Observing Moments of Possibility

Celebrating linguistic diversity

Observing Moments of Possibility

Education ethnographer Laura Valdiviezo envisions classrooms as sites of transformation for social justice and equity.

a montage portrait of Laura Valdiviezo, associate professor at UMass Amherst College of Education

Associate Professor Laura Valdiviezo has taught in classrooms from New York City to remote villages in Peru; at the elementary, middle, high school level; on subjects ranging from math to Spanish. The diversity of her classroom experiences proved to be an ideal foundation for her scholarly passion. Valdiviezo is an education ethnographer and the sites of her observations are classrooms. She focuses on social justice and equity in education; how schools can be sites of transformation and social change. In particular, she pays attention to educators’ practices in the classroom, and how they can affirm the inequalities we see in societies, but how they can also dismantle oppression and foster social justice. 

Valdiviezo’s work is primarily in public schools serving culturally and linguistically diverse students. She looks at how teachers and students may bring stigmas against bilingual speakers from marginalized communities into classrooms and how they may reproduce the stigmas there. She also looks at educational practices that have the opposite effect, valuing the linguistic and cultural knowledge that bilingual students bring to a classroom. 

Schools, Valdiviezo observes, are a reflection of society. Amidst the harsh realities she may observe, she often sees strategies for change and transformation. “I have seen many instances where teachers are doing wonderful things. And those for me are moments of possibility, ways for us to learn what is possible.” 

I have seen many instances where teachers are doing wonderful things. And those for me are moments of possibility, ways for us to learn what is possible.

Valdiviezo began her career as a classroom teacher after graduating from the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Peru. She came to the United States as part of a year-long fellowship program through the College of the Holy Cross to teach Spanish and remained in the U.S. to complete a master’s in education at Clark University. After teaching for several years in Chelsea, MA and Windsor, CT, Valdiviezo earned a doctorate in education at Teachers College, Columbia University. While working on her doctorate, Valdiviezo had her first experiences as an observer in bilingual classrooms, working with New York City public school teachers. She visited classes, provided feedback, mentored new teachers, and learned from those with more experience.

Portrait of Laura Valdiviezo talking

It was in these schools that Valdiviezo began her ethnographic work, even if she didn’t initially identify it as such. She was fascinated by the classroom cultures. “I'm really grateful about all that I could learn from that experience and from the teachers. That inspired a lot of the work that I’m doing now, in terms of the ways in which we look at the teaching practices and the identity of teachers, as well.” It wasn’t until a professor who happened to be an anthropologist named it for her that Valdiviezo saw that the foundations of her work were ethnographic. 

This led Valdiviezo back to Peru to do fieldwork for her dissertation, an ethnography of schools in indigenous communities that were implementing a national program for bilingual education. Because the schools were so remote, teachers lived there during the week, and Valdiviezo benefited from this immersive experience. She was not only in their classrooms, but she was also living with them, cooking meals, and eating with them; learning about them in casual conversations after dinner. 

Valdiviezo’s work in Peru had a personal element. Part of her family is indigenous, but in recent generations had stopped speaking their language, Quechua, because of the societal stigma against Indigenous people. Her mother knew a little of the language but she hadn’t learned any. Knowing how her family had been socialized to reject their language, she was deeply grateful to work in the bilingual schools and see the efforts to reverse some of that damage. 

In Peru, she experienced a variety of educational practices that embraced and valued indigenous ways of learning and living. Because the schools are in such isolated areas without transportation, the adults in the community are deeply involved in the schools, even constructing the buildings and the infrastructure. The teachers drew the parents deeper into the classroom by inviting them to teach about family and cultural traditions and practices. 

“There are these practices of recognition of nature and talking about Mother Nature and certain processes and ceremonies that the families who came were able to explain to the children,” Valdiviezo observes. The children were not unfamiliar with the practices and knowledge, “but in a different setting in the classroom, they were validated. That is something opposite to what tends to happen in schools that don't recognize the value of a community’s practices, that exclude those—from the language to anything they do that is non-Western.” 

Valdiviezo saw that when this part of their lives is brought into the classrooms, the children become the experts, and they become fully engaged. This contrasted strongly with classrooms she had observed where the students’ cultures and languages were not validated, and where they were more likely to be quiet and unlikely to participate.

In Valdiviezo’s view, efforts by teachers to truly value their students’ languages and cultures and invite these into the classroom are key in transforming schools from places that harden institutional inequality to places that promote social justice. 

In her years of observing teachers, Valdiviezo has often seen the benefits of teachers reaching out to families, drawing on the knowledge and expertise of the community. “This opens the doors to understand that there’s not only one source of knowledge,” she explains. “Teachers recognize students’ funds of knowledge and experiences at home, explicitly valuing them in the classroom.” 

This opens the doors to understand that there’s not only one source of knowledge. Teachers recognize students’ funds of knowledge and experiences at home, explicitly valuing them in the classroom.

She recalls an experience teaching in bilingual classrooms in Chelsea. While the students were Spanish speakers, they came from many different Latin American countries with different vocabularies. The teachers would have the kids talk about certain words, comparing what they used at home, such autobús, guagua, el ómnibus, and el camión for bus. It was a simple activity, but it spoke volumes to the students. “It was an opportunity to say ‘yes, these are all words and now you, because you are here together, you know how you say it in the Spanish at home, but also all these other ways,’ emphasizing that we were enriching each other by being so diverse.”

Valdiviezo also observed teachers in New York’s bilingual programs nurturing experts among their students. When a visitor would come to the class, it would be these students who would show them around, and explain what they were learning. This practice would help the students become independent learners and leaders. “The dynamics that you see are not top down, from teacher to the students, it’s very dynamic,” Valdiviezo observes. “There’s such pride in the children, because they know that they’re doing a good job and they’re more motivated to learn.” 

Although she travels widely for her work, Valdiviezo’s current research keeps her close to home. Along with her College of Education colleagues Keisha Green, Kysa Nygreen, and graduate researcher Joel Arce, she’s working with teachers in the ethnic studies programs in the Holyoke, MA public schools, to develop youth-centered approaches to teaching. As part of the program, they helped the students in the middle and high schools create and lead professional development for their teachers. 

“High school students conducted research with surveys for teachers and peers across the different schools. They collected that data and analyzed it and then prepared their professional development sessions for teachers based on those results,” explains Valdiviezo. They provided an analysis of some of the overarching challenges that a lot of urban settings face in making school inclusive of students who come from linguistically, ethnically, and racially diverse communities and developed activities to help the teachers make the classes more engaging and inclusive. “It was just such a wonderful thing to witness, and the teachers were so inspired by seeing their students excel.”

In addition to her faculty position, Valdiviezo serves in two key roles that allow her to expand the reach of her work and her exposure to compelling scholarship in her field. Valdiviezo is the Director of the UMass Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latinx Studies, which promotes research, training, and public engagement on the histories, cultures, and politics of Latin American and Caribbean peoples across the Americas and throughout the world. Her position at the Center allows her to connect with faculty throughout the University whose scholarship intersects with hers, and it gives her the opportunity to bring the work of her College of Education colleagues to this community. 

Valdiviezo is also, along with College of Education professor Sally Campbell, co-editor-in-chief of Anthropology and Education Quarterly. She relishes the experience, especially what she’s learned from the scholars who contribute to the journal and from collaborating so closely with Campbell. Moreover, having access to such a broad range of scholarship from colleagues engaged in anthropology and education, has been an important inspiration in her work, consistently reaffirming for Valdiviezo how important issues of equity and social justice in the classroom are and continue to be.