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In this paper, I argue for a (re)imagining of qualitative research as an active tool for teaching and reflection (by, for and with students), in itself capable of inspiring agency in young children. Drawing from data collected in two urban elementary schools, each of which express a commitment to empowering Black children as intellectuals and change agents, I present evidence that speaks to the study’s role in facilitating students’ knowing and critical engagement. More specifically, I examine how key aspects of the research, namely- relationship-building, play and creative arts- supported young participants in making latent considerations about race, community, and opportunity more explicit. These strategically-employed elements prompted children’s thinking around their own ability to enact change and thrive despite adversity.
Dating back to the African Holocaust of enslavement, Black childhood has been a contested space. Studies have found that Black children are punished excessively, perceived as less innocent, and subjected to low expectations (Ferguson, 2001; Ladson-Billings, 2011; Morris, 2007; Goff et al, 2014). To push back against deficit notions of Black children’s capacity and practice worthy witnessing by design, I lean on Paris and Winn’s (2013) notion of humanizing research. Humanizing research is a methodological stance that is “consciousness-raising”, while also prioritizing the building of dignified, loving relationships between researchers and participants. More broadly, I utilize a critical ethnographic approach (Carspecken, 1996) to frame this research. Critical ethnography is conceived as a methodology for conducting research focused around participatory critique/analyses, empowerment and social justice (Trueba, 1999).
I collected ethnographic data over two academic years, to include over 70 semi-structured interviews with Black children (grades 4/5th), teachers and administrators. Students attended either an African-centered school, or one enacting a community-oriented, place-based model. Students also constructed multiple drawings to supplement our conversations around race, identity and their schooling experiences. For the larger project, I employed this data in the service of thinking about the relationship between emancipatory pedagogy and Black students’ political agency across contexts. Herein, I share select findings with an eye towards the utility of methodological tools in foregrounding the voices of Black children.
As per the findings of this paper, relationship-building, creative arts, developmentally-appropriate activities and play, can be strategically and lovingly employed in critical research. I assumed at the onset, that the Black children participating in this research could speak honestly and intelligently on the circumstances of their own lives (Akom, Cammarota & Ginwright, 2008). This study design afforded unique opportunities to listen and learn from Black children’s critical social commentary, whilst also affirming them as imaginative, political beings. In studying spaces of pedagogical possibility, it is essential that we, as education researchers, create liberatory opportunities for Black children to voice their own impressions related to life and learning. And also, that we be prepared to honor and engage with children’s articulations in their deeply complex, impassioned and sometimes ambivalent forms.