Life in the middle : exploring identity and culture in an urban middle school
Alarcón, Jeanette Driscoll
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My dissertation study is two-year interdisciplinary project that combined case study and oral history methods to craft the life history of West Middle School. The goal of this project is to gain knowledge of how a school's identity, image and culture are shaped by outside forces such as education policy and demographic shifts over time. To this end, I ask teacher participants to narrate the life history of West Middle School, while paying particular attention to shifts in educational policy, to a changing student population and to citizenship education. The aim of exploring these issues is to present a holistic view of schooling. My theoretical framework draws upon the theories of figured worlds, hidden curriculum and social reproduction as entry points for understanding the complex world of West Middle School. I use case study methods such as observation along with oral history interviews and archival data to construct West's life history. The data sources include teacher interviews, an extensive yearbook archive, district school board meeting minutes, and school district boundary maps. The findings of the study are presented in two chapters. Chapter five presents key themes from the teachers' interviews describing the cultural environment and public image of West Middle School. Teachers characterize the school's image and reputation in terms of exceptionalism and the school's identity in terms of family and guardianship. Chapter six discusses citizenship education at West. The main themes in this chapter draw attention to teachers' understanding of good citizenship in pointed terms of respect, responsibility and civic duty. Central conclusions include a nuanced understanding of contradictions within the West Middle School community, the ways in which diversity is simultaneously valued and assimilated, and the ways in which West's positive reputation acts as social and cultural capital. Implications for teacher education include creating spaces where pre-service teachers can engage in deeper learning about school communities and coming to see teaching as a political rather than passive act. Finally, implications for research call for expanding methodological frameworks to include bending and combining methods toward gaining a rich understanding of the complexities of schools.