Manuel Hernandez was born in Sleepy Hollow, New York. He completed undergraduate studies at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus in 1986 and finished a Master’s in Education from Herbert H. Lehman College (CUNY) in the Bronx, New York in 1994. He taught in the public schools in New York and Puerto Rico. He taught English in his alma mater. While at the University of Puerto Rico, he created a course, English 3285, The Puerto Rican Experience in the United States: Puerto Rican Writers in the United States. The course has been in the course catalog for over 25 years and has given birth to several culturally relevant courses at the graduate level of the Department of English at the College of Humanities. He is also the author of five books, Latino/a Literature in the English Classroom (Editorial Plaza Mayor, 2003), The Birth of a Rican (Divine Purpose Publishing, 2021) and Living the Kingdom with purpose (English and Spanish) (Divine Purpose Publishing, 2017). He founded and created an educational program called Coming to America at Osceola High School. In 2022, he published his 5th book, Every Child Coming to America.
Education has been relegated to the backseat of the conversation on the most important issues driving the political rhetoric in the United States. Ever since “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) became the driving force of what to do and what not to do in the classroom, creativity and innovation have been groomed by “some” who determine the methodologies and strategies and have the upper hand and direct impact on education. In one of its provisions, the NCLB states that “each state must measure every public school student’s progress in reading and math in each of grades 3 through 8 and at least once during grades 10 through 12.” While on paper, there is no argument against the desire to assess a student’s progress, the law opened the door for a tug-of-war between enforcers of state standardized exams and the in-house committees that rule local decisions. Although NCLB received major revisions during the Obama administration, and it is no longer the “law of the land”, its lasting effects are often used as alignment strategies for all educators who are required to teach for the test, no holds barred. The ability to interpret a curriculum map is surely a task but supplementing, creating and innovating in the classroom are often looked at as threatening and menacing for educators interested in making a difference above and beyond yet aligned to the curriculum core.
As a classroom teacher with more than thirty-seven years in the classroom, I have always wondered why classroom colleagues do not get more involved. When I taught in the public schools in Puerto Rico (1986-1987,1999-2014), I personally conceptualized a curriculum framework for the teaching of English according to the Island’s unique cultural-political-social relationship with the United States. As a matter of fact, I also designed the textbook which aligned to such blueprint. After several years of hands-on work and an academic year of piloting the book from K-12th grade and reasserting the blueprint with the Island’s colonial relationship with the United States, the work was approved and ready to be used in the classroom. At just an ink away from reaching the groundbreaking agreement, the administrators who supported the research decided to take a step back, and the teaching of English took a u-turn from a culturally relevant contextual standpoint to a standardized traditional English curriculum which did not fit the mold for Puerto Rican students.
Some will say that an educator’s work is in the classroom and has no business innovating and supplementing the pre-ordained curriculum or even creating one, for that matter. More than two decades ago, Jaime Escalante, a master teacher who brought the system to his feet when he dared to challenge students, colleagues and administrators and achieved what was thought to be the impossible said, “We are all concerned about the future of American education. But as I tell my students, you do not enter the future, you create it…” He taught traditional yet innovative ways to learn math. His critics were many, and his opponents built a wall around his ideas. Ultimately, the success of his students spoke for itself. There cannot be a future in American education without the participation of a teacher at all levels of the educational decision making process. It is an educator’s business to be, get involved and make a difference, but the cultural wars within the school districts alienate teachers who dare to follow Escalante’s declaration. Instead of walking towards the future, American education is in a state of limbo, and even parents have become targets of Federal law enforcement agencies for thinking differently.
My pilgrimage in education through two states and one U.S. territory has taught me to do what I am required to do, but I must also seek strategies and ideas on how I can make a difference in-spite of the current affairs in public education. Fierce political rhetoric has invaded our schools like never before in the 21st century, and the few educators who dare to speak out with their work risk their livelihood. What is the teacher’s role in this new era? Some will say that it is to work in committees created within the local districts and revise & edit curriculum and express ideas within these enclosed working teams. How can creativity express itself within an assigned “canned” task? Then, given limitations on what you can do. Finally, warned that if you dare to do more, you are politely told to excuse yourself from the committee. These are difficult times for public school education. As an educator, I am appalled at what we have become. Although Escalante was successful, his struggles to help, assist and empower students were simply unreasonable. This is the reason why many teachers today change profession, and others prefer to stay quiet and just collect their direct deposit and cash in on extra stipends during the school year and summer sessions. It is going to take hundreds maybe thousands of “Escalantes” in all the different subject areas to raise the flag of creativity and fill the classroom in the Fall with the greatest desire to make a difference in the lives of our children. Our children deserve better!