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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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Yosso, T., Smith, W., Ceja, M., & Solórzano, D. (2009). Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions, and Campus Racial Climate for Latina/o Undergraduates. Harvard Educational Review, 79(4), 659–691.

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.



English-Only to the Core by Jeff Bale

Repost “Given this political context, whether the next generation of education standards sets bilingualism and biliteracy as explicit goals for all students is not a neutral question. And clearly, the Common Core has taken sides. By focusing on English-only, the standards function as the culmination of more than a decade of attacks on bilingual programs and emergent bilingual youth.”

Rethinking Schools

What is the Common Core doing to bilingual education?
We’re joining hands with The Progressive and In These Times to shine a light on that question. Jeff Bale’s “English-Only to the Core” will appear in the fall issue of Rethinking Schools, but we want you to have it now!

Please use hashtag #ComCoreEnglishOnly to help us amplify the discussion.

. . .

Among bilingual educators, there has been much debate about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Some of the most respected scholars of bilingual education have endorsed the Common Core and are working hard to make it relevant for English learners. Others have been more suspicious. Not only do the standards focus on English-only, critics note, but they were bankrolled by the Gates Foundation, pushed on states in a way that amounts to bribery by the Obama administration, and promise to worsen the impact of high-stakes standardized testing.


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More on Critical Pedagogy, Critical Thinking, and the Other: “Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom”

Reposting from P. L. Thomas re critical pedagogy.
The thoughts that come to my mind are that it’s horrific to think CC$$ backers actually think they can throw out the term ‘critical thinking’, and that it’s swallowed by uncritical minds who likely fill in a rubric to show how each child ‘thinks critically’. There’s a fear of the unknown, and a fear that students may actually reach their full potential if assessment lines become fuzzy.

radical eyes for equity

Students at my university are required to attend Cultural Life Programs (CLPs) as part of their graduation requirements. Once several years ago, I was the featured speaker at a CLP on education reform, and during that talk I noted I was against accountability.

The Q and A prompted by the talk was vibrant, but after the talk, I was approached by a colleague who asked if I were being provocative—not serious, in other words—about being against accountability. I assured him I was in fact against accountability, which left him so frazzled the discussion ended there.

After posting a blog about critical pedagogy and the Other, I received similar and numerous comments about critical thinking—educators who likely believe that they and I are mostly in agreement on education but cannot fathom my rejecting how traditional schooling approaches so-called “critical thinking skills.”

As well, the Twitter conversation among Angela DyeSherri Spelic

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Writing, Unteachable or Mistaught?

The more I think about ‘grade level’ reading, and ‘template writing’, the more upset I get thinking about such utilitarian modes of literacy. I’m sick to the gunnels of thinking about the CC$$, and the high-stakes testing regime our children are force fed, but they play a major role in the narrowing of K-12 curriculum. The truth is though, that they are not the only reason literacy instruction is so restricted in many classrooms. As Paul L. Thomas mentions, it makes it easier for a teacher to grade a paper that follows a particular template, just as it’s easier for a computer to grade a paper based on strict criteria. The beauty of writing is that the process and product are (at least should be) unknown from the beginning. So much focus is placed on reading, at the expense of writing, and this is concerning. I love reading what children write in the early years and the process they go through to put their thoughts on paper. As with so many efforts, we learn to write by writing, and time must be dedicated to this in the classroom. In the early years there are so many wonderful picture books to share, and along with alphabetic language they show how pictures also tell a tale/recite poetry, and so on.
[I’m heading into redundant territory so I’ll leave this here for now.]

radical eyes for equity

Let’s not tell them what to write.
Lou LaBrant, The Psychological Basis for Creative Writing (1936)

Kurt Vonnegut was a genre-bending writer and a Freethinker, a lonely pond fed by the twin tributaries of atheism and agnosticism. So it is a many-layered and problematic claim by Vonnegut, also a writing teacher, that writing is “unteachable,” but “something God lets you do or declines to let you do.”

This nod to the authority of God, I think, is more than a typical Vonnegut joke (the agnostic/atheist writer citing God) as it speaks to a seemingly endless debate over the five-paragraph essay, which has resurfaced on the NCTE Connected Community.

To investigate the use of the five-paragraph template as well as prompted writing as dominant practices for teaching writing in formal schooling to all children, I want to begin by exploring my own recent experience co-writing a chapter with a colleague…

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Beware Grade-Level Reading and the Cult of Proficiency

Paul L. Thomas must have a direct line to my brain at times, because he taps in to many of the cogs going around in my head. Reblogging in part so I have easy access to this later.

radical eyes for equity

Few issues in education seem more important or more universally embraced (from so-called progressive educators to right-wing politicians such as Jeb Bush) than the need to have all children reading on grade level—specifically by that magical third grade:

Five years ago, communities across the country formed a network aimed at getting more of their students reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade. States, cities, counties, nonprofit organizations, and foundations in 168 communities, spread across 41 states and the District of Columbia, are now a part of that initiative, theCampaign for Grade-Level Reading.

However, advocating that all students must read at grade level—often defined as reading proficiency—rarely acknowledges the foundational problems with those goals: identifying text by a formula claiming “grade level” and then identifying children as readers by association with those readability formulas.

This text, some claim, is a fifth-grade text, and thus children who can “read” that…

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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 . . .



Appreciating the Unteachable: Creative Writing in Formal Schooling

“But let’s also acknowledge that having students write creatively (“that written composition for which the writer has determined his own subject, the form in which he presents it, and the length of the product”) must not be reserved for gifted students only, but something every student deserves to explore.
Redefining creative writing in school (rejecting template and prompted essays) and inviting all students to write creatively raise expectations while also insuring equity.”

radical eyes for equity

Benjamin Bloom’s eponymous taxonomy has been bastardized, oversimplified, and misunderstood for as long as it has been a staple of teaching.

My major professor for my doctoral work, Lorin Anderson, was a student of Benjamin Bloom, and Anderson has also spent a great deal of scholarship revising Bloom’s taxonomy as well as refuting the ways it is typically misused.

In the revised taxonomy, noting that seeing the taxonomy as linear and sequential is distorting, the earlier elements of “synthesis” and “evaluation” (often interpreted as evaluation being the highest) have been revised to “evaluating” and “creating,” again with the implication often being that “creating” is the highest.

I would argue that some elements of the taxonomy are more complicated but not necessarily qualitatively better, but it does seem credible to suggest that creating is an advanced act by anyone, especially a student, since it involves synthesis—the drawing together into…

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Power of Common Core to Reshape Vocabulary Instruction Reaches Back to 1944!

It’s time to put education back in the hands of ethical educators who actually care about all public school children and who see the potential in the sparkle of their eyes, and care too much to let that sparkle fade.

radical eyes for equity

According to Liana Heitin at Education Week [1]:

[S]ome reading experts, including those who helped write the Common Core State Standards [emphasis added], are saying what’s critical about vocabulary instruction is how the words are introduced—and that context is key.

“We’ve known for a long, long time from research that giving students a list of words and asking them to look them up in the dictionary and write a sentence is not an effective way to teach vocabulary,” said Nell K. Duke, a professor of literacy, language, and culture at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

A better approach, some say, is to have students focus on a topic—anything from the musculatory system to the Great Depression to Greek myths.

“It turns out that learning about the world is a great way to build your vocabulary and knowledge,” said David Liben, a senior content specialist for the literacy team…

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