Sociocultural and historical mediations on the development of scientific fluency in the urban high school
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This thesis opens with the story of Matthew and his electric motor to illustrate the exemplary science learning that occurs when careful attention is paid to the cultural, social, and emotional dimensions of the learning environment. Matthew’s story and the other narratives of exemplary learning documented in this thesis evidence the exceptional intellectual skills and academic potential of inner city urban youth. It is however unfortunate to note that while these displays of scientific fluency are indicative of their inherent possibilities, the stark reality is that most students in this large comprehensive high school (and in many inner city urban environments) have failed to achieve at a level consistent with their academic potential. This “academic underachievement” of children from the inner city has occasioned a national fixation with mandated curricula, prescriptive teacher practices, and normative performance on standardized high stakes assessments. The spate of reform initiates that structure educational policy in our nation’s inner cities (and especially in the School District of Philadelphia), are informed by deficit perspectives that tacitly blame students, their families, and their communities for their academic difficulties. While many of these policies are well intentioned, they fail to consider the effect that historical processes of sociopolitical marginalization and economic inequities have had on the quality of educational opportunity offered to children within inner city urban communities. Moreover, by focusing narrowly on institutional and curricular concerns these policies fail to consider the profound effect that culture, social interaction, and emotional energy have upon the enacted curriculum.This thesis juxtaposes narratives of discordant, symbolically violent encounters between teacher and student (and their resolutions) to illustrate the impact that cultural misalignment has upon our efforts to provide transformative educational opportunity to urban youth. The events chronicled within this thesis, suggest that the best-intentioned learning environments are often destabilized by cultural miscues and misunderstandings between participants unable to effectively communicate across cultural difference. Although I am the same race and from a similar socioeconomic history as most of my students, my first months in City High were a time of fractious, contentious encounters because my students construed me as a cultural other. Not until we were able to bridge this false cultural divide did we interact in ways that fostered trust and mutual respect. Once established, these interstitial cultural resources provide the foundation for successful social interactions that engendered positive emotional energy and solidarity with the culture of the school science community. It was within these learning environments that students were able to deploy their rich stores of cultural, social, and symbolic capital to learn science in ways that were personally relevant, meaningful, and transformative in their lives.
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