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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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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 6, 2008, p. 1304-1329
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14749, Date Accessed: 5/27/2020 12:03:15 PM

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About the Author
  • Jeffrey L. Lewis
    University of Wisconsin
    E-mail Author
    JEFFREY L. LEWIS is an assistant professor in the department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is interested in the social and affective experiences of school-age African American children. His current study examines the structure and content of school-related social support networks for low-income African American boys in elementary school. His recent publications include “Fictions of Childhood: Toward a Sociohistorical Theory of Childhood” (2004), published in Ethos.
  • Eunhee Kim
    University of Wisconsin
    EUNHEE KIM is a project assistant and doctoral student in the Human Development and Family Studies department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is interested in how intercultural couples negotiate cultural differences and how this affects family relationships. Her current study examines conflict negotiation and marriage satisfaction within Korean-American intercultural marriages.
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