Workshop helps K-12 teachers celebrate student diversity through art

Rebecca Hinson with her books

Years ago, art educator Rebecca Hinson realized there was a problem with the way she was teaching.

The textbooks she was using only touched on European art. But most of her students were from Latin America and the Caribbean. The books left out the rich art of their native cultures.

She decided to change that. She wrote her own textbooks, exploring art from the countries of the region.

Recently, the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center (LACC) – housed in the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs – brought Hinson to FIU to lead a workshop for K-12 Miami-Dade County Public School teachers.

Part of LACC’s mission as a federally designated Title VI National Resource Center is to promote public education about Latin America and the Caribbean by supporting K-12 teacher education. As part of its commitment to make learning meaningful, LACC regularly collaborates closely with area schools, develops comprehensive curricula on Latin America and the Caribbean and works with educators to introduce and better integrate the content into classrooms.

Hinson’s workshop was one of numerous teacher training workshops LACC hosts throughout the academic year to provide teachers with an opportunity to discuss strategies for teaching various topics related to the region. This is particularly crucial for schools in South Florida, which is home to an increasing number of students from diverse cultural backgrounds with roots in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Hinson’s training delved into ways teachers can help their students learn by connecting the material with their native culture.

“I’m hoping [the teachers will] be inspired to use art to teach students about their heritage so that school will be a place where the students know they belong, where their culture will be respected,” Hinson said.

She’s seen the incredible results this can have on students.

There was a young boy in one of her classes who never smiled, spoke or looked people in the eye. She was wondering how she could connect with him. One day, Hinson discussed the story of the Mayan ruler, Tecún Umán – a Guatemalan hero.

Hinson dedicated her book on Tecún Umán to the boy who thanked her for sharing the story in class. Photo of the book cover courtesy of Rebecca Hinson.

After class ended, the boy – of Mayan ancestry – came up to her, looked her in the eye and said, “Thank you.”

“It was the art and history of his culture that spoke to his heart,” Hinson said.

The ultimate goal? To help students see their culture validated at school and help them learn by connecting the material to art they can relate to.

To write her books, she began by researching the artwork of each country in the region. She condensed her research and wrote it down with her students as the target audience.

Then she reached out to editors and art historians across the country from universities like Harvard, Yale and Purdue to help fact-check and streamline her writing.

She has published 36 books on traditions and art of Central America, the Caribbean and North America. Just a few topics she has written about: backstrap weaving in the Maya tradition; the Aztec calendar stone; the independence of Haiti; and the architecture of the Cuban city, Cienfuegos. The books are available in English and Spanish. Some of the books have been translated into Haitian Creole and translation of more books is in the works.

To teach students about their new culture, her series on North America covers topics ranging from the Statue of Liberty and the role of quilting in American life to Native American artistic works.

LACC partially funded the development of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) text-dependent questions for the English, Spanish and Haitian Creole leveled texts. During the workshop, Hinson and the teachers discussed examples of these text-dependent questions and how to help students master these core standards.

Before the workshop even ended, Deanna Rodriguez, a high school history teacher at International Studies Preparatory Academy, already had seven books picked out to order in bulk for her classes.

“These are great visuals,” she said, explaining the books will provide an educational and fun experience for her students. “They are going to learn a lot, in-depth and in a short amount of time. They will like this.”

Several of the teachers in attendance had previously attended LACC workshops or other similar trainings and were glad to continue learning new teaching techniques and ideas.

“It is priceless,” Elizabeth Hernandez, who teaches sixth grade at Jorge Mas Canosa Middle School, said of the workshops. “In one day you get information that usually takes you months and months to learn. Everything the teacher learns benefits the students.”