Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
Photo courtesy of

Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown

My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Let's here it for MUSIC in education!!

I got to spend last Friday at Hershey Park with over two hundred middle school band, orchestra, and chorus students. They spent the morning performing some incredible music at nearby schools and then got to celebrate on the rides at the park (where I hadn't been since I was in 5th grade!) and then sweep top honors at the awards ceremony. The magical music they created was truly inspiring and yet another reminder on the power of music to change lives.

In case you needed more of an argument on the power of arts, especially music in education, read on:

Preschoolers who were given music keyboard lessons improved their spatial-temporal reasoning. A peer group, who were given computer lessons, showed no improvement. Spatial-temporal reasoning is the abstract reasoning that is used for understanding relationships between objects such as calculating a proportion or playing chess. Spatial-temporal reasoning is important in subjects such as mathematics and science.
source: Educational Leadership, November, 1998, p. 39
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
article: "The Music in Our Minds"
Norman M. Weinberger, Professor of Psychobiology at the University of California, Irvine, referencing research of F.H. Rauscher, G.L. Shaw et al, 1997, Neurological Research , 19, 2–8

First graders who received instruction in music listening had significantly higher reading scores than those first graders who did not receive the instruction but were similar in age, IQ and socioeconomic status. The same teacher taught reading to all the students. Those given music instruction were taught for 40 minutes a day for 7 months and learned to recognize melodic and rhythmic elements in folk songs. They scored in the 88th percentile for reading performance and the non-instructed control group scored in the 72nd percentile.
source: Educational Leadership, November, 1998, p. 38
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
article: "The Music in Our Minds"
Norman M. Weinberger, Professor of Psychobiology at the University of California, Irvine, referencing research of Hurwitz et al, 1975, Journal of Learning Disabilities, 8, 45–51

Elements of music and reading are highly related in first graders. Students were tested on various elements of music and reading and a strong relationship was found between a student's awareness of pitch and their ability to sound out material in reading--material that included standard language and phonetic material.
source: Educational Leadership, November, 1998, p. 39
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
article: "The Music in Our Minds"
Norman M. Weinberger, Professor of Psychobiology at the University of California, Irvine, referencing research of S.J. Lamb and A.H. Gregory, 1993, Educational Psychology, 13, 19–26

Second grade students given piano instruction in addition to spatial reasoning instruction improved more in spatial reasoning than those given spatial reasoning instruction only, English language training instead of piano, or no special instruction.
source: Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development, 2002, p. 110
study: Enhanced Learning of Proportional Math Through Music Training and Spatial-Temporal Training

Fourth grade students considered "emotionally disturbed" improved their writing quality and quantity when given music to listen to (via headphones) versus writing in silence. 
source: Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development, 2002, p. 118
study: Listening to Music Enhances Spatial-Temporal Reasoning: Evidence for the "Mozart Effect"

"Juvenile Delinquent" males ages 8–19 who were given instruction in and performance opportunities on the guitar improved both their self-confidence in terms of their musical ability and general self-worth versus other "juvenile delinquent" males of the same age group given instruction but no performance opportunities.
source: Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Developments, 2002, p. 119
study: The Effects of Musical Performance, Rational Emotive Therapy and Vicarious Experience on the Self-Efficacy and Self-Esteem of Juvenile Delinquents and Disadvantaged Children

A high level of involvement in instrumental music co-related to high achievement in math proficiency. This held true among all students and among those students in the lowest socio-economic (SES) quartile. More than twice as many 12th grade, high music-involved, low SES students performed at high levels of math proficiency as non music-involved, low SES 12th grade students. Instrumental music involvement also related to high-music, low SES students closing the math achievement gap with higher SES students. In 8th grade, high-music, low SES students closed the expected achievement gap that low SES students would usually have with the average student. By 12th grade the high-music, low SES students had pulled significantly ahead of the average student in math proficiency (33.1 percent to 21.3 percent).
source: Champions of Change, 1999
p. 11, figures 8 and 9
p. 12, text and figures 10 and 11
Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, University of California at Los Angeles
Involvement in the Arts and Human Development: General Involvement and Intensive Involvement in Music and Theater Arts

The opportunity to be instructed in music or dance disciplines offered a variety of compelling social benefits for students in addition to the knowledge and skill of an art. For some of the underprivileged students offered this opportunity to be treated as gifted and talented, the participation in the art form was an emotional safe haven from family turmoil. The art forms were an assimilation tool for recent immigrants and other new kids. Achievement in the art and friendships built in that process bolstered students as they entered new situations of various kinds. Performances brought the broader community together in pride. Horizons were broadened through access to classes at studios and trips to theaters outside of students' immediate neighborhoods and offered a glimpse of the broader cultural world. "Ultimately the skills and discipline students gained, the bonds they formed with peers and adults, and the rewards they received through instruction and performing fueled their talent development journey and helped most achieve success both in and outside of school."
source: Champions of Change, 1999, p.77–78
National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented
University of Connecticut, Storrs
Artistic Talent Development for Urban Youth: The Promise and the Challenge

The various approaches to music instruction that were found to support learning in spatial-temporal reasoning reflect the same approaches included in the national standards in music education. Learning traditional music notation led to even stronger results than other music instruction.
source: Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development, 2002, p. 114
study: Learning to Make Music Enhances Spatial Reasoning

In a review of many studies, the "Mozart-effect" was found valid and important for educators in an unexpected way.  The positive effect of listening to Mozart's, and others', music on spatial reasoning (mentally visualizing, moving and relating objects without any present) helps contradict some current ideas about learning that consider different learning functions in the brain to be distinct and unconnected.  The "Mozart effect" shows that areas of the brain used for spatial reasoning are also used for processing music.
source: Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development, 2002, p. 116
study: Listening to Music Enhances Spatial-Temporal Reasoning: Evidence for the "Mozart Effect"

A student making music experiences the "simultaneous engagement of senses, muscles, and intellect. Brain scans taken during musical performances show that virtually the entire cerebral cortex is active while musicians are playing." Different areas of the brain perform different functions from directing movement, to thinking, to feeling, to remembering including many sub-regions within those areas that relate to more specialized activities. Making music engages, and is increasingly seen to strengthen, a vast array of brain power.
source: Educational Leadership, November, 1998, p.38
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
article: "The Music in Our Minds"
Norman M. Weinberger, Professor of Psychobiology at the University of California, Irvine

Monday, May 30, 2011

Teachers Pursue Professional Learning Around the Globe

As someone who is extremely passionate about teaching abroad, I highly recommend reading this article. It is amazing to learn of the multitude of opportunities available to teachers to spread your skills, knowledge, and perspectives around the world. Here's to making a global impact to education, one student at a time!

May 2011 | Volume 53 | Number 5

From Umbria to Ulaanbaatar    
From Umbria to Ulaanbaatar 
Teachers Pursue Personal and Professional Learning
Willona M. Sloan

Three teachers share their experiences of transformative personal and professional growth achieved through exciting, death-defying, and enlightening adventures.
During her third year of teaching, Erika Tepler was assigned to teach a humanities course with two weeks' notice. The versatile educator, who is primarily an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, had previously taught government, math, and other courses as needed—so she felt she could handle this "opportunity" despite the lack of materials or textbooks.
"I got to be creative with my curriculum," says Tepler.
During the year, as she thought about ways to improve her course, Tepler realized that engaging in some learning of her own would enhance her teaching. Tepler heard about the Fund for Teachers (FFT) program from colleagues who had previously received grants. FFT ( offers funding for teachers to pursue personal exploration and professional development through travel experiences.
Tepler, who was already fairly well-traveled, wanted to find a special location—someplace, she says, about which there wasn't a lot written. She considered traveling to exotic locales such as the Kingdom of Bhutan (a landlocked country in the Himalayas) or even Mustang (Nepal); but when "reality" set in … the young teacher set her sights on traveling with a nomadic tribe in the Gobi desert of Mongolia.
Tepler was fascinated by the idea of the nomadic lifestyle but, as she discovered, there truly is very little information available about the nation or this particular population. Through Internet research, Tepler found Ger to Ger (, an organization that offers "nomad-centered geotourism." Ger to Ger matched Tepler with 12 families that would provide her with room and board and teach her a special skill, such as woodworking, sewing, or making fermented camel's milk. By living with Mongolian families whose livelihood and culture were tied to the natural environment, Tepler says she had hoped to gain information to augment her geography curriculum with new lessons about human-environment interaction and world cultures.
When asked how she prepared for the month-long journey, Tepler admits that preparation really wasn't possible with only scant tourism information available. Armed with a copy of the only Mongolian/English dictionary available in the United States, she boarded a plane destined for Ulaanbaatar.
"To be perfectly honest, I really didn't know what I was getting into." Tepler says.

To Ulaanbaatar and Beyond

Mongolia is the most remote place Tepler has ever visited. "I would say 80 percent of the roads, not including the small roads in really remote places, are unpaved. I had no idea how vast Mongolia is—it's the least dense country in the world."
Ger to Ger provided Tepler and the other participants with a cultural sensitivity class before sending them out to the desert. After that, the true journey began.
"You take a public bus and you go out to a middle of nowhere place and someone who does not speak English greets you and takes you to the first family," Tepler explains.
Over a 12-day period, Tepler lived in different tents made of sheep's felt, camel hair, rope and wood; eating what her hosts ate and drinking what water was available. Tepler says Mongolian nomads move anywhere between 4–20 times per year with their animals. Traditionally goat and sheep herders, they rely entirely on their environment for survival.
For Tepler, the adventure was physically challenging and often excruciating. "There are limited amounts of food. Their diet basically consisted of white flour, water, and dried goat," says Tepler. "There were times when I was hungry. I would dream about fruits and vegetables."
And it was hot. "For five days, the temperature in the Gobi reached 120 degrees with whipping winds that sucked all of the water out of my body. The only water available was hot and smelled of goat. It was constantly physically uncomfortable, and it was also emotionally taxing," she says.
But, Tepler says, she gradually adjusted. Without modern technologies or amusements, she learned to play traditional games (using sheep and goat ankle bones) and even picked up enough of the language to have basic conversations.
Tepler came away with an understanding of a truly unique culture and some new friends. "They are the most warm and welcoming people I have ever met," she says. "They are proud of their culture; they want to share it with you."
When she returned to Ulaanbaatar, Tepler also had a chance to talk with Mongolian teachers. "I got to meet some super motivated, really neat teachers and share teaching experiences. I also got to teach a five-day ESL conversational class to Mongolian teenagers," says Tepler, who prepared the young people for potential conversations with American teens.
Back in her classroom, Tepler uses her photos and souvenirs such as fabrics, ankle bones, horse head fiddles, and music to enhance her curriculum. "I gained a rich understanding of an ancient and disappearing culture in a specific geographic context that I can now pass on to my students through hands-on activities with real, foreign artifacts," says Tepler.
She has developed several lessons, including a "Near Death" lesson plan that prepares students for the essay portion of the state assessment. The goal of the lesson is to provide students with background information about desert regions and practice reading strategies, including reading sections from True Tales from the Deserts. Students analyze the essay "Near Death," comparing and contrasting it with a reading about cold environments such as Antarctica and the Himalayas.
Tepler also came back with an invigorated attitude. "For some teachers it's hard to get inspired to write an original curriculum. This [type of experience] is a huge inspiration for that. I think when teachers are excited about what they're teaching—students know that. When you are excited, students are excited and it leads to more learning. When you are an expert in something, the students learn more," says Tepler.

Getting Out Into the Plein-Air

Art teachers Kathleen Courville and Lisette McClung, who both teach in the Clear Creek Independent School District in Houston, Tex., wanted to learn something new. After researching plein-air (which translates to "open air") painting, they applied to FFT for funds to go to Italy, where the painting style traces back to the 17th century.
As they learned more about plein-air painting, they realized the potential for using the painting style to teach their students about more than just art. "We want our students to become more aware of their relationship with nature and the importance of taking care of their environment," say McClung and Courville.
Courville teaches 6th–8th grade art classes, including 2/D and 3/D art, and pre-AP classes at League City Intermediate School. A 35-year teaching veteran, Courville still understands the value of learning. "I had never tried plein-air painting and it seemed like it would be a challenge," she says. McClung also teaches 6th–8th grade courses, including 2/D and 3/D art, and pre-AP art at Space Center Intermediate School. She has 13 years of teaching experience.
They received funding to participate in an intensive two-week program in the Umbrian region of Italy, where they could experience "the golden sunlight and misty blues of the skies that famous artists have explored, and … visit small towns where time has stood still." The teachers studied at the La Romita School of Art and visited Etruscan and Roman ruins, picturesque valleys, orchards, vineyards, and medieval towns.
"The workshop was very intense," says Courville. "We would leave at 9:00 a.m. with a backpack. A van would take us to a village and drop us off, and we would walk through the village and find a spot to work."
But as the artists found, painting outside offered its own special rewards and a unique set of challenges, including 100-degree heat, biting insects, barking dogs, curious bystanders, and ever-changing elements of light, atmosphere, and weather.
"We had to paint very quickly in order to capture the changing effect of light on our subject matter. This [necessity] allowed us to paint with spontaneity and a freshness that we may not have captured otherwise, such as painting from a photograph or in a studio setting," McClung says.
The days were long. "The van would pick us up around 4:00 p.m. and head back to the 16th-century monastery for dinner, and then at 7:00 p.m. we would go to a studio and work on anything from the day or try a totally different technique— maybe collage, assemblage, or mixed media. During the day it was only watercolor or acrylic painting. I came home with 42 pieces of completed artwork!" says Courville.

Back in the Bay

Courville and McClung documented their daily experiences through digital photographs, sketchbooks, journals, video, blogging at, and, of course, their artwork.
Upon their return, they willingly exposed their new works to their students for critiques, allowing students to ask questions relating to the process of creating their work. Courville and McClung say that they wanted their students to see them as teachers but also artists in their own right.
At each of their schools, the teachers started extracurricular clubs, where students travel to different sites within the Galveston Bay area to learn about local history and wildlife while also practicing painting.
"The only challenge was to get the students to actually go outside and try it," says Courville. "I started a weekend club so we could go out for several hours, instead of a limited 45 minutes of class, and experience different sites." McClung says her students are now painting in parks, nature centers, on riverboats and kayaks, and during family vacations.
Like Tepler, Courville and McClung believe that their Umbrian experience gave them a renewed understanding of the importance of learning.
"After 35 years of teaching, most teachers would say, 'You cannot teach me anything new’ or, 'I am burned out; this is no longer exciting to me,'" says Courville. "I came back with pure excitement to get back in the classroom and make a difference for me and my students."
McClung agrees. "I feel that it is extremely important that we continue to learn and grow. I am constantly finding new ways to gain knowledge," says McClung, who helped start an adult plein-air painting group.
For Tepler, Courville, and McClung, pushing themselves, learning new skills, and expanding their own horizons has greatly influenced their ability to do the same for their students.
"You cannot be a successful teacher if you are not practicing what you teach and are not fired up about what you do. The students react to your enthusiasm and will follow in pursuit if they are encouraged to do so," says Courville. 

Copyright © 2011 by ASCD

Friday, May 27, 2011

A National Jukebox? I think so!

Check out this awesome new tool for your classrooms!

The National Jukebox at

Teachers can now listen to more than 10,000 historical sound recordings using the Library's new National Jukebox. From ragtime to novelty songs to opera, these songs are now available in an easy-to-use player that lets users create and manage their own playlists. More songs will become available over time, so please visit and explore often.
Pretty cool, huh?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Oh, Those Middle School Years....

Middle Level Insider 

I can only imagine what it will be like to send my child to sixth grade as a parent someday, especially now having been teaching in a middle school for six years! I found this article particularly helpful with tips and practical strategies to use with your middle school child. Enjoy!

May 2011

Six Strategies for Easing the Transition to Middle School

Robert Ricken
Life can be traumatic for young adolescents as they leave the security of their elementary school and navigate the first few days of middle school. This major life change comes as they deal with physical awkwardness, the onset of puberty, and the unquenchable desire for peer acceptance.
Several years ago I visited more than 100 middle schools to determine which features of their orientation programs minimized student anxiety and built positive expectations. Students and faculty members deemed the following components to be most helpful to new students.
  • Middle school counselors visit every elementary school to answer questions, help students with course selection and scheduling, and discuss extracurricular activity options.
  • Elementary school students visit the middle school and follow a student's schedule for the day. Ending the day with an assembly gives the students an opportunity to meet the principal, counselors, club advisers, and coaches.
  • During the students' visit to the middle school, elementary teachers meet with middle school counselors and administrators to discuss the transition and the needs of individual students.
  • PTA/PTO meetings at each elementary school focus on the goals of middle school education and help allay parents' anxieties.
  • A parent meeting at the middle school gives the principal and staff an opportunity to discuss their programs and answer questions. Concluding the meeting with a tour of the building allows parents to ask questions informally.
  • Administrators make provisions for the transfer of student files. The inclusion of academic assessment results, report cards, and teacher recommendations helps ensure each new middle school student has an appropriate schedule.
Although these are the basic elements of a transition program for elementary students moving into a middle school, each middle school has unique needs and may eliminate or add components. During an annual evaluation of the orientation program, you can fine-tune adjustments that will promote a smoother transition for your young adolescents.

Robert Ricken, a former superintendent and middle school principal, is an adjunct professor of educational administration at C.W. Post College, Long Island University. He is the author of Love Me When I'm Most Unlovable—The Middle School Years, published by NMSA. E-mail:

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Kids NEED to learn in groups!

Having kids work in groups!  Now THAT is "radically different! And this is new? Sorry to sound so cynical; how long does it take to make changes in mainstream education based on things we've known for... ever?

May 12, 2011

Improving the Science of Teaching Science

Over the past few years, scientists have been working to transform education from the inside out, by applying findings from learning and memory research where they could do the most good, in the classroom. A study appearing in the journal Science on Thursday illustrates how promising this work can be — and how treacherous.
The research comes from a closely watched group led by Carl Wieman, a Nobel laureate in physics at the University of British Columbia who leads a $12 million initiative to improve science instruction using research-backed methods for both testing students’ understanding and improving how science is taught.
In one of the initiative’s most visible studies, Dr. Wieman’s team reports that students in an introductory college physics course did especially well on an exam after attending experimental, collaborative classes during the 12th week of the course. By contrast, students taking the same course from another instructor — who did not use the experimental approach and continued with lectures as usual — scored much lower on the same exam.
In teleconference on Wednesday, Dr. Wieman and his co-authors said that some instructors at the university were already eager to adopt the new approach and that it should improve classroom learning broadly, in other sciences and at many levels.
Yet experts who reviewed the new report cautioned that it was not convincing enough to change teaching. The study has a variety of limitations, they said, some because of the difficulty of doing research in the dude-I-slept-through-class world of the freshman year of college, and others because of the study’s design. “The whole issue of how to draw on basic science and apply it in classrooms is a whole lot more complicated than they’re letting on,” said Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia.
Dr. Willingham said that, among other concerns, the study was not controlled enough to tell which of the changes in teaching might have accounted for the difference in students’ scores.
In the study, Dr. Wieman had two advanced students take over one of the two introductory physics classes during the 12th week of the term, teaching the material in a radically different way from the usual lectures. Both this class and the comparison one were large, lecture-hall courses, each with more than 260 students enrolled. Instead of delivering lectures, the new co-instructors conducted collaborative classes, in which students worked in teams to answer questions about electromagnetic waves. The new teachers circulated among the students, picking up on common questions and points of confusion, and gave immediate feedback on study teams’ answers.
The techniques are rooted in an approach to learning known as deliberate practice, which previous research suggests is what leads to the acquisition of real expertise.
“As opposed to the traditional lecture, in which students are passive, this class actively engages students and allows them time to synthesize new information and incorporate it into mental model,” said Louis Deslauriers, a postdoctoral researcher who, with Ellen Schelew, a graduate student, taught the experimental classes. “When they can incorporate thing into a mental model, we find much better retention.”
At the end of the study, students in the experimental class who took a test on the material scored 74 percent, on average, more than twice the average of students in the comparison course who took the test. On midterm exams the two classes had scored almost exactly the same.
Yet this being college — and the end of the term, at that — not everyone showed up with their calculators. More than 150 of the students were absent from the test, most of them from the comparison class. The researchers had no way to know how those students, if they’d come, would have changed the overall findings.
Experts said, too, that it was problematic for authors of a study to also be delivering the intervention — in this case, as enthusiastic teachers. “This is not a good idea, since they know exactly what the hypotheses are that guide the study, and, more importantly, exactly what the measures are that will be used to evaluate the effects,” saidJames W. Stigler, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, in an e-mail. “They might, therefore, be tailoring their instruction to the assessment — i.e., teaching to the test.”
Dr. Wieman said he strongly doubted that the new instructors had this kind of effect on the students. As a rule, he said in an e-mail, students in such large classes “are remarkably removed from any sense of personal connection with the instructor.  That does change with a more interactive class, but not enough and not fast enough to have any significant impact on learning in a week.”
Either way, Dr. Stigler said, the study is an important step in a journey that is long overdue, given the vast shortcomings of education as usual. “I think that the authors are pioneers in exploring and testing ways we can improve undergraduate teaching and learning,” he said. “As a psychologist, I’m ashamed that it is physicists who are leading this effort, and not learning scientists.”

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The New American Reality??

Thought you all might like this video I found—my students really enjoyed it. Some of the facts are pretty cool about Hispanics and how they are becoming such a huge part of our society.

Are Hispanics the New American Reality? Claro Que Si! But Will They Get Their Own Museum? Quien Sabe.

Posted: 05/20/11 10:46 AM ET

Good question. While the latest numbers on Hispanics in the U.S. are by now familiar to most marketers -- one out of six Americans, one out of four babies born, 95% of the teen population growth through 2020 -- the tone and assertive messaging by the country's largest Spanish TV network was new. Most Americans, of course, are aware that Hispanics are a growing slice of the demographic pie, and corporations are already mobilizing to profit from Latino consumers, but the deeper significance of the shift is still up for grabs.
"I am not the Melting Pot," intones the Univision sizzle reel. "I am the new American reality." Translation: Univision, along with its smaller rival, Telemundo, are moving to position themselves as language-agnostic networks that transcend the English-Spanish divide, aiming instead to focus on the dreams and desires of an increasingly bilingual and bicultural Hispanic population. It's a smart move, considering that the emerging majority of U.S. Latinos are native-born and globally-aware, not only at home in the American mainstream but ready and able to help transform it.
So how do the nation's 50 million Latinos see themselves -- and each other? It depends. Many U.S.-born Hispanics, in fact, regard themselves as Mexican or Colombian and American, or Latino, black and Nuyorican. Hispanic consumers, in other words, are multicultural and multifaceted; they watch MTV3res and True Blood, they listen to rap, rock and Mexican banda, sometimes in the same song. Recent studies have shown that Latino identity is malleable, contextual and constantly evolving. Younger Latinos in particularly see no contradiction in calling themselves Dominican, American and black, or Caucasian, Hispanic-American and Colombian, or gaysian, blaxican, or any other racial-cultural-sexual amalgam that fits their nationality, genealogy, sexuality and mood.
This vibrant nexus of fluid and free-flowing identities is the cutting edge of the new American reality. Hispanics, along with African Americans and Asians, make up a large part of the 9 million people who identified themselves in the 2010 census as being more than one race or ethnicity. This jubilant jumble of parallel and overlapping races, ethnicities and nationalities is one of the things that makes Hispanics so quintessentially American. It's what connects them in circumstance and spirit to the immigrants from Europe and Asia who preceded them, but most of all it ties them to what American is right now. In fact, the closer you look at Hispanics, the more American they seem -- and vice versa. Which is why the prospect of a National Museum of the American Latino in Washington, D.C., is both a no brainer and such a hard sell.
On May 5th, less than two weeks before Univision released its "Latinos are the new reality" video, the commission on the National Museum of the American Latino (NMAL) submitted its final report to Congress. The date, more popularly celebrated at tequila-soaked parties and bars across the land as Cinco de Mayo, was no doubt intentionally selected to signal and underscore the growing cultural influence of Latinos in the United States. Never mind that Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates a victory of the Mexican militia over invading French forces at the battle of Puebla in 1862, is a minor regional holiday that most Mexicans don't bother to observe, probably because the Mexican defenders ultimately failed to prevent the French from marching to Mexico City and installing the Archduke Ferdinand Maximillion as Emperor. In America, at least, the real winners of the battle of Puebla are the purveyors of Jose Cuervo, jalapeno nachos and guacamole dip.
Such historical quibbles were nowhere in sight at the NMAL press conference and gala reception in Washington, where members of the Obama administration and politicians from both sides of the aisle mingled over margaritas with many of the commissioners, who ranged from Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to actress Eva Longoria. The report, which has been in the works since 2009 and includes findings from eight public forums held across the country, calls for a plan of action that includes a fundraising strategy and a feasibility study on locating NMAL within the purview of the Smithsonian Institution. "With the establishment of a national museum for Latinos in the nation's capital, announced Secretary Salazar, "the contributions of Latinos will forever be recognized and woven into the American story."
Not surprisingly, even before the commission delivered it's report, the proposed museum was being attacked by cultural chauvinists and deficit hawks as unaffordable, unwarranted and unnecessary. But not all the doubters are red-state fussbudgets. Many liberals, and even some Latinos inside the Obama administration, question the purpose of a museum dedicated to a demographic category that was concocted by the federal government during the 1970s and first appeared on U.S. Census forms in 1980. "I don't want a situation," said Representative Jim Moran, a Democrat from Virginia, "where whites go to the original museum, African-Americans go to the African-American museum, Indians go to the Indian museum, Hispanics go to the Latino American museum. That's not America."
Moran has a point. Latinos deserve their own museum in Washington, the pro argument goes, because if African Americans and Native Americans can get one, then Hispanics should, too. But, the cons counter, African Americans and Native Americans have identities forged by shared historical traumas, slavery and genocide, respectively. Latinos, on the other hand, are inherently heterogeneous -- they are both rich and poor, tall and short, white, brown, red, yellow and black. Some can trace their ancestry to Spanish land grants that predate the formation of the United States, while others arrived yesterday by crossing the Rio Grande. The skeptics point to the Latin Grammys as an example of well-meaning but flawed cultural ghettoization that has done little to raise the profile of Latin music outside the Hispanic community, and argue that NMAL is a flag-wrapped version of the same self-segregating logic.
To be sure, Latinos, particularly native biculturals, reflexively resist formulaic categorization and bristle at the slightest hint of stereotyping. Some even find the term Latino or Hispanic too confining. A recent survey of U.S. Hispanics found that many identified with their nation of origin first, and their Latino-ness second. And yet Ricky Martin, J-Lo and, yes, Eva Longoria, have found pan-ethnic audiences that appeal to Latinos as well as African Americans, Asians and non-Hispanic whites. Top-selling products like Haagen Daz Dulce de Leche ice cream and habanero potato chips do more than inject sweetness and heat into mainstream cuisine; they add flavor and spice to the American psyche. As Latinos have become more American, America has in some ways become more Latinized. But what the xenophobes and cultural jingoists forget -- or choose to ignore -- is that even though the the percentage of foreign-born individuals in the U.S. is at its highest level since the end of the 19th century, we have been here before. The benefits of immigrant influx have always outweighed the burdens, and this time is no different. In fact, despite all the hand-wringing over Hispanic hordes and porous borders, Latinos are acculturating as fast as any other immigrant group in U.S. history.
The demographic, cultural and economic influence of Latinos in the U.S. has never been greater. But as Hispanics grow in number and influence and contribute to the diversity of the United States, they are also becoming increasingly diverse themselves. What do you call a people who represent every socioeconomic stratum and political persuasion, yet are united by family values, patriotism and faith, and the conviction that hard work will give them a better life than the one their parents had? They sound a lot like, well, Americans, which is precisely why they are so hard to fit into a box labeled Latino, even if that box is on the National Mall next to boxes dedicated to African Americans and Native Americans. Genuine inclusion means that Latinos should be properly represented in every department of the Smithsonian, not cordoned off in a separate section dedicated to brown Americans.
Can a National Museum of the American Latino ever be big enough to hold the sprawling, overlapping dimensions of Latino history and identity? Should it even try? Will younger Latinos come to NMAL just to humor older relatives who need to be reassured of their place in the multicultural pantheon? If Latinos enter a museum dedicated to "the other," if they see a people and a history that is politely given its own space outside of American history, then their money and time will have been wasted and their country will have done them a disservice. But if they walk in seeing themselves as "Latinos" and walk out reminded that they are also quintessential Americans, with equal claim to the privileges and responsibilities of the U.S. as any other group or individual. If they see how the story of Latinos is intertwined and embedded in the story of America, and the future of all Americans, then it will be worth the money and the trouble to build it in the symbolic and cultural center of the nation, where it deserves to be, and where it rightfully belongs. For NMAL to be conceptually justified, it must show Latinos and non-Latinos alike not just where they came from, but also where they are going. They might even find out why Cinco de Mayo is really an American holiday.