Female Immigrant Students’ Sensemaking in Toronto Public Schools

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 7, Special Issue                          IJSV                           May 2020

Female Immigrant Students’ Sensemaking in Toronto Public Schools

Norin Taj – Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto

Citation: Taj, N. (2020). Female immigrant students’ sensemaking in Toronto Public Schools. International Journal of Student Voice, 7.

Abstract: This study explores the experiences of immigrant students from Pakistan by focusing on the micro-level adjustments that students make while interacting with their peers and teachers in Toronto Public Schools. The theoretical framework is grounded in Weber’s concept of bureaucracy and the concepts of street-level bureaucrats, deference and demeanor, and sensemaking. By centering the experiences of five female students, this article discusses the concept of authority in education and its manifestation through school’s policies and practices. Pakistani society legitimizes teachers’ traditional authority while in Canadian classrooms teachers exercise rational-legal authority. The study highlights that although homes and schools are supportive, these female immigrant students struggle with certain issues during the process of adjusting to their new classrooms—when making new friendships, for instance. These female immigrant students also face different expectations of parents in Pakistani homes than their male siblings do. Findings of the study indicate that, while learning the progressive styles of interactions in Canadian classrooms, the immigrant students go through a four-stage sensemaking process: Assuring, Struggling, Harnessing, and Reassuring. The role and support of parents, teachers, and peers are significant in this process. This empirical study provides a foundation for future research on female learners who experience traditionalist pedagogiesand highlights the importance of including their voice in education policy and practice.

Keywords: Sensemaking, traditional/progressive pedagogies, street-level bureaucrats, deference and demeanor


In Canada, most inner-city schools welcome immigrant students. In 2001, about 1.8 million people living in Canada were immigrants who had arrived during the previous 10 years; of these individuals, almost 310,000 (17%) were schoolchildren between the ages of 5 and 16 (Statistics Canada, 2008). In 2011-2012 the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), the largest school board in Canada, served over 256,000 students in nearly 600 schools (Yau et al., 2013). Roughly a quarter of TDSB students immigrated to Canada from over 190 countries, with the top five countries of students’ birth (other than Canada) being China (4%), India (2%), Pakistan (2%), the United States (2%), and Bangladesh (1%). English is the sole first language for less than half (44%) of TDSB students. More than 115 languages are spoken by TDSB students, and the five most common non-English languages are Chinese (11%), Tamil (6%), Urdu (5%), Bengali (3%), and Gujarati (2%) (Yau et al., 2013).

Integrating immigrant students to their new classrooms not only requires schools to facilitate equal opportunities for students. It also requires students to understand and adjust to new environments. Failure by either the school or the student diminishes the student’s entire learning experience and the purpose of schooling. Studies on Canadian immigrant students mostly discuss their academic issues (Areepattamannil & Freeman, 2008; Klassen, 2004; Lee & Hébert, 2006), their adjustments and sense of belonging (Asanova, 2005; Chow, 2007; Cooper & Cooper, 2008; Desai & Subramanian, 2000; Emme et al., 2006; Li, 2010; Xu et al., 2007), or parental engagement (Ladky & Peterson, 2008; Yoo & Miller, 2011).

This study explores the micro-level experiences of immigrant students from Pakistan, specifically female students, by focusing on the adjustments that they make on a day-to-day basis while interacting with their peers and teachers in Toronto public schools. My focus is not on students’ outcomes. Rather, it is on the struggles these students go through in making sense of their new classrooms and schools—something that is not visible in examinations of their progress reports and grades. The literature discusses the concept of authority in education at macro and at micro levels, which informs the day-to-day schooling experiences of immigrant students. Through this study, I have identified a four-stage sensemaking process through which these students go during their adjustment to new school environments.

Literature Review  

Concepts of Authority in Canadian and Pakistani Education

The belief of 19th-century Christian theologians that children needed constant discipline propagated educators’ impression of authority and punishment (Axelrod, 1997). European settlers brought these values with them to Canada, and thus students’ “punctuality, compliance to authority, evening curfews, regular church attendance, and gender segregation” became obligatory (Axelrod, 1997, p. 47). Schooling was an important part of child rearing, and the Department of Education Act of 1891 assigned in loco parentis authority to teachers, meaning that they could stand in place of the parent (Axelrod, 2011). However, the emergence of a free modern society challenged the traditional authority of the church (Furedi, 2009) and also changed the role and authority of teachers in their classrooms. The new progressivist orientation emphasized active learning and allowed some degree of self-direction to the learners (Christou, 2012). In Canadian classrooms today, teachers employ progressive pedagogies and exercise their legal-rational authority without applying coercive disciplinary tactics (Davies & Guppy, 2010).

In contrast, in most of the classrooms in Pakistan, students sit in rows facing their teachers, and those teachers control all activities in the classroom, including knowledge delivery. Students follow firm rules and regulations, and the concept of respect, blended with restrictions, shapes their experience of schooling. The traditionalist pedagogies that are practiced by Pakistani teachers focus on structures and ordered systems, and parents reinforce the authority of teachers since the Muslim tradition instructs that teaching is a noble profession. Indeed, in Pakistani society teachers are regarded as “spiritual fathers” (Bashiruddin, 2018).

The concepts of disciplining children and respecting elders are basic ingredients of the Pakistani culture and are reflected in schooling. Parents aspire for their children to achieve in school, and they also expect them to follow traditions and comply with authority—values which are deeply rooted in cultural and religious norms. Elders make all the important decisions for children, including academic decisions (Mathews, 2000). In addition, local traditions and cultural norms define different gender roles for men and women. From a very young age, girls are treated differently than boys due to traditional concepts such as purdah (physical veiling; see Critelli, 2010; Haque, 2010) and chaar dewar (private space or confinement of women in four walls; see Critelli, 2010). These traditions perpetuate gender stereotypes and limit females’ roles (to productive and reproductive roles), and girls’ schooling experiences become different from those of boys.

When Pakistani students, particularly female students, immigrate to Canada they develop different reactions to their new schools’ policies. Their responses are influenced by their prior experiences in Pakistan, where emphasis is on teacher authority rather than on critical thinking or problem solving. Their adjustment to new schools is challenging due to their parents’ lack of understanding of progressive schooling and belief in teacher-centered approaches. For the Canadian teachers who receive these students, a deeper understanding of different educational pedagogies (traditional vs. progressive) that are embedded in the cultures from which their students come may be required to better understand the dynamics of their classrooms, which are complicated in multicultural environments.

School Systems and Policies

Educational systems are administrative structures which aim to achieve their goals, by focusing on efficiency and by following Weber’s (1963) bureaucracy. The educational system of Pakistan is modeled on the colonial British educational system and retained its bureaucratic structure and hierarchy after independence in 1947. Today, the federal government is responsible for implementation of international treaties and agreements, while regional executive leadership is responsible for education policy, curriculum planning, and standards within each province (Institute of Social and Policy Sciences, n.d.). Private schools also work with local authorities for approval of programs. The Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training is headed by the federal minister of education (Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training, n.d.), and each province has a department of education that is headed by a provincial education minister and a team that includes a district education officer, sub-district education officer, and supervisors or assistant sub-district education officers (“Pakistan,” n.d.). Principals and other officials enjoy rational-legal authority, which empowers them to issue commands within the normative rules and their jurisdictional areas.

In Canada, education falls under provincial jurisdiction, and Canadian K-12 schools are considered among the best educational systems in the world (Avila & Wilson, 2011). Ontario’s Ministry of Education administers publicly funded elementary and secondary schools and operates four publicly funded school systems (English Public, English Catholic, French Public, and French Catholic). In addition, each Ontario school system has school trustees, a district school board, and locally elected representatives of the public who are responsible for identifying the educational needs and priorities of their community.

Resembling Weber’s (1963) bureaucracy, the school systems in both Pakistan and Canada maintain hierarchical bureaucratic structures, standard systems, and established procedures. Ministries define the job description for each role, and decisions cannot be made without proper approvals. Teachers are required to hold appropriate qualifications, and principals are promoted through established procedures. After a trial period, tenure protects teachers from arbitrary dismissal. In both country contexts, teachers at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy are less involved in organizational decision making and more in implementing procedures. This system allows “loose coupling” (Weick, 1976) between the official policies and their enactment in the classrooms. In schools in Pakistan this loose coupling may give space to teachers’ traditional authority in their classrooms and establish strict rules for interactions. Teachers in Canadian schools may use their own discretion in interacting with students, but their authority is derived from the rational-legal bureaucratic system and, thus, is not unconstrained.

Teachers’ Discretion in Classrooms

Street-Level Bureaucrats

Although teachers are a part of bureaucratic systems, they are also street-level bureaucrats (SLBs) in their classrooms. When they, as SLBs, deliver school policies, they may deliver the policy as “personal” (Lipsky, 1980). For instance, following curriculum guidelines, teachers of the same grade level may develop similar lesson plans but operationalized them differently due to teachers’ personal judgments and responses to situations surfacing in their individual classrooms. Complicated work conditions discourage the use of similar patterns of decisions, so SLBs consider discretion in delivering a policy (Lipsky,1980). Further, during the process of service delivery (or policy implementation in this case), SLBs seek control over their clients, and the interventions are believed to be for the benefit of the clients (Lipsky,1980). This practice explains why most parents in Pakistan trust teachers’ decisions and allow them to use intense measures for corrective purposes. It also suggests that immigrant parents would expect similar form of interventions for their children from Canadian teachers.

Demand for Deference and Demeanor

In different societies, deference—a display of symbolic gestures to show respect to others (Goffman, 1956) for dominance or for subordination—is given or taken through different rituals. In traditional societies, the stimulus of strong religious or cultural components in everyday life influences ways of talking to or showing respect for superordinates or subordinates. The advancement of liberal ideas has changed expectations of deference, and in modern society it can also take the form of trust or regard. In his conceptualization of deference, Goffman (1956) also included avoidance rituals that are displayed between people of unequal statuses to avoid harm to those relationships. Children in Pakistani society are expected to demonstrate deference to their elders by being submissive and compliant, and in return they are offered a sense of security by their elders. Teachers, as spiritual fathers, demand similar deference from students as they deliver knowledge and promotion to the next level in school. In addition, as part of avoidance rituals, children do not ask questions, and elders avoid being open with children due to their belief that friendliness can make children overconfident or stubborn.

Demeanor is a ceremonial behavior in the form of dressing or deportment and conveys that a person has certain qualities (Goffman, 1956). Pakistani teachers present themselves to the society by dressing in socially acceptable manners and avoiding discussions around certain topics which are taboos in the society. Girls from young age are taught to talk, dress and act in certain ways in schools and at home. Similarly, the demeanor of Canadian teachers conveys the social behaviors that are expected and/or acceptable in Canadian society. Following the progressive pedagogies in the last half-century, Canadian teachers’ demeanor has become less authoritative and more professional. Students must be respectful yet actively involved in class discussions.

Students’ Sensemaking

Immigrant students entering Canadian schools, familiar with the social expectations of Pakistani society, soon realize that their old repertoire of learning and rules does not apply to their new situation. In their new learning environment, immigrant students go through a sensemaking process of structuring the unknown (Ancona, 2012; Weick et al., 2005). They learn to interpret policy by observing others’ interactions and their teachers’ demeanor and gather information about the demands of deference as they forge new friendships.

The theoretical literature and comparative education context outlined here raise questions about how female students from traditional schools in Pakistan learn to make sense of the progressive educational system that they encounter after immigrating to Canada. This study sought to answer this question through a qualitative investigation of student sensemaking.

Framework and Method

The following conceptual framework guided this empirical study and informed the design of the sensemaking process that immigrant students experience.

Figure 1

Conceptual Framework

The data in this study were collected through one-on-one interviews of 10 Pakistani immigrant students, five female and five male. The participants were recruited through purposeful snowball sampling. The details of the study were communicated to prospective participants via my personal contacts, who were familiar with immigrant families in the neighborhood. To participate in the study, interested families approached me directly, and a protocol was followed for the recruitment and interview of each participant. Each interview, approximately an hour long, was audio recorded and later transcribed. For two interviews, mothers wished to accompany the student participants, but for the other eight interviews, parents allowed their children to participate alone. All 10 participants were students who had emigrated from Pakistan; they had spent between three months to three years in Canadian public middle/secondary schools. Prior to coming to Canada, all the participants had attended middle-fee private schools in Pakistani cities.

Interviews were conducted in Thorncliffe Park in Toronto, a densely populated, multicultural neighborhood which is traditionally been a starting point for many new Canadians (“Thorncliffe Park,” n.d.). Although English is the most popular language, the top non-official mother tongue and home language, is Urdu and the top birth country for recent immigrants (2011-2016) is Pakistan (City of Toronto, 2016).

Findings and Discussion

Immigrant students’ understanding of the macro-level bureaucratic system—namely school assemblies, homework, and school rules—are discussed in the first section below. The findings show that students learn to follow official policies when teachers explain them in their classrooms, but they learn unwritten rules from their friends. Mostly, these immigrant students comply with school policies without necessarily agreeing with them, which could be a result of their previous school experiences and their parents’ expectations.

The second section describes student participants’ adjustments at the micro-level. It highlights how students’ understanding of their teachers’ discretion toward expectations of students’ behaviors, deference and demeanor, and academic achievements change after attending progressive schools. They learn that each teacher follows a particular set of rules in their classroom, which, although derived from school policies, appears very differently in each class. Moreover, to employ their rules, teachers in each school system exercise their authority differently.

The third section discusses the four-stage sensemaking process of immigrant students and the role of their parents, teachers, and friends in this process of settling.

Bureaucracy in Schools

As discussed earlier, schools formalize various systems and procedures to achieve their organizational goals. Student participants were well familiar with the policies and procedures of both school systems, but they learned new ways to react to the policies in Canadian classrooms.

School Assemblies

School assemblies are not a regular feature in Canadian schools, and the Canadian national anthem is sung in classrooms only. In Pakistan, morning assemblies are essential and follow a similar pattern of gathering in a spacious place every morning and beginning the school day with a prayer and the national anthem. Participants explained that in Pakistan school principals attended morning assemblies, and students stood in lines with their class teachers, following assembly procedures. One participant explained how each class prepared a class presentation on a rotating basis for the assembly, and teachers chose the students for the class presentations. The assemblies are intended to build students’ confidence through participation, but teachers’ administration of the students and their presentations weakens its purpose. An additional purpose of morning assemblies was, according to one participant, “to check the uniforms,” while another pointed out that assemblies also helped to identify latecomers, as “they used to get pulled out and used to stand at the side till the end of the assembly…. The principal or the teacher used to talk to them later.”

It was evident that the student participants understood the expectations of them as students at the assemblies at their schools in Pakistan, along with the hidden purposes of the assemblies. They obeyed the rules, and none of the participants ever complained to their parents, as schools have gained the legitimacy to deliver what society expects. One participant shared a story of when she tied up her hair in a different colored ponytail and was therefore held back in the school assembly. She did not share the incident with her family because her mother was familiar with the school rules and would have held her responsible for her carelessness.


The nature of the homework is different in both school systems. In Pakistan, homework is mostly not preplanned, and participants explained that they were asked to copy, complete, and memorize the concepts discussed in class, whereas in Canadian schools, students were assigned worksheets to practice concepts at home. One participants described the experience of homework in Pakistan in the following way.

Over there, homework would take you really long. You would have homework every day, the teacher did not care how much homework she gave you, but it was expected to be finished by the next day…. If you didn’t finish it, you got punishments.

Other participants corroborated this report, explaining that their teachers in Pakistan assigned homework, marked it the next day, and did not give additional marks for on-time submissions. However, they penalized students for late or no submissions. Teachers used their authority, and students completed their work out of fear or respect. Participants shared that their parents did not complain to schools about long homework, which indicates that parents might also agree to the school policies related to homework.

In Canadian schools, teachers typically assign the same worksheets to all students in one class or several classes, without considering the strengths and weaknesses of individual students. Davies and Guppy (2010) critique this practice as evidence of a modern school system that is overly bureaucratic and indifferent to individual students’ needs. These worksheet assignments tend to take less time to complete than the homework that students usually were assigned in Pakistan.


The rules instituted in Canadian and Pakistani schools are very different, reflecting the expectations for students in each society. Most participants discussed school rules in Pakistan such as proper uniform, rules about haircuts, trimmed nails, and greeting teachers in unison by standing up when they enter classrooms. While participants did not necessarily agree with these rules, they understood that failing to follow the rules would result in penalties. A participant explained, “There you couldn’t talk loud in the class. There, teacher had a stick and he could hit you. Here they take you outside and explain.” Another student stated, “There you could not use cell phones, and here you can. Here you cannot sit in the classroom while having lunch, there you had to.”

One female student shared a peer’s experience when she violated a school rule: “Once a girl brought her cellphone to school, she was reported to the principal, parents were called, and the phone was confiscated.” Another female student described rules specific for girls:

We could not let our hair down, could not put makeup…, in short nails and clean shoes. They would pick us up from the lines if the uniform were not clean, from the assembly. Here, you cannot wear short dresses and that is all. If teachers notice it, they would ask you to change … like in gym clothes or something.

This student explained further that Canadian teachers first explain the rules and then expect the students to follow them. Most participants agreed that there are generally fewer rules in Canadian schools.

Most of the rules in Pakistani schools aim for administrative efficiency and for making students better “obeyers,” as parents and society expect. These rules, however, do not necessarily add value to student learning. Again, girls are expected to follow slightly different rules when it came to attire and outlook, which is largely a reflection of Pakistani society’s expectations and is reinforced at home.

Teachers’ Discretion in Bureaucratic Systems

Bureaucratic school systems require actors to carry out directives, and teachers, as SLBs using their discretion, are the main actors to deliver the knowledge and promote the required behaviors. They may consider some aspects of the policies more important or needed in their classrooms than others. Hence, in heterogeneous classroom environments, as SLBs, teachers’ choices of words, expectations, appreciations, or respect vary. Student participants stressed these differences.

Students’ Academic Standing

Participants indicated that classrooms in Pakistan were of mixed abilities. One student explained, “Some of them [students] were average, some of them were good and some of them were dumb.” Students’ academic standing influenced their relationship with teachers, and participants agreed that teachers favored the prefects, who were the smartest students. When asked to explain what “smart” meant, a participant stated, “They stand up in front of the class and talk … and ask a lot of questions … and their grades are good.” Taking extra responsibility was also listed among the traits of “smart” students. Participants agreed that achieving good grades or being smart would help in gaining teachers’ favors or benefits in or outside class—what Lispky (1980) defined as sanctions. For example, a female participant explained:

In Pakistan if the monitor [prefect] has long nails, the teachers would do favoritism and they will say, “it’s okay you can cut them,” and let them go. But for the normal student the teacher would be strict on them. I have seen this favoritism a lot in Pakistan.

Participants also agreed that in schools in Pakistan, teachers’ responses in the classroom were affected by students’ responses. That is, one factor for teachers’ discrete behavior toward students was the students’ behavior itself. The following remarks by two participants clarify this point further. One student reported, “There was an aggressive tone with the troublemaker and a different tone with the smart people.” The other participant said, “They used to get scolded by the teachers, but most of them were troublemakers, they used to interrupt classes so they used to get scolded.” The participants did not identify the students’ academic reputation as a factor for teachers’ discretion in Canadian classrooms. In Canadian classrooms, teachers impart knowledge or course content and evaluate students’ progress, but that is not the ultimate definer of student-teacher relationship.

Students’ Conduct and Policy

Student participants reported that Pakistani teachers tried to follow school policies and expected certain conduct of students, which sometimes resulted in lack of human responsiveness required in a teacher-student relationship. One participant explained, “The teacher would not talk on one-on-one with you … and the teacher would not understand that the kids were usually scared of the teacher.” Another student said, “Here if the [whole] class did not submit work on time, teacher will explain again and give one more day…. Over there the whole class would get punishment.”

Due to these firm expectations, Pakistani students’ relationships with their teachers may be limited. When asked if in Pakistan they approached their teachers if they needed help, one of the female participants responded, “No, she would shout…. [When] I was getting bad grades, I asked my tuition teacher (private tutor) who helped me in my homework and then I understood.” This kind of avoidance, especially by female students, repeatedly came up in the interviews.

Asking questions is not encouraged in Pakistani classrooms since it is considered a way of questioning elders’ authority. It also suggests the “do as directed” approach, where the teacher explicitly instructs and explains concepts, rules, and other strategies and students, as dependent obeyers, avoid expressing their ideas in the class. This traditionalist pedagogy makes students much dependent on their teachers’ guidance which results in being unable to take the full responsibility of their own learning.

Participants reported that teachers employ different tactics for maintaining their authority, such as punishments, warnings, mockery, or embarrassment. However, immigrant students also justified that behavior: “There the teacher would insult a student in front of the class and the student would feel embarrassed…, but embarrassment would make some difference, like if you make a mistake, you will not repeat it again.” Explaining the Canadian classroom experience, one participant said, “They [teachers] try, but if the student is not willing to learn then she [teacher] would just leave you.” A female respondent reported, “[In Canada], my eight(h) grade teacher was really strict…. His explanation was good, and he used to make everybody do their homework, so I want that kind of a teacher who makes you do your work and that’s a better teacher. My grades were good then.”

According to student reports, Canadian teachers’ approach is to share the rules, be open for discussion and questions, and handle noncompliance through policy shifts. All participants shared that their Canadian teachers will also contact parents in some situations. In Canadian schools, teachers’ behaviors convey that they understand their students’ problems, but students are ultimately responsible for their learning—a highlight of progressive pedagogy. The relationship between student and teacher is one of mutual obligation (Davies & Guppy, 2010).

Deference and Demeanor

Raising hands in the classroom, waiting their turn, and seeking permission are deference rituals that teachers expect in Pakistan. As one participant described:

Over there you can’t just shout out the answer, you can’t walk up to the teacher’s desk without asking, and you can’t get bathroom breaks but depends on teacher. Here, if a teacher is asking a question, everyone is getting involved… Mostly you can shout out the answer and teacher would be like “yes” or “no” and [then] the teacher would discuss it.

Another participant sighed, “More permissions in Pakistan…. You need permission even to walk up to her desk!” In addition, when a student fulfills the demands of deference, other students may assume that teachers are favoring that student. Some students also use avoidance rituals in the classroom to show deference. “I got scared when she used to come in our classroom. I used to hide or bend down. I never used to answer and tried to avoid eye contact with her,” explained one participant.

In Canadian schools, teachers’ demands for deference are different. While students need permission to leave the classroom, they do not necessarily stand up to greet their teachers. They also feel confident to talk to their teachers and discuss their concerns. Participants also mentioned that teachers do not object to discussions among students.

All the participants emphasized that teachers in Canadian classrooms have noticeably different demeanors than teachers in Pakistan. The following two participant comments illustrate their perceptions of their teachers in Pakistan. “There teachers barely smiled and would just stand and stare…. I don’t know, over there I was just afraid of them, and they are friendlier here.” “Sometimes their faces were scary. Like a strict face…. They would not smile at all.” One participant explained this difference in this way: “Canadians are more open, and Pakistanis are not. You need to know them more before they talk.”

In Canadian and Pakistani classrooms, teachers behave differently, and their behaviors are accepted by parents and are largely legitimized by their society. In other words, schools offer what is demanded by their society. To be successful in Canadian schools, female students who have learned the ways of deference and demeanor of Pakistani society need time and support from their families, teachers, and friends to learn new social norms and gain confidence. This confidence makes a huge difference in their day-to-day learning.


After immigrant students arrive in new settings, they are surrounded by new people—teachers and peers. Within that new social context, they are continuously making sense of their new circumstances and their own participation in them. They have limited understanding of this new context, and progressive environments/situations and new social norms cannot be taught in classrooms.

I found during the interviews that participants perceived the basic structures and procedures of school systems as similar, although they found teachers’ reactions to procedures and implementation of policies to be different. Hence, the process of sensemaking begins when immigrant students arrive in their new classrooms and start finding similarities and differences (Weick et al., 2005) between these contexts and their earlier environments. I suggest four stages for this sensemaking process.

Stage 1: Assuring

Immigrant students are mainly nervous not because of a fear of the unknown. Rather, they are nervous because of the known—their previous schooling experiences. One participant explained, “On the first day, when I came here, I was shy … scared. I was like, ‘What if teacher is not nice here as well?’ I was shy about other kids’ opinions on me.”

In progressive Canadian classrooms, immigrant students find the teachers to be more open and approachable. One participant shared, “No, teachers were very nice, I was so nervous on the first day, but when I saw the teachers and the friendly atmosphere, and the way they were talking politely, all my tension was gone.”

Immigrant students generally did not enjoy their prior schooling experiences, and they arrived in their new schools with apprehensions based on those experiences. I would suggest that the first phase is “assuring,” as students are relieved and enjoy the initial process of acclimating to their new schools. They do not pay particular attention to the differences, and they do not fully use the resources available to them. I would also suggest that the assuring phase could take from a few days to a few weeks and is succeeded by a “struggling” phase.

Stage 2: Struggling

After becoming familiar with their new schools, classrooms, and teachers, immigrant students start recognizing the skills that they lack by comparing themselves continuously with other students or to expectations of teachers. “I think, I didn’t enjoy because I understood a little about the language. In grade 6, I got French and I could not understand anything the teacher used to say,” shared one participant. Other participant responses revealed that students faced difficulty with making new friends or simply playing a new sport in physical education.

Female immigrant students reported struggling with peer pressure. One participant said, “Clothing did matter a bit in my class, because I used to hear these girls talked behind my back and I actually heard them say, ‘What is she wearing? She does not know how to dress.’” Another shared, “I was scared if I say something wrong and if they are like ‘no that’s wrong’ so I was scared of putting my opinion out there.”

Working independently also emerged as an important issue for participants. They constantly struggled to make sense of their new environment, looking for cues and using their reasoning, all while “playing the game” (Ancona, 2012). They unlearned or adjusted their previous understandings of interactions, deference, and policy interpretations in this phase, which could extend to a few weeks or until some form of intervention is offered.

Stage 3: Harnessing

The first two stages of this sensemaking process were about awareness; this stage is about action. In the harnessing phase, immigrant students, still experiencing anxiety, start working on two aspects: exploring available resources and building and improving on their new skills.

Participants shared their own strategies to use resources and described relying on their own means if proper guidelines were absent. One participant explicitly asked for help: “I asked the students, they used to explain, and I learned.” Another participant was shy, and tried to understand by observing others: “Well, I did not like [it at first]. I noticed some students that were in my class and teachers were impressed by them, so I just did like them … like did my homework and assignments on time.” Immigrant students may adopt various ways to improve their skills. As one student explained, “I read it over and over. Every person has a different way, so I repeated in my mind, or wrote it down sometimes.” Another student shared, “I was not getting good results in volleyball, but I made it by running, so there is a choice you can make.”

One participant mentioned the struggle and resolved it by dedicating more time and effort, while another participant managed by negotiation and accommodation. For these immigrant students, their teachers, parents, and friends are resources to get help, guidance, and support. Though confused at the beginning, these students are steadier toward the end of this stage. The time taken by each student is unique, depending on the personality of the student, the desired skills, and the people and resources available to them. Hence, sensemaking in schools draws on informal relationships (new friendships) in addition to the formal relationships (teacher-student relationships).

Role of teachers. Participants reported that their Canadian teachers encouraged them to be more independent. They mentioned research assignments, homework worksheets, and group work as key factors which facilitated their success. In day-to-day activities, these student-centred environments allowed freer movement, chatting, and interaction (Davies & Guppy, 2010). Further, teachers’ demeanors in Canadian classrooms are receptive, and they deliver knowledge, procedures, and rules.

Participants shared, however, that their teachers could not help them to understand their new environments and the hidden rules. The students remained unsure if a teacher could be the right person to solve their personal concerns since their previous school experiences and images of teachers did not allow them to seek this resource fully.

Role of friends. Immigrant students informally learned about their new classrooms through their friends. A participant mentioned that friends helped him to learn the social norms as “sometimes the unspoken rules everyone knows but they don’t talk about…. I learned that, I learned how to act, what the social norm is.” Overall, participants had mixed views on their new friends. Some participants found it easy to make friends, while others found it difficult. Sometimes they found new friends in the playgrounds, and sometimes friends introduced more friends: “We both were from Pakistan and it was my first day and his second year or third … so he knew how it was like and we had the same first name and the last name … which was funny. He introduced me to his other friends.” A female participant described her experience in this way:

Here, friends have a lot of attitude. Whatever they say, they make it an ego problem. If there is a quarrel, then they just end the friendship. There, we also had issues, but we never showed such attitudes…. We solved the issues and said sorry. There we had one or two friends, but here we have groups. It is very difficult to enter in a group like every person has a different nature and you do not know what they are thinking. [Here] we do say hello-hi but are not good friends.

Another female participant shared her experience becoming friends with another girl from Pakistan: “I also made my best friend from this [ESL] group who also came from Pakistan and who also had the same problems as me. She was shy of going in front of the teachers and presenting.”

One respondent explained the motivation for students’ choices in making friends as, “students want to be friends with smart people and those who are troublemakers they want to be friends with troublemakers.” Making friends is easier if students share some common attributes such as language skills or country or even the same name. They also recognize that sometimes they need to have special skills for friendship, which might be why smart students do not initiate friendships with troublemakers or old students with newcomers. Further, once an immigrant student realizes that the other student is like him or her, or lacks the same skills, the student feels relaxed.

Role of parents. The role of parents as a resource is dual in nature. Although parents exercise their traditional authority, students still seek their help in new situations. One participants mentioned, “Basically if I don’t understand, my dad is always there.” On scoring poor grades, a participant shared, “I have to go to tuitions [tutoring], and probably my parents won’t let me use internet. My dad would probably sit down and check the units I am getting bad grades on.” Another student shared that his parents conveyed their expectation “to get good marks,” but the student knew that they meant “the top half of the class.” Another participant differentiated between his parents and his friends’ parents:

I think some ways parents who are born here are more … liberal. They are more liberal with rules and stuff and are more open minded I guess. You can say they have looser rules but they still have expectations … and that is because of the culture.

One participant stated explicitly that parents create and convey expectations by constantly reminding them of their immigration experiences: “Our parents are like, ‘Oh we came here because of your education,’ so they do have a pressure of all that while people already living here don’t have that much pressure.” While these parents have less understanding of their children’s new school systems and their procedures, they listen and encourage their children by talking, showing care, and conveying their high expectations.

Parents expectations also influence students’ friendships in their schools, as a participant shared: “Well … hmm … I don’t know…. He was a troublemaker, and my parents had told me to avoid those kinds of people so I just became friends with others.” This quote also suggests that these parents unconsciously put their students under more stress by pushing them farther in the competition. Furthermore, making intelligent decisions (such as making smart friends) as per parents’ desires may not be the preferred choices for the students.

Stage 4: Reassuring

Immigrant students, after acknowledging their skills and lack of skills and accessing available resources, gain confidence and start enjoying their new schools. A female participant shared, “Initially I found it hard to go to school all alone, it was very far to walk because in Pakistan we had a school van. But then I thought if I don’t become independent, I will not do anything.”

Participants’ responses suggested that they gradually learn the ways of their new schools and start adjusting well. Reaching at this stage does not suggest that after settling in new classrooms these students will achieve high scores in academics, but they will be more confident and able to enjoy their learning experiences.

The four stages of sensemaking for these students are depicted in Figure 2.

Figure 2

Linear Stages of Sensemaking


Students in traditional schools in Pakistan develop compliance without questioning school policy and teacher authority. Their parents reinforce this idea of respect by legitimizing schools’ policies. After immigration to Canada, students do not receive formal guidelines on what is important and what can be ignored while settling in their new, progressive environment.

Female students in particular struggle with understanding progressive interactions since they were taught different expectations of deference and demeanor to gain respect. After being encouraged to be “reserved,” they are now being encouraged to be more “natural” in their ways of talking, dressing, or thinking. Pakistani female immigrant students require approvals from their mothers and families to wear appropriate clothing to classrooms or to study with their friends, which shapes their confidence and decision-making skills. Further, the concept of private and public space in Pakistani society also affects their interactions with people, teachers or friends alike, outside their homes.

Immigrant parents aspire for successful futures for their children, yet focusing strictly on academic grades does not make for successful schooling experiences. If teachers are familiar with the demands of deference in traditional schools, they can support immigrant students in their new classrooms. Students might do well in academics as their parents encourage them, but teachers could collaborate with parents and help in listening to these girls’ voices and building their confidence. Once immigrant students pass the fourth stage of sensemaking, they may choose to incorporate their progressive learning experiences into their previous traditional teachings and may develop their own conceptualizations of authority and deference. Parents, by providing them with opportunities to experiment and with greater freedom to explore the world, can yield tremendous benefits since this will shift their role from an authority figure to an intelligent adult supervisor who can influence them in an authoritative manner in appositive way (Furedi, 2009).


I express my sincere thanks to Professor Scott Davies, Program Coordinator, Educational Leadership and Policy Program at Ontario Institute for Studies, University of Toronto, for his supervision, valuable advice, and constant support for this research project.


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“Seeds of Sharing”: A Feminist Action Research Study of University Student Feminist Activism in Cambodia

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 7, Special Issue                          IJSV                           May 2020

“Seeds of Sharing”: A Feminist Action Research Study of University Student Feminist Activism in Cambodia

Kelly Grace – Lehigh University

Salav Oul – Royal University of Phnom

Citation: Grace, K & Oul, S. (2020). “Seeds of sharing”: A feminist action research study of university student feminist activism in Cambodia. International Journal of Student Voice, 7.

Abstract: The number of female university students is gradually increasing in Cambodia. While Cambodia has focused on women’s rights and empowerment for decades, feminism and feminist activism is a neglected area of research. Little is known about Cambodian university student feminist understandings, practices, and activism. By examining one female Cambodian university student’s everyday experience conducting feminist action research, this study seeks to center student voice in the exploration of feminism and feminist activism through the research of the second author using a pilot program, Seeds of Sharing. It also explores the method of feminist action research as a way to expand feminist knowledge and activism. This study focuses on interviews and diary entries of the second author during a feminist action research project. The action research project undertaken by the second author included the analysis of the individual interviews of four Cambodian university students participating in the Seeds of Sharing pilot program. Findings reveal that feminist action research can lead to contextually relevant, personal transformations through reciprocal learning, but that explicit feminist theory should be married with deductive learning through multiple cycles of reflection and action. Additionally, while the Cambodian university students interviewed were more comfortable with the concepts of women’s empowerment and women’s rights, they participated in grassroots feminist activism under a university system that offers little opportunity for pedagogical expansion of feminist knowledge or large-scale feminist activism.

Keywords: feminist action research, feminist activism, Cambodia, higher education


In Cambodia, girls are graduating from secondary schools at higher rates than boys and enrolling in tertiary institutions at increasing rates (Ministry of Education, Youth & Sports, 2017). Cambodian women who attend university often overcome significant barriers to attend tertiary institutions far from home (Keng, 2004; Velasco, 2001). Although girls continue to struggle with access to tertiary education (Williams et al., 2016), there is little discussion of how female university students are contributing to improvements in education through feminist activism, thereby leaving the dominant deficiency discourse surrounding girls and tertiary education unchallenged.

Following genocide and the decimation of the education system by the Khmer Rouge from 1974 to 1979, Cambodia has experienced rapid change in development (Kitamura et al., 2016), with an increasing focus on women’s rights, education, and empowerment. The proliferation of organizations related to supporting women and raising awareness about women’s issues such as women’s empowerment, domestic violence, and gender equality and an expansion of participation and girls’ increased completion of secondary education (Ministry of Education, Youth & Sports, 2017) has led to increased awareness of and activism for women’s empowerment and gender equality (Ministry of Women’s Affairs, 2014a). Additionally, while the Government of Cambodia recognizes the importance of higher education, the decimation of academic institutions by the Khmer Rouge has left a nascent university system which is underfunded and suffering from a lack of resources and poor quality of education (Williams et al., 2016).

Cambodian girls and women have experienced important improvements in access to quality education in recent decades (Velasco, 2001, 2004). However, Cambodian women continue to face patriarchal social norms which value men more than women. Although women’s education is seen as increasingly important, female Cambodian university students continue to face formidable obstacles in entering and completing tertiary education (Rogers, 2017). Sociocultural expectations, such as those outlined in Chbab Srey, or Rules for Girls, place restrictions on women’s behavior and emphasize their roles as wives and mothers. Parts of Chbab Srey continue to be taught in the school curriculum, highlighting the importance of adherence to social norms about women (Anderson & Grace, 2018; Derks, 2008).

Little research has been conducted to explore the experiences of Cambodian women attending universities, and a limited body of literature exists that examines women’s issues at the university level (Maxwell et al., 2015). This work considers Cambodian university students’ understandings of feminism and feminist activism through examination of the experiences of workshop participants. However, the primary focus of analysis centers around the second author’s experiences regarding feminism and feminist activism while conducting an action research project. The action research methodology aligns with the special issue topic in “challenging, decolonizing and re-envisioning researcher-subject positions when working and researching with girls” by placing a Cambodian female student’s feminist practice at the center of this research and supporting her voice in exploring feminism and feminist activism. Given the potential of youth, including university students, as agents of change in Cambodian society (Finsen, 2015), methods which serve as a platform for student voice and develop knowledge and skills that can challenge inequitable power dynamics and disrupt patriarchal structures should be more fully explored, developed, and implemented in Cambodia. A lack of opportunities for university-based activism, and a lack of female professors and leaders at the university level in Cambodia (Maxwell et al., 2015), leaves little understanding of feminist practice and activism at Cambodian universities. This research seeks to fill this gap by exploring feminist practice and activism of Cambodian students through an action research project with the “Seeds of Sharing” pilot workshop developed and implemented by the second author.

Review of the Literature

Feminism in Cambodia

Despite a body of literature detailing women’s empowerment and gender equality, research regarding feminism and education in Cambodia is limited (Jacobsen, 2010). Feminism and feminist activism are distinctly absent from literature and scholarship pertaining to women in Cambodia. A rejection of the terms feminism and feminist activism can be historically explained through social upheavals experienced in Cambodia in the 20th century, which charted a path of postcolonial and nationalist movements. With women embodying Cambodian culture and a rejection of colonial concepts of women, feminism is deemed a foreign concept that is antithetical to “true” Cambodian culture (Jacbosen, 2010).

The view of feminism as a foreign idea that is contrary to local culture and values is embraced in many Asian countries, making it difficult for feminism and feminist activism to take root (Roces, 2010). While support for women’s empowerment and equality has been embraced across multiple sectors, girls’ and women’s access to quality education has become a priority, with women’s education being closely linked to national development (Ministry of Women’s Affairs, 2014a). However, approaches to gender equality and women’s empowerment often focus on harmony between men and women (Ministry of Women’s Affairs, 2014b) and avoid discussions of power and oppression, instead supporting conceptions of making men and women equal (Jacbosen, 2010). In the university system, students can learn about women’s rights, empowerment, and equality through informal means, but there are no gender/women’s studies majors or departments that might formally expand women’s knowledge of feminism and feminist activism.

Feminist Activism and University Students

Research in Western contexts indicate that while many university students espouse feminist ideologies, they are reluctant to label themselves as feminists (Crossley, 2010; Houvouras & Carter, 2008). However, identification as a feminist is also a predictor of increased feminist activism (Yoder et al., 2011). Feminist practices and activism can range from rhetorical large-scale social activism and protests to local grassroots activities such as developing models of feminist leadership and building feminist identity (Baumgardner & Richards, 2005; Sowards & Renegar, 2006). Universities can be contexts in which feminism, feminist leaders, and feminist activism are fostered and developed (Bannerji, 1992), particularly within universities where the study of feminism can be formalized into majors and classes such as women’s studies (Stake, 2007).

Feminist activism is differentially defined by scholars, however in teaching feminist activism and practices, there are common aims such as the expansion of awareness of feminism and the acquisition of skills to help build a feminist movement. These goals can be supported through experiential learning processes which allow students to engage in activism while learning about feminist both in and out of a formal classroom experience (Baumgardner & Richards, 2005; Naples & Bojar, 2013). However, little is known about feminist activism and university students outside of Western contexts, particularly in places like Cambodia, which lack formal university courses or paths that teach about feminism and feminist activity.

Feminism and Action Research

Feminist action research has been used as a conceptual and methodological framework and as a means of altering power relationships individually and collectively while including women whose voices are typically marginalized by research processes (Reid, 2004). Conceptual themes foregrounding feminist action research include gender, multiple identities and interlocking oppressions, voice, everyday experiences, and power. Action research attempts to restructure power dynamics by addressing broad societal oppressions of women and restructuring power in the research process itself (Maguire, 2006) through the voices of women involved in the research and their everyday experiences.

The methodological framework associated with feminist action research often outlines feminist action research as a participatory, community-based strategy for involving women in solving self-identified feminist issues in their own communities, and it usually operates on a larger scale of social activism (Deare, 1995; Gatenby & Humphries, 2000; Reid, 2004). However, action research can also include a single individual, while still including collaboration and participation as a central principle, with cycles of self-reflection informing knowledge and the transformation of practice (Cordeiro et al., 2017). Limited research exists detailing the use of feminist action research with university students, particularly in contexts such as Cambodia. Therefore, the potential of this method for expanding feminist knowledge and awareness, and supporting skills of feminist activism, remains unexplored.

Current Study

Centering student voice was a primary aim of this research. Feminist action research was chosen as a method for supporting this exploration and ensuring that the second author’s voice, experience, and analysis formed the basis of this research. Feminist action research seeks to bring a feminist perspective to action research methods in order to de-colonize and reduce “othering” in feminist research (Gatenby & Humphries, 2000). For this reason, feminist action research is well suited for highlighting the feminist experiences of implementing the Seeds of Sharing program.

To ensure that feminist university student voice was at the forefront of the research, the data collection process was reflective and iterative. The second author developed the research protocol, collected the data, and collaboratively analyzed the data with the first author in order to reflect upon how this research project will inform her own feminist activism. Both authors collaboratively wrote the manuscript, centering the second author’s voice and experiences in the presentation of the results. In this way, this research challenges the researcher-researched positions that this special issue seeks to examine, by placing the second author at the center of the research process and amplifying her voice in activism and research.

Seeds of Sharing Pilot Project

Seeds of Sharing is a one-day workshop and six-month mentoring pilot program developed and implemented by the second author and a female university colleague. The aim of the program is to support and empower the female founder of a small local English school in a small village outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The pilot workshop has an empowerment focus, which was delivered through support in grant proposal writing, clarifying organizational components involved in school management, and training in social media through the creation of a Facebook page. The mentoring system pairs the English school founder with a female university student in this study, who continues to support the founder of the school for six months. The development and maintenance of a Facebook page is also a part of the mentoring process, which was monitored by the facilitator and two other university students who joined the project as guest speakers and mentors. The three-hour workshop was implemented in late June 2018.

Using a feminist action research framework, we explored following questions.

  • How do university students in Cambodia experience feminism and feminist activism?
  • What are the lived experiences of a female Cambodian university student undertaking feminist action research?


 To capture the experiences of feminist activism by the university students in this study, two qualitative methods were employed. A total of six interviews were conducted: four individual interviews with university students participating or supporting the Seeds of Sharing project and two interviews with the second author before and after the action research began. The second author also kept a reflective diary during the action research project. The diary entries and individual interviews of the second author are the primary focus of data analysis, though the results from the interviews with the Seeds of Sharing participants are also included. This section outlines the participants of the study, the procedures employed in the research design, the instruments used, and data analysis.

Researcher Identity

The first author is a graduate student in the United States who has been involved in research in Cambodia for several years, primarily researching gender and education. Although she has spent a substantial amount of time in Cambodia, as a White female born and educated in the United States, she recognizes her limited experience with Khmer culture, language, and women’s issues. Additionally, the first author recognizes that her experience with Western feminist literature and concepts of Western feminism were at the root of initial interest in the research project. Therefore, the first author attempted to provide support to the second author, in the way of feminist and methodological literature, while supporting her own exploration of her feminist practice and activism.

The second author is an undergraduate student attending one of the universities in Phnom Penh. Born and raised in rural village of Siem Reap province, she experienced cultural challenges along her educational journey to university. Believing that only education can brighten her future and improve women’s situation in Cambodia, she was motivated to pursue higher education and be the first girl from her community to study in Phnom Penh. Moreover, the second author has learned that gender inequality has caused problems among women, especially domestic violence. Based on her experiences, she hopes to contribute her input in this research to raise awareness of girls’ education.

Seeds of Sharing Workshop Participants

Study participants were chosen based on their participation in the Seeds of Sharing workshop. The workshop included 6 participants of the Seeds of Sharing Program implementation team. One workshop facilitator chose not to participate in the action research project, resulting in five action research project participants.  The Seeds of Sharing Program team included the English school founder and her brother, who constituted the school administration team, and three Seeds of Sharing program facilitators, including a media coordinator, a mentoring facilitator, and the team leader (the second author).  The team leader and another university student facilitated the workshop while the school founder, her brother, and the media coordinator and mentoring facilitator participated in the workshop.  All participants were students attending three universities. Participants were majoring in different fields including psychology, international relations, management and communications, and computer science.

While some of the five participants were involved in women’s rights and empowerment activities, some had no experience with such activism. who were involved in the development and facilitation of the Seeds of Sharing workshop were also engaged in leadership organizations or leadership positions at a university level. When asked whether they considered themselves feminists and/or feminist activists, two female students and one male student stated that they were feminists and feminist activists. One female student had not heard of feminism or feminist activism but described herself as a supporter of women’s empowerment, and when feminism was described, she stated that she was likely a feminist/feminist activist. One male student said he was not a feminist or feminist activist. Their ages ranged from 20 to 23 years.


Two sets of interviews were conducted for this research. The first set of interviews were with the second author before and after the Seeds of Sharing workshop. . The pre- and post-workshop interviews were conducted in May 2018 and August 2018 respectively. All interviews were recorded and transcribed for data analysis.

The second set of interviews included face-to-face interviews with . Interviews with four university students, who participated in the workshop, were conducted face to face by the second author in Khmer, the participants’ native language, and lasted between 45 minutes to one hour. All interviews were recorded for later transcription. The interviews were then translated into English by the second author. Consent for interviews and recordings was obtained from all participants.

To support data triangulation (Lincoln & Guba, 1988), the second author also kept a diary of her experiences as a feminist activist while implementing the Seeds of Sharing workshop and this action research project. Diary entries were written at least twice a week between May 2018 and August 2018. Interview protocols for participants, excluding the second author interviews, were prepared by the first and second authors and were translated into Khmer by a professional translator. IRB approval was obtained for all interview protocols and four initial diary questions.


Individual Interviews

The interview protocol for the second author included questions pertaining to changes in understandings of feminism and feminist activism as a result of undertaking action research related to the Seeds of Sharing pilot program.  This interview protocol sought to evaluate changes in the second author’s knowledge of feminist activism and plans for future feminist activism as a result of implementation of the “Seeds of Sharing” action research project. Individual interview protocols for workshop participants were developed by the first and second authors to assess an understanding of feminist activism of Cambodian university students. Interview protocols included questions related to knowledge of concepts of women’s empowerment and feminism; feminism and education in Cambodia, including policy and practice; as well as feminist activism undertaken by university students.

Diary Entries

The diary entry protocol was developed by the first and second authors with the intention of allowing the second author to freely document her own experiences with the Seeds of Sharing project and her experiences as a feminist activist, while also providing four general diary entry questions for guidance and support of the research goals. Diary entries were written in Google Docs, and the first and second author could comment on entries and comments. This approach established a “conversation” between the first and second authors, through which diary entries developed dialogic components of an individual interview.

Data Analysis

 Data were analyzed in two phases. Interviews from participants in the Seeds of Sharing pilot project were analyzed to answer the first research question (How do university students in Cambodia experience feminism and feminist activism?) and to serve as opportunities for reflection for the second author regarding Cambodian university students’ feminism and feminist activism. Data were analyzed using content analysis in which transcriptions of interviews were coded (). These codes were then further analyzed to build categories and themes, resulting in several broad themes reflecting university students’ understandings of feminism and feminist activism (Corbin et al., 2014).

To answer the second research question (What are the lived experiences of a female Cambodian university student undertaking feminist action research?), diary entries and pre- and post-workshop interviews with the second author were coded separately, after implementation of the Seeds of Sharing workshop and data collection and analysis related to the pilot project. Data were analyzed using the same methods as above through line-by-line coding, followed by the creation of categories and themes to represent participant meaning.

Both authors were involved in the coding of all documents to support researcher triangulation and increase trustworthiness of the data (Lincoln & Guba, 1988), although the first author primarily played a supporting role in analysis. Additionally, the use of diary entries and interviews in documenting the second author’s experience of action research as a feminist activism methodology allowed for triangulation of the findings and supported trustworthiness in data analysis (Lincoln & Guba, 1988). Findings primarily centered around the second author’s experiences with feminism, feminist activism, and feminist action research. The second author’s diary entries provided the largest amount of regularly collected data, and the pre- and post-interview data served to triangulate these findings. Seeds of Sharing pilot program university student interviews supported broader understandings of feminism and feminist activism among these Cambodian university students. Finally, findings were shared with a researcher outside the project, who provided feedback on analysis and results.


Data analysis revealed two overarching themes related to feminist activism and action research. The first theme centered around the second author’s experience with feminist action research and revealed a transformation in feminist understanding and activism through the process of feminist action research. Supporting this theme were the categories of reciprocal learning through action research, moving from belief to practice, and individualism within collectivism. The second theme revealed feminist activism undertaken by university students, including the second author, which circumvent systematic structural and cultural barriers to large-scale and university-supported feminist activism through individual and collective forms of activism. In the following sections, the second author narrates the findings in the first person, with the hopes of centering her voice in the findings of this research.

Personal Transformation Through Action Research

Research as Activism: Reciprocal Learning

Feminist action research served to expand and transform my understandings of feminism and feminist activism through reflection and meaning-making through data analysis. As I learned more about the process of action research, described as an “active” or “fresh” form of research, interviewing and data analysis were an important part of my learning, through which the analysis of the language of the participants gave me a deeper understanding of feminism in Cambodia. For example, as I recorded in my diary:

One way that it impacted me was the interview part and the coding. I learned from that process what it means and how does it relate to women’s empowerment and feminism. So, like analyzing the language and meaning of content, it influenced my thinking as well.

My diary entries also allowed the space for the assimilation of new information and self-discovery through the process of reflection. Cycles of analysis and reflection were important in my process:

Because we use the diary, this explains our everyday experiences toward the project that we are doing. And then we come back to the diary and read the diary and reflect what it means to us and also, we analyze the data from the diary to make conclusions about what we have learned and to evaluate the success of the project.

Importantly, the action research process also became a form of feminist activism with reciprocity of learning as a valuable result of undertaking feminist action research. As I learned from the research process, I was also able to impart more information regarding feminism and feminist activism and to advocate the importance of these issues during interviews with other university students involved in the Seeds of Sharing project, which was discussed in both my final interview and my final diary entries. This is particularly important given that all university students interviewed cited knowledge about women’s empowerment, feminism, and feminist activism as a major barrier to advocating for solutions for women’s issues.

So, I think that the interviews played an important part to provide the knowledge (for participants). It’s something that they can learn from. Not just that we get the information from them, but they learn something too.

The impact of this process was highlighted when a male participant stated at the end of the interview, “I am going to be a feminist and be more than just 50% because I also have a sister and my mother is female and of course I have female friends.” The reciprocal learning process, in which interviewer and interviewee engaged in conversations about feminism and feminist activism, led to a transformation in the way that the I viewed feminist activism.

From Feminist Belief to Activism

Through the cyclical process of researching and reflecting, applying new information gained regarding the problem at hand, and undertaking further research through additional interviews, I experienced an important transformation, shifting from a belief in the importance of feminism, which initially I struggled to define, to embracing feminist practice and activism within the Cambodian context. In my initial interview and early diary entries I discussed feminism as a belief to be discussed, and I thought that discussion was my main form of practicing feminism and feminist activism. While I identified as a feminist and feminist activist, I also admitted, “I haven’t really gotten involved in any feminist activist activities, but feminism is one of my values.” Prior to my experience with feminist action research, also I felt that my role and activities as a feminist and activist were in “supporting and encouraging” women and by raising my feminist voice in classroom scenarios. For example, I once stated my opinion against Chbab Srey in a university class, but I was discouraged to do so in the future by my peers.

In my final interview and final diary entries, I continued to value voice, support, and encouragement as feminist activism, but I continued to struggle with how I might navigate the cultural expectations of the conservative Cambodian society, and how I could more effectively engage in feminist activism. During the action research project, I expanded my own vision for feminist activism, stating, “I think that we are reaching the goals (of the project) because I have seen myself understand more about feminism, women’s empowerment, and what I should do more and continue doing.” I also envision my feminist activism through my leadership capacity and my future career goals as a female professor:

So, I really want to be a professor, and one of the motivations that keeps me working hard is that in the future I am going to be teaching and meeting a lot of students and that is the moment that I can think of working with female students and empower them and just to be on their side because I don’t have that experience in my university life.

A substantial difficulty that I face after conducting this research is how I can apply this newfound understanding of feminism and feminist activism to the Seeds of Sharing pilot project. However, as I continue to engage in mentorship and the expansion of the project, this path of activism might become clearer, particularly through engaging in future cycles of action research.

Individualism Within Collectivism

An important and profoundly personal transformation was a reckoning of feminism and feminist activism within the collectivist and patriarchal nature of Cambodia culture and society. Through the research process, I also began to question the effectiveness of the advocacy of feminism and feminist activism as participants challenged the ability of feminism to represent Cambodian culture. This concern centered around a belief of feminism as extreme and the potential for ostracizing oneself from community and society. This contradiction with Cambodian culture threatens the ability to expand others’ awareness of feminism and feminist activism. As I explained in my final interview:

Rather than being too extreme, and at the same time you are isolated from other people, and there is no way that you can be connected to people and to get closer to them and explain to them about the problem.

This statement highlights the collectivist nature of Cambodian society, in which the “greater good” supersedes the needs of the individual, and the importance of resisting exclusion and being ostracized for feminist beliefs, practices, and activism. For three university students whom I interviewed, feminism was an unknown concept. For one participant, who labeled herself a feminist, the term was deemed a Western concept. I also take this stance as I described, “I don’t think that it comes from the East but it comes from the West, to describe people who have a strong belief in women’s capacity.” This was a conclusion that I drew as a result of my interviews with the other university students. Yet all university students were familiar and relatively comfortable with the term women’s empowerment.

Even women’s empowerment was often described by the other students as an individual act, or something that women could achieve. Perhaps with the help of others, women could become empowered through self-motivation, self-confidence, perseverance, and particularly through applying themselves in educational endeavors.

All students whom I interviewed cited traditional stereotypes about women as a limitation to women’s empowerment, particularly regarding education. They also deemed it an individual woman’s responsibility to challenge traditional stereotypes and saw this as a form of feminist activism and supporting women’s empowerment. Statements such as “family and people around do not encourage her daughters or women to pursue higher education or joining in big events because they think that women cannot go around a stove” (an old Khmer proverb meaning women are supposed to be in the in kitchen making food and looking after kids at home) were expressed by all participants. Challenging these stereotypes was considered an individual endeavor that should be taken up by women who are feminists or who support women’s empowerment in order to drive collective social change. This individualism, however, gains approval when it falls within the expectations and beliefs of the greater society. One male participant went so far as to assert that only women who follow the rules of Cambodian culture and society deserve empowerment, stating:

I have many female friends, but I value only those who work hard and are proactive in team work. For those who are careless and don’t , I don’t support them. If we want to empower women we should also look into what kind of people they are.

While he was alone in expressing these views, the notion of feminist activists working within sociocultural expectations became a central concern of mine, as expressed in my final interview. Ultimately, I drew two primary conclusions from my interrogation of feminism and feminist activism within the Cambodian context. First, the wholesale adoption of feminism and feminist activism as the solution to women’s issues in Cambodia should be rejected, as “one thing that I observed from that was that even though feminism is good, but I think that it is not effective if we take all the Western ideas and put them into the Eastern ideas.” Accordingly, since the concept is adopted from the Western world, it can cause conflicts with expectations, culture, and practices of Cambodian society and culture. Therefore, taking the activists’ methods from the West may not be effective in Cambodian culture, which can be a means to be protective of women’s bodies and the way women behave in the society. As I see it, “We are in a conservative society, like most of Eastern nations, so I think that if we want to make that idea effective, just make it under the culture, under the concepts of our culture.” As I explored this idea throughout this project, I concluded that this means that activists should not have attitudes or behaviors that are disliked by the society, such as by using her body to wear inappropriate clothes or having tattoos just to show people that she is a feminist. Instead of making impacts, she could be criticized and rejected by the society.

I do believe that there is a way that she can follow Cambodian culture and promote feminism at the same time, although I am continuing to explore this path and my role in it. Supporting this newly developed reasoning, I found that culture can change over time and that it can also be used as a resource in making a positive transformation for women. As culture is a mindset that people strongly value and believe in, if feminism is promoted within the culture it will be more influential. This understanding of culture and feminism could be further interrogated and examined through several rounds of the action research project which would allow for further learning and reflection opportunities.

Feminist Activism Among Cambodian University Students: Activism Under the System

Voicing feminist concerns and organizing feminist activism through official universities is a challenge in Cambodia. I have often had difficulties in voicing my own feminist ideals at the university level, including classes which were headed predominantly by male university professors but attended primarily by female students in my female-dominated major. There is a lack of support regarding feminism and women’s empowerment, as there are few female professors in my department. With little to no organized opportunities for feminist activism, i.e., feminist organizations on campus or other student gatherings, I, and the university students whom I interviewed, turned to a student-level approach to feminist activism, which allowed female university students to support one another. Participants in this research did not discuss organizing on a larger scale as important for feminist activism in Cambodia. In fact, as I stated in my final interview:

In Cambodia, it is not like in the U.S. where students can write a petition to the state and you know do some sort of big event. One thing that I have observed that is possible is that being outspoken and outstanding and involved more in society, and in the event and in the workshops, you start asking questions. So, in the workshop you can share your opinions. So be brave and talk about what you think and what you believe in, and people start to recognize you and they are interested in what you say. They start to think and that this is like changing.

While a number of university students in this study engaged in a variety of grassroots activities to support feminism and women’s empowerment, we found that their main activities fell under two distinct categories: individual opportunities for feminist activism and collective opportunities for feminist activism.

Individual Feminist Activism

The university students in this study frequently cited the need for, and the opportunity to, provide support for women’s empowerment and feminist activism through role models, leadership, and individual mentorship or guidance of other women. All students in this study discussed the lack of or perceived lack of female role models in villages and at the university level, while most students stated that being a good role model was an effective way to empower girls and women and engage in feminist activism. In my experience, this engagement in activism was linked to being a female leader, which was frequently cited as being intimately tied to women’s empowerment and feminist activism. In diary entries and interviews, I discussed being a leader or referred to leadership 22 times as important for feminist activism and activists. In being a strong female leader, women can serve as role models and can show others that women can lead. When discussing why I was learning coding through a technology workshop, I stated in my diary, “As a female leader, we should know everything!” Other university students valued the potential impacts that could come from leadership, such as being able to give back to their communities. The importance of “giving back” as a means of feminist activism and as a way to support women’s empowerment was important to these university students. The school owner who received support from the Seeds of Sharing project stated:

There are many students who are willing to come back to their community and give back what they learn, share knowledge, or do research about the needs of the community so I think that our youth keep doing it even though they do not have financial resources, but they still can come to share their knowledge like your team (Seed of Sharing) as an example.

Although analysis revealed distinctly individual approaches to feminist activism, there was also a focus on collective feminist practices and activism by the female university students interviewed. These collectivist approaches are not unique to the Cambodian context but are important given the collective nature of Cambodian society and the lack of opportunities for large-scale activism through the university experience.

Collective Feminist Activism

Beyond individual efforts related to feminist activism, the university students whom I interviewed also discussed collective approaches to support women’s empowerment and each other, which included workshops, networks, and collaboration. Most university students, including myself, discussed the importance of workshops as opportunities for learning about women’s empowerment, feminism, and feminist activism. Although there is a lack of feminist organizations at my university, I have attended a number of workshops, which I discussed in my diary. I view the Seeds of Sharing workshop as an opportunity that serves as feminist activism. Another university student interviewed suggested that “workshops that bring social topics or new regulations for them in the rural area so that they can have knowledge (about women’s empowerment)” are an important approach toward expanding women’s awareness of feminism. In the absence of organized feminist university organizations or gatherings, these workshops provided the me with an opportunity to learn more about women’s empowerment and feminism and women’s issues abroad, as well as to network with other women. They also gave a platform for my own voice through the opportunity to ask questions or make comments. After attending a workshop, I wrote in my diary about the impact of these feminist networks:

I have been meeting many female professional these days. So, I feel empowered by their presence. I am not alone to do things for my dreams and to do more to help empower other women. I hope Seed of Sharing will worth beneficial for (the English school owner).

In rural areas, an inability to connect with these workshops and with other women was seen as an important barrier, and even an opportunity for men to support women further. The value of workshops as a means of connecting women to knowledge and feminist/women’s empowerment ideas was discussed across all participants.

Finally, collaboration was cited as a means of feminist activism. This included collaboration between men and women seeking to solve problems together, as well as policy makers, and in particular female policy makers, collaborating with university students via research in order to create relevant policy to support female university students. In my final interview, I suggested:

There is potential to collaborate by doing research. Before making policy, it is important to understand what is the issue. What problem are we solving first? So, if we want to make policy regarding university students, or something like that, it is best to hear some voices from the university students, especially the female ones.

I did not recognize this potential collaboration in my initial interview, in which I struggled to identify policy related to feminism or women’s empowerment. Instead, this was an important evolution of my understanding through this feminist action research project.

The need to collaborate with men in feminist activism was also important to the female university students whom I interviewed. While these female students discussed the need for men to serve as allies and to become part of the solution, the male students whom I interviewed only discussed decreasing negative sexual behaviors, for example not harassing women, as the primary way that men could collaborate with women and solve women’s issues. Female students in this study recognized the need to strengthen male university student involvement in feminist issues and collaboration with feminist activists, although the practices involved in this collaboration remained elusive.


This work contributes to a body of literature that examines feminism and feminist activism among university students. The findings highlight the impact of feminist action research on one female Cambodian university student’s understandings of feminism and feminist activism through research conducted during a pilot grant writing workshop and mentoring system at an English school in rural Cambodia. Findings include a process of reciprocal learning about feminism and feminist activism between the second author and participants in the action research project, a transition from feminist beliefs to a focus on feminist activism, and the need to consider the balance of individual feminist activism within the collectivist nature of Cambodian society. Additionally, grassroots feminist activism was revealed in the everyday experiences of the Cambodian student participants as a means to learn about feminism and engage in activism in the absence of opportunities for large-scale activism such as protests, political lobbying, and university-based feminist organizations. These grassroots activities include individual and collective approaches to activism, which circumvent a university system that silences feminist voices through lack of discussion, few female professors to support explorations of feminism and feminist activism, a lack of courses in women’s studies, and teacher-centered pedagogical practices.

This study supports findings that feminism is often considered a foreign or Western concept (Jacobsen, 2010; Roces, 2010), but our work also indicates that students are not averse to the label of “feminist” when engaged in a discussion of the concept of feminism. This finding is important, as embracing the label of feminist has been linked to increased feminist activism (Yoder et al., 2011) and indicates that Cambodian university students could be open to embracing a form of feminism which interrogates and challenges traditional stereotypes and cultural expectations while respecting and maintaining the collectivist aspect of Cambodian culture. This work highlights grassroots feminist activism, such as workshops and networking, which are also found in “Western” feminist activism (Baumgardner, & Richards, 2005; Sowards & Renegar, 2006), suggesting that feminism and feminist activism are not as foreign as Cambodian university students initially might believe. Strengthening feminist beliefs and activism through research could be a key to amplifying student voice and shifting gendered power dynamics on a larger scale. However, doing so would require contextually relevant information about the tenets of feminism and feminist activism along with support in developing activism which centers student voice, and Cambodian culture, while challenging power dynamics. For example, local, student-developed resources and research, such as feminist action research, should be undertaken with more university students in Cambodia.

In this endeavor, balancing the individual and the collective must be carefully addressed, as adherence to dominant social norms can reproduce power inequalities. Yet wholesale rejection of values in a collectivist society can have serious implications for feminist activists and feminism. Expectations of individual action to alleviate the collective problem of women’s oppression can hold women individually accountable for larger social change and could mask the need for changes in the collective social system (Fitzsimmons et al., 2018). While we found that feminist action research helped transform certain aspects of knowledge of feminism and feminist activism, the tension between individualism and collectivism remained unresolved. A major limitation of this work was that, due to time constraints, a single cycle of action research was undertaken in this study. Multiple rounds of feminist action research would better support university students who are undertaking similar research to work through the tensions of feminism and sociocultural expectations, such as reckoning the individual within collectivism.

This project also highlights a need for substantial infusion of accessible feminist theory into the feminist action research process—an important lesson learned in this process. As Frisby and associates (2009) cautioned,

The danger of not drawing on existing feminist theories in action research in deductive ways is that some of the sources and consequences of gender inequalities may be overlooked, misunderstood, or difficult to name because of entrenched power hierarchies within a community. (p. 16)

This reminder is especially important given the reciprocal learning revealed in this study. Cycles of deductive and inductive feminist theorizing through feminist action research with Cambodian university students could reconcile or reduce the tension between feminism, individualism, collectivism, and sociocultural expectations. This possibility highlights an area of future research. Adding feminist action research to the feminist activist “toolkit” of Cambodian university students will strengthen their ability to engage in the interrogation and dismantling of inequitable power dynamics and support them in creating a more equitable Cambodian society.


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Identity, Culture, and Iterative Curriculum Development: Collaborating with Girls from Indigenous Communities to Improve Education

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 7, Special Issue                          IJSV                           May 2020

Identity, Culture, and Iterative Curriculum Development: Collaborating with Girls from Indigenous Communities to Improve Education

Kayla M. Johnson – University of Cincinnati

Joseph Levitan – McGill University

Citation: Johnson, K. M., & Levitan, J. (2020). Identity, culture, and iterative curriculum development: Collaborating with girls from Indigenous communities to improve education. International Journal of Student Voice, 7.

Abstract: Girls from Indigenous communities often experience significant marginalization in schools as their voices are not sought out or heard, and their identities and values are not acknowledged or reflected in educational practices. In this study we collaborate with girl students from Quechua communities in the Peruvian Andes. We engage the students in a participatory, photo-based student voice research process to listen to and learn from the students so that educators in this context can ground curricula in the girls’ identities and cultures. This study is part of an iterative student voice curriculum design project; the results have implications for educators interested in engaging marginalized students to improve education through culturally grounded curriculum design.

Keywords: curriculum design; collaborative methods; action research; Indigenous education; culturally grounded curriculum; photo-cued interviewing


Around the world, there are loud calls to create school curricula that represent the realities of Indigenous students (Castagno & Brayboy, 2008). However, curriculum makers rarely know or investigate the realities and cultures of Indigenous students in a grounded way. Understanding students’ and parents’ identities, cultures, values, traditions, and goals is critical to the development of culturally grounded educational initiatives (Levitan, 2019; Levitan & Johnson, 2020). Culturally grounded curriculum, which is an extension of the culturally responsive curriculum (Gay, 2010) and culturally sustaining pedagogy (Paris, 2012; Paris & Alim, 2014) movements, is particularly important for marginalized student populations who are often alienated in and through traditional educational practices (Delpit, 2007; Gálvez & Gavilán, 2016; Gay, 2010; Shabidul & Karim, 2015). Students who can “see themselves”—their identities, cultures, values, traditions, and goals—in their schooling perform better academically and have healthier self-conceptions (Castagno & Brayboy, 2008; Gay, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 1995).

To develop curriculum that is grounded in community cultures, educators must collaborate and dialogue with community members (Donald et al., 2011; Savage et al., 2011). In this article we highlight findings from a photo-cued student voice research project in which we entered into collaboration and dialogue with Quechua (Indigenous) students in the Peruvian Andes to make sense of their identities and values in order to ground curriculum in their culture. Since 2009, we have worked with Indigenous students and their parents in this region to collaboratively develop educational initiatives that respond to and are grounded in their values. These students participate in a non-governmental organization (NGO) that provides access to secondary school for Indigenous girl students from rural communities (for more on this initiative, see Levitan, 2015). Our continued engagement with this initiative has prompted us to continually investigate the kinds of opportunities that will contribute to community-defined goals.

This article discusses the second iteration of a collaborative research project with students and parents from the NGO to investigate how educators can work to ground curriculum in community cultures, values, and identities. Our first study, conducted in 2014, revealed that “salir adelante,” which means “to get ahead” in Spanish, was a shared goal for the Indigenous students and parents with whom we worked (Levitan & Johnson, 2020). While community members identified a variety of other goals, the development of job skills and the resulting financial prosperity were highly desired ways for the Indigenous community members we spoke with to “get ahead.” While this goal carries different connotations, particularly when viewed through development, postcolonial, feminist, and critical perspectives (see Levitan, 2018 for more on the implications of using various theories in research analyses), developing opportunities that were grounded in these goals provided the foundation for the culturally grounded curriculum we originally co-created in this context.

Through reflecting on our previous work, we developed a process-oriented and community-driven approach to collaborative culturally grounded curriculum development. In this article we follow Pinar’s (2011) definition of curriculum as a process that answers the question: What knowledge is of the most worth? In doing so, we built upon the work of Paris (2012) and Paris and Alim (2014), who argue that existing conceptualizations of culturally relevant and culturally responsive pedagogy are unable to remain dynamic and critical in a constantly changing world. Thus, we developed five principles of our conception of Culturally Grounded Curriculum development in response to the current thinking about asset-based education (Paris & Alim, 2014), particularly with Indigenous communities:

  1. Curriculum development is an iterative process.
  2. Curricula and objectives are built with the community.
  3. Curriculum content is grounded in community epistemologies.
  4. Students are encouraged to critically question and value their realities and (re)make their world as a response to unjust structures.
  5. Success is defined collaboratively and is meant to (re)make social and economic realities. (Levitan & Johnson, 2020)

As principle 1 states, in order to maintain a foundation in students’ realities, developing culturally grounded curriculum requires iteration. Students change, and so do their values and identities, as students develop and encounter more of the world. Therefore, evaluating existing practices and revisiting community ideas is important to ensure that the curriculum remains grounded in their interests, needs, and goals. This study revisits learning goals, values, and identities of different Indigenous girl students who currently participate in the same educational NGO from our previous study. We chose to discuss students’ identities as a way to access deeper facets of culture because we learned during the preliminary stages of this research that students found the concept of culture too abstract. Identities, however, seemed to offer deeper, more concrete insights into how we can construct educational spaces and activities that are more grounded in the students’ cultures. Through this approach, we aim to provide these students with a space to share their ideas and to allow for their voices to contribute to the development of a curriculum that is grounded in who they are and what they want and need.

The findings presented in this article are part of a larger study that investigates different participatory methodological approaches for exploring the influence of culturally grounded curriculum, and education access more broadly, on Indigenous students’ identities. Here, we use one of those methods—photo-cued interviewing (Johnson, 2017, 2018)—to collaboratively explore with students what is important to them and how we might be able to create more culturally-grounded educational opportunities. We address the question: How can we respond to students’ voices in order to ground curriculum in their identities?

We begin with an overview of literature underscoring the history and importance of developing culturally grounded curriculum with Indigenous communities, and the need for incorporating students’ voices in that process. We then present our approach to interpreting students’ voices as they relate to curriculum, followed by a description of our collaborative methods. Next, we present students’ voices and photos, our analyses, and the implications of this work for creating culturally grounded curriculum. Finally, we offer recommendations and future avenues for research for practitioners and scholars committed to building curriculum that is both co-developed with students and is culturally grounded.

Literature Review

The idea of collaborating with students to build curriculum has had a small but steady presence in the literature since the late 1990s (Brooker & Macdonald, 1999). Practitioners and theorists who focus on incorporating student voice in curriculum design mostly focus on the benefits and advocacy for its use, as they argue that it improves student buy-in, motivation, and critical thinking skills (Jagersma, 2010). It also is a socially just practice, as it ensures that those who are most affected by the curriculum—the students—have a say in what and how they learn (Bovill et al., 2011; Brooker & Macdonald, 1999; Jagersma, 2010; Mitra & Gross, 2009; Thompson, 2009). However, limited research has explored collaborative curriculum development practices with students from non-dominant backgrounds, such as Indigenous students.

This research on student voice and curriculum development has run parallel to calls for greater autonomy and self-determination in the creation of educational practices for Indigenous students. Educators, legislators, and other advocates have called for education in Indigenous communities to be based in the specific epistemologies and values of each community (Castagno & Brayboy, 2008; Donald et al., 2011; Huaman, 2013; Madjidi & Restoule, 2008). These calls identify how traditional curricula, which often are developed in or influenced by the dominant, Western society, marginalize Indigenous ways of being and thinking that are so crucial for a healthy and prosperous life within and beyond the communities. Western paradigms for curriculum development have created particularly oppressive educational practices for Indigenous students in both North and South America (Aikenhead & Jegede, 1999; Alfred & Corntassel, 2005; Gálvez & Gavilán, 2016; Huaman, 2013). The most socially just solution is to build education based in each community’s unique culture, which is why we have coined the term culturally grounded curriculum. Given the limited availability of resources, and the historical colonization of education systems that serve Indigenous students, which has caused generations of destructive influence on Indigenous knowledges and ways of being, the question that arises from the above critique and suggestion is: How can educators in Indigenous communities build curriculum grounded in students’ cultures? One answer, we propose, is by building a bridge between Indigenous education research and student voice research.

Building curriculum through collaborating with Indigenous students is also in alignment with recent work by Paris (2012) about culturally sustaining education. As cultures are not uniform, monolithic, or static (Paris, 2012), it is essential to make educational practices and policies a living and evolving praxis. To be culturally sustaining, it is best practice to speak with those who are inheriting as well as re-making the culture—in this case, the students. It is also a best practice to speak to elders, such as parents, grandparents, and community leaders, to safeguard that students are, to some extent, inheriting the cultural knowledge on which their forbearers wish for them to build. In this article, we focus specifically on students’ voices, and we plan to address parent/elder voices in future research.

Finally, a look at the unique situation of girl students in marginalized spaces is necessary, as the intersections of Indigeneity and gender in society make realities for the participants in this study, as opposed to their male counterparts, more complex and fraught in terms of voice and opportunity (Crenshaw, 1997). Young women in Indigenous communities live realities that can be extremely challenging because they face at least two layers of oppression, as both their Indigenous and gender identities present several barriers to opportunity, power, and safety (Ames & Rojas, 2010; Shahidul & Karim, 2015; Stromquist, 2001). Thus, engaging young, Indigenous women in student voice activities can support girls’ empowerment to know that their voices matter and help foster skills and beliefs to ensure that they can change their realities if they so choose.

Theoretical Framework

As we analyze students’ voices for ways to create a curriculum that is grounded in their culture, values, goals, and identities, two theoretical approaches inform our interpretive framework. We first use sensemaking theory to form conclusions about how students’ discussion of their identities and values can further inform our approach to curriculum development. Sensemaking involves “coming up with plausible understandings and meanings to complex phenomena; testing them with others and via action; and then refining our understandings or abandoning them in favor of new ones that better explain a shifting reality” (Ancona, 2012, p. 5). Sensemaking is most useful when our present understandings of the world become complicated or change, which presents us with surprises for which we are unprepared or confronts us with problems to solve (Heifetz et al., 2009). Sensemaking allows us to see “what is going on,” enables us to map the connections between complex issues, and affords us a clearer idea of how to engage in change (Ancona, 2012). Ultimately, sensemaking helps individuals locate their agency in complex processes (Hernes & Maitlis, 2012; Weick, 1995).

Sensemaking, which is most often studied in organizational leadership (e.g., Allen & Penuel, 2015; Coburn, 2016; Degn, 2015), also provides a useful framework for making sense of students’ identities and values: we can understand “what is going on” in the learning process (i.e., how current practices and realities are linked to identity development) and discover “what we can do” about it (i.e., deciding which changes may best support positive identity development) (Ancona, 2012).

As mentioned above, this article uses data from a larger study that explores the strengths of various participatory methods for investigating how education impacts Indigenous girl students’ identities. We use a pragmatic intersectional identity theory (Levitan & Carr-Chellman, 2018; Levitan et al., 2018) to understand students’ conceptualizations of their identities and the implications those conceptualizations have for creating culturally grounded educational programing. This identity theory understands identities as self-conceptions related to culture (e.g., Indigenous, Western), role (e.g., profession, sibling, parent, student), social group (e.g., race, gender, class), and personal characteristics (e.g., outgoing, proud, outdoorsy). As self-conceptions influence wellbeing and self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997), identities as self-conceptions play an important role in students’ lives, and can help educators understand whether educational programing (e.g., the curriculum) is responsive to their identities and is meeting their learning goals and needs. The development of positive identities and self-conceptions are central to the mission of culturally grounded educational initiatives, making this framework important for our study.

While not an explicit part of our interpretive framework, the role of gender, specifically young women’s identities as they function pragmatically in society, is given special consideration, as the issue of gender is an underlying theme that has particular salience in this study. The ways in which a young woman’s identity develops in relation to (a) the different power structures they face, (b) men within the community, (c) the assumption of masculinity as “the norm” in colonized spaces, and (d) the role of women in a globalizing society all underlay the ways in which the students’ words are interpreted and filtered to inform curriculum decisions.



Fifteen Quechua-speaking girl students between the ages of 12 and 18 took part in this research. The students, who come from eight rural communities in the highlands of the Urubamba Valley in the Peruvian Andes, are members of an NGO that facilitates access to secondary school for Indigenous girls whose communities are located too far away from the nearest schools for them to safely commute every day. The NGO provides safe housing, supplementary education, nutritious meals, and extracurricular activities throughout the school week. Because our initial study was conducted with students from the NGO five years ago, this student population is different from our previous population, as some girls have graduated, and new girls have entered. An updated study, with more participatory and collaborative methods, that investigates this new context is valuable and necessary for the kind of iterative curriculum development that we found necessary in our previous work.

Because our research approach is collaborative and participatory, we are the other participants in this study. The first author is a White woman originally from a low-income area in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in the United States. She has volunteered with the NGO since 2015 and has developed other culturally grounded educational initiatives in the Urubamba Valley region. The second author is the co-founder and director of programing and operations for the NGO, where he has worked since 2009. He is a White man originally from an urban city in the United States. In addition to our different identities, which impact our work with these girls, language ability also complicates our research and continued work in this community, as all study participants (students and authors) are second-language Spanish speakers, with varying levels of proficiency. We discuss this challenge in more depth in the Limitations section.

Research Process

To create educational practices in alignment with our five principles of culturally grounded curriculum development, we must use a research approach that provides students with the opportunity to have their voices heard (Mitra, 2007). Thus, we use photo-cued interviewing (PCI; Johnson, 2017, 2018) to elicit and explore students’ voices to understand their identity development and how to create more culturally grounded educational opportunities for them. PCI is a novel visual-verbal, dialogic, and co-constructionist data collection technique that capitalizes on contemporary youth’s ubiquitous use of photography as a means of expression, meaning making, and communication (Levine & Dean, 2012)—to understand their experiences in a non-invasive way that is rich with context and rigorous in methodology, but also speaks the language of adolescents (Gibson et al., 2013). PCI as a method facilitates participant-driven dialogue around participants’ photos, which serve as visual representations of their experiences and/or meaning making. Like Tobin et al.’s (1989) video-cued ethnography approach, the photos are not necessarily viewed as data, but as methods for eliciting data (i.e., students’ voices), and have been demonstrated to prompt conversations that center participant voices and uncover deeper and more nuanced understandings of participants’ experiences. In this article, we propose PCI as one possible method for engaging in collaborative curriculum development work.

Our 15 student-participants were each loaned a digital camera or camera-equipped smartphone and were asked to take photographs that represented their identities, answering the question, “Quien soy?” (“Who am I?”). Each student had one week to take photos, which gave them time to capture images from their most frequented spaces—the NGO, their school, their home community, etc. Before taking pictures, students engaged in a workshop on practicing respect and safety when taking photos of others. At the end of one week, each student selected three to five photos that represented their most salient identities.

Students’ selected photos were then used to prompt conversation meant to interrogate and understand their identities in an effort to iteratively develop a culturally grounded curriculum for the NGO. Students were asked to explain each photo and how it represented their identities. The authors, who moderated the conversations, asked probing questions meant to understand what kinds of educational activities or topics would best respond to students’ identities as they described them. Because PCI is a dialogic, multivocal method (Johnson, 2017), the authors (when appropriate and/or necessary) also shared their own ideas and insights regarding students’ photos and about education in the Urubamba Valley, which helped to further prompt conversation and make sense of students’ experiences, meaning making, and identities. At the conclusion of the interview, students were explicitly asked what kinds of topics or activities they would like to do or study at the NGO that would support their goals and identities.

Students shared their selected photos during small focus groups (N=4, with 2-3 girls per group). Three girls requested to participate in an individual interview instead. All conversations were conducted in Spanish, which was a shared second language for the researchers and participants, although some girls used their native language, Quechua, in focus groups, which was then translated by the other students for the researchers. Focus groups averaged approximately 45 minutes. Interviews averaged approximately 30 minutes.

We also met with parents to inform them of the study and discuss with them their views on the questions and process of the study, to be sure to align with Indigenous research ethics (Snow et al., 2016). All parents approved of the study and signed an informed consent document that approved the participation of their students. All participant names in this article are pseudonyms.


Focus groups and interview data were transcribed verbatim. We use our two frameworks—pragmatic identity theory (Levitan & Carr-Chellman, 2018) and sensemaking (Ancona, 2012; Weick, 1995)—to guide our coding process, while also considering how gender influences or emerges from students’ voices. We performed our analysis with Spanish transcriptions and translated them to English once analysis was completed.

Findings and Discussion

The photos and ideas that students shared offer deep insights into students’ identities and how they identify (or do not identify) with the various cultures of which they are a part. Photos commonly depicted the mountains surrounding the Urubamba Valley, animals raised on family farmland (such as cows, alpacas, and guinea pigs), flowers, clothing and other textiles, family members, and photos with other girls from the NGO, among others. Despite the NGO’s current culturally grounded curricular practices, students demonstrated that their education has both supported healthy self-conceptions and created tensions that have negatively influenced some of their identities. This finding was particularly salient in students’ reporting about how they navigate their various group and social identities. Because of this tension, some students offered suggestions for adding or changing aspects of the curriculum to make it more grounded in their interests and identities. We identified three major themes through our analysis, which we use to organize our findings: Forming and Maintaining Relationships; Balancing Social Norms; and Supporting Community and Cultural Pride. We first present relevant quotes and photos representing these themes, then discuss our analysis and the implications of students’ voices for building a more culturally grounded curriculum.

Forming and Maintaining Relationships

Camila, 18, shared two photos that represented the relationships she has with others. The first photo (Figure 1) showed Camila and her two younger siblings in their home community. She explained:

We are the only children still in my house and we are studying in school. We are the only ones my father is supporting [to go to school]. He wants all of us to be better off than he is. My siblings are the only ones in my house who I can talk to. I don’t know what to say to my dad, or my mom, so when I have things to talk about, I talk to my brother or sister.

Figure 1

Camila and Her Two Younger Siblings[1]

Camila contrasted this strained relationship with her parents to the one she has with her siblings and with the close, sister-like friendships that she has cultivated with other girls at the NGO. As she described her second photo (Figure 2), she said:

My dear sisters—we are always united wherever we are. Even though we will separate in the future, we will always remember the memories that we have shared, all the moments that have happened to us. We are united and will always support each other.

Figure 2

Camila and Four Other Girls from the NGO at a Waterfall

When we asked Camila if she had any suggestions to make her education more grounded in her culture, she did not offer ideas that spoke directly to her strained relationship with her parents. Instead, she suggested that we have a yearly pago (explained below):

I would like to do a pago, which is a custom in my community where we give offerings to Pachamama [Mother Earth], or to the Apus [mountain deities]. If you do not do a pago to Pachamama it’s like you’re ungrateful to your land. We should do it at the beginning of the school year to have a good school year and a good year at home and to keep working. If we do, the Pachamama and the Apus will help us. My grandfather always gets annoyed and worried if he forgets to do a pago!


Camila, like her brother, sister, and many of the other girls at the NGO, has gained access to a higher level of education than her parents and elder community members. Her experiences have created new and strong familial-like bonds with girls from other communities who are also gaining greater access to education than their families had. In addition, because her siblings have had the same opportunities as Camila, their similar experiences have kept them close. However, these new and different experiences, perhaps, have fostered a different outlook on life, and may have created some of the distance she feels from her parents. It is clear that Camila’s father supports her as she continues her studies, and such strong support from parents of their daughters’ education was reported in our previous research. However, it may be that Camila’s access to education has made it difficult to maintain a close relationship with her parents in the same way that she can with her formally educated siblings and friends.

At the same time, teenagers often develop tensions with their parents during adolescence, a phenomenon that research has shown to be highly prevalent between parents and daughters (Birditt et al., 2009). Nonetheless, Camila’s case is more complex because of the intense identity and cultural shifts that she is experiencing through accessing education, which likely have impacted her relationships with those who have not experienced the same shifts. Camila demonstrates a conflict within her group identities—between her formally educated friends and siblings and her non-formally educated parents.

While forming new, strong, and happy relationships with the other girls at the NGO is a positive aspect of Camila’s education, the fact that Camila feels distant from her parents is an important issue that should be addressed, and one that can be supported with iterative, grounded curriculum design. For example, organizing different activities that bring students and parents into meaningful interaction more often, rather than just when the girls go home on the weekends, may help maintain and strengthen relationships between the girls and their parents. However, the practicality of this idea would need to be discussed with the parents, as they do not have time or resources to travel two or more hours to visit the NGO during the week. Nonetheless, in our discussion, Camila clearly identified an issue (relationships with parents) that was echoed by other students as well. The importance of familial and community connections are fundamental norms in Quechua culture, which makes an important issue to address in a culturally grounded curriculum.

In contrast to her strained relationship with her parents, Camila’s connection to her new “sisters” with whom she lives at the dormitory speaks to her idea of a group of women who will be forever united and connected, a closeness that was absent in the rest of her discussion about relationships. The fondness with which she talks about her “sisters” and the strength and support she draws from their group identity seems to highlight the NGO as a space of girls’ empowerment, a positive outcome that becomes available when young women are able to bond together to overcome marginalization.

Our discussion of identity with Camila was not explicitly related to her idea to do a yearly pago at the NGO, although it was still valuable for helping us make sense of issues of identity and how educators can try to address some of those issues. Her suggestion implies that she has a desire to sustain cultural practices and identities as part of her education. Her idea for curriculum change speaks directly to cultural traditions that should be inherent aspects of education at the NGO. It also provides an attainable addition for the NGO curriculum.

Camila’s suggestion also may indirectly point to the relationships she wishes to maintain with her parents and grandparents. She learned from them the importance of conducting a pago at the beginning of an important endeavor. The conjunction of identifying the issue of relationship tensions (and group identity tensions) with her parents and wanting the NGO to do something that is of importance to her as well as her grandfather (and presumably parents as well), leads us to believe that organizing a pago could be a culturally-grounded way of bridging parent-school divides and maintaining familial connections. We could, for example, invite the families to be part of a pago each year; if parents and grandparents are welcomed at and present for the ceremony (which is customarily led by a community’s shaman), then tensions between parents and their children may decrease. Research shows that relations can be improved by fostering positive interactions between the parent, school, and student, as well as by facilitating experiences that reflect student and parent cultures and create common bonds of cultural pride (Gonzalez et al., 2018).

Balancing Social Norms

Isabella, 14, shared two photos of her wearing two different styles of clothing. In the first photo (Figure 3) Isabella is standing in a field in her home community wearing traditional Quechua clothing. In the second photo (Figure 4), Isabella is in the town square where the NGO is located and is wearing her school uniform. We had the following conversation about Isabella’s clothing preferences.

Kayla:  Which style of clothing do you prefer to wear?

Isabella: I like to wear my traditional clothing more. It is what my mother and the people in the community wear. My mother made [this skirt].

Joseph: [The skirt] is lovely. Why do you not wear this style of clothing [here at the NGO]?

Isabella: (awkwardly) I want to wear what everyone around me is wearing. That way, we are all wearing the same thing.

Figure 3

Isabella in Her Traditional Clothing

Figure 4

Isabella in Her School Uniform

While at school, the girls must wear their school uniform, but at the NGO, they can choose to wear whichever style of clothing they prefer. Yet despite preferring her typical clothing, Isabella chooses to wear more Western-style clothing while at the NGO because she wants to match everyone else. The other girls, as well as the house mother and volunteers, all wear Western-style clothing, like jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers.

When we asked Isabella how we could make the curriculum at the NGO more grounded in her culture, she mentioned weaving (Figure 5), which is a culturally important job in Quechua communities (Levitan & Johnson, 2020).

Isabella: My mother weaves [like in this picture], but I do not know how to weave like my mother.

Joseph: Would you like weaving classes? So you can learn to weave?

Isabella: I don’t know. (timidly) I don’t know if I will like learning to weave. Maybe my mother should teach me in my community.

Figure 5

Isabella’s Mother Weaving


In her discussion of clothing styles, Isabella demonstrates a conflict regarding her role and social identities; she prefers to wear her traditional Quechua clothing, but she does not wear them at the NGO—even though she is allowed to—because she wants to fit in with the other girls and people in the town. Over the past year, only one girl at the NGO chose to wear her traditional Quechua clothing, but she left to return to her community after only a few months.[2] The issue of clothing preference speaks directly to the issue of wanting to fit in, as well as navigating different social norms in the different spaces that the students inhabit. Wanting, learning, and struggling to fit in, like not talking to your parents, are also common issues for teenagers, particularly girls (Newman, 2010). Makarova and Birman (2016) have also shown that tensions exist for Indigenous and other racially/ethnically marginalized students when they must choose between maintaining their home styles of dress or wearing what the dominant group wears. In the case of Isabella, however, her education has introduced her to new norms that sometimes require different behaviors (such as dress style) from those in her home community. From her affect during the interview, it seems that she has some internal tensions regarding how she is supposed to dress, and how that relates to her sense of self.

This issue is further highlighted by what Isabella says about her interest in weaving. She wants to learn weaving, but she also does not seem to want to have those classes at the NGO. Instead, it seems that she would rather learn to weave from her mother at home. The process of learning from one’s elders is a highly valued tradition in Quechua culture. It is possible that some things, like learning to weave, may need to be done at home, and in the traditional elder-child apprenticeship model. One of the implications of this tension is that Isabella’s education should help her to reach her learning goals in a way that does not compromise traditional Quechua practices. For example, instead of offering certain lessons, like weaving, at the NGO, we can find feasible ways for the students to get “credit” for learning with and alongside their parents at home. Still, Isabella’s tensions highlight the need for educational practices that are more closely connected to students’ communities—both community members and community traditions.

Significantly, Isabella’s identification of clothing and weaving as key facets of her identity represent foundational, and gendered, aspects of Quechua culture. Both practices are highly valued; wearing traditional dress is one of the most significant markers of being proudly Quechua, and weaving is considered a culturally important and lucrative profession. Yet it is important to note that wearing traditional dress, for women, is a marker of femininity that carries certain assumptions about the kind of person one “is.” Similarly, being a weaver carries certain connotations about femininity and Indigeneity, which may limit the roles one can take on within the larger society as it is currently constructed. Of course, society can change without this practice changing, but the current reality is that weaving and traditional dress may exclude women from job opportunities and social mobility. In fact, our previous research revealed that students at the NGO, while identifying weaving as an important practice, did not consider it to be a desirable profession. They also indicated that wearing suits, which was their marker of having achieved success, was preferable to traditional Quechua clothing. Thus, future research that explores opportunities and tension between traditional practices, mobility, and gendered aspects of Indigenous identity is important.

Supporting Community and Cultural Pride

At the time of our interview, Luciana, one of the youngest girls at 12, had only been studying at the NGO for three months. She reticently shared a series of photos that were all taken in her home community. Her first photo (Figure 6) showed a tabla (handmade piece of cloth) with intricately sewn flowers. She said:

Luciana: My sister made this tabla. We sell them to tourists, but we also wear them when we go to school in my community.

Kayla: How do you feel about this tabla?

Luciana: I feel a little proud. It represents beauty, because many people make theirs with flowers. I like how it makes me look. I want to learn how to sew and to draw these flowers.

Figure 6

Tabla Handmade by Luciana’s Sister

Luciana’s second photo (Figure 7) was an image of a spiky plant:

This plant is called morumichi. It heals diseases or infections. It grows in my town. It represents more of our culture. I like to use this when I am sick because it will heal me.

Figure 7

Morumichi Plant from Luciana’s Community

When asked, Luciana did not offer any ideas for making the curriculum at the NGO more culturally grounded. Our conversation with Luciana was short. We attributed this brevity to her nascent relationship with us (as opposed to most of the other girls, whom we have known for several years), the newness of the NGO to her, and her still-emerging Spanish language capabilities. Her reticence is both an insight and a limitation that we discuss in a later section.


Each of the five photos Luciana shared—the tabla and the morumichi, plus a guinea pig and two views of the mountains from her house—were all directly connected to Luciana’s group identity with her community and the pride she takes in her Quechua culture. She frequently mentioned the prevalence and importance of these things in her community. She used the phrase “I like” several times, which signified a personal identity connection as well. These positive feelings contrasted with what some of the other girls, like Camila and Isabella, shared during their interviews. Because Luciana had only been studying at the NGO for about three months at the time of the interview, it is possible that tensions experienced and explained by Camila and Isabella had simply not yet manifested for Luciana. Perhaps her focus on her home community stemmed from her feeling a little homesick during the week, or maybe she has not yet encountered some of the negative stereotyping of rural life from her more urban classmates, which has been known to happen in the school she attends (see Levitan, 2015). Perhaps, like the others, her connections with these identities will become more nuanced and complex as she continues to learn and grow in the two worlds of home and school.

Yet, the fact that Luciana identified much more closely with her home community than did the girls who had been studying at the NGO longer suggests that education does pull students away from their communities and Indigenous cultural heritage. This, in turn, suggests a need for curricular practices that foster and maintain the close ties to communities and cultures that girls, like Luciana, may have when they first join the NGO. Camila’s idea of having a pago at the beginning of every school year may help, in conjunction with other culturally important practices built into the curriculum. Other ideas could include learning to draw and sew the designs for the tabla, as Luciana herself expressed interest in, though she did not explicitly recommend it become part of the curriculum. By establishing a curriculum that reflects students’ home cultures from the very beginning of their time at the NGO, we can work toward cultivating and sustaining more positive associations with students’ home communities as opposed to breaking them down.


Our collaborative investigation revealed that access to education, even an education that was previously designed to be culturally grounded, both strengthened and complicated the students’ group, role, social, and personal identities. Some students still felt connected to their home communities and Quechua identities, while others felt more removed from them. Some students identified gaps in our current practices and suggested activities that would fill those gaps, such as having a pago. Others did not suggest specific ideas but offered insights into things that are important to them, which can be useful for designing and implementing new culturally grounded activities or units in a curriculum. In their own ways, each girl noted the importance of culture and how navigating the contrasting cultures of their schools and homes can sometimes cause tensions personally, socially, and culturally. Students’ voices clearly point to the need for grounding curriculum in their culture, which might be able to mitigate these tensions.

Our process of exploring identity and curriculum with these students was a valuable, but complicated, process. For example, Luciana’s close connection to her community and her reticence in discussing the photos with us was a stark contrast to the animated way Camila engaged in the conversation and the distance she expressed feeling from her father. The differences between students of different ages and time spent at the NGO may offer some clues as to the ways in which students transition and navigate the issues and tensions they face, as well as opportunities and experiences offered through access to secondary education in a more urban town. Luciana, who was in her first year with the NGO, was clearly still closely connected to her community and was shy when speaking with us, while Camila, who had been studying at the NGO for five years and had a close rapport with us, seemed to have some distance from her parents but excitedly spoke with us at length. This difference points to two findings relevant to researchers interested in student voice and identity development, particularly when working with Indigenous young women. First, it highlights complex tensions and issues inherent in the education system and how that education system may influence students’ identities and their wellbeing. Second, it points to how educational practices can shift how students relate with people from different groups and backgrounds (Western, White educators, and Quechua parents)—a complex phenomenon that is simultaneously troubling from one perspective as well as empowering from another perspective (see Levitan, 2018).

The difference between Luciana and Camila’s descriptions and identities complements and contradicts existing research on immigrant, minority, and other marginalized students’ experiences in schools. For example, the fondness with which Luciana discusses her home community aligns with existing research that says younger students who enter into a culturally different education system experience higher levels of homesickness, which may manifest as expressing a fondness for their home culture (Poyrazli & Lopez, 2010). In contrast, several studies have found that tensions are highest at students’ point of entry into the new education system (e.g., Ames, 2013; Ames & Rojas, 2010; Good et al., 2010). This finding from prior research suggests that Luciana would experience greater tensions than Camila, but as our findings show, Camila expressed more tensions than Luciana. However, Luciana’s age, limited Spanish, and her unfamiliarity with us may help explain her silence on such tensions. Therefore, future research that more intentionally investigates the relationship between time spent within a new education system and the tensions experienced by Indigenous students in that system is necessary.

The similarities and differences of students’ voices, their participation in the research process, and their ideas for curriculum design exemplify the complicated, but not impossible, work of iteratively constructing a culturally grounded curriculum with students. Discussing students’ identities, as well as undergoing careful interpretation of the implications of students’ voices as they describe not only their suggestions, but also tensions in their lives, are important components of this work. Naming and making explicit the tensions, and presenting possibilities for addressing those tensions, seems to be a particularly salient promise of this activity. As compared to our past research, discussing students’ identities as a means of generating ideas about culturally grounded curriculum seemed to be a productive new approach. Asking students to reflect upon their identities as well as their learning goals and objectives, which change over time, and crafting curriculum that is relevant and grounded in these evolving interests, builds upon our previous work and highlights the importance of iteration.

Much of what the girls shared regarding how their education has affected their identities is not unique to this context. Research has shown that increased access to education has contributed to students’ feelings of isolation from their home communities, as well as their perceived need to negotiate between different social norms while not feeling wholly connected to any of them (e.g., Holdsworth, 2008; Rendón et al., 2000; Swail et al., 2003), which is particularly prevalent when the culture of the school is at odds with the culture of their home communities. Girl students from rural Indigenous communities who are educated away from home are especially susceptible to negative influences on their identities (UNESCO, 2005). Offering spaces for students to voice these tensions and offer their ideas for improvement is critical to developing culturally grounded practices that will both contribute to positive identity development and curtail negative outcomes.

As a girl-positive and girl-centric space, the NGO’s dormitory setting allowed students like Camila to feel a positive group identity with their dorm-mates, a narrative that ran throughout the students’ photos and interviews—particularly for the older girls. In that sense, the NGO, as a girl-positive space, seemed to be accomplishing the role of fostering self-confidence in the students’ womanhood. The gendered nature of many of our discussions was implicit, but it was often assumed that their identities as girls were a taken-for-granted, safe, positive, and powerful identity. There was no mention of feeling marginalized because of their girl identities, and we noticed the lack of the gendered tension in their narratives. Such a positive regard toward their gender identity is not the case for many girls, especially in Peru (see Ames, 2013).

Creating and facilitating iterative development processes through which curriculum can be grounded in and responsive to the cultures of students is a promising avenue toward socially just education practices. The students in this study highlight the importance of regular iteration in curriculum development practices by showing us how the curriculum that we developed just five years ago, but for a different group of girls, is not necessarily grounded in their cultures, values, and traditions, and does not always have positive impacts on their identities. By inviting students to share what is important to them, and by asking for their opinions on what we should do to better support them, we are able to identify strengths and weaknesses in our current approaches and to develop new approaches that are better grounded in our students’ cultures.

Just as in every educational institution, the population of students at the NGO, and thus the identities and values of that student population, changes every year; a curriculum that is appropriately grounded in students’ cultures, then, should be revisited and changed every year as well. Iterative curriculum design carries important implications for the ways in which curriculum might be rethought to be adaptive and responsive to the changing realities of students, despite the challenges that educators might face in development and implementation. Quality educators continually adapt their practices to their students, and this study provides evidence of the need for iterative, grounded practices and offers a collaborative and participatory process for identifying and responding to changes of students’ identities year to year.

Finally, the roles of educators in the development of a culturally grounded curriculum are to elicit and understand the meanings and implications of students’ words as interconnectedly, accurately, and sensitively as possible, as well as to put students’ ideas into action, which is a challenging interpretive and intellectual exercise (Levitan, 2018, 2019). However, an important part of this iterative process is to “check in” with the students to ensure that we have accurately interpreted their meanings, and to invite parents into the conversation to make sure that they support the students’ ideas (Levitan & Johnson, 2020). Even as well-known or integrated outsiders (which is our positionality in this context), it is possible to misinterpret students’ voices or to unwittingly ignore important cultural practices, like including community elders in decisions. Checking back in with students, and their parents, can help ensure a smoother, more socially-just process and more fruitful outcomes.


There are a few limitations to this research. First, while photos helped to mitigate some language barriers, communication between the researchers and the younger students who were newer to the NGO and still learning Spanish was difficult at times. Students and authors could reference and point to the photos when they did not know the Spanish word for something, which helped mitigate some linguistic challenges and provided opportunities for language learning. Sometimes, the older girls acted as translators for the younger girls and researchers. However, some miscommunication occurred. This miscommunication and the general struggle to communicate in a language that was secondary for the students and authors led to extra complexity in the sensemaking process.

The age and emotional and intellectual maturity of students also seemed to manifest as a limitation in our study. Some students, particularly those with whom we did not have existing relationships or those with still-developing critical thinking skills, may have felt uncomfortable or unable to speak about certain issues, such as tensions they experienced at the NGO or complexities regarding their identities. While we gave careful consideration to providing safe and supportive spaces for students to reflect upon their experiences and share their voices in this study, finding more ways to mitigate these issues is important for conducting future research, especially with younger marginalized students.

In addition to the limitations of language, age, and maturity, there are limitations in the applicability of this research to other contexts. These 15 students are living in a very specific space and time, so while some broader lessons may be useful or transferable for other contexts, their specific comments and suggestions may not directly apply to other students, even those in similar contexts. Additionally, while what they shared is true for them now, it may not be true for them in a year, or even in a few months’ time. Identities evolve and interests change—these students only speak for themselves right now. It is important that educators undergoing this kind of curriculum development work do not extrapolate too far beyond the moment in time, and that they build iteration into their development plan—one of our key findings for iterative curriculum design that is, we argue, transferable to other contexts.

This process proved to be a complex endeavor with some uncertainty in our interpretations, which need to be discussed further with the students and parents. Nonetheless, key ideas were shared and discussed that will allow the NGO staff to make their curriculum and the programing more culturally grounded. This redesign is part of our ongoing work.


The purpose of our work with these Indigenous young women was to better understand their identities and ideas in order to collaboratively (re)build a culturally grounded curriculum. Building from our past research, we decided to engage in a novel approach to student voice work, to see if we could collaboratively generate deeper insights into the impacts of the education that the students are experiencing, as well as ways to make it more culturally grounded. In doing so, we were able to learn about new issues and were offered new ideas. We highlighted some of the most salient findings above. There is still much work that needs to be done in researching and developing culturally grounded curricula. For example, building iterative, collaborative, participatory student voice methods into curriculum development policy and practice is far from the current curriculum and policy discourse in any context, but especially in Andean Peru. Significant work is needed to show the efficacy, value, and feasibility of this approach. Additionally, our findings reflect the experiences of students from the same cultural context; more research is needed to examine the development, implementation, and efficacy of grounded curriculum in schools that serve students from multiple non-dominant backgrounds.

While our previous research touched on this matter, further research is also needed to examine how (often Western) educators can collaborate with students in Indigenous and other marginalized communities to build the curriculum that best responds to their realities. We believe that collaborative and participatory student voice methods, like photo-cued interviewing, might also work in classrooms that are comprised of multiple cultures within the student body as they provide a mode to visually communicate ideas that might be misinterpreted due to cultural difference. Schools that can incorporate processes that allow teachers to respond to students’ identities in a more grounded way would likely better serve their students.

[1] Pictures presented in this article are photos that students took. The research team did not take any photos of students or other Indigenous community members. While taking pictures and participating in the interviews and focus groups, the students were informed and reminded that these photos would be published. Students were also given a script for obtaining verbal consent from other people featured in their photos. In order to protect students’ and community members’ identities we have blurred their faces.

[2] That a girl who prefers to wear her traditional clothing does not feel comfortable enough at the NGO to stay a full year points to problematic aspects of cultural tensions that still need to be addressed. Hopefully a more culturally grounded curriculum will allow for greater comfort, but this fact also shows how challenging and pervasive colonial norms are, even in a space that is attempting to be culturally-grounded.

Funding Statement: This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Counsel of Canada, through an internal grant provided by McGill University (#247612).


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The New Jane Crow: Using Black Girls’ Voices to Make Meaning of Disciplinary Interactions in an Urban Alternative School

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 7, Special Issue                          IJSV                           May 2020

The New Jane Crow: Using Black Girls’ Voices to Make Meaning of Disciplinary Interactions in an Urban Alternative School

LaRhondolyn M. Mathies, Ed.D. – Jefferson County Public Schools

Cherie Dawson-Edwards, Ph.D. – University of Louisville

Bradley W. Carpenter, Ph.D. – Baylor University

Citation: Mathies, L. M., Dawson-Edwards, C., & Carpenter, B. W. (2020). The new Jane Crow: Using Black girls’ voices to make meaning of disciplinary interactions in an urban alternative school. International Journal of Student Voice, 7.

Abstract: This collective case study examined perceptions of discipline interactions for three adolescent Black girls who attend an alternative school in Metro City School District. Participants were identified through purposeful sampling, and three semi-structured interviews were conducted and audio recorded with each student. The researcher also collected journal entries and drawings from the students reflecting on self, peer, and teacher interactions and their experiences with the discipline process. The voices of middle school Black girls magnify the sense of urgency needed in revamping policies and practices concerning school discipline. They provide the first-hand perspective of how school suspension and placement in an alternative school affects students’ personal identity, their expectations of education, and future aspirations.

Keywords: intersectionality, exclusionary discipline, student voice


Racial bias in the practice of school discipline is part of a broader discourse concerning the continuing presence of institutional racism (Hanssen, 1998) or structural inequity (Nieto, 2000; Skiba et al., 2002) in education. Exclusionary discipline practices, such as suspensions and alternative school placement, reflect disconnected relationships framed by racial micro-aggressions negatively influencing social spaces.

In the case of Black girls, a racial and gendered lens of social spaces characterizes a concept called Jane Crow. Murray and Eastwood (1965) brought a historical context to the dual realities of intersectional oppression of racism and sexism experienced by Black girls during discipline interactions. Murray’s own experience of racism and sexism influenced her conceptualization of Jane Crow, which she called the sister of Jim Crow. She argued that Jim Crow infringed differently upon the lives of African American males and females, and its differentiated effects were reflected in the ways in which females were marginalized in, excluded from, or included only anonymously in social, political, identity, and economic narratives. She noted the quest for women’s and Black Americans’ rights had historically run parallel and were in fact part of the same larger struggle for human rights.

Murray affirmed that race and sex discrimination were connected, and she invoked the experiences of Black women to demonstrate overlapping and interconnected forms of inequality. At the 2016 Anna Julia Cooper Center Conference, Harris-Perry (2016) tweeted, “The pathologies causing inequality are not located in girls of color, the pathologies are in unjust systems.” Currently, Black girls are experiencing an educational Jane Crow in school discipline: The New Jane Crow.

In the case of Black girls, institutional racism and sexism levy the power dynamics of discipline interactions in urban public schools. Within the constructs of female behavior is the perception of femininity shaped by possible biases and stereotypes that cultivate labels fostering oppressed student agency in exclusionary discipline. Research on Black female achievement identifies disproportionate interactions with the school-to-prison pipeline metaphor through teacher biases (Blake et al., 2011; Crenshaw et al., 2015; Grant, 1992; Morris, 2007; Murphy et al., 2013; Thornberg, 2007). There is a critical need for research that specifically addresses discipline experiences of urban middle school Black girls independent of the boys in the school-to-prison pipeline literature.

Many educational settings are not designed to promote deep, meaningful student engagement. The inclusion of student voice bridges the “engagement gap” that requires students to make sense of their world and their place in it. In its most meaningful form, student voice in education opens school spaces to the presence and power of students’ lived experiences. The question of to be asked is: Where are Black girls’ voices in conversations about racial achievement and discipline gaps? Initiatives aimed at improving school outcomes for marginalized youth have been castigated for their gender exclusivity. Most recently, funding and public policy designed to interrupt the Black boy’s trajectory into the school-to-prison pipeline has been lauded by President Obama and supporters of the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative ( However, critics claim this initiative “forgot” the Black girls (Crenshaw, 1991).

The current study seeks to fill the gap in literature of racialized and gendered school discipline, specifically through empowerment of student voice to address these disparities. While studies have begun to establish how school and classroom contexts, including teachers’ implicit biases and culturally based miscommunications between educators and students, contribute to discipline events (see Bowditch, 1993; Brown & Rodriguez, 2009; Collins, 2011; Vavrus & Cole, 2002), few focus on students’ own descriptions of the process of being labeled as “bad.”

Literature Review

Exclusionary discipline practices precipitate dropping out of school, which in turn is a significant link to the school-to-prison pipeline (Wald & Losen, 2003). The pipeline consists of “zero tolerance” policies and practices that remain major contributors to the dramatic increase in suspensions, expulsions, and placement to alternative schools. Thus, zero tolerance results in suspensions that increase the likelihood of dropping out and involvement in the juvenile or criminal justice system. Dropping out of school not only diminishes employment prospects; it increases the likelihood of ending up in jail or prison. In addition.

While Black students represent 16% of student enrollment, they represent 27% of students referred to law enforcement and 31% of students subjected to a school-related arrest. In comparison, White students represent 51% of enrollment, 41% of students referred to law enforcement, and 39% of those arrested (U.S. Department of Education, 2014). The discipline gap foreshadows a school-to-prison pipeline documenting school decisions and policies that push Black students out of school and funnels them into the criminal justice system.

Despite the ubiquity of findings concerning the relationship between race and behavior-related consequences, investigations of behavior, race, and discipline have yet to provide evidence that Black students misbehave at a significantly higher rate. Whether based on school surveys (Welch & Payne, 2010) or student interviews (A. Gregory & Mosely, 2004), studies have failed to find racial disparities in misbehavior sufficient to account for the typically wide racial differences in school punishment. Currently, no empirical data support factors internal to the student (e.g., severity of behavior). If anything, Black students appear to receive more severe school punishments for less severe behavior (McFadden et al., 1992; Shaw & Braden, 1990).

Research on Black student achievement (J. F. Gregory, 1997; Raffaele-Mendez & Knoff, 2003; Skiba et al., 2002) shed light on the discipline gap, but only to emphasize inequitable discipline experiences of Black males’ disproportionate interactions with the “pipeline” metaphor. While Black males are suspended or expelled more than any other group, punitive disciplinary policies have a disproportionate, negative impact on Black females as well. Epstein and colleagues (2017) have suggested that Black girls’ voices should be centered in research that examines their disproportionate contact with public systems (i.e., education, juvenile justice, and child welfare).

Black Girls and Exclusionary Discipline

With respect to Black girls, studies show patterns of exclusionary discipline that produced similar outcomes among Black girls and Black boys (Losen et al., 2012; Wallace et al., 2008). Others found Black female disengagement from school to be a function of intersecting structures of inequality (Blake et al., 2011; Holsinger & Holsinger, 2005). In an examination into the nature of girls’ infractions, Skiba and associates (2002) revealed educators most often disciplined Black girls for defiance, improper dress, and fighting with another student.

Blake et al. (2011) produced one of few studies that built on Skiba and colleagues’ (2002) work by disaggregating discipline data by race to inform the scholarly community about the impact of discipline practices on students of color. They focused on how discipline practices of Black girls are disproportionate relative to White and Hispanic girls across primary and secondary school. These findings demonstrate the necessity of comprehending race and gender simultaneously. Particular combinations of these factors tend to result in distinct educational perceptions and experiences that influence the perceptions and discipline of Black girls.

Grant’s (1992) examination of the intersections of race and gender for Black girls in classrooms showed how teachers tend to treat Black girls differently than White girls or Black boys. Grant highlighted how educators express more interest in promoting the social, rather than academic, skills of Black girls. Jones (2009) examined how Black females are affected by the stigma of having to participate in identity politics. This stigma marginalizes them or places them into polarizing categories—“good” girls vs. girls that behave in a “ghetto” fashion. Stereotypes about Black femininity are exacerbated, particularly in the context of socioeconomic status, crime, and punishment.

More recent research continues to prove that Black girls are perceived and treated differently. Morris and Perry (2017) found that in Kentucky Black girls are approximately three times more likely to get disciplined that their White female classmates. As it related to offense severity, Black girls were 3.6 times more likely to be disciplined for a minor offense compared to White girls (Morris & Perry, 2017).

The extent to which Black girls perceive themselves to be driven out of urban schools and possibly into the justice system offers insight into the application of zero tolerance policies that contribute to the discipline gap. There is limited research in how Black girls themselves experience and give meaning to interactions leading to exclusionary discipline in urban schools and, more specifically, whether they view exclusionary discipline as step toward the pipeline to prison. Thus, there is a need to examine causes and responses to behavior infractions through the student voices of Black girls.

The Importance of Student Voice

Seeking student voice to improve educational practice is supported by the literature in student development, motivation theory, self-determination theory, and constructivist learning theory (Sands et al., 2007). These fields recognize the significance of active student engagement and feedback to the educational process. Rather than adult stakeholders’ positioning students as “the problem” and thinking of ways to “fix” students, students are given the opportunity to identify issues and offer solutions (Irizarry, 2009).

The deepest level of student voice includes engaging students in the design of their educational experiences. Students must be given genuine authority and autonomy in order to engage in their education (Cook-Sather, 2002; Freire, 1970; Kohl, 1994; Oldfather & West, 1999). The student voice literature refers to a “Pyramid of Student Voice” framework that integrates progressive inclusion of student voice in school reform efforts while also capitalizing on developmentally appropriate learning (Fielding, 2001; Mansfield et al., 2012; Mitra & Gross, 2009).

The Pyramid of Student Voice begins at the bottom, with the most common and most basic form of student voice: “being heard.” At the bottom level, school staff listen to students to learn about their perspectives. The next level, “collaborating with adults,” involves students’ and adults’ working together to make changes in the school, including collecting data on school problems and implementing solutions. At the middle level of the Pyramid of Student Voice, students partner with staff to identify school problems and possible solutions. The final (and smallest) level at the top of the pyramid, “building capacity for leadership,” includes an explicit focus on enabling youth to share in the leadership of the student voice initiative. This final level is the least common form of student voice. At this level, students can serve as a source of criticism and protest in schools by questioning issues such as structural and cultural injustices within schools (Fine, 1991; Mitra, 2007). The current study represents the first layer of the pyramid, with the intention of expressing how intersectional student voice can lead to informing educational reform strategies.

The Pyramid of Student Voice includes school intervention decisions in a social space where youth are active participants in the process. All the girls in this study describe acts of “resistance” to excluded spaces that resemble a void in student voice. Each girl describes social spaces where she is silenced through perceived “bad” behavior found in labeling theory (Bernburg, 2009) and belonging in the Pyramid of Student Voice. Literature regarding labeling identifies Black and Brown students as being more likely to be punished and more likely to be labeled as “frequent flyers,” or students who accumulate multiple disciplinary actions within a year, than their White counterparts (Fenning & Rose, 2007; Kennedy-Lewis & Murphy, 2016, p. 2).

Theoretical Underpinnings

A review of the literature on the discipline experiences of Black females in K-12 schools reveals how Black girls’ violations of traditional standards of femininity can influence their involvement in the school discipline system (Blake et al., 2011; Evans-Winters, 2005; Grant, 1992; Holsinger & Holsinger, 2005; Jones, 2009; Morris, 2007). Although any group of people has the potential to be negatively stereotyped, research has shown that Black Americans suffer from more negative stereotypes than White Americans (Stephan & Rosenfield, 1982). More specifically, research findings have indicated that White American students endorsed the belief that Black women were loud, talkative, aggressive, antagonistic, unmannerly, argumentative, and straightforward. Black women were viewed as holding more negative traits than women in general (Niemann et al., 1998; Weitz & Gordon, 1993).

Stereotypes of Black women are often perpetrated on the interpersonal level in the form of gendered racial microaggressions—everyday exchanges, usually brief, that deliver demeaning messages or subtle reminders about racial stereotypes and often enacted automatically and unconsciously (Sue, 2010). Essed (1991) originally coined the term gendered racism to capture the complexity of oppression experienced by Black women on the basis of racist perceptions of gender roles. The concept of gendered racism is an intersectional framework consistent with contemporary microaggressions research that specifically examines the interconnection of racism and sexism. Harrison (2017) acknowledged that intersectionality theory is uncommonly used to study youth experiences. In her qualitative study, she sought to use an intersectional framework and methodology to explore the multiple identities of sixth-grade Black girls. She argued that, while race, class, and gender are dominant in intersectional research, age is also a “unique identity” (Harrison, 2017, p. 1034) to consider. Further she proclaimed that the youth voice is “objectified,” “silenced,” and often seen as “irrational” (Harrison, 2017, p. 1034). Similar to Harrison’s (2017) work, the current study considers intersectionality in both its theoretical and methodological frameworks.

In addition to intersectionality, labeling theory (Bernburg, 2009) is applicable for understanding how girls experience being labeled “bad kids” as well as how they respond to educators who label them. It asserts that the social process of labeling people as deviants or delinquents impacts their future behavior through both self-exclusion and exclusion by others. Individuals labeled as deviants may face exclusion based on others’ preconceived notions of those who have been labeled similarly. Individuals may also exclude themselves from social participation in anticipation of rejection.

Labeling theory contends that not all individuals are equally susceptible to negative social labels; marginalized populations are more likely to be labeled as a group, and more frequently labeled than others (Matsueda, 1992). Some educators’ inequitable application of exclusionary discipline in schools constitutes responses to and factors promoting the labeling of student groups (Glass, 2014).

To illustrate, Rios (2011) documented how these disciplinary acts at school intersect with criminalization by police to result in a “labeling hype” (p. 45). Labeling hype refers to labeling as a process that can actually contribute to further misbehavior that becomes a “vicious cycle” that exacerbates criminalization experiences (Rios, 2011, p. 44). Labeling hype plays a key role in the school-to-prison pipeline for girls of color (Blake et al., 2010; Murphy et al., 2013). In studying the moments in which students get suspended in class, Vavrus and Cole (2002) found when an entire class was noncompliant, girls of color who tended to speak up for the group were the recipients of the teacher’s reprimand. The girls of color featured in this study were more likely to be labeled and treated as “bad” by school personnel, who then gave out even harsher punishments to these students.

Basing this work on the tradition of labeling theorists who examine labeling and its relation to deviance from the perspectives of those who are labeled (Herman-Kinney, 2003), this study focuses on students’ perceptions and descriptions of the process by which this labeling and punishment occur. In accounting for students’ responses to labeling and punishment, this study draws from reflected appraisals (Bernburg, 2009; Matsueda, 1992) and build upon Cooley’s (1902) metaphor of the looking-glass self. Cooley observed that the reactions of others provide the viewpoint from which we come to define our performances and attributes process: “the imagination of our appearance to the other person; the imagination of his judgment of that appearance; and some sort of self-feeling, such as pride or mortification” (p. 184). Just like the reflection in a mirror, reflected appraisals are centered on the processes by which experiences of self are formed and changed in social transactions.

In studies examining correlations between reflected appraisals and delinquency the perceived opinions of caregivers and peers play key roles in influencing students’ behavior (Brownfield & Thompson, 2005). Reflected appraisals assert people respond to others based on what they believe others think of them. The reflected appraisals of others may shape students’ self-appraisals, or beliefs about their own characters and abilities, which also affect how they make sense of the choices they make. True to the theory of reflected appraisals, children “act” in order to maintain the respect of their peers and to be thought of as part of the group. The children’s “acting” takes on the nature of resistance when the style of instructional activities do not match the children’s cultural styles.
D’Amato (1993) frames resistance as children’s responses to “intermediate cultural discontinuities between the worlds of school as defined by adults and the world of school as defined by the children themselves” (pp. 187-188). In the context of classrooms, resistance may maintain cultural structures that differ from dominant institutional forms. While this study does not examine long-term consequences of students’ behaviors, here the construct of resistance is used to understand students’ descriptions of their behaviors in moments of conflict with adults at school. Understanding students’ perceptions can potentially influence the choices educators make in their interactions with students.

Purpose of the Study

          Out-of-school suspensions are one of the most commonly used types of exclusionary discipline in the United States (Raffaele-Mendez & Knoff, 2003), and middle school students are the most likely recipients (Losen & Skiba, 2010; Raffaele-Mendez & Knoff, 2003). Middle school and early high school years present important opportunities for fashioning interventions to prevent dropping out of school and criminal justice system involvement. Preventing school suspensions and expulsions can reduce juvenile justice system involvement that becomes a gateway to incarceration.

In some states and districts, alternative placements are often touted by educators as desirable ways to remove challenging students from comprehensive schools while still keeping these students in a school setting (Carver & Lewis, 2010). Since disciplined students are generally regarded as being at fault in disciplinary incidents and as having forfeited their rights to an education (Kennedy-Lewis, 2014), little attention has been given to the conditions of their schooling after exclusionary discipline (American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008; Kennedy-Lewis, 2014).

Vanderhaar and associates (2015) emphasized the link between exclusionary discipline in the form of alternative school placement and involvement in juvenile detention. Their longitudinal study found alternative school placement to have significantly more influence on juvenile justice involvement for Black students. Black youth were five times more likely than White youth to be involved in juvenile detention after being placed in a disciplinary alternative school (Vanderhaar et al., 2015). Research makes clear that expulsions and out-of-school suspensions are strongly associated with subsequent participation in juvenile and criminal justice systems (Fabelo et al., 2011; Noguera, 2003; Toldson, 2011; Vanderhaar et al., 2015).

The purpose of this study is to explore perceptions of urban, public school discipline by giving voice to middle school Black girls who have experienced exclusionary school discipline in the form of alternative school placement. Greater insight into Black girls’ perspectives of discipline experiences could prepare better designed learning environments and educational experiences that will help decrease the racialized and gendered discipline gap. Inquiry into adolescent Black girls’ perceptions of discipline centers a student voice in why and how students are pushed from, or jump out of, urban public schools. Even more importantly, student voices in educational research are increasingly being used to address explicit questions about whether they see the school environment as facilitating their move toward prison or jail incarceration (see Kennedy-Lewis & Murphy, 2016). Student voices in educational research have too often been ignored or simply reported through the perspective of the researcher, yet students are the ones who are living the schooling experience (Fine, 1991).

Research Questions

The voices of Black girls who are experiencing exclusionary school practices can illuminate how suspension and alternative school placement are viewed from the student perspective. Growing quantitative evidence of the connections between school suspensions, dropouts, and incarceration is lacking the voices of youth and their perceptions of the public school discipline experience. Most studies that explore the discipline gap apply a quantitative approach (Blake et al., 2011; Skiba et al., 1997, 2011; Wallace et al., 2008); there are only a few qualitative studies that explore the experiences of disciplined Black girls (Crenshaw et al., 2015; Grant, 1992; Morris, 2007; Murphy et al., 2013). While these studies examine Black girls’ perceptions of disciplinary events, prior research has been less rigorous or critical in its attention to issues of power and privilege.

This study also focuses on middle school, a time when educators consistently increase their reliance on office referrals and other exclusionary discipline strategies to respond to students’ challenging behaviors (Losen & Skiba, 2010; Murphy et al., 2013; Skiba et al., 2011, 1997). The current study seeks to fill the gap in literature of school discipline that includes the concept of student voice, but more specifically, empowerment of student voice. While studies have begun to establish how school and classroom contexts, including teachers’ implicit biases and culturally based miscommunication between educators and students contribute to discipline events (see Bowditch, 1993; Brown & Rodriguez, 2009; Collins, 2011; Vavrus & Cole, 2002), few focus on students’ own descriptions of the process of being labeled “bad.” This study investigates Black girls’ experiences with be labeled bad to understand how they adopt educators’ labels and how this label may shape their educational experiences. The following research questions attempt to address these issues.

  1. How do middle school Black girls attending an urban, alternative public school perceive themselves?
  2. How do middle school Black girls attending an urban, alternative public school perceive their behavior with peers and teachers?
  3. How do middle school Black girls attending an urban, alternative public school perceive school discipline?


This qualitative study highlights voices of middle school Black girls who demonstrate a trajectory toward the school-to-prison pipeline. A collective case study design (Stake, 2006) was selected for this study because it allowed for the examination of multiple cases focused on adolescent Black girls’ perceptions of discipline interactions. These students are bounded by their alternative school placement in the same school, in their removal from their home (or reside) schools and in their prescribed at-risk labels (Glesne, 2011). Each student has a unique story to tell, but there is a common experience of school among each participant (Stake, 2006). The case study also allows exploration “over time through detailed, in-depth data collection involving multiple sources of information rich in context” (Creswell, 1998, p. 61).


The school district is located Metro City, a large urban city located in the southeast United States. Metro City has nearly 700,000 residents and over 60 neighborhoods, with 92% of population speaking English and 4% speaking Spanish. Almost 72% of the residents of Metro City identify as White, with 22% identifying as Black. Approximately eight Metro City neighborhoods have a Black majority demographic, ranging from 75% to 90%. All eight neighborhoods are in close proximity to each other on the “north side” of Metro City. North Metro has the highest levels of poverty, dropouts, unemployment, and percentages of Metro City School District (MCSD) students receiving free- or reduced-price lunch.


The target population for this study is adolescent Black female students who reside in urban neighborhoods and attend an alternative middle school in MCSD. MCSD enrolls just over 100,000 students, with 64% of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals. While public data for MCSD do not include the alternative schools, the data did reveal there were approximately 20,000 general education, middle school students during the 2015-2016 school year, and of those students, 9,500 (47%) were girls. Middle school female enrollment included approximately 4,800 (51%) White females and 3,800 (40%) Black females.

In the 2014-2015 school year, MCSD was comprised of 26 middle schools that included sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Only four of the 26 middle schools had more Black female students than White female students. However, in all 26 middle schools, Black girls led the female suspension rate. Suspension data for MCSD middle schools across gender reported that 3,000 girls were suspended in the 2014-2015 school year. Black girls were assigned 2,000 out-of-school suspensions compared to 300 White girls. While Black girls only made up 40% of the middle school female population, almost 70% of out-of-school suspensions were given to Black girls.


This study used purposive sampling strategies (Glesne, 2011) to identify middle school Black girls who attend an urban, alternative public school. Purposeful sampling allows the researcher to select information-rich cases “from which one can learn a great deal about issues of central importance to the purpose of the research” (Glesne, 2011, p. 169). A university institutional review board (IRB) approved the recruitment of participants and interview protocols. After IRB approval was obtained, students enrolled in an alternative middle school during the 2015-2016 school year were chosen. Recruitment of alternative school students was significant because placement in alternative schools is often the last step before youth drop out of school completely, increasing the likelihood that they will get arrested and incarcerated (Wald & Losen, 2003).

Snowball sampling (Patton, 1990) was conducted to identify gatekeepers for targeted participants. Two local community advocates for diversity and equity in public education were determined to be key informants. Both were identified as informants because each has personal relationships with families with children attending alternative school. The community members used parent letters to recruit parents of participants who met these criteria: suspended or expelled from their current reside school (school assigned to students based upon their address), middle school student, and identify as both Black and a girl. After parental consent was given, student assent was obtained directly before beginning the interviews. Table 1 provides participant demographics.

Table 1

Participant Demographics

Early in the interview process, the interviewer established rapport with participants by explaining her role as a teacher and a researcher with the hope of making schools better places for all students. The students were informed that although the interviewer was also a teacher, she was not acting as an informant and would not repeat anything they said to other teachers, their parents, or to anyone else.

Data Collection
Data were collected from multiple sources, including audio recorded interviews, surveys, student drawings, student journal entries, school district data books, and transcription. The semi-structured interviews were guided by Kvale’s (1996) recommendations that interview questions should have thematic and dynamic dimensions allowing the interview to capture information relevant to the research topic in a way that “promotes good interview interaction” and will generate “spontaneous, lively, and unexpected answers from the interviewees” (p. 129).

Three adolescent Black girls placed at the same behavioral alternative school participated in three interviews each. The interview questions were aligned to the current study’s research questions and conceptual framework. Each interview was conducted after school, in person, at a time most convenient for the participant. The researcher also collected drawings and journal reflections from the participants. Prior to being interviewed, each student participant was asked to complete a demographic questionnaire of self-reported information that also included academic and behavior questions. The participants identified themselves as a middle school student, Black, female, Metro north side resident, and suspended from their reside school.

Each of the three girls was interviewed three times over a one-month period, with each interview lasting between 45 and 60 minutes. To protect anonymity, all names are pseudonyms, and the girls were told pseudonyms would be used. The interview protocol was divided into three sets of interviews with focus topics that included: (a) perception of self, (b) perception of school, and (c) perception of school discipline. All interviews with the girls were audio recorded (consent to record the interviews was obtained) and transcribed verbatim. The audio-recorded interviews were reviewed for specific variations in emotional responses, such as laughter or raised voices, as well as the words themselves.

Interviews with the girls were supplemented by visuals describing the aforementioned key focus topics. At the end of each interview participants were asked to document written and/or visual reflections of their daily school experiences in a journal. The journal and visual interpretations were used in triangulation of data sources. Koppitz’s (1984) work on interpreting human figure drawings was used to analyze the emotions present in the girls’ drawings, along with the girls’ explanations of the drawings. For the purposes of this article, only interview and journaling data are reported.

Data Analysis

Data analysis occurred from April 2016 through May 2016, after data collection was completed. While the interview questions were used as the backdrop for coding, the themes emerged through a careful, line-by-line reading and review of transcripts. Transcripts from each individual interview were read multiple times to create a detailed description of the participant’s perspectives. The coding process was augmented with notes and memos to help capture and interpret ideas that appear in the interviews (Miles & Huberman, 1994). As suggested by Creswell (1998), data analysis was done in three stages: classification, interpretation, and representation.

Classification was done by reading through the interview transcripts and by studying the collected documents. This process provided an opportunity to clearly develop the themes discovered during the transcription phase of data collection. Thematic interpretation was employed to develop naturalistic generalizations (Stake, 2006), which allowed the researcher to seek out patterns of instances that develop a framework characterizing the participants’ responses.

Initial in vivo coding documented direct quotes that captured the exact words of the participants’ experiences (Saldaña, 2013). The coding process involved a line-by-line review of the transcript of each interview. Thinking about what information was imparted, a code was created based upon key concepts directly articulated or implied by the girls’ answers and comments. After the in vivo coding process was complete, the coding reports, memos, and identified interpretive codes to be used in the second, conceptual, phase of the coding process were reviewed.

Narrative was a second coding phase that expanded contextual issues of student voice. The inclusion of narratives brings out relevant issues of school discipline through the student perspective (Stake, 2006). During the second round of coding, emerging codes were added to the original list. Josselson’s (2011) approach to narrative analysis was used to analyze the data. Each girl’s narrative collection was analyzed as a cohesive autobiographical account. Inductive coding of each participant’s set of interviews was used to identify the tensions of each case and how they ultimately formulated a coherent whole.

After coding all data sets, themes were created and organized into categories of self-appraisals, reflected appraisals, resistance, or acceptance. Organizing the data across these concepts highlighted the relationships between students’ self-perceptions, their perceptions of being singled out for punishment by educators, and their subsequent responses. After establishing themes and organizing categories, data from the girls’ drawings and journals was triangulated to promote trustworthiness. At the conclusion of the individual case analysis, cross-case analysis techniques were used. After descriptions of each layer of the case studies were written, the themes analyzed, the data were interpreted and presented holistically.

Researcher Positionality

Data were collected by a Black woman who grew up in poverty. She was considered a discipline problem and was indoctrinated at a very young age with the notion that education is accessible to all and is the only path to a quality lifestyle. As an educator who has taught in urban, public schools for over a decade, she brings to her classrooms childhood perspectives about educating Black students from poverty. Through her experiences she has challenged the dominant deficit perspective that blames persistently disciplined Black youth for their failures (Valencia, 1997).

While her varied schooling and cultural experiences shape perceptions and interpretations of the students’ stories, the objective is to present the collective experiences of middle school Black girls for whom school has been a challenging place to navigate. This research is somewhere between a voice for adolescent Black girls who are tracked into the pipeline to prison and activism to abolish these practices.

An interpretivist theoretical approach recognizes the role that the researcher’s subjectivities play, and that interpretations are ‘‘culturally derived and historically situated’’ (Crotty, 1998, p. 67). The questions guiding this study emerge from various personal and professional experiences and are sharpened by recent scholarship and advocacy to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. As part of the solution, following Burawoy (2003), this research is a “revisit” of previous experiences, and in this way manages the inescapable difficulties of balancing one’s involvement in the world as an activist and one’s efforts to interpret that world as a researcher. This embedded, practitioner and activist experience poses challenges, specifically the need to extricate from this project the researcher’s previous experiences with the teaching in low-performing, urban, public schools (Burawoy, 2003).


The findings of this study are presented in a cross-case analysis of the narratives of all three girls, referred to as Jane 1, Jane 2 and Jane 3. The narrative of each student is presented below. Following each narrative, there is a summary of how central tensions of that case were identified and analyzed. In the subsequent discussion, we elaborate upon the importance of using qualitative interviewing as a method for extracting student voice and using it to address the discipline gap in schools.

Jane 1

Jane 1 lived with her maternal grandmother, five siblings, and a dog in a small three-bedroom home in a low socioeconomic neighborhood. Jane 1’s perception of discipline was to replace exclusionary practice with de-escalation. She said, “They tell me go to office or go write sentences, but I would tell kid calm down or put in corner to do they work.” While she understood “losing control” is inappropriate, she felt as if she was not given the chance to channel her emotions and “calm down.” She described the school discipline process as a judicial process, as if suspension were a hearing in a courtroom. She even referenced the term “going downtown” when she was sent to a juvenile correctional detention center because of her behavior. While Jane 1 described multiple suspensions (school and bus) between sixth and seventh grades, she believed her behavior was just an adolescent phase. Table 2 displays Jane 1’s data examples for the inductive codes and themes. 

Table 2

Jane 1 Inductive Codes and Themes

Jane 2

Jane 2 lived with her mother, grandmother, and a high school-aged sister in a community of working-class families. She described memories of the MCSD alternative school in terms of best and worst. Her best memory was related to a classmate at the alternative school who “got out.” She stated:

She was like my best friend at that school. It’s like we had each other’s back. And I really love her cause she got out. I was proud of her for doing what she had to do to get out. And we still kept in contact.

Jane 2’s journal entries recorded only negative occurrences at school, as well as at home, and gave details about being “picked on” while riding the bus:

Last week was horrible because I was getting picked on, on my bus. I upset and felt like hitting him back, then I thought and I said tell my momma. So, after I told her, she called up to the school and no AP was there. So when I came to see the next day they said I would not have a problem out of him anymore. But now my momma pick me up and drop me off to school.

When Jane 2 explained the event that led to her alternative placement, she described herself as someone who was misunderstood and unfairly treated. When asked how she was treated during discipline process, Jane 2 wrote examples of comments she heard when she was disciplined, such as, “get your behavior together” and “you’re too pretty for that.” Jane 2 connected the discipline process with conferencing that could be considered positive reinforcement, but no concrete replacement strategies were mentioned. Jane 2 highlighted a need for discipline that rehabilitates and reforms. Table 3 displays Jane 2’s data examples for the inductive codes and themes regarding self-perception, school perception and discipline perception.

Table 3

Jane 2 Inductive Codes and Themes

Jane 3

Jane 3 lived with her mother and 16-year-old sister in an apartment complex.   The demographic of children playing outside reflected a diverse international population. Jane 3 reported she has been suspended over 20 times for fighting, dress code violations, and “talking too much” because she has a “temper.” Jane 3 did not acknowledge being noncompliant because she viewed her behavior as defending herself by “getting at the truth” when she confronted peers. Her bottled-up anger, coupled with a sense that nothing would be done if she complained, led her to take matters into her own hands.

When asked about her future success, Jane 3 was the only participant who considered incarceration as a possible pathway. Jane 3 contemplated how her temper could jeopardize getting a good job because “maybe somebody gonna try me and I’m going to really hurt them.” Regardless of her positive self-esteem, self-proclaimed talents, and potential to excel academically, Jane 3 still perceived school as a channel to prison. Table 4 summarizes Jane 3’s data examples for the inductive codes and themes and frames her attitudes regarding self-perception, school perception, and discipline perception.

Table 4

Jane 3 Inductive Codes and Themes

Cross-Case Analysis

The narratives of Jane 1, Jane 2, and Jane 3, offer a range of perspectives regarding their own identities, school interactions, and discipline. A cross-case analysis of the narratives (see Table 5) includes the application of concepts found in Labeling theory; self-appraisals, reflected appraisals, resistance and acceptance.

Table 5

Thematically, the girls collectively depicted confidence, poor choices, and negative conflicts in their narratives. Their resistance to that oppression is often misread as combative, angry behavior. The discussion of discipline and Black girls must have a central focus of oppression to explore the cultural conditions that renders Black girls uniquely vulnerable to having their behaviors read as loud, aggressive, and dangerous to the school environment.



Self-appraisals refer to individuals’ beliefs about their own characters and abilities, which also impact how they make sense of the choices they make. While each girl admitted engaging in undesirable behaviors at school, they all were resistant to being labeled “bad.” Since they all felt a part of loving familial relationships, their strong support system has shaped a positive self-perception. All three provided depictions of self-esteem in relation to being “smart” and “pretty.” Their self-portraits were explicitly defined by how much they knew and what they looked like. Additionally, the group self-perception was accompanied by “mouth” and/or “attitude” as proponents that cause trouble with peers and/or adults. The group self-appraisal embraced a negative label, but the girls did not internalize their behavior as something inherent to their identity.


Jane 1 affirmed having a quiet demeanor as a loner who mainly spent time at home. Jane 2 described relationships with both family and friends. Jane 2 was explicit in describing close peer relationships at school and outside school through extra-curricular activities. Jane 3 was the only girl who emphasized pride in physical beauty, discussed her father, and addressed poverty. While Jane 1 was a soft spoken introvert, Jane 2 was an outgoing extrovert, and Jane 3 was an extrovert who expressed significant concern for her outward appearance.

Reflected Appraisals


According to Bernburg (2009) and Matsueda (1992), reflected appraisals are individuals’ responses to others based on what they believe those others think of them. Based upon the reflected appraisal literature, reflected appraisals become apparent when each girl perceived their “talking back” projected during conflicts. True to the theory of reflected appraisals, children “act” in order to maintain the respect of their peers and to be thought of as part of the group, which is defined in opposition to teachers whom the students do not respect. All the girls embraced the characterization of their “mouth” and “attitude” as conduits of “talking back,” but only as a means of defense. The group’s reflected appraisal is defined by agency during moments of conflict.


While all the girls described the same reflected appraisals of “mouth” and “attitude,” there were variations in how “mouth” and “attitude” were barriers to positive relationships with peers and adults. Since Jane 1 did not cultivate relationships, she described reflected appraisals occurring involuntarily. Jane 1 described interactions occurring because others engaged her in conflict. Jane 1 was the only girl who mainly described having issues with peers. Both Jane 2 and Jane 3 described conflicts with peers and adults, but Jane 3 focused on “girl drama.” While Jane 1 asserted reflected appraisal mostly with peers, Jane 2 and Jane 3 affirmed conflicts with peer and adults, with Jane 3 identifying female peers as primary adversaries.



According to D’Amato (1993), resistance happens through children’s responses to “intermediate cultural discontinuities” between school defined by adults and school defined by children themselves. Based upon resistance literature, the girls’ resistance differed from, and existed in tension with, dominant institutional forms. During moments of conflict at school, each girl described a form of resistance. While all the girls referenced their participation in fighting, they described it as a necessity. Acts of physical aggression occur when verbal altercations are escalated during moments of self-defense. All the girls described their fights as temporary poor decision making that did not reflect their identity as “smart and pretty.” During the discipline process, every girl described accusations of hurting and/or intent to harm an adult as an additional reason for their suspension to the alternative school. Subsequently, their discipline descriptions included adult injuries and/or adult feelings of being endangered, along with law enforcement and/or judicial system interactions.


While all the girls described an act of resistance against oppression of student agency, there were variations in how they resisted. Jane 1 believed assuming close proximity to her personal space or saying “disrespectful” words warranted a fight. The feeling of being provoked kept reoccurring in her justification to fight. Jane 2 was the only participant who used the term “bullying” to describe her acts of resistance. The feeling of being victimized kept reoccurring in her justification to fight. Jane 3 focused on “girl drama” that inspired acts of resistance in her pursuits to “get at the truth.” The feeling of being slandered in gossip justified protecting her reputation. While Jane 1 described resistance involving peer conflicts, Jane 2 and Jane 3 affirmed resistance involving peers and adults.



Jane 2 and Jane 3 described school relationships with peers that were interpersonal. Jane 2 and Jane 3 recognized feelings of acceptance in school through positive affirmations from both peers and adults. Jane 2 and Jane 3 identified adults associated with discipline, such as administrators or security guards, not identifying teachers. Jane 2 and Jane 3 also described adult affirmations through the use of “pretty” as a benchmark for good behavior.


While Jane 1 and Jane 2 described acts of acceptance through positive affirmations, Jane 1 depicted acceptance experienced through familial relationships. Jane 1 was also the only girl with multiple siblings. Jane 1’s feelings of acceptance could be explained by having primary interpersonal interactions with siblings. Jane 2 and Jane 3 also had caretaker mothers who ensured involvement in afterschool activities. Since Jane 2 and Jane 3 had social networks with peers and adults outside school, these positive interactions could influence school relationships. In contrast, Jane 1 did not participate in activities and had a caretaker grandmother who divided time and energy between many children. Jane 1’s lack of involvement and sharing of a caretaker could create peer and adult relationships void of school acceptance.

In the cases of Jane 1, Jane 2, and Jane 3, we see students who perceive school through disconnected interactions with teachers who rely on zero tolerance to resolve conflicts. The student narratives describe school decisions made without the inclusion of student voice and constructed by adults with the power to stigmatize with negative labeling. A set of conditions reveals itself and presents disproportionate contact with the criminal legal system and school disciplinarians or policies and practices. A paradigm shift in school discipline is needed to illuminate how school structures contribute to discipline interactions.


Placement to alternative schools is often the last step before youth drop out of school completely, increasing the likelihood that they will get arrested and incarcerated (Wald & Losen, 2003). While each story is unique, each girl in this study described conflict with peers and adults that led to exclusionary discipline and alternative school placement. The narratives described discipline that would often recast their defiance as resistance to the context or situation. The girls did not claim being “bad” as part of their identities even though their responses, reactions, and resistance led them to play the role of a “bad girl” in some situations.

Acts of losing control and visibly or even physically expressing anger defy stereotypes about what is “ladylike.” The angry Black woman portrayal or Sapphire caricature (West, 2008) is a negative perception of Black girls’ behavior that potentially informs educators’ stereotypes during discipline interactions. Educators are positioned as having the power to judge when students are “bad” and the authority to determine punitive consequences for students’ “bad” behavior. In the identification of behavior labels, there exists an imbalance of power between educators and students. The narratives of Jane 1, Jane 2, and Jane 3 reveal how an imbalanced power is present through their labels as “bad.”

Significantly, none of the interview questions included the word “bad,” but the participants used the word “bad” frequently to describe themselves and how adults perceive them. The girls in this study defended themselves against the label of “bad” by positioning their “badness” as a temporary status resulting from poor decisions. The application of resistance identifies “bad” behavior as situational rather than inherent to the students. Rather than adopting the deviant role, students enacted reactions, and resistance, within particular classroom contexts and relationships that either supported or alienated them (A. Gregory & Weinstein, 2008). Educators’ inclinations to label students and withhold support from those perceived as bad further impairs the progress of disciplined students who want to make positive changes despite previous mistakes (Nicholl, 2007). In these situations, racial and gender stereotypes collide with discipline practices that portray Black girls as delinquents—social problems themselves—rather than as young girls affected by social problems.

In their narratives the girls described discipline events where adults were positioned as the objective decision makers. This relational dynamic maintains a power imbalance in the structure and culture of schools. The girls noted this imbalance through experiences of marginalization in exclusionary discipline events. Students resented being “kicked out” or going to the office as a disciplinary response that seemed to damage relationships between students and educators. Jane 1, Jane 2, and Jane 3 provided responses of “mouthing off” as a catalyst to receiving discipline consequences, illustrating how “standing up for themselves” or being “respected” justified the “mouthing off” to peers and adults. The narratives of the current study describe disconnected interactions that are not co-constructed, but exclusionary. The girls did not describe narratives that include their voice in the creation of safe spaces.


While each girl referenced her participation in fighting, they all described such actions as a necessity. Acts of physical aggression occur when verbal altercations are escalated during moments of self-defense. All the girls described their fights as temporary poor decision making that did not reflect their identity as “smart and pretty.” When students seek attention, both explicitly and implicitly, through misbehavior, school officials should immediately engage them. It is a great opportunity to build relationships with students, helping them see the harm that was caused and teaching them how to address their problems. Within discipline events, educators who choose to exclude students in response to their challenging behaviors are missing opportunities to help students improve at negotiating difficulties.

Stevick and Levinson (2003) conclude that “the behavior that appears to teachers and administrators as misconduct or irrational violence may in fact be a rational student response to a variety of school conditions” (p. 346). Ultimately, teachers should use tactics inside the classroom, such as warnings and consequences (Romi & Roache, 2012), rather than sending a student out of class, which could contribute to the institutionalization of “bad” behavior and loss of academic time. Jane 1 and Jane 3 affirmed this notion by illustrating alternative solutions of “calm down” and “this is a warning” in response to how they would counter discipline exclusion.

Literature regarding exclusionary discipline also points to positive student-teacher interactions as a counterbalance to exclusionary discipline (Fabelo et al., 2011; Noguera, 2003; Toldson, 2011). This study supports Mansfield’s (2014) suggestion that schools need to create safe spaces for girls. She defined it as “a girls-only space where girls have access to supportive environments” (p.61). Effective girls-only spaces foster relationships between teachers and students, provide access to mentorship and networking, facilitate “critical conversations,” offer a space for girls’ voices to be heard, and develop collaborations (Mansfield, 2014, p. 61).

Teachers’ understandings of students’ backgrounds and cultural assets are important to cultivating trusting student-teacher relationships. Similarly, by developing their relationships with marginalized students, teachers could help to reduce incidents of challenging behavior as well as contribute to students’ positive academic outcomes and self-concepts (Crosnoe et al., 2004; Pianta et al., 2003). The narrative of these persistently disciplined girls did not mention positive relationships with teachers-the adults who divvy out exclusionary discipline in classrooms. Just as students and teachers co-construct the role of “bad kid,” with a shift in educators’ responses to students, students and teachers could also co-construct students’ roles as “good kids”. While the students in this study did not adopt an identity as “bad,” positive relationships with teachers could empower students to play the role of “good kid” more frequently.

At the highest level, student voice operates through the lens of youth-adult partnerships on a classroom level and leadership on a school-wide level. According to the participants in the current study, discipline experiences occurred in excluded spaces during negative conflicts. The participants described school environments characterized by educator decisions that push them from classrooms. Scholarship examining how the structure of schools contributes to conflicts between students and teachers by way of student resistance recasts students as agents, arguing that their challenging behaviors seek empowerment, rather than reflecting a deficit (Brown & Rodríguez, 2009; Fine, 1991).


Further research is needed to understand how educators can use student voices to develop behavior management strategies that avoid an overreliance on exclusionary discipline methods. Such policies require educators to rethink how they interact with and discipline students, as they will no longer have the option of simply ‘‘getting rid of troublemakers’’ (Bowditch, 1993, p. 494). This study provides a glimpse into the lives of Black girls’ living in an urban area, the challenges they face, and their efforts to overcome those challenges. In particular, it calls attention what happens to them when the educational system excludes them from reside schools. The illumination of Black girls’ lived experiences will elevate their voices so that adults—researchers, school teachers, administrators, policymakers and the general public – can perhaps be participants in the reduction of a school-to-prison pipeline trajectory.


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Organizational Voice in the Girls’ Education Space

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 7, Special Issue                          IJSV                           May 2020

Organizational Voice in the Girls’ Education Space

Emily Anderson Florida International University

Citation: Anderson, E. (2020). Organizational voice in the girls’ education space. International Journal of Student Voice, 7.

Abstract: This article explores how girls’ education policy workers use new media. I apply Alessi and Alessi’s discussion of new media as tools that create “new dimensions of experience” from those that are enabled offline. Using post-structural feminist policy discourse analysis, this article shows that girls’ education policy workers use new media tools to bring more voices into the policy process, but that more inclusive online processes do not always yield better policy outcomes offline. With these findings in mind, this article concludes with recommendations to optimize new media’s potential to make education policy processes more inclusive.

Keywords: Girls’ education, voice, organizational studies, international development, new media, policy discourse analysis

Organizational Voice in the Girls’ Education Space\

Marshall McLuhan is widely credited as having coined the adage, “the medium is the message.” Over the past 15 years new media has become an increasingly important tool for policy workers. Despite this increase, the role of new media in policy setting has been undertheorized in education policy scholarship. This article seeks to narrow these gaps by investigating how organizations use new media to make girls’ education policy processes more inclusive.

This article is part of a publication series in which I investigate how girls’ education policy goals were framed and targeted during the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) era and through the early years of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) transition (Anderson, 2016, 2017, 2018; Anderson et al., in press). The eight MDGs were introduced in 2000 by the United Nations (UN) and its partners as a coordinated, cross-sectorial plan to address global poverty. Achieving gender equality in education was targeted as a shared outcome of Goals 2 and 3. Where Goal 2 focused on achieving gender parity and universal primary education by 2015, Goal 3 aimed to eliminate barriers facing women and girls at all levels of education (Stromquist, 2002). As I posit here and elsewhere (Anderson, 2016), girls and women were conflated as a singular population during the MDGs. “Yoking” these two populations (Anderson, 2016) resulted in policies that were decoupled from the educational challenges that affect girls uniquely from women, boys, and children.

By decoupling the policies aimed at improving girls’ educational access and opportunity from girls’ complex lived experiences, the MDGs simultaneously legitimated a space for girls’ education in the global development agenda and narrowly framed those challenges as access to primary school. This tension was amplified during the MDG-SDG transition. As policy workers fought to keep girls’ education at the forefront of the new development agenda, they also had to confront the limitations of the MDGs so that they would not be replicated in the SDGs. This challenge required more inclusive approaches to policy consultation and decision making, and ultimately, policy workers would take to new media as an approach.

Speaking up for Girls’ Education, Online

This study brings the girls’ education, student voice, and critical policy analysis literatures together to reconsider how new media shapes organizational voice, and how organizational voice shapes new media policy engagement in the girls’ education space. I approach the study of organizational voice in digital policy spaces as a coordinated discourse that frames what people know about girls’ education and how they come to know what they know (Anderson, 2016, 2018). During the MDGs, girls’ access to primary schooling was targeted as a policy priority but the institutional and organizational forces that shape girls’ educational experiences and outcomes were largely unchanged (Monkman, 2018; Monkman & Hoffman, 2013; Stromquist, 2002; Unterhalter, 2005). Recalling Unterhalter’s (2005) analysis of the so-called “Women in Development” approach used to promote girls’ education as an economic good, Mensach (2019) cautions that it is not enough to just carve out space for women and girls’ voices in the policy process. This “add girls and stir” approach (Monkman & Hoffman, 2013, p. 71) is also critiqued in the student- and teacher-voice literatures for not addressing the structural, political, and representational contexts that inform who is allowed to speak and whose voices are heard (Cho, Crenshaw & McCall, 2013; Mensach, 2019).

In their work with the “salad girls,” a group of fifth-grade girls raising their voices for more inclusive school-level policy processes, Mitra and Serriere (2012) concur that creating spaces for girls’ voices is not enough on its own to change practice. Instead, they argue, more research is needed to understand the organizational and institutional factors that inform education policy change. Though gender was not centered in their work, Mitra and Serriere’s (2012; see also Mitra, 2008a, 2008b) findings show that girls’ voices are necessary in making school-based policy decisions because their experiences are often silenced or subsumed by more general reforms that focus on equity.

Critical race theory and intersectional approaches to understanding voice help to illustrate how gender interacts with other spheres of identity in education policy spaces. In their study of Latina school leaders’ testimonios, Martinez and associates (2019) “[reveal] within group distinctions and commonalities in struggles and experiences that can serve as points of coalition and relationship building” (p. 1). New media has accelerated the development of online policy networks, but scholars caution that the social inequalities that impact offline consultation can become magnified online.

When applied in context to digital policy spaces, storytelling becomes an important part of how girls’ education discourses are constructed and diffused online. In her work on voice in science teacher education, Mensach (2019) contends that, for women of color, “telling stories becomes the basis for a deeper understanding of the multiple social factors that interact in their lives” (p. 1,413). Policy workers in girls’ education have also followed the “narrative turn” in their new media engagement. For example, in my analysis of girls’ education policy framing in UNICEF’s official Instagram activities (Anderson, 2016), I find that international development organizations rely on girls’ first-person narratives to legitimate their organization’s influencer status in education and international development fields.

Creating online spaces that welcome the experiences of underrepresented and marginalized groups can make policies more inclusive, but only when they are paired with structural reforms at the system level Developing networks of girl champions, Mansfield posits, can “enable a cultural environment that facilitates girls’ civic participation and self-expression as well as socioeconomic development” (p. 28). The importance of safe and inclusive spaces for girls’ engagement with policy has also been evidenced in the literature (Bent, 2016). Less scholarly attention has been afforded to the study of organizational voice within online spaces that seek to increase and amplify voice in the international education policy and development arena (Anderson, 2016). This challenge is particularly salient for policy workers in the girls’ education space and requires that organizations and policy workers leverage online support to inform policy change offline.

Conceptual and Methodological Framework

This article explores how organizational voice is amplified in digital policy spaces (Bacchi & Goodwin, 2016) Bacchi & Rönnblom, 2014). I take up this work through post-structural critical feminist policy discourse analysis as a coordinated conceptual and methodological approach (Fairclough, 2009; Bacchi & Goodwin, 2014; Bacchi & Rönnblom, 2014). Drawing from Bacchi and Goodwin (2014), the goal of this research is twofold. The first goal is to examine the extent to which “policy workers” in girls’ education “reflect on the role they play in governing practices,” and the second goal is to explore ways in which their organizational engagement with new media contributes to “shaping social order” (Bacchi & Goodwin, 2014, p. 6). Commensurate with a post-structural conceptualization of online policy spaces as contested political terrain, I apply Allan’s (2013) approach to “doing” policy discourse analysis by considering the social contexts that inform how policy workers think about new media as a tool to advocate for girls’ education.

Strategic Interviews

I focus on the reflections of 10 girls’ education policy workers during the MDG-SDG transition to explore how organizations “speak” online and to examine the potential of new media tools to bring new voices into the policy process. The data used in this analysis are sourced from strategic interviews with policy workers working at the intersections of education, gender monitoring, and international development. I conceptualize and refer to this network of policy workers as “the girls’ education space” (Anderson, 2018).

The larger research project from which this work originates uses data from three sources: policy documents, new media texts, and interviews with strategic policy workers in the girls’ education space. The document corpus was constructed through an Internet search of publicly available policies and guidance issued by UN Women, the UN division focused on women and girls and gender equality, and the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), the UN agency working for girls’ educational justice worldwide, during the MDGs and during the SDG transition (2000-2015). These UN agencies are the leading organizational voices on issues pertaining to girls and education at the UN level. The new media data were sourced from a purposeful sample of tweets by organizations within the girls’ education space. The initial sample of tweets was later refined to only UN Women and UNGEI to focus my analysis of organizational voice in digital policy spaces (Anderson, 2016, 2018).

The analysis presented in this article is restricted to data sourced from individual interviews with strategic policy workers in the girls’ education space. University ethics clearance for this research project was secured, and then participants were recruited through purposeful and snowball sampling approaches (Creswell, & Poth, 2016). All interviews were conducted by phone or using video conferencing software. I used these inclusion criteria to recruit potential participants:

  1. Individuals with demonstrated expertise, operationalized as publications, appointments, and/or leadership positions, in the fields of girls’ education and international development;
  2. Girls’ education policy entrepreneurs, defined as individuals working outside the UN and development sectors but engaged in girls’ education and women’s empowerment program and development; and
  3. New media policy entrepreneurs, described as Twitter influencers on issues related gender equality, women’s empowerment, and international development.

In total, 10 girls’ education policy workers consented to be interviewed for the purposes of this research. Their professional affiliations ranged from division officers with multilateral development organizations to leaders and on-ground workers in the non-profit and civil society sector. Ultimately, I did not recruit any participants who were affiliated with UN Women or UNGEI to avoid any potential conflict of interest related to my volunteer support of a high-level campaign with UN Women during the data collection period.

I began by manually transcribing the audio recording of each interview. Next, I transported the transcribed text from Word to Excel to organize the data for analysis. Using qualitative policy and document analysis procedures (Saldaña, 2015, I line-by-line coded the interview corpus in three iterative rounds. In the first round, I created a codebook from the literature on girls’ education and international education policy and development (Baily & Holmarsdottir, 2015; Monkman, 2018; Monkman & Hoffman, 2013; Stromquist, 2002). These a priori codes were applied to each interview transcript, and then random segments of text were cross-checked with the codebook. Next, I used open coding to identify emergent themes across the interview corpus (Saldaña, 2015). These emergent codes were compared with the first-round codes, after which I revised the codebook to remove and subsume redundant codes. Lastly, I applied pattern codes (Saldaña, 2015) to illustrate the co-location of policy constructs in girls’ education policy discourses (Anderson, 2016, 2018). After coding, I wrote thematic, analytic memos to highlight illustrative and negative cases. These memos provided the basis for the findings presented in this article and elsewhere (2016, 2018).

Trust and Positionality

I incorporated reflexivity throughout the data collection and analysis stages in the forms of analytic memos and peer-checks (Miles et al., 2014). A trusted colleague peer-checked my analysis by reviewing thematic memos, paired with deidentified sections of the raw interview data, for consistency in code application, as well as for fidelity to a priori constructs (e.g., empowerment, equality, education) and, later, pattern codes (e.g., education > empowerment > equality). The peer-check outcomes were discussed in person, and I took focused notes to use later when I revisited the data to address inconsistencies and to refine my analysis.

In many ways, the participants whose voices are amplified through this work are not so different from me. Like the majority of this study’s participants, I identify as a White woman from North America and am engaged in girls’ education policy advocacy and research. These similarities may silence other ways of understanding how girls’ education policy discourses are is constructed and diffused through new media. The homogeneity of the sample is particularly problematic because it does not include voices of women or girls to whom international development policies and agenda are often targeted. And this lack of representation in the participant group may also obscure the policy silences that uniquely affect women and girls of color and those in the “Global South,” in particular. I am also cautious about the role that Western, and largely White, feminist perspectives may be privileged in my sample and through my analytical lens. In addition to reflective memo writing, I used Gee’s (2014) “frame problem” approach to revisit my initial questions, assumptions, and interpretations of the interview data. Gee discusses a “frame problem” as the discontinuity between an analyst’s understanding of the contexts that inform policy language and her interpretations (pp. 39-44). This reflexive tool enabled me to confront my position as researcher and address potential threats to this study’s trustworthiness.

The findings, shared in the next section, are presented in alignment with two themes introduced by Bacchi and Goodwin (2014)—how girls’ education “policy workers reflect on the role they play in governing practices” and how their new media use contributes to “shaping social order” in the girls’ education space (p. 6). My analysis suggests that the digital girls’ education space mirrors the same organizational network that exists offline, but it has the potential to become more inclusive through policy workers’ creative and strategic use. Following the presentation of findings, I pose three recommendations for how education policy workers can use new media to increase opportunities for voice in the policy process.


“If you ignore new media in that work, you’re crazy.”  – Digital Activist

The policy workers I interviewed for this study agreed that new media is “being used as a massive advocacy tool” in the girls’ education space. Participants discussed the importance of new media to “educate an audience that is very passionate about the cause, but not very informed”; to “galvanize an audience to support girls’ education”; and to “solve issues” that affect girls’ education access, opportunity, and mobility. The findings presented in this section evidence the ways in girls’ education policy workers engage with new media to advocate for girls’ education and to amplify voice in the policy process.

“Leaning on an Open Door”: Policy Workers’ Reflections on New Media in the Girls’ Education Space

As policy workers gain experience using Twitter as a policy tool, they are, in the words of one worker, “getting better at diversifying, listening to diverse voices in new media.” Another participant working in the fields of gender monitoring and health reflected, “there’s no doubt that a lot of conversations are happening there. And, of course, because it’s global work, having this virtual portal into these conversations is a way to get the most, the highest amount of input.” Policy workers consistently discussed new media as a vehicle to share resources and to raise awareness of girls’ education issues. Twitter is “a really great place to aggregate resources and information.”

The majority of policy workers I interviewed questioned Twitter’s effectiveness as a tool to expand their existing organizational networks. Their muted optimism is exemplified by a digital activist’s likening of their organization’s Twitter use to “leaning on an open door.” Discussing the possibilities to include more voices in policy consultations, one policy worker explained, “I don’t think new media is creating new campaigners as such, or new supporters. I think people tune into conversations that they already have an inclination towards.” Rather than extending their organization’s reach and legitimacy as an opinion former in the girls’ education space, participants all expressed concern that the networks they construct online reflect the same policy networks that exist offline. A participant working in gender-focused international development remarked,

If you look at development—and specifically more within that gender and, then even more within that—education, it’s a really small cohort of people around the world that are really interested in that issue. It’s usually the same people talking to each other, or that’s how it feels a lot of the time.

Despite its widespread use by workers in the girls’ education space, participation is, in one worker’s experience, “still limited to who has access, in some cases, and how things and voices are represented.” One participant working in international development reflected that her organization has “really seen that we’ve gotten our voice heard through a lot of these networks because of Twitter. It amplifies voices in a different way than any other new media that I’ve seen.” Others, however, discussed limitations of new media to amplify voice in ways that lead to policy change.

One girls’ education program officer reflected that “new media is a great tool for getting more voices,” but “like any newer tool it presents challenges in terms of how it’s applied.” A policy worker working in gender and health took this concern further to question the usefulness of new media to yield tangible recommendations to inform policy processes and outcomes. She shared, “We participate in a lot of things like Twitter-chats, and town halls, and Twitter-rallies, which I think are great for galvanizing communities online, but sometimes if you are trying to consult, it doesn’t necessarily always get the most targeted, best input.” One additional complexity identified by policy workers is how “success” of online consultancies is measured. The majority of participants confirmed their organization uses engagement metrics (e.g., Twitter follows, retweets, likes, and hashtags) to evaluate campaign outcomes. They cautioned that, in their experiences, more people logging on to online consultations may make the process appear to be more inclusive, but that more voices in the decision-making process does not always yield better policy outcomes.

All policy workers I interviewed grappled with how to make space for more voices in the consultative process while also leveraging online engagement to solve offline problems. Cultivating and supporting user engagement is essential to building online networks that can be leveraged in the policy process. One policy worker in girls’ education and international development shared that her organization uses new media, “in the broad sense, to share and connect, to support, to advertise what we do, what partners do. It allows us to stay in touch.” Relatedly, a girls’ education program officer concurred that Twitter, in particular, allows her organization “to share things we are doing and [what] our partners are doing, so it has had such positive impact.” Another remarked, “I think new media has a part to play in informing conversations—even if those are conversations are by experts, even if those conversations are by journalists.” This worker continued, “The opinion formers themselves are also on new media and they are also exposed to our discourse. We can’t discount that … how we take communication for influence.”

Reflecting on Twitter’s inclusivity from their perspective “as someone who tweets a lot about girls’ rights” one policy worker remarked that Twitter enables stakeholders to “participate in conversations that are happening all over the world.” Others were less certain of Twitter’s potential for inclusivity. Here another participant countered that, in her experience, “I think that sometimes you’re missing populations if you’re using new media and particularly Twitter.” Rhetorically, she asked, because “the most marginalized are not usually online, how are we working to capture their insights?” One area that multiple participants recalled as especially salient is using Twitter in the consultation process. One worker working with a gender-focused INGO shared, “I think it’s a great tool for information sharing, and I think there’s somewhat of a democratization that happens when you hold a Twitter chat, for example, or a Google hangout with the a high-level representative like the Secretary General.” Despite its limitations, participants overwhelmingly agreed that Twitter has the potential to create more inclusive consultation spaces and to amplify voice in decision making. As summarized here by an interviewee: “Twitter is very good place to bring together offline/online activism, to create a buzz and a conversation.” And nowhere is this more apparent than at the UN (Anderson, 2016, 2018).

Shaping Social Order in the Girls’ Education Space: “Calling out” the @UN

New media’s broad accessibility also enables girls’ education advocates to appeal directly to policy makers at all levels of government and civil society. Several policy workers I interviewed echoed these experiences and remarked on the ways their organizations use new media tools to engage opinion formers at the UN. “What we’ve seen particularly at the United Nations” recalled a policy worker, “[is that] you’re able to have conversations with people you don’t necessarily engage with face-to-face. So, whether it’s people who can’t engage for financial reasons or opportunity, they can follow and be part of conversations from afar.” Reflecting on the ways in which UN entities use new media to diffuse girls’ education policy discourses, on participant working in international development shared,

Certainly, the UN—and UN Women, in particular—is trying to figure (this) out. The UN are already talking about “how do we get young people involved and what does that look like?” And suddenly we’re all turning in some ways to new media.

I asked a policy worker with specific expertise on digital activism to speak about the role of new media in the international development policy process. Her comments highlight the potential that new media has to encourage new voices in the girls’ education policy process. She shared that, in her experience, new media “plays a role in making processes more transparent—especially at the United Nations level which has been very un-transparent. Look at the MDGs and you’ll see why.” This worker’s reflection highlights the ways that gender and power influence digital advocacy work by noting that opinion formers—individuals “who hold power” —are not limited to high-ranking policy makers or politicians. She continued, “From an activist perspective, Twitter plays an important role specifically during high-level events and conferences where there’s a lot being said that needs to be shared.”

A director with a leading international development organization noted that Twitter is also used to “call out decision makers directly in a positive way.” She shared that “calling out” opinion formers on Twitter is a way for her organization to “give positive reinforcement to our champions.” In contrast to other strategies used by policy workers to acknowledge supporters, Twitter provides this feedback publicly and in real time. She continued, “And they see it! Which is, in that way, also taking down barriers that are there when you’re talking about just face-to-face meeting.”

All the policy workers I interviewed agreed that Twitter, specifically, has the potential to make policy processes more inclusive, but that this potential is rarely realized. One area where this potential has been tested is through hashtag activism. For example, a girls’ rights advocate with whom I spoke challenged the effectiveness of hashtag activism as a strategy to alter the policy structures that disempower girls. One policy worker reflected, “when we think of advocacy in its broadest sense, it’s really appealing to those who hold power,” and one way that policy workers amplify their online messaging is through hashtags. Hashtag activism campaigns have created a new arena for policy workers to speak truth to power on issues of gender inequality and child rights.

One of the most recent examples of UN Women’s engagement with hashtag activism is #HeForShe. #HeForShe was launched by UN Women in 2014 as a call to men’s action to support gender equality. A girls’ rights advocate with whom I spoke challenged the effectiveness of hashtag activism as a strategy to alter the policy structures that disempower girls. She reflected, “You can have a campaign like #HeForShe and this is simplistically meant to talk about gender equality and the empowerment of women around the world.” She continued to caution that hashtag activism “pushes out these kind of broad-sweeping, generalized, slogan-y-type messages” that can increase attention to education issues facing girls as a population (Anderson, 2016, under review). In some cases, these “broad-sweeping, generalized, slogan-y-type messages” become the means by which people outside the girls’ education space come to know about issues affecting girls’ education in countries other than their own and, as this same participant described, “ends up being the strange space that we find ourselves in, for sure. It’s the thing that everyone attaches to so there doesn’t necessarily need to be need to be much depth behind it.”

Conclusion and Recommendations

Different understandings of new media’s utility in the girls’ education space emerged during my discussions with policy workers. Most workers’ reflections began optimistic, noting the potential for new media to enable more voices in the policy process and to diversify the girls’ education space. This potential for inclusivity was cautioned by concerns as to whether Twitter, as a specific new media tool, actually changes anything at all.

A girls’ education program officer discussed new media’s utility in the context of advocacy and empowerment-focused work. She shared, “empowerment is about providing tools.” Describing advocacy and empowerment as a continuum, she noted, “I think that advocacy leads to empowerment.” Her comments connected advocacy with empowerment-focused new media campaigns used in the girls’ education space, sharing: “So, when we have girls who—I don’t want to say ‘disempowered’—but girls who lack the agency, or don’t have the tools and resources to exercise their rights and their voice to fulfill their rights, you have a population that isn’t served.” Her role in “serving” girls as a marginalized population was expressed as advocacy, which she describes as “taking those experience that girls face on the ground level and showing them, making them clear to decision makers.” As these policy workers’ experiences suggest, digital activism has created new opportunities for more critical voices on girls’ education policy, increasingly offered by girls themselves.

Recommendations for Practice

Championing girls’ education online has kept girls at the forefront of the post-2015 agenda, sparking what one policy worker referred to as the “moment that girls and feminism is having right now.” The “moment” has persisted into the SDG era and is amplified by new media policy influencers like Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg. The girls’ education policy workers I interviewed agree that new media creates new opportunities for voice that could not be captured through existing policy processes, and that organizations’ new media practices play a big role in scaling online engagement to sustain policy change. With these findings in mind, this article concludes with three recommendations to leverage online tools to amplify voice in digital policy spaces.

Do No Harm

With increased access also comes increased responsibility. The girls’ education policy workers I interviewed agreed that new media creates opportunities to include more voices, across more contexts, than could be achieved through offline consultative processes. Because policy discourses diffused through new media tools have the potential to reach more people than could have been imagined in previous policy eras, the message itself matters more than ever. This situation requires organizations to take digital policy messaging seriously and invest in human and technological resources. To this end, the goal of any new media policy work should be to do no harm.

Through my experiences as a girls’ education scholar and advocate, I have come to understand that many organizations do not have the expertise or bandwidth to manage their new media engagement. The ubiquity of new media in every aspect of modern life has expanded higher education and economic opportunity in the technology sector. As a result, organizations now have access to skilled policy workers who can harness new media tools to sustain public engagement in the policy process. Organizations with financial resources have no reason not to bring in or professionally develop policy workers with new media expertise. This scaling can also involve lending expertise to grassroots and community actors as a way to cultivate and bridge online policy networks.

Call out Policy Influencers

The social networks enabled through new media engagement shorten the distance between individuals, organizations, and policy influencers. The density of the girls’ education space on Twitter, in particular, enables policy workers to educate the public about girls’ education issues and draw attention to policy influencers. Call outs can pose questions or elicit targeted policy responses from decision makers. Though often used as a way to draw attention to contested policies or processes, calling out policy influencers does not have to be negative. By calling influencers out for being allies in gender justice, for example, organizations can placemake (McNely, 2012) themselves within an existing policy agenda and legitimate their status as girls’ education policy influencers (Anderson, 2016).

Bridge the Digital Engagement Divide

The most valuable aspect of new media tools in policy work is the ability to connect individuals and organizations about ideas that matter. All the girls’ education policy workers I interviewed in this project remarked on the power of connection that is enabled by new media. Though policy workers were mixed on the utility of hashtags and other engagement-focused approaches to online consultation and deliberation, they agreed that these approaches can bring more voices into the process. Bridging the on/offline civic engagement divide requires a high-tech understanding of policy messaging and a low-tech approach to community engagement. Organizations can mitigate stakeholder disengagement by engaging with community-level partners that can contextualize online consultation themes to meet the needs of local schools and the children they serve.

Online Discussion Questions

How can education policy workers leverage new media to support policy engagement at the local level?

What do safe online spaces for girls’ policy engagement look like?


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Preface: Centering Girls’ Voices in Education Policy, Practice, and Activism

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 7, Special Issue                          IJSV                           May 2020

Preface to the Special Issue: Centering Girls’ Voices in Education Policy, Practice, and Activism

Emily Anderson, Special Issue Guest Editor Florida International University

Citation: Anderson, E. (2020). Preface to the special issue. International Journal of Student Voice, 7.

Preface to the Special Issue

The aim of this special issue of the International Journal of Student Voice is to interrogate girls’ engagement with education research and as actors in school reform. For the purpose of this special issue, “girl voice” is conceptualized as girls’ unique and distinct experiences in and engagement with education policy and practice. Drawing from girlhood studies and student voice literatures, this special issue examines the ways in which girls engage in school and system-level policy change in global, national, local, and comparative perspectives. Articles selected for inclusion highlight the complexities of decolonizing and/or re-envisioning researcher-subject positions when working and researching with girls, while centering the experiences of girls of color, immigrant, refugee and asylee girls, indigenous girls, and transgirls in shaping formal and non-formal education policy and practices.

The focus on girls as a unique and distinct population in education policy and reform has gained momentum over the last few years, This issue joins the girls’ education, education policy, and comparative and international education literatures to highlight the policies, practices, and impacts of girl voice in these areas. Both original research proposals and practitioner reflections were solicited for this issue. The articles selected for inclusion reflect both practitioner and scholarly perspectives on girls’ voice within internationally comparative education policy and practice.

Drawing from the articles’ areas of inquiry, this special issue is thematically organized into three sections: Girls’ Education Policy Discourses, Claiming Space for Girls in School Reform, and Girl-Centered Partnerships. In the first article, I explore girls’ education policy discourses and uncover how girls became a population of interest to achieve international development goals. I also aim to illustrate the dynamic construction of girls’ education policy discourses and highlight the complexities for both policy and practice.

The next two articles explore girl voice within school-based policy and pedagogies. LaRhondolyn Mathies, Cherie Dawson-Edwards, and Bradley Carpenter examine Black girls’ experiences with school discipline policy in the United States. In the article that follows, Kayla Johnson and Joseph Levitan show how using photovoice methods with girls can inform pedagogical and policy change in rural Peruvian schools. The two articles in the last section of this issue focus on Girl-Centered Partnerships. Kelly Grace and Salav Ouv examine feminist action research partnerships in Cambodia. Their study highlights the importance of intergenerational and intersectional approaches to girl-focused research. The concluding article in this special issue, by Norin Taj, centers the experiences of South Asian migrant girls in Canadian public schools. Together, the articles in this section demonstrate how partnerships between scholars and girl collaborators can lead to gender transformation in schools.


Gabriella Garcia-Astofi and her commitment to intersectional feminist practice inspired this special issue. I started working with Gabriella during her senior year of high school as part of a public school-university mentoring project. She is now a student at a prestigious university studying international relations and communications, and continues her activism in the areas of girls’ education and gender equality. Special thanks, also, to the IJSV editorial team, namely founding editor Dana Mitra and this issue’s managing editor, Katherine Mansfield, for their support and encouragement. I also thank the review team assembled for this issue for their insights and expertise on each article, and to the external reviewers who provided additional feedback. Finally, I dedicate this issue to my father, Tony Williams, who instilled in me the belief that my voice mattered and that the best life is one lived in service to others.