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Anthropology in the Classroom

When studying kids in school, go deep, a primer advises

In the children's book Madlenka, by Peter Sis, a little girl learns about the subjective nature of meaning when she tells the various denizens of her city block--each of whom hails from a different part of the world--about her loose tooth. Each responds differently, bringing a unique cultural perspective to bear.

In "On the Case: Approaches to Language and Literacy Research" (Teachers College Press, 2005), TC Professor Celia Genishi and coauthor Anne Haas Dyson of Michigan State University advocate a similar "case study" approach to understanding what goes on in pre-K and elementary school classrooms. Their bottom line: generalized conclusions are dangerous and need to be tempered by an understanding of the particular culture in any given school setting.

"It is the messy complexity of human experience that leads researchers to case studies in the qualitative or interpretative tradition," the authors write. "Loose teeth, like sailing ships, deafness, literacy and language proficiency, do not have fixed meaning. Rather, adults and children interpret their meanings in particular situations, through interactions with others. And just as adults and children are interpreting their experiences, so, too, may researchers who are studying them. Through collecting observations, talking with other people and collecting artifacts, case study researchers aim to enter into other people's -'imaginative universes.' That is, they aim to construct interpretations of other people's interpretations of others' real worlds."

"On the Case" is in one sense a primer that walks the researcher--whether graduate student or veteran academic-- through the basics of study design and data collection and analysis. In chapters with titles like "Casing the Joint," it focuses on examining the literal details of classroom life--configurations of space, proximity of bathrooms, daily activity schedules, work roles and the social organization of different demographic groups.

"A classroom can be thought of as a series of social events, linked by varied and more loosely organized transition times," Genishi and Dyson write. "Who participates, what is the ostensible purpose of each event, what's talked about, what's the prevailing mood, what languages are used?"

But the book is also "a window onto larger methodological issues about educational research," says Genishi. "It's an antidote to the current over-emphasis on -'scientific research' in education-- because lots of people feel a need to look at children through social and cultural lenses, and not just in terms of a test score. And what we're really asking is, what are other ways kids can do well? How can we get at the ways that learners from a variety of ethnic and racial groups navigate the world?"

"On the Case" is part of an ongoing series published by Teachers College Press and the National Conference on Research in Language and Literacy. Genishi is also an editor of the series.

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