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Capital in the Classroom

evelynnicte's picture

Schools in urban American cities often have a large communication barrier between teachers and students due to their respective backgrounds. What often occurs is that students will come from low-income backgrounds with specific social behaviors that branch from their neighborhoods. On the opposite side of this spectrum is the teacher who often comes from a privileged background with a high education and sophisticated communication habits. When a teacher from a different background enters these schools it becomes difficult for the students to relate or to accept the teacher’s presence in the classroom. This results in a multitude of miscommunications because both the students and the teachers misinterpret each others’ language and behavior due to their upbringings. It then becomes the task of the teacher to find the social capital within these classrooms in order to effectively communicate with his/her students. Given specific examples from works like City Kids City Schools and Tough Fronts: The Impact of Street Culture on Schooling, it becomes evident that the difference in social backgrounds is a core issue in urban schools and the solutions depend on the social and cultural capital of the teacher.

            Gloria Ladson-Billings exemplifies this issue when illustrating miscommunications, “…prospective teachers enter the classroom where students fail to comply with their wishes and directives. Quickly the students are constructed as problems—“at risk,” behavior problems, savages—and those constructions become self-fulfilling prophecies (Rist, 1970).” (Ayers 170). Many teachers have the expectation of feeling accomplished only when a student responds with appreciation and kindness. This is an issue because students from low-income communities are typically raised in an environment that does not promote positive reinforcement and therefore do not outwardly express their gratitude. These students are inaccurately seen as problematic despite the fact that they may understand the material that was taught to them. There is an idea attached to teaching that suggests a teacher needs to have hope in students and train them to act like others who have already succeeded; if a teacher elected to grow with the students and make progress together instead of forcing the ideal of progress onto them creates a greater potential for success.

            As a teacher grows with the students and presents the willingness to adapt s/he will develop the social and cultural capital necessary to successfully communicate with the classroom.  When discussing an effective teacher, Ms. Bronzic, and how she approached a student, her behavior is compared with that of a stereotypical teacher, “Instead of compliance, the average, non-caring teacher would have more likely elicited a hard attitude and posture from this student,” (Dance 81). Ms. Bronzic changed the stereotypical approach in order to effectively communicate with her students. Ms. Bronzic did not force all of her students to meet a specific standard of knowledge but instead chose to hold each student accountable for their own learning potential. By pushing them to advance in ways that were more effective individually and actively showing her compassion for them she acquired the social capital necessary to capture their attention. She also developed cultural capital by communicating with the students in a way that they were accustomed to, which led to an appreciation of her efforts, not necessarily with outward expression, but by having confidence in themselves and their abilities.

            In chapter 22 of City Kids City Schools Ernest Morrell and Jeff Duncan-Andrade speak on the benefit of their particular experimentation by saying, “Ultimately, our experiences introducing hip-hop and other elements of popular culture into traditional curricula lead us to believe that there are countless possibilities for urban educators who wish to jump outside of the box and tap into the worlds of their students. In doing so, they can make more powerful connections with traditional academic texts and affirm, in meaningful ways, the everyday lives of their student,” (Ayers 203). The project that they worked on was relating hip-hop music to traditional classical poetry. This specific example was a way that allowed the teachers to use their abilities to tailor the curriculum to the needs of the students. By using a modern social and cultural example the students took personal interest in the project and made connections to the interpretations they make on a daily basis. Having this new space within the classroom to have these discussions gave the teacher the necessary tools to communicate more in depth with her students on traditional topics in academia. Using the students’ preferences the teacher accumulated more knowledge on whom the students in the classroom were and what situations they worked best in.

            When analyzing this process in a non-traditional school setting I think about my field placement in an after school program. I often find myself trying to apply the lessons that the students learn in schools to problems that they encounter daily. For example, I worked with two girls in kindergarten doing math problems and I wanted to come up with an activity that would involve counting that would not make them feel like they were doing it as a chore. After slowly analyzing my audience I realized that both had backpacks with characters from Disney’s Frozen on them so I decided to draw on one of the characters, a snowman named Olaf, to practically do some math. To say the least both students were thrilled to see that somebody who is there to regulate their workflow was even versed in the same social and cultural community as they were. Immediately they gave me their undivided attention and became excited to do an activity that involved something beloved to them both. I was at first surprised because when we were doing textbook work I was told to use counting cubes but both students refused and said they would rather count the picture in the book and finish their work so they could play. Interestingly enough the way that we “played” was the same work they were doing before. I had them draw and count the layers of the snowman, count the buttons and how much we would have if we added and subtracted a certain number of buttons and they were very impressed. After doing this I realized that I had obtained that cultural and social capital that we had been discussing in class.

            After this activity was finished I found both students to be very quiet and paying close attention to my abilities because I had knowledge of things that they were aware of and unaware of, including how to draw the character Elsa from Frozen. I adapted our activities to work around both their interests and my abilities and it created a successful activity in combination with better communication between the three of us. I realized also that the students do not necessarily have to be impressed with the teacher’s ability to know these things, but they were impressed with the fact that someone who is a figure of authority has common interests with their students. If I would have made an attempt instead to relate to them through a common story from when I was their age I imagined that it would not be effective, in fact, I anticipate that it would have created distance between the students and me. In one case I made a reference to a TV show from my childhood and several kindergarteners laughed and said they were not familiar and went on to pursue different activities than the one I had planned to pursue. This miscommunication lead my students to feel uncomfortable with me and to question whether or not they actively wanted to do activities with me. On the other hand, the two girls I did relate to talked to me extensively and even said that I would be missed until the next day it was that I would return to the program.

After personally experiencing this process I found the process effective on all accounts. However, while researching this topic of social and cultural capital I encountered an article that disregarded my methods by using an idea from one of our class readings, “These disparities and differences in opportunity for students of color are vast, and include not only educational components such as lack of school resources but also societal factors such as poor daily living conditions. Therefore it is not so much that an achievement gap exists, but rather, the existence of an opportunity gap that creates an “education debt” owed to students of color (Ladson-Billings, 2006),” (Goldenberg 112). Considering this possibility would suggest that teachers should focus more on providing equal opportunity for minority students and to try and eradicate white culture as the “dominant culture” to relieve the education system of whichever gap it is that exists.  I considered this in combination with the practice of using relevant topics in society that are accessible by all students but I realized that this cannot be determined and that perhaps using this idea could help me make my ideas more concrete. I still believe that my method is effective and that it did not aid to further segregate the minority students from privileged students but I recognize that this may not always be the case.

            Differences in social backgrounds between teachers and students are core issues in urban schools and the solutions depend on the social and cultural capital of the teacher. Although this may not be a permanent solution due to its flaws, it proves to be effective in classrooms because students express positive responses to the involvement of the teacher. Creating these relationships encourages participation and passion from the students that a normal curriculum does not produce. These activities also build confidence in the students’ desire to participate, which creates a more intricate dynamic in the classroom at a younger age. Even if an achievement gap does not exist, this positive reaction and passion for schooling can encourage students to acknowledge the opportunity gap and work diligently to close it through their strenuous efforts. This is what can be achieved when a teacher’s acquires the social and cultural capital relevant in the classroom; it produces a generation of new peoples, a generation that will fight so that it can have equal opportunity.













Ayers, William, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and Gregory Michie. City Kids, City Schools: More Reports from the Front Row. New York: New, 2008. Print.

Dance, Lory Janelle. Tough Fronts: The Impact of Street Culture on Schooling. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Goldenberg, Barry M. "Social and Cultural Capital in an Urban Latino School Community." Social and Cultural Capital in an Urban Latino School Community. Sage Publications, 31 Jan. 2013. Web. 03 Mar. 2015.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. "From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools." Educational Researcher 35.7 (2006): 3-12. Web.