Framing of Pláticas, Reflections and Cuentos
By Miguel A. Guajardo, Monica Valadez, Leticia Grimaldo, Genise Henry, and Karon Henderson
In this chapter we present cuentos birthed during ongoing pláticas we have sustained over twelve years. These cuentos are informed by the multiple spaces we have occupied with loved ones who have informed our identities and fueled a commitment to resistance. These spaces and relationships have also taught us the art of resiliency. Not a resiliency that is informed by the traditionally value of whiteness (i.e. grit and bootstrap mentality), but a resiliency that has taught us how to change, survive, and sustain our presence as we learn to change with the ever-shifting terrain we stand on. Mainly among these skills, we develop the ability to sustain both micro and macro-aggressions, which we face in traditional classrooms intended to be about higher learning. We faced these moments as students and faculty and from students and faculty. This awareness has been informed by a strong pedagogy of faith, hope, and relationship(s); at the core of these relationships is the understanding that we are interdependent and that our personal success is intricately connected to each other. The cuentos below are grounded with the concept of resistance and resiliency in the process of becoming fuller human beings.
Llegué a Texas State in 2004 after teaching in South Texas at University of Texas-Pan American for two years and after attending the University of Texas-Austin as a student, employee, community activist, and a WK Kellogg Foundation’s International Fellow. During this time, my community partners and I gave birth to the Llano Grande Center for Research and Development in South Texas, which became a beacon of academic work, creative pedagogical space, and a place where we grew healthy children and strong citizens by learning about our elders’ stories and their contributions to changing the world around them. The idea of uniting the power of place and the wisdom of people was born here and then informed the work of a national network, Community Learning Exchange (Guajardo, Guajardo, Jason & Militello, 2016). The clear message in this work is that place matters, good work is socially constructed, and relationships are critically important for successful change to take place. Thus, at the center of this work are the values of relationships that are built on trust, respect, dignity, shared-power, and being present.
During my job interview in San Marcos, I remember a question my Department Chair asked me: “Can you do in San Marcos what you have done in South Texas?” Being the political-animal, I am, my response was simple, a grin, a phew sound and “of course!” I had a number of critiques of his questions, but these were for other times... at the moment, I needed to be clear in my commitment, and I was. A second question that has informed my time at Texas State was during my interview by the hiring committee. One of the interviewers asked the question: “What do you want to accomplish while you are at Texas State?” my response was short and simple, "I want to change the world!" My soon to be colleagues were puzzled by my response, but then I shared a story about an incident that had just occurred at my children's elementary school. I gave an example of how a sequence of events at a parent-teacher(s) and school leaders’ conference allowed me to display my principles, values, and commitment to pushing boundaries, building community, and acting for the public good, while changing the world for about eight people who participated. My colleagues’ concerns about me being a Don Quixote type of character were tempered, but they still didn't quite understand what to make about my arrogant response. In my brand of dynamic-critical pedagogy, the act of changing the world begins with inviting people to imagine and live their dreams.
The cuentos that follow are written by myself, a faculty member in the Education and Community Leadership Program and School Improvement (SI) PhD program in the College of Education and four learning partners who all obtained a PhD from our program. Monica Valadez is a first-generation college graduate; she grew up in an immigrant family who raised their eight children in a predominantly Anglo Community in Central Texas. Leticia Grimaldo grew up in a Mexican neighborhood in a segregated West Texas Community. Leticia obtained a PhD from the SI program in 2010. Genise is a African American educator who came to Texas State as a student who formed her academic identity by studying in a Historically Black College in Central Texas, and Karon Henderson came to the program as a white woman whose teaching practices were about keeping things safe and the status quo was her mode of operation. All five of us shared a common space, place, and time within the School Improvement program and the stories below capture snapshots of how our worlds have changed during this process of engagement in a PhD program.
The stories in this chapter are captured by sharing, pláticas, cuentos, visuals and reflections of the work we have done together. Over the last twelve years, we have strived to belong in a Whitestream Institution (Urrieta, 2009) as we work to own the community we've nurtured at Texas State. Our work to naming and celebrating the relationships and knowledge we've created in our own learning community has given each one of us hope and the strong relationships to complete monumental work in our own personal and family journeys.
It was always more than a sense of solidarity that moved us to seek out and create spaces in which we could be disturbed enough to consider that maybe our stories had a place within higher education. And yet I would estimate that many of us were not searching for another diploma, certification, or title, but rather to understand why students and families continued to struggle so gravely within our public schools. Some of us came in with both unrecognized or downplayed strengths, but also a woundedness that we would not understand until much later, which could be harnessed as a source of hope and inspiration. I was very familiar with schooling and did schooling very well, but the spaces into which we were invited to engage and eventually ourselves create, challenged us to reconsider what we understood to be the purpose of education.
There was an earnestness and oftentimes a rawness to the vulnerability manifested with highly dialogical spaces. I remember one of the first circles I participated in while a graduate research assistant for Miguel. It was a national Community Learning Exchange hosted by the Laguna Department of Education in New Mexico. That was almost ten years ago, but to this day I reference it when I speak to the power of this method as I invite students, parents, staff, and community to discuss deep and significant issues. I joined that circle not through a willingness, but because of the trust I had for the person who invited me. And so it is with our community; trust begets vulnerability and through it a greater dive into spaces that express stories of wisdom, hope, sorrow, joy, and fear. The circle would eventually become a significant tool within the PhD classroom and subsequently our writing circle. Through it we promoted a collective spirit to the dissertation process. Though we each had a responsibility to our own research, we also believed that each other’s work would influence students, families, and communities somewhere, and regardless of location, we were committed to them as well. We learned from one another and reclaimed a truer sense of accountability and assessment. We held our work to the highest standards because we grew to understand our mutual commitment to doing the public good.
While developing the conceptual framework for my dissertation, I experienced great frustration making sense of how it interconnected and if it would speak to what I was investigating. I clearly recall the moment Miguel, having knowledge of my artistic capacity, invited me to make sense of it through art. Line and color helped liberate me to put word to thought. I continue to express sensemaking through art and created the image below, which was influenced by our collaboration and continued dialogue in this process. It depicts the strength of the learner as we provide the rich, dynamic, and trusting spaces through which s/he is valued and invited to think creatively about hope, possibilities, and our commitment to a greater purpose.
As I sit and reflect on my journey, it is hard for me to believe the personal transformation that I have made throughout my educational journey. Born and raised in a small West Texas town, entrenched in racism and low expectations for students of color, I grew up always second guessing myself and never quite feeling good enough. The deficit thinking endured in my developmental years left an imprint on my identity that I have struggled to overcome. While I have had critical champions along the way that have fostered my educational growth, I always felt lonely in academia. As I first began to work on a Ph.D. in School Improvement, my charge was clear. I wanted to make a difference in the inequities that were taking place in our schools. The tension started when I could never quite see myself or my journey in the classes that I took, and there seemed to be a disconnect with what was being discussed and what was taking place in our schools. After my first semester, I set up an appointment to speak to the director of the program and he mentioned a new junior faculty had just been hired that he felt would be a good fit to serve as my mentor. This is when my world began to open and my own transformation unfolded. Dr. Miguel Guajardo started mentoring me and allowing me to take independent studies with him. As we began to talk about the works of other Latino scholars, I was filled with hope. I began to understand that the struggles that I had experienced were not mine alone. It was comforting; it was a pivotal moment in time for me and I was able to exhale.
As time passed, our morning coffee platicas (Guajardo, 2013) evolved and Dr. Guajardo invited Monica Valadez and Genise Henry to join. This space was one of trust, dignity and openness. We were able to put our vulnerabilities on the table and support each other throughout the process. We grew stronger as writers, as scholars, and as beings.
I sit here now empowered. It has been eight years since I completed my Phd., but these relationships continue. As a mother, as a researcher who works with teachers in schools and as an adjunct professor, I am constantly striving to model the dialogical process in order to foster growth, support and instill a belief that all things are possible. Si se puede.
When I reflect on my life in schools and as a citizen of this ever-changing world, I categorize my experiences into two life chapters; Old School Karon and New School Karon. Old School Karon was not only afraid to challenge the status quo but was also oblivious to possible inequities that existed in education. New School Karon reflects critically and understands that every educative act in schools has social and political implications that may further marginalize students of color and those living below the poverty line. The transformation from Old School Karon to New School Karon may not have occurred had it not been for the opportunity to be a member of the 2008 Ph. D. in School Improvement Cohort.
In 2008, I was invited to participate as a member of the PhD in School Improvement Cohort at Texas State University. From the first day of the program, it was clear that the philosophy of this graduate program hinged on the idea of developing a diverse academic community. Our original membership included 22 students of various races, ethnicities, gender identities, and socio-economic backgrounds. Additionally, half of the group represented the School Improvement cohort and half of the group represented the Adult, Professional, and Community Education cohort providing a platform to examine issues throughout the educational pipeline from the cradle to the workforce. The first year in the program, the courses were co-taught by professors representing each group. My educational experience as a member of this group was enhanced as I gained insight and perspective through the diversity of experiences of my fellow cohort mates.
It was not until the second year in the program when we broke off into the School Improvement Cohort and the Adult, Professional, and Community Education Cohort that I began to feel a bit of disequilibrium. We were now an intimate group of eleven members and many of our classes began with Circle where we arranged our chairs in a circle and we would take turns facilitating the Circle in conversation, giving each Circle member an opportunity for their voice to be heard (Guajardo, Guajardo, Janson, & Militello, 2016). The prompts were generally open-ended and designed to stimulate deep reflection about a critical issue in education. I will never forget our first Circle. The prompt was, “What is your story?” I recall thinking that I didn’t have a story but as I heard the others in my group tell their stories of school and ways that they felt marginalized by the systems, policies, and practices of schools, I realized that my story could possibly have been the one that perpetuated a system based on dominant race ideologies. I left class that night with my mind racing. How could I have better served my students and families of color? Why did I not challenge initiatives in schools that may have further marginalized students and families? The familiar was now strange (Spindler & Spindler, 1988) for me and the comfortable space I had occupied my whole life was disrupted that night as I listened to my cohort-mates open themselves up into the Gracious Space (Hughes, 2008) of the Circle.
As time passed, our cohort developed a strong bond based on trust. Because we were in critical conversation about issues that at times were emotionally charged, we had to practice empathy and take care of one another. Through this culture and ethic of care (Noddings, 2016) we were able to tackle and grapple with social inequities in schools including issues of race, class, and gender. Additionally, we had time and space to grow ourselves as leaders by challenging old paradigms and to re-imagine schools that need the assets of the community to fully educate our youth. As a cohort, we were in collective pursuit of knowledge and growth.
I often wonder about the educator and human I might be today had I not had the opportunity to be a part of the diverse Ph.D. cohort. Would I challenge the status quo or would I remain in the Old School Karon chapter of my life forever? My experience as a member of the Ph.D. in School Improvement cohort allowed me to revise my life story. I was able to be in fellowship with others who listened to me as I identified my own white privilege and ways I had underserved my students and families. And they were there, listening and not judging. Facing and addressing my biases and assumptions was hard work but I was not alone in this journey. In this chapter of my life, New School Karon will not be afraid to question systems and processes that may work to further marginalize our culturally and linguistically diverse students, students of color, and students who live below the poverty line. Above all, I will listen and honor the stories of my students, parents, teachers, colleagues, and community members. It is through the stories that we will connect as humans because there is great strength when people feel seen, heard, and valued as an individual.
“As we work together to restore hope to the future, we need to include a new and strange ally – our willingness to be disturbed” (Wheatley 38).
Influenced by deeply thoughtful and determined African American women during my undergraduate program at a historically black college, I was primed and willing to challenge my prowess as a student when I matriculated into a graduate program because I had experienced what it was like to be disturbed. Attending a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) changed my thoughts about schooling and what it meant to be educated. This education was beyond the low-expectations that I encountered during K-12 as one of few African American students. The HBCU experience empowered me and served as bridge of hope for what I could accomplish in my future, which eventually led me to obtain both a Master’s degree and a PhD from Texas State University. However, the journey through each program was vastly different. The Master’s program was primarily an individual journey that reminded me of the K-12 experience, covertly competing with classmates through superficial conversations and contrived collegiality.
Entering the doctoral program was a new landscape. It started with an invitation and a story. Leticia Grimaldo invited me to a gathering where professors and students were sharing their experiences and stories about being in a doctoral program at Texas State University. Due to my experiences in the Master’s program at Texas State, I was skeptical. However, she introduced me to professors who spoke sincerely about their desire to help change the educational landscape for students of color. It seemed unreal to me that university professors would be having an open dialogue about diversity and inclusion and inviting others to the table for this conversation. After all, this was not my HBCU. I listened intently, but a part of me was focused on trying to figure out what the catch could be. I thought, surely there is something in it for these professors. I listened and waited, but there seemed to be no catch. There was just an invitation to learn more, share my own story, and hear the stories of others. I thought, had the “willingness to be disturbed” returned?
As time went by, I learned more about how the doctoral program intentionally aimed to be different. Leticia invited me to a writing group comprised of racially diverse scholars led by her dissertation chair, Miguel Guajardo. It was evident to me that Dr. Guajardo recognized that a program diversifying its enrollment needed a system of support for all students who wanted to grow beyond what traditional schooling offered. I credit the support from this group and the commitment of Dr. Guajardo for my completion of the doctoral program. Through the writing group, I met Monica Valadez, an encourager who conferred value in my desire to invite and embrace my spirituality as a part of the journey. She connected me with Karon Henderson, with whom I was able to witness personal reflection and stretching from a different point of view. We all became a support for one another, helping each other along the educational journey and forming a kinship. This group was a source of strength and endurance for me. It was like no other group that I had ever been a part of in an educational setting. This was a community of learners willing to be vulnerable with one another and willing to put in the work that was needed to grow. Being in connection with this group and others became the key that I needed to allow myself to be open and willing to be constantly disturbed in order to grow as a fuller human being.
Experiencing resistance that is at once actively and painfully present within heart, body, mind, and spirit is a powerful space in which imagination and insight flourish. The greatest challenge is in the evolution of understanding as to how to foster spaces for the exploration of this resistance so that it provokes and prompts it to bear good fruit. This space invites us to manifest strength through vulnerability and the intimacy and symbiotic nature of the learning relationship. It calls us as teachers and leaders to be mindful of tendencies toward desiring only that which would reflect our way of knowing and being back to us as the measure of learning. As learners it calls us to spaces of divergent perspectives and purposeful invitation to and engagement with others. We experience our world in beautifully unique ways that are rarely explored within standardized systems. We have been influenced by the ontologies of home and family, childhood learning spaces, and ancestral ways of knowing, among so many others. Each context with deep experiences all too often relegated to spaces and things of memory and surely not content for higher education. But the exploration of the significance of ontology as theory is only as fruitful as it allows for the praxis of this exploration, beginning with self. Through praxis is where we discover, uncover, and recover our own uniqueness as learners along life’s path. Here is where we release imagination and possibility to influence and impact our worlds, whether within personal, societal, or global spheres. Here is where institutions become learning organizations.
Future Cuentos, Platicas y Curiosidades
We propose these cuentos as starting points for a series of platica that will follow. Our next dive into this platica will be to explore our own agency and role within our resistance, resiliency within the process of becoming doctors of philosophy, citizens and fuller human beings with our changing institution and evolving work. We also invite the readers to explore the following question: What’s your story?
About the Authors
Miguel A. Guajardo
Miguel A. Guajardo is a Professor in the Education and Community Leadership Program and a member of the doctoral faculty in School Improvement at Texas State University. His research interests include issues of community building, community youth development, leadership development, race and ethnicity, university and community partnerships, and Latino youth and families. He was a Fellow with the Kellogg International Leadership Program and the Salzburg Seminar. A sample of this work is highlighted in the 2016 book he published with a team of colleagues: Reframing Community Partnerships in Education: Uniting the Power of Place and Wisdom of People.
Leticia Romero Grimaldo
Leticia Romero Grimaldo, Ph.D. currently serves as the co-principal investigator for the English Language Institute for Teaching and Learning (Project ELITE2) at The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at the University of Texas at Austin. The project, funded by the Office of Special Education Programs, is designed to develop, implement and evaluate tiered intervention models for students who are English Learners (ELs). She is also an adjunct professor for Texas State University–San Marcos, where she teaches in the Education and Community Leadership Program.
Karon Henderson is a language acquisition specialist and instructional coach in Round Rock, Texas. Previous to this position, she worked as a Bilingual/ESL Director, Coordinator, and ESL teacher. Additionally, Dr. Henderson also serves as an adjunct lecturer in the Educational Leadership Master’s Program at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.
Genise Henry, PhD, serves as the director of Academic Foundations for the Institute for Public School Initiatives (IPSI) at UT Austin. She has an extensive background in education spanning Pre-K–20 in urban and rural settings, offering expertise in instructional leadership and coaching, professional development, program evaluation, research, and supporting diverse student populations. She earned both a PhD in Education: School Improvement and master’s degree in education from Texas State University and a bachelor’s degree in English from Huston Tillotson University.
Monica Valadez is Community and Attendance Liaison for San Marcos CISD. She graduated from Texas State University in 2012 with a doctoral degree in School Improvement. As Community and Attendance Liaison, she explores ways to promote a shift in thinking around school non-attendance as only the surface-level symptom of critical factors that both push out and pull out students from school. Moreover, her work focuses on identifying and promoting leadership that is place based and that considers education as imperative for the development of a more just society.