Developing a Sense of Belonging in Spaces for Community Curricular Collaboration

A Self-Study of Indigenizing and Localizing
S-STEPCulturally Sustaining/Revitalizing PedagogyIndigenizingCurricular DissonanceSense of Belonging
This study documents the experiences of co-constructing curricula toward educating the public about the lifeways of a local Indigenous community. As part of a social studies methods course, we are exploring the ways to create meaningful field experiences toward overcoming harmful curricular oversights in elementary education. I investigate my initial sense of belonging through participation as a new member of this Indigenous Collective (IC), and the experience of creating curricular artifacts with preservice teachers through guidance and support from Indigenous and non-indigenous community members. These outcomes inform organizational elements for navigating, what I conceptualize as sites of curricular dissonance, through the perspective of Indigenous leaders, a community teacher, a preservice teacher, and a teacher educator. Findings describe the nature of this collaborative space which fosters curricular agency, mutual learning and teaching, and a sense of belonging. This research investigates how the tensions inherent in this work become sites for teaching and learning, when community teacher educators inform the design of public justice-oriented curricula.

Context of the Study

Curricular challenges, such as perpetuation of false narratives, marginalization of social studies instruction, (Heafner & Fitchett, 2012), and silencing of minoritized histories, necessitate teacher education which engages elementary educators in critical research, and creative design. To engage in critical work, teacher educators are calling upon iterations of Freire’s (1970/2000) critical pedagogy, such as critical pedagogy of place (Gruenewald, 2003), culturally relevant pedagogy, (Ladson-Billings, 1995) culturally responsive pedagogy (Pirbhai-Illich et al., 2017), and culturally sustaining pedagogies (Paris & Alim, 2017). In the context of an elementary social studies methods course, I encourage preservice teachers to explore these pedagogical approaches as they inform the design of these curricular collaborations. Various studies from Indigenous and non-indigenous scholars illustrate how these collaborations challenge who is considered a teacher educator (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009; Eyler & Giles, 1999; Gullen & Zeichner, 2018; Gorlewksi & Tuck, 2019; Johnson, 2017; Paris & Alim, 2017; Phelan et al., 2020; Pirbhai-Illich et al., 2017; Price-Dennis, & Souto-Manning, 2011; Whetung & Wakefield, 2018; White et al., 2020). Most relevant to the context of this study is McCarty and Lee’s (2014) critical culturally sustaining/revitalizing pedagogy which goes beyond sustaining toward restoring life and the presence of culture.

Not only are glaring curricular misrepresentations evident, but educators are overlooking the benefits of prioritizing Indigenous ways of knowing for our future. San Pedro (2017) argues for centering Indigenous paradigms in colonizing spaces through awareness of human and environmental interactions within political, social, economic, and ecological places. Tuhiwai Smith (2021) argues that even the concept of space, or “Indigenous space, has been colonized” (p. 58). For non-indigenous educators, 'indigenizing', or integrating Indigenous cultural and historical expertise, and 'localizing', or integrating local cultural and historical expertise, requires acknowledgment of their own positionality, inhabiting stolen lands. As Tuck and Yang (2012) critique, “we have observed a startling number of these discussions make no mention of Indigenous peoples, our/their struggles for the recognition of our/their sovereignty, or the contributions” (p. 3).

As teacher educators in the university setting, we are designing field experiences that engage preservice teachers in curriculum development with local organizations that may be critiqued and shared with a public audience. My initial experience with this local Indigenous Collective (IC), sparked my contemplation into my sense of belonging within this space. Looking to Bourdieu’s (1979/1984) discussion of one’s sense of belonging, Page (2020) describes how this develops through familiarity with the habitus or everyday social practices and actions. From this sense of belonging, I developed research questions to explore aspects of the habitus of the space that “enable placemaking and a sense of belonging” (Page, 2020, p. 108). Placemaking incites conflict, as we all see, experience, and understand place, space, and land from our perspectives. This research explores the patterns of work necessary for working within the inevitable conflict, which I conceptualize as 'curricular dissonance', where curricular possibilities and limitations meet. This collaborative space accommodated curricular agency toward localizing and indigenizing elementary social studies curricula for a public audience. I conceptualize 'curricular agency' as making decisions that acknowledge curricular limitations, however, continue to work toward curricular possibilities.


As S-STEP prioritizes, I investigate how a collaborating Indigenous Collective (IC), seeks to reposition, reframe, re-imagine, and integrate new learning. A department initiative to connect preservice teachers with the community through field experiences brought our coursework into the context of this organization. As part of this field experience, students attended at least two, two-hour meetings, via Zoom, with the Indigenous Collective to inform their curricular artifacts. They also were invited to education working group meetings, which consisted of the vetting team that would evaluate our contributions to a curricular project centering the lifeways of a local tribal community. We began the course, recognizing our positionality as no students identified as having Indigenous heritage. This became a rich site for self-study of teacher education practices to understand how these community members strengthen and further complicate our curricular approaches.

Lunenburg, Korthagen, and Zwart (2011) remind readers that teacher educators, acting as agents for change, design questions for self-study based on a “fascination or problem rooted in the researcher’s own practice” (p. 407). The urgent problem of curricular oversights that proliferate elementary social studies instruction, combined with my fascination with this initial sense of belonging where I could meld my background in earth science, environmental education, and elementary social studies, welcomed opportunities for curricular agency. Within the tumultuous context of culturally sustaining and revitalizing work, this self-study explores teaching practices informed by Indigenous and non-indigenous critical friends, non-traditionally considered teacher educators, to explore the following questions.

Research Questions


Since 1992 self-study scholars have been inventing ways to study teacher education practices. Vanassche and Kelchterman’s (2015) review of Self-Studies of Teacher Education Practices (S-STEP) prioritizes the essential principles of focusing on one’s own practice through qualitative research and centering collaboration. As Peercy and Sharkey (2020) advocate, “This ‘turn to self’ by the researchers illustrates how self-study methodology can bring together questions of identity and one’s practices as a teacher educator” (p. 112). Kenyon (2022) writes “You Can’t Be a Nice White Lady and Do Anti-Racism Work: A Self-Study on Teaching Against Racism” and explores the tensions of teaching social studies methods courses from the positionality of a white female. This aspect of my identity echoes the need for pause, self-reflexivity, “and willingness to publicly problematize [my] taken for granted beliefs” (Berry, 2015, p. 964).


I interviewed two of the Indigenous founding members of IC, Heather and John, who are head speakers of their tribal community. I am using pseudonyms, as naming the specific community would not allow for anonymity. However, it was imperative that specific community names, language, and knowledge be used in the curricular artifacts. Lily, a member of IC for almost three years, identifies as an educator, activist, and Indigenous grandmother, as her daughter has three native children. These members and I were part of the education working group, which conducted the vetting process of preservice teacher research and artifacts. I also interviewed one preservice teacher, Amy, who continued work beyond the course.

Data Sources

Using ethnographic approaches, immersed in the space of this organization, I triangulated with multiple sources from organization members, students, and my own documentation of the process.

I created jottings during and after course sessions, Zoom meetings with IC, and the education working group, and expanded jottings into field notes. With each significant field note, I created a reflective memo to capture any potential themes, codes, and shifts in teaching practices.

Data Analysis

I looked for themes within and across these sources using reflexive thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2021) and recognized my role in interpretation. Using member checking, I shared the interview transcripts with participants to minimize misrepresentations. During exploratory coding, I looked for in vivo codes that would best illustrate the phenomenological experiences. Organizing alphabetically, I looked for codes that may be combined through the process of pattern coding (Saldaña, 2021) using Atlas.ti software. I conducted reflexive thematic analysis phenomenologically which “focuses on meanings suggested by the data through the use of 'is' and 'means'” (Saldaña, 2021, p. 259). Through thematic mapping, I organized my interpreted codes and themes.


Preservice teachers in the course shared their lack of knowledge of Indigenous histories and concerns about how these curricular gaps may inhibit their participation in the project. These tensions, sites of curricular dissonance, where they see the possibilities, but feel the clash of curricular limitations, needed to be explored. I began recognizing these sites of curricular dissonance through data analysis and considering how they relate to teaching practices. Using the teaching practice of iterative lesson design, students chose a topic of interest surrounding Indigenous seasonal practices to research using resources from IC. Students shared their work with their peers and me through two cycles of feedback. Following these cycles of review, the education working group, including Indigenous and non-indigenous volunteers, reviewed curricular artifacts of interest with these guiding questions.

“We've developed 4 guiding points to inform your feedback in this initial round:

Direct written feedback on artifacts and classroom visits from the Indigenous and non-indigenous founders enriched this list of curricular goals:

I documented the feedback from these collaborative meetings to inform my teaching practices and curricular revisions.

Discussion with [Heather] and [John] about academic views and use of Indigenous knowledge, pinged with me, how might we frame the sharing of this knowledge through this curriculum project . . . with the intention of keeping awareness on the active Indigenous community (Field note, 10/26). 

Similarly, Amy reflected in her field experience log, a course assignment that documented her participation through the curricular project,

The vetting process that materials go through to be included on the [organization] website is extensive. The process that Heather and John go through to make certain that everything . . . is as accurate as possible is truly a gift to the [Indigenous community] (Field Experience Log Entry).

As she elaborated in her interview this “encouraged her to think about what I am reading, and how accurate it was and the sources I was getting it from”. Although the students and I were positioned to inform on curricular structures, these community teacher educators challenged our assumptions, and truly transformed our approach. Amy states, “they wanted to really be clear about current day connections . . . it’s not just a past thing. . . we want to say the Indigenous people were here and then they weren’t”. Following an educational working group meeting, seeing the energy and knowledge from this team of experts, I reflected upon subsequent correspondence.

This email provided enthusiasm, gratitude, and recognition for students and collaborators for this collective curricular project. . . Hopefully, and ideally, these perspectives may inform my future actions and curriculum development. It is also helpful to show students the willingness of a local organization to value their expertise in a public space (Reflective Memo, 11/3).

I interpreted five primary teaching practices or elements of the organization’s habitus that enabled the navigation through the curricular dissonance inherent in localizing and indigenizing elementary curricula: 'fostering interdisciplinary relationships', 'positioning oneself as a learner', 'evaluating for truth', 'critically analyzing places', and 'exercising curricular agency'.

Fostering Interdisciplinary Relationships: “You’re not alone.”

John and Heather emphasize, with the third non-indigenous founding member, IC was founded based on bringing people from various disciplines together toward symbiotic discovery and revitalization of Indigenous lifeways. Heather explains,

“the majority of the time their goal will benefit our Indigenous goal. Because we are really trying to preserve our environment and our culture and our knowledge . . . we’re relearning old Indigenous knowledge as well, . . . we are on that road together”.

John added, “You’re not alone”, Heather echoed, “I’ve got friends!” which illustrated Lily’s characterization of the organization, “the relationships are very genuine. . . I think people mean what they say, they want you to help”. Heather emphasized through stewardship of the land, contributions should benefit all involved. The educational space does not support the unidirectional extraction of information, a site of curricular dissonance, which mimics the colonial extraction-based economy. Lily speaks to the affective support necessary for this work, as the space allows “a wide range of emotions . . . They entertain humor, they entertain anger”. I documented in my meeting notes times when tensions and discord were palpable as Lily describes, “they encourage people to join, but they are very careful. . . they don’t want them to be takers, they want them to be doers”. I witnessed multiple interactions with people entering the space, whether intentionally positioning themselves to extract or not, and the emotions and intense discussions that ensue. What Lily characterizes as genuine, also entails blunt honesty and direct communication with members and non-members. Although my intentions of increasing exposure for preservice teachers, elementary students, and me to Indigenous lifeways through curricular decisions, the curricula needed to be useful for Heather and John, IC, and their Indigenous community more broadly.

Positioning Oneself As a Learner: “Really put myself in the place of not knowing and being.”

Lily has acted as a critical friend for me throughout this experience, asking specific questions that made me question my own curricular decisions during the vetting process. She describes what I interpret as another site of curricular dissonance, “My lack of knowledge. . . you grow up with these myths . . . you don’t learn the history. . . That was the most challenging. To get educated”. She emphasizes the importance of developing this education as a collective endeavor, informed by various contributors including those who “haven’t had any exposure to the history” and she clarifies “it is not always peoples’ faults”. Through ten semesters of teaching this course, this lack of exposure arises and becomes an important motivator for preservice teachers toward overcoming this gap. Lily observed, “When you bring your students to our meetings . . . they all introduce themselves as learners”. Amy, a preservice teacher, discusses her motivation to learn and participate in this work to “do justice for the organization” by being “open to any suggestions and collaborations”. She explained sitting in on meetings, researching, and having conversations with Heather and John during class,

just made me more sensitive to the fact that . . . I can’t truly understand how people are feeling, but I can be mindful and as careful as I can be . . . to make things accurate. . . and be a more understanding person . . . really put myself in the place of not knowing and being.

Heather and John, as critical friends with members of the educational working group, guided our curricular decisions on our artifacts. Heather characterized their intentions when working with students, as “to encourage and uplift, not to criticize”. This approach is fundamental to the critical friends’ protocol, maintaining a stance toward improvement. Amy discussed some of the important revisions,

we wanted to . . . make sure that it was accessible to all kinds of people, . . . that a parent could pick it up . . . that there was a lot of opportunity for work in the environment and out of doors and hands on activities. . . words and pronunciations . . . the greeting, and the land acknowledgement.

Amy was instrumental in operationalizing the suggestions from the Indigenous and non-indigenous members of the educational working group sharing her motivation that “it would be useful to people beyond our classroom, not just useful to me”.

Evaluating for Truth: “The real story is slowly coming to the surface.”

Although one may argue there is no one truth, as it is reliant on interpretation, a quest for truth as a curricular emphasis was reflected through IC meetings, educational working group exchanges, course materials, visits from the founding members, and most notably during the interview as Heather,

But as far as educational material, it is just about teaching the truth . . . you don’t want to continue to rehash the wrong story, because then it becomes a debate, and which is right, and which is wrong . . . We’re correcting the wrong, and we’re not erasing.

To which John added, “Because the truth is out there you just have to recover it”. Heather and John modeled that they do not claim to know everything either, “that’s what we’re trying to do. You know through IC and all the help we get through students and professors and others; it’s slowly hashing, the real story is slowly coming to the surface”. However, evaluating and sharing these stories becomes a common site of curricular dissonance, as people feel discomfort or fear when gathering new perspectives. However, Amy describes when making content developmentally appropriate, “I don't think that's the point, to make a kid feel bad about the past, but to recognize what it was”. When considering the harm that is occurring, John and Heather are in a state of conflict and associated discomfort, which they navigate through action as illustrated in my meeting notes, “doing what is right for our culture” as they are “tired of being told we are extinct”.

Critically Analyzing Places: “This is about local history, period.”

Localizing requires learning about our historic and contemporary places, from local people as efforts toward improving the accuracy of minoritized narratives through curricular decisions. The Indigenous leaders, Heather and John commonly emphasized concepts with the prefix ‘re’, “re-narrate”, “re-envision”, and “reeducate the public” to illustrate this active practice of growth and change in our teaching approaches. As Heather asserted, “This is about local history, period”. Through learning from local experts and community members, Amy recognized a site for unlearning, “the ways that Heather and John, and you described it, it, I felt silly not understanding it before that it was so local, and so place-oriented, that each group would have very specific, cultural differences and the way they live their lives with nature”.

Lily highlighted that localizing with some communities is challenging as “they want sanitized versions of colonial history only”. This site of curricular dissonance mirrors the backlash, prevalent in our local schools, where sanitized versions of local history are barricading students away from exploring balanced perspectives. Instead, she argued that in terms of Indigenous knowledge, many students are starting “from scratch” however “they’d be very happy to learn more about Indigenous life . . . And they could see their local areas as a reflection of life well before colonial times”.

Exercising Curricular Agency: “I feel good that there is something new out there in the world.”

Lily describes IC as, “outstanding. . . so well organized . . . everything leads to actionable items . . . you are actually accomplishing something”. Amy continued her work beyond the scope of the course and contributed to three curricular artifacts, in addition to the overarching template and introduction, and co-taught a webinar for local educators about how to use the artifacts we had designed with the class. As she discussed her designs, created through what I interpret as her curricular agency as a teacher educator during the webinar, despite feeling nervous, she notes “it feels really good to have created something” and be “more comfortable in my knowledge of how to talk to students about history”. We would meet after class and over Zoom, where she also acted as a critical friend to incur reflection upon my curricular agency and brainstorm curricular possibilities. Amy articulated in her interview “I like a challenge when it comes to a curriculum project” which echoed my interest in curricular agency, limitations, possibilities, and dissonance. Previously I attributed my interest in curriculum development to its creative possibilities, and less so for its inherent challenges and problems. The methodological structure of self-study, and reflexive thematic analysis, alerted me to my interest in curricular design, which is not purely creative, but overcoming the tensions, or sites of curricular dissonance in the process.


Recognizing Community Members and Preservice Teachers As Teacher Educators and Critical Friends: “I can see why you as professional teachers do what you do. We totally get it.”

Amy, Heather, John, and Lily acted as teacher educators to fellow members of IC, preservice teachers in the course, and me. San Pedro and Kinloch (2017) discuss the “urgency of advocating for humanizing and decolonizing approaches” which require centralizing relationships (p. 375S). As McCarty and Lee (2017) argue “CSRP attends directly to asymmetrical power relations . . . recognizes the need to reclaim and revitalize what has been disrupted by colonization . . . and recognizes the need for community-based accountability” (p. 62). Expanding who is considered a teacher educator, John notes his positionality in creating these relationships, “we are more like advisors, and life coaches”. Dominguez (2017) argues that “Cultivating types of educators for whom CSRP is possible is going to involve new, decolonial approaches to teacher education” (p. 241). Similarly, King (2017) poses this new vision of balance, as “a brilliant opportunity to evaluate our efforts” (p. 130). Cipollone, Zygmunt, & Tancock (2018) write, “Community members are teacher educators” and suggest that “by broadening the definition of “teacher educator” beyond university faculty to include community members, our candidates are better able to make this shift and begin to feel with the community, and in turn, with their students” (p. 716). John and Heather describe the ‘leeway’ afforded through this expanded educational space, which through S-STEP methodology, supported interrogation of my teaching practices, and moved the focus away from my role, toward a broader recognition of who is a teacher educator (see Tuck & Gorlewski, 2019).


Curricular Dissonance Persists: “No one can do this work by themselves.”

S-STEP affords this opportunity to pause, revise, and reimagine curricular decisions. Amy notes in her field experience log, “For a culture that passes on cultural history, skills, and language primarily through oral tradition and generational knowledge this has been devastating”. This site of curricular dissonance necessitates relationships that are mutually beneficial as Lily notes “no one can do this work by themselves”. It was essential that this curriculum collaboration provide mutual benefit for the Indigenous community members, and experience for preservice teachers and me with localizing, and indigenizing. Contributing to organizational initiatives became a way for participants to navigate these tensions, as Lily articulates, "I have to be able to do something to feel like I belong". I recognize these five themes, elements of the habitus of this space, which foster curricular agency, mutual learning and teaching, and a sense of belonging through affective support and opportunities to contribute.

As Amy emphasized, this required “a lot of work” however, was “going to be real”. Heather and John acknowledge the persistent conflict, or dissonance between possibilities and limitations, “Dreams and reality are two different things”. Similarly, about to embark on a full-year internship in second grade, Amy highlights the site of curricular dissonance, “the curriculum looks pretty rigid”. You can hear the crashing of her creativity against the rigidity of preplanned curricular experiences. Lily explains “When things are suppressed there is a human cry against that suppression, and people come out even more determined to tell their story” but cautions “It could have a counter effect”. This highlights yet another site of curricular dissonance, while providing opportunities to investigate local knowledge, an imminent backlash is always a risk. Recognizing these sites of curricular dissonance as an educational space, I was able to exercise my curricular agency with various teacher educators. My sense of belonging, although challenged through my lack of Indigenous knowledge, inherent curricular tensions, and observation of interpersonal discord continues to foster my compassion, interest, and participation in this humanizing community.


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Elaine Marhefka

University of New Hampshire

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