Language Loss

In their introduction to Indigenous Epistemologies and Education – Self-Determination, Anthropology, and Human Rights, McCarty and her team of guest co-editors presented a series of questions related to Indigenous education that they believed to be best explored by scholars.  The core questions were the meaning of self-determination, the placement of Indigenous epistemologies inside and outside the classroom, how human rights are implicated in these questions and their responses, and what the field of anthropology’s contribution to Indigenous peoples might be in the present and future, given the field’s damaging role in the past.  The editors acknowledged difficulty in defining some of these key terms and were careful to include the definitions they used.

I found this introduction to be insightful and educational.  For instance, I did not realize that Indigenous peoples speak such a large percentage of the world’s languages.  Based on the numbers cited by the editors, Indigenous peoples speak between 66 and 83 percent of the world’s languages despite only comprising 4 percent of the world’s population.  That’s amazing! The editors wrote that language is important because it contains local knowledge and ways of knowing.  Unfortunately, the editors also presented evidence that many of these languages are endangered because they are only spoken by older generations.  Unless patterns change, these languages will be lost when the elders who speak them pass.

The topic of language loss is personally relevant to me because I am a Latino who does not speak Spanish.  My Spanish-speaking parents made the choice to refrain from teaching me English because they wanted me to assimilate to the mainstream English-speaking culture.  My father said he didn’t want me to be teased for speaking English improperly as he had been when he was a child.  He also wanted me to do well in school, where classes were taught in English.

I wound up picking up basic Spanish by taking classes in high school and as an undergraduate in college, however, I am far from proficient.  As a result, I feel disconnected from my ethnic culture, and I feel shame that I don’t speak Spanish.  Not being able to communicate in Spanish makes me feel like I’m a “bad” Latino.  I’m especially annoyed when I am around people speaking in Spanish and I can’t understand them or when I’m listening to a salsa song and don’t know what it means.  The worst is when someone asks me if I speak Spanish (usually a fellow Latino or Latina who would like to converse with me in that language) and I have to tell that person that I don’t.  It’s like being exposed and having to confess my faults.

This makes me wonder: how do Indigenous youth feel about their inability to speak the language of their parents and grandparents?  Do they feel shame, as I do?  Are they angry about the cultural, economic, and political forces that are causing their Indigenous languages to be lost?  Has their language loss affected their cultural identity or pride?  If so, in what ways and to what extent?  Are these youth making or have they made any attempts to reclaim or save their language?  Or, are they indifferent?  What is the basis for their feelings?  Given how highly diverse Indigenous peoples are, I would suspect the answers vary.  I think it would be interesting to know percentages of each attitude toward language loss and perhaps see comparisons of attitudes toward language loss based on language.


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


Reading Between the Lines

Ladson-Billings, G. (1992). Reading between the lines and beyond the pages: A culturally relevant approach to literacy teaching. Theory Into Practice. doi:10.1080/00405849209543558

The journal article, Reading Between the Lines and Beyond the Pages: A Culturally Relevant Approach to Literacy teaching by Ladson-Billings (1992) highlights the importance of how teachers frame culturally relevant approaches to literacy teaching. The author effectively describes the need for this study by sharing that the previous research focused primarily on African American teachers servicing African American students. Ladson-Billings (1992) couples this with explaining that there has not been much research on cultural relevance in education with African American students. (p. 313) I was surprised to learn there had not been much research on this topic with African American students and even more surprised to read one of the possible hypotheses. “One hypothesis for this lack of application is the persistent denial of the existence of a distinct African American culture, one that is not merely linked to poverty and the legacy of slavery” (Ladson-Billings, 1992, p. 313).

There were eight teachers involved in the study that took place in North Carolina. The majority of the teachers were of African American descent. The study focused on pedagogical excellence with African American students. The eight teachers were selected because they were deemed exemplary teachers by administrators and parents and because they were especially successful with African American students. Data collection was not a strength of this article. The author collected data through ethnographic interviews, observation and videotaped classroom instruction. The data collection and analysis was rich but it was not detailed enough in the article to duplicate. One of the ways in which data was analyzed was collectively with the teacher participants. Ladson-Billings (1992) described how all of the participants were involved in watching the videotaped lesson segments, discussed their practice and defined dimensions of culturally relevant teaching. As I read this, I was intrigued by the process of having participants reflect, discuss their practice and come to consensus on culturally relevant teaching elements. However, I would have benefited from the author explaining this data collection in more detail. It left me wondering what questions were asked during this collective discussion? What processes and procedures did the author put in place for the participants to respectfully discuss one another’s practice? Finally, what was their collective knowledge level on culturally relevant practice?

Ladson-Billings (1992) is gifted storyteller. In this article, the author delves into two of the eight teachers’ practice. She gives a brief overview of their experience and background and then masterfully describes their teaching practice. A strength of this article is the findings. Ladson-Billings (1992) provides appropriate convincing evidence of elements of culturally relevant teaching practices. She describes one of the findings as teachers’ not “shying” away from issues of race and culture (p. 316) Another finding was that “students are appreciated and celebrated as individuals and as members of a specific culture” (Ladson-Billings, 1992, p. 317). I believe that this is an important element that defines culturally relevant teaching practices. One finding I found interesting was, “although teachers speak and instruct in Standard English, students home language is incorporated into the conversations of the classroom without reprimand and correction”(Ladson-Billings, 1992, p. 317). I believe this would empower students, knowing their teacher accepts and embraces their language. This was illustrated when the researcher provided examples of the teachers using “Black English.”

Collectively the teachers defined three culturally conscious categories that all teachers in the study showed through the interview process or through their videotaped instruction. The three categories Ladson-Billings defines in the article  are culturally relevant conceptions of self and others, culturally relevant conceptions of classroom social relations and culturally relevant conceptions of knowledge.

Ladson-Billings defines culturally relevant conception of self and others as being proud of you you are and what you do.  I connected this concept of self with having high self-efficacy and the belief of knowing what you are doing is making a difference.  The author describes conception of others as “providing support for students to be themselves” (Ladson-Billings, 1992, p. 317). The author defines culturally relevant conceptions of classroom social relations as there is mutual respect between the teacher and student.  She further defines this concept as “the classroom relations are humanely equitable, fostering positive student-to-student and student-to-teacher interactions” (p. 318).  I also noted that she described there is not a power struggle between teachers and students because there is a shared power. The final conception the researcher describes is culturally relevant conceptions of knowledge. Ladson-Billings (1992) defines this concept as being “aware that state and local curriculum mandates may fail to include the experiences of African-American students and, consequently fail to engage the students in meaningful learning, they purposely design curriculum that makes their students (and their heritage) the focus of curriculum inquiry” (p. 318)

As I read the three culturally conscious categories along with the elements that define culturally relevant teaching practices outlined in the article, my initial thought was these are best practices that all teachers should be incorporating in their practice.  I am looking forward to reading more work by Ladson-Billings especially her article entitled, But That’s Just Good Teaching! The Case for Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.


Ladson-billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching: The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory into Practice, 34(3), 159-165.

Generational Language Gaps

In the article The Editor’s Introduction of Indigenous Epistemologies and Education – Self-Determination, Anthropology and Human Rights McCarthy (2005) opens the hearts and minds of readers by asking three questions that focus on indigenous epistemologies, anthropology and human rights. Although all three questions the editor opened up the article with are engaging, the one that resonated with me was the first question, “What does self-determination mean for the world’s 300 million Indigenous peoples?” (McCarthy, 2005). The editors collaborated with other scholars to dig deeper into these questions throughout the article.

The editors assert, “Indigenous languages (like minority languages) are increasingly threatened by the forces of globalization-culture, economic, and political forces that work to standardize and homogenize, even as the stratify and marginalize (McCarthy, 2005, p. 2). I felt a deep connection to this part of the article. Both my parents grew up speaking only Spanish in their homes and in their communities. However, when they started elementary school Spanish was not an accepted form of communication. My mom tells the story of how she ran home during recess on the first day of school because they told her, “No Spanish, English only.” She was frightened and knew her language and culture was not embraced in her new school community.

The editors remind us how many languages are spoken only by paternal and grandparental generations. This is true of my family. After my parents experienced difficulties in school due to being second language learners, they chose not to teach my brother and I Spanish. The language stopped in my generation because they saw it as a deficit. The article illustrates how language identifies people, “who we are, where we came from, and where we are going; our family, territory and culture” (McCarthy, 2005, p. 2). Because the language stopped in my generation, I felt a disconnect with my grandparents and parents in relation to who we are, where we came from and where we are going because we did not speak the same language. As a child, I remember sitting with cousins at family gatherings listening to the adults speak in Spanish and tell stories of their childhood, which brought laughter and tears. I remember one time asking for them to tell me the story in English and they did. However, I didn’t find it funny, they said that it wasn’t the same in English because they couldn’t find the right “English words” to appropriately and fully share the story. McCarthy (2005) explains that shifting toward English represents shifting away from Indigenous (p. 3).

In the article, McCarthy (2005) describes four different attempts to incorporate linguistic and cultural content into elementary and high schools. One scholar discusses the importance of both curricular and structural changes in education. Scholar, Mary Hermes, advocates for “cultural incorporation through immersion teaching in the Native language to both strengthen endangered languages and propel the culture-based curriculum movement far beyond superficially adding fragmented pieces of cultural knowledge onto the existing structure” (McCarthy, 2005, p.3). I believe researching the impact of self-determination is worthwhile and positively contributes to the field of education.


McCarthy, T. L. (2005). Indigenous epistemologies and education–self-determination, anthropology, and human rights. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, (36)1, 1-7.


Languages Need to Live

Reading Indigenous Epistemologies and Education—Self-Determination, Anthropology, and Human Rights (McCarthy, 2005) struck a very personal cord with me.  The article explains that the groups of people who are identified as being Indigenous live on nineteen percent of the world’s land but populate only four percent of the world.  In contrast to their small demographic population, they speak 4000-5000 of the 6000 languages worldwide.  Of the 210 languages in the area that is now the Unites States and Canada, only sixteen percent are currently being learned by children through their families and communities as they grow up.  If languages are not being learned by children, they will eventually cease to exist.  Not only does the language itself die, but along with it goes other cultural connections.


The concern addressed in the article is the loss of many of those languages and what the school systems can do to try and help change that situation.  This article is an introduction to four examples of K-12 schools that try and incorporate Indigenous languages and cultures into their systems in the hopes of saving them.  When providing the example about inclusion of Native Hawaiian into Hawaiian elementary schools, it discussed the importance of doing more than just teach the language—inclusion of the culture must accompany it.  That same lesson was learned for the schools that tried to implement the learning of Ojibwe as an “add-on” course.


One successful example of a language reintroduction has been the language immersion program done in New Zealand with the Maori language.  In addition to learning the language, the program has also helped to support a rise in self-determination to a limited extent.  Another positive example is a program connected to a large university (Michigan State University) that has had encouraging effects in revitalizing the Ojibwe language by creating a plan that worked to do more than just implement language learning.


My interest in this week’s article stems from my personal experience with a dying language: Yiddish.  I realize that the culture connected to it as a whole, Judaism, is still very much thriving.  That said, I am also very aware that when a language dies there are components and nuances that cannot be recovered.  I have also personally witnessed a small portion of that language die.  As a child, Yiddish was something that my grandmother spoke to my great-grandfather sporadically.  It was also, and still is, the handful of words that some Jewish people, including myself, use to communicate with each other when English words just “aren’t quite right.”  They are also words that have become part of the larger American Jewish culture which still remains intact.


What changed dramatically for me regarding my attitude towards Yiddish was when I met my husband.  Yiddish was his first language.  For his parents, who were born in Europe in the years preceding World War II and moved here (and met here) after the war, Yiddish was their primary language.  It was the way that Jewish people communicated with each other in Europe.  Regardless of what country someone lived in or what other language they spoke, Jews could communicate with each other through Yiddish.  After his parents immigrated to the United States, met and married, Yiddish remained the language of their home.  Although his parents learned English fluently, when they had children they still spoke Yiddish.  When I met my in-laws, I became immersed in Yiddish.  Although they were happy to speak English around me, I was eager to listen them speak their primary tongue.  I had hoped to pick up as much as I could.  Now, one generation later, my in-laws have both passed away, my husband has nobody to speak the language to, and my children only know the handful of “cultural” words that I know.  Yiddish wasn’t spoken in our home.  In my little part of the world, in one quick generation, I witnessed the language and the parts of the culture that accompany it go from complete to gone.


For Indigenous cultures, the ramifications of lost languages is far more significant than the loss of Yiddish.  The rest of my culture is still intact and Hebrew has now become a daily spoken language where it didn’t used to be.  Although the culture that goes with Yiddish is different, the remainder of the community and many other parts of it are still intact.  That is not the case for all of the Indigenous communities.  The impact of the loss of those languages has had a voluminous loss of access to many things.  For example, many of their stories were often oral so without the language, an even larger part of their culture died.  Work needs to be done to bring as much of those languages back but in ways that manages to help support and encourage the cultures to become stronger and reach independence and excellence and not ways that, inadvertently, impose the same type of oppression on them that has been in place for the past several centuries.   Ethnographers are in the perfect position to monitor the various programs as Indigenous languages are being revived to ensure that they are helping empower the communities they are setting out to support.  They are in the perfect position to be truly be able to assess the inner dynamics of the groups (Paris & Winn, 2014).  With that support, hopefully the languages that are currently alive, and those that are attempting to be reintroduced will be able to thrive from this point on.






McCarthy, T. L. (2005). Indigenous epistemologies and education–self-determination, anthropology, and human rights. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, (36)1, 1-7.


Paris, D. & Winn, M. T. (2014).  Humanizing research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities. Los Angles: Sage.


The Future of Arizona is in Our Hands…and Theirs

“As nonindigenous scholars seeking a dialogue with indigenous scholars, we (Denzin and Lincoln) must construct stories that are embedded in the landscapes through which we travel” (Denzin, Lincoln, & Smith, p.6).

Highlighted in “Unveiling the Promise of Community Cultural Wealth to Sustaining Latina/o Students’ College-Going Information Networks” (Liou, Antrop-Gonazalez, & Cooper, 2009), is the importance of the critical relationships that exists between marginalized students (i.e., minority students) and those that support and guide them (i.e., teachers, guidance counselors, advisors, parents, religious leaders, peers, etc.). In the article, the authors correlate those relationships to the academic success of students. In order for that relationship to impact student success, “these relationships are predicated on teachers who are not only passionate about their content areas, but who are also passionate about their students and continuously strive to know their students, their families, and their communities well” (p. 542).

As noted, teachers are an important part of young people’s lives. However, not all critical relationships come from within the school system. Some of the most critical and enduring relationships are formed outside of school, through peer-to-peer groups, church groups, and family members. Through these relationships, students increase their likelihood of being successful. In one particular case, the authors noted that students often achieved success in their academics as a direct result of specific connections that they had developed to a religious organization and/or other extra-curricular activities. Students who participated in the study spoke to the benefit of participating in activities outside of the classroom “which steered them away from antischool, oppositional youth culture like gang membership and truancy” (p. 542).

According to the US Census Bureau (2012), Hispanic or Latinos comprise 30.2% of the Arizona state population, which is nearly double the percentage for the Hispanic or Latino population in the United States (US Census Bureau, 2012). As such, Arizona will continue to be challenged in meeting the needs of all students, but in particularly, in preparing students to meet the demands of the future. In order to most effectively do this, we must leverage our most valuable resource and commodity, which are the people who live in Arizona. Future preparation begins by preparing the younger generation of today. As minority populations quickly become the majority, it will be even more important in breaking down the barriers that prevent minorities from accessing higher education.

I have seen first-hand the impact that a caring teacher can have on a student’s ability to be successful. That success not only translates to the ability to progress in their educational pursuits, but also transcends education, and helps position them for success in life. Helping students build personal self-esteem, have confidence in their ability, and take pride in their culture, language and heritage, are all critical elements to success. The more we empower students by giving access to information and resources, the more we create a foundation upon which their success will be built.

As an action researcher, being aware of my own biases and limitations when conducting research, particularly as it relates to marginalized, indigenous, minority individuals and groups, will be critical to my ability to represent the story accurately.

While the quote at the beginning noted specifically the role of the authors, I would argue that we (as researchers, practitioners, and members of society) each insert ourselves in the construction of those stories embedded in our own journey.


Denzin, N.K., Lincoln, Y.S., & Smith, L.T. (2008). Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.

Liou, D.D., Antrop-Gonzalez, R., & Cooper, R. (2009). Unveiling the Promise of Community Cultural Wealth to Sustaining Latina/o Students’ College-Going Information Networks. Educational Studies, 45, 534-555.

US Census Bureau (2012) Arizona Quick Facts. Retrieved June 6, 2014 from

It’s like learning a whole new language.

It’s only when we have really mastered something that we can make it more accessible to others.

A big part of my job as a school psychologist is to explain test results to parents. It’s really important to me that they understand my results – how the information fits with what they already know about their child and how we can use the information to make school better for them.

And every time I get an intern, their first report looks something like this, “The Fluid-Crystallized Index (FCI), measures general intellectual ability, including both fluid and crystallized intelligence.  The FCI is obtained by combining the Sequential Index, the Simultaneous Index, the Learning Index, the Planning Index, and the Knowledge Index, and is considered the best measure of cognitive ability……

WHAT??? What does that even mean???

WHAT??? What does that even mean???

I know why this happens: at the beginning of the year interns don’t really understand what they’re saying, so they parrot what the professor or test-maker says. But by the end of the year, it starts to make more sense. They are able to make connections between the theory they’ve been taught and the real-life child sitting in front of them, and so they are able to use words that normal people actually understand.

It’s only when we have really mastered something that we can make it more accessible to others.

The articles and journals and book chapters I read last week knocked me on my butt. For one reading, I was on google every three minutes looking up words and phrases that I had never heard. Or I’d heard the words, but never together in that phrase. Or I’ve heard the phrase a hundred times and have always gotten by on just having a general understanding of it – but now I need to really grasp it to deepen my understanding of other concepts. Literally, I am not exaggerating – every three minutes.

It sucked.

I read several chapters from the Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies (Denzin, Lincoln & Smith, 2010), which explores ideas such as localized critical indigenous theory and critical indigenous pedagogy. (Click on the links. You’ll enjoy it.) Essentially, they make the case that non-indigenous peoples (i.e. white/Eurocentric scientists) should not be the ones researching indigenous peoples (people groups native to a land, such as Native Americans in the Americas or the Māori people in New Zealand). To explain, I will use the word “We” in place of “non-indigenous peoples”, because of all the people groups described in the book, that is the one with which I most closely identify.

When We go into a place to do research, complete anthropological studies, or collect information to better understand a people group, We are really imposing Our own thoughts and ideas on Their culture. They already understand Their culture, but We don’t accept that. We want to find things for Ourselves, and then let The Rest of the World know what We learned. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, a professor of indigenous education at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand, is the leading expert in this field. She purports that They should be allowed to do Their own research within Their cultural norms and bounds, and the research should not necessarily satisfy the rules Our scientific method has put in place.

Smith and other experts in this field suggest several structures that would identify cultural and critical pedagogy, which they explain in the book. But I found a buried line from the critics that spoke to my soul, “Working class educators criticized the theory because they felt its language was elitist and created a new form of oppression.” (Denzin & Lincoln, 2010)


This is my frustration with peer-reviewed research and generally with people in graduate school (especially those in doctoral programs). We can be annoying when we talk to non-doctoral people. We are just starting to learn about these amazing new theories and ideas that are blowing our minds. We want to share them with the world, but we don’t actually understand them yet, not in a way that we can internalize what they mean and explain them in a way that general society can understand. So we parrot what the professor says, or what we read in books, or what that really cool blog said. We may sound smart to some people, but in real life most are just tuning us out.

I have condescendingly called it “Drinking the Doctoral Kool-Aid,” and I have vowed not to do it.

But now I question my resolve. Language is truly acquired when we use it with understanding. I would never expect a child to wait until they could speak in full, understandable sentences before they talked to other people. And I would never expect someone practicing a second language to wait until they had fully mastered it before trying it out. In fact, it would be just the opposite – I applaud and praise their attempts, even when incorrect or incomplete. The only way they will learn and truly internalize this new language is by using it. Perhaps the same is true of doctoral students. We’re learning a new language, and we need to practice it. I give grace to my interns practicing their new language… perhaps I need to offer myself the same grace.

But I do still think that – at the end of the day, after we have mastered the concepts and the new language – we need to take it back down a notch. Research and innovations don’t create Access or Equity if they require rapid-fire google skills.


Denzin, N. K.,  Lincoln, Y. S., & Smith, L.T. (2010). Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies.  Los Angeles: Sage.

Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (2010). Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies. In N. K. Denzin, Y. S. Lincoln, & L. T. Smith (Eds.), Critical Methodologies and Indigenous Inquiry (2nd ed., pp. 1–20). Los Angeles: Sage.

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.

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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.

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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.