Donavon’s Story:
One Urban High School Student’s Voice – Many Lessons for
Improved Schools
S. Marie McCarther, EdD
promote learning (Davis,, 2010). Learning is a recursive process dependent on both
cognitive and social productions...
attach to these experiences. Sometimes thought of as stories people tell of their lives in
communities, organizations, sch...
The Importance of Student Voice
Siddle-Walker (2001) asserts that attention to the affective is an important dime...
Donavon begins his story with evidence of both resources and risk factors in his life. According
to Swanson, Cunningham, a...
it’s your school name. It’s the school you have labeled on your business plan. That got
me frustrated, but I don’t accept ...
Davis, D. M. (2007). Resiliency reconsidered: Deconstructing the policy implications of the
resiliency movement. Charlotte...
U.S. Bureau of the Census. (2003). Educational attainment in the United States: 2003.
Washington, DC. Retrieved from
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Dr. W.A. Kritsonis, National FORUM Journals,


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Dr. W.A. Kritsonis, National FORUM Journals,

  1. 1. Donavon’s Story: One Urban High School Student’s Voice – Many Lessons for Improved Schools S. Marie McCarther, EdD University of Missouri-Kansas City ABSTRACT This article explores one student’s understanding of teaching and learning in the place we call school in an urban metropolitan district located in the heart of America. The methodology drew upon video-taped interview and observation to identify instructional best practice strategies that enhance what students love and dislike about school. Findings suggested that students can contribute to meaningful discussion to improve learning, increase achievement, and foster improved school climate and that students know good instruction as active and engaging, building on their strengths and talents, and involving them in making choices about what and how to learn. Key Words: student voice, student-teacher relationships, culturally relevant instructional practices “I love school and the opportunity it gives to me.” (Donavon, 2008) Many of the headlines in newspapers today tout educational reform that is devoted to cognitive initiatives that focus on increasing the learning outcomes of students and give little attention to affective efforts that seek to listen to the voices of students and hear their stories about schools. This stuck state that emphasizes reform policies and programs that disregard the very students they are intended to serve by denying the importance of relationships, emotions, and feelings has not produced the achievements it sought (Davis, McCarther, Friend, & Caruthers, 2010). While the federal legislation, No Child Left Behind Act, (NCLB) (2001) increases the federal responsibility for student achievement, it assigns states responsible for utilizing scientifically based research to develop curricula and assessments that reflect specific standards identified by each state. Clearly, schools are directly accountable for cognitive reform, rather than affective reform. The parent study from which this exploration stems suggests that quality education and improved academic achievement for students must also be supported by policies and practices that encourage educators to connect to the lives of their students, to have high expectations of them, and to interact with them in ways that build mutually supportive relationships which 29
  2. 2. promote learning (Davis,, 2010). Learning is a recursive process dependent on both cognitive and social productions that demand affective participation: Feelings and actions are also important. We must deal with all three forms of learning. These are acquisition of knowledge (cognitive learning), change in emotions or feelings (affective learning), and gain in physical or motor actions of performance (psychomotor learning) that enhance a person’s capacity to make sense out of their experiences. (Novak, 1998, p. 9) Theoretical and Conceptual Framework Resilience Students of color have not fared well in the present environment. An analysis of student achievement, graduation rates, and other measures of academic performance have demonstrated failure for students of all backgrounds, but most significantly children of Latino, African- American, and Native American families, as well as poor European American families, and, more recently, Asian and Pacific American immigrant students (Nieto, 2002). White students are more likely to earn a high school diploma than their African-American and Hispanic peers (U.S. Census, 2003). Educational resilience, defined as the ability to succeed academically despite adversity, focuses on the protective factors within individuals, within school systems, and within the environmental context that function to overcome risk factors (O’Connor, 2002; Davis, 2007). Current educational reforms, centered on policies and programs tied to cognitive reform, deny the impact of resilience and its importance in the educational process. Connecting curriculum and instruction to the known, to the everyday lives of students, having high expectations, and interacting in mutually supportive relationships with students are the experiences that negate adversity and promote learning. These are the experiences that help students “overcome and even become strengthened by experiences of adversity” (Grotberg, 1997, p. 2). Student Voice Including each student’s voice in the educational experience creates important instructional opportunities to identify their strengths and for students to build upon existing constructed meanings for active engagement in the learning process and the school community. Britzmean (1990) defines voice as “the individual’s relationship to the meaning of her/his experience and hence, to language, and the individual’s relationship to the other” (p. 14). Understanding the concept of voice in terms of traditionally silenced or marginalized groups in schools, such as students of color or students from poverty backgrounds, values the lived experience of others (affective), not the objective view of experience (cognitive). For this exploration, the lived experiences of an urban high school student was expressed through his voiced stories and captured through video-taped interview. Capturing students’ voices as part of the research process of narrative inquiry “carves out spaces for the embodied voices of the silenced (the stress on the last two letters is important here, since it signifies an active process of control, regulation, and policing) to be articulated” (Apple 1998, p. x). Hence, researchers discover the realities of students’ lives and the meanings they 30
  3. 3. attach to these experiences. Sometimes thought of as stories people tell of their lives in communities, organizations, schools and other spaces which they may occupy, narrative might be both a methodology and the phenomenon of study (Clandinin & Connelly, 1994; Chase, 2005; Creswell, 2007). Clandinin and Connelly (1994) explain the similarities and differences between narrative inquiry and stories: It is equally as correct to say inquiry into narrative as it is to say narrative inquiry. By this we mean that narrative is both phenomenon and method. Narrative names the structured quality of experience to be studied, and it names the patterns of inquiry for its study. To preserve this distinction, we use the reasonably well-established device of calling the phenomenon story and the inquiry narrative. Thus we say that people by nature lead storied lives and tell stories of those lives, whereas narrative researchers describe such lives, collect and tell stories of them, and write narratives of experience. (p. 416) Shuman (2005) further described storytelling as “an aspect of the ordinary . . . . touted as a healing art . . . a means for transforming oppressive conditions by creating opportunity for suppressed voices to be heard or for creating opportunities to listen to those voices” (Shuman, 2005, p. 5). In other words, narratives are a mode of inquiry that, according to deMarrais and Lapan (2004), is “both a process, a narrator or participant telling or narrating, and a product, the story or narrative told” (p. 104). Schools are one of the few remaining places where people from diverse backgrounds can come together and make meaning of their lives through the sharing of stories from unique voices. Methodology The methodology employed in this heuristic narrative inquiry drew upon video-taped interview and observation to unlock the story of one urban high school senior. Listening to the voice of the participant as he sought to make meaning of his schooling experiences in an urban school is the essence of this inquiry. The interview format was semi-structured and consisted of four questions that allowed for more focused, two-way conversation and communication between the researcher and informant (Merriam, 1998): (a) What do you love about school? (b) What do you hate about school? (c) What would you change if you were in charge of the school? and (d) What would you like to say to teachers? As dialogue emerged, the interview became more contextualized and reflected meaningful experiences of the participant. Guided by the theoretical framework and research questions, the study led to the telling of the participant’s experiences which served as data, leading to what Polkinghorne (1995) described as “analysis of narratives” (p. 12) to identify themes to inform the work of educators and other stakeholders in the school improvement process. Identification of the participant was accomplished through the purposeful selection of one urban high school in the Kansas City metropolitan area. A sampling procedure was open to schools that provided, as Strauss and Corbin (1990) suggest, the “greatest opportunity to gather the most relevant data about the phenomenon under investigation” (p. 180). The student returned the consent form and was interviewed. The video tape was analyzed and common and/or interesting themes and patterns were identified. Recurring themes related to student voice that emerged included instructional experiences, multicultural content, relationships, and teacher expectations for behavior and academics. 31
  4. 4. Findings The Importance of Student Voice Siddle-Walker (2001) asserts that attention to the affective is an important dimension of the teaching-learning process. It may be understated that for many children in today’s urban settings, academic achievement is most promising when there are strong adult-child relationships in place and where children know and believe they are in an institution where people care about them and all of their needs. Yet, it is often the case that the suppression of personal experiences within schools and teacher education programs often contributes to the absence of reflective practices, relationships, and overall caring which reproduces technocratic and corporate ideologies that sustain the official narrative of culture (e.g., Irvine & York, 1995; Gay, 2003; McLaren, 2003). It is within this environment that low expectations for academic success and deficit thinking are likely to influence educators’ decisions about policies, programs, and instructional focus. This inquiry sought to determine the role of institutional caring on the part of an urban high school and its effect on the perceptions of school by one urban high school student. With this in mind, this study sought to give voice to one student through telling his specific “stories about school.” Findings from the interview transcription, data coding, and analysis suggested that this student’s perceptions of one urban high school indicate a definite understanding of what good instruction is to him. He wants instruction that is active and engaging, builds on his strengths and talents, and includes him in choices about what and how to learn. He wants caring teachers who have high academic expectations and a desire to connect with him within his lived environment. Donavon’s Story The following is narrative from one urban high school student. The details in the case study are factual and are based on an interview with an African-American senior high school student named Donavon (The name has been changed to protect anonymity). The enrollment at the high school that Donavon attended consisted of 98.3% African-American students in grades 9 through 12. The attendance rate was 67%, meaning that on average, on any given day, one- third of the students may be absent from school. There was a high degree of poverty, with 73.9% of the students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The drop-out rate for the 2007-08 school year was 33.7% (DESE, 2008). Through an analysis of narrative, such as in this case, findings demonstrated that the stories the participant told about school were connected to resiliency. Here is Donavon’s story: I come from a family where all my aunts and uncles are successful. They are CEOs and professionals. And, well, my brothers and sisters kind of messed up. My uncle, who is like my father to me, he really shows me the type of person who I want to be. My brother got arrested, my sisters dropped out of school, and that made him sad. I see myself as the last hope. School is more of life and changing the mentality of my family. We need to get more people off the streets and staying in schools. I try and find ways to stay in school as long as I can so I just go home to eat, study, and go to sleep. (Donavon, 2008) 32
  5. 5. Donavon begins his story with evidence of both resources and risk factors in his life. According to Swanson, Cunningham, and Spencer (2003), young African-American males may be impacted by multiple risk factors: The societal stereotypes, in conjunction with numerous social, political, and economic forces, interact to place African-American males at extreme risk for adverse outcomes and behaviors, and suggest clear implications for the continued structural conditions that characterize life in the United States for ethnic minorities. (p. 609) These risk factors may be overcome through supportive relationships, such as the one Donavon describes with his uncle, who serves as a positive role model for “the type of person” Donavon desires to become (Donavon, 2008). In addition, the school as an institution has the potential to provide support for increasing resiliency in students. Henderson and Milstein (2003) provided six strategies for schools to include in their programs to improve resilience among students: (1) promote elements of a positive school culture; (2) set clear and consistent boundaries; (3) teach life skills; (4) provide caring and support; (5) set and communicate high expectations, and (6) provide opportunities for meaningful participation (p. 53-57). Donavon described the activities that he engaged in after the regular school day ended, including participation in extra-curricular activities, such as the Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) and the Debate Club, and seeking teachers who needed extra help in their classrooms after school so that he could remain in the building as long as possible. When asked to further explain what he loved and hated about school, Donavon said: I love the teachers. It’s all about the teachers at this school. I don’t think they get enough credit for what they do here. They’re more like parents than teachers. They get paid less to work here than if they worked somewhere else. I’m lucky to have teachers who want to be here and teach. They could go someplace else, but they choose to stay here to help me and other kids like me. I hate the environment. The students disrupt learning – every 20 minutes the teacher has to yell at a student or they have to kick them out. We may only get 45 minutes of learning out of a 90 minute class. When the kids who want to learn can’t learn, it destroys the fabric of the school. (Donavon, 2008) Donavon went on to describe programs that are not offered in his urban high school and community perceptions that revealed discrimination against students who attend his school. At this school, we have less than what other schools have. Other schools have a band. I used to play in the band at my other school. I was really very good . . . very good at playing clarinet – in 7th grade I was playing with the high school band. We were forced to move here off of income, and my senior year is the first year this school has had a band. I didn’t have the chance to be where I should be right now. That’s very disappointing. I would change how people see us as a school – based on what a percentage of students do in this school. I was in FBLA for a state competition – I placed third. I had three judges scoring me, and I scored a15 out of 15 from two of the judges, and one judge gave me a zero. One of my sponsors got upset and asked how that could happen. People said – 33
  6. 6. it’s your school name. It’s the school you have labeled on your business plan. That got me frustrated, but I don’t accept that. As long as I know I did well, in my heart, I know it could have gone to state [competition]. (Donavon, 2008) Conclusion: Significance to the Field Resiliency theory is clearly illustrated in Donavon’s story. However, more than this, his story echoes those of so many who came before him, were with him, and remain after him. For Donavon, the place called school is where he finds hope, promise, and meaning in his life. Donavon’s story revealed him seeking desperately to find reasons to stay on the school campus and off of the streets, and most critically, he expressed a deep personal connection to the adults in the school house, even though his urban high school is not exemplary by most standards. Donavon’s story demonstrates that much can be learned working in schools and listening to student voices. School improvement and educational reforms can benefit from including student voices in problem identification and problem solution. In her book, Student Voice in School Reform: Building Youth–Adult Partnerships That Strengthen Schools and Empower Youth (2008), Mitra explores the emergence of student voice and its impact on school culture and the learning environment. She proposes a list of advantages that result from including student voice in schools, including the bolstering of student confidence and sense of belonging, improving learning, and enhancing school climate. As urban public school leaders continue to search for winning strategies to turn troubled schools around, Donavon’s story suggests a lesson of value for consideration: listening to the voices of their students can bring an important and unique perspective. Joining in partnership with their students, bringing student voices to the table to problem solve solutions for the improvement of teaching and learning in their schools can strengthen the bond between teachers, students, and administrators; improve the culture, climate, and achievement within their schools; and increase students’ self-confidence and feelings of belongingness (Mitra, 2008). The purpose of this investigation and sharing Donavon’s story is to examine the lessons from student voices traditionally silenced, in hopes they will be heard today and benefit tomorrow’s student. References Apple, M. W. (1998). Foreword. In S. Middleton, Disciplining sexuality (pp. vii-xi). New York, NY: Teachers College Press. Belenky, M.F., Clinchy, B.M., Goldberger, N.R., & Tarule, J.M. (1997). Ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind. New York, NY: Basic Books. Britzman, D. (1990). Practice makes practice: A critical study of learning to teach. New York, NY: Suny Press. Chase, S. (2005). Narrative inquiry: Multiple lenses, approaches, voices. In N.K. Denzin and Y.S. Lincoln (Eds.), The Sage handbook of qualitiative reearch (3rd ed., pp. 651-680). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (1994). Personal experience methods. In N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 413-427). Newbury, CA: Sage. Creswell, J. W. (2007). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among the five approaches (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 34
  7. 7. Davis, D. M. (2007). Resiliency reconsidered: Deconstructing the policy implications of the resiliency movement. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing. Davis, D. M., McCarther, S. M., Friend, J., & Caruthers, L. (2010, May 4). Change from the Inside Out: The Importance of Valuing Voice in the Reconstruction of Urban Schools. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), Denver, CO. DeMarrais, K., & Lapan, S. (2004). Foundations for research: Methods of inquiry in education and social sciences. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbuam Associates. Friend, J., & Caruthers, L. (2009). Cognitive and affection reform in urban elementary schools: Listening to the voices of children. Urban Learning, Teaching, and Research AERA SIG 2009 Yearbook. Gay, G. (2003). Becoming multicultural educators: Personal journey toward professional agency. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Grotberg, E. (1997). The international resilience project. Civilian International Research Center. Retrieved from http.// Henderson, N., & Milstein, M. M. (2003). Resiliency in schools: Making it happen for students and educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. Irvine, J., & York, D. (1995). Learning styles and culturally diverse students: A literature review. In J. A. Banks & C.A. McGee Banks (Eds.), Handbook of research on multicultural education (pp. 484-497). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Macmillan. McLaren, P. (1989). Life in schools: An introduction to critical pedagogy in the foundations of education. White Plains, NY: Longman. Merriam, S. (1998). Qualitative research and case study applications in education: Revised and expanded from case study research in education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Mitra, D. (2008). Student voice in school reform: Building youth–adult partnerships that strengthen schools and empower youth. New York, NY: Suny Press. Nieto, S. (2002). Language, culture, and teaching: Critical perspectives for a new century. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. Novak, J. D., (1998). Learning, creating, and using knowledge: Concept maps as facilitative tools in schools and corporations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. O’Connor, C. (2002). Black women beating the odds from one generation to the next: How the changing dynamics of constraint and opportunity affect the process of educational resilience. American Educational Research Journal, 39(4), 855-903. Public Law 107-110 (The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001). Retrieved from Shuman, A. (2005). Other people’s stories: Entitlement claims and critiques of empathy. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press. Siddle-Walker, V. (2001). African American teaching in the south: 1940-1960. American Educational Research Journal, 38(4), 751-779. Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1990). Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications. Swanson, D. P., Cunningham, M., & Spencer, M. B. (2003). Black males’ structural conditions, achievement patterns, normative needs, and “opportunities.” Urban Education, 38(5), 608-633. 35
  8. 8. U.S. Bureau of the Census. (2003). Educational attainment in the United States: 2003. Washington, DC. Retrieved from Author S. Marie McCarther, EdD is Assistant Professor in the Division of Urban Leadership and Policy Studies in Education, School of Education at the University of Missouri – Kansas City, Kansas City Missouri. 36