Ethnography of Three Classrooms
Ms. Kami Spampinato’s seventh-grade class appears to include students of different ethnicities. The teacher is a white female and presents with an active teaching style, wanting to engage her students in participating. Several Black and Hispanic students are present in the class, although the majority appear white. While it is hard to determine the ethnic background of every student, it is notable that everyone participates in the class equally, with the teacher giving no preference given to specific students.
In Mr. Gomez’s class, which appears to be the first day of high school, the ethnic makeup also seems to be diverse. The teacher stands in front of the classroom’s entry and greets the students coming up to his class, making sure that everyone is settled based on his seating chart. The teacher is seen speaking Spanish to some students, which means that some Hispanic students may feel more comfortable communicating in their native language when meeting a new teacher of their ethnicity. Mr. Gomez mentioned that the seating chart was created not only on the basis of math skills but also language, which suggests that there may be English Language Learners in the class that should sit in the front. Compared to Ms. Spampinato’s class, there are more students of color.
The second-grade class taught by Ms. Kathryn Holmes, a white female, also has a diverse ethnic makeup. While the class is smaller than the seventh and ninth grades, there are several students of color, making the class diverse. During the class, the students are given the assignment to add two-digit numbers so that they are equal to a hundred. The students are instructed to get their whiteboards and markers and sit on the ground to complete the assignment, divided into pairs of two. Some students are seen struggling, to which Ms. Holmes is very attentive; she encourages them and says that they should not get worried.
Classroom Description, Resources, Desk Organization
Ms. Spampinato’s class has a specific structure that she followed in detail. At the start of the lesson, the students were asked to get their maps for the teacher to collect for checking and grading. Ms. Spampinato uses the smartboard as a tool to question students about what they had learned, drawing their attention to the assignment. Also, when dividing the class into groups to complete a project, the teacher gives them information cards that they should read aloud. The students are expected to create posters on historical events relevant to the topics being studied. Ms. Spampinato gave the students working in groups large sheets of paper for them to complete posters.
The aim of the first lesson with Mr. Gomez was to establish authority while also building trust with students. The teacher created a seating chart based on levels of students’ math achievement and their language proficiency. The seating chart was designed not only to show students that they will have structure during Mr. Gomez’s lessons but also to get them to reap the most benefits from them. According to the teacher, the chart was not done for the sake of it – while adding structure, it was also imperative for facilitating improved achievement. During the lesson, the students were given the class syllabus and an additional paper with a scavenger hunt. The students were asked to look at the syllables and answer questions in the scavenger hunt sheet. Thus, instead of having the syllabus on the board, Mr. Gomez invented an interactive way in which students can get to know it without any added pressure and check-ups.
The purpose of Ms. Holmes’s assignment during her class is to teach students how to add and subtract numbers. Due to the specific focus on mathematics, there was no need in elaborate resources or establishing desk organization. Instead, the teacher asked students to get their whiteboards and wipeable markers and sit in front of the smartboard. Ms. Holmes used the smartboard to give assignment instructions and analyze examples of work done by students. The students were divided into groups of two to discuss the assignment, and they could freely interact and look at each other’s whiteboards to correct one another or ask questions.
Teacher-Student Interactions Within Instructions
At the start of her history lesson, Ms. Spampinato rings a bell, calling the class to attention. In her interactions with the class, the teacher is quite open but follows the structure of the lesson without spending much time on general discussions. However, during teamwork, the teacher allows for the class to be a little noisy to make sure that the groups have the chance to interact and complete their assignments. In her interactions with the class, the teacher takes the question-answer approach when revising what they have previously learned in class and when doing homework. When going around the class and looking at how the groups were performing, Ms. Spampinato was open to answering any questions that the students had for her.
In his interactions with the class, Mr. Gomez takes a proactive role in engaging students. The teacher mentions that the main objective of his first lesson with the students was to establish authority and build meaningful relationships that will be instrumental in accomplishing class objectives in the future. Mr. Gomez wanted to show power to make it clear that there is some structure to his lessons. Such a system can provide students with an understanding of how the lessons that they attend will take place. However, while building structure and showing that Ms. Gomez has the leading authority in the classroom, with the rule “Do not speak when I am,” he also wants to connect with his students during the first lesson. He is seen talking about his parents and says that they did not get the education that they needed.
The monologue is then redirected at students, with Mr. Gomez mentioning various professions that they can pursue if they dedicate their time and effort to studying. While the teacher’s parents no longer have the option to study and get new professions, his students can as there are abundant opportunities in front of them. Thus, the teacher-student interactions unfolding during the lesson are highly positive, with the instructor acting as an inspirational leader who guides his students on their path to becoming successful.
In the math lesson taught by Ms. Holmes, the teacher-student interactions are strong as the teacher goes around the class as everyone attempts to complete the assigned task. When coming up to students, the teacher is attentive to what they say and do, giving recommendations, asking and answering questions, as well as encouraging them to proceed. For example, a girl with long black hair is seen struggling to complete the task of adding numbers; she says to Ms. Holmes, “it’s really hard.” The teacher reassures the girl and says, “I know, it’s OK, though. Look at me; there’s no wrong answer.”
This interaction is illustrative of Ms. Holmes’s care and the desire to be helpful and understanding of her students. In any class, there will be students with different skills and knowledge levels, and Ms. Holmes understands this. When coming up to Miguel and Anthony, Ms. Holmes sees that the students did a great job and later uses his equation as an example on the whiteboard. She encourages everyone to give the students a round of applause.
Reflection on the Nature of a Whole School
Ms. Spampinato’s lesson took place at John M. Horner Junior High School, which ranked 75 among California’s middle schools (US News, 2021a). The school was rated well above expectations in math performance and somewhat above expectations in reading performance. Ms. Spampinato’s class is illustrative of her high ranking because the teacher is quite strict and follows a specific structure without allowing students to talk over her. The teacher has high expectations of her students and does everything in her power to ensure that they reach them.
Mr. Gomez’s class was at the San Bernardino City Unified School District, with an “average testing ranking of 3/10, which makes it at the bottom 50% of California’s public schools in 2021-2022” (Public School Review, 2021, para. 1). While the school’s rating is low, Mr. Gomez’s class does not reflect the nature of the entire educational facility as he shows happiness and enthusiasm teaching his students and is adamant for them to become accomplished in life.
Ms. Holmes’s class took place at the Wendell Watson Elementary School in Florida, which is ranked 1478 among elementary schools in the state, which means that the facility is not performing well (US News, 2021b). Specifically, math performance at the school is well below expectations. However, Ms. Holmes shows extreme care and attention during the class, showing that she is there to help her students and in no way pressure them to solve math problems.
Reflection on Field Observations
The observations of the three lessons have illustrated the immense importance of teachers and students having positive relationships with one another. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mental health of teachers has deteriorated significantly, with many of them struggling to maintain such relationships when teaching online (Luthra, 2021). Building connections is instrumental in creating positive school cultures in which students feel safe and engaged in their learning (Murrow, 2017).
A “good school” is one that has a caring and engaging school culture that ensures that students are heard, seen, and cared about while also being pushed to learn new things (Murrow, 2017). Notably, within such a culture, teachers must view their students as multi-faceted individuals who are far more than their test results or levels of English or Math proficiency.
For instance, Mr. Gomez showed great attention to students as individuals when speaking about their future accomplishments. He compared his parents, who do not speak English well and do not have much education and job opportunities, to his students, who can do everything they want in the future. In such a way, the teacher showed that he supports his students to develop positively through adulthood. His approach is illustrative of the personal philosophy of education – while being a figure of authority, connecting to students on an individual level to inspire them to do great things.
Another important takeaway of the lessons related to the importance of establishing structure and authority in order to make the classes as effective as possible and ensure that students learn what they should be learning. While the laissez-faire style of teaching has become common among teachers, it is imperative that the lessons take place in a structured and cohesive manner so that no time is wasted on unnecessary things. It is quite common for students to talk to each other in class, and it is the job of the teacher to show authority and guidance if the behaviors are disrupting the lessons.
An example of this is shown by Ms. Spampinato, who uses a bell to call the class attention. She does not use it aggressively or as a warning to the students that talk; she lets students know that the lesson is starting and that order is needed. During his lesson, Mr. Gomez does not use extra tools to capture students’ attention; however, he uses his own persona as the focus of the first lesson, drawing all attention to himself. By doing so, the teacher establishes authority and ensures structure in the lesson.
Attention to the personal needs of learners is also a crucial note. As mentioned by Ravitch (2014), “there is an achievement gap that exists on the first day of school. It starts at home where children are exposed to different opportunities and learning experiences” (p. 164). Teachers who understand this gap are more likely to be successful in attending to the needs of individual students and building the process of learning based on that. For example, Ms. Holmes shows care when interacting with her students and can clearly see which students perform worse than the others. Instead of disregarding that and holding everyone to the same standard, she offers help and says that there is no pressure to complete an assignment excellently.
Similarly, Mr. Gomez shows care for the individual needs of his students by designing a seating chart that will help students learn better and stay more engaged in math lessons. With these approaches that teachers use in their practice, students see that their teacher cares about them individually and will scold them or show others the mistakes that they are making. Instead, the teacher acts as a role model for staying calm and patient when learning new things, which is often challenging, especially for younger students.
The importance of diversity in the classrooms remains critical in the current environment. In education, the issue of race has been a constant source of controversy due to the limited progress in addressing the legacy of racial discrimination at schools (Noguera et al., 2015). Moreover, even after significant progress in reducing segregation by race in US schools following the Brown v. Board ruling, the de facto segregation of students based on race and class remained (Rosales, 2019). In the three lessons observed, there was some ethnic diversity among both students and teachers.
The most ethnically diverse class was the one taught by Mr. Gomez, as there were quite a few Hispanic and Black students present besides their white peers. It is notable that during school courses like History, it is harder for ethnically diverse students to be in sync with the materials. The assigned books often illustrate white people as key players in progress and historical development (Rich, 2015). It is important for teachers to remain attentive to the unique experiences of students and acknowledge that some of them do not have the same privileges as their white counterparts. Besides, it is a good idea to teach students more about privilege based on race and class and show them how such factors influence society. Schools rarely address this issue head-on, thus, it could be a part of the curriculum in some way.
Posing Three Questions
After observing the three lessons, several questions for further exploration have emerged. Specifically, it is essential to look at the perceptions of students when it comes to the various teaching styles that their instructors use during lessons. The issues of racial and ethnic diversity are also important to consider because it remains unaddressed to this day. Students who have experienced privilege in their childhood are more likely to have the same privilege when going to school. The questions are as follows:
- What are the perceptions of students of different teaching styles? Which style is the most appealing and engaging, and which is the least?
- What characterizes good teaching environments in which students feel safe and supported?
- How should teachers act to address the institutional discrimination of students based on race and ethnicity? Should teachers connect their personal teaching philosophies with the specific students’ needs and privileges?
Luthra, S. (2021). Amid coronavirus pandemic, teachers’ mental health suffers in ways they’ve never experienced. USA Today. Web.
Murrow, S. E. (2017). Opinion: Positive school culture, not metal detectors, keeps kids safe. Gotham Gazette. Web.
Noguera, P. A., Pierce, J. C., & Ahram, R. (2015). Race, education, and the pursuit of equality in the twenty-first century. Race and Social Problems, 7, 1-4. Web.
Public School Review. (2021). San Bernardino City Unified School District. Web.
Ravitch, D. (2014). Hoaxes in educational policy. The Teacher Educator, 49, 153-165. Web.
Rich, M. (2015). Where are the teachers of color? The New York Times. Web.
Rosales, J. (2019). Fulfilling the promise of Brown v. Board: From school and housing policies to the courts. NEA News. Web.
US News. (2021a). John M. Horner Junior High. Web.
US News. (2021b). Wendell Watson Elementary School. Web.