Classes within a class: The discourses of race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status in a preschool classroom
Maldonado, Camilo, III
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Over the course of 12 months, I conducted an ethnographic study in an urban preschool classroom in the northeastern Unites States. Employing a sociocultural perspective of early childhood development, I investigated the various social and academic discourses related to race and ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status (SES) presented in a classroom for children with chronological ages between four and five years. Audio and video recordings, field notes, and interviews were processed using various tenets of discourse analysis and a grounded theory approach. The results of the study indicated that these discourses could be used to welcome or exclude children during social or academic interactions. Additionally, they could be used to concretize a sense of shared racial and/or ethnic identity among like children or emphasize the differences between them. Varied discourses were used to adhere to gender-typed behaviors, and challenge gender expectations. They served to marginalize and idealize others based on perceptions of socioeconomic status or a combination of all the studied factors. Over time, many of these discourses were advanced, shaped, or ultimately silenced by classroom educators. Some discussions regarding social and biological differences were initially celebrated and then systematically marginalized within the context of the classroom discourse by seemingly well-intentioned adults. Additionally, teachers appeared to judge the potential of some young learners based upon race and ethnicity, gender, and/or SES. Suppositions varied dramatically when the educators' own racial and ethnic, gender-based, and SES backgrounds were examined. Various tenets of sociocultural philosophy were used to support the theoretical interpretation of the data. Ultimately, discursive positioning appeared to shape the ways students viewed themselves and their peers as learners within the preschool setting. A distinct hierarchy emerged revealing a nuanced and complex "pecking order" in the negotiation of social and academic activities within the classroom. This study illustrates the sometimes subtle, yet powerful and complex ways that socially-constructed and biological factors impacted discursive practices within a preschool classroom. I conclude this work by presenting practical suggestions for educators who wish to best serve the needs of young learners in an ever-diversifying educational community. I also discuss the theoretical implications for engaging in further study of young children from varied racial, ethnic, gender-based, and socioeconomic backgrounds.