“I Didn’t Have a Lesson”: Politics and Pedagogy in a Diversifying Middle School

by Alexandra Freidus - 2020

Background/Context: Despite its emphasis on pluralism, empirical research on asset-based pedagogies has typically focused on culturally, linguistically, or racially homogeneous groups of students. The rise of interest in culturally relevant pedagogy in the 1990s coincided with the resegregation of many school districts. As a result, few scholars have considered what it might look like to decenter whiteness in classrooms that include a significant number of white students.

Purpose: I strive to understand the tensions between a diversifying school’s efforts to create an antiracist school community and a classroom pedagogy that frequently marginalized the experiences, knowledge, and questions of students of color. I use the school’s response to the 2016 presidential election as a window into the challenges involved in developing asset-based pedagogies in racially and culturally diverse classrooms. By exploring the texture of teaching and learning in a school that endeavors to sustain its racially and culturally diverse students, I complicate widely held but often underexamined, assumptions about the benefits of diversity in the classroom.

Setting: Data collection took place in a politically active, racially and socioeconomically diversifying middle school in New York City. The school, which had previously served almost exclusively low-income children of color, now included a growing number of children from white and professional families.

Research Design: Data collection took place over the course of the 2016–2017 academic year. The unit of analysis was one focal cohort of sixth-graders. Data included participant observation in sixth-grade classrooms and other school spaces, interviews with school staff, interviews with students, and document analysis.

Findings: The school’s response to the presidential election illustrated not only teachers’ dedication to developing students’ cultural competence and critical consciousness, but also their struggles with tying these goals to students’ academic learning. Many teachers made instructional moves that—often inadvertently—centered whiteness in the classroom. Tensions between teachers’ political, relational, and academic goals and practices led to multiple missed opportunities for both students and staff.

Conclusions: In almost every interaction outside of the classroom, educators centered their advocacy for and relationships with their students of color. At the same time, their instructional choices pushed these students’ experiences and concerns to the margins of academic spaces. I explore implications for school leadership, teacher professional development, and teacher preparation, as well as future research.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 7, 2020, p. 1-40
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23357, Date Accessed: 7/29/2021 2:25:01 PM

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