Background: Education researchers are paying increasing attention to student activism and to the social production of school spaces. Few studies, however, have brought these two concerns together to examine how student activists work to rebuild school spaces in line with their political commitments. In the present study, I address this gap at the intersection of two important research trends.
Purpose: I examine how a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) endeavored to build its school as an inclusive environment open to students of different sexual orientations. Focusing on the semiotic dimension of spatial production, I investigate how a conflict over a sign on the GSA’s bulletin board functioned as one front in an ongoing struggle to produce the school’s main hallway as a particular kind of space. As signs and constructions of space may be interpreted in different manners, I provide alternate ways of reading the conflict.
Setting: The setting for this study is a school serving a racially diverse, working class neighborhood in a major city in the Northeastern United States.
Participants: The participants were members of their school’s GSA.
Research Design: This is a qualitative site-based investigation. I collected data by using ethnographic tools including observation, interviewing, and document collection. Specifically, I sought to gather data on different actors’ different understandings of the conflict over the bulletin board. I analyzed data by using methods of naturalistic qualitative analysis and semiotics-focused discourse analysis.
Findings: Study participants read the conflict over the bulletin board in different manners. Each reading construed the conflict as (re)building school spaces in particular ways. Crucially, each construction either validated or invalidated LGBTIQ identities in the space of the school.
Conclusions: No one reading of the conflict and no one construction of the space of the school were necessarily “conclusive” or “correct.” Rather, the meaning of the conflict and the features of school space were struggled over and negotiated by actors at the school. These struggles highlight how conflicts over meaning are often disagreements over the construction and inhabitance of social spaces. In light of these findings, researchers should expand their analyses of student activism to consider how, through semiotic activity, activists work to rebuild and act in school spaces. Furthermore, researchers should produce studies helpful to activists working to build schools as more just and inclusive environments.