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Collaborating with Mexico’s Indigenous Educators to Develop Teaching Practices that Honor Local Community Language, Culture, and Identity

Teachers huddle around a table looking at work.
Teachers analyze student writing in Amuzgo and Spanish

One of the most rewarding research projects that I have been involved in is current work with indigenous educators in Mexico on implementation of a dual immersion program designed to maintain their heritage language and culture. My interest is in understanding how the linguistic and cultural rights of a non-dominant group are understood and enacted in a school system that has traditionally functioned to marginalize indigenous students and communities. More importantly, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with local educators in the construction of alternative instructional practices that favor students’ academic, social, and language development.

In the town of Xochistlahuaca in Guerrero, Mexico, indigenous teachers were dissatisfied with the system of bilingual education that left students with underdeveloped literacy skills in both their native language (Amuzgo) as well as the national language (Spanish). Educators, parents, and community members were concerned that children were choosing not to speak Amuzgo or to maintain cultural traditions and knowledge. They sought support for development of a program that would be more responsive to the needs of the community and more effective in preparing their children to be critical and responsible members of society. A former student of mine and then doctoral student at the Universidad Iberoamericana began work with local teachers that grew into an on-going project involving 22 elementary schools and over 170 teachers in the region.

My participation has included an action research project with teachers in which we designed a rubric to document students’ writing progress in Spanish and Amuzgo. School principals then carried out the work of examining student writing samples with their staffs, and together analyzed needs and planned for instruction. Through collecting data three times a year over a three-year period, the teachers were able to compare progress over time and to communicate children’s achievement gains to parents.

A teacher and a student present work to a classroom.
Primary Language Instruction in Amuzgo

I also carried out a research study to learn from teachers how they integrated cultural knowledge and experiences into their curriculum and instruction, and the outcomes that they observed with students and families when they did so. Teachers described how they and their students now work with elders in the community to create community maps, to learn about the plants in their local ecosystem and their traditional uses, and to learn traditional forms of measurement and counting. Their intent is not to return to an imagined past, but rather to move forward rooted in a strong foundation of community language, culture, and identity. One teacher described the effects of participation in the dual immersion program for her personally: “I remember when I arrived at this school. At my other school I probably didn’t participate, didn’t express opinions. But now I do express my opinions and I discover that I know a lot.”

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