Open Letter from Scholars and Educators in Support of Marylin Zuniga to:
Dwayne D. Warren, Esq., Mayor of Orange, NJ
Ronald Lee, Superintendent of Schools
Patricia A. Arthur, President of School Board
Jeffrey Wingfield, Vice President of School Board
Abdul Shabazz Ashanti, School Board Member
E. Lydell Carter, School Board Member
Paula Desormes, School Board Member
Marion Graves-Jackson, School Board Member
Cristina Mateo, School Board Member
Dear Mayor Warren, Superintendent Lee and members of the Orange School Board,
This letter from scholars and educators across the country is in support of Marylin Zuniga, the young teacher whose future hangs in the balance during this intensely politicized moment. As you know, Ms. Zuniga is a highly qualified first-year teacher in your district. Having graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s Degree and K-5 teaching certification from Montclair State University and a Masters Degree in Curriculum and Teaching from Teachers College, Columbia University, Ms. Zuniga started teaching third-grade at Forest Street Elementary in Fall, 2014. Within her first few months, Ms. Zuniga was identified as a “model teacher” by her principal in her 20-week evaluation due to the teaching skills Ms. Zuniga demonstrated during her formal observations.
The Orange Public Schools website explains that part of your mission is that “the district serves all students in our schools, acknowledging their unique backgrounds, cultural perspectives and learning styles.” This culturally relevant approach is consistent with the kind of teaching that Ms. Zuniga enacts and is part of the broader field of social justice education. Social justice educators understand that developing caring relationships (Noddings, 1984; Valenzuela, 1999) with students based on a critical understanding of who students are and where they come from can lead to greater student academic success and leadership development (Cammaroto & Romero, 2008). Beyond her work in the classroom, Ms. Zuniga demonstrates that teaching social justice is not just words through her community involvement which includes the coordination of “A Books and Breakfast” monthly program that has provided over 200 free books and 360 healthy breakfasts for Newark youth and families. She also coaches a “Girls on the Run” program at her school which develops self-esteem and confidence for 3rd-5th grade girls.
Rather than view issues students face as something beyond their control or understanding, social justice educators feel a responsibility to address social issues side by side with their students (Mikel & Hiserman, 2000) and use this knowledge as a basis for co-constructing curriculum and social action (Camangian, 2010; Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2008; Picower, 2012). Throughout the year, Ms. Zuniga’s students have had the opportunity to research issues facing their community and present their findings using an array of academic skills. Additionally, social justice educators make explicit parts of the curriculum that are often left hidden: “the inequities of society and institutional structures in which they are embedded” (Cochran-Smith, 2004, p. 78). By bringing to the surface the knowledge and history of people who have been marginalized and oppressed (McLaren, 2003; King, 2008), students are better able to understand how current conditions have been shaped and how people coming together have created change (Hackman, 2005; Leistyna, 2008).
These principles of social justice have shaped Ms. Zuniga’s curriculum and are consistent with New Jersey State Social Studies Standard 6.3: “All students will acquire the skills needed to be active, informed citizens who value diversity and promote cultural understanding by working collaboratively to address the challenges that are inherent in living in an interconnected world.” As Westheimer & Suurtamm (2008) argue, the purpose of social justice education is “to equip students with the knowledge, behavior, and skills needed to transform society into a place where social justice can exist” (p. 590).
The situation at hand, closely tied to these tenets of social justice education, is centered around get-well cards that Ms. Zuniga’s students asked to write upon hearing that someone they learned about, Mumia Abu-Jamal, was ill. Students were not assigned these letters, but rather the children volunteered to write them after their other work was completed. As educators, we understand that this is a multilayered and complex situation. The introduction of a figure as polarizing as Abu-Jamal is pedagogically complicated-- challenging for any educator, but especially for a first-year teacher. Within a social justice framework, the goal would be to present multiple perspectives and allow students to come to their own conclusions. What was exemplary with these letters was that students were empowered to take action out of compassion and empathy for a fellow human being. What more experience might have brought to this teachable moment would be the introduction of a fuller contextualization around Abu-Jamal’s case so that students’ could come to their own conclusions- conclusions that might very well have resulted in these same get well cards.
Ms. Zuniga demonstrated a multitude of positive strategies that many first-year teachers struggle with: she engaged students in real world issues and developed their academic skills on a project connected to their own authentic interest (Picower, 2012), with the single missing advantage of experience. Teachers, however, cannot gain experience without time in the classroom, and certainly removing her as a punishment for a skillset that is still in development is not the correct solution. Given the documented strengths she has already demonstrated during her short time in the classroom, coupled with the lessons she is learning from this situation, she has the opportunity, with your support, to develop into a master teacher serving the community of Orange Public Schools.
The issue at hand appears to be connected to the fact that the students’ letters showed sympathy toward Abu-Jamal. As social justice education recognizes, all teaching is political (Freire, 1993; Kincheloe, 2005; Macedo, 2000). The question that lurks in this situation is whether teachers who have taught one perspective of other controversial figures such as Christopher Columbus or Andrew Jackson (Loewen, 2008; Zinn, 2003) faced the same level of scrutiny as Ms. Zuniga. Is this a precedent that your school board is truly interested in setting?
As Bill Bigelow, Curriculum Editor of Rethinking Schools Journal wrote in response to this situation, “Whether or not one agrees with the exact manner this was handled by this teacher, the question is: Does this merit termination? … It seems to us that we are at a moment in world history where it is important to encourage teachers to help their students develop empathy for others, and to see themselves as people who want to strive to make the world a better place. How we pursue these aims is a legitimate question, but threatening to fire teachers who are trying to engage students' hearts seems to us to be profoundly wrongheaded.”
We the undersigned insist that Ms. Zuniga be immediately returned to her position as third grade teacher at Forest Street Elementary with supportive mentorship. The educational community is looking to you to develop, and not punish, this committed and qualified educator.