California Educator

October 2015

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Page 51 of 63

was held on Olvera Street in Los Angeles, just blocks from the federal court building where Mendez v. West- minster was filed, and was another marker recognizing the significance of the case. After decades of obscurity, re-examination of Mendez is prompting many scholars to view it as the precursor to Brown v. Board of Educa- tion. In 2007 the U.S. Postal Service issued a Mendez v. Westminster commemorative stamp. Mendez High, which opened in 2009, was named after the lead plaintiffs. In 2010 the State Board of Education included Mendez in its Curriculum Frameworks for instruction. And in 2011, Sylvia Mendez, who as a young girl was a named plaintiff in the suit, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (She wrote the foreword to the book.) Putting history and experiences into words We Are Alive When We Speak for Justice grew from a unique collaboration among Mendez High history teacher De Leon, two faculty members from CSU Los Angeles, and two directors of the nonprofit tutoring and writing center 826LA. Last fall, De Leon set aside more than a month for his fifth- and sixth-period history classes to make an in-depth study of Mendez v. Westminster and selected events in neighborhood history. The special unit was to be a start- ing point to encourage thinking about civic and social issues, and a springboard for students to further develop essential literacy skills and discover more about their own interests. Beginning in January, with the help of volunteer tutors, the students spent two days a week for seven weeks on the writing process — brainstorming, writing, sharing, revising and editing. While Mendez was the focal point of the detailed study, students were not restricted by topic or genre. De Leon credits the 826LA staff for the idea of essay prompts that were varied and open-ended, such as: "What do you gain from being in environ- ments where people are different from you?" "What are the strengths and weaknesses of your neighborhood?" "Think of someone in your community who has fought hard for change. Why did they do it? And how?" Students saw the book for the first time at the reception celebrating its release. "We hope this book will change perspectives of how students are seen," said one young author. The final collection of writings that emerged reflects an eagerness by students to engage with issues beyond their classrooms. While some writings explore history and events — including the history of Boyle Heights and the 1968 East Los Angeles Chicano student walkouts — others share personal experiences. (See sidebar, page 52.) 50 Learning

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