Special to The Review
DALLAS — A University of North Texas Dallas Campus class experiences a different kind of “show and tell” on Wednesdays at 5:30 p.m. Students line up to view objects from previous decades. On March 4, it is the 1950s, and students look at old family mementos including a camera, vinyl records and a Mr. Potato Head.
When students sign up for Edinburg native Ruth Guevara’s bilingual multicultural education issues and perspectives class, they don’t know what they’re in for — but neither does their professor. That’s because Guevara draws on her vast cultural experience and her unorthodox teaching style to make every class interesting and unique.
At the start of class, students go on a “gallery walk” as if they are exploring a museum gallery. They are supposed to bring in something to illustrate changes in society from specific decades. The previous week a student brought in and played Glenn Miller music from the 1940s. Guevara started dancing.
“I just couldn’t help it,” Guevara says. “I ended up tap dancing because it took me back to my tap dancing days.”
In the 1950s popular music began a dramatic shift, and dancing moved to where “it was physical separation instead of really embracing and traditional waltz form,” explains the dancing enthusiast. “The dances were The Stroll and The Jive. Elvis Pressley came in the picture at that time. It kind of mimics what kiddos have today. They don’t just dance the normal, traditional prom-type dances. They can jitterbug and go wild and create their own moves.”
On this day, Guevara rolls in a cart filled with colorful cereal boxes her students had decorated with images representing educational changes in gender, class, race and culture. For example, she says, “disability didn’t come to the surface for special education until 1953.” She calls that a “huge breakthrough” for people with disabilities.
“They got a lot out of the box project because they were self-transformed in the process because of the research they ended up doing,” Guevara says of her students. She believes they grasp the material better because it is “a learning process” rather than being strictly lecture.
LaShawn Davis, a junior from El Paso, and her classmates say the class projects take a lot of time, but they have learned a great deal from them. “We’ve done a lot of creative projects and things that I would have never thought to do. I’m working on my education degree, so I’ve gotten a lot of ideas from her to be able to take back and use in the classroom,” Davis says.
As they research society from the 1930s to the present, they’re going to discover that multicultural education was born in the 1960s, Guevara says. “They’re beginning to understand culture, its social patterns, the behavior patterns, the instant prejudice pieces. If you ask a child to draw a Native American, they don’t know what that is. But if you say draw an Indian — the typical headband with one feather — we’ve already stereotyped that from the get go instead of looking at the humanity component,” she explains.
Guevara’s discussion goes all the way back to the days of the Pilgrims. “That began a new era of community and leadership and citizenship and trade and socialization and religious practices. Then immigration began to slowly evolve after that. So they’re getting to see where we’ve really grown, not just in hairdos and fashions and shoes.”
Students learn about multicultural education from doing research, but Guevara has turned it into an art form. That’s because it’s personal for her. The oldest of five children, Guevara, who is of Spanish and Mexican descent, grew up in a poor section of south San Antonio. Her family of seven lived in a two-bedroom house. Her father was a truck driver, her mother was a custodian. When she was 14, her father abandoned them.
“You rode the school bus, went to school and came back home, and everywhere else you walked,” she says. “There was no vehicle in the family.”
Her mother moved the family to Edinburg in South Texas where the population was still predominantly white. Only one African-American family lived in the projects. Her family became known as “the Mexicans, the minority of the minority.” There she had “the rude awakening of culture.”
“I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t know how I was going to fit in,” she recalls.
It was the turbulent 1960s, and her friends were being shipped to Vietnam. They didn’t make it back, she says quietly. No one expected her or her friends to go to college. She remembers her high school guidance counselor telling her, “You won’t succeed beyond secretarial work, a sacker at a grocery store or some sort of vocational trade.”
But she wanted out of south Texas and hoped to become a fashion designer and explore the world. She graduated from Edinburg High School in 1973, and thanks to new federal grants for minority students, was accepted into Pan American University. To make ends meet, she got a job on campus doing office work for $1.47 an hour. She also taught gymnastics.
“I did anything for a buck until an attorney, by his graciousness, opened up a rec center of the arts. Then I became part of that system … and learned from some of the best artists in that area.”
Guevara got interested in gymnastics in fifth grade and became an all-around gymnast. The floor and the balance beam were her favorites. “That’s where my creativity advanced and flourished,” she says. She also became a folklorico dancer. During her freshman year in college she was exposed to dances from around the world. She fell in love with the dances, traditions and glamorous costumes of Germany and Russia.
“Growing up in South Texas, I was familiar with the Mexican dances,” she says. “I wanted to see the other parts of the world and learn the history of that [Russian] costume — all the intricate story lines that go into that traditional costume — and then learned the dances that went with it.”
A visiting professor from England, Robert Fulton, taught her freshman English literature class. “The way he taught opened up the channels of creativity for me. Iwanted to be Juliette,” she says, referring to Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliette.” His teaching transformed her by helping her see that she could succeed in college and later as a teacher.
Defying expectations, Guevara earned a degree with a double major in art education and physical education, dance and recreation. She moved to Dallas and started teaching at Marcus Elementary where she formed a folkloric dance team. She begged Hancock Fabrics for free fabric for the costumes because she was “dealing with the segregation of children being bused in.” The parents sewed them to the best that they could duplicate the original costumes. The team travelled around the district performing.
She could not understand why parents didn’t come to PTA meetings, so she challenged her fellow teachers to get on a school bus and go to them in the Gabe Allen neighborhood of Oak Cliff. “That was another rude awakening for me as an instructor,” she says of the disjointedness taking place between parents and their schoolchildren.
In 1981 she moved to Pasadena, Texas, where she was the only Hispanic in the school district. At the time, Vietnamese fishermen refugees were moving in, and the Ku Klux Klan was marching in protest.
“I was headed into Houston from where I was living, and I thought, ‘What are these guys in white suits?’ And history just flashed right in front of me,” she says. “My skin color was that of the Vietnamese fishermen, so they took it that I was one of them. I was the only car on that street when that light turned red, and they were pounding on my Mustang car [wearing] their hoods. All I saw were beady eyes.”
Haley Maine, a sophomore from Howe, Texas, says she is learning so much from working on the class projects and also from hearing about Guevara’s experiences. “She knows so much and she has done so much in her life. Hearing all of her experiences just makes me want to do more with my life.”
In the March 4 class, five students line up to give reports on different Native American groups. Each class period, students report on different cultural groups.
One student had searched for bison meat to serve just as Alaskan natives would eat. Pineapple, kiwi, sausage and rice also are served on a banana leaf to represent the Hawaiian native culture.
Guevara wants students to get “a bite of those culture groups” to learn not only about their government, school system and job opportunities, but also about their people and what they’ve done “in music, through the arts and in politics.” That’s part of the reason she has her students read a major newspaper every week and report on it. She wants them to hold newspapers in their hands and read them before it becomes a lost art.
Next week, Guevara says, students will report on Hispanic and Latino Americans. “They will bring in who has been very successful. We’re expecting Carlos Santana and Gloria Estefan to visit.”
Brenda Gray, a senior from Franklin, La., calls Guevara’s teaching style intriguing and says she’s very excited to learn everything she can. “I can’t wait to bring all that knowledge that she’s giving us into the classroom. Her being unorthodox is really helping us learn, and I appreciate that because I’m a hands-on learner.”
Teaching UNTDC students is very rewarding, Guevara says. “It makes me feel very thrilled to see the response from all of them.”
“I’m very creative. That’s my personality, and I think students have really embraced that because they really are looking for someone to sort of squeeze that out of them. And it comes in forms as simple as a cereal box,” she says, referring to the box project.
“We’ll see what the 60s and 70s will bring,” Guevara says with a smile. “I was in my closet looking for stuff and I did find my ballroom shoes. Ballroom started to get real big at that time. We’ll see what gives this coming Wednesday.”