Dr. S. Marie McCarther, University of Missouri - Kansas City


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Dr. S. Marie McCarther, University of Missouri - Kansas City - Published by NATIONAL FORUM JOURNALS, Dr. William Allan Kritsonis, Editor-in-Chief - www.nationalforum.com

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Dr. S. Marie McCarther, University of Missouri - Kansas City

  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 ABSTRACTThis article explores one student’s understanding of teaching and learning in the place wecall school in an urban metropolitan district located in the heart of America. Themethodology drew upon video-taped interview and observation to identify instructionalbest practice strategies that enhance what students love and dislike about school. Findingssuggested that students can contribute to meaningful discussion to improve learning,increase achievement, and foster improved school climate and that students know goodinstruction as active and engaging, building on their strengths and talents, and involvingthem 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 tocognitive initiatives that focus on increasing the learning outcomes of students and give littleattention to affective efforts that seek to listen to the voices of students and hear their storiesabout schools. This stuck state that emphasizes reform policies and programs that disregard thevery 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 forutilizing scientifically based research to develop curricula and assessments that reflect specificstandards 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 andimproved academic achievement for students must also be supported by policies and practicesthat encourage educators to connect to the lives of their students, to have high expectations ofthem, and to interact with them in ways that build mutually supportive relationships which 29
  2. 2. promote learning (Davis, et.al., 2010). Learning is a recursive process dependent on bothcognitive 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 FrameworkResilience Students of color have not fared well in the present environment. An analysis of studentachievement, graduation rates, and other measures of academic performance have demonstratedfailure 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 aremore 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 theenvironmental context that function to overcome risk factors (O’Connor, 2002; Davis, 2007).Current educational reforms, centered on policies and programs tied to cognitive reform, denythe impact of resilience and its importance in the educational process. Connecting curriculumand instruction to the known, to the everyday lives of students, having high expectations, andinteracting in mutually supportive relationships with students are the experiences that negateadversity and promote learning. These are the experiences that help students “overcome and evenbecome strengthened by experiences of adversity” (Grotberg, 1997, p. 2).Student Voice Including each student’s voice in the educational experience creates importantinstructional opportunities to identify their strengths and for students to build upon existingconstructed 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/hisexperience 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 inschools, such as students of color or students from poverty backgrounds, values the livedexperience of others (affective), not the objective view of experience (cognitive). For thisexploration, the lived experiences of an urban high school student was expressed through hisvoiced stories and captured through video-taped interview. Capturing students’ voices as part of the research process of narrative inquiry “carves outspaces 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” (Apple1998, 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 incommunities, organizations, schools and other spaces which they may occupy, narrative mightbe both a methodology and the phenomenon of study (Clandinin & Connelly, 1994; Chase, 2005;Creswell, 2007). Clandinin and Connelly (1994) explain the similarities and differences betweennarrative 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 ahealing art . . . a means for transforming oppressive conditions by creating opportunity forsuppressed 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 andLapan (2004), is “both a process, a narrator or participant telling or narrating, and a product, thestory or narrative told” (p. 104). Schools are one of the few remaining places where people fromdiverse backgrounds can come together and make meaning of their lives through the sharing ofstories from unique voices. Methodology The methodology employed in this heuristic narrative inquiry drew upon video-tapedinterview and observation to unlock the story of one urban high school senior. Listening to thevoice of the participant as he sought to make meaning of his schooling experiences in an urbanschool is the essence of this inquiry. The interview format was semi-structured and consisted offour questions that allowed for more focused, two-way conversation and communicationbetween 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 becamemore contextualized and reflected meaningful experiences of the participant. Guided by thetheoretical framework and research questions, the study led to the telling of the participant’sexperiences which served as data, leading to what Polkinghorne (1995) described as “analysis ofnarratives” (p. 12) to identify themes to inform the work of educators and other stakeholders inthe school improvement process. Identification of the participant was accomplished through the purposeful selection of oneurban high school in the Kansas City metropolitan area. A sampling procedure was open toschools that provided, as Strauss and Corbin (1990) suggest, the “greatest opportunity to gatherthe most relevant data about the phenomenon under investigation” (p. 180). The student returnedthe consent form and was interviewed. The video tape was analyzed and common and/orinteresting themes and patterns were identified. Recurring themes related to student voice thatemerged included instructional experiences, multicultural content, relationships, and teacherexpectations 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 ofthe teaching-learning process. It may be understated that for many children in today’s urbansettings, academic achievement is most promising when there are strong adult-child relationshipsin place and where children know and believe they are in an institution where people care aboutthem and all of their needs. Yet, it is often the case that the suppression of personal experienceswithin schools and teacher education programs often contributes to the absence of reflectivepractices, relationships, and overall caring which reproduces technocratic and corporateideologies 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 anddeficit thinking are likely to influence educators’ decisions about policies, programs, andinstructional focus. This inquiry sought to determine the role of institutional caring on the part of an urbanhigh school and its effect on the perceptions of school by one urban high school student. Withthis in mind, this study sought to give voice to one student through telling his specific “storiesabout school.” Findings from the interview transcription, data coding, and analysis suggestedthat this student’s perceptions of one urban high school indicate a definite understanding of whatgood instruction is to him. He wants instruction that is active and engaging, builds on hisstrengths and talents, and includes him in choices about what and how to learn. He wants caringteachers who have high academic expectations and a desire to connect with him within his livedenvironment.Donavon’s Story The following is narrative from one urban high school student. The details in the casestudy are factual and are based on an interview with an African-American senior high schoolstudent named Donavon (The name has been changed to protect anonymity). The enrollment atthe high school that Donavon attended consisted of 98.3% African-American students in grades9 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 schoolyear was 33.7% (DESE, 2008). Through an analysis of narrative, such as in this case, findings demonstrated that thestories 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. Accordingto Swanson, Cunningham, and Spencer (2003), young African-American males may be impactedby 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 Donavondescribes with his uncle, who serves as a positive role model for “the type of person” Donavondesires to become (Donavon, 2008). In addition, the school as an institution has the potential toprovide support for increasing resiliency in students. Henderson and Milstein (2003) providedsix 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 ofAmerica (FBLA) and the Debate Club, and seeking teachers who needed extra help in theirclassrooms after school so that he could remain in the building as long as possible. When askedto 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 andcommunity 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, hisstory echoes those of so many who came before him, were with him, and remain after him. ForDonavon, 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 campusand off of the streets, and most critically, he expressed a deep personal connection to the adultsin 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 listeningto student voices. School improvement and educational reforms can benefit from includingstudent voices in problem identification and problem solution. In her book, Student Voice inSchool Reform: Building Youth–Adult Partnerships That Strengthen Schools and EmpowerYouth (2008), Mitra explores the emergence of student voice and its impact on school culture andthe learning environment. She proposes a list of advantages that result from including studentvoice in schools, including the bolstering of student confidence and sense of belonging,improving learning, and enhancing school climate. As urban public school leaders continue tosearch for winning strategies to turn troubled schools around, Donavon’s story suggests a lessonof value for consideration: listening to the voices of their students can bring an important andunique perspective. Joining in partnership with their students, bringing student voices to the tableto problem solve solutions for the improvement of teaching and learning in their schools canstrengthen the bond between teachers, students, and administrators; improve the culture, climate,and achievement within their schools; and increase students’ self-confidence and feelings ofbelongingness (Mitra, 2008). The purpose of this investigation and sharing Donavon’s story is toexamine the lessons from student voices traditionally silenced, in hopes they will be heard todayand benefit tomorrow’s student. ReferencesApple, 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.//resilnet.viuc.edu/library/Grot97a.htmlHenderson, 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 http://www.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/index.html 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 http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/educ-attn.html AuthorS. Marie McCarther, EdD is Assistant Professor in the Division of Urban Leadership and PolicyStudies in Education, School of Education at the University of Missouri – Kansas City, KansasCity Missouri. 36