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September 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 1

Looking at Lives Through Ethnography

Ethnographies allow us to imagine what the world is like for students whose cultures differ from our own.

Slick: Certain teachers you can talk to up there. But most of the teachers that are up there, a lot of them are too rich, y'know what I mean? They have money, and they don't give a f— about nobody. They don't know how it's like to hafta come to school late. “Why'd you come late?” I had to make sure my brother was in school. I had to make sure certain things—I had to make sure that there was breakfast (MacLeod 1987, p. 109).
“If we are to teach, we must first examine our own assumptions about families and children,” Denny Taylor writes. “Instead of responding to 'pathologies,' we must recognize that what we see may actually be healthy adaptations to an uncertain and stressful world. We need to think about the children themselves and try to imagine the contextual worlds of their day-to-day lives” (Taylor and Dorsey-Gaines 1988, p. 203).
How can we imagine worlds that are often very far from our own? How can we untangle our own deeply entrenched assumptions? Perhaps before we can look in, we must look out. Our understanding of what it means to be part of a family, part of a community, part of a classroom, is socially defined. As an Anglo teacher, I struggle to quiet voices from my own farm family, echoing as always some unstated standard. While events in our own classrooms, in our own lives, may be at first too close to see, ethnographies can provide critical lenses that allow us to uncover the assumptions that drive decisions about policies and practices in our curriculums and classrooms.

Ethnography Means “Learning from People”

An ethnography is a richly textured description of community life that allows us to understand others on their own terms (Brodkey 1987). While living and working in a local community, an ethnographer participates in everyday life, observing and recording events and stories. Fieldwork “involves the disciplined study of what the world is like to people who have learned to see, hear, speak, think, and act in ways that are different. Rather than studying people, ethnography means learning from people” (Spradley 1979, p. 3).
While ethnographies cannot present us with scripts for problem solving in classrooms, the ethnographic work of Heath, MacLeod, Taylor, and others provides both a lens and a mirror. In the process of looking at real lives lived with all the richness and messiness, compassion and contradiction that life involves, we can begin to recover our own buried assumptions. We can then turn back to our own classrooms with new insight into others and ourselves.
The ethnographies reviewed below introduced me to real people whose complicated lives elsewhere are often presented as abstractions and stark statistics. Through MacLeod I met Slick, a high school drop-out who learned early on you “hafta make a name for yourself, to be bad, tough, whatever . . . . If you're to be bad, you hafta be arrested. You hafta at least know what bein' in a cell is like” (p. 26).
Slick, an alcoholic, sometimes violent, Anglo teenager, who is both feared and respected by residents in his urban housing project, also says, “Most of the kids down here, most of 'em wanna make money so they can help their families and help themselves to get out of this place . . . . ” (p. 34).
Through Taylor and Dorsey-Gaines, I met Tanya and her children, Queenie born at the end of Tanya's 8th grade year, and Gary born in her 11th grade year. Working to survive in the inner city, Tanya says, “People tell me all I can do is hope for the best. I think if I give it my go I think that my kids will turn out fine. I'm hopeful. Hopefully . . . there's no reason why my child should be standing out there on the street corner. I'm not going to have it. Not what I went through” (p. 5).
And through Heath, I confronted myself as a mainstream teacher in the classroom: “The simplest questions are the ones they can't answer in the classroom; yet on the playground, they can explain a rule for a ballgame or describe a particular kind of bait with no problem. Therefore, I know they can't be as dumb as they seem in my class” (p. 269).

Ethnographies as Pedagogical Tools

Beyond shattering many myths and stereotypes, ethnographies can become useful tools for implementing real changes in the classroom. While no book can be a handbook for dealing with diversity, ethnography can help readers recognize how the layers of culture extend beyond the classroom walls.
The complexity of curricular planning becomes more apparent when one comes to understand the dimensions of multiple and often competing memberships: churches, clubs, neighborhoods, public and private affairs—all demanding different rules and rituals. Borders intersect and overlap. No one is ever completely from one community. We are all active members in many communities that come already equipped with tacit rituals and rules: ways of talking, acting, valuing, being in the world.
We must also recognize each classroom as one fragile and accidental community with its own set of rules and expectations understood by some more clearly than by others. The responsibility of the teacher then is not to “fix” deficient children who lack the ability to think and behave properly but to help them learn how to negotiate among the many different ways with words.
Ethnographies can be useful at a practical level, too. First, they allow teachers to visit vicariously in the homes of students from diverse backgrounds. Understanding homes and neighborhoods better, teachers can make informed curricular decisions that connect new materials with students' life experiences.
Second, by gaining understanding of ethnographic methodology, teachers can design opportunities for dynamic classroom interactions. Students can be invited to document their neighborhood rules and “ways of knowing,” sharing for example, what it means to step off a sidewalk when approached or explaining why certain articles of clothing result in a disruptive display. Classes can study historical and cultural ways of knowing in local communities.
Finally, through systematic analysis of classroom discourse, teachers can learn to become microethnographers in their own classrooms. What questions are asked? Who speaks? What texts are consistently used? Questions such as these allow teachers to uncover and examine tacit assumptions operating in their classrooms. Tape-recording and transcribing real classroom talk can lead teachers to the most valuable research available to them, their own.

Ethnographies Reviewed

Let's look now through the authors' lenses to learn more about Slick, Tanya, and all the others. Glimpses of their lives are captured for us in the following books.

Ways with Words: Language, Life and Work in Communities and Classrooms, Shirley Brice Heath (1983).

“A quiet early morning fog shrouds rolling hills blanketed by pine-green stands of timber, patched with fields of red clay. As the sun rises and burns off the fog, the blue sky is feathered with smoke let go from chimney stacks of textile mills; this is the Piedmont of the Carolinas” (p. 19). Heath draws readers into these working-class communities with the artistry and finesse of a novelist. From 1969–1978, she lived, worked, and played with the children and their families and friends in Trackton and Roadville. In Trackton, a black working-class community, and Roadville, a white working-class community just seven miles away, Heath systematically documents how early home experience shapes patterns of talk and behavior.
The “ways with words” for each group is distinct and leads to social and cultural conflicts in classrooms. For example, Trackton and Roadville children learn to tell stories very differently. Creating wildly exaggerated stories that are highly rhymed, rhythmic and repetitive, Trackton children enjoy “talkin' junk.” Sar dínes, wóo, `n po'k `n béans, wóo Sar dínes, wóo, `n po'k `n béans, wóo I kin téll by yo' head Dat ya éat cornbread Sar dínes, wóo, `n po'k `n béans, wóo Sar dínes, wóo, `n po'k `n béans, wóo I kin tell by yo' híp Dat you eat potáto chíp. (pp. 178–79)
Roadville children, on the other hand, are taught to tell factual stories that are closely tied to personal experiences or Biblical stories. One day I was outside, and my dog was hiding in the bushes and I walked by the bushes and he jumped on me and I had to fight to get up.I went in, and my mother yelled at me so I had to change my clothes. (p. 301)
Individuals from both groups failed to meet the mainstream teacher's expectations during storytime. While a Trackton child's story might be labeled inappropriate and even disrespectful, a Roadville story might be thought lacking in imagination and creativity.
Teachers who enrolled in graduate courses with Heath learned to become ethnographers in their own classrooms, uncovering how the assumptions and actions of even the best teachers with the best of intentions were marking children for failure. Through Heath, readers meet Mrs. Gardner who restructured a curriculum designed for 19 black 1st graders all labeled “potential failures.” Mrs. Gardner asked children “to search their neighborhood for big Ts (telephone poles), for upside-down Ls (street-light poles)” (p. 285). Children in Mrs. Gardner's classroom began reading fun stories, talking about what they read and discussing their experiences. By the end of the year “all but one of the children in Mrs. Gardner's class were reading on at least grade level; eight were at 3rd grade level, six at 2nd grade level” (p. 287).
Heath concludes her study on a less optimistic note. In the epilogue, she reveals that over time there was little lasting change in the schools she had studied. She leaves readers with a mandate for the future: In any case, unless the boundaries between classrooms and communities can be broken, and the flow of cultural patterns between them encouraged, the schools will continue to legitimate and reproduce communities of townspeople who control and limit the potential progress of other communities and who themselves remain untouched by other values and ways of life (p. 369).

Growing Up Literate: Learning from Inner City Families, Denny Taylor and Catherine Dorsey-Gaines (1988).

The authors' work with the urban poor shatters many stereotypes. Uncaring mothers or absent fathers are not the people presented in these accounts of growing up in poverty. Taylor focused on families with 6-year-olds who were successfully learning to read and write. From 1982–1987 she followed four families into their homes, workplaces, and schools. As readers view the lives of these families unfolding, they come to understand how lives in poverty are shaped by social, political, and economic forces. Readers' shock about conditions of poverty dissolves into compassion as they observe the strength and cooperation needed to exist within the inner city. Readers listen to Jerry, an artist in a silk-screening factory: “I got lost somewhere along the way and I don't have it. I keep us eatin' and a roof over our head. You know, I maintain that, you know. But I don't have what I should have. You know. And sometimes I question whether I should stay here. I do. You're asking me how I feel. You want to know how I feel . . . . I am a bona fide artist . . . . Ain't nobody helpin' me, and I'm losin'. I can't even buy the paint this week to paint this little face up” (p.39). Readers also see the portrait Jerry's son draws after his father's death.
The vast collection of transcripts, drawings, notes, poems, welfare forms, and tenant applications illustrate the rich and literate lives that these families lead.

Ain't No Makin' It: Leveled Aspirations in a Low-Income Neighborhood, Jay MacLeod (1987).

“I ain't goin to college. Who wants to go to college? I'd just end up gettin' a shitty job anyway” (p. 1). Freddie Pinella, growing up in a housing project in a northeastern city, already knew by age 11 that “there ain't no makin' it.”
Jay MacLeod chronicles the lives of the teenage boys who lived in the projects in Clarendon Heights from 1983–1986. MacLeod focuses on 15 boys in two distinct groups: the Hallway Hangers and the Brothers.
The Hallway Hangers, a group of mostly Anglo boys of Italian or Irish descent, “all smoke cigarettes, drink regularly, and use drugs. All but two have been arrested” (p. 23). The Hallway Hangers see a future for themselves that lacks any real opportunities for social mobility. School is an obstacle rather than a vehicle for success. It takes up precious time when they could be making money or learning skills on the job or in the streets.
This view of schooling sharply contrasts the view held by the Brothers, an African-American group living in the same housing project. Derek, one of the Brothers, says, “I know I want a good job when I get out. I know that I have to work hard in school. I mean, I want a good future. I don't wanna be doing nothing for the rest of my life” (p. 98). The Brothers attend high school regularly. They don't drink, smoke, use drugs, or get arrested.
While the Brothers work hard, and the Hallway Hangers jeer at their futile efforts, neither group does, in fact, “make it.” In the end, the Brothers, whose families support and nurture them, end up blaming themselves for failure. What is notable about this study is the inadequacy of what MacLeod calls the “achievement ideology” defined as the familiar refrain of “behave yourself, study hard, earn good grades, graduate with your class, go to college, get a good job, and make a lot of money” (p. 152). While the Hallway Hangers resist this achievement ideology, the Brothers buy into it.
MacLeod concludes with a plan for change. He argues that teachers and administrators must let go of the achievement ideology because it forces students to choose between two unproductive roles: victims or rebels. MacLeod explains: Rather than denying the existence of barriers to success, schools should acknowledge them explicitly while motivating students by teaching them, for example, about local figures who share the students' socioeconomic origins but overcame the odds. Teachers can strive to include material about which the students, drawing on the skills they have developed in their neighborhoods, are the experts. If the school can believe in the legitimacy and importance of students' feelings, perceptions, and experiences as working-class kids, the students themselves might come to do the same, thereby giving them a positive identity and a measure of self-confidence as a foundation for further application in school (p. 153).

Islands in the Streets: Gangs and American Urban Society, Martín Sánchez Jankowski (1991).

Jammer, a 20-year-old gang member, explains how it is that gang stories appear in the media: Hey, reporters need good stories, and let's face it, gangs are good press. Peoples is interested in the dark side of the city, you dig? But being in the news can be useful to a lot of us individually and for the organization too, so we gets the information to the reporters, it just that it's our information. They get what we say they get and no more. We be feeding 'em a little bit to set their taste buds, but not enough so they get all they want. It be like a pool hustle, man, if it be good, everybody's happy 'cause nobody knows . . . . We just trying to take care of business (p. 303).
All of the gangs in Jankowski's study understood the advantages of media exposure. Yet, most middle and upper middle class readers have never before understood gangs as structured organizations, gangs “just trying to take care of business.” While Islands in the Street does not contain classroom settings as the other ethnographies reviewed here do, it can provide rich background for classroom teachers who live and work closely with gang members and potential gang members.
Martín Sánchez Jankowski bases his study on 10 years of field work (from 1978–1989) among 37 gangs in America. Jankowski systematically studied the internal dynamics and structures of 13 gangs in Los Angeles, 20 in New York City, and 4 in Boston, all chosen to contrast size, ethnic composition, and geographic location.
Over this period, during which Jankowski participated as a gang member, he did not conceal his purposes to other gang members, their families, politicians, government bureaucrats, law enforcement officials, or members of the media. He did, however, refuse to engage in illegal activities.
Contrary to commonly held assumptions about primary involvement with drugs, crime, and violence, this study reveals legal links that connect gangs to their communities in a symbiotic relationship. Jankowski writes, “In addition to trying to assume responsibility for protecting residents from being accosted and/or robbed, all but three of the gangs that I studied also tried to protect them from other social predators, like loan sharks, unethical landlords, and/or store owners who overcharged for their products” (pp. 185–186). Many gangs also actually operated social clubs that provided entertainment and activities for neighborhood residents.
Jankowski's research uncovers reasons for joining gangs: material incentives, recreation, physical protection, and membership in family and community traditions. Within the context of the environment, the gang member is a resourceful and defiant individualistic character whose competitiveness and self-reliance are two essential character traits.
Police and public officials accommodate gangs, Jankowski notes. Gangs disseminate campaign literature, get people to the polls, protect their constituents, and cooperate in corrupt financial practices. Within the larger social web, one cannot simply remove the gang. Money and power tightly hold them in place. While Jankowski critically analyzes the larger sociological framework in which gangs exist, Fat Mack, a 17-year-old gang member, puts it simply: “You see, (name of grassroots agency) do not get much money to run their organization, so they are in a position where they got to depend on us. If we didn't exist then there would not be as much of a need for them, so sometimes you read where they say we are running wild in the streets, doing this and doing that. I mean it's like when college dudes talk about the CIA, you would think they were everywhere doing everything. That's the way they describe us sometimes. We just laugh. We know they need to do that so they get some of their funding; and if they don't get it, we act out a little, and then they make their pitch. And there are a lot of times they get their money. . . . So we do help out, but then we cash in later when we deal with them, because they know we can mess up their gig” (p. 249).

Storytelling Rights: The Uses of Oral and Written Texts by Urban Adolescents, Amy Shuman (1986).

Shuman draws on many literary theorists and literacy scholars such as Foucault, Labov, Bakhtin, Ong, and Scollon and Scollon to challenge readers to rethink literacy and the multiple ways urban adolescents use texts.
Shuman based her study on fieldwork from 1979 to 1981 among the black, white, and Puerto Rican adolescents at an inner-city junior high school in the eastern part of the United States. As a participant-observer, she interacted with students in classrooms, schoolyards, and homes. She interviewed family members, teachers, and students, collecting oral and written texts.
As adolescents came to trust and accept her, a serendipitous opportunity changed the course of her study. On her notepad was etched “My Diary.” This created an immediate bond with the adolescent girls, who began sharing their diaries with Shuman, many of which broke with the traditional boundary between oral and written texts. Shuman writes in her introduction, This study examines the multiple relationships between the ordinary and the artistic, the fictional and the true story, the standard and the nonstandard, absent authorship in various forms and face-to-face communication, in order to understand the significant differences between oral and written communication (p. 17).
Shuman looks at who tells stories and who listens. The She said-She said fight stories of the adolescent girls become the focus of much of her study. And Ginger said, “I better not be around you or Rose will get in my face.”Mary said, “If Rose is bothering you, I'll kick her ass.” (p. 159)
Often the fight story evoked a greater infraction than the fight itself. Who had the right to tell of an ongoing offense? What conventions dictated who could tell and what could be retold? When could an adolescent quote direct speech, and when would that constitute a violation of rights?
Although Shuman demands from her readers a thorough grounding in literary theory, the voices of the adolescent girls can be heard in her study.

Typical Girls? Young Women From School to the Job Market, Christine Griffin (1985).

Is there such a thing as a typical girl? Griffin argues against stereotyped images. Her three-year study of working-class girls in Great Britain points to gender biases that encourage girls to live down to lowered expectations.
Part One of this book contains interviews and observations of 180 junior and senior students from six different high schools. Transcripts from interviews with teachers, administrators, parents, employers, career officers, and male students are juxtaposed with those of the white, Afro-Caribbean, and Asian girls in the study. Racial issues emerge as behaviors that are routinely judged against the “good girl” standard. For example, Asians are most often cast as good girls, while the louder Afro-Caribbean girls are cast into the roles of “troublemakers.”
In Part Two, Griffin follows 25 young women as they enter the job market. Here, as in the classrooms, expectations and aspirations are shaped by race, class, and gender biases.
While much of the explanations and jargon are specific to the British educational system, this study remains at the top of my list. It provides a rich and rare peek into the world of working-class women.

Looking Up from Our Attendance Books

While educational reformers and journalists continue to point an accusing finger at schools, teachers are left to untangle on their own the complicated webs of diversity and equity. Yet when we look up from our attendance books, we don't see dollars and cents. We don't see race, class, or gender issues. We don't see broken homes or test scores. We see faces. We see Marcus and Megan, Oudone and Bobby. Statistics and abstractions severed from lives lived cannot inform our daily practices. Yet, beneath our daily practices lie our theories and assumptions about the lives of our students and the role of education. These often invisible theories affect our decisions at the most practical level: what books to read, what comments to write in the margins of a story, who to call on, what behaviors to ignore, what performances merit As.
Ethnographies cannot solve all of the problems facing today's teachers. Yet, they can help to put those problems into contexts. Ethnographic research provides both a lens into real classrooms and a lens out to the larger society. Ethnographies may not hold the answers to school problems, but they hold a rich source of new questions.

Brodkey, L. (1987). “Writing Ethnographic Narratives.” Written Communication 4, 25–50.

Griffin, C. (1985). Typical Girls? Young Women From School to the Job Market. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jankowski, M. S. (1991). Islands in the Streets: Gangs and American Urban Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

MacLeod, J. (1987). Ain't No Makin' It: Leveled Aspirations in A Low-Income Neighborhood. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Shuman, A. (1986). Storytelling Rights: The Uses of Oral and Written Texts By Urban Adolescents. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Spradley, J. (1979). The Ethnographic Interview. Fort Worth: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc.

Taylor, D. and C. Dorsey-Gaines. (1988). Growing Up Literate: Learning from Inner-City Families. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.

Margaret Finders has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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