Finding the Village

It’s difficult to imagine, but I’ve hit the halfway point of my Fulbright Fellowship in Aotearoa New Zealand. I gave my mid-point presentation last Thursday, and thought I’d share what I talked about.

My project focuses on community-inclusive schooling. It’s cliché to say it takes a village to raise a child – but it’s also true. Many people are invested in a student’s education. Often, they work in isolation. Researchers suggest teaching practices. Politicians set policy. Principals formulate institutional goals. Teachers plan and execute lessons. Parents guide, love, and support. Friends and family offer help along the way.

If the people involved in raising a child don’t work together, where is the village? If there is no village, what of the child?

With my project, I hope to provide some support for the village.

Research Question

Over the past few months, my broad research goals have gained greater focus. Here’s my current question:

What meanings and practices do students, parents, and educators bring to community-inclusive education in Aotearoa New Zealand?

This question provides a limited observational focus within set groups of people. When looking at meanings, we are concerned with how people understand the world around them. What do teachers think about community-inclusive education? Do students believe that schools help serve their individual goals, or do they see class as a necessary evil on the way to football practice? Do parents have positive or negative associations with school buildings – and if so what does this mean for parent-teacher conferences?

When discussing practices, we look at how people actively engage with the world. If schools exist as co-created institutions, actively seeking the wisdom of their communities, what does this look like? How do teachers go about creating lessons informed by their place and space? What do students think teachers and schools should do to better meet their academic needs? How can parents – who themselves have limited time and resources – best involve themselves in their child’s education?

We aren’t just looking at what people think here – we’re looking at how they think they should act.

Observational Context

I’ve spent time at all secondary schools – and an important community organization – within one Wellington-region city. I made this decision based on my nine years working in the same Chicago community. Instead of taking snapshots of educational practices across the entire country, I want to gain a better understanding of what people are doing in one area. My hope is that not only will my findings be useful to the people in the local community, but that they can inform positive actions for my home school community.

Theoretical Perspective

My study focuses on three main pedagogical approaches, each of which must be considered if the others are to be fully understood.

  • Place-based education (PBE): pedagogy rooted in that which is (physically) local. PBE emerges from the concern that by focusing on a student’s developing global competence we neglect the actual communities in which people live (Lane-Zucker, Sobel, 2004).
  • Culturally-Relevant Pedagogy (CRP): pedagogy rooted in a teacher’s ability to make course content meaningful within a student’s cultural context (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Gay, 2010).
  • Critical Pedagogy of Place (CPP): an effort to align both environmental and cultural pedagogical practices (Greenwood, 2003).

The community is not just a physical or cultural space – it is the combination of the two. Cultures do not emerge from the ether – they are the way they are because of their physical surroundings.

It is not sufficient for us to simply know who our students are and where they come from. If we are to teach them well, we must actively involve their place and space in our curricular design.

Informal Observations

My data comes from educator interviews, student focus groups, and parent focus groups. While it is too early in my project to report any findings, the following themes are starting to emerge.

  • Schools are trying to use PBE and CRP. There is an awareness among educators that students learn best when their place and space are considered.
  • Teachers crave research and best practices. Teachers want to use the best methods available to help their students learn.
  • Students enjoy PBE and CRP practices. When students see their place and space considered at school, they are more likely to be engaged.
  • Parents perceive that teachers are trying – but are “ruled by assessment.” Parents know that teachers often don’t have time to do everything they’re asked to accomplish. They are frustrated, but don’t know how to change the situation.
  • Parents want more teachers with local knowledge. Parents believe there is a link between student success and how well a teacher knows the community.
  • Real funding problems inhibit full rollout of PBE and CRP. As always, so much about school comes down to money. Even when schools have been able to identify community resources, they may not be able to access them due to lack of funds. This could simply mean the inability to hire someone to act as a community liaison.

Next Steps

I am continuing my interviews and focus groups, with the goal of learning the perspective of as many community members as possible. I won’t be able to talk with everyone in my chosen city, but my hope is to learn as much as possible from as many people as possible.

It takes a village to raise a child. We all know many children. If we work together, maybe we can find the village.

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