Voices of Practitioners: Teacher Research in Early Childhood Education, the online journal of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, has been published since 2004. Starting in July 2016, one Voices of Practitioners article will be published in each issue of Young Children as well as online.
Voices of Practitioners is a vehicle for dissemination of early childhood teachers’ systematic study of an aspect of their own classroom practice. Deeply involved in the daily lives of children and their families, teachers provide a critical insider perspective on life in their classrooms through communication of their investigations, the results, and their reflections.
Visit Voices of Practitioners to learn more about teacher research and to peruse an archive of past Teacher Research articles dating back to 2004.
Jamie Solomon is a preschool teacher who focuses on questions of gender through a social justice lens. At first, Jamie thought this teacher research study would be about an inquiry-based project on fire building and camping. She had observed a small mixed gender group made up of a majority of girls who were showing exceptional interest around the idea of building a fire. On a field trip in a nearby natural area, Jamie was struck by how the girls engaged in a great deal of physical labor to gather logs and sticks, and how eagerly they sat in the dirt trying to create a “real fire.” Later, back in the classroom, Jamie provided hand tools to encourage the children to continue experimenting with the wood, and again noticed the same group of girls, showing the same intensity of interest and a high level of physical exertion in their efforts to try to transform the wood.
As the research project developed, Jamie’s critical feminist perspective rose to prominence, and this interest shifted her study’s focus. Thus, while the very first data excerpt in this article comes from the curriculum project that evolved to focus on camping, none of the rest does. Instead, her selection and analysis of data shifted to a broader look at how children behaved with respect to gender norms. Jamie’s critical feminist lens has at least two distinct effects on her teaching: first, she seeks to provide boys and girls equity of access to materials and other classroom resources, including adult attention; second, she supports the children to have choices for their modes of behavior in ways not limited by gender stereotypes.
To support gender equity in the classroom, Jamie creates social settings where boys and girls play and interact on equal footing. For example, in the classroom that she writes about in this article, she would set up novel high-interest activities and invite a pair of children (often a girl and a boy who otherwise would have interacted very little) to participate in them. She also created a special lunch table where rotating pairs of girls and boys who had not previously been friends were seated together, while a teacher sitting at an adjacent lunch table helped the pair engage in conversation.
To combat gender stereotyping in her teaching, Jamie creates settings with open-ended play materials that invite all children to explore and create. She also encourages the girls in her class to engage in messy, physically challenging, and “risky” activities—the kind of play that, despite changes to society over the past 50 years, is still more common among boys and is more commonly expected to be enacted by boys by many parents and teachers. [n.b. I have put risky in quotes because given requirements of ECE site licensing and the ethics of professional early childhood settings in the United States, teachers and administrators must strongly limit any real physical risks children would face.] In the same light, Jamie provides settings where the boys in her classroom can feel supported in expressing their vulnerabilities and are comfortable and empowered when they act in nurturing ways toward others.
Given Jamie’s focus on gender and social justice, it is not surprising that a year after she completed this teacher research study, the children in her class spontaneously launched a project directly related to gender. They became upset about single-gendered bathroom signs and the stereotypic images used as labels, which they regarded as unfair. (This took place well before President Obama’s executive order related to students’ identified gender and the use of restrooms and locker rooms in public schools.) Jamie guided and supported the children to bring their observations, and suggested remedies for this issue to their school, and then to a broader public setting.
Indeed, gender is an extremely important element of identity that young children are working hard to develop, so it is not surprising that it has been a specific topic of study for two other articles that have appeared previously in Voices (Daitsman, 2011; Ortiz et al., 2014). Children’s sexuality is a related topic, and is addressed forthrightly in Voices in a 2013 article by Counterman and Kirkwood. Further, gender has been addressed in at least three other Voices articles. One is by Ying Liang (2015), who found gender to be a major part of how the children in her Mandarin/English bilingual Pre-K classroom learned language through performances of gender. A second example is by Christopher Taaffe (2012), which explores hurtfully exclusive and precociously mature play patterns that he observed among a threesome of three-year-old girls. Chris Taaffe’s study appears only in our Voices associated text (Perry, Henderson, & Meier, 2012), and so cannot be found online. The other article is one that Jamie cites, and is by Aaron Neimark (2008), which addresses gender most directly in a description of slightly subversive play called “basketball babies” that a group of boys engaged with. There is greater discussion of this game in excerpts of Neimark’s work presented in Meier and Henderson (2007), and the article also appears in Perry et al. (2012).
Jamie also connects her work to critical theories, citing the work of Brown and Jones (2001) that is specific to early childhood, to Valente from critical disability studies, and to bell hooks, an academic who casts a larger light in the fields of critical race theory and critical feminist analysis of education. Jamie might have also cited other work in critical theory specific to early childhood, such as Vasquez’s (2014) book on critical literacies in early childhood, Blaise’s (2005) book on gender discourse’s in ECE, or the edited books by Yelland (2005) or by Parnell and Iorio (2015). This critical lens is an important growing edge to theory and research in the field of early childhood education. Because teacher research is often conducted as a mode of advocacy for the children and families we work with and is done to enact social justice reforms, there is a high level of confluence between these fields of study. Jamie Solomon’s work surely fits this pattern.
Jamie’s article is also notable in the way she presents her data, because it shows how data of different granularity can work well in a teacher research project. She draws almost entirely from her field notes as data for this paper, although these were supplemented by a reflective journal and some video and photography. What is interesting to see across her five data excerpts is the variation in her distance from the children, as represented by the style of writing. Three of the excerpts are presented as retrospective narratives, with just a few direct quotes, all represented as reported speech. Jamie’s relative distance on these moments is evident in how she draws connections between several different classroom events, how she reflects on her intentions, or in how she telescopes time to move the reader along to the climax of the interaction.
In the two other excerpts, Jamie sought to capture the children’s voices, gestures, and tone in a more immediate way. As data, these examples feel more like running records of just a few moments of interaction—perhaps drawn from video—although Jamie told me that this was not the case. Instead, she recalled that some were written closer to the moment and that they were also incidents where she strove to represent the conversation as it had unfolded.
One of these running record excerpts is of the moment where Jamie quietly watches and briefly intervenes, saying simply, ”Pause and think you guys,” as some boys tape baby dolls to plates so that they can fly them around the room, as sort of monster hybrid vehicles. At the same time, Jamie represents the interrupting voice of a young girl who was working hard to get Jamie’s attention away from those subversive boys and to her own projected identity as a mother who will take proper care of just one infant, because “120, 120, and 120 babies” is too many. This excerpt works in its immediacy because it captures the split-screen perspective that Jamie felt as she watched the rather gender stereotyped behavior of the group of boys with flying babies, and the competing voice of the girl, who wanted Jamie to know she knew how to play properly with the baby doll.
The second excerpt where Jamie represents an unfolding moment in real time is her final example, where a young girl explains to Jamie why she must keep her jewel hidden from the boys and a young boy earnestly counters the girl’s claim that “[boys] don’t like me.” The immediacy of this moment, as captured through speech and notes on the children’s tone and gestures highlights the emotional vulnerability of the girl, and then of the boy. Jamie chose wisely to use speech instead of a retrospective narrative to preserve the believability of this gentle and tiny interaction.
As a teacher researcher, data collection is often a challenge and can rarely be completely controlled. Unlike an outsider researcher, the teacher researcher must balance the demands of systematically collecting data with the professional demands of running a well-oiled classroom. Much of Jamie’s data collection was post hoc, and so we see variation in the texture of the data related to how soon she could get to the data and to how vividly she recalled the moment. As a suggestion for how she could have expanded this study, Jamie might have talked with colleagues, families, and the children more directly about the topic. For example, eliciting feedback from families would have provided a window into how the children were talking about gender at home and could have drawn the families more immediately into the project. All the same, Jamie’s data has real trustworthiness in the way it captures her exchanges with the children as an insider who knows these individuals and this classroom in a manner that an outsider researcher rarely (if ever) could match.
In closing, what is important to note in Jamie Solomon’s analysis is how she willingly makes herself one of her objects of study. Teacher research requires us as practitioners to ask hard questions about our interactions with those we teach and to look with a critical eye to understand how to modify environments, modes of interaction, and attitudes so that we can more fully mesh our values with our actions. Jamie’s values as an activist teacher who uses her teaching to work for social justice from a critical feminist stance are evident throughout this article. Her questions are not easy ones, and she comes to no easy answers. I hope that we will have many more examples of teacher research that look at social justice with respect to a range of aspects of human identity and difference that might include gender, race, social class, disability, primary language, immigration status, or family composition, to name a few.
Blaise, Mindy (2005). Playing it Straight: Uncovering Gender Discourses in the Early Childhood Classroom. New York: Routledge.
Brown, T., & L. Jones. 2001. Action Research and Postmodernism: Congruence and Critique. Conducting Educational Research series. Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.
Counterman, L., & D. Kirkwood,. 2013. “Understanding Healthy Sexual Development in Young Children.” Voices of Practitioners 8 (2): 1-13.
Daitsman, J. 2011. "Exploring Gender Identity in Early Childhood Through Story Dictation and Dramatization." Voices of Practitioners 14. www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/Publications/VOP_Daitsman_Final.pdf.
hooks, b. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.
Liang, Y. 2015. "A Journey of Journals: Promoting Child-Centered Second Language Acquisition in Preschool." Voices of Practitioners 10 (2): 45-58. http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/VOPLiang.pdf
Meier, D.R, & B. Henderson. 2007. Learning From Young Children in the Classroom: The Art and Science of Teacher Research. New York: Teachers College Press.
Neimark, A. 2008. "'Do You Want to See Something Goofy?' Peer Culture in the Preschool Yard." Voices of Practitioners 3(1): 1-11.
Ortiz, A., D. Ferrell, J. Anderson, L. Cain, N. Fluty, S. Sturzenbecker, & T. Matlock. 2014. "Teacher Research on Boys' Literacy in One Elementary School." Voices of Practitioners 9 (1): 1-19. http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/images/voices/9_Ortiz%20v9-1.pdf
Parnell, W. & J. Iorio,. 2015. Disrupting Early Childhood Education Research: Imagining New Possibilities. New York: Routledge.
Perry, G., B. Henderson., & D.R. Meier,. 2012. Our Inquiry, Our Practice: Undertaking, Supporting, and Learning From Early Childhood Teacher Research(ers). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).
Taaffe, C. 2012. "Two's Company, Three's a Crowd: Peer Interactions in a Preschool Social Triangle." Our Inquiry, Our Practice: Undertaking, Supporting and Learning From Early Childhood Teacher Research(ers), eds. G. Perry, B. Henderson, & D.R. Meier, 21-35. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Valente, J. M. 2011. D/ Deaf and d/ Dumb: A Portrait of a Deaf Kid as a Young Superhero. Disability Studies in Education series. New York: Peter Lang.
Vasquez, V. M. 2014. Negotiating Critical Literacies With Young Children. New York: Routledge.
Yelland, N. 2005. Critical Issues in Early Childhood Education. New York: Open University Press.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Barbara Henderson, PhD, is the interim program director of the Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership and Professor of Education at San Francisco State University. As well as directing the doctoral program, Barbara is associated with the early childhood programs in the Department of Elementary Education, including the MA with ECE concentration and the combined MA with Multiple Subject Teaching Credential ECE emphasis. He interests are in teacher research and critical perspectives on children’s development and learning. She is co-editor of Voices of Practitioners. firstname.lastname@example.org