They tried to bury us…

A lengthy post as it’s an essay I wrote for school, but I see it as a sharing of resources so I’ve posted it here.

Liz Murray

April 10th, 2015

“Quisieron enterrarnos, pero no sabían que éramos semilla.”

They wanted to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds. [1]

Repression of those who rail against hegemonic powers has been going on for centuries and likely millennia, yet there will always be resistance and revolution, and people who will stand up for themselves and countless others in the name of humanizing education and society. Decolonizing pedagogy, such as the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson, Arizona, threatens the status quo and so attempts are made to shut it down, despite its proven success rate[2]. But, to paraphrase Cesar Chavez: “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.” Inroads made by MAS teachers will reach far into the future, despite the ban. The MAS program, along with many programs aligned with critical pedagogy, focuses on the high school years where the brute power of youth, and righteous indignation, can be harnessed with powerful results. There is less research done on the early years, in particular early childhood and early elementary classrooms. Hence there exists a need to broaden and develop research already being done in the early years around issues such as culturally responsive pedagogy, critical literacy and familial and community involvement. Culturally responsive pedagogy and critical literacy should go hand in hand. It is too easy in the early years to feign culturally responsive practice in the guise of a ‘food and festivals’ approach to multicultural education, an approach that does a disservice to all children and all school communities. The most effective tool for critically examining life through an early childhood lens is the children’s family and the community. Genuine and equitable partnerships between schools and families raise all voices. It is crucial this work begin in early childhood and early elementary grades in order to foster strong ties between home and school.

Over the past year Ethnic Studies has been approved as a graduation requirement in five Californian school districts[3] with the support of many grassroots groups, including Ethnic Studies Now! ( It is still to be seen what this will look like on the ground long-term but the potential for transformative education is here. Ethnic Studies programs “attempt to challenge the reproduction of essentialist categories of race, class, and gender. Ethnic Studies deconstructs structural forms of domination and subordination, going beyond simplistic additives of multicultural content to the curriculum” (Tintiangco-Cubales et al., 2015). Indeed, Ethnic Studies needs to go far beyond multicultural studies and examine systemic structures that restrict access to greater knowledge and that encourage a shallow approach to history and social studies, one that often relies on a (dead) white male canon. There are many factors a teacher alone can’t control but there are many they can. It is often not a question of what is being taught but how it is being taught. The cultural practices of the dominant group are taken as the norm if cultural differences aren’t addressed (Gutiérrez & Rogoff, 2003). Cadiero-Kaplan (2008) states that oftentimes teachers need help recognizing their unspoken ideological orientation. Teachers and students need to be given the opportunities and the language to critically analyze the sociopolitical agenda. Uncritically responding to top-down demands only reinforces governing bodies’ control over the lives of our students. Intentionality is key when working on a more sophisticated critical analysis and this is as true in the early years as in the years to come. Sensitivity is needed but young children respond forcefully to injustice, and while white middle class children tend to be protected from harmful experiences (societal factors such as poverty and systemic racism; as well as more overt forms of psychological and physical violence), children of color, and especially those from low-income families are usually not so lucky. They see parents working two to three jobs to make rent, they see the impact of the school to prison pipeline (or even the prison to prison pipeline when the schooling environment is set up so) and they see that the voices of people in their community are not taken as seriously as those with greater cultural capital.

For Ethnic Studies to truly be transformational we need to “hope audaciously” and trust in our students and trust in a process we may not have control over. Critical Race Theory offers concrete tools for framing pedagogies of race, such as counterstorytelling and testimonio (Tintiangco-Cubales et al., 2015). 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. Camangian (2013) reminds us that a humanizing pedagogy is culturally relevant and critical because it draws on students’ lived experiences and cultural ways of knowing in a process that is socially transformative. The examples of student work Camangian shares show the intellectual growth of his students when asked to interrogate critical literature. He mentions that reading Malcolm X critically helped one of his students see the implications White supremacist thought had on the historical amnesia and fractured identities of Black people in the United States[4]. Romero, Arce and Cammarota (2009) write that Critical Race Theory confirmed their belief that they were able to foster in their students the understanding that they, their parents and their community possess and construct a wealth of knowledge and are the fundamental facilitators of critical transformation.

In The Dreamkeepers (2009, 2nd ed.), Gloria Ladson-Billings shares the stories of eight elementary school teachers who exemplify culturally relevant pedagogy. Gloria Ladson-Billings uses the term ‘culturally relevant pedagogy’ to outline what successful teachers do when working with students who are often not seen in the curriculum of the school, and who are too easily tagged with a ‘deficit’ label. Ladson-Billings (1995) defines culturally relevant teaching as a pedagogy of opposition specifically committed to collective, not merely individual, empowerment. She states that successful teachers support academic achievement, cultural competence and socio-political consciousness. Building on the work of Ladson-Billings, Richard Milner (2010) states that teachers who practice culturally relevant pedagogy do so because it is consistent with what they believe and who they are. This echoes the findings of Bree Picower (2012) in which teacher activists stated that an intense drive to move toward a vision of a socially just world informed their life and their teaching practice. Socio-political consciousness is harnessed to impart skills that allow students to better understand and critique their social position and context. It is crucial that students see themselves in the curriculum and through instruction, and are able to understand the important ways in which their culture has contributed to various genres of curriculum content and to the fabric of U.S. society as a whole.

David Stovall (2013) states that education, as the process of making informed decisions to improve the human condition through critical analysis and action, is not confined to the walls of a school building. He affirms that inherent to this process is cultivating the community’s capacity to utilize their own skills and expertise to address issues and concerns that threaten their existence. In the early elementary and early childhood setting bringing in familial and community knowledge is key to supporting young learners and key to showing respect for all the child brings with them. A literacy initiative carried out by the CREATE program in Tucson, Arizona (Communities as Resources in Early Childhood Teacher Education-University of Arizona)[5] sees family backpacks sent home with students in K-2 classrooms. The backpacks are put together by faculty, along with teacher candidates, and they revolve around general themes such as grandparents, bedtime and names. Each backpack contains books in English and in Spanish, artifacts such as finger puppets, and a journal to write and/or draw whatever comes to mind. Families are free to use the backpacks however they like. There is no expectation they write and/or draw in the journal, but most of them do. The journals stay with the backpacks so other families can see what has been shared. The rationale behind using these in K-2 classrooms is that early childhood settings almost always highlight the family and much of the curriculum is drawn from lived experience. Once children enter elementary school, these family/community ties start to unravel as ‘accountability’ measures take hold, measures that disregard who the child is, asides from a test taker, and where they come from. The family backpacks do require financial investment as well as temporal investment on behalf of the teacher and the families, but it is clear they strengthen ties between classroom and home, and if we truly care about our students, this is something we absolutely need to encourage. Many initiatives presented at the 2014 “Day of Early Childhood” (NCTE conference in Washington DC) encourage school and home ties such as teacher candidates spending an amount of time in the community they are working in, out of school hours[6]. Teacher educators note that what at first seems intimidating to many teacher candidates ends up an overwhelmingly positive experience. The more we get to know the families of our students the more we see the complex communities they live in and the beauty of their lives.

In a recent Rethinking Schools article Grace Cornell Gonzalez (2014) addresses familial involvement in her SFUSD dual immersion kindergarten classroom. She states that if we want equitable schools we need to be as intentional about how we involve parents as we are about how we educate their children. During her first year at this school Cornell Gonzalez noticed that home school communication privileged the English speaking families, and those with access to electronic sources. She notes that this was most likely not done out of lack of caring, simply lack of understanding. The situation was remedied over the course of this first year and was well set in her second year. Cornell Gonzalez comments on the importance of effective home school communication in the early years in terms of parents being able to advocate for their children, children benefitting from seeing their parents involved in the school community, and behavior and motivation increasing as children see how their home and school are connected, among other positive gains. Another important point Cornell Gonzalez makes is that especially in elementary school, teachers train parents what to expect when it comes to how they should and should not be involved in their children’s school. Fuentes (2013) remarks that the mothers she was working with at Benton High became strong and powerful advocates transforming individual concerns into collective concerns and in the process were able to offer a counternarrative on what it means to be involved and caring parents. Benton High students were inspired by the activism of their parents and other community members and voiced a renewed interest in school and a sense of pride in their mothers’ visibility and power in the community. Picower (2012) shares a story where an eight year old child, daughter of a domestic worker, was so inspired by speakers at a rally for domestic workers rights that she got up to talk, with the support of her classroom teacher. Her teacher had already developed a community responsive curriculum addressing the rights of domestic workers and nannies, in his 3rd grade classroom. He was able to make a bridge between his activism outside of the classroom and was able to bring into the classroom curriculum that was responsive to the school community as a whole. Research has shown students’ skill levels naturally increase when they feel intellectually and socially connected to their education (Cammarota, 2007). It is essential that educators take a critical approach to education from the earliest years on. Neoliberal reforms try to stifle activism among teachers, and among students. Spurious attacks on the teaching profession make it all the more difficult for teachers to fully commit to activism inside and outside of the classroom. It takes more courage than it should and creativity is required to work around curriculum imposed from above. Cornell Gonzalez outlines how school and home connections were fostered in her classroom, with parents taking on different roles and taking on more and more responsibility for involvement in the classroom, such as organizing classroom helpers from both English and Spanish speaking backgrounds. Hopefully these parents will be able to continue to be actively involved in their child’s education (in whatever way they can), as they move on from the kindergarten classroom. It is essential counterrnarratives are told to challenge a deficit view of families of color in regards to their children’s education.

In his essay, Note to Educators: Hope Required When Growing Roses in Concrete, Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade (2009) positions critical hope as the enemy of hopelessness. Decolonizing pedagogy, culturally relevant practice and critical family and community involvement in schools push us towards critical hope. Duncan-Andrade’s work is generally focused on high school and giving students tools they can use to deal with the forces that affect their lives. He states that quality teaching is the most significant material resource teachers have to offer youth. In the early years we need to involve parents and give them, along with their children, resources to address oppression they face. Audacious hope demands we reconnect with the collective by struggling alongside one another. Audacious hope also calls for a radical transformation of urban spaces and radical healing through solidarity, in joy and in pain. Neoliberal efforts to push individual effort at the expense of collaboration and collective action have clear political ramifications. It is a lot harder to knock down a mass of pegs, than ones that are picked off. We must fight to retain our humanity and the humanity of those around us. In response to a call-out for #alllivesmatter, Alicia Garza writes:

BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean your life isn’t important-it means that Black lives, which are seen as without value within White supremacy, are important to           your liberation. Given the disproportionate impact state violence has on Black           lives, we understand that when Black people in this country get free, the benefits             will be wide reaching and transformative for society as a whole.

It is up to us to water the seeds of the roses that are growing in concrete; and while it may take years, and even longer, for them to bloom, everything we do now impacts their growth, whether visible to the eye or not. “They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.”


Cadiero-Kaplan, K. (2008). Chapter Six “Critically Examining Beliefs, Orientations, Ideologies, and Practices Toward Literacy Instruction: A Process of Praxis.” In L. I. Bartolomé (Ed.), Ideologies in Education: Unmasking the Trap of Teacher Neutrality (Vol. v.319, p. 292). New York, NY: P. Lang.

Camangian, P. R. (2013). Teach Like Lives Depend on It: Agitate, Arouse, and Inspire. Urban Education.

Cammarota, J. (2007). A Social Justice Approach to Achievement: Guiding Latina/o Students Toward Educational Attainment With a Challenging, Socially Relevant Curriculum. Equity & Excellence in Education, 40(1), 87–96.

Cornell Gonzalez, G. (2014). Aren’t You on the Parent Listserv? Rethinking Schools, 29(1).

Duncan-Andrade, J. M. R. (2009). Note to Educators: Hope Required When Growing Roses in Concrete. Harvard Educational Review, 79(2).

Fuentes, E. (2013). Political Mothering: Latina and African American Mothers in the Struggle for Educational Justice: Political Mothering. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 44(3), 304–319.

Gutiérrez, K. D., & Rogoff, B. (2003). Cultural Ways of Learning: Individual Traits or Repertoires of Practice. Educational Researcher, 32(5), 19–25.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). But That’s Just Good Teaching! The Case for Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. Theory into Practice, 34(3), 159–165.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2009). The dreamkeepers: successful teachers of African American children (2nd ed). San Francisco, Calif: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Milner, H. R. (2010). Culturally Relevant Pedagogy in a Diverse Urban Classroom. The Urban Review, 43(1), 66–89.

Picower, B. (2012). Teacher Activism: Enacting a Vision for Social Justice. Equity & Excellence in Education, 45(4), 561–574.

Romero, A., Arce, S., & Cammarota, J. (2009). A Barrio pedagogy: identity, intellectualism, activism, and academic achievement through the evolution of critically compassionate intellectualism. Race Ethnicity and Education, 12(2), 217–233.

Stovall, D. (2013). 14 souls, 19 days and 1600 dreams: engaging critical race praxis while living on the “edge” of race. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 34(4), 562–578.

Tintiangco-Cubales, A., Kohli, R., Sacramento, J., Henning, N., Agarwal-Rangnath, R., & Sleeter, C. (2015). Toward an Ethnic Studies Pedagogy: Implications for K-12 Schools from the Research. The Urban Review, 47(1), 104–125.

[1] As the now “deceased” Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos, now Subcomandante Galeano in honor of his deceased compañero, said. Retrieved from by Charlotte Sáenz


[3] El Rancho, LAUSD, SFUSD, Montebello and Woodward

[4] Imani wrote: To become stronger as a community, Blacks must be critical of the information that we are taught to internalize. By exterminating internal White supremacy, we are able to determine our self-identity and create a clear purpose for ourselves . . .




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