Rebecca Hinson is an elementary school art teacher at South Grade Elementary in Lake Worth, and about seven years ago she started writing picture books to use in her classes. The books are about the artistic traditions of Central America and the Caribbean. That was not the art history Hinson had studied. She talked with WLRN’s Peter Haden about why she changed course as a teacher.
WLRN: Why do you make these books?
When I taught children of European ancestry in the Florida Keys — my background in European art was perfect. But when I moved to Lake Worth, Florida and taught at South Grade Elementary, 80 percent of my students are English language learners. For the most part they're from Central America and the Caribbean, or perhaps they're first generation American. And my background in European art did not reflect their cultures. At my school there was colleague of mine who told me that when she arrived from Nicaragua, that she felt ashamed of who she was and where she came from. And I thought, “I can't have that happen to my students.” So I thought, “What can I do?” And I said, “Well, I'm an art teacher. I'm going to teach my students about the art of their cultures.”
WLRN: How many books have you done?
Thirty-six. 18 in English, 16 in Spanish and 2 in Haitian Creole. I really go country by country. My Central America books -- one is Tecun Uman. One is The Legend of Tenochtitlan. My U.S.A. books are U.S. Capital, Emancipation, Statue of Liberty and Native American. My Caribbean books are Carnival Mask for Dominican Republic. Independence for Haiti. Citadelle Laferriere for Haiti. Cienfuegos Architecture for Cuba. Jibaros for Puerto Rico. And Francisco Ayer for Puerto Rico.
My students are always like, “Miss Hinson — when are you going to do Honduras? When are you going to do El Salvador? You know, they all want to know more about their countries of origin. And, of course, they want to know about their new country — the United States of America.
My books are used for teaching English language arts. And they're very effective for teaching English language arts to English language learners because there's images in these books that these children have seen and they understand the content. If you want to show them backstrap weaving — many of them can do backstrap weaving. So when they're learning English they understand the content they see in the pictures because it's something they've done or something that someone in their family has done.
I had a kindergarten student, and he said, “Mi abuela make corte!” And he saw the pictures of backstrap weaving — it was something he knew something about and he wanted to share. And when his kindergarten teacher came to pick him up, she said, “What happened to Adam?” And I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “He never speaks!” But that day he saw something he understood and he wanted to share what he knew.
I want children to be proud of who they are and where they came from. That's primary to me. But just as important is that these children pass all the standardized tests.
The English language arts also has history and science embedded in it – in the text that they use on these standardized tests.
English language learners are having a very difficult time with the high level questions of the state assessments. So it wasn't enough for me just to put these books in the hands of children. I also had to provide the higher level questions that they are not succeeding in answering on these standardized tests.
In a school like mine, a third of the third graders will fail third grade because they couldn't pass the English language arts assessment. We got to get those kids up to speed so that they can graduate from high school and have a life.
I've already gotten inquiries from Miami Dade and Broward and Orange County -- the big urban school districts that have large populations of English language learners. But these books really are just for anybody because I think it's valuable for children of any cultural extraction to know about the world.
WLRN: What does this project mean for you? How has it changed your life?
Well, this was not something I had planned. Sometimes you stumble over something that seems to be important...and so you just kind of go with it. And that's what happened to me. With the exception of raising a child, it has been the biggest adventure of my life. If you look at a culture closely — what the culture values most is always reflected in their art. And, in essence, art reveals the soul of a nation.
WLRN: Rebecca Hinson, art teacher at South Grade Elementary here in Lake Worth, Florida. Thank you very much for speaking with me.