top of page

Our Recent Posts



No tags yet.

Say it again, but right this time.


A few years into my doctoral work, I was criss-cross applesauce in a third grade science classroom. To my left, Chris and Dy'Lyziah were negotiating the rule boundaries for a paper-flicking game in hushed voices; to my right, Alyssia was creating rhythms with a chewed pen cap. In front of all of us, Mrs. Greenfield was defining 'metabolism' - a word that, in this context, felt incomprehensible even to me.

I'm a scientist who studies how kids learn. One of the ways I do this is by figuring out what exactly is going on when students aren't learning. In 2015, similar to all the years before it, the test scores of Black fourth graders across the country were systematically lower than those of white fourth graders. Black students "under-performed" by 24 points in math, 26 points in reading, and 33 points in science. This pervasive phenomenon is sometimes called the opportunity gap.

In this project, I was trying to figure out what sorts of secret factors were driving this score difference so we could figure out what we can do to help.

Of course, this isn't a new idea. Scholars have spent decades working on this question and proposing potential explanations, chief among them socio-economic status, or house-hold income. This focus on wealth and poverty isn't unwarranted; one in three young black students grows up in an impoverished households, and these conditions can multiply the prevalence of risk factors. For example, students from poorer households are less likely to have access to health care, and that too is linked to less success in traditional schools.

Despite all of that though though, household income alone doesn't sufficiently explain this performance gap. Middle-income black students in traditional schools are more likely to perform like low-income white students, rather than middle-income white students. In other words, there is probably more to this story.

I was hoping that if I spent enough time really soaking up what was really going on in these elementary school classrooms, I could get a better idea. To design the right solution, you need to make sure you're solving the right problem. To solve the right problem, you need to be where the action is. In 2013, being where the action was meant spending a lot of time spent relearning elementary school biology.


On the day of our metabolism lesson and Chris and Dy'Laziah's back-row paper football tournament, we were starting a new unit on bodies. As in many urban elementary schools, the teacher, Mrs. Greenfield, was white. She was a gregarious woman with a firm command of the classroom, and was responsible for all of the science instruction within this particular school. As part of that day's lesson, we were all told to pay close attention and write down the definition of the thing that makes up everything - a cell.

Though most students were fairly unfazed by this directive, 8-year-old Tyeire was suddenly all-ears. With a notable burst of academic urgency, he blurted out a clarifying question,

"Wait, a cell? Like a jail cell?" In asking this question, Tyeire astutely identified the etymological origins of the word. In the 17th century, Robert Hooke looked through an early microscope and described the boxy walls he observed as similar to the rooms monks stayed in, or cellula. I smiled to myself. Exactly.

In response to Tyeire's question however, Mrs. Greenfield narrowed her eyes. "Stop that. We don't talk about jail cells in the classroom. It isn't appropriate." Schools often see themselves, and are often seen, as the arbiters of what is proper, correct, and decent. For this reason, schools then also possess the power to communicate to young students what is improper, incorrect, and indecent. In dismissing Tyeire's question about the analogous structures of a biologic cell and a jail cell, Mrs. Greenfield lost out on a potentially powerful learning opportunity. More importantly however, she communicated that a topical question about something which may be a present reality for some students with incarcerated family members is not welcome. Later that year, I observed Mrs. Greenfield again during a second grade science lesson about measurement. Students were asked to pick a piece of furniture around the room and use a ruler to discover its dimensions. As students scattered around the room to call dibs on various tables, Mrs. Greenfield passed out rulers to individual students. It was a mismatched collection, with each ruler of varying color or design. Darian's assigned ruler was transparent. I noticed Darian struggling with the ruler, and realized he was holding it backwards. Because of its transparency, Darian could see the numbers reflecting through from the front, but they all appeared horizontally flipped. After a minute of trying to make sense of the backwards numbers, Darian raised his hand to ask for help. "Mrs. Greenfield, my ruler ain't working!" In response to this question, Mrs. Greenfield shook her head, and turned towards the rest of the class.

"Did you hear that," she addressed the class. "Darian said his ruler ain't working. What should he have said instead?"

Several students in the class chorused "his ruler isn't working" in almost-unison. "Good," Mrs. Greenfield responded. She did not respond to Darian's question, and he did not ask for help a second time.


"While the media and public discourse attacked Black Language (BL) and Black people for so-called ``deficiencies," a generation of young Hip Hop Headz (including me) spent hours crafting linguistic skillz and pushin the boundaries of the English language in rhyme ciphers, battles, and freestyles. Wasn't no way in the world you could get me to see BL as deficient!"

- Samy Alim (2008), Director of Stanford's Center for Race, Ethnicity, and Language.


If it's been a while since you yourself have been in a science classroom, the focus on language is unwavering. The Next Generation Science Standards for elementary school state that ``every science or engineering lesson is in part a language lesson... from the very start of their science education, students should be asked to engage in the communication of science." Students are expected to share their ideas in class discussions, talk together to figure out solutions, and communicate their final answers. Throughout all of these exchanges, one refrain is unwavering in its emphasis: you need to sound like a scientist.

But who determines what it means to sound like a scientist?

Each year, the United States shifts further toward becoming a majority multilingual, multicultural society. It is estimated that more than half of all Americans will be people of color by 2050, and that this is already the case within an increasing majority of public elementary schools.

There is a deeply-held ideology among educators that the role of school is to help prepare students for the real world. In this real world, educators recognize that there are certain ways of being, acting, and speaking that can make students seem educated, competent, and worthy of class mobility. As in the interactions described above, school is in part, or perhaps even predominantly, an institution to acculturate students into ways of being seen as respectable, and to relieve students of behaviors that may be counter to this goal. As Mrs. Greenfield once confided in me after one of my classroom observations, "If children keep speaking like they belong on the streets, they're going to end up on the streets."

[EDITING SECTION IN PROGRESS] It's an explanation that makes sense the first time you hear it. academic research does not back this ideology. People who have served a critical role in helping to make visible differences in student experiences that might otherwise go unnoticed \citep{rogoff1990apprenticeships, Michaels2012, gutierrez2004verbal}. These and many other studies will be detailed in subsequent chapters of this thesis.

Whenever I'm in traditional learning spaces, a thread of my attention is always sending a steady stream of gratitude out to an earlier version of myself. Young Samantha was far more lawfully studious than her contemporary counterpart was able to maintain. She was somehow able to follow what now seems like an arbitrary and endless stream of rules about what it means to be respectful, to act appropriately, to sound smart. She was also too privileged, and too inexperienced, to understand what those words really meant. It's easy to ignore injustices before you can feel out their edges and see them take shape.

bottom of page