Tangled Up in School: Politics, Space, Bodies, and Signs in the Educational Process

By Jan Nespor | Go to book overview

1 Adults at Elementary School

During my two years at Thurber Elementary School, the principal, Mr. Watts, embraced, with varying levels of passion, a host of innovations: portfolio assessment, outcomes-based education, cognitive coaching, performance assessment, business-school partnerships, business-inthe-school programs, computer simulation curricula, volunteer mentoring programs, site-based management, whole language and writing process pedagogies, cross-age grouping, the integration of special education students into regular education classrooms, and nontraditional report cards. This barrage of innovations, unique among Roanoke schools, produced a good deal of opposition from the community.

The parents of children at the school were especially critical of the novel-based curriculum, the heterogeneous grouping of students, and the nontraditional grading scale. They often asked me, as an education professor, what I thought about such things and listened politely while I explained their value. But they remained skeptical; they conceded that such practices might work in an ideal world but not in the real world of the Roanoke city schools. By 1993-1994 their skepticism had developed into the organized protest described in this chapter. A breakdown in the usual silence between parents and teachers on matters of curriculum, the dispute forced both parties to articulate fundamental assumptions about the functions of schooling, in particular about the role of the school in representing, ranking, and categorizing students.

To understand the protest we have to unravel a historical-political-pedagogical knot in which subtle, complex, deeply layered flows of practice came together. First I examine how city and school system politics created a space for attempting innovations. Then I try to make sense of the Thurber innovations by looking at Mr. Watts's educational ideas and the teachers' struggles to understand and implement the innovations. Next I put the parents' relations to the school in context by reconstructing the history of Thurber's ties to the neighborhoods from

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