“Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words!” (Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady”)


As I dive deeper into my first doctoral class, I hear Eliza Doolittle in the musical “My Fair Lady” singing the above.  All these made up words that don’t speak plainly – “processual” (Lave, p.158), “historicism” (Lave p. 159) and “positionality.”  It almost seems as though the writers are working to keep readers out rather than draw us in us.  I love to read yet this week’s readings have been torturous.  Pivovarova’s paper (2014) is a great original study about the effects of tracking high and low achieving students.  Reading it left me confused.  Rosaldo’s (1994) mini-ethnographic stories entertained, but some of his sentences are convoluted and absurd, e.g. “This chapter uses a series of examples to explore the consequences of thus understanding the factors that condition social analysis (page 169).”  Where’s the subject?  Where’s the verb?  I am confused.  If researchers want to make their writing and thoughts accessible to an average person, they need to write for the average person.  I’m so sick of words.

As McCarty writes in her editorial introduction to the special issue of Anthropology & Education Quarterly (2005), “…the shift toward English represents a shift away from the Indigenous (p. 3).”  As researchers focus on English even when working with native peoples, the history, culture and a connection are lost.  In my current state of frustration, I could rewrite that sentence as “the shift toward academic writing represents a shift away from coherent language.”  Academicians are creating their own words and language that is inaccessible to those who aren’t in the circle.  It feels oppressive to me.  This must be how some community college students feel when they hear instructors mention “Blackboard” and “MEID” and “SIS.”  It’s a new vocabulary as well as new, never-performed-before actions – e.g.,“blog” and “submit electronically.”

“Show Me” is the name of the song referred to in the title of this blog.  Youth Participatory Action Research seems geared to do that.  Researchers “show” each other what is important and what they need/want to know.  Adult researchers show the youth how to use research tools while the youth show the adults what’s important to study and how to relate.  That is dialogue.  McCarty writes that she is looking for dialogue in the theme issue of Anthropology & Education Quarterly (2005).  However, if the writers all have doctoral degrees and if people with doctoral degrees make up less than 1% of the population (as Sue Henderson advised us last week), does that 1% isolate itself with a language not understood by most of the rest of the world?  I can see researchers wanting (and needing) to develop their own language; yet it seems antithetical to the idea of social justice when this language cannot be understood by 99% of the population.

Perhaps what I am experiencing is akin to the tracking that Pivovarova (2014) writes about.  Those of us who are “low-achievers” are put in class with the “high-achievers.”  We don’t bring down the high achievers too much (depending on the distribution), but we low-achievers can be brought up.  I feel I am benefitting from all this wordy reading and writing, but I am wary of becoming one of the oppressors.  I want to relate with my colleagues and students in an authentic way. Parker Palmer’s classic book, The Courage to Teach (1998) gently encourages the reader to be authentic.  To teach in dialogue with students.  Though I believe many of the authors we read are hoping to establish dialogue, with such convoluted writing, dialogue is a distant dream for this tyro doctoral student.   Words, words, words…(when I can relate) I love them.


Lave, J. (2012). Changing Practice. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 19(2), 156–171.

McCarty, T. L. (2005). Indigenous Epistemologies and Education — Self-Determination, Anthropology, and Human Rights. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 36(1), 1–7.

Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco, Calif: Jossey-Bass.

Pivovarova, M. (2014). Should We Track or Should We Mix Them ? Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

Rosaldo, R. (1994). Culture and Truth: The remaking of social analysis. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.




What do photographs really reflect?

Photographs stand as glimpses into our lives at different points in our journey. Chappell, Chappell and Margolis (2011) see pictures as “memories of seeing” (p. 56) and within an educational journey these pictures can reflect the “face” of the world today but also the ceremonies that many of us go through that shape our future. When I think about educational events captured in photographs, there are two “types” that come to mind for me: graduation and our class photographs.

From childhood, we are gathered every year for our class shot (or at least up to a point in elementary school and maybe junior high). Those pictures are a reflection not only of our own growth but can reflect the make up of a classroom (diversity, gender) but also be reflective of the times (styles, looks, etc). The experience is somewhat of a normative process: something that many (but not all) will have the opportunity to experience.  In that same vein, graduation serves as a transition point to the next stage of life for many young people. When I was growing up, I had two graduations – one from junior high, which signaled my transition to high school and one from high school that signaled my transition to college (or to becoming an adult as I saw it). When I look back at the pictures of these experiences, I think of what that signified to me as a growth opportunity and as an experience that both me as the learner and my family had all hoped for. I think we, as people, want the best for ourselves and our children. These educational experiences become tantamount to not only personal success but may even be considered as a success of the family.

Chappell et al (2011) related educational photographs to a play. In their terms, they indicated that the environment (school) may be the same similarly to how a play is the same but the changes in both of these are the people.  The article was rife with pictures from multiple eras which represented the changing times (racial diversity, gender diversity, etc.). Their notion is that the picture can tell a lot about the progression of our society and how the message of what we stand for could have changed as well. I like to think that we have become a more progressive society and that this is reflected in our societies but that would mean forgetting that there is still a lot of inequality in the world, not just around racial or gender dynamics but around sexuality and even in socioeconomic status and how that may influence who walks across the stage or moves beyond high school. I have worked in higher education for 10 years and I think back on student access – has everyone been given the opportunity to attend? Is it really access for all and if it’s not, are the pictures we take truly reflective of our society or just this segmented piece of it? Thinking through the pictures in the article, it also makes you wonder who are the ones capturing and, in turn, sharing/publicizing the pictures? The individual(s) holding that power are more likely to take it from what they see as relevant than what may actually be reflected in reality.

What will be most interesting for the future is how, in the age of Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms, our journey will be reflected and captured when each moment is often the cause for a “selfie” or some other picture. I think through recent graduation at ASU. I sat on the floor with my students and snapped pictures, posting them for share on Instagram. Will these pictures be characteristic of who we are as people and what we stood for or more just a reflection of our society and what we think the “others” will want to see? Will our ability to connect with people from anyone in the world who have access to this technology (again the key is access) influence how we look at the world and the pictures we share back? Hard to say but interesting to see as an articulated story for future generations.


Chappell, D. Chappell, S. & Margolis, E. (2011). School as ceremony and ritual: How photography illuminates performances of ideological transfer. Qualitative Inquiry, 17(1), 56­73.

Many parts, One body

One body, Many parts

The intentional destruction of cultures and annihilation of people through imperialism, colonization, and neglect has been devastating to the world.  When one group sees themselves as greater than others and as a consequence believes they must wipe out or at least subjugate others, that faulty thinking kills spirit and life.  In preparation for liturgy this Sunday I was reading the scriptures that my husband and I were to proclaim to the assembled.  In our church it is the feast of Pentecost, a time when the Holy Spirit is believed to have inSpired followers of Jesus to take his story and message of peace and respect for the marginalized to the world.  The following passage connected with the readings for our Introduction to Doctoral Studies class, TEL 706, for me: “The body is one and has many members, but all the members, many though they are, are one body” (1 Corinthians 12:12 New American Bible).

That passage is hopeful for me.  Despite the beliefs of some that White is right and that everyone else should try to imitate the majority culture in power and that some people are not worthy of going to college, if we focus on communities’ cultural wealth (Yosso, 2005), we may recognize one community’s parts (or wealth) as different from another’s yet necessary to make the “body” complete.

Uncertainty is necessary for learning (Piaget in Jordan & McDaniel, in press) and managing that uncertainty is necessary in collaborative learning (Jordan & McDaniel, in press).  Research requires collaborative learning.  If researchers are anything like fifth graders working on robot projects, by expressing uncertainty about established research methods or the causality of “racial” problems as Zuberi & Bonilla-Silva (2008) do, the path is open for other researchers to explore the uncertainties as well and create new methods or explanations. Uncertainty allows a step back to “see” with fresh eyes a sharper, more focused image.  It’s like when you lose something and get frantic searching for it – so frantic that you can’t see it’s right in front of you.  Stepping away and then coming back to contentious research questions when you are calmer often brings the “lost” item into focus.

I may be naive, but I would like to believe the “lost” item is the viewpoint of indigenous people throughout the world who, through imperialism, colonization, and neglect, lost their culture and ways of knowing.  It will take more than just stepping away to reclaim culture and ways of knowing, but that’s a start.  Being open to stepping away and seeing research methods or ways of knowing or teaching with new eyes may allow the white folks and the indigenous to see what’s been right in front of them – a narrative, cultural capital, learning by engaging with the earth.  Because ultimately, we are all of the same body – just many parts:  Africans, Maori, Anglos; one an eye, another an ear, another a foot – all parts that are needed to complete one body that functions effectively in the world.

“If the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ would it then no longer belong to the body?  If the body were all eye what would happen to our hearing?  If it were all ear, what would happen to our smelling?” 1 Corinthians 12:16-17



Jordan, M. E., & McDaniel, R.  (in press). Managing uncertainty during collaborative problem solving in elementary school teams : The role of peer influence in robotics engineering activity. Journal of the Learning Sciences, doi: 10.1080/10508406.2014.896254

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. doi:10.1080/1361332052000341006

Zuberi, T. & Bonilla-Silva, E. (2008). White Logic , White Methods: Racism and methodology. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Capital Campaign: Valuing the Linguistic Wealth of My Students

This week, I did some more reading about an idea that has my full attention: community cultural wealth, or “the array of cultural knowledge, skills, abilities, and contacts possessed by socially marginalized groups that often go unrecognized and unacknowledged” (Yosso, 2005, p. 69). (This is the same set of assets I discussed in an earlier post, “Motivational Marginalization: Diversity in Private Schools.”) I spent some more time considering the six types of cultural capital proposed by Tara Yosso “that are historically undervalued and unacknowledged in White, middle-class institutions like schools” (Liou, Antrop-Gonzalez, & Cooper, 2009, p. 538). Here are Yosso’s categories, with her brief explanations of each:

  • aspirational capital: “the ability to maintain hopes and dreams for the future, even in the face of real and perceived barriers” (2005, p. 77);
  • navigational capital: “skills of maneuvering through social institutions” (2005, p. 80);
  • social capital: “networks of people and community resources” (2005, p.79);
  • familial capital: “cultural knowledges nurtured among familia that carry a sense of community history, memory, and cultural intuition” (2005, p. 79);
  • resistant capital: “knowledges and skills fostered through oppositional behavior that challenges inequality” (2005, p. 80); and
  • linguistic capital: “the intellectual and social skills attained through communication experiences in more than one language and/or style” (2005, p.78).

It’s the last of these, linguistic capital, that I’d really like to focus on today, for a couple of reasons: First of all, I think it would be beneficial to my own practice as a teacher to take some real, dedicated time to consider the ways in which I am–and, more importantly, perhaps, the ways I’m not–valuing and fostering each of these kinds of capital in my students of color. Secondly, I’m an English teacher, a writer, and a lover of language. I already believe, deeply, that the best vocabulary is one rich in the inflections, hues, loanwords, code-switching, hybrids, and mash-ups pulled from all of one’s languages and experiences.

One of the reasons I love teaching 10th-graders is that, on the whole, I think they strike an ideal balance between a child’s wonder and a young adult’s eagerness to engage in complex, intellectually sophisticated ideas. Because of that, I’m able to throw things at them that I didn’t really encounter until college: the idea of cultural marginalization, the literary and social concept of the Other, and the theory of multiple intelligences are all thematic touchstones to which we return, over and over, throughout the year as we study literature. Early on in the year, I try to establish that intelligence is not synonymous with years of formal education, and that education is not synonymous with schooling (this will serve us well when we get to our discussion of Colonialism with Things Fall Apart and I ask them if, for example, the people of Umuofia are “educated” before the white missionaries show up).

My students are already discovering and critiquing the ways in which language is all bound up in power. For example, all year long we talk about what makes something a “real word” (and I struggle to disabuse them of that question, encouraging them instead to ask if a word is “standard usage”–which allows us to parse whose standard is the standard and whether it will, or should, remain the standard). In tandem with the Richard Rodriguez essay “Aria,” which I discussed in that earlier post, we also read a first-person essay titled “Blue Collar Brilliance,” in which Mike Rose’s reflections on his mother’s experience as a waitress serve as a jumping-off point for him to consider and discuss “how much [blue-collar, service-industry, low-wage occupations] demand of both body and brain” (Rose, 2009).

As I’ve mentioned before, most of my students come from pretty financially comfortable homes. Several, however, do not. And so I offer this article to the class with the hope that it will, for the kids from wealthy homes, broaden their definition of what it means to be competent, skilled, and valuable as a worker and therefore broaden their respect for the people who perform these jobs. For the students who come from homes where their parents hold jobs like the ones Rose describes, or for students who themselves have experience working as waitstaff, house cleaners, landscapers or other jobs that their wealthy peers benefit from but sometimes fail to even see, I hope that this essay–and our careful, respectful consideration of it–communicates to them that I respect that work and that I want to create a space in my classroom where that work is valued, honored, respected, seen. I talk about this article in terms of multiple intelligences, but I realize now that I’m really talking about different kinds of cultural capital.

In fact, now that I reread Rose’s essay through the lens of cultural wealth, I realize that he’s celebrating the kinds of capital in which his mother and other blue-collar workers are wealthy–among them linguistic capital (“Lingo conferred authority and signaled know-how”) (Rose, 2009), navigational capital (“Joe learned more and more about the auto industry, the technological and social dynamics of the shop floor [and] the machinery and production processes”) (Rose, 2009), social capital (“She became adept at reading social cues and managing feelings, both the customers’ and her own … The restaurant became the place where she studied human behavior, puzzling over the problems of her regular customers and refining her ability to deal with people in a difficult world”) (Rose, 2009). If I were in a position to nominate another kind of capital to add to Yosso’s six, I might add something like sequencing or task flow capital: Certainly there’s a particular valuable knowledge and skill at work when a one does what Rose’s mother did when “she’d sequence and group tasks: What could she do first, then second, then third as she circled through her station? What tasks could be clustered?” (Rose, 2009).

Yosso asks: “Are there forms of cultural capital that marginalized groups bring to the tale that traditional cultural capital theory does not recognize or value?” (2009, p. 77). Her answer is an unequivocal “yes.” To try to address that systematic undervaluing, she works from a framework of Critical Race Theory (CRT) , which “shifts the center of focus from notions of White, middle class culture to the cultures of Communities of Color” (Yosso, 2009, p. 77). According to Yosso, “community cultural wealth is an array of knowledge, skills, abilities, and contacts possessed and utilized by Communities of Color to survive and resist macro and micro-forms of oppression” (2009, p. 77).

For that reason, I think it’s risky–if not downright inappropriate–to simply borrow the idea of cultural wealth from its home within CRT and simply apply it to poor or working-class people of all colors. (Although I know this is not a universally accepted opinion, I believe that a poor or working class white person retains white privilege. I’m not saying a poor white person has an easy life, only that his or her road is smoothed in ways that a similarly impoverished non-white person’s is not. Let’s park that idea to the side for the time being!) I want to be explicit in saying that I don’t think I can appropriate the concept of community cultural wealth and divorce it from its roots in CRT without doing so carefully and with limitation.

That said, poor and working-class people, like people of color, suffer a reductive and dismissive fate in the hands of our popular culture and our educational institutions. As Rose (2009) says,  “Although writers and scholars have often looked at the working class, they have generally focused on the values such workers exhibit rather than on the thought their work requires — a subtle but pervasive omission. Our cultural iconography promotes the muscled arm, sleeve rolled tight against biceps, but no brightness behind the eye, no image that links hand and brain.” Students who come from poor or working-class families, I would argue, might also be victims of deficit thinking, which “takes the position that minority students and families are at fault for poor academic performance because: (a) students enter school without the normative cultural knowledge and skills; and (b) parents neither value nor support their child’s education” (Yosso, 2009, p. 75). The suspected deficits are all the more magnified if a student is a poor or working class student of color.

Just as the educational system fails to value the forms of cultural capital that students of color bring, the educational system largely “defin[es] intelligence solely on grades in school and numbers on IQ tests. And we employ social biases pertaining to a person’s place on the occupational ladder. The distinctions among blue, pink, and white collars carry with them attributions of character, motivation, and intelligence. Although we rightly acknowledge and amply compensate the play of mind in white-collar and professional work, we diminish or erase it in considerations about other endeavors — physical and service work particularly” (Rose, 2009).

All of this is to say that in analyzing these two essays–“Aria” and “Blue-Collar Brilliance”–with my sophomores, we are already in a space where we are discussing cultural capital, though we have never used that term before. When I head back to school in August, I will bring this term, and this concept, to my students as a framework for discussing these two articles. So that answers how I can talk about cultural capital with my students, but it doesn’t really resolve how I can better value and honor the cultural capital–and today I’m focusing on linguistic capital–that they bring with them to school.

I want my classroom to be a place where these students get practice as both analyzers of literature and creators of literature. This dual goal was really crystallized for me when a friend, a middle-school teacher at an independent school, commented that “[He and his middle school co-faculty] had taken for granted that students should study literature in order to write about it. Yet [his elementary level faculty counterparts] emphasized that their students study literature in order to actually write it” (M. Fishback, personal communication, April 9, 2014). Similarly, I don’t want to just talk about educational equity with my students, I want to work toward educational equity with them. I don’t want to pay lip service to linguistic capital, I want to create a space where they can cash in on their linguistic capital.

One activity that I created last semester comes to mind as an example of a way that I could do just that. Although I conceived of this activity and implemented it before I’d learned about cultural capital, I’ll share it here as an activity that operates on the premise of valuing the language my students come to me knowing, as opposed to the language I teach them.

Last spring, we were reading Things Fall Apart, a novel by the great Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. Our discussions tended to revolve around plot (what happened?), reader response (how do I feel about what happened?), and historical context (Colonization and the importance of the book as a reclamation of a narrative of Africa). What was lacking–perhaps because the language in the book is deceptively simple–was discussion of the book qua book and what my students as budding writers could learn from it.

I selected a passage from the novel that had a lot of italicized Ibo words and ask my students to walk me through Achebe’s way of using the word to cumulatively depict its meaning as opposed to defining it with an appositive. Sentence by sentence, we read the clues provided by the text: Ah, yes, the egwugwu are feared; we can tell because the women of the village run from them when they emerge. Oh, but the egwugwu are also objects of fascination and admiration; we can tell because the women run only far enough away to remain safe but near enough that they can still see. Oh, look, here we see there are nine egwugwu. In this manner, we packed on understanding of the term that the author did not ever explicitly define for us, and we came to a full understanding of the function, appearance, and reception of these nine awe-inspiring ancestral spirits depicted by male village elders in costume at important community gatherings. We also realized that as readers we were quite tolerant and patient about having an unknown term take shape for us. In fact, we found it rewarding as readers not to be simply told what the word meant. So if we were patient as readers, we could probably, as writers, count on that patience from our readers.

Next, I asked students to choose a word they knew but that they guessed their peers would not know. It could be a word from a non-English language they knew, a technical term or piece of jargon from an activity or industry they knew well, or a nonsense word. I gave them 20 minutes to write a passage in which the word gets used at least five times but was never explicitly defined. Just like Achebe did, I wanted them to depict meaning as opposed to dictating meaning. I framed it like a challenge to them: By the end we should know what the word means and as much as possible about it.

Most students did not choose nonsense words. Students chose words from Mexican slang, Hindi words, and family inside-joke words. As it turned out, my students knew all kinds of words their peers didn’t know, and they were eager to share their writing (more eager than usual, I’d say). In terms of the writing itself, the results were clever, imagery-rich, and syntactically freewheeling and unbounded. After sharing, we talked about how else a writer could use this technique–with technical language, fantasy writing, or in boundary-blurring fiction and nonfiction like Amy Tan’s, where she tries to capture the experience of being the American daughter of a Chinese mother. They also independently connected the technique to what they saw in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.

Furthermore, and importantly, the exercise served to heighten the attention they paid to the literary elements of Achebe’s book, which I think is crucial given the fact that “some works are called literature whereas other works are termed folklore. … the literature of people of color is more likely to fall into the folklore category” (Dunbar, 2008, p.85). Keith Booker argues that “anthropological readings … have sometimes prevented African novels from receiving serious critical attention as literature rather than simply as documentation of cultural practices” (as cited in Snyder, 2008, p. 156). Snyder (2008) adds that “the naive ethnographic or anthropological reading treats a novel like [Things Fall Apart] as though it transparently represents the world of another culture, ignoring the aesthetic dimensions of the representation” (p. 156). Although I do think the book opens students’ eyes to practices, rites, and traditions of a culture most of them know nothing about, I do not want to contribute to that very Eurocentric and Colonialist approach to studying Achebe’s work as a cute little artifact as opposed to a powerfully important anti-Colonial event and an aesthetically and structurally intricate piece of literature.

In addition to those benefits, I see now, this activity also invited students to leverage their linguistic capital. In this activity, bilingual students had the edge. By asking them to choose a word they knew that their peers did not, I communicated to them that I was explicitly looking for words outside of our shared classroom experience. Furthermore, in the sharing portion of the activity, students asked one another about the words they’d share–what did it mean, exactly, how was it used, what were the shades of connotation, was it “standard usage” or slang? To stand in front of the room and be the teacher, even for a few minutes, transferred the power to these students and their outside-of-school language. (Notably, the students who used a family-created “inside joke” word were also leveraging their familial capital to fulfill their teacher’s expectations of a piece of school writing.)

This is only one small opportunity that I have found in my current pedagogical practice and curriculum to increasingly emphasize, foster, and value linguistic capital. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I believe that each facet of Yosso’s discussion of cultural wealth is worthy of reflection and examination in terms of my classroom. How am I welcoming, rewarding, and fostering the development of navigational capital? Resistance capital? There’s lots to think about here.

Finally, to talk about these “knowledge, skills, abilities, and contacts” (Yosso, 2005, p. 69) in terms of capital or wealth invites me to consider how that metaphor can be extended: can a person become bankrupt of cultural capital? I doubt it. Can a person invest her cultural capital and enjoy compounding interest? Probably. Does a person pay any kind of cultural tax when he acquires cultural wealth? Perhaps. Can cultural wealth can be shared, spread around, redistributed? Yes. All of my students left linguistically richer after that activity, as did I.


Dunbar, C. (2008). Critical race theory and indigenous methodologies. In Denzin, N., Lincoln, Y., & Smith, L.T. (Eds.) Handbook of critical and indigenous methodologies. 85-99.

Liou, D., Antrop-Gonzalez, R., & Cooper, R. (2009). Unveiling the promise of community cultural wealth to sustaining latino/a students’ college-going information networks. Educational Studies, 45, 534-555

Rose, M. (2009). Blue collar brilliance. The American Scholar. Retrieved from http://theamericanscholar.org/blue-collar-brilliance/#.U5YvU3BgNbU

Snyder, C. (2008). The possibilities and pitfalls of ethnographic readings: Narrative complexity in Things Fall Apart. College Literature, 35(2),154-174

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

Increasing Cultural Capital in a Deficit

It seems to me that we are in a constant race to develop our cultural capital. In a society that is driven by progress, by performance, by measures of wealth and status, we seem to constantly be in this position of pushing ourselves forward to achieve the next level of success. What that success looks like is primarily driven by societal norms (have a house, a car, money, a successful job) and I think at times overlooks what our own personal desires are. I would like to think I’m different than that, particularly since I’m in education (I’m clearly not here for the money) but I still want all those things that society seems to deem as important.

The harder part, it seems, is that Yosso (2005) talks about how many of us are born into a deficit of cultural capital, as decided by the dominant culture. How then does one gain capital when you’re already starting with a deficit? Education seems to be one way to achieve that but I’m not sure if that’s truly the case. If someone is already considered at a deficit in society, would school really improve them that much or would it just help notch them up a bit but still consider them inferior in relation to the cultural capital of others?

I think to my own development and my roots. I come from a small farming community of about 20,000 people. The town itself lacked diversity in the population and was an odd mix of those who came from farming families and those whose families worked within industry either somewhere in the town or in the neighboring cities.

Thinking of this reading and the idea of cultural capital gave me a lot of relation to my childhood. I was one of the kids with family who did not work on a farm and that set me apart from many of those kids. There was a bit of us versus them mentality at times. Due to the location of my house, I was sent to the schools that educated the majority of the farm kids since what school you went to was based on proximity. Growing up with these kids was always an interesting dynamic. Although I was friends with some of them, I was also somewhat of an outsider. My dad ran a newspaper so, to them, my life was quite different from theirs and in some cases, they thought I was this elitist kid since we could often afford more things than they could.

From the outside, to the kids who went to the school made up of all non-farming kids, we were all farming kids that were less educated than them, going to a school that catered to less educated people. In their eyes, despite the fact that we were actually receiving the same education, just at different schools, we were inferior to them.

Growing up within that made life very interesting. Thinking of cultural capital, I always felt my own capital was rather negative. I didn’t feel like I had the family capital that others did. My social capital was relatively low since I was a shy and awkward kid who didn’t have a ton of friends. I had a moderate level of linguistic capital in that I was a huge history and English buff so my language skills were more developed than most. What I most connected to was my aspirational capital – I had hopes, dreams, desires and an imagination that seemed to always be in overdrive. This is what I felt always set me apart from a lot of my peers. No matter who they were and what they thought of me, I used that aspirational capital to drive me forward.  I’d like to think that’s what has pushed me to where I am today, whether it be a success or failure.  I may not always have the best ideas or be the smartest person in the room but I have drive and dreams that together motivate me to seek out the things I want for my life and work towards them.

So even though we may start at a deficit, whether a true deficit or one we create for ourselves, I would like to think we have what it takes to break through the deficit and achieve the success we want. It may be a Pollyanna view of the world and I know it’s not as simple as all that but I still hold to this as a pathway to achieving what you want.

Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community

and cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 1(8), 69-91.

Motivational Marginalization: Diversity in Private Schools

“I was a listening child, careful to hear the very different sounds of Spanish and English. Wide-eyed with hearing, I’d listen to sounds more than words. First, there were English (gringo) sounds. So many words were still unknown that when the butcher or the lady at the drugstore said something to me, exotic polysyllabic sounds would bloom in the midst of their sentences. Often, the speech of people in public seemed to me very loud, booming with confidence. The man behind the counter would  literally ask, ‘What can I do for you?” But by being so firm and so clear, the sound of his voice said that he was a gringo; he belonged in public society” (Rodriguez, 1982, p. 2)

One of the first reading assignments I give my sophomores each year is the essay “Aria” by Richard Rodriguez. I like this essay for lots of reasons–for one, my course emphasizes literary nonfiction and the personal essay, as I feel that these are understudied modes of composition for most high-schoolers. I also like this essay because it initiates my students and orients them to some of the meaty subject matter we’re going to tackle over the course of the year: marginalization; the phenomenon of the Other;  the way language can be a signifier of power and privilege, a way to let people in or a way to make sure people stay out; multiple intelligences and definitions of success; and the multilayered nature of identity–the way we constantly renegotiate and navigate identity as we learn more about ourselves and the communities to which we belong (or don’t).

We read, among other things, The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, and Best Intentions: The Education and Killing of Edmund Perry. These two books, one longform literary fiction and the other longform literary nonfiction, both feature “characters” who struggle to navigate split identities. In The Namesake, Gogol Ganguli is an Indian-American growing up in the Northeast of the US, plagued by the confusing feelings of embarrassment and pride, belonging and not-belonging, presented by his immigrant parents and his American surroundings. Best Intentions tells the story of Edmund Perry, a smart, hardworking, promising black student from Harlem who attends the prestigious Philips Exeter Academy. There, he racks up good grades and accolades but he intermittently charms and confuses his peers and faculty: is he the great hope of the slums, a city boy done good? Or is he a threatening and aggressive black man? It does not escape my students’ notice that these polarized and reductive identities seem to be the only ones on offer to Eddie. Tragically, the summer after he finishes at Exeter, before heading off to Stanford on a scholarship, he is shot and killed while attempting to assault an undercover cop back in Harlem. As the title suggests, the book examines not just the circumstances of Eddie’s death but also his attempts to straddle, negotiate, and reconcile two worlds, two identities.

Many of my students are navigating that very space, and as sophomores they are (newly) able to examine that experience and discuss it intellectually, critically, honestly, articulately. So I kick them off with the Rodriguez essay because I know it will resonate deeply and personally with many of my students. Some of my students learned English as a second language, and even among those who learned English first, many learned another language concurrently: Spanish, Hindi, Bengali, and Mandarin, mostly. And so language becomes a great way for us to talk about the many communities a person can belong to, and the way that membership in one community–school, for example–can sometimes mean feeling like you have to sideline, ignore, or deny your membership in another. All year long we talk about what it is like to live in the margins.

My school is a secular independent school. It costs, well, a lot of money to go there. A year’s tuition costs more than I made at my first job out of graduate school. Most of my students are white, upper middle-class, and affluent. Another good proportion are not white (many of Indian descent, many Asian, several Hispanic, and very few Black), upper middle class, and affluent. And about a quarter are working class, decidedly not affluent. Most of those students are Hispanic, a few are white, and very few are Black.

Several of my students come to my school by way of an outreach program, the mission of which is to “to enrich, engage, and empower first-generation college-bound students from local public schools and partnering organizations, their educators, and their parents by providing resources, academic enrichment, and opportunities that encourage intellectual, cultural, and personal growth” (“Project Excellence”).  The mission of the program is two-pronged. It offers a student program, which “provides necessary resources and opportunities that most first-generation college-bound students do not have access to during the regular school day.  The Program consists of weekend workshops, a robust summer program, and a variety of mentor opportunities” (Project Excellence). There is also an adult program, which “provides adults in the greater Phoenix community with educational enrichment opportunities through weekend and summer workshops in English Language Learning (ELL) and General Education Coursework (GEC), with the expectation that enriching the lives of adults has a direct, positive impact on the lives of children of the community” (Project Excellence). I believe in the mission of this program and participating in its summer and weekend workshops, which are extended to students who don’t attend our school as well as the ones who gain admission as “scholars,” matters to me. I feel sheepish that as I’ve gotten busier and responsible for more things at school in the six years I’ve worked there, my own participation in this worthwhile outreach program has dissolved.

Nevertheless, regardless of our level of participation in outreach workshops, we faculty say–and, I think, genuinely believe–that these students are in no way provisional, less capable, or less college-bound than their classmates. Certainly our college counselors would never say, “Look, I need my car mechanic and if everyone goes to college, then where am I going to get my mechanic” like the (admittedly) strained and over-tasked career counselor at University High School, a sprawling comprehensive public private school studied in “Unveiling the Promise of Community Cultural Wealth to Sustaining Latina/o Students’ College-Going Information Networks” (Liou et al., 2009). I think if you asked any of my co-faculty if they treat these students any differently than their peers, they’d say no.

We have high expectations for all of our students. There’s not a second-tier track. But to treat these students the same as their peers seems unfair, when many of them have jobs outside of school; extensive religious commitments; responsibilities to provide child care for siblings; less practice with reading and writing (especially in the formal language of school); less familiarity with academic navigation (seeing this counselor, turning in that form, etc.); less access to Internet resources at homes and fewer computers, phones and devices; atrophied or underdeveloped study skills; less access to expensive tutoring or test-prep opportunities; or parents who, because of language limitations or job commitments or both, can’t advocate them the way their peers’ parents can.

And so, because we teachers want to make ourselves aware of the backgrounds these students come from and help them succeed, we may unintentionally operate on a cultural deficit model, which posits that “the student who fails in school does so because of internal deficits or deficiencies. Such deficits manifest, it is alleged, in limited intellectual abilities, linguistic shortcomings, lack of motivation to learn, and immoral behavior” (Valencia, 2009, xi). I would not be the first to point out that for many people who operate on the deficit model, race or economic class alone presents the deficits. People take a nugget of research they’ve overheard–that, say,”in poor and working-class households, children were urged to stay quiet and show deference to adult authority figures such as teachers” (Goldstein, 2014) whereas middle-class students learn to self-advocate or “white parents are at least twice as likely as black and Latino parents to request a specific teacher” (Goldstein, 2014)–and run with it. Next thing you know, even the most warm-hearted, well-intentioned, politically liberal and dedicated teachers are standing around in the faculty lounge saying, “Well, you know, these students just don’t know how to do what you’re asking them to do. Coming in for extra help, staying for office hours, completing extra credit assignments, this is not part of their world. It’s not what they do.” But it’s a dangerous pendulum–swing too far toward “treating everyone the same” out of some well-intentioned idea of educational equity and colorblindness, and you don’t help these students succeed.

Either way, from the deficit perspective or the everyone’s-treated-the-same model, you leave these student to figure it out on their own; you push responsibility for their success back on them and their families; you make academic success a thing to be attained by individual, entrepreneurial pluck, just as in  “Keeping Up the Good Fight: the Said and Unsaid in Flores v. Arizona” the authors argue that neo-liberal values render language “left to the competitive market, where individuals and groups have to battle with each other for access” (Thomas et al., 2014, p. 250). You hope that they can leverage their other kinds of capital (aspirational, linguistic, social, navigational, familial, resistance) (Liou et al., 2009, p. 538) to succeed–not because of you, but despite you.

The school where I teach is not facing the problems that large, comprehensive public high schools in economically depressed cities are facing. Still, the independent school realm has its own issues to confront regarding race, equity, and diversity. One of the movies my students and I watch together during their sophomore year is “American Promise,” a documentary that follows two black New York City students as they embark on schooling at the prestigious–and nearly all-white–Dalton School. In the film, a Dalton administrator theorizes that independent school culture presents “a greater cultural disconnect for African-American boys” (Ohikuare, 2013) than for black girls. In fact, both of the boys profiled in the film struggle with their Otherness, and one of them ultimately leaves to attend the nearly all-Black Benjamin Banneker Academy, finding more happiness and success there. We watch this movie in tandem with reading Best Intentions, and while my students are pondering what it is or might be like to feel so alien in such a pressure-cooker environment, I’m wondering if my fellow teachers and I are doing right by the students of color that are sitting in my classroom that very minute.

I have seen my students leverage the kinds of capital that Liou et al. describe as the saving grace of students whose schools and counselors are failing them, keeping college-going know-how a closely guarded secret, etiher out of the deficit-model belief that they’re not going anywhere anyway or out of the more sinister desire to preserve a (brown) servant class to fix their cars.

Certainly my students have aspirational capital, “the ability to have high hopes for the future in spite of social, economic, and institutional barriers” (Liou et al., 2009, 538), as do their parents, or they wouldn’t have applied to our school, taken the battery of admissions tests, or ridden three buses every morning to get there. They have impressive linguistic capital, which allows many of them to succeed by traditional measures–acing AP Spanish, for example–and to write compelling and vivid poetry or prose that is colored by diverse linguistic influences and words and which is well-received and celebrated by their classmates and teachers in student publications. They have social capital, loving “networks of people and community resources,” and they “draw instrumental and social support through sources such as community based organizations, churches, and community-based cultural and athletic events” (Liou et al., 2009, 538). Many of them have active church or athletic lives that bring them in contact with students from other schools and communities. Through these experiences, many of them hear reinforcement of what they’re hearing at school–register for that PSAT!–but they’re hearing it from people like them, people who can empathize with them even if most of their classmates cannot. They have impressive familial capital. Many of them report studying with older siblings, aunts and uncles, or cousins when parents can’t help because of linguistic barriers. These opportunities and connections allow them to leverage their navigational capital. And, to some extent, I’ve seen “resistance capital,” or “those skills that are garnered through oppositional identities/behavior that challenge instances of inequality” (Liou et al., 2009, 538).

I’m thinking particularly of a former student, D.G., who, though reticent at the beginning of the year, gradually found powerful material to write and speak about in my class from comparing her own experiences with those of her more comfortable, coddled classmates. D.G. derived great strength, worldliness, and an identity as a no-nonsense survivor from her glimpses into the values and experiences of her rich classmates who couldn’t code-switch the way she could, who didn’t know what it felt like to get a paycheck, and didn’t ever have to fight to get what she needed from a school or teacher, never had to demand that they be treated the way they deserved to be. D.G. absolutely found a way to leverage “marginalization as a motivation concept” (Liou et al., 2009, 546). One time, her classmates were all fawning over a student, a girl, who had come to class with an impressive black eye from that morning’s pre-school karate practice. D.G. sat back, arms crossed, and surveyed the room with a sour expression. She sat apart. As the girls oohed and aahed over the shiner, one of them said, “Oh, I want a black eye!” Quietly, smirking, D.G. uttered, “I could help you with that.” Laughs all around. As a teacher, or course, responsible for the safety of all my students, I cringed. But part of me cheered for D.G.’s finding strength and humor in the stark contrast between her lived experiences and those of her classmates. Over time, D.G. found a balance between the tough aspects of her identity and the more vulnerable. She’s now a college freshman studying public health. Recently, she came back to visit and explained this choice of major, a departure from the pre-med major she’d planned on. She said she wanted to work with people, and this way she could help people who are underserved by the system the way it is. “You want to fight the good fight?” I asked her. “Yup,” she said.

All of this is to say: I don’t know. I don’t know if my independent school, or independent schools in general, are doing a good job of serving our students of color. When these students succeed–and they do–I don’t know how much of that is attributable to our serving them well and effectively and how much of it is the product of their use of those various kinds of capital as workarounds and compensatory measures. I don’t know how to find out if my colleagues sincerely believe that “those students” can aspire to and attain to the same things our other students do, or if there is a glass ceiling, an unacknowledged track, that designates them second-class school citizens.

I want to know. “Someone should study this!” I think to myself. Me? Or could an independent school like mine attempt a Participatory Action Research Project along the lines of the Council of Youth Research, in which “urban youth of color research educational conditions,” by “appropriat[ing] traditional research methods for critical uses and employ[ing] creative approaches to conveying research findings” in an effort to “transform inequitable learning conditions and structures” (Bautista et al., 2013, p. 2).

What if the students in our outreach program were invited to perform participatory action research in our school community? A summer session could initiate them in the methods and language of research and allow them to design research protocols. Over a school year, they could work (for credit) on their research protocols and perform site visits like the students in the Council of Youth Research. Perhaps a second summer session could bookend the experience and allow them to design and create their novel ways of sharing their research.

Is it wrong–ignorant, tone-deaf?–to appropriate this urban research project and apply it to a rich school environment that doesn’t face the same problems? I think not. There are certain unique researchable questions (problems?) presented by the starkly stratified environment of an expensive prep school committed to an outreach program like ours. These students need empowerment and understanding, and we are kidding ourselves if we think they are not made aware–daily–of institutional and cultural barriers and inequity. Perhaps the best people to investigate this question at my school are the people it affects most acutely.


Bautista, M.A., Bertrand, M., Morrell, E., Scorza, D., & Matthews, C. (2013). Participatory action research and city youth : Methodological insights from the council of youth research UCLA, Teachers College Record, 115 (100303), 1–23.

Goldstein, D. (2014). Don’t help your kids with their homework. The Atlantic, April 2014. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/04/and-dont-help-your-kids-with-their-homework/358636/

Liou, D., Antrop-Gonzalez, R., & Cooper, R. (2009). Unveiling the promise of community cultural wealth to sustaining latino/a students’ college-going information networks. Educational Studies, 45, 534-555.

Ohikuare, J. When minority students attend elite private schools. The Atlantic, Dec. 2013. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/when-minority-students-attend-elite-private-schools/282416/

Project Excellence. (n.d.). In Phoenix Country Day School: Student Life. Retrieved June 2, 20014 from http://www.pcds.org/about-pcds/projectexcellence.

Rodriguez, R. (1982). Aria. Hunger of memory: The education of Richard Rodriguez. New York, New York: Bantam.

Thomas, M., Aletheiani, D., Carlson, D., & Ewbank, A. (2014). ‘Keeping up the good fight’: the said and unsaid in Flores V. Arizona. Policy Futures in Education, 12 (2), 242-261.

Valencia, R. (1997). The evolution of deficit thinking: Educational thought and practice. Oxfordshire: Routledge.


All about context

Shernaz B. Garcia and Alba A. Ortiz’s (2013) article, “Intersectionality as a Framework for Transformative Research in Special Education,” is an inspirational read.  The authors propose a cogent argument for analyzing disabilities and difference through the lens of intersectionality.  Essentially, their position is that intersectionality-focused research allows for a more nuanced and holistic understanding of the complex, dynamic and multi-layered issues or forces that impact educational outcomes.  Noting that we still have not achieved educational equity in spite of over forty years of research and various efforts to improve policies and schools, Garcia and Ortiz suggest that an intersectionality approach is what is needed to finally produce desired change.

I wholeheartedly agree with Garcia and Ortiz.  Reducing human beings to a single identifier or variable is not an effective way to understand them.  Instead, one must consider individual characteristics in context.  Two students who are of the same race can be in drastically different situations with respect to education based on confounding factors such as family socioeconomic background, neighborhood of residence, and school of attendance.  Therefore, it is essential to examine the complete picture and not just one aspect when trying to address educational inequity or any other societal problem.

For me, the most powerful part of Garcia and Ortiz’s article is the notion that a shift in the focus of interventions is also necessary.  After citing some educational disparities and the disproportionate amount of students of color and English Language Learners in special education, they write on page 39:

“When such large numbers of students from an identifiable group (e.g., racial/ethnic, language) fail, it is imperative to shift the focus away from student interventions to interventions directed at schools, programs, and personnel ‘at risk’ of producing ‘pedagogically-induced’ learning disabilities (Cummins, 1986, p. 666).”

This is such a powerful statement because the phrase, “at risk,” is so frequently used to label groups of students who are less likely to be successful academically.  Researchers, educators, administrators, and policy-makers who ascribe such a negative label onto students render the students as the problem.   Rather that point fingers at the students, we should reflect upon the conditions in which these students are being (mis)educated and disadvantaged.

This article pertains to my own research because I am interested in the retention, satisfaction, and success of Arizona State University freshmen.  When I conduct my research, I can use the intersectionality framework to approach issues comprehensively and from multiple angles.  Furthermore, I can be sure to consider conditions that impact student success outcomes and not just students when I ponder possible interventions.

This article is also meaningful to me personally as someone who has been a diversity and social justice educator and someone who has experienced multiple forms of both privilege and oppression.  I can relate to how frustrating it can be for an individual with many salient identities to be reduced to just one.  I’ve experienced it myself, and I have also seen it done to many others.  It’s important to always keep in mind that we all have unique combinations of identities, traits, and circumstances that constitute who we are and affect how we live.  Doing so will not only make us better researchers; it will make us better people.


Garcia, S.B., and Oriz, A.A. (2013). Intersectionality as a Framework for Transformative Research in Special Education. Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, 13(2), 32-47.

Is Empathy Enough?

Garcia (2013) posits that researchers’ own biographies “greatly influence their values, their research questions, and the knowledge they construct” (p. 41).  A researcher must have credibility (be an “insider”) to be trusted and effective with study participants (Garcia, 2013).  The sense of Garcia’s writing is that a researcher can’t really understand the plight of someone who is different and whose life experience is different. Because a researcher’s identity is intertwined with his research, he may (or should) exclude some groups, but this, in turn, renders them invisible and marginalizes them (Garcia, 2013).  This marginalization may occur even as the researcher is trying to help the subjects of a study.

Medicine Stories (Levin-Morales, 1998) also discusses the marginalization of groups by colonizing powers who try to help those they deem inferior by educating their young.  Levin-Morales states that “colonizing powers take over the transmission of culture to the young” (p. 23) in the guise of helping them.  Culture has always been the glue that holds a society together, and children are inculcated into the society and government by schools.  My own daughter started her school years in Argentina, where we lived as part of an exchange program.  Her assignments were often to draw the flag, create art representing the country, and sing songs about the motherland.  One day, her father said to her, “That’s what Argentines do.”  She furiously informed him that she was an Argentine, although we knew her to be an Anglo-American Caucasian.  Seeing this through Levin-Morales’ eyes enlightened me to a different view of these practices.

Levin-Morales (1998) also includes a thought-provoking essay about “good English.”  She feels that editors have tried to strip away part of her identity by changing her writing in the name of correcting her English to a standard that is not representative of the many Englishes spoken and written throughout the world.  This article touches on a hotly-discussed issue in linguistic circles:  world Englishes.  Who does English belong to?  British?  Americans?  Or the millions of other English-speakers?  The paradox is that, as an English as a Second Language teacher, I must teach my students something that equates to correctness.  At one level, this is English to help them communicate ideas, which must follow some set of basic norms (for example, using past tense to talk about the past, pronunciation that is distinguishable to the listener, or word order in sentences that is clear enough to express an idea).  As the fluency of English rises, my students are preparing to study in American universities, where the English used is probably the English of stuffy, white male professors.  However, if the student is to compete in this playing field, he/she must know these rules, which I teach.  Am I harming my students’ identities by trying to strip away their brand of English to replace it with one that will serve them well in an academic setting?

Pondering the ideas of Garcia & Ortiz (2013) and Levin-Morales’ Medicine Stories (1998) worried me:  can I  teach students of color if I am not a teacher of color? am I doing a disservice to the identities of my students by teaching an academically-acceptable brand of English?  These concerns were  somewhat allayed by Howard’s “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.”  According to Howard (2003), teachers must first believe that all students can succeed and make sure that their actions don’t reinforce prejudice.  They should view different cultures and the way they learn as an asset in the process and use a wide variety of teaching practices which change with the students’ strengths and weaknesses.  This left me hopeful that I can do justice to my students and be helpful to them within their own context.  I need to spend more time getting to know them individually and not labeling them with one-dimensional descriptions.  Through on-going critical self-reflection, I can confront my own learned prejudices in order to overcome them and move forward.

Garcia, S.B. & Ortiz, A.A. (2013).  Intersectionality as a framework for transformative research to special education.  Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, 13(2), 32-47.

Howard, T. C. (2003).  Culturally Relevant Pedagogy:  Ingredients for critical teacher reflection, 42(3), 195-202.

Levins-Morales, A. (1998).  Medicine Stories: History, Culture, and the Politics of Identity.  Cambridge: South End Press.

Reflection Starts with You

Access, Excellence, and Impact

Howard (2003) highlights the need for critical teacher reflection in the article “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Ingredients for Critical Teacher Reflection.” He sets the stage by explaining the demographic divide and how “US schools will continue to become learning spaces where an increasingly homogeneous teaching population (mostly White, female and middle class) will come into contact with an increasingly heterogeneous student population (primarily students of color, from low income backgrounds.)” (Howard, 2003, p. 195) The author explains the importance of supporting teachers in gaining the knowledge and skills for teaching today’s diverse student community.

One of the ways Howard (2003) suggests acquiring the knowledge and skills for teaching our diverse learners is through critical reflection. He describes critical reflection as, “attempts to look at reflection within moral, political, and ethical contexts of teaching.” (Howard, 2003, p. 197) I can see how this type of reflection would be challenging. As teachers, we are familiar with reflecting on our actions and how it impacted student learning. However, this type of reflection requires much more than just identifying strengths and challenges within a lesson.   Howard (2003) pushes educators to “ask challenging questions that pertain to one’s construction of individuals from diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.” (p. 198)

This year I had an opportunity to participate in systematic reflection with colleagues. The experience was difficult but rewarding. We used journal writing to reflect and make sense of our experiences. Each session the facilitator would pose questions and give us uninterrupted time to write and reflect. One of the greatest gifts I received in this experience was the opportunity to go back and reread what I had written in my journal at different times throughout our journey. I could see how my thinking had grown and what I needed to do to move forward in my practice. During the systematic reflection, we were invited to share out with the group, but it was not required. I believe a similar format focused on critical reflection would be beneficial for teachers. The author refers to this format as race reflective journaling by Milner (2003) and further describes it as a “process wherein teachers are able to process issues of racial differences in a more private manner through writing as opposed to sharing ideas of racial and cultural differences in a more open and public forum that might be uncomfortable and difficult for some.” (Howard, 2003, p. 199)

I believe that race reflective journaling would be uncomfortable yet eye-opening for teachers and that is what is needed. It would force teachers to engage in an inner dialogue centered on race, ethnicity, social-class and gender and expose what Howard (2003) refers to as deficit-based thinking. In the article, deficit-based thinking is described as an authentic belief that students from culturally diverse and low-income backgrounds are incapable learners. (Howard, 2003, p. 197) My parents experienced the harmful effects of deficit-based thinking. Both my parents are second language learners. I grew up listening to stories about the difficulties they experienced in school as second language learners. As a result, they chose not to teach my brother and I Spanish. The language stopped in my generation because they saw it as a deficit.

I believe that the first step toward becoming a culturally relevant educator is to start with reflection and the article “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Ingredients for Critical Teacher Reflection” offers steps to consider, possible pitfalls, and the positive impact critical teacher reflection can have on our diverse student population.


Howard, T. C. (2003). Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Ingredients for Critical Teacher Reflection. Theory Into Practice. doi:10.1207/s15430421tip4203_5









Culturally Relevant Pedagogy

The ability to reflect and analyze individual actions or attitudes and behavior can have a significant positive influence on personal and professional growth.  Howard (2003) discusses the importance of having teachers participate in honest self-reflection and critique of their own thoughts and behaviors as it pertains to race in cultural contexts (2003). The goal of critical teacher reflection would be to give pre-service or practicing teachers a space to reflect on and analyze important issues such as race, ethnicity, and culture and recognize how their own attitudes and beliefs can dramatically impact outcomes for students. The act of reflection gives attention to one’s own experiences and behaviors. The meaning that is developed from the act of reflection can help inform future decision making (Howard, 2003).   Through this process, pre-service and practicing teachers can develop pedagogical practices that are racially affirming, culturally relevant, and socially meaningful. This type of awareness and development of culturally relevant pedagogy, I feel will help teachers provide equal access to education for all students regardless of their cultural or ethnic background. In the article, Howard (2003) discussed how Ladson-Billings (1994) argued that one of the key components of culturally relevant pedagogy is the authentic belief that students from culturally diverse and low-income backgrounds are capable learners and if students are treated in that manner, then they will ultimately demonstrate high degrees of competence.

I personally place a high value on teacher self reflection in all areas of teacher pedagogy for both pre-service and practicing teachers. When I think about my teaching experience over the last 13 years, I believe that my success has had a lot to do with natural reflection in my teaching experiences. While I feel that it is innate for most people to reflect on experiences, I think the real skill that brings reflection to life is the ability to honestly engage in reflection in a way that takes a critical look at personal beliefs or actions and makes use of the success or failure of them to make changes that will improve future experiences. Sometimes it can be true that a teacher may not recognize the key areas in their teaching where reflection is needed. This is where mentoring comes into play. Having a mentor to guide the reflection process is crucial for active reflection to be successful. My research interest is in the area of looking at the translation of knowledge and experiences from teacher preparation programs into successful teaching experiences for beginning teachers. For many of the student teachers I have mentored, the act of reflection seems to be a bit unfamiliar. Sometimes pre-service teachers place “blame” on factors that are seemingly out of their control when discussing a lesson that was taught or an interaction with students that may not have gone as planned. As a mentor, I attempt to help student teachers reflect on how their beliefs or actions may have impacted the lesson or the situation. In the area of culturally relevant pedagogy, and awareness of how your beliefs have an effect on your expectations and interactions with students of different ethnic or cultural backgrounds can help pre-service and practicing teachers avoid deficit based-thinking when teaching. It will also allow students to have access to an education that views each individual as equally capable regardless of background and sets a level of high expectations for success for all students.


Howard, T.C. (2003). Culturally relevant pedagogy: Ingredients for critical teacher reflection. Theory into Practice, 42(3), 195-202.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465-491.

Culturally Relevant Pedagogy – Self-Reflection is Hard Work

Eric Leshinskie

Tyrone C. Howard’s article, “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Ingredients for Critical Teacher Reflection,” resonated for me as  the article addresses a potential focus for research with developmental education student success rates – professional development for developmental education instructors.  The topic of culturally relevant pedagogy has been part of my work for the Maricopa Community Colleges in some form or another in the past ten years.  I had the privilege of working with a small team of faculty members to design a professional development workshop entitled, “Beyond Content Integration: Developing a Multicultural Learning Environment.” My experiences in collaborating to develop that workshop provided significant context for me as I read this article.

One area of uncertainty for me focused on the notion that in order to create a culturally relevant learning environment, instructors must reject “deficit-based thinking about culturally diverse students” (Howard, 2003, p. 197).  I do not question the notion that instructors must reject this type of thinking; I question how pervasive deficit-based thinking is with newly hired instructors, or even instructors who have engaged in professional development on this matter. As I think of the landscape of community college instructors I have encountered in my 11 years with the Maricopa Community Colleges, I anecdotally come across fewer instructors who may harbor a deficit-based thinking approach, compared to instructors who view all students as having the capability to achieve.  Possibly my experiences are not of enough depth to make such a statement, but the optimist in me hopes that instructors across all levels of the education spectrum are rejecting the deficit-based thinking model about diverse students.

One point of emphasis from the article is that self-reflection is critical to culturally relevant instruction, and self-reflection is difficult for many instructors.   Self-reflection involves asking hard questions, and as Howard writes, “An honest and thoughtful reflection on these types of questions often becomes painful” (p. 198). My take-away is not the sample questions themselves.  Those are valuable, but ones that do not necessarily shed any new light on the process.  But, his statement that, “It is critical for teacher educators to provide spaces for preservice teachers to express their uncertainties, frustrations, and regrets over prejudiced notions” (p. 199) caused me to evaluate my own work and experiences.  Merely asking instructors to self-reflect is not enough.  Providing them with a framework for the self-reflection is also not enough.  But, it is incumbent upon teacher educators and leaders to create the space for this reflection; this is what struck a chord for me in my current role at Glendale Community College.  Too often, those who support teachers do not provide the space, or in other words the time, for instructors to meaningfully reflect with colleagues on matters of effective teaching.  If we value the culturally relevant instruction, then we must create both the culture and the space for self-reflection.

Furthermore, just as space is not created for self-reflection, the courage to have such critical conversations around race in the classroom is not prevalent either.  This lack of courage can occur for many reasons. One, instructors may not be willing to engage in such discussion.  Two, the pace of the instructional cycle is so rapid that taking time to self-reflect is not a priority. Or three, teacher educators themselves may not be prepared to facilitate such a discussion, as this first calls for a high level of self-awareness, as well as a strong facilitation skills to engage in what could be challenging dialogue.  As educators, we must develop the courage for this dialogue.  As Howard concludes, “the stakes we face as a profession and as a nation are too high to fail in this endeavor” (p. 201). Finally, I related to Howard’s statement that instructors must recognize that “teaching is not a neutral act” (p. 2oo).  I appreciate this statement as it is one that I think all effective instructors must realize.  You do not necessarily need to separate who you are as a person from who you are as an instructor.  But, you must fully realize who you are (through self-reflection described above) and how that impacts and influences your teaching.

This article relates to my research as I believe a key element to increase the success rates for those students who come to college underprepared is to have instructors who practice a culturally relevant pedagogy.  To do so, these instructors must continuously practice self-reflection, and as an institution, we must create the space and freedom for them to do so.  This will only benefit them as instructors, and in turn, will benefit our students.

Howard, Tyrone C. (2003). Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Ingredients for Critical Teacher Reflection.  Theory Into Practice, 42(3), 195-202.

Intersectionality and Gifted Education


The article, Intersectionality as a Framework for Transformative Research in Special Education (2013), connected to many professional experiences I have had but not necessarily for the more direct or obvious reasons.  The article describes in detail the boxes we put students into, quite literally on forms to begin with, and the more expansively in our experiences with how we treat students in the education environment.  Intersectionality is the term the article uses to explain as the basis of two or more markers of identity and difference (e.g. race, class, and gender)  (Garcia and Ortiz, 2013).  The article tackles the theory that students are judged and discriminated against in the educational system based on the categories and labels of how they are assessed.  They authors make five points as to the impact of intersectionality: 1. Students are complex and the categories they fit into should not be viewed through narrow lenses  2. How these categories are interconnected should be carefully evaluated  3. Ethnic groups are misrepresented within every category based on stereotypes in that there seems to be a minority that is stereotyped into a program at some level 4. Intersectionality attempts to create layers to the system so that students are no longer viewed as one-dimensional and 5.  The power base that the system is created on needs to be evaluated and addressed, and ultimately changed. This creates an unbalancedsystem that our students are experiencing.  As an educator, that is something that I see needs to desperately to be addressed.  Teachers need training in order to address this issue and become more skilled.

Many of the examples given were concerning student ability, minority status, and the students’ economic status. Much of the article was focused on creating opportunities to redirect students out of ELL and special education classrooms.  However, my connection to this article was with the comment regarding minority students and having access to gifted education.  I teach in a school with very few minorities but my district does have Hispanic students in significant numbers at other schools.  I obtained my endorsement in gifted education several years ago and became aware of the underrepresentation of minority students not only in my district but also  nationwide.   The lack of access to gifted services for minority students is often due to language or cultural barriers inhibiting their success on the assessment we have.  The head of our district’s gifted department at the time I was obtaining my endorsement chose to remedy that by giving all ELL students a non-verbal gifted assessment to see if some of those students might qualify.  The value of enabling all students to have their needs fully met with the education system was immeasurable and it saddens me to think of how many gifted students did not have the opportunity to receive the benefits prior to that.  I am pleased, though, that I witnessed her use her voice as a scholar to create a balanced system during the time that she was there.

Having access is only important if the program itself leads to excellence.  The irony was that as the gifted system was set up at the time, students could qualify for services in up to three different subjects: verbal (reading), quantitative (math), and non-verbal (spatial).  The students who received services for non-verbal only attended for one, 45 minute session a week.  Although it is better than nothing, it certainly is not likely to fully meet the needs of a student who is gifted but is unable to demonstrate it due to a language barrier.

Referring back to the fifth point in the article above, our district now has had a change in the head of our gifted program (i.e. a “power”).  Non-verbal no longer exists once a week as this leader believes the program should be set up differently.  However, an entirely new test is used for students to be able to qualify for the gifted program.  I do not have access to the results but after reading this article, I wonder how many of our ELL students are being impacted by the current test that was chosen and if anything is being done to reach out to ensure that their needs are being met.


Garcia, Shernaz B. and Alba A. Ortiz (2013). Intersectionality as a Framework for Transformative Research in Special Education.  Multiple Voices,  13(2),  32-47  https://myasucourses.asu.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-9354502-dt-content-rid-36371443_1/courses/2014SummerA-D-TEL706-44961-44962/Garcia%20%26%20Ortiz%2C%202013_Intersectionality%20as%20a%20Framework%20for%20Special%20Ed%20Research.pdf