Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Ways with Ethnography: Teacher Freedom and Community Building

There's quite a bit of rhetoric today surrounding the ideas of "standards" and "back to basics," but much of this rhetoric ignores the fact that teachers in the classroom must somehow connect with their students in such a way that students will continue their learning as a lifelong process.  What we see in Shirley Brice Heath's Ways with Words is that teachers who have been empowered with lessons in ethnography are better able to reflexively adapt their teaching to meet the specific situation of their own students.

In here original Epilogue, Heath sums up the major problem we face when political systems attempt to impose standards from a state or national level without allowing schools to address the local needs of their communities:
Unless the boundaries between classrooms and communities can be broken, and the flow of cultural patterns between them encouraged, the schools will continue to legitimate and reproduce communities of townspeople who control and limit the potential progress of other communities and who themselves remain untouched by other values and ways of life.  (369)
This ongoing legitimation and reinforcement of dominant norms leads to cycle wherein those who suffer within the dominant system themselves become agents of that system, reinforcing their own marginalization.  Unfortunately, there are many, many people (both the beneficiaries of the system and the downtrodden) who do not recognize that they are simply participating in a cultural system, or that there can be different types of approaches toward educating children.  What Heath's work shows, however, is that students already enter their classrooms with a background of culturally-acquired knowledge - by building on this knowledge rather than simply ignoring it, teachers were better able to help their students meet the educational goals of the school while also supporting different approaches to knowledge.  As Heath describes it, teachers are able to "engage students in collecting and analyzing familiar ways of knowing and translating these into scientific or school-accepted labels, concepts, or generalizations" (340).  With activities such as interviewing, scouring recipe books, and collecting life histories (316-19), students are able to complete projects which cultivate essential knowledge-making habits while also developing on themes which have local and personal relevance.

The problem, however, is that teachers often aren't allowed this kind of freedom.  Even when they are, they often aren't equipped with the cultural and linguistic knowledge regarding their students to formulated truly effective interactions.  For example, in one conversation between two girls on a school bus, we see that a school activity designed to teach storytelling might not fit within the patterns of "telling the truth" demanded by families at home ( 294-96).  In looking at preschool students, Heath found that teachers became frustrated by the ways children would follow cultural norms either by attempting to take the floor during story time or or by fighting amongst themselves for toys (280-81).  Addressing the latter example, teachers found that they were able to travel around the community during non-working hours to help parents see how a preschool classroom functions, but these types of extracurricular activities were difficult to sustain and had only limited benefit (281-82).

Although I don't know of "good" ways to implement such a system ("good" being loosely defined as easy enough and cheap enough to be within the confines of current school systems), I think it would beneficial if all teachers were guided through a process of using ethnography in order to better understand why their own students learn and behave in the ways they observe.  By doing this, they can not only better tailor their lesson plans to meet the needs of their students, but they can also find motivating factors which would encourage their students to continue more of a lifelong appreciation of learning by illustrating how and why these specific school-taught skills are helpful in "real life."

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