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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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Mr. Abrahm characterized Byron’s hand raising and calling out in class as negative attention seeking and troublesome behavior. In contrast, Mr. Abrahm considered Lil P a “bright kid” and took personal ownership of his behavior consequently interpreting Lil P’s calling out and raised flailing arms as eagerness to answer a question or participate in class. Mr. Abrahm also interpreted Lil P’s actions as indicators of his good instruction and the sign of a “smart kid.” In contrast, when Byron swayed back in forth in his desk, it was considered a disruption and a plea for attention rather than having a response to a question or the ability to make a positive contribution to the class. Mr. Abrahm reported, “It's the anxiety, because he [Lil P] knows the answer and he wants to answer, as opposed to being out of control [like Byron], and I just can't – you know.” Trouble, intervention, and confrontation. Mr. Abrahm, Ms. Esther, and students, all varied in their ideas of immediate public acknowledgement and recognition of student misbehavior. Students perceived when teachers publicly acknowledged their misbehavior as a signifier for trouble. Mr. Abrahm thought he was being proactive by intervening with students and Ms. Esther considered herself confronting them as an effort to detour or thwart misbehavior. These perceptual differences are highlighted in Table 14.

Table 14 Trouble, Intervention, and Confrontation (Public Recognition): Symbols and Significations

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Although perceptions varied, the common determinant for signaling a disciplinary moment (i.e., trouble, intervention, confrontation) for teachers and students was a teacher’s immediate acknowledgement and public recognition of the student’s behavior.

At the instance teachers wrote a student’s name on the board, called their name out loud, glared, looked in a student’s direction, smirked, or made a snide remark, students

considered themselves in trouble. Students said:

B.G.: He [Mr. Abrahm] just looks at me when he thinks it is me talking.

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Mr. Abrahm also discussed his ideals about classroom order and the perceptions he had of student misbehavior.

When I call out students’ names, something disturbing has happened, there

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Keeping historical influences in mind and the detrimental effects of schools’ exclusionary disciplinary policies (e.g., zero tolerance), Mr. Abrahm’s “three strikes and they’re out” comment is reminiscent of such school initiatives and policies. Mr. Abrahm’s idealization strengthens the damaging effects of students of color being placed on the periphery and adds to the increased denial of their inclusion and participation in classrooms. Although not included in the analysis of this research, tolerance also seems to play a role in Mr.

Abrahm’s pedagogical style.

On another day, Mr. Abrahm recalled a classroom disciplinary moment with Byron that took place during a mathematics lesson. While sitting on a stool in front of the class with his back turned toward the students, he heard talking. Mr. Abrahm immediately grabbed a sheet of paper and pen without leaving the stool. With is back still partially toward the students, and his body turning to face them, Mr. Abrahm firmly said, “Byron!” Byron facing the board and sitting erect in his desk, wearing his backpack over his shirt, writing with his right hand, lifts his pencil from the paper, mouthed “it wasn’t me” as he gestured with his left hand open toward the student sitting to his left. He lightly pounded his right fist on the desk, leaned back in his seat, and looked away. Still holding his pencil in the air, he slouched in his chair as he pulled his right hand to his face and looked down in disappointment.

As Mr. Abrahm continued teaching, he wrote an equation on the board. Lil P blurted out, “I think you wrote it too high.” Byron squinted, and then quickly cuts both his eyes sharply to the left in Lil P’s direction. Quickly Mr. Abrahm retorted, “sshh, Lil P!” Now with pursed lips, Byron deeply pushed his tightly balled fist into his face. With a look of deep sorrow and despair, Byron placed the pencil on his desk, brought his fist back to his face, positioned his head downward and closed his eyes. Rubbing his closed eyes with his opened right hand, Byron shook his head left to right. While Byron reacted, Mr. Abrahm continued teaching, and listened to a student’s answers to a question. He responded to her, “very good.” Having no regard for Byron, Mr. Abrahm seemed unaffected by Byron’s dismay. Ironically, while Byron was fully withdrawn and disengaged, Mr. Abrahm could be heard in the background saying to the student about her response, “I’m okay with it, but you have to find out if they (other students in the class) are.” Students around Byron chorally responded to her, “it’s okay.” Shortly thereafter, Mr. Abrahm retorted to yet another student talking out, “sshh!” In reference to

this disciplinary moment, Mr. Abrahm explained:

–  –  –

This classroom disciplinary moment between Byron and Mr. Abrahm started thirteen minutes into the lesson and lasted 90 seconds. After one minute of withdrawal, Byron does reengage. During the stimulated recall interview, Mr. Abrahm continues about Byron, mentioning his interpretation of Byron’s display of emotional distress during this

lesson as attention getting:

–  –  –

This situation is significant because it shows the different meanings of classroom symbols. The check on the board, the use of a writing a student’s name on a piece of paper, or calling out a student symbolically represented distinctly different notions for teachers and students. Byron interpreted these symbols to signify trouble. It also reflected a moral assessment of fair versus unfair. Mr. Abrahm, however, thought calling out Byron’s name and placing a check on the board next to his name, and writing his name on a piece of paper served as a warning; that is, an intervention. This too is another example how teacher’ and students’ conceptualizations and interpretations can lead to misalignment of which leads to classroom disciplinary moments.

Mr. Abrahm says, “I was putting him (Byron) on notice.” Notice in the sense that Mr. Abrahm was making it known to Byron that if his misbehavior continued, stronger reprimands would be issued. There is a clear conflict in perceptual differences between Byron and Mr. Abrahm. Also shown are the limited parameters Mr. Abrahm used to organize and make sense of Byron’s behavior.

Hewitt (2003) suggests meaning making is symbolic as well as behavioral.

Teachers’ and students’ understanding of each other’s vocal or physical gestures entails signification. This alludes to a person’s understanding of a word, voice volume, or physical gesture and being dependent upon what each object signifies to them. The idea of signification is simple: an object (e.g., sign, smell, person, or sound, physical position) that is apprehended through the human senses (i.e., sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste) denotes the presence of something else (Hewitt, 2003). This too explains how Mr.

Abrahm saw his use of writing a student’s name of a sheet of paper or putting a checkmark next to a student’s name on the board differently than Byron.

Another example of Mr. Abrahm’s meaning making process, occurred during mathematics. B.G. has his head on the desk and Mr. Abrahm commands him to sit up. As B.G. processes Mr. Abrahm’s command, he promptly sits up without saying a word. In front of the class, Mr. Abrahm remarks to B.G., “Sitting up, lets me know you are paying attention.” In this example, we see Mr. Abrahm publically reminding B.G. the signification of a student lying down on desk represents to him. By telling B.G.

explicating what a student’s head on the desk means to him, Mr. Abrahm overtly communicates that he interprets students sitting upright in their desk to signify paying attention and a demonstrating a readiness to learn.

Mr. Abrahm is clear in that Byron’s behavior (e.g., frowning, withdrawal, appearing emotionally distressed) signified attention seeking and him being disingenuous. Using a different set of parameters and signifiers, when Lil P spoke out, Mr. Abrahm verbally corrected him instead of issuing him a warning or sanction. In this instance, Mr. Abrahm interpreted the symbolization of Lil P’s behavior as an annoyance or in some cases eagerness. However in most cases, Mr. Abrahm interpreted Byron’s behavior as a disruption. As a result, two very different teacher responses were displayed;

and again one student is constructed as able and the other as a disruption.

The question to ask is, can we tell what mediates Mr. Abram’s differential responses toward students, beyond the fact that it was personal? During an interview Mr.

Abrahm shared the idea that female students were more likely to follow directions and rules. His reasoning was, “Well, I think it from my personal experience. My daughter was very easy to raise, only because I guess she loved daddy.” He also thought gender can

evoke different student responses. He shared:

–  –  –

negative role models, abandonment by those African-American fathers and other significant male figures in their lives. Since I'm just speculating, I'm sure there's no history on this; but, they actually resent that authority

–  –  –

Furthermore, when asked if he could describe what types of students, or which students come to mind about being more likely to break the rules or not follow them, he


–  –  –

Hardly pays attention, easily distracted; and through a lot of negative behavior, gets the kind of attention I think he's missing somewhere else.

In response I ask, “Does anybody else come to mind?” Mr. Abrahm says, “Just Boys.” I

then responded:

–  –  –

6th grade. They're from the same household, just totally different people.

Mr. Abrahm’s personal life experiences, being a single father raising two children, thinking his daughter was an easy to raise child; provides a glimpse into Mr. Abrahm’s positionality and beliefs toward students in his class, particularly Byron. Sadly, Byron reminded Mr. Abrahm of the negative stigmatization of African American males and the Black family. This is the misnomer that African American males are anti-intellectual (Howard, 2014), raised by a single mother, living in poverty, having an uninvolved father, and causing problems at schools (Ferguson, 2001; Monroe, 2005; Noguera, 2003).

In contrast, for Mr. Abrahm, Lil P was an exception to the stigmatization of African American males. He is smart, being raised by his father and visiting his mother on the weekends, his father being significantly involved in Lil P’s schooling, and doing well at school and having a pleasant demeanor.

Mazzotta and Myers (2008) remind us the importance of recognizing that people are social objects during interactions and that societal symbols become affixed to individuals. In this sense Mr. Abrahm’s interpretative meaning making process encoded Byron as the symbol for the representation of misbehavior and signified that his class behavior (good or bad) was behavior considered unsuitable for a situation (Charles, Senter, & Barr, 1999). As a result Mr. Abrahm’s interpreted Byron’s behavior as problematic and actions toward Byron tended to be punitive. Mr. Abrahm’s interpretative process of Byron is shown is Figure 7.

Figure 7. Mr.

Abrahm’s interpretative process of Byron.

Although within this interpretive meaning making processing during interactions can influence ideas or create a conceptual change (Prochaska, Redding, & Evers, 2013;

Psycharis, Chalatzoglidis, & Kalogiannakis, 2013; Sinatra, 2005), Mr. Abrahms’ significations of Byron remained consistent. According to Mead (1934), an object (e.g., students, observable behavior, sign, smell, person, or sound, physical position) has specialized representation to individuals and personalized symbolic meaning. Ideas are symbolically constructed whether it is in the memory of one’s lived experiences and history, something that actually occurred or something anticipated that is yet to happen.

Hewitt (1988) claimed that meanings for things are not fixed, but determined through interaction and how an actor acts toward an object. In the case of Mr. Abrahm and Byron, we see Mr. Abrahm acting toward Byron based on social stigmatization and the memories and perceptions that Byron evoked in Mr. Abrahm.

McDermott (1977) reminds us that teachers and students’ sense making is “made in common with other people within institutional contexts” (p. 202). Wilson (1977) also informed us that not only do individuals determine a part of their reality through their interpretations and definitions of situations, but that the environment itself can generate behaviors; however, because of various demands and expectations sustained mutual understanding is rarely achieved. Such is the also the case with students thinking they were being punished by teachers while teachers thought they were fairly acting in response to student’s misbehavior.

Student punishments and teacher consequences. Students thought teachers were punishing them when they got into trouble for misbehaving; however, teachers thought of their responses to students’ misbehavior as a sanctions or consequence. A key distinction between punishments and sanction is that a sanction happened when a rule was broken, whereas consequences were regarded as teachers’ attempts to place responsibility back on students; that is there was an instructional implicit goal for students to act accordingly to implicit and explicit environmental expectations. Students and teachers perceptions of punishments and consequences are shown in Table 15.

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