What happens when ethnographers of education ask, How can we help?
It is close to the end of the fall 2020 semester for college- and school-age students. We are gathered virtually in a celebración/celebration to commemorate the first semester of the Bilingual Homework Hotline. Representatives from the local school district’s bilingual program give a bienvenida/welcome to the college students, professors, and families that participated in the hotline. In the Zoom room two mothers share testimonios/testimonials of their experiences with the hotline along with the college students who volunteer as homework helpers. The Zoom chat gets quiet when one of the mothers recounts her experiences in Spanish. She tells us that the hotline made her feel better and made her children happy. She says that her daughter was sad one day because she wanted to go to school in person so she called the hotline. Her daughter sat in front of her Chromebook quietly doing her homework while the volunteer helper kept her company in the Zoom breakout room. Her mom tells us that all her daughter wanted was to feel like she was in school.
A little over a year ago, schools in Denton, Texas, a college town north of Dallas, closed because of the pandemic. Like others across the country, the necessary and rapid move to online learning created many challenges for students and educators. Bilingual Latinx students are particularly vulnerable to these challenges. At the time, 800 students in Denton were unaccounted for, and 210 of them were students in the Bilingual/Dual Language and English as a Second Language (ESL) programs. The district was hearing rumors that families were relocating to nearby Dallas for work opportunities or returning to Mexico. A national survey by Latino Decisions and Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors found that 53 percent of the Latinx families surveyed were considering not sending their children to school in 2020–2021. National rates of COVID-19 infections and mortality show that Blacks and Latinxs are disproportionately affected. The same survey also found that Latinx families are open to proactive solutions.
In response, a group of university professors, K–12 educators, students, and parents are moving the needle of critical pedagogy from interrogation to action. We call this shift a critical pedagogy in action that takes root out of the necessity to act in times of urgency and involves a change in standpoint as críticos/critical and not just criticones/critics.
The Bilingual Homework Hotline
In a context of crisis, a junta/meeting of four K–12 representatives from the Denton Independent School District (DISD) and eight university professors from the University of North Texas (UNT) and Texas Woman’s University (TWU)—some of us also parents of school-aged children—was called to discuss how we could help bilingual families. We collectively wondered, How are Latinx and other bilingual students being impacted? What are parents’ levels of digital literacy? What are some possible ways that we, as university professors, can respond to this sociopolitical moment through our courses?
On September 14, 2020, the Bilingual Homework Hotline received its first calls. Our university students participate remotely as “homework helpers.” DISD students from grades three through eight call a number available Monday–Thursday and leave a voice mail with their personal information, grade level, and subject that they need help with. College students, university professors, or DISD staff who serve as leads retrieve the calls, call the families back, and provide them with a Zoom ID. When they join the virtual “homework hotline” space they are routed to available helpers in a Zoom breakout room who have the language skills and subject knowledge to help DISD bilingual students. Our aim is to help bilingual students with their homework. As we get closer to a year since we began our weekly juntas we realize that the bilingual homework hotline is doing much more.
We continue to hold a virtual junta almost every week and at the time of this writing we have met 38 times since April 2020. From the beginning, our desire to help has been intentional and strategic. Privileging the educational needs of local students by helping the district to support bilingual students and families anchors our weekly discussions. Similar to the iterative process of reflection and action in action research, our collaborative conversations are fueled by our collective attempt to address a local problem, and as such they are goal oriented and practical.
The necessity to take action shifts our focus as ethnographers of education from what we can extract to what we can give, from what we can do as individuals to what we can accomplish together. It is a radical move that disrupts and dissolves the boundaries that separate universities and schools, scholars and practitioners of education, educators and students, the disciplines of anthropology and education, and the lines that demarcate scholarship and activism. Our juntas are informed by a mutual approach similar to the mutuality Ronger Sanjek discusses as critical to anthropology. They also serve to focus our inquiry and theorizing as we unlearn the tropes of academic extraction. Heiman’s notes about our first meeting capture this disruptive and transformative essence:
We interrogate power by working alongside our students, critically listening to them, and positioning them as collaborators who mutually inform our practices and processes in the hotline and in our courses. Undergraduate and graduate students from UNT and TWU are enrolled in mostly remote courses in anthropology, bilingual education, and social work. They participate in the hotline as volunteer “helpers” and as part of the class requirements. Some students are teachers in Texas or in other states. Other students are preparing to be bilingual teachers, have experience mentoring college students, help their younger siblings with virtual schooling and homework, or, as one student put it, have “never taught anyone in their life.”
The university courses or programs that helpers participate in vary, thus the coordination between their class or program requirements with the homework hotline differs for some helpers. For example, during fall 2020 Mariela taught an undergraduate and graduate remote class about the anthropology of education. For this course students were involved with the hotline for at least two hours per week. They recorded weekly Flipgrid journals to reflect on their activities with the hotline and the class topics, and produced an infographic as a final project. We meet college students where they are and consider their knowledge and experiences important and relevant to the course content and the hotline. All of this work is done virtually using Canvas, Zoom, and other online resources to deliver course content, participate in the hotline, and conduct any other necessary activity. Most of our students envisioned taking courses with us in person; we had to adapt our courses as much as some of our students had to adapt to this medium of learning. Yet our students are enthusiastic about the hotline and welcome the opportunity, as some of them put it, to take a class that allows them to do something that matters. Some of our students in our fall classes enrolled in our spring 2021 courses to continue working with the hotline and others have returned as volunteers with the hotline even though they are no longer taking our classes.
Engaging with discomfort and historicizing bilingual education
Management and control are still the neoliberal imperatives of higher education and K–12 programs in this pandemic. Our efforts to prioritize bilingual students and families are at odds with these imperatives because we center them (not just their language) while we push back against the gentrification of Dual Language Bilingual Education (DLBE) programs. In organizing the hotline, we continue to navigate tensions between our emphasis on the well-being of all of our students and requirements that prioritize the interests of educational institutions. The school district requires that all of us complete a volunteer application and a background check even when some volunteers lack needed information such as a social security number. To preserve confidentiality, students and families who call the hotline are required to turn off their cameras during the homework hotline Zoom session. As is common within university bureaucracy, institutions of higher education may insist on managing community collaborations and often memoranda of understanding are part of this bureaucracy. We are careful to foreground the interests of students and communities before the interests of institutions like the university. These educational institutions exercise their power to control students and families while disguising their self-interests and drive for self-preservation with administrative procedures that in the end ultimately serve to protect their interests, not those of the students they serve.
We resist these tensions by navigating around them, emphasizing assets, and improving deficiencies. We feel that inaction and silence are complicit in further marginalizing bilingual students and their families, especially in a context of hypermarginality caused by the pandemic and terror inflicted on Latinx families by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). We point out exclusionary practices and ways to overcome them, like reminding the school district that not all families have a driver’s license and that alternative forms of identification are acceptable for online or in-person enrollment. We utilize existing resources, such as our access to technology and familiarity with online platforms, as part of the hotline’s infrastructure. We use the DISD Bilingual/Dual Language and ESL programs’ success with a parent hotline—a phone line established to answer parents’ questions about district policies during the pandemic—to inspire the homework hotline and model its operation. We rely on the power of people within the district and the university to help us operate the hotline without incurring additional costs. Volunteers are required by the school district to submit a log and video recording of every session completed. We use these instruments of surveillance and control as sources of reflection and information to help us improve.
Logs, video recordings, course assignments, weekly juntas, and discussions with homework helpers and families helped us manage over 100 university students and faculty who volunteer with the hotline and helped answer about 190 calls during fall 2020. We expanded the hours during the second semester of the hotline and are deepening our involvement through scheduled appointments and virtual engagement with middle school classrooms and after-school programs. We have been unsuccessful in having explicit conversations with bilingual students about the Black Lives Matter movement and white supremacy even though the removal of a Confederate monument in our city took place while we were organizing the hotline and the uprisings for Black Lives were taking place in Denton. Yet as professors we were invited to monthly parent meetings to share our expertise about racism and social justice and discuss, for example, changes about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), biliteracy, and libros acompañantes/accompanying books about racial and social justice, even when some of these topics are considered controversial. In Spanish dominant spaces, we are able to talk more openly, listen to the testimonies of families, and bear witness to the transformative possibilities created through the hotline: connecting a monolingual parent to their son’s teacher so they could inquire about their grade; having a college student’s face light up when they find out that a family seeks out their help when they call the hotline or learning that a student has become a “frequent flyer”; a student who calls the hotline frequently, because of the assistance provided by a homework helper. The tensions and discomforts of working across institutions and disciplines are real and we engage them by working amidst them.
Through our work with the Bilingual Homework Hotline we are learning to be críticos not criticones. This critical pedagogy in action informs our scholarship, yet it is our activism—the necessity to act and the commitment to continue doing it—that opens up the educational opportunities and transformations that we highlight as necessary in our critiques. The five elements of critical consciousness in DLBE—critical listening, engaging with discomfort, historicizing bilingual education processes and policies, interrogating power, and acompañamiento/accompaniment—are guide posts for navigating educational environments and virtual learning environments critically and in times of urgency.
Acompañamiento is defined by educational anthropologists Jordi Planella and Erique Sepúlveda as a pluridimensional pedagogy and act of empathetic fusion. We see it as perhaps the most significant contribution of the hotline and have written about it as a form of language policy activism for bilingual teachers who resist gentrification in their communities (Heiman and Nuñez-Janes, in press). Parents and students told us that they are grateful to know that they are not alone. Several parents shared with us or district representatives that they feel that their concerns matter and they are listened to because the hotline is available to them. We have ongoing discussions about the name “homework hotline,” and how so much more is going on than just helping with homework. During the 2021 winter storm that caused dangerous blackouts in subzero temperatures in Texas, the collaborative work of the homework hotline became a lifeline for many families. We were able to share information about mutual aid resources that were giving water, food, and shelter to families who were isolated because of power outages or because our city was not translating emergency announcements. While we are coming at this work from the margins and have questions about the modernist project in the name of or the insistence on extractive modalities of research, we know that for marginalized communities no sentirse solo/not feeling or being alone signifies in part liberation from precarity. Many parents said that when they learned about the bilingual homework hotline and found out that it was a free service they felt like a weight had been lifted off their shoulders. We are now taking the time in our juntas and our classes to celebrate the small and big accomplishments of the hotline in making families and students feel connected.
The critical pedagogy in action that informs our work with the hotline involves getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, as we tell our students during the volunteer training sessions. Listening critically, interrogating power, and engaging discomfort while the world is in disarray is not easy, yet we think it is essential. Our experiences with the homework hotline have also taught us that a critical consciousness must also engage bilingual families’ lived experiences of racism and xenophobia that manifest as fear, isolation, and invisibility. In times of urgency, when communities are suffering, taking action is also part of cultivating critical consciousness. Working collaboratively, putting resources to use in new ways, sharing knowledge and expertise, creating educational spaces for mutual support and connection, are some of the ways in which a critical pedagogy in action can transform teaching and learning. In addition to transforming virtual classrooms, a critical pedagogy in action opens up opportunities for transforming educational ethnographies of Latinx bilingual families into acts of solidarity that intentionally aim to disrupt the isolation and invisibility experienced by historically marginalized students.
Mariela Nuñez-Janes (Profe) is a professor of anthropology at the University of North Texas and scholar activist with expertise in immigrant education and participatory methodologies. Her recent publications include the coauthored book Eclipse of Dreams: The Undocumented-Led Struggle for Freedom.
Daniel Heiman is an assistant professor of bilingual education at the University of North Texas. His critical ethnographic research examines critical pedagogies, social justice, and acompañamiento in Dual Language Bilingual Education (DLBE) and bilingual teacher preparation contexts.
Cite as: Nuñez-Janes, Mariela and Daniel Heiman. 2021. “Critical Pedagogy in Action.” Anthropology News website, April 13, 2021.