A Desire to Learn: African American Children’s Positive Attitudes Toward Learning Within School Cultures of Low Expectations
by Jeffrey L. Lewis & Eunhee Kim - 2008
Background: Scholars are bringing much-needed attention to the persistent problem of academic underachievement among African American children in the United States, who continue to lag behind White school children in all socioeconomic groups. This is especially true of impoverished African Americans. Although some link these outcomes to poor student attitudes, recent scholarship casts doubt on the prevalence and significance of the role of adversarial attitudes on school outcomes. In addition, most of the extant research of student attitudes among African American students reflects research with middle school and high school students. We know little about the attitudes of elementary-age African American children living in low-income neighborhoods.
Focus of Study: This qualitative study aims to address this gap in our knowledge by examining whether oppositional attitudes toward learning prevail among African American children attending two low-income urban elementary schools in California. We also examine how what African American children say they want in teachers relates to what we document as good teaching.
Research Design: This study used a qualitative design that included face-to-face interviews with children, participant observation in the school and after-school labs, and videotape of classroom interactions in after-school sites. We helped establish the after-school sites as pedagogical laboratories designed to examine how less skilled teachers learn to improve their practice and how children learn with an exemplary teacher.
Data Analysis: We content-analyzed interview data to examine how children defined and described effective and ineffective teaching. We also used content analysis of participant observations to assess school climate and institutional culture. We developed a code manual to content-analyze videotaped lab data to identify characteristics of the after-school lab that supported positive and productive classroom behaviors in the students.
Conclusions: We conclude that low-come urban children do want to learn, regardless of their actual demonstrated ability levels, and they appear to be resilient in this respect. We found that elementary school-age low-income African American children are aware of strengths and deficiencies in their teachers and can name each explicitly. Even within controlling or negative school environments that reflect a pervasive culture of low expectations, they overwhelmingly expressed a desire for teachers who treated them well, helped them learn, and who were fair and caring toward them. Moreover, given the opportunity to work with a teacher who worked with them in ways consistent with what they looked for in good teachers, the children in our study responded with productive classroom behaviors.
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