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Blog: Child-Centered Action Research for the Protection of Mother Earth by Cueponcaxochitl D. Moreno Sandoval

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

My grandmothers’ teachings ground much of my worldview and actions as a scholar educator. A common thread in these teachings is the intimate interdependence with the cycles of Mother Earth. Similarly, “Protector of the trees” Ilan Shamir (2016) authored “Advice from a Tree” that inspired an insurgence of popular memes that anthropomorphize trees to aconsejar / advise: “stand tall, be flexible, turn a new leaf, drink plenty of water, sink your roots into the earth and enjoy the view”. From the voices of my ancestors, I would add: “disperse your seeds wisely”. My grandmothers’ knowledge systems tell about the day-to-day activities of living in agricultural societies in that nos aconsejan / they advise us to live in communion with nature.

In my graduate years of studying pedagogy and its implications for the sustainability of social, environmental and economic life, I go back to my grandmothers’ ancestral knowledge systems that give me the language to describe the call for education to not only fundamentally acknowledge the interdependence with Mother Earth, and also protect Mother Earth. Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) disciplines have been largely responsible for the damage to Mother Earth. These disciplines have systematically denied ancestral knowledge systems of Indigenous peoples around the world as knowledge central to sustainable approaches to living and learning. Instead, damage-centered research (Tuck, 2009) of Indigenous peoples knowledge systems has been denigrated to “folklore” in most cases. Under this colonial system of thinking, it is to no surprise that students with Indigenous ancestry are left behind in STEM-attaining degrees. While researchers continue to document low-achievement, according to standardized assessments (as evidenced by the work of researchers, i.e., Morgan et. al., 2016), what they fail to acknowledge is the students’ lives are filled with rich science and math knowledge they bring from their homes (ancestral knowledge), yet standardized assessments do not document this. In other words, students know science (have previous knowledge), yet their knowledge is not recognized. Whose knowledge counts?

Drawing from multi-sited sensibility for learning as movement across contexts and borders (Vossoughi and Gutierrez, 2014), my approach to teaching kindergarteners content knowledge in Spanish for a dual language program continues to plant rare seeds of understanding. These seeds are embedded in rich ancestral knowledge systems of Indigenous peoples of Abya Yala, or the American continent. Combining Native science (Cajete, 1999) and an approach to Indigenous research methodologies (Kovach, 2017) is rare in the academy, particularly for early elementary schooling. While I am not conducting research in this setting, rather using my scholarly training to inform the approach and content of which I teach, my reflections in this blog can inform practitioners, families and researchers about child-centered research conducted by children and their families (and can be integrated in meaningful ways).Five-year-olds are two-legged medicine bundles that wonder about the world in magical ways, tinkering with imaginations and possibilities. One of my elders told me once, “Pay attention to the little ones, they know what it is like to be connected to the earth in ways that adults can forgetfully deny based on the socialization of a capitalist society.” I teach at a Title 1 school where all of the students enrolled are eligible to receive free lunch. I address each of the children that I work with as keepers of their ancestral knowledge systems from all over the world, stemming from ancient civilizations whose worldviews and daily practices are/were interdependent with the natural world. As such, each of our DNA structures carries the ancestral memories of the scientific contributions of our ancestors.

I teach two groups of 27 students (54 total) in a dual language program in Central Phoenix. When I was hired, I was told about the practice of naming these two groups with complimentary names. In past school years “milk” and “cookies” or “salt” and “pepper” or “fruits” and “vegetables” were used to identify both groups of the dual language program in kindergarten. These names were used to address the children daily. One small yet powerful example of how my training as an Indigenous scholar transformed the names of the groups of students from previous years to “earth” and “sky” has opened up fluid conversations between parents and students about “earth” and “sky”-related passions. When I call on one group of students “earth” and another “sky”, there are incredible implications for nurturing identities based on observations of the natural world and their relationships to these natural elements, a lifelong skill that will hopefully affirm interdependence and interconnectedness as sustainable thinking patterns. For example, once we adopted these “earth” and “sky” entities, each of the two groups and I brainstormed all the possibilities we could think of under these groups with questions like: “what are some earth elements that you’ve noticed?” or “when you look up at the sky, what do you see?”. We came up with about 85-100 elements for each group over a week’s time. From those 170+ elements, a parent and I made name tags that fit into badge holders. A week after picking the elements, the students carefully chose one element that they wanted to develop a closer relationship with throughout the year. This element is what we refer to them throughout the day, like for cielo we have earth elements that students chose for themselves like: “Sol”, “Luna”, “Estrella Fugaz”, “Eclipso”, “Asteroide”, etc. For tierra, we earth elements that students chose for themselves like: “Agua”, “Fuego”, “Jaguar”, “Ocotillo”, “Saguaro”, etc. When I use popsicle sticks to elicit participation in a math lesson, for example, I’ll call abeja to share her understanding, or I’ll ask piedra to write their response to a particular question. The time that they take to get to the smartboard is the time we use to chant lightly pounding our hands on our legs with one clap in between: “sigue piedra, sigue”. When one student tells me he cannot do his work because he does not know how to, I remind him that “el sol nunca se da a vencer. Siempre sale del oriente y nos llena de fuerza, de vida. Tu lo puedes todo, solecito, íntentalo primero con toda tu fuerza” / the sun never gives up. It always rises and fills us with strength and life. You can do anything, little sun, try it first with all your strength. Every time he’ll go back with a smile on his face, feeling proud to represent the sun in our classroom and try to tackle the independent practice with his best before I pull him for small group to review or reteach anything that is needed. Sol knows about his role in the universe in ways that point to scientific observations about the sun. He proudly writes “sol” as his name on his classwork.

Teaching the youngest of seeds is a holistic act of radical love. This love is motivated by the understanding that time invested in young children can plant seeds for a lifetime. The intersectional work that is missing from early childhood Native science education through Indigenous epistemological approaches and community-based action research methodologies is sorely missing from the literature. I provide this example as a Xicana scholar educator who recognizes the ancestral science and math knowledge of children and families. As such, I recognize what is missing in the research literature base about the STEM-achievement gap that does not take intersectional issues into account. Children bring a wealth of knowledge, yet what has been missing are the ways in which teachers can (and have) nourished their growth through projects like the one we present here. By recognizing their knowledge, involving families, and communities, this example can be used as a guide for other practitioners. In such situations, children of all abilities (disabilities or not), Indigenous ancestry, race/ethnicity; first or second language status; socio-economic status, can come together to share and nourish their own wealths of knowledge, as well as the knowledge of others.

My partner teacher and I created a community service passion project that draws from the central tenets of community-based action research (Israel, Schulz, Parker, and Becker, 1998) while uniting the power of place and the wisdom of a people (Gonzalez, 2016) through the exploration of children’s passions within the science of the sustainability of Mother Earth. As an appendix, I include the sample letter adapted from the original one we introduced to children and parents motivated by child-centered action research for the protection of Mother Earth. The purpose of providing this letter within this blog post is meant to be an example of how teachers can begin to integrate science topics, while tapping into the knowledge of children and families. We began by inviting parents and families into the learning, yet there are many other possibilities to recognize the ancestral knowledge systems students bring to the classroom. In the introduction to children and parents to the four-month project, we held an information night for children and parents that fleshed out some examples that came to life of child-centered community-based research possibilities and actions. Children had four months of weekly goal-setting tasks that were palatable for a kindergartener to build upon their inquiry and action.

Implications for practitioners, researchers and families
Since the introduction of the project and following up with the discussions that we have in class, students and parents have been working towards nurturing children’s curiosity in ways that get them thinking about sustainability of the earth. I wish I can share all 54 examples because they all have their unique way of making sense of the world. For brevity’s sake, I will share a few here that students chose as their community service passion projects:

* Protect of the ocean animals from litter
* Beautify public places
* Clean parks
* Protect butterflies
* Protect bees
* Music to help you feel better
* Preserve South Mountain
* Recycle to protect the land
* Help homeless people
* The extinction of unicorns
* Use less plastic
* Protect clean water

Parents and family members helped nurture children’s curiosity while I, as an educator, open conversations about the bigger picture of what it means to protect Mother Earth in our daily activities. When we use markers or glue, I explain to them that Mother Earth produces the materials used to make our school supplies, so, out of respect, we should use them wisely and carefully, not be wasteful. We’ve recycled old crayons and melted them into star-shaped crayons to give them a sense of temperature changes and shapes. One student and her parents asked the principal if they can re-paint the lines in the playground during spring break to help beautify the school. Another student and his family hosted a toilet paper drive to help the homeless after his questioning of why some people didn’t have a home. The projects are being completed this week (April 7, 2017). We have three public presentations that will be shared with parents, teachers and the larger community in the next few weeks. Earth and Sky are indeed planting their own seeds of consciousness throughout our school (adding more recycling bins, beautifying our playground) and communities. It is an honor to witness their process and growth.


Cajete, G. A. (1999). Igniting the Sparkle: An Indigenous Science Education Model. Skyland, NC: Kivaki Press.

Gonzalez, A. (2016). Reframing Community Partnerships in Education: Uniting the Power of Place and Wisdom of People. Association of Mexican American Educators Journal, 10(3), 144-147.

Israel, B. A., Schulz, A. J., Parker, E. A., & Becker, A. B. (1998). Review of community-based research: assessing partnership approaches to improve public health. Annual review of public health, 19(1), 173-202.

Kovach, M. (2017). “Doing Indigenous Methodologies” In (N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln, eds.) The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research, 214-234.

Morgan, P. L., Farkas, G., Hillemeier, M. H., and Maczuga, S. (2016). Science achievement gaps begin very early, persist, and are largely explained by modifiable factors. Educational Researcher, 45(1), 18-35.

Tuck, E. (2009). Suspending damage: A letter to communities. Harvard Educational Review, 79(3), 409-428.

Vossoughi, S. & Gutiérrez, K. (2014). Studying movement, hybridity, and change: Toward a multi-sited sensibility for research on learning across contexts and borders. National Society for the Study of Education, 113(2), 603-632.


Sample Children’s Action Research Project Letter of Introduction to Parents

Dual Language Community Service Passion Project
(How Curiosity and Commitment Can Lead to Positive Impact in the World)

Dear Families,

 Speaking, reading and writing in two languages requires an active family commitment and perseverance. The Dual Language Program is a unique experience for your child, and by extension, your family because bilingualism and biliteracy is a family affair. One of the fabulous characteristics of our program is nurturing opportunities to value and practice bilingualism and biliteracy to thrive in a diverse world, and honoring the amazing capacity of our minds’ abilities to learn in two (or more) languages! With that in mind, we aim to provide your family with an opportunity to apply bilingualism and biliteracy to real-world experiences, with a larger purpose in mind, which is to have a positive impact in the world through research and biliteracy.

Parents, we ask your child to get in touch with a community-based passion through which s/he will further develop curiosity and action-oriented commitment over the next four months.

Children, what do you care about in the world? Earth and Sky alike, what is your idea about “¡a proteger la tierra!” or ”¡a proteger el cielo!” or “¡a proteger el agua!”? How might your influence as a growing kindergartner protect the Earth? Water? Sky? How might you imagine applying your influence for positive change in the world? Other questions to consider as you explore some ideas are: What do you want to be when you grow up? How might your chosen path influence the world for the better?

Parents, please help your child find a community service project or idea that interests them. They can create their own social change project that they have a passion for. They will research, create a presentation and share about their project (more details in the timeline below).

The following is just one example of the type of project your child can do. However, this is not the project your child should do because we’ve provided this example. Let’s say your child loves dogs and you or a family member noticed that there are many dogs without a home so you decided to adopt and welcome a dog from the local Humane Society. Since a single family cannot adopt all the homeless dogs at the shelter, let’s say your child wants to help homeless dogs and perhaps provide homeless dogs with food or some extra love and care throughout a particular week. They can research the state of homeless dogs in Phoenix and find one center that provides free dog food for homeless dogs. If they cannot find a center that provides free food for homeless dogs, they can imagine and perhaps create a system to be sure that homeless dogs receive food at the shelter for one week or more. As a family, you can visit a shelter, with adult supervision, and see how dogs are fed, or ask if they accept food donations for dogs. Your child can put the shelter in touch with an organization that provides free dog food. This can help earth animals have proper care where otherwise they might be less cared-for. Maybe this might later inspire your child to visualize themselves becoming a veterinarian or a community organizer.

Be original. Talk with your child and ask them what they love, how what they love might benefit from your child’s help, and how your child would like to make a positive impact in the areas of their topic. Please make this a child-centered learning experience and allow your child the creativity of leading this project’s direction. This doesn’t mean that you are not helping in this interdependent process. We want authentic and true kindergarten work.
Your child will be asked to research their community passion project. They will write about their project and create a visual piece that they will present to a larger audience. Make sure that the final presentation itself is reflective of a couple weeks of work. Start early. You do not need to wait to start until after the writing process is over. Or start writing after the research process is over. The following steps towards the final products are a snapshot of what the process might be. We are flexible in working with you in providing authentic, disciplined, inspiring processes for your children’s growth as a creatively intelligent academician with heart, caring about the community and world. Please talk to us about anything you’d like regarding the process.

Presentations will be early April, stay tuned for more details. In addition to grading the research process, your child will be graded on their presentation as a part of their speaking grade in Spanish. Rubric coming soon.

We are looking forward to this project and helping your children be advocates in their communities!

Click here to see a project timeline!

We very much look forward to nurturing curiosity and the research process for positive change with your children! Here are some additional resources/examples for your viewing: One is a Spanish kinder theater production on protecting the local river in a community in Otatitlán, Veracruz, México. The other is an example of how children’s voices are incorporated in community health practices in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Make sure to look at the flyer that goes with the Aotearoa project.

Author Biography

Cueponcaxochitl is a Xicana scholar educator artivista. She received her doctorate in education from the University of California at Los Angeles where she conducted research on culturally sustaining and revitalizing computer science education with the support of the National Science Foundation. Cueponcaxochitl served as a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Arizona State University. She is the recipient of a UCLA Center X grant awarded to “Mobilize Ancestral Knowledge, Computer Science and Student Inquiry for Health in the Schooling Community of El Sereno”. A central question in her research asks: “How might ancestral knowledge systems and computer science education co-construct an affirming and sustainable learning ecology for urban school families?” Exploration around this question can help create more responsible computer science through ancestral computing for sustainability. She has published in AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples, Psychnology, Learning, Media and TechnologyACM Inroads, and Power and Education. She enjoys outdoor activities with her family.