Girls create ‘hybrid spaces’ in science class to participate on their own terms

iStock_000016869784XSmallOnce they walk into a science classroom, many girls feel as though they must abandon who they are the rest of the time to fit into a subculture that has its very own ways of knowing, talking and doing, write researchers in a recent study in American Educational Research Journal.

After tracking girls in three New York City middle schools for two years, the researchers describe how some girls create “hybrid spaces” that bridge who they are expected to be in that classroom and who they are at home and in their social worlds. These “hybrid spaces” allowed the girls in this study to become more engaged in the world of science, but on their own terms, the researchers report.

“Some scholars have taken up hybridity theory to describe how teachers, students, and others in school settings establish new forms of participation that merge the first space of school science with the second space of the home to create a third space that has elements of both,” the researchers write.

“These merging practices are, in a sense, acts of cultural bricolage as the girls attempted to manage differences between their worlds and the worlds of school science. What makes these girls’ practices noteworthy is that their efforts at bricolage merged knowledges and identities that likely (indeed historically) would have been marginalized, symbolically if not practically, in the science classroom, allowing them to produce new, hybrid knowledges and identities that were sanctioned in the classroom.”

The researchers conducted year-long ethnographies in 6 classrooms in three New York City schools during the 2003-2005 school years, in two middle schools, grades 6-8, and a K-6 school. Seven case studies of girls were done in one school in the first year and in the second year, 13 case studies of girls in the other schools.

The 3 schools were selected because they were among the state’s failing schools but were working hard to implement reform-based practices, the authors write. The schools had similar demographic makeup, with roughly equal numbers of African American and Latino students and very small percentages of white or Asian students.

To construct the case studies, researchers engaged in frequent observations in the classrooms and interviews with subjects and teachers.

Hybrid spaces

The following are examples of girls who created “hybrid spaces” as they participated in their science classes:

Bone song. During a lesson on the skeletal system, one student, Ginny, after completing the teacher’s assignment to make flash cards of the key terms, wrote a song about the skeletal system to the melody of “Mambo #5”. (A little bit of cranium on my head, A little bit of mandible on my jaw, A little bit of scapula on my back….etc.) The student shared the song with peers and her teacher, demonstrating dance moves that showed the bones and how they connected to each other.

Rabbit magnet

After she completed an assigned poster on an animal she had selected to study, Pat, who was interested in art, decided to do a sculpture of her chosen animal, the snowshoe hare. When she had trouble making the sculpture stand on its own, she turned it into a rabbit magnet instead and used it during her presentation about the poster and the snowshoe hare.

Later, the teacher placed the magnet on the board at the front of the room and used it for the rest of the school year to hold up student work and to serve as an example of the creativity that would be expected from the next 6th-grade class for the animal project.

Bug collector

On a warm spring afternoon, Crystal, who wanted to go outside in the school’s overgrown garden, decided to create a bug collector during free time in her science class so that she could get permission to go out. She created a bug collector with two plastic cups and cheesecloth she found in the science class. Another girl, Star, also created a bug collector so she could go outside with Crystal and her other friends, using this science artifact to try to gain entry into a new social circle.

Jane Goodall

Melanie did a presentation on gorillas by posing as Jane Goodall teaching sign language to a few of her friends who played gorillas. Later, Melanie, a normally quiet student, acted the part of a mother giraffe. Through these performances, she was able to position herself more publicly as someone who could talk about science and transform herself from a marginal to exemplary science student.

“Playing with different identities also allowed girls to actively position themselves with different forms of authority in the classroom–forms of authority they did not always have in science class or that were not always valued in science class” the researchers write.

“…Through their practices, the girls helped to foster hybrid spaces that either created or sustained a need for the resources and identities they brought to bear but that normally might not be considered part of science class.”

The researchers describe three chief ways girls created hybrid spaces for science engagement:  creating signature science artifacts (e.g. rabbit magnet); playing with identities; and negotiating roles through strategic participation.

Occasionally, girls negotiated roles that deviated from explicit classroom rules and norms, the researchers write. For example, during a class activity where students were observing and handling worms, one student, Jackie proclaimed “They’re nasty” and decided not to join the other students in touching the worms. However, she was an active participant, making it her job to record the observations her group mates called out.

In another example, Amelia, who was considered a disruptive student, found a way to negotiate her tough street identity and her growing interest in science. She had recently shown her interest in science by signing up for weekly science field trips on Saturdays. While her teacher was a strict disciplinarian and students were expected to sit quietly in class, she moved about the classroom, using “science reasons” for her movement, giving legitimacy to her being up and about, the researchers write.

While not suggesting that students should oppose the norms of the classroom, the authors note that students often resist these school rules, when those rules “seem to silence them or marginalize those very aspects of themselves that support their growth in science.”

The hybrid spaces and artifacts created by the girls in this study, from the bone song to the rabbit magnet to the roles of Jane Goodall and her friends, the gorillas, impacted the learning community in that they became part of the classroom discourse as models for other ways to engage in science activity, the researchers report.

“In our own work, we are interested in hybridity because we have observed time and time again youth taking up knowledges, resources, and identities in novel ways that often go unsanctioned by school science, changing how they participate in class,” the researchers write. “This allows them to build their social identities while they build and gain epistemic authority in the classroom.”

“Creating Hybrid Spaces for Engaging School Science Among Urban Middle School Girls,” by Angela Calabrese Barton, et al., American Educational Research Journal, March 2008, Volume 45, Number 1, pp. 68-103.

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