Humanizing Family Engagement with Latinx Immigrant Families



Liz Murray

University of San Francisco

May 6th, 2017


This paper addresses programs that exist, or have existed, that aim to shift deficit perceptions regarding Latinx immigrant families and their literacy practices. Literacy practices are defined closely as belonging to ‘the word’, and they are also more broadly defined as belonging to ‘the world’ (Freire, 1970). The paper begins with an overview of ‘ecological system theory’ (Bronfenbrenner, 1986), and the ‘epistemology of the brown body’ (Cruz, 2001) as they relate to Latinx immigrant families’ experiences with compulsory schooling. I then move into looking at how parent involvement and engagement is articulated in different settings, and the importance of an equity lens (Gorski, 2013). From there I move to looking more closely at family literacy practices, and then to family literacy programs (‘the word and the world’) that have proven successful in the field. These lead to parent and community activism, and to ‘transformative ruptures’ (Delgado Bernal & Alemán, 2017).


Despite clear evidence that points to high expectations of their children and their children’s education (Monzó & Rueda, 2001), Latinx families are often viewed as ‘not caring’ about their child’s future. A concern educators and researchers have is that many parental involvement approaches construct restricted roles for parents in the schooling of their children (Baquedano-López, Alexander, & Hernandez, 2013). These approaches restrict the ways in which parents from non-dominant backgrounds can be productive social actors who can shape and influence schools and other social institutions (Baquedano-López et al., 2013). Not having gone through the US school system is also a barrier as there is much to navigate and understand. Concha Delgado Gaitan (2012) asserts that how schools operate comprises a type of literacy that parents need to understand to successfully participate in their children’s schooling. Hegemonic school practices clash with home-based educational practices that may go unrecognized (Monzó & Rueda, 2001).

Garcia et al. (García, Kleifgen, & Falchi, 2008) report that although the numbers of emergent bilinguals are increasing and there is near consensus in the research community about the crucial role of the home language in their education, there has been a significant decrease in the use of their native language in their instruction over the last decade. It is also the case that the bilingual and multidialectical complexities of Latino life are not as well known as they should be, even to teachers in daily contact with many Latino students (Zentella, 2005). A report from the Frank Porter Graham Center at UNC Chapel Hill (FPG Snapshot, 2007) found that preschool children given the ability to speak with educators in their home language, in this case Spanish, were rated higher in terms of prosocial behavior than those who interacted in English (among other positive findings). This report clearly indicates the importance of home language for children’s social and emotional learning, and there was no impact on learning English.

Theoretical frameworks

Ecological systems theory[1].

Ecological Systems Theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1986) is commonly used in relation to child development and in early childhood education courses. The microsystem involves the child and their direct and intimate interactions, for example at home, at school, or at community centers. The mesosystem looks at the relationships between the elements of the microsystem, for example parent-teacher connections. The exosystem takes us out a little further to look at factors such as the parents’ work environments, while the macrosystem includes cultural patterns and values, specifically personal beliefs, and the political and economic climate in the society in which the child lives. The chronosystem brings in the factor of time.

Delgado-Gaitan (1991) refers to Bronfenbrenner’s hypothesis that making decisions on behalf of the developing person that influence direct and indirect links to power enhances the development potential of a setting. A potent exosystem effect may be microaggressions (T. Yosso, Smith, Ceja, & Solórzano, 2009) occurring in the adults’ workplaces and outside of the home. The child may not experience microaggressions personally[2] but they will be affected by the self-esteem of their family members, and this can impact their schooling. The current political climate is a clear example of the influence of the macrosystem impacting systems closer in. An example of the macrosystem in relation to language comes from governmental restrictions on languages used in certain settings. Macrosystemic pressure may result in teachers refusing to support home languages in the classroom but this may also come from the teachers themselves. In this case there is a dis-ease at the microsystemic level. Dis-ease (Brendtro, 2006) occurs “when teachers undermine parental values, parents undercut teachers and peer values sabotage those of elders”. In the case of Latinx immigrant parents it is unlikely that parents will undercut teachers, but it may be the case that teachers undermine parents, and there is potential for peer values sabotaging those of elders.

Epistemology of the Brown Body

Relationships between school and Latinx immigrant families are not evenly matched in terms of power differentials, and respect for home wisdom, the wisdom of the brown body, is often absent. Delgado-Gaitan (Gaitan, 2012) asserts that “knowledge is power, and power is negotiable”. An understanding of how language restrictionism plays out in the wider society may encourage teachers to support home languages in the classroom, to bolster the child’s self-esteem in a setting where individual actions have a direct impact on the child. Pushing back against macro and exosystemic pressures is possible and is, it can be argued, the only moral choice for schools and teachers to make.

Knowledge is not only passed down through books and words, but it is also transmitted through bodies, communal relations, and other forms of non-verbal communication. “Situating knowledge in the brown body begins the validation of the narratives of survival, transformation, and emancipation of our respective communities, reclaiming histories and identities. And in these ways, we embody our theory”(Cruz, 2001, p. 668). Carreón et al. (Carreón, Drake, & Barton, 2005) call on Trueba’s definition of resilience as “the capacity of immigrants to survive physically and psychologically in circumstances that require enormous physical strength and determination”(p. 479). Ada and Campoy (Ada & Campoy, n.d.) assert, “parents are graduates from the University of Life and have accumulated valuable wisdom by living”. The richness of parents’ experiences should not be ignored, and schools are missing the opportunity to learn from their insights, in particular as immigrants (Carreón et al., 2005).

An intergenerational project carried out in Chicago (Gregory, Long, & Volk, 2004) brought Latino elders and 4th grade dual language students together. Initially the elders felt they had nothing to teach the children as they had had so little formal schooling. Drawing on their “funds of knowledge” (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & González, 1992) and their “community cultural wealth” (T. J. Yosso, 2005) showed the elders, and the children, how much wisdom and experience they had to share. It is unsettling to think that these Latino elders had internalized that knowledge from inside a formal setting is of more value than lifelong wisdom and their innate strength. They felt the knowledge of their brown bodies had been discounted by society-at-large.

Literature Review

Family Funds of Knowledge

Language, power and race affect our movements and self-identity in a myriad of ways. Zentella[3] states that children are socialized to language (how they become speakers of their native tongue) and socialized through language (how they become culturally competent members of their community through language). “Before even stepping foot in a school, students have learned the language and culture of their family, community, and social networks. Within these community settings they learn attitudes, norms, practices, beliefs, experiences, and aspirations” (Gaitan, 2012, p.307). It is critical that educators respect the families for their ‘endogenous knowledge’ (García et al., 2008, p.44), for the knowledge that came before and the knowledge that comes after.

Jessica Martell, a second grade dual-language teacher in New York City, invites parents into the classroom to share expertise (Souto-Manning & Martell, 2016). Families come to her as teachers, sometimes to read aloud, sometimes to be interviewed as experts on the day their child was born, and other times to share skills such as making tortas (inspired by the reading of Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto). In this last example, the boy whose mother came in to make tortas experienced (instead of being told) that she was knowledgeable and worthy. Viewing his mother through the lens of teacher changed this seven-year-old child’s opinion of her as knowledge bearer. Ada (1993) states that we need to reexamine what we as educators are doing to acknowledge and validate the home and family. Ada stresses that we cannot allow the school to disenfranchise the family, as happens all too often in the case of language minority and economically disadvantaged students.

Fathers are often missing from the literature on family engagement (Mayorga-Gallo, 2017). Traditionally mothers are the face of family-school engagement, across all demographics. Mayorga-Gallo’s recent book directly addresses paternal engagement in Latinx immigrant families. She details interactions within the school environment and also points out examples of home-based pedagogies. “Mateo’s pedagogies of the home show that he took tremendous pride in developing his children’s Spanish skills. Within their home, Mateo explicitly sought to create an environment that differed from school, where learning was based on real-world experiences” (p. 43). Another example of fathers accessing funds of knowledge is found in the work of Carreón et al. (2005). “Pablo’s descriptions illustrate how his educational engagement and presence within the home space are centered in experientially based knowledge that his sons can immediately apply in their lives [for example fixing cars, and growing vegetables]”(p. 483). It is noted that these practices constitute rich cultural events and beyond the actions comes the interactions, often humorous. Yet these funds of knowledge are not valued in a mainstream educational setting.

Equity and Parental Involvement

Many teachers and other school personnel continue to perpetuate the myth that parents who do not participate in school-sanctioned forms of engagement do not care about their children’s education. Mayorga-Gallo (2017) comments that parent involvement is based on the premise that students will be more academically successful if educators and caregivers work together to support their learning, and that in most U.S. schools, “this often translates into parents’ help with school-sanctioned tasks such as homework, attendance at school events such as parent-teacher conferences, and volunteering for the school” (p.5). Garcia et al. (2008) argue that the schools have to revise their valuation of these parents’ educative role and redouble their efforts at involving the parents in order to help pave the way for greater educational equity for emergent bilinguals. The need to redouble is echoed in Gorski’s comments (Gorski, 2013) regarding engaging in persistent (my italics) family outreach efforts.

Miano (2011) affirms that lopsidedly focusing on parental performance, as per ‘prescriptive strand’ literature, has assumed that parents should serve schools but not necessarily vice versa. Gorski (2013) asserts that we must work with rather than on families in poverty. To be clear, not all Latinx immigrant families live in poverty, however Gorski’s work is applicable in many situations regarding minoritized populations. He highlights the importance of relationship building, and acknowledges that when we (as teachers) pursue this sincerely it is a much more difficult undertaking that incorporating music or cooperative learning into our teaching. He affirms that it requires a tremendous amount of humility, and a willingness to ask ourselves awfully hard questions, regarding personal beliefs and biases. This comment is premised on a mismatch between students and teachers, but unfortunately this mismatch is all too common.

A 2013 federally funded report (Mapp & Kuttner, 2013) calls for greater outreach and engagement work to happen with minoritized families. This is framed as a paradigm shift in the awareness of “the importance of building family–school partnerships that are focused on student learning and development” (p. 25). Words such as ‘partnerships’ are promising but there is still limited (or no) acknowledgement of home-based pedagogical, social and cultural practices. Without critically examining the structural barriers for many families, these families are viewed as independent actors, thus responsible or not, for student success. Baquedano-López et al. (2013) note that within this frame, the essence of the problem resides not in the structure of schools but in the ways in which “parents fail at their responsibility to educate their children”(p. 152). Zentella (2005) asserts that relying on home-versus-school conflict models can obscure the more powerful role played by institutional inequalities and racism.

Many educators still consider family practices to be barriers to student achievement, to the exclusion of family funds of knowledge (García et al., 2008). A recent study (Steiner, 2014) is fraught with deficit thinking and disregard for community cultural wealth and family funds of knowledge. Steiner examines a family literacy program focused on reading books to children, and discussing these books. This is then set to correlate with higher levels of reading achievement. At no point during this article does Steiner comment on literacy practices already occurring in the home and how connections can be made between the two. A trope of ‘parents as first teachers’ (Baquedano-López et al., 2013) can be problematic as it may dismiss cultural knowledge residing in the family. Early learning programs based on the expectations that minoritized families need interventions to assist them in teaching ways aligned to school are considered to be “not without consequence” as they “introduce a set of cultural practices from the dominant community at the risk of subtractive schooling (Valenzuela, 1999) and reductive literacy practices” (p. 153).

Family Literacy Practices

Baquedano-López et al. (2013) comment that family literacy program models appear to be influenced by two dominant views of literacy. One is a decontextualized perspective whereby (all) families need help to gain the tools to assist their children with school. The other is a contextualized perspective that recognizes home and community knowledge. This viewpoint acknowledges the power of literacy to liberate and empower children and their parents, in the Freirean tradition, and aligns with productive strength-building models of family literacy (Baquedano-López et al., 2013). The authors call for decolonizing family literacy programs that serve as counternarratives to traditional models.

Monzó and Rueda (2001) posit that the functional nature of literacy in home is so different to school based literacy practices that children may not realize what one has to do with the other. Shirley Brice-Heath (2001) found that adults in Trackton did not consciously model, demonstrate or tutor reading or writing behaviors for the young (p. 447). She comments that children, however, went to school with certain expectancies of print and a keen sense that reading is something one does to learn something one needs to know. It is stated that Trackton children’s preschool experiences with print, stories, and talk about the environment differed greatly from those usually depicted in the literature for children of mainstream school-oriented parents (p. 449).

Maria de la Luz Reyes (2011) points out though that while similarities between middle-class preschool literacy practices and social practices of Latino families may not be readily apparent, there is remarkable likeness between the two. Both settings involve oral telling of tales, whether from print material or not; teaching nursery rhymes/dichos/songs/adivinanzas/finger play; providing print materials such as children’s books, novelas, fotonovelas, newspapers; and taking children to museums/Spanish language films/cultural events/church/community events. Reyes notes that the key elements of the literacy practices are essentially the same. Reyes collected the stories of Latinx scholars, Sonia Nieto and Maria Fránquiz among others, who became “biliterate against the odds”. The stories illustrate how Latinx family practices support literacy learning through the practices mentioned above. In the absence of bilingual education programs these scholars went on to succeed as bilingual and biliterate adults. It is not an argument against bilingual education; more an argument for looking for similarities rather than differences between dominant and non-dominant literacy practices.

At El Centro Academy for Children in Kansas City, KS (Nash & Sosinski, 2016) the director involves teachers in deeper examination of specific bilingual practices such as ‘code meshing’ and the use of bilingual teaching materials within a predictable daily schedule. Regarding home language, Geralyn, the director, carries out a survey regarding home language use with questions such as “What language does the child hear in the morning?” This information was used to help understand how and in what contexts children used language(s) at home. Parents were welcomed into the discussion around home languages and the importance of speaking, in this case Spanish, to their children. It is noted that having internalized widely projected deficit views about their own languages and cultural practices, the parents felt anxiety about the dual language approach. This is countered by Parent Groups and Family Nights, and addressing the issue head-on in a holistic manner.

Family literacy program models

The following programs: Pájaro Valley Project (Ada), University and School Partnership (De Gaetano, 2007) and the Carpintería Study (Delgado-Gaitan, 1991), each emphasize the Freirean concept of ‘reading the word and the world’. They are not literacy programs in a traditional sense where the written word takes precedence; rather they view literacy through a broad and holistic lens. Literacy is used as a tool for greater learning, again in a broad sense.

Pájaro Valley Project, CA  

The Pájaro Valley Project (Ada & Campoy, n.d.) grew out of the knowledge of the importance of parent involvement in their children’s education. It was based on parents as first and most lasting educators, the importance of the first language to transmit family history and values, and what parents can do to support school no matter their level of formal education. Ada notes that many parents are not aware of their essential role as language models. She states that language not only needs to be accepted, it needs to be explored, expanded and celebrated. By encouraging parent-child interaction, we are facilitating the maintenance and development of the home language.

The Pájaro Valley Project used the Creative Reading Process (Ada, 1987) to relate story conflict in trade books to the parents’ own reality and to inspire praxis (Freire, 1970). From there parents dictated their own thoughts that were written down and then later published to be shared. Ada notes that when we take the contributions offered by the parents and record them on charts, or in books, we show our interest in and appreciation of the parent’s thoughts and experiences (Ada, 1993, p. 15). An important element in the Pájaro Valley Project, and in similar programs conducted by Ada, was that sessions were videotaped and parents had the opportunity to review the sessions and revisit the issues raised. This strengthens awareness of Latinx families as bearers of crucial knowledge.

University and School Partnership in the Northeast U.S.

Yvonne De Gaetano (2007) details a three-year university and school partnership established with a federal grant to improve the educational outcomes of English-language learners in public schools. One of the goals of the program was to use culture as a mediator of learning. The university team consisted of four women-two Puerto Rican and two White, and the project was carried out in two schools in the northeast of the U.S. The researchers began with the assumption that the vast majority of Latino parents do indeed care about their children’s schooling, and that caring is not only manifested in the school building, but also outside.

The first year of the study involved getting to know the parents and establishing relationships of trust. This included emphasizing the conscious and consistent use of two languages. While the researchers presented a framework for workshop topics, they assured participants that they were open to developing agendas based on parent needs and ideas.

Initially the researchers worked separately with parents and teachers but at the end of the first year parents and teachers were asked to meet together. One of the first of these meetings was a luncheon where both groups worked together to prepare the food. By interacting in this manner, people began to see each other in new ways. The project also involved parents observing in their children’s classrooms, community walks for parents to see the community through the eyes of their own children (parents took photos and recorded audiotapes that were then used as learning materials in the classroom), and workshops on the importance of supporting the first language (Spanish) at home and of being positive toward learning the second language (English). All activities were designed with care and clear intentions, and one goal was conveying that knowledge is not necessarily dependent on schooling. Feedback was ongoing and the length of time given to this project allowed for in-depth experience and knowledge building on the part of all participants. It is noted that during the second year all the parents strongly emphasized that they now realized how important their culture and language was in the learning process for their children.

Carpintería Study, CA

Concha Delgado Gaitan spent fifteen years researching parental involvement in education in Carpintería, a town near Santa Barbara, California (2012). Over this time she saw many gains that families claimed through their years of mobilizing and organizing the community. Her work sought to examine programs that moved past conventional or school sanctioned activities to nonconventional parent involvement activities. One example of parental involvement from an earlier time period (1991) was a program led by the head teacher of the school district’s Preschool Program, Mrs. Baca. Mrs. Baca educated parents about the preschool curriculum and about ways to design learning activities with children at home. Parents visited the class when they wanted and helped out with tasks. Mrs. Baca essentially designed a preschool curriculum that included teaching parents how to be her coteachers. She sought to make the home and school curricula interdependent so that children would learn in two cooperative settings. Mrs. Baca shaped her classroom curricula so that children would value their language, culture and heritage. Parents in the Preschool Program were convinced by the teacher that they were their child’s most important teacher and that their viewpoints and experiences were valuable in their child’s classroom.



Each of these models confirm the importance of teaching parents and families the vital role they play in their child’s education, in contrast to what systemic forces may have them believe. The role of parent cannot be replaced and no matter the level of formal schooling Latinx immigrant families all have important stories to tell. The epistemology that resides in their brown bodies is of equal value as those of the dominant class, and their funds of knowledge must be tapped to create “humanizing family engagement” (Mayorga-Gallo, 2017). Deficit views can be countered with intention and caring.

From looking at these three models, and from reflecting on other models, for example Miano (Miano, 2011), the element of time cannot be understated. It isn’t clear exactly how long the Pájaro Valley Project lasted but both authors live in the state of California and are still active doing this work. De Gaetano’s work involved an engagement of three years, and Delgado Gaitan spent at least fifteen years with the people in Carpintería. Trust does not come easily, especially for people who are marginalized by the dominant society, thus time is of the essence, in a longitudinal frame.

The studies here, and other work relating to the field of Latinx immigrant families’ educational practices, appear to benefit from having at least one of the researchers belonging to the Latinx community writ large. There is a clear power differential in that these researchers and educators have gone through decades of schooling, whereas the families in question may not have completed primary school. Nonetheless, cultural understandings related to the Latinx community may be shared. It is also possible that the researchers and educators are first generation college students, and/or had parents who were immigrants. De Gaetano’s study had two Puerto Rican researchers and two White researchers. It is likely that if only White educators carried out such a study, even if they were fluent Spanish speakers, results would be different. This speaks to the role of Whiteness in society at large and to the role of Whiteness in educational settings. Power differentials must be critiqued and analyzed by all members of a research team as the studies progress, if real change is to occur.

Future Research

            Future research should continue in the same vein as the programs discussed here. It is clear that deficit views are entrenched and the work of humanizing family engagement is often an uphill battle. It requires time and we are faced with neoliberal education reforms that do not always place value on genuine and caring relationships with families. As these programs show, building relationships and trust is essential, and this can be done in creative ways. In line with the work of Carreón et al. (2005) future research could focus on the experience of Latinx parents with conventional forms of engagement to understand what can be done in the absence of nonconventional forms. Another area to be explored further is in the field of teacher education, informed by the findings presented here. These two areas will be explored at a later date but an area of future research that will be expanded on here is “parents as activists”.

            Parents as activists

Research shows that language-minority parents are beginning to question the existing power relations in the home-school relationship (García et al., 2008, p.45). Some parents have begun to form grassroots organizations to address their schools about concerns they have regarding their children’s education. De Gaetano (2007) states that one of the more rewarding and important outcomes of the cultural approach to parental involvement was the growing sense that parents were becoming more aware and active about social issues that affected them and were feeling more empowered to act. Miano (2011) states that political activism on behalf of schools (in her case downtown protests regarding the Governor’s cutbacks) is not generally viewed in the prescriptive or quantitative literature as a form of parent involvement, yet Latinos have historically played key roles surrounding equity in general, and educational equity in particular (i.e. Mendez vs. Westminster[4]).

Farima Pour-Khorshid (2016) writes about reaching out to her students’ parents and bringing them in to her K-1 classroom. Pour-Khorshid comments, “the mothers became like honorary teachers in our class”, similar to participation encouraged by Mrs. Baca (Delgado-Gaitan, 1991) and Jessica Martell (Souto-Manning & Martell, 2016). Pour-Khorshid got a pink slip in her second year of teaching due to lack of seniority. In response, some of the parents organized and brought their kids to the school board meeting and spoke out against her pink slip. Pour-Khorshid writes, “The same parents that were often silenced, disregarded, and disrespected in this country were now unapologetically advocating for me in their vibrant English, because their words were far from sounding ‘broken’ ”(p. 28). The value Pour-Khorshid placed on these parents likely strengthened their belief in themselves as teachers of their children, and in themselves as actors in the schooling of their children. When faced with a threat, the parents mobilized in an attempt to save what Pour-Khorshid brought to the school. Delgado Bernal and Alemán (2017) use the term “transformative ruptures” to describe actions that expose and interrupt pervasive coloniality and structural inequities (p. 5). The actions of these parents, and activism among Latinx immigrant families in general is a transformative rupture that shifts perceptions and alters relations of power. It would not have occurred without intentional work with parents and children.


Ada states (1993) that we want parents and students to be able to analyze their reality, to understand the structures and forces that constrain them, to feel strong enough to question the world around them, and free enough to engage in solidarity with others in order to shape and transform that world. Schools need to recognize the funds of knowledge that exist in emergent bilingual children’s families and communities, to be accountable to them, and to achieve closer mutual engagement for a higher quality education (García et al., 2008, p. 47). It may not always be possible for parents to be involved in their children’s education in nonconventional ways, but an awareness of the benefits of programs that reach out beyond the school walls, with the intention of strengthening family and school ties, is critical for all of us who work in the field.

Respecting the epistemology of the brown body and gaining an understanding of systemic oppression as it reaches the young child, help guide us on this path. From the literature reviewed here we see a path from parent engagement to parent activism. This is important for all families in many different arenas, but it needs to be curated differently when there is a strong mismatch between school and home, as often happens with Latinx immigrant families and U.S. educational settings. All children deserve to see their parents held up with respect, and we must fight against schooling practices that diminish them. Delgado Bernal and Alemán (2017) draw on the work of Anzaldúa to reflect on what parents had to say about the Adelante (College Prep) program. The authors pull from “nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images in our heads” (Anzaldúa, 1987, p. 87), and state that one can understand transformative ruptures as chipping away at structures of oppression that allow us to dream audaciously and work toward something different (p. 90). When we uplift family and community voices we are all uplifted, in the spirit of liberation.







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Zentella, A. C. (2005). Building on strength: language and literacy in Latino families and communities. New York : Covina, Calif: Teachers College Press ; California Association for Bilingual Education.






[2] They might, however. Kohli & Solórzano (2012) write about microaggressions in schooling, including the early years.

[3] Speaking as part of the 2007 Jocelyn Solis Lecture Series at the CUNY Graduate Center.


Sociology of Language: Reading Responses

Of the three readings for this week, the one that most intrigued me was the one from Yukio Tsuda (2014). I am always inspired by the work Linda Christensen (2009) does, and I’ve read a little bit about what Pennycook (2010) writes about, but I hadn’t read an article similar to the one Tsuda wrote. He raised many important and challenging issues. His assertion that the most serious problem caused by globalization is the Anglo-Americanization of world cultures at first unsettled me as I thought first about labor rights in the developing world, and climate change. I was aware of the role US produced entertainment plays across the globe but I hadn’t linked it specifically to English as a hegemonic tool in the way Tsuda does. This is probably due to being a White home language English speaker from a middle class family. Growing up there were a lot of US movies and tv shows to watch, but materially people’s lives in those movies weren’t too far from what I lived, and linguistically we were speaking the same language. There were also many cultural similarities but the commercial side of the US and exports such as Disney were often criticized. UK cultural exports (such as the BBC) were generally received with less animus by my parents and people around us, and were often seen as ‘superior’, but neither was particularly foreign to us.

Tsuda refers to the work of Takahashi who states, based on empirical research, that native speakers of English (at this international conference) intentionally try to push non-native speakers out of discussions using a range of tactics. Tsuda adds that it seems in international conferences, native English speakers use their linguistic advantage to “magnify their power so they can establish an unequal and asymmetrical with the non-English speakers and this push them out of the mainstream of communication”. This is appalling to me and shows up a highly immature mindset among those who benefit from hegemonic linguistic privilege. It’s not clear what type of conference Takahashi refers to, but that’s not important as all international conferences should focus on the expertize each person brings, regardless of English fluency. It’s likely that the non-native speakers of English have more to add to the conversation, as it’s possible the native speakers use their range of linguistic push-out tactics to cover for content knowledge and analysis, but this wouldn’t be easy to prove. Non-native speakers certainly have an analysis that differs from the English mainstream and this is clear in Tsuda’s work.

Tsuda comments that those who cannot speak English fluently are labeled as incompetent, and thus insulted and perceived to be inferior. In South Africa this summer I read an article about Babes Wodumo, a young Zulu singer/celebrity. Babes has been criticized for not speaking ‘good’ English, this comment directly casting shade on her cognitive abilities. She sings and talks mostly in Zulu, and she can speak English but prefers her mother tongue. It is a source of pride for her. Like Ngugi (quoted by Christensen) she is resisting the colonial linguistic apparatus. Tsuda writes that stereotypes and prejudices are easily created to hold a discriminatory perception and attitude towards those who do not and cannot speak English. I have been paying closer attention over the last week to my reactions to people and their languages use. I can’t say it’s all good, because prejudicial thoughts do come my way despite my personal beliefs in the value of all tongues, in counter to hegemonic views. I doubt this article could have been written by a native English speaker as we are just not as tuned in to life as a non-native English speaker. As I write this I also think about people who have difficulties expressing themselves in their home language, and neurodiverse people, to name a few. This then cycles back to perception of ‘intelligence’ and English ability as a marker of competence. I speak three languages that are closely related and I learned these languages from living in countries where they are spoken. I don’t see myself as cognitively superior because of this. It is an interest I have and one I’ve maintained. My dad speaks about three languages (English, French and German) and my mum has tried to learn languages (French, Italian) but she has a very hard time with it. There is no difference in their intellectual comptence. We also all benefit from being White home language English speakers, thus our languages are seen as ‘supplementary’ rather than ‘necessary’.

Tsuda brings up the “colonization of the consciousness”, the mental control of the colonized by the colonizer. Tsuda quotes Ngugi who points out that the domination of a people’s language by the languages of the colonizing nations was crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonized. Tsuda writes that English-speaking people unconsciously hold linguistic imperialist consciousness, while non-English speaking people assume English use to be inevitable, indicating the ‘colonization of their mind’. This point isn’t as well addressed in this article as topics such as the hegemony of English and the Ecology of Language Paradigm, but it is a critical point to include. I would taper the argument by adding White English speakers as ones who hold imperialist consciousness, as many non-White speakers of English are viewed through a racialized lens, no matter their command of the language. Writers such as Ngugi Wa Thiongo have a mastery of English that could put many ‘native’ speakers to shame, but his race and his accent make him seem ‘foreign’ in a way that a White person with a strong Scottish accent wouldn’t be. Regarding the ‘colonization of the mind’, I could argue that it is up to individuals in the academic settings he refers to to not acquiesce to English language demands, but that would be naïve on my part, and shows up my White English speaking privilege. I am looking forward to the CIES conference next year in Mexico City. For the first time proposals will be accepted in Spanish. Considering the extensive linguistic repertoires people at the CIES conference maintain, it would be good to see/hear presentations in many languages other than English. I feel that if the CIES conference can’t do multilingual presentations, then not many international organizations can.





Christensen, L. (2009). Chapter 5: Uncovering the Legacy of Language and Power. In Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-Imagining the Language Arts Classroom. Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools Publication.

Pennycook, A. (2010). Introduction: language as a local practice. In Language as a Local Practice. London: Routledge.

Tsuda, Y. (2014). The Hegemony of English and Strategies for Linguistic Pluralism: Proposing the Ecology of Language Paradigm. Retrieved from


A few (language and literacy) thoughts


  • I feel that my background in early childhood education holds me in good stead when it comes to the subtleties of first and second language acquisition. What comes naturally when we support children in their primary languages does not come as naturally when we are working with older learners. There are clear developmental differences but communication almost always is the goal. Instrumental motivation is commonly accompanied by integrative motivation(Baker, 2001, p.123). The useful purpose (instrumental) someone wants to learn a language for often relates to identifying with or joining another language group (integrative) and communicating with people from a distinct linguistic background. ‘Discourse analysis has shown that a second language learner and a native speaker work together to produce purposeful and efficient communication” (Baker, p.118).
  • This ties back to caregiver speech (or ‘motherese’). The caregiver and the infant do not speak the same language at first but they communicate in a mix of verbal and visual cues. They negotiate meaningful input and language development comes about as a ‘process of implicit rule formation, rather than explicit habit formation’ (Baker, p. 119). I remember when I was working in a preschool setting and first heard “I runned to the shop” (or equivalent). I don’t remember if I responded at the time, but if I did I doubt I would have said, “no it’s ran, you ran to the shop” (instinct would hopefully have had me say the second part without the initial negative correction). I now know more about language development and I know that the child was making a hypothesis that actually shows positive cognitive development. What is key is that the child is telling a story and if we interrupt that story to explicitly correct, the train of thought is lost, and the child may shut down.


  • A number of years ago I took part in a collaborative study to see whether we should make a foreign language part of the regular day, at the private school I worked at in Brooklyn. I was already the before and after school French and Spanish teacher, and my passion for languages would have swerved me slightly in the pro camp. After a period of months, of meetings, and readings, we decided that there was already a lot on in the day, including specialist science and music, and decided not to bring a foreign language into the regular school day. There was no clear evidence to show that the children at this privileged school would be better prepared to formally tackle a foreign language in fifth or sixth, if they had taken the language a couple of times a week from kindergarten on. The only ‘real’ benefit seemed to be in terms of accent. I found this process to be of great interest as the articles we read challenged the concept that young children pick up languages so easily and it’s harder the older you get. It is of course much more complex than that. While there are many factors in play, Hakuta (in Baker, p.98) states that the evidence for critical period is scanty and that there are no qualitative differences between child and adult learners.
  •  Something I hadn’t explicitly thought about before is the use of English for science and math (Baker, p.210, point 3). I have always believed that math should be in the home language as the skills are transferable (Baker, p.210, point 4). SFUSD has a math curriculum in Spanish but when I was supervising two student teachers both in second grades, one class used the Spanish language version and the other class used the English version. I had never questioned the use of English for science as I felt it was a given as all schools I’ve visited have had science in English, but now I do. This ties straight into a presentation I saw at CIES 2017 regarding the limits of using Western theorists in the African context, especially when there are African theorists to use, such as Nyerere. Birgit Brock-Utne discussed the use of English as people move through academia, including in Norwegian universities. She recalled a discussion she had with a man in Tanzania who moved into English from Kiswahili when a particular topic came up. She asked him whether the language existed in Kiswahili to talk about that topic, and he said it didn’t. Brock-Utne then said to us that language only grows by using it. A couple of hours later, in a different context, a man from Namibia said he was back in his village, he works in the US, and went to speak to the children at the local school. He works in multimedia and information technology and he found the words for that don’t exist in his mother tongue. We have critical mass with Spanish but even so it is hard enough to get a wide range of quality resources in language arts and social studies.
  • On the way to the airport the other day I spoke to a taxi driver from Tajikistan. I don’t think I’ve met anyone from there before and I didn’t know they speak Farsi, as well as Russian (looking it up now I see that Tajik is a version of Farsi). He has two young children and so I asked the driver what language they speak at home, as I often do. They speak Farsi. The phrase that crossed my mind was that “unless you speak fluent English it’s better to speak your home tongue”. This was quickly replaced by the fact that it’s important for children to learn the language of their heart, and that even if the parents do speak fluent English they should still speak the language of their heart at home. It goes beyond being able to speak to the elders; it goes straight to core preservation value. Children quickly learn what language has power, prestige and preference (Baker, p.92), but they also learn the language of the heart and family. Early on children have the ability to use the appropriate language within appropriate contexts (Baker, p.91). The role children play as language brokers has many positive outcomes (Baker, p. 105). Language brokering can often be a lifeline, but there are certain ethical dilemmas when it comes to interpreting sensitive information, such as medical or educational information. Ideally, trained community interpreters can fill the role but in their absence children may need to step in.
  • Language brokering in less sensitive areas, such as when shopping, or banking, highlight student skills in areas a classroom teacher might not be aware of (Jiménez & Orellana, 2006). The suggestion of using journals to access this information is a strong pedagogical tool that opens a window, not only into occasions of language brokering but also emotions surrounding these. Harnessing these skills for academic growth taps into funds of knowledge the student may not know they possess. It may also strengthen positive ideologies surrounding home languages, if these languages are not high status. Children learn early on (Baker, p.106) one language never fully parallels another. Language brokering is not so much about interpreting word for word, but it is also about finding equivalencies. These equivalencies might not always exist, the words comadre or compañera for example come to mind, but the importance is finding the spirit in the sentiment.



 Baker, C. (2001). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism (3rd ed). Clevedon [England] ; Buffalo [N.Y.]: Multilingual Matters.

Jiménez, R., & Orellana, M. (2006). Flipping the Educational Script: Teachers as Learners. California English.



Tend the linguistic garden


Colin Baker (Baker, 2001, p.53) comments that language diversity requires planning and care. He uses an analogy of a garden to illustrate his point. Smaller flowers may be in need of more protection, and sometimes radical action needs to be taken to preserve particular plants. Baker comments earlier on that language shift is more common than language stability. This intuitively makes sense but it complicates the preservation of languages that are not viewed as high status and/or are spoken by a small group of people. The Universal Declaration on Linguistic Rights (1996) is a beautiful document to read but it is difficult not to view it as a utopia for language communities. It is a critical document to have, imagining other worlds is a powerful liberatory tool, and it is comprehensive, bringing in invasion and colonization and other references to uses and abuses of power. Linguistic diversity is promoted throughout this document as a peace builder, as a key factor for harmonious social relations, and a political framework based upon respect and mutual benefit.

Baker points out that language rights can sometimes be more idealistic than realistic (p.370). He describes the distinction between tolerance-oriented rights and promotion-oriented rights. A tolerance orientation is often legalistic in form, and one of its aims is to protect against discrimination in different settings, schools being one of the most highly charged. A promotion orientation implies the active inclusion of all language communities in question, going beyond the letter of the law. This can be costly to implement and oftentimes impractical. Home language instruction ideally would be offered to all students in the US but it is impossible to provide for all communities. Speakers of Spanish are best served as they make up a large group of non-English speakers in many parts of the country. Speakers of Somali may be served in the Minneapolis area but less so outside of this region.

The territorial principle may also be in play when it comes to tolerance and/or promotion of linguistic rights. In Article One of the UNLR a language community is considered any human society that has developed a common language as a natural means of communication, whether or not there are historical ties to the territory they find themselves in. This accounts for immigrant and refugee communities, among others. Baker reminds us (p.43) that the politics and power situation in which minority languages are situated is important. Beyond hierarchies of language, the power differential between people who believe they belong in this country (and Australia and the UK)-based on being a native speaker of English is vast. Around two thirds of the world’s population is bilingual and multilingual and this number is growing. The UNLR was likely written by people who speak multiple languages, and a challenge to the primacy of English did not have a place in this document (it can be read in the lines however). English is a global and imperial language and monolingual English speakers often feel entitled to the territory that comes with it.

Power and ideology determines whose language is taught, which language practices are valued and which are minoritized (García, 2014, p.89). Hegemonic educational practices in many Anglophone countries draw on the cultural capital of the white, middle-class, English-speaking student. The acquisition of ‘foreign’ languages is seen to be beneficial morally, socially and globally for the white, middle-class student, while the language communities that speak these languages as home tongues are seen as deficient (Baker p.347). Ofelia Garcia (p. 91) states that the most important aspect of language education is having teachers who are educated to respect the multilingual ecology of their classroom and to develop the bilingualism of their students. This happens too seldom in teacher education programs and in ongoing professional development for classroom teachers. Language education pedagogies are products of their time, and often reflect retrograde notions. Until a year or so ago, I carried with me a visual of the purgatory of ‘semilingualism’: people who don’t have academic home language or English. Leaving aside the problematic of the definition of ‘academic’, it was only when reading a recent article (Flores, Kleyn, & Menken, 2015) that I saw how erroneous that visual is. Garcia challenges monoglossic ideologies, in particular the concept that there are fixed first and second languages. She proposes instead the concept of languaging that is complex and interrelated, and does not emerge in a linear fashion. Garcia writes that continuing to talk about L1 and L2 keeps power in the hands of monolinguals that speak the dominant language of the society in which they live at birth and who can acquire a “second” language independently. This “native” speaker is seen as White, monolingual and loyal to their nation, whereas Brown and Black bilingual speakers are marked as ‘foreign’.

Language diversity, language rights, the territorial principle and power and ideology lead us in a circle that is ever expanding. Without intentional and critical reflection on bilingualism and its relation to power and privilege we may subsume language diversity and language rights beneath a neoliberal mantle. We need to crack that mantle and creatively plan for the maintenance and promotion of the rights of all language communities, wherever they reside. It is a complex and messy business, as with so much work in education, but if we don’t ask the questions we remain in purgatory.



Baker, C. (2001). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism (3rd ed). Clevedon [England] ; Buffalo [N.Y.]: Multilingual Matters.

Flores, N., Kleyn, T., & Menken, K. (2015). Looking Holistically in a Climate of Partiality: Identities of Students Labeled Long-Term English Language Learners. Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 14(2), 113–132.

García, O. (2014). Chapter Six: Multilingualism and Language Education. In C. Leung & B. V. Street (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to English Studies (pp. 84–99). London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

UNESCO. (1996). Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights. UNESCO. Retrieved from



Beware the apologetic stance of liberals


“Ignorance is never innocent and is always shaped by a particular ideological predisposition”. This quote from Donaldo Macedo (Macedo, 2000) is in response to educators objecting to the term “colonialism” to characterize the present (writing in 2000) attack on bilingual education (an attack that is still underway). He comments that the apologetic stance of some liberals, faced with the ignorance of educators who blindly oppose bilingual education, is not surprising as classical liberalism always prioritizes the right to private property. Market forces and neoliberalism are a logical extension of classical liberalism. Whiteness and English go together to suppress people of color and other people whose lives are pushed to the margins. English is not the only colonial language but it is the most widespread. It could also be argued that it is the most insidious as it continually morphs and spreads its webbing, increasing its influence.

Cheryl Harris introduced the concept of “whiteness as property” (Harris, 1993)and this can be extended to “English as property”. Speaking English is too often equated with ‘intelligence’ despite clear evidence that native English speakers do not have a monopoly on complex thought. In fact to even enter into that debate shows the dominance of English expression at the expense of other languages and mother tongues. In reference to Prop 227, empirical evidence that showed that in San Francisco and in San José bilingual graduates were outperforming their English speaking counterparts (Macedo, 2000) was deliberately ignored as it didn’t fit the deficit narrative pushed by politicians, the media, and English Only proponents. The days of overt punishment for speaking home languages other than English may be over, but students from lower socio-economic settings are still punished when forced to abandon their mother tongue in formal school settings.

“And then I went to school..” Macedo (2000) states that the ideological principles that sustain debates over bilingual education and the primacy of Western heritage are consonant with a colonial ideology designed to devalue the cultural capital and values of the colonized. It is impossible to extract relations of power and privilege from language teaching, and from teaching in general. The supposed ‘objectivity’ of Dominant American English plasters over the legacy of colonialism and exploitation, that is still very much in play. It is heartening, however, to read the work of researchers in the field, and educators in various settings, who challenge deficit thinking when it comes to students who speak non-Dominant American English. The authors of a 2008 review of research (García, Kleifgen, & Falchi, 2008) posit that the central idea to emerge from the report is that there is a growing dissonance between research on the education of emergent bilinguals and policy enacted to educate them. Eight years on we are fortunate to have even more work focused on the education of emergent bilingual students, work that may serve to buttress the hatred and intolerance now legitimized in too many places.

In terms of policy, the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act, renamed No Child Left Behind, pushed nails in the coffin of education of ELs. Instead of linguistic references to bilingual education the goal was English acquisition at all costs. There is little doubt that the assault on bilingual education is directly linked to the number of Spanish speaking emergent bilingual students. At an event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Lau v. Nichols, one of the attorneys on the case mentioned that it was a strategic decision to have Chinese families file the class action suit, and that if it had been, for example, Sanchez v. Nichols, the result could have been different. It’s hard not to react to that viscerally, but it reflects the attitudes of the time, and prevailing attitudes of today. Around 80% of emergent bilinguals speak Spanish as a home language, providing critical mass in terms of presence and policy. It is impossible, however, to generalize about people who come from vastly different countries and vastly different cultures. The 2008 report provides us with an overview of the data and an overview of programs set up to support emergent bilingual students. The authors contend that the recent shift toward teaching Spanish-speaking English language learners in English alone with no use of Spanish to scaffold their learning appears to be the result of the public’s misunderstanding of the nature of bilingualism and its benefits, as well as cultural politics that have little to do with what is educationally sound for the children.

A report from 2007 authored by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill found that in a preschool setting when the Spanish speaking children spoke with their teachers in Spanish, conversations were more elaborate, children were rated higher by their teachers in terms of character traits, and there was less bullying and anti-social behavior. The amount of Spanish that children experienced in the classroom was significantly related to teachers’ ratings of children’s frustration, tolerance, assertiveness, task orientation and peer social skills. The use of Spanish in the classroom had no influence on their English language acquisition. When we talk about academic language and academic achievement we must bring in social and emotional hooks, as that is what home languages provide in abundance. These hooks can also come about when children learn native languages relevant to their cultural identity. As these are often languages not used much in the home, the complexity of expression may be mooted, but the importance of the language is not.

Too often decisions on how to teach emergent bilinguals are being made not in the classroom but in legislative chambers and voting booths; not on the basis of educational research data but on the basis of public opinion, often passionate but rarely informed (Murray, 2007). An outspoken advocate of bilingual education, James Crawford (Crawford, 2000), stated, “In a small way when government offers bilingual assistance, it elevates the status of language minorities. It suggests that immigrants and Native peoples need not abandon their heritage to be considered American-or at least to be given access to democratic institutions. In short, it alters structures of power, class, and ethnicity. The demand for language restrictions, by contrast, is a demand to reinforce the existing social order.” Education is always political and bilingual education tends to elicit greater political involvement than other areas of education due in no small part to the colonizing power of English and English-only movements. It is this colonizing power we face and we need creative solutions to support our students’ hearts and souls.


Crawford, J. (2000). Anatomy of the English-only Movement. In At War with Diversity. Clevedon [England] ; Buffalo [N.Y.]: Multilingual Matters.

García, O., Kleifgen, J. A., & Falchi, L. (2008). From English Language Learners to Emergent Bilinguals (Research Review). New York, N.Y.: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Harris, C. (1993). Whiteness as Property. Harvard Law Review, 106(8), 1709–1791.

Macedo, D. (2000). The Colonialism of the English Only Movement. Educational Researcher, 29(3), 15–24.

Murray, M. (Liz). (2007, May 23). Current Political Realities and their Impact on Young English Language Learners. Hunter College, CUNY, New York, N.Y.


(Not) waiting for superman

􏰂􏰃􏰄􏰅􏰆􏰇􏰆􏰈􏰉􏰊􏰋􏰅􏰉􏰄􏰉􏰌􏰅􏰇􏰈􏰍􏰎􏰉􏰏􏰐􏰎􏰐􏰅􏰃􏰑􏰉􏰒􏰓􏰍􏰋􏰋􏰔􏰇􏰆􏰈􏰕􏰉􏰖􏰅􏰗􏰃􏰘􏰉􏰙􏰋􏰆􏰊􏰔􏰇􏰓􏰎􏰕􏰉􏰄􏰆􏰘􏰉􏰙􏰍􏰇􏰔􏰘􏰅􏰃􏰆􏰚􏰛􏰉􏰜􏰃􏰔􏰔􏰝􏰌􏰃􏰇􏰆􏰈 􏰖􏰐􏰎􏰍􏰋􏰅􏰞􏰛􏰟􏰑􏰉􏰠􏰃􏰡􏰃􏰓􏰓􏰄􏰢􏰜􏰇􏰆􏰎􏰍􏰅􏰋􏰣􏰉􏰄􏰆􏰘􏰉􏰤􏰄􏰓􏰥􏰇􏰃􏰢􏰦􏰇􏰅􏰥From September 24th, 2016 in response to:

Dumas, M. J. (2013). “Waiting for Superman” to save black people: racial representation and the official antiracism of neoliberal school reform. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education34(4), 531–547.

􏰂􏰃􏰄􏰅􏰆􏰇􏰆􏰈􏰉􏰊􏰋􏰅􏰉􏰄􏰉􏰌􏰅􏰇􏰈􏰍􏰎􏰉􏰏􏰐􏰎􏰐􏰅􏰃􏰑􏰉􏰒􏰓􏰍􏰋􏰋􏰔􏰇􏰆􏰈􏰕􏰉􏰖􏰅􏰗􏰃􏰘􏰉􏰙􏰋􏰆􏰊􏰔􏰇􏰓􏰎􏰕􏰉􏰄􏰆􏰘􏰉􏰙􏰍􏰇􏰔􏰘􏰅􏰃􏰆􏰚􏰛􏰉􏰜􏰃􏰔􏰔􏰝􏰌􏰃􏰇􏰆􏰈————————————- 􏰖􏰐􏰎􏰍􏰋􏰅􏰞􏰛􏰟􏰑􏰉􏰠􏰃􏰡􏰃􏰓􏰓􏰄􏰢􏰜􏰇􏰆􏰎􏰍􏰅􏰋􏰣􏰉􏰄􏰆􏰘􏰉􏰤􏰄􏰓􏰥􏰇􏰃􏰢􏰦􏰇􏰅
Money has taken over and has moral authority over our lives.Money has been pushed past the gate into a field of ‘objectivity, meritocracy, colorblindness, race neutrality, and equal opportunity’[1].

Superman is only coming for those whom he deems worthy of saving, just take the word of Geoffrey Canada if you don’t believe me.

You say ‘saving’ means keeping your mouth shut, means walking in a line with hands clasped behind you, means turning your back on your community-because all they want to do is hold you back, and you know they made terrible choices with their lives, so you need to break with all you know and hold dear, and keep that mouth shut, unless you are called upon to regurgitate an answer, no one really cares what you think, because free thinking leads to trouble, might make you think you want to go home and learn more about your family, but STOP-you are not white, you do not have class privilege, you do not have knowledge-the way the system defines it.

So you need to do as the system says, if you want to move past being blamed for your place in the world, if you want to be seen as advocating for a place higher up on the ladder, even if a broke back and cut out tongue is the price you pay.

The more ‘broken’ your home life, the more you are of value to those who seek to ‘affirm their own humanity through your suffering’[2].

You are a signifier, you are not of flesh and blood anymore, because the market wills it to be so.

No longer bought and sold, but money dictates your future nevertheless, money that you never get to touch.

You say ‘structural inequities’ and the market says you’re not trying hard enough.

You say ‘systemic racism’ and the market says grow a pair.

You speak up, speak out and kneel down

Because you are still human and the market will not separate you from your humanity, will not separate you from the love of community and will not separate you from the beauty you are.


Dumas, M. J. (2013). “Waiting for Superman” to save black people: racial representation and the official antiracism of neoliberal school reform. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 34(4), 531–547.

Yosso *, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69–91.


[1] (Yosso *, 2005)

[2] (Dumas, 2013)

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Raciolinguistics and Early Childhood Education


Research into early childhood education teaching and practice benefits from a critical look at component parts. Language and literacy are key elements of any ECE classroom and many ECE scholars actively engage in critical literacy explorations. The new field of raciolinguistics asks and answers critical questions about the relationships and the intersections between language, race and power. Applying raciolinguistics to the early childhood setting is sure to raise lively debates and discussions. Intersectionality (in the case of raciolinguistics this would be-but not limited to-the intersections of race and language) and anti-essentialism are one of the key tenets of critical race theory (Ladson-Billings, 2013). Critical race theory can also be a contentious issue in the early childhood classroom, but if an analysis of CRT doesn’t belong there, there where does it belong?

Intersectionality has proven to be a productive concept that has been deployed in a wide range of disciplines such as history and literature (Cho, Crenshaw, & McCall, 2013). Cho et al. affirm that its insistence on examining the dynamics of difference and sameness has played a major role in facilitating discussion and analysis of gender, race and other axes of power. Raciolinguistics is a new field of research ‘dedicated to bringing to bear the diverse methods of linguistic analysis to ask and answer critical questions about the relations between language, race and power across diverse ethnoracial contexts and societies’ (Alim, Rickford, & Ball, 2016). It foregrounds the intersections of race and language. The relationship between language, race and culture has long been a topic of interest in different fields, but, as Alim points out, the reluctance to take issues of race seriously among mainstream linguistics and anthropology has been and is troubling.

I begin this paper with a discussion on intersectionality and critical race theory. I then move to discuss raciolinguistics and how it is connected to intersectionality, and how both fields inform the other. Along with this discussion I bring in research and practice in early childhood education and I comment on the need for greater scholarship in the field of early childhood education from a raciolinguistic perspective.


The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a distinguished law professor, in the late 1980s as a heuristic to focus attention on the ‘vexed dynamics of differences and the solidarities of sameness in the context of antidiscrimination and social movement politics’ (Cho et al., 2013). Crenshaw and fellow critical race theorist Angela Harris developed the notion of intersectionality to explain how anti-discrimination law fails women of color (Delgado & Stefancic, 2013). Gloria Ladson-Billings (2013) attached anti-essentialism to the concept of intersectionality and states that critical race theory scholarship decries essentialism, or the idea that people in a single group act and think the same. She comments that we see things as binaries such as black and white, east and west, rich or poor, right or left, but that when we move into the complexities of real life we recognize we each represent multiple identities.

Critical race theory provides a historical context to systemic oppression and highlights the enduring nature of race and racism in our society. It began in the field of critical legal studies. Derrick Bell, who first coined the term, examined the enduring role of race in the supposedly objective field of law. CRT was then brought into another supposedly objective field: education.

Critical race theory in education offers concrete tools for framing pedagogies of race, such as counter storytelling and testimonio (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002). This centralizes the experiences and narratives of people of color, thus legitimizing them as evidence to challenge and reframe dominant narratives about race, culture, language and citizenship.

Intersectionality was a lived reality before it became a term (Crenshaw, 2015). In the first part of the 1800s, Maria Stewart, a black female intellectual, stated that race, class and gender oppression were the fundamental causes of Black women’s poverty (Hill Collins, 2000). Hill Collins refers to group dynamics, the importance of the collective, of group identity and solidarity. Intersectionality by its very nature assumes belonging to identity-based groups. It isn’t simply a matter of where or how you ‘belong’ to these particular groups, but it is a matter of how belonging to these groups restricts movement (literal and figurative) and impedes reaching your full potential. It presents a frame through which to analyze layers of oppression, and challenge the hegemonic system: to challenge what is viewed as objectively ‘normal’.

The African American Policy Forum, co-founded by Crenshaw, highlights the importance of intersectionality as a tool (of analysis and resistance) rather than as academic tactic or fashion (Gillborn, 2015). Mc Call (2005) identified three modes of theorizing the complexity of intersectionality: anticategorical complexity, intracategorical complexity, and intercategorical complexity. An anticategorical approach is post-structuralist, and calls social life too complex to make fixed categories anything but simplifying social fictions. That is to say, race and other identity markers are merely social constructs, negating the central tenet of critical race theory that race is enduring. The intracategorical approach acknowledges intersectionality but does not go far enough in analysing why such disparities exist between groups of people. It offers a more layered approach where categories are almost piled up one on top of the other. The final approach is the one McCall uses to describe her own research methodology. Intercategorical complexity requires ‘that scholars provisionally adopt existing analytical categories to document relationships of inequality among social groups and changing configurations of inequality along multiple and conflicting dimensions’ (p. 1773). In other words, the how and the why particular groups of people suffer oppression is foregrounded, and the dynamic nature of intersectionality is affirmed. We must build on the work that came before and continue to interrogate systems of oppression, and how we can resist and transform lived reality. This approach is a call to action, a central tenet of critical race theory.


When it comes to broad scholarship on race and ethnicity, language is often overlooked as one of the most important cultural means that we have for distinguishing ourselves from others (Alim, 2016).

Raciolinguistics is a term that explicitly ties race to language: ‘racing language and languaging race’ (Alim, 2016). Rosa (2016) comments that public display of linguistic difference is alternately celebrated or stigmatized depending on the speaker’s social position. “Language use and race come to be constructed and interpreted in relation to one another” (p. 67). Even when superior language skills are acquired, people are still seen (heard) through a racialized lens that views them as inferior (Flores & Rosa, 2015). A clear example of this was shared on social media recently when a Latina scholar was questioned on her use of the word ‘hence’; her professor assumed she had plagiarized (Martínez, 2016). Children are racialized through language almost from the moment they begin to talk. Language, power and race affect their movements and self-identity in a myriad of ways. We have a responsibility to analyze practice and theory related to early childhood using intersectionality and raciolinguistics in order to best help our children grow up healthy in body and soul.

Intersectionality and critical race theory scholars most often take adults and youth as the starting point of their work. Growing numbers of early childhood practitioners and researchers are using frames such as CRT and intersectionality in their work with young children (Vasquez, 2014)(Souto-Manning, 2013)(Kuby, 2013). It is no accident that the same teacher scholars use critical literacy as a frame through which to hone their work. Language and literacy practices are central to most school settings, and we need to be able to identify what teaching practices help or hinder our students, from as early an age as we can. We need to be aware of how language and race intersect in powerful and potentially destructive ways. The language a child brings to school is inherently tied to family and home, and as teachers we must respect and revere this knowledge, or risk irrevocably breaking their spirit.

CRT in education promotes the use of counter storytelling and testimonio (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002) to center voices often unheard and to challenge hegemonic practice. In the early childhood classroom children are filled with ontological questions, their own version of counternarratives and testimonio. They busily make hypotheses about who they are, how they are, why they are etc. These explorations manifest in literacy events such as drawing, writing, reading, painting, telling a story, sharing ideas aloud, collaborating in the block area as they build a city, and the list goes on. Children learn first through the body, and then in some form of what we recognize as words. Very young children are able to respond to verbal commands before they can say them aloud. They process the information and act on it physically, without saying a word in response. A conceptual understanding of the world precedes speech, writing and reading.

Cruz (2001) writes from a distinct perspective, but her words regarding an epistemology of the brown body are valid in an analysis of early childhood education and children of color. “Situating knowledge in the brown body begins the validation of the narratives of survival, transformation, and emancipation of our respective communities, reclaiming histories and identities. And in these ways, we embody our theory”(p. 668). Those of us working in early childhood, and in elementary education, must acknowledge the work that has come before, within families, within communities and within the child themself. We must recognize that knowledge is not only passed down through books and words, but it is also transmitted through bodies, communal relations, and other forms of non-verbal communication.

The moment children enter formal schooling, the pressure is on for them to read and write, and often before they reach first grade. Any knowledge gained through the body and through non-verbal communication is thrown to the side, as are literacy and language skills the children have acquired in their early years. This pressure does not produce diamonds, it produces ulcers and skin rashes. This practice is developmentally inappropriate for all children, but children of color suffer worse.

Raciolinguistic ideologies[1] (Flores & Rosa, 2015) position non-native (and non-standard) speakers of English as deficit thinkers even if they possess superior English language skills. Flores and Rosa assert that it is not a question of lack of proficiency in standard English that holds language-minoritized users back; rather racial positioning is at fault. An example given to illustrate this point is a teacher who hears her young African American students making ‘errors’ in standard English when they say ‘he was/she was’, as the teacher was confusing this usage with the Ebonics’ usage ‘they was’. Power differentials that are already vast when adults teach young children become even greater when the child’s language is not respected and revered.

Intersectionality is inextricably linked to an analysis of power and it helps ‘reveal how power works in diffuse and differentiated ways through the creation and deployment of overlapping identity categories’ (Cho et al., 2013). In reference to U.S. Latinas/os, Rosa (2016) writes that stigmatization occurs through the policing of their English-language use. “Signs of accents and Spanish-language use are regarded as reflections of abject foreignness, regardless of the long history of Spanish-language use across the Americas” (p. 67). Language use is intimately connected to national origin and is often a surrogate for anti-immigrant sentiment, even from people who would otherwise see themselves as liberal. Too many teachers attest to discomfort in the classroom if students are speaking a language they personally don’t understand. We need to question the primacy of English itself, as it is understood in the academic arena. This is a fertile area for future study.

Intersectionality has a core activist component, in that an intersectional approach aims to generate coalitions between different groups with the aim of resisting and changing the status quo (Gillborn, 2015). Intersectionality can be used to identify areas of struggle and to analyze where oppression is coming from, and how it manifests. The burgeoning field of raciolinguistics is also a call to action as affiliated writers and readers take their cue from real world practice and use this as a base from which to theorize. Both intersectionality and raciolinguistics pull from inherently dynamic systems that constantly shift. For this reason it is particularly exciting to see where research and practice will take us. The field of early childhood education is also highly mutable and open to innovative analyses. In the ECE setting CRT activism falls more on the shoulder of teachers and educators than the children themselves, however a challenge to the status quo may come from the work the children do. We must all be ready to take this call to action on.


Alim, H. S., Rickford, J. R., & Ball, A. F. (Eds.). (2016). Raciolinguistics: how language shapes our ideas about race. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Cho, S., Crenshaw, K. W., & McCall, L. (2013). Toward a Field of Intersectionality Studies: Theory, Applications, and Praxis. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 38(4), 785–810.

Crenshaw, K. (2015, September 24). Why intersectionality can’t wait. Washington Post. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from

Cruz, C. (2001). Toward an epistemology of a brown body. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 14(5), 657–669.

Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2013). Discerning Critical Moments. In M. Lynn & A. D. Dixson (Eds.), Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education. New York, N.Y.: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Language Diversity in Education. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2).

Gillborn, D. (2015). Intersectionality, Critical Race Theory, and the Primacy of Racism: Race, Class, Gender, and Disability in Education. Qualitative Inquiry, 21(3), 277–287.

Hill Collins, P. (2000). Black feminist thought: knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge. Retrieved from

Kuby, C. R. (2013). Critical literacy in the early childhood classroom: unpacking histories, unlearning privilege. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2013). Ch. 3 “Critical Race Theory-What It Is Not!” In M. Lynn & A. D. Dixson (Eds.), Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education. New York, N.Y.: Routledge.

Martínez, T. (2016, October 27). Academia, Love Me Back [WordPress].

McCall, L. (2005). The Complexity of Intersectionality. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 30(3), 1771–1800.

Rosa, J. (2016). From Mock Spanish to Inverted Spanglish. In H. S. Alim, J. R. Rickford, & A. F. Ball (Eds.), Raciolinguistics. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press.

Solórzano, D. G., & Yosso, T. J. (2002). Critical Race Methodology: Counter-Storytelling as an Analytical Framework for Education Research. Qualitative Inquiry, 8(1), 23–44.

Souto-Manning, M. (2013). Multicultural teaching in the early childhood classroom: approaches, strategies, and tools, preschool-2nd grade. New York: Teachers College Press.

Vasquez, V. M. (2014). Negotiating critical literacies with young children: 10th anniversary edition (Second edition). New York: Routledge.

[1] The term “raciolinguistic ideologies” was first used, to the best of our knowledge, by Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa (Alim, 2016).


Start the day with poetry

Last August I was fortunate to be in Scotland around the time of the Edinburgh Festival and all that’s associated with it, including the International Book Festival.

I was excited to see that there was a session that put together Kirsty Logan and Jón Kalmann Stefánsson. Shortly before going to Scotland I picked up The Gracekeepers at the Adelaide Airport bookshop. I was, and still am mostly, only reading books by female, non-white, non-English dominant authors. Starting on this trail showed up how much space books by white men take up in bookshops. I was pleased to find Kirsty’s book in Adelaide and it was probably the best fictional find of the summer. The Gracekeepers weaves magical realism, an almost drowned world, and circus boats, plus a huge bear.

Jón Kalman Stefánsson was a discovery from a few years ago when I came across his book Heaven and Hell in a Breton bookshop (yep, my book purchases sure do highlight my globetrotter status). It is the first in a trilogy I have since finished but at the time I only knew the first one.

The authors were paired together along a northern theme. Books set in Iceland tend to be bleak, whether a mystery, a crime story or a version of romance. I don’t know how I’d feel about them if I hadn’t visited Iceland and had it crawl under my skin. In any case, this isn’t so much about the merits of works set in Iceland, and more to do with Stefánsson’s morning ritual.

Stefánsson starts each day with a poem, coffee, and with gratefulness to the translators!

I took on his call to start each day with poetry and there have been only three or four times I’ve missed this routine in the last year. I read from works by a single author along with anthologies. Three books of poetry have particularly marked me this year. Below are the Goodreads reviews I did for each one. *I’ve been working on my book reviews so the reviews can be viewed as works in progress, the goal is to share my joy.

How Fire is a Story, Waiting by Melinda Palacio

I’ve thought long and hard about how to write about this book, along with two other books of poetry I read at the same time: Codeswitch: Fires from Mi Corazón by Iris de Anda, and When My Brother Was An Aztec by Natalie Díaz. The three authors are based in and around Southern CA with some travels outside. Melinda Palacio frames her work through the elements: fire, air, water, and earth. She tells the story of her family, including the meeting of her parents, her father’s “sin verguenza swagger” (one of my favourite poems in the book), and her father’s time in prison. I love reading these poems over and over, in conjunction with the other two books I mentioned above. I’m going to link to a much more complete and worthy review…

Iris de Anda: Codeswitch: Fires from Mi Corazón

I’ve thought long and hard about how to write about this book, along with two other books of poetry I read at the same time: How Fire is a Story, Waiting by Melinda Palacio, and When My Brother Was An Aztec by Natalie Díaz. The three authors are based in and around Southern CA with some travels outside. Iris de Anda frames her work through the chambers of the heart: rage/coraje, love/amor, revolution/revolución, evolution/evolución. The power of De Anda’s work lies in its ritualistic nature and short phrasings that build one on the other. This is poetry to be read aloud, with a strong and passionate voice. There are no negotiations between languages, they merge, are not translated (except in the chapter titles). There is a call to action, a call to push through the pain and the hurt, and to keep fighting for our common humanity and true empathy.

When My Brother Was An Aztec by Natalie Díaz

I read this book in conjunction with Iris de Anda’s Codeswitch: Fires from Mi Corazón and Melinda Palacio’s How Fire is a Story, Waiting. All three authors are based in and around Southern California. The power of the words these three authors put to the page cannot be understated. They stand alone and together, each with a unique voice and unique stories to share. Natalie Diaz skillfully blends poetic style and form to tell tales that have personal resonance, and tales that speak to the larger world around. There is the story of her brother, her family, tales of childhood, strung along with the tale of Mojave Barbie, a lion devouring a man and boxes of raisins, and many more besides. Words, poems and stories that will leave you wishing for more.

Everyone listens to everyone: my visit to Still Waters in a Storm

This time last week I visited Still Waters in a Storm, a community writing center in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I first heard about Still Waters a few years ago when comments regarding the center came across my Facebook feed. I hadn’t visited the center at that time but it was a strong influence on my decision to open a writing center here in San Francisco. I still haven’t opened a center and I’m still listening to know how to best go about it in order to best serve the community, but it will happen.

Last week was my first visit to Still Waters in a Storm and I hope it won’t be my last. It was everything I hoped it would be, and more. The motto of Still Waters is “everyone listens to everyone”. Stephen Haff, the director, set up the program nine years ago. He has a background in theater and was a high school English teacher for close on a decade. The center is everything schooling and education needs to be to truly speak to the hearts and minds of the community it serves.

The Saturday sessions run from 12-5pm and follow a similar structure each week. The children arrive and have time to play and eat lunch before sitting down to start work.

At around 1pm, an invited guest reads an excerpt of their writing and takes questions and comments. The invited guest last week was Emma Brockes, a journalist with The Guardian newspaper and the author of two books, one of which she read from last week. The book she read from is a memoir of a journey to South Africa she took after her mum’s death. Emma wanted to find out what led her mum to leave South Africa to go to England, never to go back to the country of her birth. The excerpt Emma read told the story of a road trip she went on in South Africa when her best friend arrived from England for a few weeks.

The center operates on a drop-in basis and the number of children present may vary from ten to forty. Last week there were about twenty kids there. They varied in age from six to sixteen. Emma’s memoir was not written for children, and from what I could gather, most of the invited guests write for adults. The excerpt Emma read appeared to be accessible to all the people there. It is a highly engaging text with strong visual imagery. The reading was paused on a few occasions to clarify vocabulary or expressions that might be unclear.

After the reading, and after questions and comments, the children generated a topic list inspired by what they heard. Some examples that came up last week were misunderstanding, family, animals, racism, helping someone, guns, loneliness and a few more. Nothing was off the table and anything that was raised could tie in to the reading in one way or another. From there the children spent around fifteen minutes writing. They are welcome to write in any genre or format they preferred, including writing a list, writing a letter, whatever makes sense to them. The younger children worked with volunteers who put the child’s words to paper. Once time was up, it fell to the children, and some of the adults, to share their writing with the larger group. Volunteers read for the younger children while the child stood next to them.

“Everyone listens to everyone”. Stephen said that part of the inspiration for the center is for people to participate in a neighborhood ritual. The group sharing time is based on meetings such as Quaker meetings, when people speak as they are moved to do so. There is no talking over one another; there is respectful silence and active listening as the writers share their work. People are reminded to peacefully control their own bodies. Stephen commented that it is rare in today’s society to have to just listen. Thinking back on last week, my heart skips a beat when I recall the work the children shared and the how powerful it was to be part of that community.


I came away from my visit with renewed vision and purpose regarding La Pluma Poderosa. I am building ties with the Latina community in San Francisco through my work with Mujeres Unidas y Activas and I am also connecting with people at local schools through USF preservice teacher supervision. Still Waters in a Storm is housed in a dedicated ground floor space in an area with some foot traffic. Stephen taught at Bushwick High School so before opening the center he already had ties to the neighborhood. He has built up participation through word of mouth and from people walking by. It is completely free and all materials, as well as food, is provided.

Stephen has a respectful and good-humored relationship with the children. They are all of Mexican and Ecuadorian descent, reflecting the community in this part of Brooklyn. The writing is all done in English and all the children are capable of telling a story in English, even if Spanish is their maternal tongue. Stephen communicates with parents and community members in Spanish when the need arises.

Inviting guests such as Emma Brockes to share their writing with the children felt to me like a mark of respect. Respect is given when it is assumed that children can relate to a detailed text and can use that text to inspire their own writing. Stephen reminded the children that they had been working on using similes in their writing, in the weekday afterschool sessions. He encouraged the children to use at least one simile in their work. A simple thing, such as reminding the children they can write a list if they like, gives all children the tools to participate and to share in the writing and sharing process.

The multi-age format of the center clearly bears fruit when you hear the detailed stories the younger children tell. They appear to be picking up on the skilled work of the older children and their work is also testament to their listening skills. Stephen doesn’t accept money from financial sources that would demand accountability measures and other forms of standardization. He wants the center to be free from the toxic trappings of school that transform children into data points. A child is not a number on a graph, and measurement does not equal growth. Spaces such as Still Waters in a Storm provide the community with a powerful example of the learning we do together, and what our children are truly capable of.

My goals for La Pluma Poderosa are still the same: a drop-in, multilingual writing center for children 6-18. I knew that there would be a need for more structured sessions, and in fact, I can maybe start with more structured sessions in a temporary space. I am grateful to Stephen and everyone else at Still Waters in a Storm for renewing my faith in the power of holistic and compelling educational experiences for young writers. Right now I need to listen and to reflect on what the next steps for La PP will be. I carry with me the joy and heartfelt emotion of listening to the young writers in Bushwick, an experience that won’t easily leave my side.

To learn more about Still Waters in a Storm and to support their efforts please go to