Hope in Those Places of Struggle

Hope in Those Places of Struggle

Natalie DavisNatalie Davis

Natalie Davis’ research examining how school environments inform visions of hope and action for children despite deeply entrenched inequities will be honored by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) during its annual conference in New York City.

Davis, a postdoctoral fellow in Learning Sciences at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy, received the 2018 Distinguished Dissertation Award in Division G, which highlights exceptional research in social contexts of education for “Hope in Those Places of Struggle: A Critical Exploration of Black Students' Agency in One Place-based and One African-centered Elementary School.”

Using a critical ethnographic research model, Davis interviewed fourth and fifth graders at two schools committed to empowering black children; one school emphasized cultural legacy and individual achievement, while the other employed a place-based, communal model. The children also drew pictures as part of their conversations, depicting what it means to be black and illustrating their experiences at school.

Davis found that the cultural environment of schools influenced the children, who keenly grasped both the intended and unintended messages from their surroundings.

For example, all students noticed blight in their neighborhoods and city. In the school with the individual focus, the students often expressed more singular explanations, such as the house might have been abandoned because something was wrong with it. They imagined solutions that would improve the problem one house at a time.

Children at the other school typically conveyed more systemic explanations, which included white flight and the history of the area, Davis said. “They were often thinking about how abandoned houses may be part of larger structural issues we need to address,” she said.

Her results suggest that schools profoundly inform social and political learning. Also, there’s potential to create educational environments that build a critical awareness in children while allowing them to still be playful and joyful.

“If anything, this work shows that kids can have a very clear sense of deeply entrenched inequities but also feel hopeful in terms of their ability to thrive,” Davis said. “We have an obligation to attend to and cultivate both their critical and imaginative sensibilities.”

Davis, who received her doctorate from the University of Michigan, will discuss her work in a presentation titled, "’That's What I Want It to Look Like’: Honoring Black Children's Knowing in Ethnographic Research” at the AERA’s annual conference.

“Relationship-building, creative arts, developmentally-appropriate activities and play can be strategically and lovingly employed in research,” she said.  “It is essential that we, as education researchers, create liberatory opportunities for black children to voice their own impressions related to life and learning. And also, that we are prepared to honor and engage with children’s articulations in their deeply complex, impassioned and sometimes ambivalent forms.”


By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 4/12/18