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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