and ball game), yo-yos, trompos (a Mexican top) and tablitas, which is similar to Jacob’s ladder.

“Usually I try to do something that ties into the standard that we are learning in the classroom,” she said. “So this year I decided to do a science investigation where we are learning about force.”

Students learned about how forces like gravity and friction interacted with the different toys to make them work. They noted physical properties, drew diagrams and presented their findings in an exhibit in the hallway.

“Gravity works to pull this down,” Lliemy Barbosa, a student, said while demonstrating tablitas.

Herrera said that the museum project has engaged students in subjects that are often taught in a way that is removed from students’ lives.

“We could have used any toys, or any items,” she said. “But the fact that we used something that has a connection to not just the real world, but to our culture and our families -- I think that takes it up to that level of science is in my home. Not just in a home, but it is in my home. Science is part of my culture.”

Iker Ortiz, who is also in Herrera’s class, said the museum is something he looks forward to every year, although it was interrupted due to the coronavirus last year.

The project is also an opportunity for parents to become involved in the learning process, interacting with students and teachers to share their experiences, recipes and history to be incorporated into the projects.

Jovanna Ocegueda, a fifth-grade teacher, combined history and science by working with her students to create floating gardens using the same techniques as the Aztecs.

“The students are more engaged, especially after these few years that some have been out of school,” she said. “They are really enjoying being able to talk to their peers and not being muted the whole time.”

Like Herrera, Ocegueda said students are able to connect to the content on a more personal level through the museum project.

Pre-K students in multiple classes read books and recreated family-trees and explored genealogy, while students in several grades researched the relevance of Frida Kahlo, a Mexican painter known for her self-portraits.

Yolanda Darden, the art teacher for the district, said that over the years, the project has helped students to realize their potential.

“Being able to go to a museum, being able to see images that are painted or drawn by people that look like you is important, because that doesn’t put any limits on what you want to do,” she said. “It is about them seeing themselves in a positive manner and saying ‘one day, I could do that.’”

District-wide interest

While the exhibit has been hosted every year for decades, Arellano said the projects have garnered more attention from neighboring schools and the administration this time around.

Teachers from other schools who have been at the school teaching Saturday Learning Quest have asked about the displays, and talked about hosting similar projects at their home campuses.

“What a lot of people see is themselves in the projects,” Arellano said.

The museum is also a competition, with judges from departments including the district-level social studies, art, bilingual and equity and excellency departments visiting the school to judge and give feedback on student’s work.

“All of that validates the project,” Arellano said.

Wendy Mccoy, FWISD’s art specialist, said campuses across the district could benefit from hosting similar campus-wide projects.

“Creating real world opportunities for the students, and making lessons related to what they are doing is so important,” she said. “It is also about celebrating the teachers and the students’ work.”

Ashlea Kiiing, the art curator for the district, said judging the exhibits is one of the few times she gets to visit a campus outside of hosting art shows.

“It is nice to come out and see what they are doing in the classrooms, and see how they are incorporating art into their projects and celebrating their culture and seeing what that looks like for them,” she said. “I think it is important for other schools to do it because you want to hit on those cultures and expose kids to other cultures.”

Fort Worth Superintendent Kent Scribner also made a visit to the school this week, lauding the collaboration between students across the campus.

“It’s inspiring to see how students have taken a deep-dive into a topic or subject, done their research, and created presentations that bring it all together and make learning fun,” he said.

Diverse Lessons

The exhibit comes as schools across the state grapple with how to enforce recent legislation that lays out guidelines for what school district’s are allowed to include in their social studies curriculum and how they are supposed to teach it.

Books and lessons that highlight diversity have come under scrutiny, and even been removed from schools in some Texas districts, while others district leaders come under fire for the guidance they are giving teachers in terms of the books they can have in their classrooms.

Arellano said that he has run into push back over the years that he has curated the student-led museum, but that despite the current atmosphere he is optimistic.

“The whole 30 years that I’ve done this, I have to be honest, there have been challenges,” he said. “This is the reason why it’s so important for us to have museums like this because what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to not only educate our students but we’re also educating the parents and the community and making a positive experience.”

Alejandra Rubio, the campus librarian, has worked with teachers across the campus to provide diverse books for the museum, and other multicultural projects like one the campus holds for Black History month in February.

She said she has not felt pressure to hold back on providing diverse books for students like other districts across the state.

“It is a little sad that is happening,” she said. “Diversity is everywhere, you can’t run away from it. We should embrace it as much as can, because it is not going to stop.”

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