Between Home and School:
Cultural Interchange in an Elementary Classroom

Kathe Jervis




C H A P T E R

2

The Theme of Diane’s Classroom: “Living Together and Sharing Perspectives”


A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. The extension in space of the number of individuals who participate in an interest so that each has to refer his own action to that of others, and to consider the action of others to give point and direction to his own is equivalent to the breaking down of those barriers of class, race, and national territory which kept men from perceiving the full import of their activity.

John Dewey, 1916, p. 101

The quality of classroom life depends on everyone belonging to a psychologically safe community, especially for children who differ from a conventional classroom norm for whatever reason: physical difference (accent, skin color, size, unusual features); family difference (economic class, who children live with, sexual orientation of family members); or behavioral difference (maturity, capacity to conform to expectation, temperamental crankiness). What eases the experience of school for children likely to be on the margins, I am coming to understand, is how Diane uses the classroom to open up a space for children to be themselves at the same time they learn to belong to a community. This “easing” school depends on Diane’s autonomy. Without the latitude to respond to children and their families, any teacher’s potential for easing school is substantially decreased. Diane exercises her autonomy broadly and her classroom depends on it.

Finessing the System: Authority and Rules

Diane’s almost weekly field trips are central to her pedagogy. As she constructs them, the trips expose children to experiences they otherwise would not have; enable children to see facets of each other that don’t appear in a classroom; occasion the mixed company of children, teachers, parents, and student teachers; encourage a good time; and produce confidence that travel in the wider world is safe.7 Trips in her class decidedly do not teach specific content, culminate or launch a specific study, seek thrills (no amusement parks on her list), act as a reward, or offer a break from the monotony of the four classroom walls. Rather, trips are the substance of daily existence that supports children’s learning. On trips and in the discussion afterwards, adults and children “meet” (Diane’s word for come to know) each other’s values—and build the classroom culture, since trips generate common experiences, common language, and common memories.

An Emblematic Trip

The following characteristic vignette from my notes helps to understand Diane’s classroom (6/2/97):

I arrive at 8:30 a.m. Diane has ordered a school bus for a field trip, but switches destinations at the last minute to avoid the Botanical Gardens in the pouring rain. When we get to the Museum of Natural History at 9:45, there is a snag. The dispatcher of school buses declines to let us out because we aren’t on his list. He stands at the bus door looking up at Diane and asks her directly: “Is this a class trip? Do you have a reservation?” Diane is silent. “Don’t you know the rules? Are you a teacher?” he asks. Diane doesn’t answer. More silence. I am holding my breath and thinking that if I were Diane, I would own up and beg. The children and adults are all watching Diane confront an authority who has the power to scotch the whole trip. “Are you or aren’t you in charge?” he persists, by now with an unpleasant challenge in his voice. Diane looks him directly in the eye and then abruptly turns to the bus driver and says firmly: “Let’s leave.”

The driver shuts the door and drives off. Diane directs him to a nearby corner where he drops the class in front of a different museum person who doesn’t blink an eye as we get off. Still, I wonder how Diane is going to explain her abrupt treatment of the dispatcher to everyone; I know she will. She thrives on this kind of real life lesson.

When we get back to school and everyone is more or less in a circle, the first thing Diane says is: “That was a wonderful trip.” Pausing to let that sink in, she immediately launches into the topic, as if she knows that what is on my mind is on everyone else’s mind as well. “We might have gone to the Brooklyn Museum, but it was closed. We might have gone to the Botanical Gardens, but it was raining. We might have been able to go the Natural History Museum by following all the rules. The museum is there and they like people to come to it. But we didn’t have a reservation so we had to do it differently—in small groups. But when we arrived there was a dispatcher. That guy had a job to do. He had to make 100 buses fit in the right place. That was a reasonable thing, but I didn’t want to talk to him right then because he didn’t have time to listen to me. Had he questioned me I could have explained. So how people see the world—their frame—matters. The second guy had a different frame and he didn’t start off talking to us about how we were wrong.”

By seeking out another solution to parking the bus, Diane conveyed the possibility of retaining power in the face of authority. Diane drives this message home again and again, often urging children and adults to “find another way,” by which she means that they should think more about getting what they want. Diane offered a spontaneous lesson in how to finesse the system: Don’t lie, try to see the world from another point of view, find another way. Diane is unlikely to abandon her stance, even in the face of different cultural values.

School adults who set and legitimize boundaries of knowledge and behavior have tremendous power over children’s lives. The interplay between institutional norms, individual adults’ attitudes, and children’s cultural backgrounds determines what happens in school and influences what children absorb. Diane wants children to be active, to feel efficacious, and to be in charge and responsible for themselves. She says, “In many cultures compliance is important; I want kids to have an option, I want them to know how to be in New York City, to have a choice.” If parents’ and children’s values emphasize obedience, hierarchy, rules, and regulations, children face some cultural conflict when they come to PS 3. For the children who conclude that they can only stand up to authority in the company of those who feel secure within the mainstream, Diane works to counter their hesitations. Even within PS 3’s “question authority” operating mode, she makes hard choices, resisting the district superintendent and the principal when she believes a stand against bureaucracy will benefit children (Mullins, 1993). By consistently challenging authority and then explaining her actions, she hopes that, over time, children in her class will learn “not to be afraid” and come to value the ability to feel more powerful and confident in this world.

Diane’s Pedagogical Underpinnings

The classroom atmosphere is not wound tight because Diane regulates it carefully. Freedom from large numbers of teacher-imposed assignments give children time to get to know each other, to teach each other, and to be helpful and be helped. Underlying Diane’s philosophical stance is fundamental regard for human variety, which, in her view, requires her to expand the classroom by (1) making a public, formal place for every child’s perspective, not necessarily to form agreement but, as Geertz (Greene, 1995, p. 185) says, “to create a disorderly crowd of not wholly commensurable visions”; (2) exercising a thin layer of imposition—that is, relieving pressure to compete and proposing possibilities for children; (3) valuing the child’s participation in the class at the level and pace that the child chooses—what Diane calls the “child’s present contribution”—rather than exclusively valuing the verbal and logical mathematical skills that school traditionally demands; and (4) contextualizing content to a striking degree so that what she introduces is exceptionally close to children’s interests and tied to their own initiative. She resists “the decontextualizations that falsify so much” (Greene, 1995, p. 11).

These four philosophical tenets of Diane’s teaching require a classroom where, as she said in her early journal entry (12/16/80), “The central theme of my class is children living together and sharing perspectives.” Absent is a notion of learning based on predetermined curriculum with sequenced skills and specified, measurable outcomes. She welcomes whoever is there in whatever state they arrive. It is enough that they are present. Growing out of this position is Diane’s visceral distaste for the distant, yet ever present expectations imposed variously by society, upper-grade teachers, parents, standardized tests, and district, state, and national standards. For her, these external measures provoke ranking, competition, and elitism. They contradict the human variety she recognizes each day.

Diane’s practices challenge the notion of “school.” Frank Smith, author of The Book of Learning and Forgetting, endorses a classic view of learning that is “continual, effortless, inconspicuous, boundless, unpremeditated, independent of rewards and punishment, vicarious, never forgotten, inhibited by testing, and a social activity,” much of which does not seem like “school” as experienced by most adults (1998, p. 5). Diane’s classroom reflects Smith’s classic notion of learning. Her classroom looks less like “school” than those based on what Smith calls the “official view,” where learning is “hard work, obvious, limited, dependent on rewards and punishment, based on effort, individualistic, easily forgotten, assured by testing, an intellectual activity, memorization” (p. 5).

These “official view of learning” classrooms predominate in schools in the United States. Diane’s pedagogy goes against the conventional wisdom that children need predictable rules and discipline and that carefully crafted sequenced curriculum, which can be measured by standardized test scores, results in important learning. Diane is after something deeper. Her classroom is controversial. “Wild and woolly,” says the current teacher across the hall, who chose Diane’s classroom for her own child.8 Not everyone agrees with Diane’s values or her methods, but no one denies she has a powerful influence on the children in her charge.

The Circle on the Public Green

The circle in Diane’s class is a place for children to share themselves (Fordham, 1996).9 After addressing the parking glitch, Diane switched topics abruptly, which she often does to catch children’s attention by a low-key dramatic change in tone. Because the museum trip had not been the same for everyone, she began a go-around:

“Tell us something really interesting about what you saw in the museum.” Luiz—large for his age with limbs that he can hardly contain while sitting on the floor—begins vaguely, “I saw that stone with all that writing.” Diane says, “That is not interesting,” which startles me because she rarely criticizes a child’s contribution. Luiz (perhaps having learned from Diane how to stand up to authority) retorts sharply, “Just because you didn’t see it...,” reminding everyone, even the teacher, that no one can take issue with what another person saw. Still, Diane’s intervention sets a standard for more concrete, precise images.

Moving around the circle, each child and adult in turn recounts what stood out. Kids describe the interactive computers, describe the operation of a hologram showing details of an anthropological dig, including a man and his skeleton. Two children dispute how a voice-activated display of gems actually works. The atmosphere is charged with interest in what has caught the attention of their peers, and the go-around is lively and energetic with a high degree of attention. Dov says with awe (and uncharacteristic conciseness): “People lived totally differently—their clothes, their coins, everything.” Still, some children have other preoccupations. Mario is quietly slipping invitations to his birthday party in the park to a select group of boys. Diane, who is listening hard to each speaker, doesn’t notice, and as far as I can tell, neither do the uninvited others.

When the lunch bell rings, no one moves. Children are still asking each other questions, out of turn but called on by no one in charge. Jim C., who hasn’t said anything, gets up unbidden to shut the door to mask noise in the hall. Six children have chosen to be silent. Later, when I name them, Diane is unconcerned; she suggests perhaps they were hungry for lunch. She knows children have had at least one protected chance to talk and be listened to, even if they rejected it on this occasion.

No child’s experience is “better” than another’s, nor is their telling of it judged. The ways that children take in, retain, and retell information are sometimes on display in circle talk, which teachers use to figure out what children know. Diane never engages in question and answer recitations that depend on some children’s good memories and facile verbal skills, making them classroom stars while excluding others from participation.10 This class meeting was not composed of linear conversations that moved logically from point to point. Children interrupted, took issue, and pushed their own agendas. Diane did not control the discussion. Children talked to and with their peers; their comments showed that they were paying attention to each other. Kristian noticed that “Pei-Yee was scared in the dark.” Joetta described “a necklace on a lady that Deborah knows about.” Nilsa took issue with Kristian’s description (“He said it all wrong...”). Diane was not the central focus, although she shared a personal memory (“When I was in college I was studying skeletons a lot. I used to walk down the street and see people in their bones, without their clothes.”).11

Other than starting the circle off with, “Tell us something really interesting,” Diane took a teacher’s role only once. Samuel was silent when it was his turn. Diane said, “Tell us something that you noticed.” Diane waited a full thirty seconds before asking, “Samuel, are you thinking about what to say?” After more time elapsed, Diane said neutrally, “If you listen to other people, it might spark your memory.” LeShawn, on the other hand, has something to say after every contribution. “You saw that!” or “No way!” or even a muttered, “I’m glad I wasn’t in that group!” Diane didn’t stop this voluble child’s steady stream of interjected comments. Deborah McMann neither stood out for her active participation nor for disengaging. She blended with the group.

Diane typically creates opportunities (in this case, a trip) for children to have direct experience and then puts structures in place for them to talk about their experiences with each other. She believes the experiences and the public go-around afterward develop a “class memory” of what children did together that contributes to the classroom community. The emphasis was on experiences “together.” No child could be excluded from discussion for not having been exposed to an activity.

Diane believes that children learn by being “in conversation with each other,” that eliciting children’s interests fosters participation, which propels learning—in the broadest sense (Weber, 1997). Neither “right” questions nor “right” answers controlled this post-trip circle. While Diane was unquestionably the adult authority in the room, she did not do all the telling. When children hear each other daily over one or two academic years,12 they can, Diane insists, become increasingly more open to others. Because much class time remained in the children’s hands, the atmosphere had an electrically charged feel to it. Children’s interests were aroused (Dewey, 1916). Diane was not filling up empty vessels with her own taken-for-granted knowledge. Personal experience, keenly observed, was valued as knowledge.

Rules Don’t Bind This Circle

The circle after the museum trip appeared to be in order. But circle time is not always so “successful” to an adult eye. Diane’s self-set task is considerably more subtle than presiding over a well-managed group with a predetermined, imposed-from-the-teacher agenda. Diane is not interested in “taming”13 children to one set of norms. Diane values interest, engagement, and participation more than external signs of decorum. Yet, on the subway, in the swimming pool, and when certain occasions demand it (a classroom guest or museum docent who turns out not to be really interesting), Diane insists on and gets compliance to externally imposed standards. Mostly, Diane makes decisions circumstantially: “The flow of the day comes from the energy of the kids and my reading of them” (11/11/97). The choices she makes accommodate the variation in children. From my notes (5/30/97):

Joel comes up early from lunch—against the rules. Uncharacteristically, Diane doesn’t ask him to leave. (She likes her lunchtime without children.) Instead she asks him to choose a book for her to read to the group. He chooses Judith Viorst’s My Mother Says There Are No Monsters, etc., a picture book of a kind the class hasn’t read since the early fall. He declaims with enthusiasm, “Isn’t that a good book.” It is not really a question. Having asked him to choose, Diane does not disagree with his choice. As the kids straggle in from lunch and join the circle, Joel is off in the corner eating a sandwich: “I forgot to take it to the lunchroom.” He already knows this book and has exempted himself from the circle. Leaving the circle is not condoned behavior, but not ruled out by teacher fiat, either.

During this time slot, Diane usually reads aloud. Today she reads a page and then, in an unusual move, asks Alyssa (who is listening intently) to read the next page, and then Jeremy reads, and then others read. There is no predetermined order or routine; it just happens. Public oral reading by children is not a usual activity in this class, and it engages about half of them. Those who stay with the story move closer and closer to Diane and each other until they are no longer in any semblance of a circle, but gathered in a tight group touching each other. The others silently drift away to draw, play chess, find their own activities. Although this exodus is not usual, Diane makes no effort to bring them back.

The classroom intercom breaks the rhythm of the read aloud. Joetta answers and says, “It’s about the attendance,” which had been forgotten in the wake of a morning dance class. Diane asks Joetta and Lee to “take charge.” They leave the reading group to find the sheet and then they write in pen before they remember that the machine won’t scan ink. They write over it in pencil and leave for the office. Just as the group refocuses, Joetta and Lee return from the office to report their pencil-and-ink effort has been rejected. They have another sheet to complete in pencil. All this commotion has drawn attention to the attendance, even though the reading aloud still interests this increasingly small group.

In the midst of this focus on attendance, the bus passes arrive. (Did I catch the secretary out of the corner of my eye also fetching the corrected attendance sheet with a big sigh?) The secretary gives eligible kids new magnetic Metro Cards that replace old bus passes. Luiz looks up from his drawing and his face registers that he is really interested. LeShawn is waving his card in Mario’s face. Diane abruptly signals LeShawn to give the pass to her. His expression shows he doesn’t think Diane really means it, but she makes it clear she does with a dramatic large hand gesture that convinces him to hand it over. She has distracted LeShawn from annoying Mario and now holds up LeShawn’s new monthly card. In one of her abrupt shifts, Diane asks kids to figure out the card’s monetary value, how many school days, how many back and forth trips, how much cost per trip. A group is totally with her; it is now the oral readers who drift off to find their own engaging activities.

In this circle, the interruptions bothered Diane not at all.14 She proceeded as if children who were listening were having a meeting and those who were not were perfectly right in finding something else to do. She responded to the disruptions as a minor but necessary annoyance, since the attendance task obviously took precedence, “just like doing laundry.” The record-keeping responsibility belonged not to her, but to the group. Diane was pleased that everyone was involved, even if not at the same time. She valued the rare opportunity, the “intimate moment,” for the readers to read aloud publicly. She was unconcerned that the others (including Joel) skipped reading the monster book aloud and was pleased that they (including Joel) relished the oral math. As usual, Diane and the children negotiated the terms of what has happened. She did not insist on compliance, thus pushing children to become authorities on their own needs. “Besides,” she believes, “loose activity supports kids’ natural rhythms” (9/16/97).

The circle in Room 307 rarely looks like other meeting time circles in classrooms across America. Adults may be much more comfortable if they see children conforming to familiar rules and norms.15 In Diane’s class, the absence of the usual controls means that the circle often can—to adult eyes—look ragged, loose, chaotic, and in need of an adult authority. Parents and other adults see Diane’s circle and wonder.16 Here, said a parent in her child’s second year with Diane, “The children own this circle” (10/27/97). That ownership is Diane’s intention.17

This absence of behavioral guidelines is not a matter of classroom management or craft. There is no doubt that Diane is the ultimate authority in the room.18 She is explicit about why she does not make rules for the circle:

How will kids know what their contribution to group life is if I make the rules? I need to see how the kids are without my rules; that is how I get to know them, what their preferences are, and what their tolerance for group life is. (10/10 /96)

If kids only follow rules that I make and enforce, what they learn is to be quiet and fold their hands and they don’t know what is their contribution....I hope I am strong enough to resist being the one who makes the rules. I am only one of many. (10/14/97)

Full attention occurs when children are really, really interested. If at least three children are “interested,” I keep the circle going so as not to disappoint the child who has the floor. (10/11/98)

How are people going to raise families, to be in charge of themselves, if they don’t learn to be self-directed? (5/19/97)

When children surreptitiously bring a book to the circle and Diane gestures them to shut it, sometimes they do, but I have seen many examples of children continuing to read. Diane says:

I never make kids close their books. I don’t want them to have anyone’s voice in their head with that message. And how can I ask kids to shut their books, when they are so engaged in reading that they bring their books to the circle? (4/6/97)

Diane also says, “Kids’ attention is an issue of civility to each other, not of my response” (1/15/97). For some children, in some circumstances, Diane does allow civility to takes a second place to reading. Diane says, “It depends on the kid and on the circumstance.”

“This isn’t a circle,” Luiz commented on the first day of school, referring to the ragged oval in the awkward space. Diane said, “Well, this is what we’ve got.” In this first meeting of the year, Diane sets patterns that will repeat for the entire school year. “This is what we’ve got” conveys exactly Diane’s emphasis on the present, on the need to adapt to who is here and to the space available in this small classroom. In a decade and a half, the circle has not changed, except that it always expands to include who is there. To my questions (no longer quite so argumentative), Diane replies that her reluctance to impose rules allows every person in the room to belong and to make a contribution.19 I have come to see how this public space exemplifying Diane’s unconflicted and enduring values is a basic vehicle for making a place for every child. Individuals—whoever is present—occupy a large place in her pedagogical scheme, yet it is the living together and sharing perspectives that builds the classroom community. Diane engineers the dynamics of this public terrain to support children finding their place. The moveable boundary of the circle expanded to include even Joel, who was in the corner eating his lunch. He was part of the class by having chosen the book.

Oral sharing in the circle is part of what Diane brings to the classroom, which raises the legitimate question of whether, for some children, this exercise is culturally easier than for others.20 Although Diane was willing to wait for children not to be “shy,” there was an obligation to participate in the circle. Diane accepted a range of individual rhythms, verbal styles, and interests, but she valued openness. She wanted children to feel they could share with the group, talk to each other rather than back and forth to the teacher, or to remain consistently silent. While she did not insist that children contribute before they were ready, Diane had less tolerance for Samuel’s nonparticipation—more a matter of his temperament than his multiracial African-American/ European-American background—than for LeShawn’s interjections, which may in fact be culturally appropriate in his African-American house or church.21 (“LeShawn’s medium for learning is talk,” she reminded me.) She says: “If you have found your voice you can be quiet, but if you haven’t, you should be able to learn to speak up. That is hard.” For some children in her classroom, the cultural practice of learning to share openly in public is a demanding task, one that has to be learned to gain competent membership in the community (Calderwood, 1998).

For some children, being quiet must be learned. Diane consistently stopped children from contributing too much. After the trip to the Natural History Museum, Dov was self-restrained in displaying his expertise, but on occasions when his unstoppable verbal acrobatics overwhelm the group, Diane insists he leave the circle. The struggle with Dov over his circle habits was her single most draining issue of the year. She worked hard at getting him to appreciate that “others knew things too.” That she allows no verbally facile “stars” to dominate is consistent with rejecting ability groupings and competitive arenas for children to demonstrate that some children are “better” than other children. She is especially incensed when schools undervalue children without those verbal skills.

Creating Space in the Circle For Emotional Growth

The teasing began underground—after school, at recess, on the playground. Samuel called Joel “Shorty” over and over again. Samuel’s teasing was acute observation at work, an unerring sense of the conforming code that size mattered to Joel. He was intensely vulnerable to teasing about height; his maternal grandfather was well under five feet tall, and Joel had always been the smallest person in his class. At the Brooklyn Museum (6/12/97), caught by chance, accidentally, on my tape recorder, I hear Samuel taunting Joel, “Shorty, Shorty, Shorty,” in a relentless voice, like picking at a scab that never heals. Joel threatens: “I’ll punch you out.” He is really angry and tired from the morning swim. Diane intervenes and says to Samuel: “You are really lucky that I didn’t let Joel do what he said he would.” The class misses the elevator while they watch Diane resolve this exchange.

Joel excels at what I call “doorway exclamatory.” Coming up (late) after lunch, Joel bursts on the scene—he stops at the classroom door, casts his eyes on his classmates convened in a circle, and informs them: “There’s a smoke bomb in the lunchroom!” Or he arrives at the doorway wide-eyed, registers the class in a meeting and exclaims, “I left my book bag in the lunchroom,” turns on his heel to retrieve his shirt, his jacket, his book bag, his toy, whatever he has left behind in the art room, the gym, the yard, the auditorium. In this mode, his body is on high alert, and he draws all the attention to himself.

Joel also excels at deep engagement. He uses his graceful body well, maneuvering into spaces other children cannot, curling himself up and appearing smaller than he actually is. As if in camouflage, he can hide under tables and in corners, totally engrossing himself in Tintin or Dinotopia, oblivious to the rest of the class and he to them. In this mode, his body is still as a rock, and his pleasurable immersion in self-chosen solitary activity—drawing, reading, thinking—is obvious to any adult onlooker. Until he wants to say something. Then he is on full alert again, engaging the entire class in what he has to say. Joel can collect an audience (even me) to watch him interact with a computer game screen while he provides a running commentary on the action, replete with odd sound effects. Perhaps his fast pacing and intense interest hold us. Or he can be pensively still at the computer keyboard, assuming a ghostlike status; during this activity, for him, the outside world ceases. After expending all of this high energy, he can be tired. Sometimes he falls sound asleep in the middle of the classroom. He is independent, but as Diane notes, “not yet interdependent.” By that, she means he can take or leave the class. He is not central to the circle, except when he chooses to be. Perhaps his classmate Samuel sensed the distance.

The day after the Brooklyn Museum trip, the weather is hot and humid. Diane is worn and irritable—it is the year anniversary of her major cancer surgery. Many kids have not done their writing. The air feels heavy, almost foreboding. I leave.22 When I return twenty minutes later, the children are discussing the moral implications of the exchange of blows they have just witnessed. With one-hundred percent attention to each other in the circle, they are deeply engaged. From my notes (6/13/97):

Diane: Samuel called Joel shorty again and Joel did what he said he would do. I had the right to stop it, but I didn’t. Joel carried out his threat against Samuel. When I said, “Cut,” Joel stopped.

Luiz: Why were you fighting?

Samuel: I don’t remember.

Several kids: But it just happened.

Samuel: We were fighting because I kept bothering him....

Diane: I am sure when Samuel has some time he will get the words.

Joel: I didn’t wanna hurt him. I just lost my temper. I couldn’t control myself. Something was pulling on me. Like my brain was going...losing its cells. I feel BAD. I didn’t want to do that. I just lost my mind somehow. And I think Samuel learned his lesson....I think Samuel learned his lesson. (Pause for breathing) From now on he’ll listen.... When I heard him I kept crying about it. Samuel was crying because he was hurt. I cried too because I didn’t want to hurt him. That’s what is the sad part. I went to go get a drink of water and I thought about what I did. Then I totally did some research (softer) in my head, my mind. So I think I will take him to the nurse to put a patch on his eye.

Ramon: Sometimes when you try to control your temper, you get so emotional and some people, they can’t really take it. Some people can take it and they don’t hear when other people say something that hurts their feelings.

Tero: Sometimes you have a temper tantrum and you can’t control your body.

Diane: That is when younger kids lose their temper....

Joel: I have three tempers: my fake temper, my half-real, my half-fake temper, and my very real temper. That’s the temper I just lost.

Sal: It is especially hard to keep your temper when you are a kid. Sometimes kids just have to let it out.

Mario: Sometimes Samuel triggers that kind of stuff.

Diane: We all know who triggers things around us. We can ignore them or we can try to grow them (Diane’s word for helping them move beyond), like help them learn to respond in a different way. Joel did something he didn’t want to do.

A few kids interject that he didn’t have a choice. (Joel’s mother arrives and joins the circle.)

Diane: Joel was a good teacher. Maybe all of us can learn what happens when someone says “Shorty” after being asked to stop.

Sal: Joel had the right to do that.

Pei-Yee: Is Samuel right or Joel right?

Diane: What do you think? (Kids wait for Pei-Yee to gather her thoughts in English.)

Pei-Yee: Joel is right. Some people get mad if people call you things like dumb. (To Samuel) Do you feel in trouble with yourself?

Samuel: “Yes.”

At lunch with the adults, Diane applauded Joel’s “eloquence.” She was pleased that “he reaffirmed that we are all in the family because no one attacked Samuel and that no one cheered on the fight.” Joel’s mother—called by Joel before the circle convened—had come from work “as fast as I could to comfort my son because he couldn’t control his temper.” She agreed with Diane: “I was so glad Joel didn’t gloat over how he got Samuel and that he was really disturbed about what happened. I was proud of him for defending himself. Standing up physically for one’s honor is a cultural value (Berber) in this household—another story worth telling, but not here.

Two important points matter about this circle. Without the looseness, no such intimacy would exist. A tightly wound atmosphere would prevent the kind of personal questioning and resolution that this fight provoked. It was not Diane, but the children, who decided “Is Samuel right or is Joel right?” All year, Diane was the hidden hand structuring a classroom that could support this kind of intimate talk around a typical classroom skirmish handled in an atypical way. One can question whose cultural values this incident serves. Joel and his family trusted Diane, and Diane trusted that she was doing the right thing. “Maybe Joel won’t have to punch someone out ever again,” Diane said. Both Diane and Joel’s mother felt this opportunity to respond physically to teasing in a safe surrounding was important for Joel’s growth. Samuel had to face that his continued inability to hear Joel and to heed his clear warning was responsible for pushing Joel over the edge. It was a learning experience for Samuel as well.

Diane violated the usual mainstream school norms (“use words, not fists”) in honoring Joel’s home cultural values in the classroom. Easing this well-established home-school barrier can only happen when family and teacher trust each other.

Diane wants children to stand tall, not speak under their breath, be able to exercise options, question authority, find their own place, and take on responsibility for themselves. She also wants children to feel “entangled, and not autonomous,” as Maxine Greene says (lecture notes, 10/7/96). Diane engenders the attitude that we are all in this classroom/world together. Her moveable boundaries are determined by who is present, by her autonomy—without which she could not be responsive—and by her willingness to accept children however they arrive in her classroom. Children and their families come to belong to a classroom community that expands to include everyone. Diane’s ability to see individual children, coupled with her commitment to ease school for marginalized children by distributing power to act, ensures that the power to speak in the classroom is equalized and reciprocal, and that children come to know that their voices will be heard. While Diane does not center her classroom around the concept of cultural interchange, her practice promotes it.


7Diane makes a point of seeing that children know how to return with their families: that they know about voluntary admission fees, how to check their coats, and where the bathrooms are located. return to text

8Norms of good classrooms differ. Nicolas Kristof (1998) wrote of his son’s experience in a Japanese classroom where “so much of the responsibility is assigned to the students themselves. The saving grace [from being in school so many days a year] was a boisterous emphasis on fun in the classroom. Kids were always shouting and clowning around, with none of the discipline that people assume is drilled into them, and the student-teacher ratio was so large that the classroom was mostly on the lip of chaos” (p. 8). return to text

9Signithia Fordham’s (1996) footnote helped me to see the connection between cultural interchange and Diane’s circle when she says: “In the public school system, the only sharing that is socially approved is that which is intended to ‘tell’ another about the speaker’s accomplishments. For example, in most elementary schools, show and tell is an obligatory component of early morning activities. Its approval, however, is not to be equated with the kind of sharing that exists among African-American people, both in and outside school. In the former case, information is shared. Among African-Americans, sharing one’s sense of self is culturally approved” (p. 355). return to text

10In Common Knowledge: The Development of Understanding in the Classroom, by Derek Edwards and Neil Mercer (1993), the authors analyze various progressive classroom lessons and show that the discourse often fails at “handing off” teachers’ intended learning to the students. The authors discuss the teachers’ dilemma of wanting children to construct knowledge for themselves at the same time the curriculum is predetermined by adults. They conclude that “this pedagogy discourages teachers from making explicit to children the purposes of educational activities and the criteria for success” (p. 170). Diane’s pedagogy avoids these dilemmas by de-emphasizing predetermined curriculum. She responds to what arises from the children and their daily circumstances. She rarely engages in whole class lessons where the intention is for everyone to end up learning the same thing, whether by discovery or direct instruction. return to text

11Diane often shares her out-of-class life in this kind of an aside. I will never know if any child will remember Diane’s story of unclothed skeletons, but I suspect Diane’s relationships with children are made up of such memories. In the introduction to A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned, Jane Tompkins (1996) remembers in loving detail how her third grade teacher told us “for reasons I shall never know how her son has brought her a glass of orange juice in the shower” (p. xv). Tompkins says her education was “humiliating” and “bland cream of wheat,” but she remembers vividly this story from a teacher’s private life. My notes, however, never caught children’s comments of this sort on the nature of their relationship with Diane. I suspect it takes an adult literary critic’s reflections on her seven-year-old self to capture those moments. return to text

12The model of this multiage class is that children spend two years in the same classroom and have a chance to be both younger child and older child in the group. return to text

13Seymour Sarason (1998) sums it up: “From the mid-nineteenth century on, one of the major purposes of schooling was to tame and socialize the children of immigrants. The modal American classroom is still a place where, rhetoric aside, students are objects to be tamed and socialized” (p. 11). return to text

14While each member of our team collected data individually, we attempted to broaden our own perspectives and make ourselves aware of our own blinders by making cross-site visits. Jianzhong Xu, a teammate, was there that day. He observed the “destructive” intrusion of the attendance and observed correctly that “Diane only engaged half the kids in the reading aloud.” He wondered “what would Joel’s father have said if he knew how Joel spent his time during that circle.” return to text

15Again, norms are not all the same to all observers. In Elijah Anderson’s (1990) ethnography, Streetwise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community, he tells of watching “apparently unsupervised” children three to six years of age playing in an intersection from 11:30 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. “After much reflection I concluded that, far from being unsupervised, these children had been supervising themselves, not in a manner appreciated by middle-class people, but in a way that ensures some protection for the youngest. What appeared to be a hierarchy of supervision revealed itself whenever danger approached. For instance, it was up to an older child to watch out for a younger one when a call pulled up to the stop sign” (pp. 156–57). I am suggesting that, like Anderson’s eventual conclusions, Diane’s circle lends itself to interpretations other than “unsupervised.” return to text

16See also Bowers and Flinders (1991) on the “Origins and Assumptions of the Management Paradigm” (pp. 5–14), which outlines the reduction of everything about classrooms and teachers to “improving prediction, control and efficiency” (p. 5). Diane resists that “technicist” thinking. return to text

17See The Classroom Crucible, by Edward Pauly (1991), for an interesting discussion of power in the classroom (pp. 50–75), which acknowledges that children and adults have reciprocal power to subtly or not so subtly shape what happens in classrooms by their ability to withhold, cooperate, or just be themselves in a group. Teachers already know this, at least implicitly. Pauly’s contribution is to remind policymakers that policies do not work when these classroom-level dynamics are unaccounted for or when people in authority pretend these dynamics don’t exist. I am moving the microscope closer by looking at how an individual teacher’s intentional redistribution of her power among children shapes the classroom. return to text

18In a section entitled “The Cultural Clash Between Students and School,” Lisa Delpit (1992) points out that many middle-class European-American teachers use indirect commands and downplay the display of their own power, much to the detriment of African-American children. The mostly male children respond to these teachers as “boring...I don’t know nothin’ unless she tells me.” Delpit goes on to say that “African American boys exhibit a high degree of physicality and desire for interaction, which they initiate,” expressions of which are likely to “receive negative sanction in the classroom setting.” But, she says, “a classroom that allows for greater movement and interaction will better facilitate the learning and social styles of African American boys” (p. 239). I am putting up for discussion whether the absence of a display of personal power necessarily results in “boring” classes if it comes with more movement and active engagement. I am also raising for discussion whether the overt exercise of a teacher’s power sometimes goes along with a desire to keep tighter control of movement. There are complicated issues that deserve extended conversation. return to text

19The following exchange is typical of what Diane means. From my notes of October 10, 1996:

Diane: I want to know why Luiz and LeShawn aren’t doing something about those three people who are making noise?

Dov: Joel was trying to poke someone’s skin with a pencil.

Diane (annoyed): And couldn’t you stop it? Couldn’t you take the pencil (gestures to Mike’s hand) and say, “Stop it, someone’s reading.” That’s your job. return to text

20In McGoldrick et. al. (1996), there is a section on the value that different cultures place on talk (p. 11). In Jewish culture, “articulating one’s experience may be as important as the experience itself.” In Sioux Indian culture, “Talking is actually proscribed in certain family relationships. A woman who has never exchanged a single word with her father-in-law may experience deep intimacy with him, a relationship that is almost inconceivable in our pragmatic world.” Although Diane’s mother was Jewish, talk in Diane’s family was not the intense talk of some Jewish families. “It was a quiet house,” Diane says. return to text

21Olga Winbush (“Who has to Change? African-American Oral Traditions in Multicultural Classrooms,” 1993, pp. 13-16) argues strongly for a change in classrooms so that African-American children will have a place. White teachers, she says, do not have the opportunity to see Black verbal patterns at home because in public, children are expected to maintain well-behaved, mannerly, polite personas. Thus, teachers often insist on silence and one-at-a-time speakers and do not allow time for children to exclaim spontaneously. The children’s verbal patterns get them in trouble. return to text

Or, I would add, their verbal patterns contribute to a lack of self-confidence because they cannot bring their whole selves to school. Theresa Perry (Swap, Developing Home-School Partnerships, 1993, pp. 113) writes, “For the African American child, the issue is not simply the amount of cultural capital, but also the fluency in those dispositions that allow the child to be viewed as teachable, ready to learn: the ability to be reserved, to subordinate emotions and affections to reason, to constrain physical activity, to represent a disciplined exterior. What complicates the picture even further is that these modes of behavior all reside in the domain of participation, with the possibility that constraining behavior in these areas could possibly constrain participation and investment in school.”

22Diane and I disagree about what happened next, and neither my notes nor my memory are reliable on why I left. I remember that something in the air forced me to say I was going out to get a sandwich for lunch. I never did that during class time, but I vaguely remember feeling like I needed some fresh air or relief from something. Diane remembers she asked me to get some frozen fruit juice bars for the class—something she never asks of me, nor does she provide that kind of treat for kids. However, last year on her last day, before she left for surgery, she and the kids had Frozfruits together to mark her leaving. She told them she wanted to mark the anniversary with the same ritual of eating treats together. In any case, I left to get fresh air, a sandwich, and Frozfruits. Diane remembers that she could feel Joel about to explode, and she didn’t want me there recording it. While Diane often signals to me, “get ready to type,” when she is about to face some issue head on with a small group of kids, she does not like me recording things that are out of control. She does not mind the out of control part or that I know about them or use them—but she doesn’t like the sight of me calmly recording in those circumstances. She remembers asking me to leave because what was about to happen had to happen in the family—like home, without guests. return to text

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