Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Virtual UTSA teachers’ academy takes a look back to support the K-12 teachers of the future

Virtual UTSA teachers’ academy takes a look back to support the K-12 teachers of the future

JUNE 20, 2022 — UTSA’s eighth annual Mexican American Studies (MAS) Teachers’ Academy will be held virtually from 9 a.m.-noon on June 20-24. The conference is part of a statewide movement to implement MAS into public schools. It aims to support and instruct K-12 educators and teacher candidates of all subjects.  

This year’s theme, “Indigenous Histories and Cultures in Mexican American Studies,” will feature a series of lectures covering a variety of topics, like the epistemologies and philosophies of various indigenous cultures. The theme reflects a slight shift in the approach of the academy. Since its launch in 2015, the academy’s content has been centered around contemporary history, roughly from the 1840s-1960s.

“We’ve never really had an opportunity in the eight years that the Academy has existed to focus on Mesoamerican histories and cultures, and it is a part of Mexican American Studies,” said Liliana Saldaña, a co-director of the Teachers’ Academy.

“One of our goals is to help cultivate that community among teachers.”

“It’s actually a big part of the field.” added Saldaña, an associate professor of MAS in the UTSA Department of Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexuality Studies (REGSS), which is housed in the UTSA College of Education and Human Development (COEHD).

This year’s event will be partially funded by Humanities Texas, which awarded a grant to the academy. The Austin-based nonprofit, which is the state’s affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is dedicated to advancing education through programs that improve the quality of classroom teaching.

This year marks the third year of the academy’s virtual format, which began out of necessity due to COVID-19 restrictions. The format has expanded access to educators outside the immediate San Antonio area, resulting in an exponential increase in attendees.

“It went from under 20 people to 60 people, and last year we had 80,” said Gloria Gonzáles, a lecturer and another co-director of the MAS Teachers’ Academy. “This year we’re hoping to break that eighty mark.”

The virtual format does have its challenges.

“The downside is disconnection,” Gonzáles said. “The participants do not get to make those personal connections. In group work, breakout rooms are not as personal, and even teaching virtually, you miss that personal connection, the human touch.”

Academy directors, however, continue to seek out new ways to overcome that isolation.

“One of our goals is to help cultivate that community among teachers,” Gonzáles said. “We have to find ways to create that community within the virtual world, and I think we’ve been pretty good about doing that.” 

To that end, this years’ attendees will have increased time to interact with each other after presentations, giving them chances to discuss the material, and work together to decide how to implement it in their classrooms. 

This year’s theme also speaks to the importance of community and continuity. By incorporating Mesoamerican history, the academy directors hope to reinforce the connections between the past and the present. 

“When we think of peoples like the Mayans, we always think of them in the past, but they’re actually still here,” said Gonzáles. “It’s not an old history or a dead history, it’s a living history.” 

For Saldaña, these connections go beyond history, and strike at the heart of community and identity.

“We talk about indigenous people as if they only existed in the past, like our ancestors were indigenous but we are not,” she added 

By teaching this history through the lens of Mexican American Studies, she hopes to help students and teachers alike maintain a sense of continuity with their indigenous roots and develop a positive ethnic and cultural identity. This goal is yet another reason the academy is open to all K-12 teachers, regardless of subject. 

“It doesn’t matter what subject or grade level you teach,” Saldaña said. “If you work with our community, you will become more knowledgeable and more rooted in developing, transforming and amplifying your curriculum and perhaps even rethink or reframe your own pedagogy.” 

In addition to hosting guest speakers from COEHD, the academy will also feature faculty from other institutions, including The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, The University of California Davis, and The University of Arizona. 

The academy directors are working to help teachers feel included and supported the other 51 weeks of the year as well. One such strategy is a Facebook group called MAS Apoyo – a play on words meaning “more support” – which serves as an online platform for teachers to connect and share resources. 

“I think it’s a unique space, and I think one of the only spaces where MAS teachers are able to connect with each other across districts, across cities, across regions,” Saldaña said. “Community is central to the field of Mexican American Studies and to our pedagogy, so it makes sense that we would want to cultivate that in the Academy.”

Saldaña and Gonzáles are also planning ways to improve next year’s event. One idea is to extend the Academy from three hours per day to five. This could give attendees more time to cover material or engage in extra workshops, which all translates into more support and preparation for teachers in the classroom. 

“I think the more prepared they are, the more they’ll walk away with the feeling that they can do this,” Gonzáles said. 

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The Academy costs $102. To register, click here.

UTSA is a Tier One research university and a Hispanic Serving Institution specializing in cyber, health, fundamental futures, and social-economic transformation.  UTSA aspires to become a model for student success, a great public research university, and an exemplar for strategic growth and innovative excellence.

Christopher Reichert

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