- Collaborative Research in Multilingual Classrooms
What happens when a group of university researchers collaborates with a group of school teachers in a community of practice that promotes horizontal relations of mutual respect and support, inclusion, and participation? The result should be mutual enrichment, empowerment, and expansion of each other’s intellectual horizons, knowledge, skills, and capacity for creating new educational possibilities. This seems to be precisely what transpired in the collaborative research engaged in by the Teacher Action Research Group (TARG), a five-year study in multilingual elementary classrooms in a province in Canada. In Collaborative Research in Multilingual Classrooms, TARG activities and findings are reported through teacher-friendly classroom vignettes and narrative observations by school teacher-researchers and university scholar-researchers, and the intended audience consists of teachers, school personnel, parents, and education researchers. The narratives and analyses are organized under four central themes in separate but closely related chapters: identity, community and community practices, help, and possibilities.
Under the theme of identity, the authors illustrate, with detailed ethnographic observations, what happens to students when they are subjected to the classifying, categorizing, fixing, and labelling practices that form part of the nexus of schooling practices widespread in the schools we work in. For instance, in ‘Assigning Marginality: The Case of an ESL/LD Student’ (pp. 31–35), Toohey illustrates with both theoretical rigour and concrete examples how a child, Surjeet, is subjected to the repeated testing of the school and is ‘acquired by’ and entrapped within the restrictive identity category of ‘ESL student.’
However, Toohey and her co-authors did not stop their analysis there, ending merely on a note of critical deconstruction. Under the [End Page 474] themes of community and community practices, help, and possibilities, they intertwine theoretical analyses and ethnographic accounts of how the TARG teachers and researchers explore innovative ways to create communities of learning in which students support and help each other with mutual respect. These are not easily created but come about through continuous exploration, careful planning, and critical evaluation.
Drawing on sociocultural theories of learning, identity, and community of practice, the TARG teachers and researchers successfully unite ethnographic observations of classroom activities, student interactions, and innovative classroom and educational practices with theoretical analyses of their empirical observations and data. The result is a highly critical and reflexive account of what transpires when teachers have the courage to make unconventional choices to create positive experiences and new educational possibilities for their students. In this way, they are able to assist students who otherwise struggle under the classifying and disciplinary practices of schooling. These practices create essentialized, hierarchical identity categories into which to pigeonhole students from non-mainstream backgrounds with cultural capital that is neither valued nor recognized by the schools (Bourdieu, 1991).
The authors successfully translate these theoretical analyses of their participatory action research in multilingual classrooms into concrete, down-to-earth stories of classroom participants (teachers, teaching support staff, students, parents, and researchers) collaborating and struggling to create alternative life chances and trajectories for students who have been subjected to the disciplinary practices of the schooling system. Not all these reports are success stories, and many are full of doubts and self-critical reflections, but the reader cannot fail to feel the sincerity and see the rigour of the authors’ action research efforts. The result is an insightful account of the exciting process of exploring different innovative educational interventions in settings in which alternative educational possibilities have otherwise seemed difficult, if not impossible.
The limitation of the book, however, is also precisely this perhaps overly optimistic emphasis on the agency of individual teachers to make a difference, without also looking at how structural constraints and negative policy structures can be changed systematically in the long run. Without a serious examination of how oppressive social and institutional structures can be changed collectively (as opposed to just highlighting individual heroic efforts), the impetus for change still rests with individual teachers. [End Page 475]
The book closes with a chapter that discusses the in-between-ness...