Through Students' Eyes: Using Photography to Explore At-Risk Middle Schoolers' Perceptions of Self and School
ABSTRACTHEATHER M. BRITT. Visual ethnographic case study of school through the eyes of students using Photovoice, cameras, writing and agency artwork. (Under the direction of DR. JEANNEINE JONES)Everyone goes to school but everyone does not have the same experience of schooling. Assumptions about the schooling experience affect policy decisions as well as the way schools are structured and operate. Freire (1970) reminds us that all students are creators of culture and have the right to name their worlds. They also have a right to use their critical capacities to tell those in power what is working and what is not when it comes to school. Yet how do we create a system that allows students access to the ears and eyes of those in power with whom they can share their experiences? Furthermore, how can we convince those in power that these student experiences are valuable and in fact essential to the discourse on school reform? The literature on dropouts, particularly since the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act (2001), has become more and more limited to at-risk categories and lacks the voices and experiences of students in schools. At the same time the dropout statistics for minorities in particular are staggering (Orfield, Losen, Wald, & Swanson, 2004; Schott, 2010). Less than 50% of black males graduate in the United States each year (Schott, 2010). Terms like "dropout factories" have become commonplace in discussing schools that produce more dropouts than graduates (Balfanz & Legters, 2004). This research study intends to provide a glimpse into the lives of labeled at-risk middle school students through photography, writing and interview. This dissertation was grounded in a critical feminist framework and employed a qualitative methodology with an ethnographic case study design (Merriam, 1988). The primary data collection tool was Photovoice (Wang & Burris, 1997). Photovoice is a community and participatory action research methodology developed by Wang and Burris (1997) that "uses the immediacy of the visual image to furnish evidence and to promote an effective, participatory means of sharing knowledge and expertise" (Wang & Burris, 1997, p. 369). The purpose of this study was to explore self-image and schooling through the eyes of students so that we can better understand what school means to them by placing them as the knower, at the center of the study. This study relied upon students using cameras and words to capture and share their views on self and their schooling experiences. The students were volunteers in an after school enrichment program and were also serving long-term suspensions from their homeschools for serious discipline violations. These students are considered high risk by their school district for dropping out, truancy, violence and criminal behavior. The data is presented primarily in photos with writing and interview excerpts. There are three stories or case studies, which highlight the individual voices of students as well as holistic themes, which tell the collective story of this bounded group (Glesne, 2006). There were four main findings that emerged from the data the students and I collected: 1.) Overall, this group of labeled at-risk students do not see themselves as at-risk or bad or as future dropouts. Instead they see themselves as active, positive, smart and unique individuals. Furthermore, there is little difference between how they see themselves and how they think school sees them. However, there is a struggle to reconcile their unique personalities with the rigid rules and conformity expected of them at school. This struggle is represented throughout how they see and experience school. They show their resistance through acts that are misread as insubordination by teachers but to them are expressions of self. 2) School is Boring. 3) School is dominated by Mean Teachers and 4) Students Break the Boredom in various ways in order persist in school. These acts create a negative cycle of suspension, expulsion and disconnection from school. The findings give voice to the complexity of the schooling experience for this group as shared with me during the course of the after school program. What we collectively found sheds light on how students see school and gives researchers, teachers, administrators and policymakers hope. How these students see themselves is very different from the way that school has classified them. They do not see themselves as at-risk, dropouts or as potential dropouts. They have specific and positive dreams for their educational futures. At the same time, how they see school, sheds light on the possible outcomes of their educational paths. It tells us why many students would leave school before graduation even when they have good intentions of graduating. The findings provide a window of opportunity for dropout intervention with middle school students. They also suggest how educators, policymakers and researchers can increase student engagement and school holding power through engaging, relevant pedagogy, creating an ethic of care and transformative leadership.