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«Behavioral Dissonance and Contested Classroom Spaces: Teachers’ and Students’ Negotiations of Classroom Disciplinary Moments by Rebecca Neal A ...»

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Farberman, 1985; Hewitt, 2003; Mead, 1934). Examples of an object as a symbol could be a tree, dog, pencil, textbook, etc. Situations as symbols could be a parent-teacher conference, or a student being sent to the principal’s office, etc. Constructs as symbols could include notions such as misbehavior, the idea of schooling, or the idea of a teacher’s role. Vocalizations as symbols could be a phrase a person uses, or words a teacher speaks to a student, etc.

Hewitt (2003) suggested that symbols, objects, and meanings are basic ideas that answer questions relating to human behavior and interaction. In turn, Vygotsky (1981) and Cole (1997) bring out that mediation of certain tools (e.g., symbols) requires a simultaneous processing of both something material and ideal. In that sense, symbols are “material in that they are embodied in material artifacts” (Cole, 1997, p. 249). Vygotsky calls this semiotic mediation of tools in human activity. Cole (1997) also points out that what differentiates symbols as a physical object (e.g., notebook) from a construct or language “is the relative prominence of their material and ideal aspects” (p. 249). Further, Vygotsky (1981) says symbols are used as a psychological tool to mediate mental activity in the relationship between people and their environment.

Understanding that teachers and students either relate to their environment or have a relationship with their environment (Farberman, 1985) suggests that they make sense of classroom behaviors by evaluating them through their interactions with others.

In addition, continued processing of an interaction after it occurs leads to further interpretations and meaning making (Mazzotta & Myers, 2008).This interpretive meaning making process is shown in Figure 5. A person’s decision to act emerges from an interaction with oneself. Charon (1989) refers to this as covert action because it takes place within one’s mind. For that reason, I stress that teacher’s and student’s meaning making is internal (inside the mind). Important to keep in mind is that a symbol can also have more than one, or multiple significations. Next, I build on these basic premises about meaning making to describe and discuss teachers’ and students’ conceptualizations of misbehavior that they use in their meaning making processing.

Figure 5. Interpretative meaning-making process.

Teachers’ and Students’ Conceptualizations of Misbehavior Teachers and students derived meanings differently during their interactions and developed varied conceptualizations of misbehavior during the progression of classroom disciplinary moments. Teachers’ and students’ conceptualizations were influenced by their preconceived notions of misbehavior, personal beliefs and cultural practices, and derived understandings from social interactions.

The evidence revealed that Mr. Abram, Ms. Esther, and participating students shared a common understanding of what symbols (i.e., objects, events, constructs, vocalizations, gestures) signified classroom misbehavior. Mr. Abrahm insisted students remain quiet, still, and looking in his physical direction. He interpreted this kind of

behavior to indicate positive engagement and a readiness to learn:

–  –  –

Ms. Esther considered noise and movement as central signifiers for misbehavior. She


Well, unnecessary noises, just like random acts of noise. Students moving

–  –  –

These quotes suggest teachers and students had similar notions of classroom misbehavior.

Teachers and students understood classroom disciplinary moments based on preconceived definitions of misbehavior, contextual clues, and the interactional processes that occur during meaning making processes. In addition, environmental stimuli contributed to teachers’ and students’ sense meaning making as they interacted with one another and interpreted behaviors in the context of their environment.

The context of IDA defined misbehavior in their student handbook and parent compact. The compact dictated positive behavior to be ensuring a student’s regular school attendance, reading for pleasure at home, using respectful behavior and language at school, and adhering to the school’s dress code policy to wear school uniforms of which are provided at no cost. Furthermore, the school used a school discipline policy to define misbehavior. The school’s discipline policy stated that “students are held responsible for their behaviors and must decide whether they wish to be recognized for positive behavior, or face the consequences for violation of school rules” (IDA Student Handbook, 2010). Another statement in the handbook indicated that students at any time “may be counseled by school personnel regarding their behavior and students are encouraged to accept the advice as valuable and understand the intent to help students become successful.” In addition to institutional behavioral expectations, classroom rules were posted in both classrooms. On a yellow square shaped bulletin board and on the classroom door,

Mr. Abrahm has five rules posted in a large typed font:

–  –  –

These posted rules reflected Mr. Abrahm’s beliefs about misbehavior and a communal agreement among students regarding their ideas of classroom expectations.

In the corner of Ms. Esther’s room and behind her desk was a yellow rectangular bulletin board titled “Rights and Responsibilities.” To see the print, students needed to stand very close to the poster. Printed was: “You have the right to make choices; You

have a right to learn; You have a right to be respected.” Ms. Esther indicated that:

–  –  –

When asked about classroom rules, Mr. Abrahm and Ms. Esther read their classroom rules, or rights and responsibilities, as opposed to recalling the information from memory.

In addition, based on direct and video observations, both teachers inconsistently enforced (implicit and explicit) classroom rules.

In short, Mr. Abrahm’s description of what constituted misbehavior matched the rules posted in his classroom, along with students’ conceptualizations of misbehavior. On the other hand, Ms. Esther had more of an implicit alignment between her definitions of misbehavior and what was posted in her classroom; however, in the everyday life of these classrooms, it became evident that teachers and students came to understand misbehavior differently.

Teachers’ and Students’ Negotiations of Classroom Disciplinary Moments Cookie defined being funny, talking during class, playing with a peer, not doing work, walking around during class as symbols for the signification of misbehavior. His decision to act was then based on the definitions he gave to each situation or instance of misbehavior. For Cookie, “being funny” was a signification of misbehavior, which in turn he “acted silly in class.” Presented in Figure 6 is Cookie’s definition to his idea of “being funny.” Figure 6. Cookie’s interpretative process of symbol.

Symbolic interactionism provides a useful framework for understanding how meaning is derived in a given situation. In the framework, a stimulus is considered to be a symbol whose representation reflects an individual’s meaning making process. This means that each person gives a symbol a meaning uniquely shaped through a process that involves interactions with context, prior experiences and beliefs, and other influencing factors. Thus, a symbol achieves meaning or signification. This meaning then informs action as the individual acts upon the meaning they derived. The process is iterative in that meanings or signification of the symbols change as actors, history, environment and other stimuli shape the individuals’ understandings. This then leads to changing actions which become symbols and the meaning making process begins again.

Along those same lines, sociocultural theory provides the explanation that people learn in relationship. Mercer and Howe (2012) posits that one’s thinking and knowledge is not only individual, but also a result of the an exchange of common and uncommon understandings of a shared use of ‘cultural tools’ including language, objects, policies, thoughts, and memories of lived experiences. It is the relationship between one’s actions and thinking, and the characteristics of one’s reasoning that underpins alignment or misalignment of teachers and students conceptualizations of misbehavior and classroom disciplinary moments.

We can see this process at work in schools. Teachers and students encounter multiple symbols throughout the school context and in this research the findings are clear that misbehavior signified different meanings for every actor. For example, in the illustration above, Cookie’s meaning for the act of being funny was different from the way his teachers interpreted silliness in the classroom. Cookie’s signification led him to tell jokes because his signification for being funny was of value.

To deepen this analysis, I then individually examined the representations for each of Cookie’s symbols; and his ensuing actions. This same depth of analysis was followed for Mr. Abrahm, Ms. Esther, Byron, Lil P, B.G. and Jonathan. This examination revealed teachers’ and students’ interpretations of misbehavior during classroom disciplinary moments was systematic and organized.

Charon (1989) poses the question, what influences one’s decisions in a situation?

There was an organization to students and teachers understanding of classroom disciplinary moments; however, teachers’ and students’ organization of symbols, significations, and actions slightly varied. Students’ conceptualizations of misbehavior involved them exhibiting an externalized behavior, believing a teacher intentionally highlighted their misbehavior, followed by them blaming teachers for making the choice to highlight their misbehavior. Students’ processing also included blaming teachers, thinking they were in trouble, receiving a punishment, and having an immediate personal reaction. Mr. Abrahm also considered misbehavior was made up of a student externalizing a behavior, a student intentionally misbehaving, blaming the student for their own behavior, him intervening or consequences a student, and then both he and students having an immediate reaction. Very similar, Ms. Esther thought misbehavior involved a student externalizing a behavior, a student intentionally misbehaving, blaming the student for their own behavior, her confronting a student regarding their misbehavior, issuing a consequence, and both she and students having an immediate reaction. These findings were organized by actors (i.e., teachers and students) and grouped by closely related ideas. Illustrated in Table 10 is a more detailed representation of teachers’ and students’ mental organization of classroom disciplinary moments.

Table 10 Teachers’ and Students’ Mental Organization of Classroom Disciplinary Moments

–  –  –

Student classroom misbehavior was intricate and sophisticated in that there was great complexity in how teachers and students made sense of behaviors. Symbols signifying misbehavior for teachers’ and students’ included: eye gazes, physical gestures, verbalizations (e.g., yelling, calling out), swaying in a desk, leaving an area without permission, putting a pencil down on a desk, raising a hand, talking, walking around the room, word choice, making faces, throwing objects, touching another student, as well as a litany of other possible behaviors.

Table 10 illustrates that students had different understandings about classroom disciplinary moments than did their teachers. In addition, teacher’s individual conceptions of classroom disciplinary moments also varied. When the understandings of classroom misbehavior were misaligned, teachers and students could be involved in the same moment, but arrive at a completely different processing of what transpired.

Furthermore, a student himself may become a symbol that takes on different meanings for different teachers, which in turn initiates various teacher actions. Examples of these differences are found in the vignettes that follow.

An example of a student becoming a symbol that signified misbehavior involved Cookie and Ms. Esther, while he was in Mr. Burrough’s classroom. Mr. Burrough’s classroom connects to both Mr. Abrahm and Ms. Esther’s classrooms. Mr. Burrough left the students unattended and Ms. Esther heard a commotion, and entered the room.

Students were seated, but talking loudly. She saw mathematical problems written on the board and instructed students to quiet down and work. She entered and left Mr.

Burrough’s room several times. She recollected:

–  –  –

[Cookie] is focused on taking the edges off the papers.

As a consequence, Ms. Esther wrote on Cookie’s paper, “Refuses to work in LA [language arts] and Math. Had to write problems for him. Very uncooperative. Ms.

Esther.” Ms. Esther verbally instructed Cookie to complete the unfinished problems as homework and told to obtain his mother’s signature as evidence he informed her of the incident. Keep in mind, only mathematics were being taught in Mr. Burrough’s room, so Ms. Esther’s comments about Cookie’s behavior during language arts class was an embellishment to what occurred in Mr. Burrough’s room. Cookie’s account of what

happened in Mr. Burrough’s room was:

–  –  –

What Ms. Esther referred to as “standing out” is a clear indication that for her, Cookie represented a student likely to misbehave. In Ms. Esther’s meaning making processing of the event, Cookie is at fault and she perceived his behavior as him having negative intentions. In return, Ms. Esther confronted Cookie and ultimately applied a consequence by writing a note on his homework and making him take it home to get signed by his mother. Important to note is that following any behavioral event, multiple immediate reactions occurred from students and teachers alike. As a result, I unpacked teachers and students significations shared during interviews more explicitly.

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