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Researching With: Ethical and Epistemological Implications of Doing Collaborative, Change-oriented Research with Teachers and Students


by Caroline T. Clark & Pamela A. Moss - 1996

In this article, we examine the ethical and epistemological implications of shifting from a strictly teacher-centered group to include students in a collaborative co-researching experience. For the past four years, we have worked collaboratively with teachers at City High School examining collections of student writing for assessment and accountability purposes. While students and their writing have been at the center of our work, our primary research partners have been the teachers at this urban, comprehensive secondary school. Interested in learning more about how students at City High perceive and use literacy, we are now engaged in a project in which students are co-researching their own literacy practices. This move implies a shift in partnerships, bringing students into this collaborative relationship and making them our primary research partners. Drawing from the literature on ethics in qualitative fieldwork, we contrast how ethical issues are constructed in the field with more regulatory constructions of “ethics.?Then, extending this further to the context of our work at City High, we consider the ethical and epistemological (validity) issues that are raised by such methodological choices. Illustrated with excerpts from student meetings and writing, this study marks a further attempt to expand “the continuing conversation?around educational research, opening the dialogue to invite the views and voices of students.

In this article, we examine the ethical and epistemological implications of shifting from a strictly teacher-centered group to include students in a collaborative co-researching experience. For the past four years, we have worked collaboratively with teachers at City High School examining collections of student writing for assessment and accountability purposes. While students and their writing have been at the center of our work, our primary research partners have been the teachers at this urban, comprehensive secondary school. Interested in learning more about how students at City High perceive and use literacy, we are now engaged in a project in which students are co-researching their own literacy practices. This move implies a shift in partnerships, bringing students into this collaborative relationship and making them our primary research partners. Drawing from the literature on ethics in qualitative fieldwork, we contrast how ethical issues are constructed in the field with more regulatory constructions of “ethics.” Then, extending this further to the context of our work at City High, we consider the ethical and epistemological (validity) issues that are raised by such methodological choices. Illustrated with excerpts from student meetings and writing, this study marks a further attempt to expand “the continuing conversation” around educational research, opening the dialogue to invite the views and voices of students.


For the past four years, we have worked with teachers and their students at City High School.1 Part of an urban, midwestern school system, City High is a comprehensive secondary school with an enrollment of about 2,600 students in grades nine through twelve. About 99 percent of the students are African-American, while the other 1 percent are predominately Latino/Latina and white. Our group has been engaged in examining collections of student writing for assessment and accountability purposes, as well as chronicling students’ writing experiences and teachers’ professional practices through written case studies.2 As a participant-observer in these six English classrooms, Caroline Clark has worked closely with the teachers, facilitating their work as they implement new approaches to teaching and assessing writing through dialogue, co-planning, and, at times, co-teaching. This teacher-centered strand of our research has led us to co-investigate issues of authority and collaboration and to jointly “write” about our work in the form of a Readers Theatre (Clark et al., 1996). While students and their writing are, then, central to our work, our primary research partners have always been the teachers at City High.


Our work with teachers around students’ writing and, in particular, their writing portfolios spawned some interest in co-researching literacy with students. Although portfolios were encouraged by teachers at this local level (and “mandated” by policymakers at the district and state levels), we observed that many students were not putting their best work forward. Some students, in fact, had very little to show in terms of portfolio writing. These same students, however, would often share with Caroline, informally, pieces of writing they had done outside the school context. These pieces ranged from song lyrics, poems, stories, and letters to more politically charged pieces about their views of society. Because these were not teacher-assigned or school-based, however, students rarely placed these pieces in their portfolios. In order to broaden our understanding of these choices, in particular, and the student perspective in general, Caroline formed a collaborative group that places students at the center of an ongoing project around their uses and perceptions of literacy.


While our collaborative work with teachers continues, collaboration with students has certainly changed the nature of the work at City High and has raised many new questions around issues of knowledge and authority, and the ethics involved in such lines of inquiry. In this article, we will describe the shift we have made to include student, as well as teacher, voices in our work, and discuss the ethical and epistemological questions we have encountered in conducting such collaborative, change-oriented research with teachers and students.

COLLABORATIVE WORK AT CITY HIGH


Currently, our teacher-centered group meets once a month at City High, while the student-centered group meets twice weekly on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the last hour of the school day. Caroline, with the cooperation of City High teachers and administrators, has hired students from five English classrooms to work as co-researchers. These ten students—all African-American and spanning grades nine through twelve—are both primary informants for and collaborators on this ethnographic/action research project. Co-researching school issues with students enhances the more ethnographic portion of the study by allowing an insider’s (or emic) perspective that might otherwise be inaccessible to Caroline as a white, female researcher investigating the literacy of African-American adolescents. Furthermore, inviting students to participate as action researchers aids us in understanding their literacy “from the actor’s point of view” (Erickson, 1986, p. 119), while also engaging them in a project that gives them a voice in constructing their literacy experiences and accounting for their own practices.


Student co-researchers are paid, and their work includes interviewing classmates and peers, collecting literacy artifacts, and reading transcripts to identify themes. Students have interviewed peers from within and beyond the school setting, including students who are currently enrolled at City High, as well as graduates of and dropouts from the City High School program. Student co-researchers are now involved in data reduction and analysis. Each student has received copies of transcribed interviews, reading for the most telling comments about literacy and underlining anything that stands out as important. Further coding, reduction, and categorizing of these data occur dialogically, with everyone discussing the various ways these data fit together and the themes that arise around them. This method should provide an excellent window into the emic perspective, for the actors’ points of view are shaping what arises as important. Furthermore, these shared readings and any emerging theories are “grounded” in the data themselves (Glaser & Strauss, 1967).


In the teacher-centered and student-centered groups, then, the method of research is based in dialogue. Teachers and researchers share with one another accounts of their worlds and work—accounts that may become the basis for further inquiry, as well as “correctives” to the hidden assumptions that each may bring about the “other” (Comstock, 1982). And students, in their work with Caroline, engage their peers within the group (and beyond) in discussing issues of schooling and literacy that are central to the irlives—dialogues that may point to contradictions between the student perspectives and other, dominant perspectives, as well as to individual differences within the student views. In both groups, research is not done “on” or “about” students and teachers; rather, it is done “with” these groups and their interests in mind, and “for” the possibilities that open up from such work.


Inviting students to participate in a project as active, paid co-researchers, while rare, is not a new idea. Heath and McLaughlin (1993) engaged students to work as “junior ethnographers” as they studied community youth organizations. Edwin Farrell has worked with students as “researcher collaborators” in studies of students’ success in school (Farrell, 1994), as well as their alienation from schooling (Farrell, 1990; Farrell, Peguero, Lindsey, & White, 1988). Valerie Balester (1993), a composition researcher, hired eight university undergraduates to work as “researcher informants” in her investigation of African-American college-level writers. And Penny Oldfather (1993a, 1993b, 1994) continues to collaborate with students in her work on motivation and literacy learning. One thing that distinguishes our work from these, however, is the action research component. The students involved are not simply research informants; they are, themselves, engaged in a project that revolves around purposeful, meaningful literacy activity.


Change, then, is an expected part of the work that we do together. In fact, opportunities for supported change and professional development are common characteristics of collaboration and collaborative research among teachers and researchers (Erickson, 1989; Kyle & McCutcheon, 1984; Oja & Smulyan, 1989; Skau, 1987; Sparks & Loucks-Horsley, 1990; Strickland, 1988). Such change, however, is often described as one-sided— affecting only the teachers (and in our case, the students) involved in the work. Educational theorists, for example, often speak of the changes in practice and reflection that result from a teacher’s involvement in collaborative inquiry (Tikunoff & Ward, 1983; Watts, 1985), but very few attend to the impact such interactions may have on teachers’ university counterparts. Furthermore, these “changes” as a result of collaborative research are quite often framed as positives, when, in fact, such changes may be difficult for or even unwelcome by teachers. As for the researchers, there seem to be few accounts of how they might change or grow more reflective as the result of collaboration. What researchers reportedly “get” out of such relationships is not, necessarily, opportunities for professional growth and change, but instead simply data or informants. In addition, change, in a dialogue-based inquiry, does not necessarily mean that all participants will end up in the same place with the same understandings. And, if authority over such inquiry is truly shared among the participants, the university researcher may not always shape the nature and direction of the work. Instead, choices, change, and understandings are shared and shaped by everyone involved in the inquiry process.


How does one engage in such an inquiry—one that is collaborative and change-oriented but where authority over the work is negotiated and shared? And, in chronicling such work, how do we, as university researchers, assess and ensure the soundness of our findings and interpretations when, in fact, such work invites multiple interpretations from the various participants? In the section below, we will describe how, for us, questions of ethics are intrinsically tied to issues of epistemology. Then, using examples from our current collaborative projects, we will share how we are addressing these questions and issues, in particular, in our work with students.

ETHICAL/EPISTEMOLOGICAL ISSUES


As the heading implies, in this section we address, together, issues of ethics and epistemology. While, organizationally, we might find it appealing to tease these apart and treat each in a different section, we think that such a separation does not fully represent the way in which each shapes the other in our collaborative work. As we ask ourselves questions about the validity of our work, we find we must always keep in mind the ethical dimensions of inquiry. Treating ethical and epistemological issues in separate sections would mark a shift away from research done “with” teachers and students back toward a method treating these groups as the objects of study.


Traditionally, for example, ethical issues regarding research methods have been primarily concerned with protecting “human subjects” involved in research. According to Merriam (1991), the first set of principles guiding researchers conducting experiments with human subjects dates back to the Nuremberg Code in 1945. Since then, numerous federal regulations (e.g., Department of Health, Education and Welfare [DHEW], 1974, 1978) and professional standards (American Psychologist, 1963; American Sociologist, 1968; AERA, 1992) have been developed to protect human subjects of biomedical and behavioral research. As Joan Cassell (1978) points out, however,


Federal regulations to protect human subjects contain an implicit model of the research process. The definition of subject in terms of the relationship between subject and experimenter, of what risk is and when it occurs, and what potential benefits might be, are clear even when not clearly spelled out. The paradigm for such research is medical experimentation. Consequently, it fits smoothly upon some of the more formal and quantitative types of social research, especially psychological experimentation. It fits incongruously, however, upon that variety of research variously known as fieldwork, participant observation or ethnography. (p. 134)


While critical of such federal regulations, Cassell is not dismissive of human-subject concerns. Rather, she feels that overattendance to such hierarchically imposed guidelines may be irrelevant to field research and may lead fieldwork investigators perhaps to ignore ethical guidelines that seem inapplicable to their work, or to deny that there are even ethical problems associated with their research (Cassell, 1978). As she puts it, “inappropriate regulations may do more harm than good” (p. 141). Such a narrow conception of ethics not only fails to recognize the breadth of ethical decisions and judgments that are made in the course of inquiry, but it also serves to broaden the gap between “researcher and researched.” Emerson (1983) illustrates this in his contrasting of traditional conceptions of “informed consent” with fieldwork-based conceptions, writing that


informed consent procedures envision research as a short-term, essentially contractual encounter between strangers possessing grossly different amounts of power and knowledge, whereas consent in fieldwork relations is emergent, negotiable, long-term, and usually marked by some degree of equality. (p. 264)


Unlike one-time consent given in advance to fixed procedures, fieldwork methods in collaborative research must be flexible, “sequential and conditional so that consent is a continual process, dependent upon mutual learning and development” (Wax, 1980, p. 275, emphasis added).


Along parallel lines, some theorist s have criticized convent ional approaches to validity for drawing on abstract and a priori criteria that may hold little relevance for a given study (Bernstein, 1983; Cherryholmes, 1988; Mishler, 1990; Moss, 1992; Smith, 1993). Bernstein (1983), for example, argues that


awareness has been growing that attempts to state what are or ought to be the criteria for evaluating and validating scientific hypotheses and theories that are abstracted from existing social practices are threatened with a false rigidity or with pious vacuity and that existing criteria are always open to conflicting interpretations and applications and can be weighted in different ways. (p. 24)


And Mishler (1990) proposes that instead of generating and applying “yet another list of rules and criteria,” we might rely on “Kuhn’s (1970) analysis of ‘exemplars’ to suggest an approach to the problem of how claims for trustworthiness may be made and evaluated,” with “the defining features of exemplars [being] inferred from the actual practices of working scientists” (p. 422). To move toward the goal of developing shared exemplars, Mishler suggests that researchers should articulate and clarify the features and methods of their studies, showing how the work is done and what problems became accessible. An exemplar should make the work visible through (1) compilation and organization of the data in the form of texts used in the analysis, with full transcripts and tapes that can be made available to other researchers; (2) documentation of the methods that transformed the texts into findings; and (3) documentation of the direct linkages shown between data, findings, and interpretations. “Although they cannot serve as ‘standard’ rules, a context-based explication is required of how observations are transformed into data and findings, and of how interpretations are grounded” (Mishler, 1990, p. 423).


Smith (1993) argues for exemplars as a means of weaving together issues of epistemology and ethics, and criticizes postempiricists for considering these issues separately. For interpretivists, as Smith describes, such distinctions are impossible:


A discussion over good versus bad research is, at one and the same time, a discussion of criteria—the two levels of discourse are inseparable. . . . This is why decisions about the quality of an interpretive study always draw on exemplars of that research tradition, involve judgmental interpretation, and are, ultimately, a practical and moral affair. . . . This is in contrast to the postempiricist idea that there are instances where, if a researcher had been less ethical, the research would have been better (in the sense of accurately capturing what was really going on in the setting), and vice versa. (pp. 155–156)


Because interpretivists see the value of any human endeavor, including inquiry, rooted in human solidarity, to separate epistemological issues of “goodness” from such ethical issues, and even to separate “goodness” in terms of the research act from the “goodness” of the researcher’s actions in relationship with others, is not useful. Such judgments themselves are inherently a reflection of one’s ethical stance.


Collaborative, change-oriented inquiry that is based in dialogue invites entanglement. When university and student or teacher researchers work together, they engage in a “change-enhancing, interactive, contextualized approach to knowledge-building” (Lather, 1986, p. 260). As Stake (in Jansen & Peshkin, 1992) argues, such knowledge-building “should rely more on personal experience and personal meaning as its data, and more on personal observation and introspection as its method” (p. 704). Jansen and Peshkin go on to state that “Stake’s concern is for relevance, more than the rigor of measurements. Relevance is enhanced when researchers participate in the lives of the observed and learn about their perspectives as well as their behaviors” (p. 704, emphasis added).


In work such as this, ethics becomes entangled with questions of epistemology because each decision about “what counts” as knowledge becomes an ethical choice about engaging with and valuing an “other” perspective. At times, perspectives may differ so radically as to be incommensurable. Teacher and university researchers, for example, may never come to understand or value dissemination in the same way because of the differing systems of reward and accountability to which they are subject. As Bernstein (1991) points out,


we can never escape the real practical possibility that we may fail to understand “alien” traditions and the ways in which they are incommensurable with the traditions to which we belong. . . . But the response to the threat of this practical failure—which can sometimes be tragic—should be an ethical one, i.e., to assume the responsibility to listen carefully, to use our linguistic, emotional, and cognitive imagination to grasp what is being expressed and said in “alien” traditions. We must do this in a way where we resist the dual temptations of either facilely assimilating what others are saying to our own categories and language without doing justice to what is genuinely different and may be incommensurable or simply dismissing what the “other” is saying as incoherent nonsense. (pp. 65–66, emphasis in original)


Bernstein goes on to contrast the “adversarial confrontational style” with “a model of dialogical encounter.” Here, there is “a seeking for a common ground in which we can understand our differences,” where “understanding does not entail agreement. On the contrary, it is the way to clarify our disagreements” (p. 337).


Our point in this section is not to draw some line between traditions of inquiry in an us-versus-them fashion, discounting other perspectives on research and building our claims regarding the interwoven nature of ethics and epistemology on “antipositivist” grounds. This would only serve to undermine our own position of valuing multiple perspectives. Rather, we intend to build our argument from inside our own research project, demonstrating how the interwoven goals of our collaborative work with teachers and students demand not quality judgments “made with the application of abstract standards or rules,” but rather, judgments as “practical accomplishments undertaken within the context of dialogue and persuasion that we work out as we go along” (Smith, 1993, p. 139). Similar to Guba and Lincoln’s (1989) goal in developing “ ‘authenticity criteria,’ which spring directly from constructivism’s own basic assumptions” (p. 245), such an argument is based in the project itself and grows out of the collaborative, co-researching nature of the work.


In our work with students, in particular, we have come to appreciate the value of engaging in a project that involves many perspectives. At the same time, we have encountered dilemmas that have forced us to make ethical choices, which in turn reshape what and how we have come to know together. In the next section, we lay out how we have conducted a collaborative, change-oriented inquiry with students. Looking “within the process itself” (Guba & Lincoln, 1989), we share episodes and events that highlight the ethical/epistemological issues we have encountered along the way, and that illustrate current theorists’ conceptions of what an open-ended, context-sensitive approach to validity might look like.

COLLABORATIVE INQUIRY WITH STUDENTS


“Collaborations” with students at City High have, in many ways, been ongoing throughout the four-year life of the project. Even as we worked with teachers, we talked with individual students about their writing portfolios (Clark & Moss, 1994) and their school lives in general (Clark, 1994). Students, however, were not brought in as full research partners until the fall semester of 1994. In laying the groundwork for this collaboration, Caroline shared her student-centered research plan with teachers, and at first her plans were actively resisted. Some reacted to the term literacy, inferring from it the term illiteracy and wondering about Caroline’s intent in studying “how illiterate the students are.” Others felt that the idea of giving students “voice,” while worth pursuing with seniors, perhaps, would not make sense in work with ninth or even tenth graders. This was the first indication to us that, in moving to include students in our work, we were indeed inviting another “stakeholding group” (Guba & Lincoln, 1989) into the conversation. Because they hold different interests, teacher and student groups may even be adversarial in their positions around issues of inquiry (Brown & Tandon, 1983; Guba & Lincoln, 1989). Our first negotiation, then, was to discuss with teachers their reservations regarding students’ co-researching issues of literacy, and then to negotiate a redefinition of the work in light of these concerns. Our history as collaborators made this easier, allowing us to talk both as a group and one-on-one about the proposal. In fact, we found that, for the most part, our differences revolved around language and rhetoric—the way in which we had written about what we wanted to do—rather than the fundamental goals of the project itself. Furthermore, it was important for us to listen to and include the teachers’ issues because one goal of the work with students was the hope that it could inform, and potentially transform, literacy teaching and learning practices as students disseminated their understandings to others in the City High community, including teachers.


After the project plan was negotiated, Caroline recruited students from across English classrooms at City High and hired ten students to work as co-researchers. Selecting students was, in fact, the first choice to be made on this project. More than thirty students applied for the ten spots. Criteria for being selected involved availability—whether students could meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2:20 to 3:15; and interest—whether students were willing to invest time and energy in the project. According to their applications, all of the students “fit” these requirements and deciding among them seemed impossible. When Caroline announced an informational mass meeting for interested students, however, exactly ten students attended, and these students became the co-researchers on the project. An interested, invested group, the students span the grade levels, and bring a range of skills and interests. They include seniors Cheri and Michelle; junior Tyrone; sophomores Curtis and Joseph; and freshmen David, Juliet, Shanika, Takesha, and Tiffany. Students are paid for their work, and their time spent on research also earns them credits toward the city-wide graduation requirement of “200 clock hours of out-of-class learning experience” (“City” Board of Education, 1985).


Before entering into this research relationship with students, we spent a great deal of time thinking through the traditional questions of entry— what the risks might be for the individuals involved, how they might benefit, and how we would ascertain informed consent. By undertaking a change-oriented inquiry at all, we obviously believe this project is beneficial, not only for the ten students involved, but for their teachers and classmates, for us, and for others who read and learn from this work. We also, however, realized the risks involved. In preparing for this work, we imagined the problems that might ensue—an interview discussion, for example, between a student co-researcher and a peer respondent that might alert us to some personal danger a student is encountering. How would we, and our student co-researchers, respond to and deal with such issues?


For our ten student co-researchers, the issues seemed more straightforward. Informed consent was arranged with them and their parents, and because they were “known” participants, any problems could be discussed between Caroline and the student, and, if necessary, a parent or teacher. For the students beyond—the peer respondents whom the students would interview outside the research group—the issue was more complex. These individuals would have contact only with the student co-researchers. Co-researchers would be responsible for pseudonymizing these respondents, and guaranteeing their confidentiality. Caroline’s only knowledge of them would come in transcribing their audiotaped interactions with co-researchers. Thus, as co-researchers, these fourteen- through seventeen-year-olds carried much of the burden of informed consent.


How did they handle it? As a group, Caroline and the co-researchers discussed informed consent as part of getting informed consent from the ten themselves. Caroline then described how this was a regular part of research, something that researchers must do as they engage with others in learning about them through interviews, surveys, and the like. The co-researchers themselves were quick to pick up on the importance of this. Early in the conversation (and at only the second group meeting) David, a ninth grader, suggested that they might get the students they interview to agree to participate on tape—a move that became our group’s standard way of dealing with anonymous, informed consent. Caroline “scripted” a possible informed consent discussion that student co-researchers could use in their interviews (see Figure 1). Rather than memorize the script, how- ever, students were encouraged to understand the concepts of informed consent, to adapt the script to fit their individual situations, and to use language that was comfortable to them in conveying the ideas (see Figure 2).


In retrospect, we can look back on our preparations and feel good that the process “worked”—that, so far, no harm has come to our researchers or their peer respondents. At the same time, however, we realize that, in fieldwork in particular, oftentimes risks/harms and benefits derive more from publication and dissemination of findings than from the conduct of research itself (Emerson, 1983). Furthermore, in examining our project to date, we can see the places where the co-researchers, themselves, revealed important issues of risks/harms and benefits that we might never have seen from our position as “outsiders” to their worlds.


A good example of this occurred early on in our work together. In addition to conducting interviews, co-researchers were asked to collect “literacy artifacts”—any items that further explain or exemplify reading or writing in students’ terms. Co-researchers asked their peers if they could share any examples of their reading and writing (i.e., poems, song lyrics, drawings, diary entries, or any other student-identified exemplars of literacy use). Tyrone, an active researcher and prolific interviewer, was the first among the group to bring in an artifact. During class, he had done a “literacy observation.” In his observational log, he writes:


Well, I noticed myself sleeping in World History because the class wasn’t interesting and kids were making too much noise. And the teacher’s voice didn’t have any enthusiasm in it. And the class wasn’t very informative. And I think teens read or listen to things that excite them.

FIGURE 1. INFORMED CONSENT “SCRIPT”


Student Researcher:

My name is (says name) and today is (date). I am interviewing (says peer participant’s agreed upon pseudonym) at (gives description of location of interview). I am going to read a passage that describes the purposes of this interview. Afterwards, I will ask if you understand the purposes of this study, and are willing to participate. Okay?


Peer Participant’s Response.


Student Researcher:

This research focuses on students and their uses of reading and writing. We are interested in understanding how students perceive and use reading and writing within and beyond the classroom. Do you understand?


Peer Participant’s Response.


Student Researcher:

Your participation in this interview is voluntary, and you may choose to stop the interview at any time. Do you understand?


Peer Participant’s Response.


(Students’ proceed with their interview dialogue.)

FIGURE 2. EXCERPTS FROM STUDENT INTERVIEWS—VARIATIONS ON INFORMED CONSENT

Excerpt from Joseph and “Tonya” Interview


J: Wha’s up “Tonya?”


T: Nothing.


J: I Gotta ask you a question.


T: What?


J: Do you agree to consent to me asking you these questions?


T: Yeah.


J: Okay. Uh, I wanna know a couple of things. How often do you read and write?

Excerpt from David and “Don Juan” Interview


D: This is David, here interviewing in 213A with—


DJ: —“Don Juan.”


D: And I am going to ask him a few interview questions. Okay. First of all, um, you know that your presence is voluntary? You can leave any time or you can stop any time. You don’t have to answer these questions. You understand that, right?


DJ: Yes, I understand that.


D: Alright. Tell me about yourself.


Tyrone explained in group what it meant to “rap off a piece of paper”:


TYRONE:

CAROLINE:

TYRONE:

CAROLINE:

TYRONE:

They use, their, you know, their writin’, you know, to, you know, excite things, impress everybody. . . . You know. It’s like lyrics. Like rap lyrics. . . . Yeah, see, they, like, look. What my, what I think rap is, you know, you expressin’ how you feel. You know. You ain’t, you just ain’t gonna be rappin’ about somethin’ that people don’t wanna hear. You know. You just rappin’ what’s, you know, what’s really inside of you, you know, just rappin’ on a—writin’ on a piece of paper. . . . Yeah, you know, it’s like a, it’s like a play, you know. It’s certain lines you can read, you just pass it around, then this other person drops in, then the other one drops in, you know.


So people add on to the wrap as it passes around the room?


Yeah, yeah.


Can you bring me an example?


Um-hm-well, it’s, it’s, it’s real, I tell you, it is real foul. It’s

rated X. You know. (Meeting Excerpts, October 25, 1994)


Here, Tyrone introduces a form of writing to the group, but in sharing with Caroline, he moves to protect—both her, from the “foul” language in the rap; and his peers, from any judgment she might bring as an “outsider.” When Tyrone did share this artifact with the group, the responses were mixed. Caroline, for one, was not offended by the language, but was impressed with the skillful use of play and language she saw in the artifact. For the students in the group, however, the moment was awkward. Because of the language, no one wanted to read the piece aloud. And some students were less than impressed with the piece itself, seeing only the “nasty” language, and taking this as the focus. Tyrone’s artifact brought to our attention some important learnings, and brought to the fore a new risk/benefit question. First, the group response to the artifact reminded us, early on, that we were working with individual students. This was not a monolithic group of “urban high school students” who would share similar views on all things. Rather, we were working with students who brought multiple and differing interpretations to the table. Second, Tyrone’s concerns about the foul language of the piece and the response of an outsider like Caroline reminded us of Bernstein’s (1991) idea of “radical alterity” and the possibility that an “other” might be incapable of understanding, accepting, or “making sense” of difference. For, while Caroline accepted the writing as artful, some students in the group did not. Even now, we have chosen not to share the artifact in this written piece because we worry about the labels it might bring down on the heads of urban high school students such that “one aspect of a group’s life is taken to represent them as a whole” (Kincheloe & McLaren, 1994).


Shortly after he shared the rap artifact, Tyrone brought another piece of writing to the group—some gang-related graffiti scribbed by an acquaintance on a piece of scrap paper (see Figure 3). Again, the response was mixed. Cheri, on seeing the piece, shook her head muttering “Um, um, um” in a negative way, and Tiffany began, accusingly, “Why did you—? Goodness!” expressing her dismay at having this artifact brought to the table. Some tried to read the piece aloud, or like David, simply stated, “I know what this means.” Caroline was unable to read the piece at all, relying on the students to read and interpret its meaning. Students pointed out the symbols that indicated whether the writer was “down” with the Bloods or the Folks, the two gangs referred to in the piece. As Joseph, Tyrone, and Curtis took the lead in explaining the piece, Cheri, Michelle, and Tiffany looked on silently from their seats around the table, not engaging in the conversation, but offering their negative looks and shaking heads as input. Naively, Caroline asked Tyrone if he might interview the writer of the piece. The response was an outburst of noes from around the table. The students were adamant that Tyrone could not, and should not interview this person. They worried, they explained, about the danger that might ensue from such a conversation. Furthermore, they shared that they were worried about discussing the piece at all. Takesha explained that people might get “the wrong idea” about the group and associate our work with gang violence if we continued to discuss such work. And in general, students worried about their co-researchers’ being put at risk by pursuing such interviews and artifacts. As a group, the students decided that we would no longer bring such artifacts to the table, and that this was not an area of literacy we would pursue as a group. Again, then, the students brought to the fore an important question of knowing and risk. Learning about and understanding gang graffiti, some might argue, could certainly enrich the importance of our look at student literacy. But because it is our look, authority around this choice was shared. Students, as “insiders” to the situation, sensed, in a way that Caroline could not, the risks involved in delving into gang writing. The choice whether to “know” about this situation, or not, was clearly an ethical decision.


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The examples above highlight the importance of bringing students into the inquiry process in terms of data gathering and interviewing. Students, as “insiders,” offer an emic perspective that Caroline could never bring as a white, female, teacher-like adult. In their student-to-student interviews, the co-researchers engage in interactions with peers as both “students”—offering their own perspectives on literacy; and as “researchers”—gathering information from their respondents in a way that Caroline could not. Take, for example, an excerpt from Juliet’s interview with “Yvette.” Here, Juliet not only learns about her peer’s reading and writing habits, she shares insights into her own literacy practices. And together, through the interview, the two girls co-discover a purposeful literacy event—sharing phone numbers with boys:


JULIET: What things do you like reading?


YVETTE: Mystery novels and very scary scary books.


JULIET: Me too. Oh, I love readin’ that stuff.


YVETTE: Like Stephen King and stuff (J: Um-hm.) I like watchin’ the movies, be like, you be all in. “He gonna push her out the window!”


JULIET: And um, what kind of writing do you do?


YVETTE: I write about boys. Malls, money. Girl stuff.


JULIET: Um-hm. Do you think reading and writing is important?


YVETTE: Yeah, cause without it you won’t be able to get no job. Then, if you a girl, you ain’t gonna be able to get no boy. Then, that, you ain’t gonna be gettin’ no car, cause they be cheatin’ you out the money, and you be payin’ like thousands of dollars for your license plates and junk.


JULIET: I just thought of something. You use reading to read a boy’s handwriting when he give you his number and you use writing—


YVETTE: —use writing to write you number (J: Yeah!) to give it to him!


JULIET: Isn’t that sweet! Um-hm.


YVETTE: Oh, goodness!


As students collected artifacts and interviews, they provided a constant check on any a priori constructions that we might have brought to the process. Caroline, for example, proposed a specific study at City High—a study of students’ uses and perceptions of literacy. She brought to this study, of course, her prejudices or “pre-judgments” (Bernstein, 1983) about what she might find. As she describes it,


I came to this work in order to see what was there, in terms of students’ literacy, and to discover what we might be overlooking by viewing literacy from a certain school-based or biased position. In effect, I expect to find a wealth of student literacy, and to hear about uses and perceptions that are generally not welcomed or recognized in schools. (Research Journal, October 11, 1994)


Co-researching with the students, however, allowed (even forced) her to engage in “progressive subjectivity,” a continual process of monitoring the inquirer’s own developing constructions where “the inquirer’s construction cannot be given privilege over that of anyone else” (Guba & Lincoln, 1989, p. 238). In a lengthy excerpt from a meeting in which sharing their work was discussed, students challenge the construction of literacy that Caroline brought to the work, and posit constructions of their own. At this meeting, Caroline has just asked the students to “freewrite” about what they would like her to share with an audience when she goes out to talk about their work. Cheri begins by reading her freewrite:


CHERI:

Okay. I would like you to discuss how long it took us to do research and how difficult it was to gather good questions, to get good answers, and also I would like you to compare thoughts on their readings—compare the students’ thoughts on reading and writing. And I would like for you to explain why, out of all the topics and issues there is to talk about with high school students, why you chose this topic.


Caroline responds to her final sentence with a question:


CAROLINE:

CHERI:

CAROLINE:

Why do you think I chose that topic?


Cause a lot of people can’t read and write.


That’s not why I chose it. Is that why you think it’s important?


CHERI:

Well (pauses) I don’t know.


Takesha then posits another possible reason why Caroline chose the topic:


TAKESHA:

Cause that’s how they tick.


Tyrone then enters the conversation and offers his perspective:


TYRONE:

Well, I’ll be straight up. . . . Okay. I ain’t tryin’ to be prejudice or nothin’, but I know like, black people, we’re illiterate. And you wanna know, like, the why, why black people are illiterate and don’t like to read or write.


Caroline was troubled by this, and some of the students were angered by the statement, but she wanted to hear more about what the students thought her purposes were for working with them at City High, and what it was she wanted to learn. Tyrone continues to explain:


TYRONE:

It’s a lot of kids that are droppin’ out of school, of high school, you know, that’s um, you know, black people. And I think, you know, you wanna know why the purpose is. You know, is it because they can’t read or don’t understand the comprehension of reading, or you know, they just can’t hang, they don’t understand, you know, what they read. You know. And they can’t handles this so they drop out. And, you know, that’s basically what happens, you know, to black people.


While Caroline was disturbed by Tyrone’s willingness to assume “illiteracy” as an accepted part of black culture, she could also hear him generating a reason for his assumption—a hypothesis, if you will. Caroline counters his statement, indicating that this is not why she thinks people drop out of school. Other students, however, continue Tyrone’s line of reasoning, adding their own hypotheses around the issue of why black students drop out of school:


TYRONE:

CHERI:

JOSEPH:

CHERI:

DAVID:

JOSEPH:

TYRONE:

JOSEPH:

TYRONE:

CAROLINE:

Well it does get rough.


They get lazy.


The main reason why they drop out is because they get very—


—Lazy!


—Retarded.


—it’s overwhelming. They feel very overwhelmed.


The work is overwhelming. A lot of reading.


And it’s just too much, and they feel they can’t take it, so they drop out.


Right.


Do you think a lot of people in this school can’t read and write? Is that what you’re telling me?

TYRONE:

TAKESHA:

Right. Right. Cause sometimes, you know, some teachers, they’ll like give you twenty pages to read a night. They be like, “Man, bump this! I ain’t gonna do this,” you know, just throw the book somewhere, you know, cause they don’t wanna spend too much time on somethin’, you know, that’s gonna take away from they time, their leisure time, you know. They wanna do, goin’ their own thing, you know.


Or they’re lazy and don’t wanna do it.



As the conversation progresses, the topic turns to why Caroline would come to the school at all to work with the students. She asks Tyrone if he thinks this is strange.


TYRONE:

CAROLINE:

TYRONE:

No, it’s not strange, you know. But I just think you know, it’s the main reason, you know, that, you know, it’s a lot of—it is true that a lot of black people, they do drop out of school. On a serious hit, you know.


Um-hm.


And you wanna know, you know, I think you wanna know what is the reason, you know, why do inner-city kids don’t like to read and write.


Caroline counters, again, with her own “hypothesis” in that she thinks they do like to read and write. The students are surprised by her opinion, and most counter:


TYRONE:

CAROLINE:

CHERI:

TYRONE:

DAVID:

You think so?


I think so, do you?


No!


No!


No!


At this point, Takesha intervenes to make her point to Tyrone:


TAKESHA:

TYRONE:

TAKESHA:

TYRONE:

TAKESHA:

I gotta problem with what you said. It ain’t just black kids, it’s all kids. All kids drop out of school.


No, but basically what I’m sayin’ is—


You just goin’ to an all-black school, you just see a few here and there.


No, I’m not sayin’, I did not say all-black school. What I’m sayin’ is that the dropout rate is higher in, um, the black community. That’s what I said.


Oh, because, I’m just sayin’ it ain’t about how many blacks dropped out of school, just how many kids dropped out period.


The co-researchers, throughout the discussion, challenged Caroline’s construction of student literacy and posed their own constructions of themselves and their peers. Caroline, however, does not back down and assume the students’ interpretations are right or wrong, good or bad. Instead, she challenges back, reasserting her perspective, not as the dominant one, but as one of the many views from around the table. During this discussion, and throughout the research process, students challenge Caroline’s a priori constructions and inform her developing interpretations. Caroline’s constructions are “laid on the table along with all the others and are made to withstand the same barrage of challenge, criticism, and counterexample as any others” (Guba & Lincoln, 1989, p. 244). After the meeting, Caroline wrote:


I assumed, naively, that students would share my position—that, of course, as students, they would be keenly aware of their own literacy uses, and would share these, willingly, with like-minded peers. Instead, through our discussion, I gained a different sense of the students’ initial perceptions of literacy. Instead of seeking, and expecting to find, a wealth of literacy, my student co-researchers articulated a strong sense that students in general—and black students in particular—can’t, or simply don’t like to read and write. (Research Journal, November 11, 1995)


This meeting was important in that it marked a turning point for the group. The co-researchers, after posing their “hypotheses” about student literacy, began investigating these issues in their interviews. Some of the co-researchers interviewed students attending night school—an alternative program for dropouts—to hear their stories about leaving school. Takesha, for example, interviewed “Lisa,” a student in her final session of night school coursework:


TAKESHA:

LISA:

Why did you come to night school?


Because, um, day school, it is just so—well I’m no, don’t nobody believe it, it’s just me, you know. At first, I just wanted, I wish I could, you know, sit in day school, have a tape recorder, and just tape how the teachers teach. They don’t teach anymore. The majority of ’em. And I’ve seen all of ’em. They do not teach anymore. They don’t care. Just as long as they get paid. You know. And when you ask for help, “uh, go to tutoring.” Everybody can’t make it to tutoring after school. Like me, when I was going to school, I had to make it home to my little sister. You know. And I just needed a little help. Half the teachers didn’t even understand what they was doin’. You know what I’m sayin’? They just say, “open the book.” And they just kept failin’ me, and I don’t care what nobody say, you know. When I was goin’ to Day School I felt so dumb, because comin’ out of ele-um, outta grade school, I was just so smart. And when I got here, I—I admit, I did mess up, my ninth. My tenth-grade year I did okay. You know, I started late. Eleventh grade, I really, you know, started wakin up. And I still wasn’t gettin’ good grades. I didn’t understand it. It made me feel so stupid. And the teach—it just made me feel so dumb, so I just, I just left, the second semester in my eleventh-grade year. I just, I couldn’t take it anymore. I just couldn’t. The teachers was, it seemed like they was all against me, you know. And this is when I really wanted to learn. You know, I’m going into the twelfth grade and I just, my eleventh-grade year I just really wanted to learn. And it just whatever, it just, the teachers just kept pushin’ me back, so I think, you know.


Other co-researchers pursued the question of dropping out with students who were still in day school. Tyrone, for example, asks “Steven” why he thinks students drop out and enter night school:


TYRONE:

STEVEN:

TYRONE:

STEVEN:

TYRONE:

STEVEN:

So you think by if City High put more motivational teachers in, and strict teachers, that City High could be a better place for learning environment?


Yeah. Yep.


Okay. Do you think that’s the main reason that kids go to night school?


Main reason, I think the main reason they make kids go to night school is like parents and teachers. Don’t, you know, because they like, they don’t get, they keep downin’ ’em and criticizin’ ’em and shit (T: Um-hm), and you know, they feel like “Damn, I’m stupid as hell. I can’t do this shit.” So, you know, they basically, you know, think they dumb, and then that’s why they go to night school and shit. Like, “Well, I ain’t gonna be shit, so I’m gettin’ my GED.”


So they just, yeah, they just down people, right.


Yeah. Yeah. And just be like, “Well, I’m gonna, you know, go get a job at McDonald’s or some shit like that, cause that’s all I’m worth.”


TYRONE:

STEVEN:

That’s a, that’s a, a slow dream man. That’s a, you expect to lower yourself when you think about workin’ at, graduatin’ from high school and workin’ at McDonald’s, ain’t it?


Yeah man.


TYRONE:


That’s not high ambitious. You think that? You think true of that? You think that’s true?

STEVEN:

Yeah, that’s true man because I don’t wanna be stuck at no McDonald’s, when, you know if I graduate. When I graduate, I don’t wanna be stuck at no McDonald rinky-dink $4.25 an hour job, you know what I’m sayin’?


In both of these cases, students pursued their questions around dropping out and its connection to reading and writing. Many were surprised to find that issues of literacy were not students’ primary reasons for dropping out. And for co-researchers, like Takesha, who interviewed students enrolled in night school, their perceptions of an “other” type of student were changed. Late in her interview with “Lisa,” Takesha exclaims:


You really interesting. You got a lot to say. (Lisa laughs slightly.)You do! Just sound wise, like my cousin. She’s in twelfth grade, but she go to day school. And she be like, “Takesha, don’t act dumb. If they do this to you, you let me know,” and junk.


These episodes speak to the “educative authenticity” of the work—“the extent to which individual respondents’ understanding of and appreciation for the constructions of others outside their stakeholding group are enhanced” (Guba & Lincoln, 1989, p. 244, emphasis in original). Throughout the process, in their interviews with students and their interactions with one another, the co-researchers and Caroline engaged in a process of reflexity and change (Lather, 1994).


Besides gathering artifacts and interviews, student co-researchers are involved in analyzing and interpreting the data. Their involvement in all aspects of the inquiry process is, in fact, central to maintaining and describing the “goodness” of this study. Students do more than simply provide a “membercheck” or assure the credibility of Caroline’s portrayals of them. Through repeated readings of their interview “texts” and subsequent discussions, the students and Caroline engage in “a hermeneutic, dialectic process” in which varying perspectives on issues can be “‘fed back’ for comment, elaboration, correction, revision, expansion, or whatever” (Guba & Lincoln, 1989, p. 244). This process provides an “impetus for dialogue, debate, and enriched understanding informed by multiple perspectives as interpretations are refined and as decisions or actions are justified” (Moss, 1994, p. 9).


Students, working in small groups and as one larger group, have done close readings of “texts”—interview transcripts, memos, and so forth—to generate common themes, text-based statements that exemplify those themes, and variations on a theme (Barritt, Beekman, Bleeker, & Mulderij, 1985). One common theme the students generated was “Responses You Get from Others When You Write.” In generating this theme, one of the students, Cheri, suggested that the statement “I got an A for my acting and my play” was a good example of this theme. Takesha agreed with her; Curtis did not, insisting that this statement should be put in the “Variation” category, indicating that it was a variation on the theme “Responses You Get from Others When You Write.” The excerpt that follows picks up at the next day’s meeting, with students explaining why they took the positions they did:


TAKESHA:

CAROLINE:

CURTIS:

CHERI:

CURTIS:

CAROLINE:

CURTIS:

I said a grade is a response because the better the paper is, the more response you’ll get. Like if it’s an A, the work is, you know, the work is very good. So an F means you’re not doing good, pull up. An A means you’re doing fine.


Now, and Curtis, you said a grade is not a response to writing. Why?


Because, alright, say you did the same acting not in front of the teacher. Say you did it in some kind of, some kind of play or somethin’ like that. You wouldn’t get a grade for it. They’d give you a response, not a grade. They—


—A hand clapping response.


—wouldn’t give you a grade. Think of an A, for doing this, but you don’t get your check.


What about in terms of like writing? How, can you explain to me the difference there?


With writing?

CAROLINE:

CURTIS:

CAROLINE:

CURTIS:

TYRONE:

CHERI:

CAROLINE:

CHERI:

TAKESHA:

CHERI:

CURTIS:

TAKESHA:

CHERI:

CURTIS:

TAKESHA:

CAROLINE:

Yeah.


Same thing. If you showed it to, uh, a playwright or somethin’, they wouldn’t give you a grade for showin’ them your paper.


What would they give you?


A response.


That’s, that’s true.


(Disagreeing) It’s the same thing. (response and grade) We ’bout to have a debate on this.


And this is why we put it in the variation category. But I am interested in—who does think that a grade is not a response to writing? (Pause.)Curtis.


He the only one!


Curtis listen to me. Some teachers give you a grade and a response if it’s very bad. It don’t matter. A grade is a response, period.


If you get an A, you know you did excellent. If you get a B, you know you did good. If you get a C, you did alright. If you get a D, ahhh, I don’t know. And an F is—


—If you wadn’t in school and you showed this same paper, would you get an A for showing somebody your paper, like your Mama?


We talkin’ ’bout teachers in school.


Teacher’s response.


But ya’ll didn’t say teachers.


Yes we did, last week—


—No, our theme is “Responses You Get from Others When You Write.”

CHERI:

CAROLINE:

JOSEPH:

CHERI:

TYRONE:

CAROLINE:

JOSEPH:

“I got an A from my teacher.” (referring to the quote that supports our theme)


It’s all kinds of people, it includes teachers. Which kind of response do you care about the most?


Mine, from my mother.


Yeah, from my mom.


Yeah.


Why?


Because it’s like more heartfelt. You know, it’s more heartfelt. Your mother’s the most closest person to you, so . . .

TYRONE

It seem like, it seem like your, it seem like the mothers is closer to the guys, and the fathers is closer to the daughters.

TAKESHA:

I don’t know where you get that from.


TIFFANY:

CAROLINE:

CURTIS:

TYRONE:

CHERI:

TAKESHA:

TYRONE:

CAROLINE:

TYRONE:

CHERI:

CAROLINE:

CURTIS:

CHERI:

CAROLINE:

Not in my family.


What kind of response do you most care about getting from your teacher?


Good!


Good.


A.


A.


You know, positive, positive. And sometimes the teachers like to bleed all over your paper. (Others laugh slightly) You know, you know (C: I know.) like with red ink. You know, just keep writin’ kind of stuff up in the margins.


Is that a response?


Uh-huh.


Yes. All these errors and check marks and—


Do you think that, for the time being, it’s a good idea to keep grades in a variation category?


Yes!


No!


As we look at more interviews, and as we look at other things that people have said, we may be able to tease out if there’s something—if they’re the same or different—to the other kids in the school. But I just wanted to come back to that for a minute.


Throughout this conversation, students comment, elaborate, and attempt to “correct” the responses of their peers. And while Caroline’s voice often guides and directs the conversation, it does not dominate. Instead, she attempts to respect the complexity of the students’ social worlds, while encouraging them to remain open to the perspectives they may find in other “texts.” Her stance is similar to what Kincheloe and McLaren (1994) describe as “research humility.” This does not mean that the researcher takes a self-deprecating stance, nor does it involve the silencing of Caroline’s voice. Rather “research humility implies a sense of the unpredictability of the sociopolitical microcosm and the capriciousness of the consequences of inquiry” (p. 151). As best they can, Caroline and the students attempt to engage in collaborative inquiry based in dialogue (Bernstein, 1983, 1991). Together, they work to create a space where noncoerced discussion and debate can flourish.


One important question for us, as this project continues, is what its impact has been. How have the student co-researchers, the students who were touched by this work through their participation as peer respondents, and the authors of this text changed? And, has this change sparked them/us to transform the worlds they/we encounter? These questions speak to the issue of “catalytic authenticity” (Guba & Lincoln, 1989) or “catalytic validity” (Kincheloe & McLaren, 1994; Lather, 1986)—“the degree to which the research process reorients, focuses, and energizes participants towards knowing reality in order to transform it” (Lather, 1986, p. 272). Some would argue that this is the fundamental basis for “good” research done in a critical vein (Carr & Kemmis, 1983; Kincheloe & McLaren, 1994; Smith, 1993).


As this is a “work in progress,” we can only speak to the changes we have seen and experienced to date. The co-researchers, for example, in chronicling their own changing perspectives, have shared how they see school life, literacy, and their peers differently as a result of working together. Joseph, in an excerpt from one of his memos, writes:


I also found that City High students, especially the seniors, love to read. Not because they are required to do so but it is because they enjoy it a great deal. Some of the students love writing not only because someone wants them to do it, but because they love writing, it is a way for them to get their emotions, feelings, or opinions on something.


In one of his memos, Curtis shares how his perceptions of literacy have changed:


I kinda got a clear meaning of what literacy is. It’s not only reading and writing. It’s almost like everything around you. Like understanding when a baby cries, what (s)he wants or when a dog barks what it wants or understanding what gang a person is in by the colors (s)he wears and what kind of personality a person has by what they wear or how they talk. So I got an idea what the word is.


And Tyrone, in a more “transformative” vein, writes not only about what he has learned, but about the possibilities he’s beginning to notice through his work with peers:


What I’ve learned so far through this program is every man and every woman has a different opinion about reading and writing. I think this program helped me to understand about people in general. During my interviews, I noticed people telling me about their life styles. I feel that parents don’t take the time to sit down on a one on one basis. I noticed when people give the opportunity for kids to speak, they will speak because they feel what they have to say is important.


Student peers who were interviewed by co-researchers have also shared how participating in such discussions has affected them. “DonJuan,” in his interview with David, shares how much he has enjoyed the opportunity to talk with a peer.


David:

DonJuan:

David:

DonJuan:

David:

DonJuan:

Okay. Um, this interview has been most helpful for me. I think that you enjoyed it. And I enjoyed it.


Yeah, it was straight. I liked it. I liked this interview. This is the first time somebody has ever interviewed me.


Really?


Yeah.


Ever?


Ever, besides like jobs, you know what I mean. But they really don’t interview you. They don’t ask questions about writing, you know, and that’s something I like doing.


“Linda,” in her interview with Shanika, transforms the situation so that she, for a moment, is the “interviewer”:


LINDA:

SHANIKA:

LINDA:

SHANIKA:

LINDA:

SHANIKA:

Well. Well Shanika, I’m gonna ask you a few questions like you been askin’ me. Well, the first question I want to ask you is, what kind of books you like, like I do? You like horror books like me?


Yes I do. I like mysteries too.


You like watchin’ “Unsolved Mysteries” on TV?


Yeah, most of the time.


Um, you believe in ghosts?


I do not believe in ghosts, but I believe in spirits.

LINDA:

SHANIKA:

LINDA:

SHANIKA:

LINDA:

You ever try to write to one?


No. S’pose you talkin’ ’bout that, that um, game. What’s that game? Um, what’s that game called?


Well that’s the end.


That’s the end of our interview. Thank you Linda.


You’re welcome.


And many students, during their discussions with co-researchers, used the interview occasion as an opportunity to make a public announcement or commentary to other students about education. “Shelley,” for example, in her interview with Takesha, offers some senior-advice to ninth graders:


SHELLEY:

What I have to say to all the freshmen is don’t get mixed up in the wrong crowd. Don’t get mixed up with people, you know, that’s gonna be like well, “We’re gonna go—third hour, we’re gonna leave and go to McDonald’s and come back.” And they don’t come back. You gonna get into that habit where you’re just gonna be like, “I can just walk out. Won’t nobody know. Teachers don’t know where I’m goin’. I can just write a fake note sayin’ I went to the doctor or what. If I be back by 2:30, my mama come pick me up. She won’t know.” You know? Freshmen don’t need to fall in that environment because in your freshman year, your freshman and your sophomore year, ninth and tenth grade, these are your hardest years of high school. I can say your hardest years of high school. Your junior year, it’s gonna go past so fast, and when you become a senior, if you did everything you was supposed to have did in the ninth and tenth and eleventh grade year, by the time you become a senior, only thing you have to do—you will get so much. When you become a senior, if you come to school late, security guards see you, and they know you be in school everyday, you don’t get into no kind of trouble. You late, they ain’t let nobody in. You can come right on in, let you in. I know. Because I’ve come late. Security guards let me in. You know, it’s just a lot of things. You get a lotta, special privileges when you a senior.


For ourselves, this work has been, and continues to be, transformative. Working with teachers, and now students, has changed the way we think about inquiry in general. We find ourselves questioning how certain forms of knowing are privileged over others, enlarging the divide between theory and practice. As we engage in work with teachers, and now students, we worry about issues of dissemination and “storytelling”—whose story is it? who should tell it? how should it be told? and who will profit from its being shared? Much of our thinking around engaging students in this inquiry process as co-researchers stems from recent moves inviting teachers to be researchers of their own lives and practices (Goswami & Stillman, 1987; Lytle & Cochran-Smith, 1992b; McDonald, 1986). Similar to calls that advocate “raising the teacher voice” (McDonald, 1986), we are advocating raising the student voice. Just as “the teacher’s voice can contribute to school policy essential knowledge that is available from no other source” (McDonald, 1986, p. 360), we would argue that students, too, can contribute a perspective unlike any other. As Lytle and Cochran-Smith (1992a) point out, “teachers and students, regardless of stance or pedagogy, inevitably negotiate what counts as knowledge in the classroom, who can have knowledge, and how knowledge can be generated, challenged, and evaluated” (p. 452). Just as teachers have felt relatively voiceless and powerless in policy debates (Erickson, 1986; McDonald, 1986), we would argue that students have felt voiceless and powerless in such classroom negotiations of knowledge. Tyrone points to this in his own reflections on the project thus far, writing:


Kids or teenagers have a voice. What I mean by a voice, teens today having feelings about education and world issues. I feel that adults should consult with kids before they make decisions that will affect us for the rest of our lives. I think if adults take that into consideration then the world would be a better place because teens would’ve put a lot of insight on issues before they occur.


As feminist scholar bell hooks (1988) asserts,


students also suffer, as many of us who teach do, from a crisis of meaning, unsure about what has value in life, unsure even about whether it is important to stay alive. They long for a context where their subjectivity needs can be integrated with study, where the primary focus is a broader spectrum of ideas and modes of inquiry, in short, a dialectical context where there is serious and rigorous critical exchange. (p. 51)


Our hope is that this project—and others like it—may provide such a context for students to raise their voices and inquire into their own understandings so as to actively shape, direct, and change their lives and the lives of others.


We would like to thank the Spencer Foundation for their generous support of our work. Caroline Clark’s work with student co-researchers was supported, in part, by a Spencer Dissertation Fellowship. Pamela Moss was supported by a National Academy of Education/Spencer Post-Doctoral Fellowship. Our joint work with teachers was funded by grants from the Metropolitan Foundation and the Ponting Foundation. Opinions expressed reflect those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the granting institutions.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 97 Number 4, 1996, p. 518-548
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1397, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 1:54:16 PM

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