Stories, concepts, and methods of participatory action research—Transforming individuals and groups


Sudia Paloma McCaleb, EdD


(by John Bilorusky)

This chapter is an outstanding illustration of the transformative power of participatory methods of action research. I have had the opportunity for about five years to have Sudia as a colleague and a friend. The stories, ideas and methods that she shares in this chapter, are powerful and moving, but still, just the tip of the iceberg of transformative power—for individuals and for families and communities—of collaborative participatory research that she does with others in the U.S. and abroad.

Sudia’s stories and insights—of participatory action research

My life as an educator began as a child growing up in our apartment above the pre-school that my parents operated throughout my young life. I can still remember the swings, slide, and climbing bars in our front yard. My career took many twists and turns, but I eventually ran an innovative pre-school in my own home, got a Master’s degree from Bank St. College in NYC and became a professor after earning my EdD at USF in San Francisco. My learning is always evolving in collaboration with my students and their families and with the international educators I have worked with and have come to know. Through participatory research I came to respect and love the groups of parents and educators with whom I have done my most important and personally fulfilling work. My professor and beloved mentor Alma Flor Ada, helped me understand deeply that “Participatory research is a philosophical and ideological commitment which holds that every human being has the capacity of knowing, of analyzing and reflecting about reality so that she or he becomes a true agent of action in her or his own life.”

For many years, I have worked with families in California public schools, engaging in dialogues with young people and their parents. Many students in our classrooms have been uprooted from their home countries and as a result don’t feel wholly connected to their new country culture, or even neighborhood. Most of their families have neither the resources nor the traditional family support systems formerly available to them in their own countries or native communities. In their new lives, they often feel helpless and lacking in personal or group validation. Participatory research invites parents to tap into their internalized traditional sources of knowledge and wisdom and begin to feel whole again while contributing to their children’s education.

In an early research project, my initial question was:

How can educators create a partnership with parents and young students that will nurture literacy and facilitate participation in the schools while celebrating and validating home culture and family concerns and aspirations?

Five families volunteered from a first-grade classroom to participate in that project, and I was invited to conduct the dialogues in their homes. Because many ethnic and linguistic minority parents have not experienced the school as a welcoming environment, dialogue on their territory provided an opportunity to equalize the perceived power relationships, I felt that the home environment would provide a better opportunity for the parent’s voice and knowledge to emerge.

Some of the guiding questions were:

  • 1. What have been the educational experiences of linguistic and ethnic minority parents in formal schooling and out of school learning?
  • 2. How do parents view their own children’s educational experiences in the context of family, community, and school?
  • 3. How can educational bridges be built between the home and the school that validate the home culture and community?

I transcribed the initial dialogues from a cassette recording of the session and then shared the text of our dialogue with each of the participants, inviting them to revise or correct any parts that did not represent what they really wanted to express. Each received his or her printed copy to keep. This step was an essential part of the collaborative effort and advanced the reflective process to a level of greater depth. Upon receiving the text, the participants expressed surprise that they had so much to say, that it had appeared in print, and especially that their words and thoughts were considered worthy of publication in the creation of new knowledge. Here I was reminded of what Freire said in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

Self-deprecation is another characteristic of the oppressed, which derives from their internalization of the opinion the oppressors hold of them. So often do they hear that they are good for nothing, know nothing, and are incapable of learning anything, that they are sick, lazy and unproductive, that in the end they become convinced of their own unfitness. (Freire, 1972, p. 49)

During the next stage of the project, I analyzed the texts and extracted common or “generative themes”—the recurring threads of thoughts that are woven throughout the dialogues and that signify important issues in the lives of the participants. These themes were going to be used for the next phase of the project which was a family book development. Because the themes were recognizable and important to the participants, the parents were highly motivated to use them in creating a book. Each family received a box full of supplies that contained magic markers, crayons, watercolor paints, glue sticks, pieces of fabric, stickers, and construction paper.

Here is a synopsis of some the books that were created:

  • 1. Childhood Friendships. Participants begin by brainstorming what is important to them in friendship. Children hear about the childhood friendship of their parents and grow quite interested. They talked about friends they walked to school with along country roads. Some parents expressed concerns about the kinds of friendships their children might develop that would lead the down the “wrong” path. The children focused on friendship qualities as “they are nice, you can play with them, they can come to your house, they share, and they hug.”
  • 2. Families Building Together. Parents spoke about wanting to do things with their children that are fun, like watch TV or play Nintendo games. I developed an activity where a family would receive a small suitcase filled with blocks, cars, trains, trucks, tracks, farm and forest animals, and a multiracial group of persons. They were asked to build a structure or scene and create a story with members of the family where they could be the main characters. The building was the stimulus for the story and then they were asked to take a picture of the building with the builders. Everyone said they did have a camera. Each family photo and story was used to include in a group book.
  • 3. Families as Problem-Solvers through Struggle and Change. In a group conversation, we spoke about the word “struggle” and what is means to each. Many parents of children in urban schools have had only limited formal schooling, but this does not mean, as educators sometimes believe, that they have not learned and gained knowledge from the experiences of the many challenges and struggles in their lives. All parents are by nature problem-solvers, and while coming up with solutions, they often weave many pieces of information together and reflect on them before making a decision. Children can come to see their parents as problem-solvers and learn by hearing about their struggles. During my dialogues with parent participants, all of them described how they have struggled in their lives and continue to struggle in the present. The children made drawings of what they heard from their parents.
  • 4. Codification Based on Community Life. I collaborated with parents in creating a book, through a process that was explicitly informed by my understanding of the pedagogical approach of Paulo Freire. Freire observed that the evolution of culture is marked by its passing through epochs, each of which is characterized by a series of “aspirations, concerns and values which man is searching to fulfill, as well as the obstacles to their fulfillment.” The themes of the epoch” in turn indicate the tasks to be carried out (Freire, 1972, pp. 91-92)” These themes must be understood in order for change and transformation to take place. Freire believed that when the themes are not understood, then men and women become “dehumanized.” Through the dialogues I did with parents, I chose recurring themes of importance that emerged in those discussions, and then I selected words that Freire called “generative” words. I asked an artist friend of mine if she could take 20 words and create a simple drawing. Freire called drawing like this a “codification.” A copy of the drawing was given to each participant and from the drawing they created a story. The drawing contained familiar themes from their lives and the themes we had already discussed in our group sessions. Freire actually used the idea of codifications in what he called “literacy circles” where a facilitator after discussion with a group of pre-literate adults takes their ideas, challenges, life themes and creates a simple drawing or codification which the adults in the circle used to generate a dictated text that was used for teaching reading. The underlining philosophy is that people can learn to read more readily from stories that they have generated (or dictated to the facilitator) and that reflect their own lives and reality.

I have also worked with older children exploring the concept of knowledge and wisdom. In one instance, I was working with a middle school group of students for about three months. We began with a rap that was written by a good friend, Kerrigan Black called, “History Rap.”


You’ve got to know something 'bout history

So the world isn’t just a mystery (after each verse)

For thousands of years we’ve been making our way, To get to where we are today

Now. Some folks don’t think that’s very far But they don’t know how wrong they are

History isn’t just facts and dates

It’s different ways of thinking to appreciate It’s what was happening long ago.

And what’s going down in the times that we know

History is me and history is you

It’s your mother, father sister, brother

Grandparents too

It’s the stars in the sky, the beat of the drum.

It’s where you live, it’s where you come from.

It’s religions and rivers and mountains and kings

Fashions, inventions and crazy things!

It’s art and music, war and peace

Revolution evolution that will never cease.

The kids loved it and wanted to sing it again and were bouncing all around. I have found in all my work as an educator that music, singing and rhythm can really motivate learning at all ages. So let’s do it! Our questions motivated by the rap were:

What does knowledge and knowing mean to me? What do I really know well? What is wisdom? Who are wise people? Am I wise?

These questions were discussed, and students asked each other the questions and also went home and asked parents and other adults. Results were compiled, compared, and discussed.

The following is a list of five other topics appropriate for any age to investigate, share information gained and turn into written individual or group books. These topics are essential “points of departure” for transformative inquiry-and-action, for participatory research that is driven by the curiosity, experience, and knowledgebuilding capabilities of the participants.

1. Teachings from My Childhood

The project can give adults the opportunity to think and talk about memories of the place they spent their childhood. Memories may be vivid, nebulous, or even painful. Thinking about these memories gives the children the opportunity to know more about their parents, and also to think about their own communities, with guiding questions like: Is the community multiethnic or multilingual? Where do people get their food? Where do people go when they want to have fun? What may be dangers in the community, and how do young people leam to protect themselves?

2. The Wise One

Through this research children will recognize and come to know a person who possesses “wisdom,” and parents will also take time to think about someone they have known who possessed a non-traditional form of knowledge. By “non-traditional,” I mean knowledge that often does not receive the public respect and acknowledgement that it deserves. This research can be a way of honoring and validating alternative knowledge gained through living and reflection. Participants are asked to begin by brainstorming the meaning of the word “wisdom.” They are told that:

You may look up the meaning in several dictionaries.

  • • Read some folk tales where an important character is a wise person in a village and think about where do their powers lie?
  • • Children can ask their parents about wise people they have known, and the children in class can share and compare qualities and abilities that the parents shared with them at home.
  • • Invite a person to the classroom that is consider “wise” in the community and generate questions in advance to ask them.
  • 3. The Most Frightening Time in My Life

Fear is a common feeling in most children and young people’s lives. Adults may consider a child’s fear unimportant or irrational, but for the child, it seems very real and may cause great anxiety. This can take the form of fear of strangers, the unknown, new situations, or bad dreams. Some children’s fears prevent them from learning. During Halloween season when scary images appear everywhere, children cling more to their parents to be assured that some things are just pretend. When parents are asked to share times in their lives when they were frightened, children become more aware of fear as a human emotion. When both children and adults share experiences of fear in a supportive community, sometimes they can eliminate the fears that immobilize them. Participants are asked to make a list of the fears that students share and talk about ways for dealing with or overcoming them. Parents are asked to share with their children fears they have experienced in their lives, and what have been some of the scariest moments they can recall from their childhood, and then of course, how they have overcome them. An illustrated book of fears can be put together by children and parents. This often becomes a very popular reading text based on information gathered through dialogue.

4. Words of Advice from Our Parents

The transmission of values has been at the core of every civilization. Students need to know what their elders think is important and what expectations they have for their children. What words of wisdom do parents feel obligated to pass on? What words does each new generation receive from its family or cultural group through advice, ritual, and tradition? The project begins with a letter that is sent home to parents, asking them to pretend that they are going on a long journey and aren’t sure when they are returning. So, they want to give their children some important advice before leaving. For some parents, this is very matter of fact, while for others it brings tears or causes them to do some deep thinking. When the responses are then brought back, children share with others in the class the similarities and differences among the advice given by their parents. They go on to talk about whether they knew these things before, and if they felt they could meet their parents expectations. Turning the responses into a class book reminds the students each day of who they are and how much they are loved.

5. Book for Peace

We use this project as an opportunity to find words or short phrases that concretize the feeling and idea of peace. We ask people, “visualize what peace means for you?” Think about, “How can we broaden the framework and look at peace in the family, peace in the community, peace in the world and the concept of peaceful co-existence?” People may say such things as, “Around the winter holiday season we see and hear a lot, ‘Peace on Earth and Goodwill towards All.’ However, these words may be meaningless unless we take some time to talk about them.” With this participatory research project, we sometimes see that with older children, they may learn about many areas of the world that are not at peace and try to understand what the problems and conflicts are. We often ask people to explore the concept of “conflict resolution,” or suggest that they find out about local, national, and global organizations that are working for world peace.

After many years of research with multicultural and multilingual communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, a few of us who had been doing these kinds of participatory research began to take what we had learned to find ways to implement some of the ideas while working internationally, particularly with communities of educators and indigenous environmental and language activists. The most recent projects have been in Oaxaca, Mexico, and El Salvador. Previously we also did work in Guatemala, Cuba, Rumania, and Hungary. Below, I’ll describe two activities we’ve done.

Dichos (sayings) or proverbs

Everyone grows up hearing their grandparents or other elderly family members or parents repeat frequently some words or phrases that represent values or teach some valuable lesson. A commonly heard one in American culture is “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” or “the early bird catches the worm” or “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” What lessons about how to live do they teach us? What cultural values do they imply? In this activity we ask people to share some of the dichos (or sayings) they have heard frequently in their lives. What do they actually mean? What are the belief systems represented? Are these sayings that we want to teach to the next generation, or perhaps would rather not? Lively discussions invariably follow. We also show beautifully illustrated dichos (sayings) from a book we found that was written bilingually in English and Spanish. Participants write down on “post-its” as many dichos as they can recall hearing and then choose one that they would like to illustrate. Lively discussions and much laughter is part of the conversation. It is like researching deeply hidden values, comparing, sharing, and reflecting on their usefulness in today’s world. Some of the dichos are specific within one cultural context while others seem to cross cultures, countries, and languages. A lot of cross-cultural learning happens with this activity. Some examples we have heard are:

You reap what you sow, which is very popular in com-based agricultural societies.

  • • If you wait for tamales to fall from the sky, you will only get the (banana) leaves.
  • • What you don’t like in others, you may find in your own house (so, look at yourself).
  • • The bully is only as powerful as the coward who allows him to be (so, stand up for yourself).
  • • The wise person does not say everything he thinks but thinks before he says anything.
  • • The devil is not wise, because he is the devil, but because he is old.
  • • If you keep your mouth open the flies will come in (This dicho has been particularly conflictual. Some believe it has to do with advice to not gossip, but others find it offensive because they assume that it does not allow people to express their ideas and should just keep their mouths shut and not speak up, especially if their ideas are considered too radical or unpopular!)

Foto voz (photo voice)

This is a visual, dialogic, and writing activity that allows participants to express themselves through a foto (photo) or painting. A large collection of visuals are laid out on the floor, and participants are asked to choose one that speaks to them— one they can see themselves in—that somehow expresses a thought, a dream, a relationship. They sit with this visual for a few minutes thinking about why they chose it, and then while sharing in a small group of two or three, they discuss why they chose it and what it means for them in their life. Is it about themselves, about someone they know, about a wish, a dream, or perhaps a place they have always wanted to visit? The possibilities are endless. The sharing sometimes brings the speaker to tears. We learn a lot about each other, and many cultural life stories emerge during this activity. The final exercises ask that each person, after sharing, then write down what they shared about, why they chose the foto, and what it means for them. We have found that many people are blocked when asked to write, but if they proceed from visual to dialogue, to writing, this often creates a powerful bridge. One teacher of upper elementary school in Oakland carried out this activity with his students. He took fotos in the community of familiar places and incidents and also used pictures he found in magazines and picture books. His pictures included a policeman handcuffing a Black man, two parents having an argument in the house with a child listening and covering his ears, and a church with the Virgen of Guadalupe and a foto of Cezar Chavez on the wall. Students had very profound reflections, and he put together a book with the visual chosen by each student and the student’s words below. He made copies of the book for each child in the class and gave me one too. I have incorporated this book in our workshops, and participants are able to see how they could also do this, and how easy it can be. This activity has been one of the most popular in our international work. Further, whenever we extend our workshop to incorporate a family night, then when the participants can choose which activities they would like to share with the parents, “Dichos and Foto Voz” are always first chosen. I think this is because the activities allow people to find out how others think, see the world, and express emotions, and then together they learn about their similarities and differences.

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