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Fieldwork Paper - Insider vs. Outsider

swetha's picture

    My placement this semester was in several math classes taught by Mr. M at Westside High School. This school in West Philadelphia is composed of 95% Black students, which for the most part also represented the racial composition of the classes I was in. 89% of students at Westside qualify for free or reduced lunch, which speaks to the composition of the neighborhood in which the school is located. Westside is a special-admit school, which means the previous academic and behavioral records of students are taken into account when they are being considered for admission. Mr. M’s class is interesting because in most my previous experiences in schools with similar demographics, there has mostly been a white, female teacher in front of a room of young Black students. However, Mr. M is a middle-aged Black teacher leading a class full of students who can mostly identify with Mr. M’s identity as a Black person from West Philadelphia. Also in Mr. M’s class, there is a student teacher, Ms. S. I have seen her role in the classroom change over the course of the semester from a more timid figure trying to figure out how she could get to know the class to an authority in the class who students respect and from who they are excited to learn.

    Thinking of culture and identity as motivating factors, I am interested in looking into the differences between the insider and the outsider in the context of this math classroom. In the space of Mr. M’s class, I can definitely see myself as an outsider who has come from a bubble far outside of this one that the students are living in and tried to make myself part of their classroom. Therefore, there are some interactions in the classroom that are harder for me to understand as a non-Black middle-class college student who has only studied the experience and potential challenges of teaching and learning in such an environment, never having experienced them myself.

    For example, one day when students were hanging out with Mr. M before class, there was a situation in which I felt like I could not possibly understand what was happening. Mr. M is also the senior class advisor, so in his Pre-Calculus class of mostly seniors, he was discussing the fundraisers and need for students to buy the class t-shirts. In the process of doing so, he was recalling his experiences with this in previous years. He then noted how many students, particularly young girls, kept choosing t-shirt sizes that were clearly too small for them in their chest area. Instead of suggesting to students to choose another size as I would have expected, he proceeded to tell female students that they “couldn’t squeeze their t!&&!#$ into a small even if they tried hard.” My immediate reaction was of course shock that it was possible for Mr. M to have even thought to say that to a student, much less have said it to many of them. I did not immediately ask Mr. M why he said that, since the students did not appear to be fazed by what they had just heard Mr. M say.

As an outsider, I had many concerns about how Mr. M’s words might impact the students. While I originally thought, as I posted in Serendip, this might have been a way for Mr. M to credit the different body types of young women who might not fit into the “small” they think they should be wearing, I think there must be some acknowledgement that from a professional standpoint, Mr. M was fairly inappropriate in using such language. However, as Tuck (2009) asserts, “desire-based research frameworks are concerned with understanding complexity, contradiction, and the self-determination of lived lives” (p. 416). I think this principle can be applied to this situation in some ways. As an insider to the lives of the students, he is privy to their everyday language and behavior. Therefore, he is able to validate and affirm their experiences and actions by repeating them. I think his intention is keeping the students’ best interests in mind, and with that assumption, it would make sense that he use his positionality as an insider to understand the “complexity, contradiction, and self-determination” of the lives of his students.

Due to the harshness of the language to an outsider like me, I think it came across as much more jarring than it did to the students, who use much of the same language themselves. I think as an insider, therefore, Mr. M is able to use language in a desire-based way to affirm the experiences and identities of his students. It becomes a way to “get on the same level” as his students. Though he is an insider by means of race and a shared background in the same neighborhood, he is still hierarchically “above” them as their teacher and someone they must respect within the framework of the school. However, school is a place where academic language is traditionally valued over the language students speak with their friends when they are hanging out not within of earshot of adults. I think Tuck would see Mr. M’s attempt to validate this language in a space that was meant to exclude it as extremely desire-based through the framework she writes about. It does, however, point out the discrepancies in the understandings an outsider might derive from hearing this interaction with little context other than the positions of the teacher and student in relation to each other as members of the school community.

Another interaction during which I felt sort of clueless as an outsider was when Mr. M was talking with his mostly 9th-grade Algebra I class about the upcoming standardized testing taking place throughout the school in different subjects. Mr. M was explaining the need for the Keystone tests by saying that students were otherwise able to pass their classes without a comprehensive knowledge of the subject they were supposed to be learning. Mr. M proceeded to tell the students that if they were to fail, “don’t blame no one but yourself.” He continued, saying “You will get tired and frustrated, but you can also focus and pass.” He then went on a tangent about the school and how there were seniors who still had not passed their Algebra I Keystones, noting, “We’re not special admit compared to other schools. You fail your Keystones there, you go the f#@$ home.” He added later, “[When] we do poorly, blame the white man.”

To an outsider, I thought this was an interesting mixed bag of signals Mr. M was giving his 9th-grade students. That he was able and willing to tell his students these things so freely also spoke volumes to his relationship with the students. Again this theme of insider and outsider is at play each time Mr. M talks to his students about the larger structures in the world. It also to an outsider seems a little harmful and pessimistic for Mr. M to blame the students for their own misunderstandings of material from a teacher perspective. However, Mr. M also provides a sense of hope in talking about what it takes to pass, acknowledging the difficulty that standardized tests bring along with the capability that the students have to pass them. Putting Westside High School into a larger context of other schools titled as special admit, then, is helpful to understanding why Mr. M is so frustrated with the performance of students on these exams.

I think this type of conversation that Mr. M has with his class runs analogous to some of the ideas raised by Cole (2012). He says, “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” Of course, Mr. M cannot be enacting the white savior industrial complex on his class as a Black man, so I would argue that his conversation with his class serves to represent the stark opposite. I think playing into the white savior industrial complex for Mr. M might have meant making the testing situation about himself and his job security as a teacher, but instead, he saw the purpose and value in telling his students exactly what the situation with testing was, and how they could get out of the testing system by putting a little extra focus and effort into the exam in order to pass it. Again, we see a conflict between my view as an outsider and the plausible interpretation of Cole.
    Finally, my observation about the traditional set-up of Mr. M’s classroom has been one that I have been thinking about all semester. Kumashiro (2009) says,

“...all too often, math is not taught in ways that all students find meaningful and relevant to their lives, and as a result, certain groups of students have traditionally been disadvantaged in math classes, including female students and students of color….By teaching and learning math within the context of solving a problem or answering a question that students found meaningful, we were able to make math more ‘real’ and, thus, more engaging” (p. 114).


This idea of relating math to the lives of students is one that I have come across several times, but seeing how the students seem to enjoy Mr. M’s traditional style of teaching makes me wonder who this real-life approach is for. I wonder if this approach of finding new approaches tied to the “real world” takes some form of privilege to implement in the classroom, whether that be support of administration, or support of classroom community. In addition, it seems like Kumashiro had aimed this section toward an audience of teachers teaching multi-racial classes where there was a clearer distinction between “traditionally disadvantaged” groups. Of course, an unspoken assumption I think in Kumashiro’s writing is that the teacher does not belong to any of the categories of their students.

    Therefore, having a class like Mr. M’s, where the distinctions are finer, and there is not a clear demarcation of the teacher as an outsider, poses a new problem in Kumashiro’s model of engaging and anti-oppressive math education. It seems like the introduction of this relevant pedagogy is only to combat the oppression that gets perpetuated especially in math classrooms due to all types of stereotypes about who should and can do math.  Therefore, in extremely homogeneous classrooms like Mr. M’s, Kumashiro’s proposal does not make as much sense. Again, we see a conflict between what is clearly working as a teaching pedagogy in Mr. M’s classroom and what Kumashiro argues for in his book.

Multiculturalism as a whole has been an extremely useful lens through which to see my placement this semester because it has been so different from my other placements and experiences in the past. Specifically, seeing various interactions and structures in the classroom through the lens of an insider vs. an outsider helped me to understand how my own perspective clouded my interpretations. Using readings to supplement this lens has aided the process of further deconstructing my interpretations. Taking what I have learned from this placement will definitely be of use in my future as I try to think about the interactions and structures I create in my own classroom!