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In this article, the author uses insights gained from reflection on a qualitative research project to raise issues about the introduction of preservice teachers to urban schooling. In particular, she examines her experiences as a White, middle-class researcher as she conducted research with students of color in a poor urban school and community. She documents the ways her roles and relationships inside the research project shifted and how issues of power and control became more apparent as she followed students from school to their workplaces and community settings. She uses this analysis to raise questions about what happens when a predominantly White, female, middle-class group of preservice teachers from the suburbs is introduced to the challenges and rewards of teaching in urban settings. She suggests the need to transform the roles and relationships between students and teachers, particularly with respect to issues of race and class in teaching and research.
I stood in front of a class of 12th graders in a comprehensive urban high school on the West coast. I was both nervous and at ease. Although this was a new group of students and the stakes were high, there was something very familiar about standing in front of a class. I'm a middle-class European American woman and think of myself as an educator. The class was made up of students of color: African American, Mexican American, Asian Pacific American (or Blacks, Mexicans, and Chinese, as they labeled each other). Most students were female; in this school more males had dropped out by the time they reached their senior year. As I scanned the crowd, I noted the students who seemed attentive and potentially willing to participate in my project and smiled tentatively at them. Although my research questions were about the females in the class, their teacher had instructed me to omit that fact so that the males would not feel left out. I explained that I would be spending a few days week in their class for the entire year and that I was interested in learning about their reading and writing and their plans for the future. I informed them that I wanted to understand their perspectives so I could talk with current and prospective teachers about urban high school students. To pique their interest and put my project into a more understandable framework, I added that I planned to write a book. I concluded with a description of my research plan that included observation, the collection of writing, and interviews. Later that morning, a few students sought me out to learn about my research project, others remained notably silent and distant (field notes, September 1993).(1)
Two years later, on the other side of the country, the class I stood in front of was predominantly White, middle class, and female and a few years older than the first group. There were two middle-class African American students who had attended suburban desegregated schools and two males. Nearly all the students in the class had attended either suburban or rural schools in the mid-Atlantic states. I was completely at ease talking about urban students with this class of undergraduates in a teacher preparation program at a state university. During the course of our semester together, I gave students books and materials to read that introduced issues of race, class, and gender. I asked them to write autobiography of their own identities and to recall times that they were particularly aware of their race, class, gender, religion, sexuality, or another identity category. We examined our assumptions of privilege and discussed the diverse students they were likely to find in their classrooms. I recounted the stories the urban high school students had told me, their struggles and successes, in order to ask the undergraduates to imagine how they would develop a reading and writing curriculum that would capture the interests of a wide range of students. I attempted to paint an accurate picture, one both compelling and challenging, to help the prospective teachers envision their future classrooms. As I urged students to reflect on their own identities to consider ways to structure their classrooms and curricula to meet the needs of all students, I struggled to bring the lessons I learned in the urban school to this class of future teachers (field notes, October 1995).
These scenes introduce the two contexts I juxtapose in this article: a research site and a teacher-education class. I use my insights from the research project, as a White researcher conducting research in communities of color, to reflect on urban teacher education and particularly on the project of educating a group of students who are predominantly White and middle class to work in urban schools. I suggest both that my experiences as a White researcher in communities of color gave me knowledge about urban students to broker to potential teachers and that this process of crossing boundaries to conduct research gave me insights useful to new teachers considering crossing boundaries to teach in urban schools. I begin by looking at my roles and relationships as a researcher and the ways these changed as I moved from school to community settings. Next, I discuss issues of power and control, and how these issues shaped the research dynamic. Finally, I reflect on crossing boundaries of race and class in research and teaching. I use these discussions to suggest implications for teacher-education courses and programs designed to introduce a predominantly White preservice teacher population to urban schools.
In the fall of 1993, I began a 2-year qualitative research project to understand the literacy practices brought to school and those learned in school by urban females in their senior year of high school. My intent was to add to our knowledge about urban youth and to use my findings to help educators think about urban classrooms. The initial research site was an urban comprehensive high school located on the West Coast, with a multiracial student body of students mostly from poor and working-class families. I spent a year interviewing and observing female students in two social studies classrooms to document their literacy practices and visions for the future. The next year, I followed 10 focal students to their homes, workplaces, and schools. In my interviews with the graduates, we talked about their literacy practices, how they made their day-to-day decisions, and their future plans and goals. We discussed their identities as students and workers, as parents and children, and the ways these changed as they moved between contexts. In addition, we spoke about their notions of success and the possibilities available to them as females of color living in poor urban neighborhoods in a time when social services have been drastically cut and poor women of color are targets of blame for the failure of cities and welfare programs (Schultz, 1996).
As a White, Jewish, middle-class female, there were boundaries in my research -- both real and imagined -- that I need to cross to gain the trust of the students I wanted to involve in the research project. I discovered that although these boundaries appeared to be relatively easy to cross when I talked with students in schools, they became more salient the second year when my research moved out of schools and into home, community, vocational education, and work contexts. In this article, I elaborate two kinds of boundary crossings: I talk about the boundaries I crossed in my urban research and the boundaries I invite the predominantly White, middle-class group of university students I teach to cross to work in urban settings. I use my experiences as a White researcher who conducted research in communities of color to explore, and perhaps illuminate, the boundaries we ask White, middle-class preservice teachers to cross when we encourage them to consider teaching in urban schools. I suggest that the opportunities and dilemmas I encountered as a White researcher in a school where the students labeled themselves (somewhat ironically) "100% minority" are useful in thinking about teacher-education programs, especially those concerned with urban schools.
I began my research project in a climate that challenged the credibility and motives of White researchers crossing boundaries to conduct research in communities of color. The local context in which I conducted this research was a university in which many people challenged the motives and ethics of a White researcher crossing boundaries to engage in research in a community of color. At this university, White graduate student researchers were routinely discouraged by their classmates and some professors from crossing color lines to set up research projects. Although I carried out this research in a climate in which this sort of research was being called into question, somehow I managed to do this research without overt challenges.
I write this article to describe my experiences as a researcher to contribute to an on-going conversation about these issues (cf. Cochran-Smith, 1995; Etter-Lewis & Foster, 1996; Fine & Weis, 1996; Ladner, 1971; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Tatum, 1994). I want to explore the possibilities and the hazards for a White researcher in communities of color and a White professor who encourages White, middle-class preservice teachers to teach in urban schools. What are the blinders we bring and the opportunities we create by our presence as White, teachers and researchers in communities of color? More broadly, what are the benefits for researchers from multiple identity categories crossing boundaries to conduct research? What contributions can we make with our …