Community Writing Bridges: Student Ethnographers Bringing Communities Into Classrooms

M’ijo, mis sueños ya mero se completan,

my first son has created his own life,

living a life I never had,

I have given you a roof, food, and clothes,

now it is your choice,

to see a world I never saw.


M’ijo, my home is far away,

ya mero se termina mi vida aquí

we are leaving you,

just as a mother bird leaves her children,

our lives are back in our home

this is your home now, not ours.


From my parents’ words I know

there is an unknown world that awaits me,

without guidance, it is my choice,

without a goal, it is my failure,

without a voice, I am alone.

This is the advice I gave myself.


The poem above was written by 18-year-old KUL member Marco shortly before he graduated high school. In this poem, Marco channels the voices of his parents in the first two stanzas, which connect to his own voice that emerges in the last stanza, as a son becoming a man living a life from the sacrifices of his parents to move ahead in life and attend college. The poem initially took shape from a writing exercise that asked each student to bring family photos to write about in order to practice description. Flipping through his cell phone, Marco found two photos of his parents taken individually, and from these he built his first two stanzas. The poem has balance between voices, but also a rhythmic quality that affects the voices mingling with one another into the half-lines’ final repetition in the last stanza. Marco’s parents planned on returning to Mexico shortly after he graduated, and this gives much of the emotional weight he experienced writing this poem.

Initially, Marco was hesitant to share this poem with members of KUL because he thought it was too personal. He eventually did share it, though, and it became a favorite poem for readers of the student anthology. After sharing it, he realized he was not alone in this experience, as all the KUL students had deep familial connections that stretched across nations.

The photograph writing exercise draws from research into cultural memory and the role photography can play in articulating it. Annette Kuhn argues photography is useful to connect social and individual memory of stories. Looking at images, according to Kuhn, “Personal and family photographs figure importantly in cultural memory, and memory work with photographs offers a particularly productive route to understanding the social and cultural aspects of memory” (283). Writing can pave the route for negotiating social and individual memories, and these family artifacts can become sites for conducting family research and photovoice literacy learning.

While photovoice literacy projects are designed to speak to individual and cultural memory and to community resiliency, bilingual photovoice literacy projects do this in a unique way. Projects like these that look beyond the surface of students’ communities, that delve deeply into communities as funds of knowledge appropriate for academic inquiry should be welcomed into language arts classrooms of all levels.

Indeed photographs can speak for the past, but they also have the power to give voice to the future. Rather than look to the past for stories in the photographs for this writing exercise, Marco turned to the present and future, seeing his story as a part of his parents’ story, as an additional chapter in the family history. One also senses in the poem the struggles of emergent bilingualism, as the voices of the poem gradually speak more English, arriving at the poet’s voice by the final lines.

Another KUL student felt inspired by an image to create a work of non-fiction prose. A senior at the time and now a student at a local community college, Eliana found inspiration from several images of her mother working to prepare tacos during a county fair. Eliana’s piece entitled “A Day I Will Never Forget” moved from the photographs of her mother toward a specific narrative involving an accident she witnessed, one that forever shaped her appreciation for her mother’s central role in her family. This is the text in full:

                        A Day I Will Never Forget


I started to look for my mom as soon as I heard the explosion. I could feel fear creeping up every part of me. I caught a glimpse of my mom, a tear came streaming down my face. It seemed as if in the blink of an eye, everyone ran towards her. I stood there in shock, feeling like a complete idiot for not being able to help her out. Do something! As my mouth filled with a bittersweet taste, I ran toward my mom. By the time I got to her my face was soaked in tears.

“Mamá, mamá!”

“Help her, somebody help her!” someone screamed.

“Someone get some water!”

“Help! Help! Ayuda!”

“Mamá, mamá!”

I cried out to her, and she told me not to be scared. But how could I? Only fear, that’s all I felt, for the one who I loved most in this world.

Flashback to a few months earlier, July 2008. The fair was coming up and my mom was investigating what she needed to become a food vendor. She knew this could be a big way to expand the Mexican restaurant she had built by herself. All I knew was that she was going to need a couple thousand dollars to pull off the whole thing. Since she had met all of the legal and health requirements she needed, it was time for my family to get prepared for some hard work up ahead. We were first-timers to all this commotion selling food at the fair. After spending a whole afternoon and night setting up our booth, we were ready to start selling authentic Mexican food.

One of my mom’s friends offered us his gas broiler so we could roast al pastor visible to the public. My mom didn’t think twice in accepting the offer, but none of us knew what we needed to be very careful setting up this sort of appliance. Since it was a last minute addition, we hooked it up as best as we knew. On the fourth day of the fair, we were still having a lot of trouble with troubleshooting all the business we generated. Our food was a hit, but we were completely new and still learning the ropes. Other vendors had the advantage of the years of experience. My mom was turning the al pastor when suddenly a loud explosion caught my mom on fire. Before I could even analyze what had just happened someone else had already come to the rescue and put her out.

Sometimes I would just lie on my bed and cry and reproach myself for not running to help her when it happened. I would pray to God and ask him why mamá? Mamá? It killed me inside to even think about the pain she was going through. I wish it would have been me instead of her. All along I had never realized how important my mother was to me until this happened.

Why do tragic things have to happen for people to understand the importance of others? After the accident, my aunt took care of my mom. My brother, sister and I went to work at the restaurant. We couldn’t afford to have it closed down, especially with all the expenses we had to cover for my mother’s care. While we worked I knew it crossed everyone’s minds how my mother took on so much every day at work. It took three of us to do all the work she did on her own. I was amazed. I admired my mom’s strength. She had the courage to get up every day and go to work for out well-being even if it meant she had to be in pain. That’s something worthy to look up to.

A short while after this tragic experience, I knew that I didn’t want to disappoint my mother, and I wanted to become someone with a bright future. It is for her that I want to accomplish great things in life and further my education. I want to be someone that inspires many people, just like she inspired me.

Eliana’s text had complex narrative features, including shifting points of view, multiple voices, and a creatively organized timeline with a flashback sequence. Like Marco’s text, Eliana focused on her family, and as she composed the text, she practiced storytelling, and later sharing this story in the published KUL venture. Eliana used Spanish in this text sparingly, save for when describing the food dish called al pastor and the affiliation of her mother, Mamá. Combined with the images, the story became Eliana’s tribute to her mother, and also a compelling portrait of a family coming to grips with a disaster and moving forward together. Eliana’s photovoice composition took the shape of a story, but a story that also became an expressive family artifact. Like Marco, Eliana’s family photographs triggered a stream of writing. Of the several pieces she included in the KUL anthology, she experimented with genres, points of view, and bilingualism.

For younger students, photography can produce similar expressive, social narratives by learning about communities in local spaces like work and schools and the domestic spaces of families. Ten-year-old Lisa composed the following text at VBL by researching Google images for a memory she had in mind about her family (see Figure 5.1). In this case, Lisa imagined the photograph that she would search for, and what she found she included here. Below this, she gave her reasoning for the image. The text reads:

Horses are fun to ride. I rode a horse last year. My dad used to work at Churchill Downs. I rode Stephanie and Susie when I was eight. I rode Dandy last year. I fed them grapes and they liked it. My whole family likes horses too. I like donkeys too. Susie was black. Stephanie and Dandy are brown. I would like to have my own horse someday.



Figure 5.1: Lisa’s photovoice text about horses.

Lisa connected her father’s work history to her passion for horses, including the names of specific horses and experiences at one of the most famous racetracks in the world. The memory of Lisa’s experience triggered images in her mind of the horse she found for the accompanying image. Another layer to this project would be for Lisa to research family photographs for more history about her family’s connections to the horsing industry in Kentucky, directly examining further personal links to horses.

These images when joined with interviews from family members can become narrative starters that build on stories that speak to family strengths—in the case of Lisa, of experience working in the horsing industry, as well as first-hand experience with many horses, jockeys, and owners. An archive of family photographs could become a storehouse for practicing description through writing while conducting additional fieldwork research. Photography assignments connected to writing should also encourage additional photographs. In the example of Lisa, this would mean encouraging new photographs of horses or even timeline exercises that build on a series of photos in sequence. Because she composed this in English, I would also invite Spanish into the project, including transcriptions from interviews conducted in Spanish.

These projects that begin with photos, fast become ethnographic projects—projects that have the potential to tap into the local community and engage students with their lived experiences as they become critically aware of the reflexive nature of researching their lives. In other words, when students begin to research their own local positioning, they do so from a research stance, trying to make strange their sense of the everyday. This reorientation of participant observation and action results in the narrating their own and others’ stories in a new way as students learn to negotiate their voice and their authority and gain confidence in representing elements of the communities and expertise from their lives. David Bloome envisions potential directions for classroom ethnographies in the future where students “become ethnographers of their own communities”:

The students are taught the methods, concepts, principles, and language of ethnographic research, and the traditional skills of reading, writing, calculating, drawing and other traditional classroom learning practices are redefined by the students’ engagement in ethnographic research. In some of these teaching-learners-to-be-ethnographer programs the students gain awareness and appreciation for their own and others’ cultures and communities. In other cases, students develop an understanding of how to approach academic learning through the inquiry processes of ethnography. In still other cases, students examine how social and political problems in their communities affected their lives and the lives of their families and other community members. Students in such programs become active agents who used the knowledge they gained to reframe academic learning to make the cultures of the communities visible, and to engage in action-oriented service projects. (Grenfell et al. 24)

Such projects envisioned by Grenfell engage parents and local communities in conversations about educational goals, motivations, and the ways reading and writing are used expressively in the community literacy projects. As with photovoice examples of Marco and Lisa, emergent bilingual students bring a wealth of community experiences and resiliencies that can cultivate positive attitudes toward schooling uncovered by research that makes person-to-person contact. Language arts teachers of all levels stand to gain when engaging students’ communities in classrooms and organizing writing projects that fit the practices of emergent bilingual communities.