National Association for Multicultural Education Logo

Advancing and Advocating for Social Justice & Equity

Marisol Moleno:
Fourth Grade Teacher, El Paso TX

What does Multicultural Education Mean to You?


As a Mexican child in school I had all kinds of labels, "at-risk", "low SES (socio-economic status)", "undocumented" and "LEP" (limited English Proficiency). I am the eldest of three; we grew up in El Paso, TX, moving constantly from one apartment to the other. My mom, a single parent, did her best to provide for us. Although society might have constructed us as "poor" economically, our family was very rich in cultural and linguistic wealth. Though our linguistic and cultural wealth was never seen as a valuable asset in school systems, it was this wealth that united my small family and fueled me through school and college. Therefore I can honestly say that for me what made a difference in my life was my family's cultural capital rather than the content I was forced to learn in school. I did not learn how to overcome adversity through textbooks or handouts, I learned this at home. I believe a lot of my teaching philosophies come from my life experiences.

My first lessons about teaching came to me at a very early age in that closet while I played esculita. My brother Marco, who has Down Syndrome, was my first student. I remember sitting there with him pondering about how much he could learn and be taught. It was almost as if I was engaging in an experiment. Every time I showed him something he amazed me at how quickly he learned and how much he could do. With much work I taught him how to spell his name and match pictures. I felt so much pride when family and friends would say, "wow you taught him so much"! However, the reality was that my brother had taught me much more than I had ever taught him. I had approached teaching with deficit thinking and pride as if somehow I was the master of all knowledge and he was just an empty vessel into whom I would pour out all my knowledge. I was terribly mistaken! He was not an empty container (nor is any student), he came with experiences, knowleges, and perspectives that I did not have or could even offer. Thinking about these experiences I am always humbled and understand that I have just as much to learn from my students as they do from me. Further, that it is a privilege to be a part of their lives and to never think for a second that I know it all or that I am done learning.

I learned how to overcome adversity from my family experiences. Their cultural and linguistic wealth is a legacy that I will carry with me and leave as a heritage to the coming generations. From my brother I learned that people, no matter how they are constructed by society, are not empty vessels, and therefore teaching should never be seen as just a transferring of knowledge and skills. With this awareness I come into the classroom knowing that it is a shared space between my students and me. A place where we construct meaning together and value everyone's vast cultural and linguistic riches no matter what labels have been placed on them.

How does Marisol enact multicultural education in her classroom?

Developing Positive Academic Identities

Marisol discusses how she develops students' academic identities in the context of a low SES school. What strikes you about what she says?

She explains that "most of the class activities are done in groups. This helps students build on each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Since nobody is good at everything, every student gets to shine during different activities. This in turn promotes a positive academic identity. When students struggle, we praise each other for trying and say it is normal to make mistakes. Again, most of the class activities are done using inquiry and working in groups with a lot of talking. Engaging students in critical discussions and giving them plenty of opportunities to talk and ask questions has indeed made them the highest performing class in the grade level of 13 sections."

Developing Positive Social Identities

Marisol connects students' academic identities with developing positive social identities among her students. Here she explains, and gives a couple of examples.

"Every student is welcome in our class. By this I mean not just their physical body but their personalities, quirks, languages, backgrounds, interest, and families. In order to encourage and facilitate positive social identities I make sure to verbalize my student’s worth on a daily basis. Also, we sit at the carpet in a circle and say something we appreciate about each other. Everyone shares an appreciation and everyone receives one. We write poems about what makes us special and then read them to the class. I read to my students a variety of literature that tells stories of marginalized communities and peoples that have struggled through oppression then we have discussions about it. This allows me to engage my students in critical discussions about unknown histories and why they are unknown. One of the main ways that I foster a positive development of social identities is through using the student’s funds of knowledge." 

Developing Respectful Engagement with Diverse People

Marisol develops her students' ability to engage respectfully with diverse people in various subject areas, even math! As she described, "Not only was I able to cover many social studies and language arts standards but also have very critical discussions on the danger of a single story and the benefits of having many different stories and perspectives. The students were then able to connect this concept when we talked about the Arawak’s perspectives versus Christopher Columbus’s. Respecting and engaging with diverse people, whether in our classroom or through literature, is of upmost importance to me and my students."

Watch her explain what she does, and think about how her work illustrates the research about teaching students to engage respectfully with diverse people.


About the video, she explained: "I started the video with the title A living hope, and ended it with A vivid reality…,  because that is how I see my students. There is hope for change for a more just society and it is living before my eyes, and I get to experience that very 'vivid reality' on a daily basis."

Developing Social Justice Consciousness

Out of the work she does developing students' academic and social identities, and their ability to respectfully ask questions about difference and fairness comes consciousness-raising. In this student-created video, Marisol's students share examples of their experiences in her classroom that have made a positive impact on their ability to read the world around them in order to act ethically and justly.

Developing Social Action

Marisol wrote: "As I tell my students, wanting justice alone is not enough; there must be action! Every year the students create their own class rules. This year the school counselors created a poster that had school rules they had decided were important. The rules said things like, “always answer yes ma’am no ma’am or sir”, “walk on the right side of the hall”, “have shirts tucked in at all time”. When the counselors gave me this 3 by 2 feet poster I told them I refused to hang it in our class. I showed it to the class and they said they did not think it was fair to follow rules they did not have a vote in creating. One student said, “plus our rules are higher than those”. Meaning that those rules only focused on outward things not the more important “higher” inward rules of respect and fairness. Another student said that those rules were only to try to control the students. After our discussion we agreed to roll the poster up and place it in the back of the closet. The students see themselves as discriminated against when their perspectives or voices are not taken into consideration when making rules or policy. They are very aware of their position in relation to adults.

"Another way in which students demonstrate their criticality and activism is through creating their own spaces of resistance such as the Spanish club. The students started this club during recess. As my students came in from recess I heard one student say that Kiana is learning Spanish in Spanish club. “Spanish club?” I ask. “Yeah, we made a Spanish club and we teach under a tree like Fredrick Douglass”. Another student adds, “and the teachers are all the kids that speak Spanish, anyone can come”. As I question them further I find out that the students created a club where they meet under a tree during recess to learn Spanish. When I asked them about it they told me they got the idea from Fredrick Douglass.

"When I asked Victoria about this she stated: 'because we were inspired by Frederick Douglass and we wanted to imitate him like under a tree and we thought it was very cool… very cool idea, and because we are providing knowledge, like Fredrick Douglass, that’s what we want to do.' The connection the students made with Fredrick Douglass clearly demonstrated that in some form they knew that Spanish was something to liken to early slaves’ position of being denied knowledge that had the potential to set them free. Here was an example of how exposing children to multicultural stories can translate into activism and resistance."



What challenges does Mariol face
and how does she deal with them?

1. Feeling like you're on the frontlines of a war about education:

Think about how you will (or do) sustain yourself in this kind of context. After reflecting, listen to Marisol explain what keeps her going.

2. Subtractive approach to education:

If the policies and programs in the school where you are working take away students' culture and language, how can you counter that subtractive approach? Think about what you can do, then listen to Marisol share an example of what she does.



3. Feeling isolated:


If you were in Marisol's shoes, how would you deal with the challenge of feeling isolated? Reflect, then listen to Marisol's wisdom about countering her own sense of isolation when she tries to explain to others why she teaches the way she does.