Using Storytelling to Break the Silence That Binds Us to Sameness in Our Schools

Using Storytelling to Break the Silence That Binds Us to Sameness in Our Schools

Caruthers, Loyce

This qualitative study explores storytelling as a staff development strategy to break the silence surrounding cultural difference in schools and to view differences as key elements of teaching and learning. Stories, interviews, and observations were the data for constructing meaning of existing school cultures with a long history of promoting reform without attention to constructs of race/ethnicity, class, and gender. Findings suggested that (a) stories of urban educators contain historical and socio-cultural ideologies that have shaped American education; and (b) storytelling, if combined with opportunities for dialogue and inquiry can help to break the silence surrounding cultural differences in schools.


The K-12 student population in urban, suburban, and rural schools across the nation is more diverse than ever before (Berman, McLaughlin, McLeod, Minicucci, Nelson, & Woodworth, 1997; Darling-Hammond, 1997; Nieto, 2002). Yet paradoxically, while there is more diversity in our schools there is also more sameness-a “paradigm of sameness” continues to perpetuate the status quo and to promote reform without difference in most American schools. A paradigm suggests patterns or examples that may guide our way of thinking and behaving. Sameness refers to the adherence to the view that, “European American culture is [as] the dominant culture of public schools” (Spring, 2006, p. 132) and the refusal of most policymakers, administrators, teachers, and community members to challenge this position. The paradigm of sameness is magnified in city schools that have become places solely for the poor and children of color (Anyon, 1997; Darling-Hammond, 1997; Frankenberg, Lee & Orfield, 2003). “The literature suggests that minority schools are also associated with low parental involvement, lack of resources, less experienced and credentialed teachers, and higher teacher turnover-all of which combine to exacerbate educational inequality for minority students” (Frankenberg & Lee 2002, p. 5).

Paradigms, transmitted across generations through the stories that we tell about ourselves and others, are often difficult to change. Stories of student deficits, poor family structures, genetic explanations about achievement, and cultural mismatch theories often persist within the culture of schools (Miller-Lachmann & Taylor, 1995; Scheurich & Skria, 2003; Williams, 2003) and serve to preserve the paradigm of sameness. Such stories contain unexamined beliefs and assumptions about cultural differences and what is and what is not considered normal behavior as determined by middle-class norms and expectations of a European American culture, often dominated by a White male orientation (Apple, 1996; Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986; Collins, 1990; Gordon, 1995; Sleeter & McLaren, 1995; Trumbull, Greenfield, & Quiroz, 2003).

Some fifty years after the legal victories of Brown I and Brown II (1954, 1955) a paradigm of sameness describes the silence in our schools about issues of cultural diversity and our refusal to use the markers of diversity-race/ethnicity, class, and gender-as variables to consider in-school restructuring or reform. Restructuring, as first order change, improves on existing innovations and practices without changing the school and how adults and children perform their roles. In most cases, difficult issues such as race/ethnicity, class, and gender do not become points of analysis in schools. Instead, a “culture of Whiteness” (McLaren, 1995, p. 50) that emerged from the bedrock of American cultural outlook termed the Protestant-Republican ideology shapes our meanings and perceptions of cultural difference. The culture of Whiteness includes

The sacredness and fragility of the republican polity (including ideas about individualism, liberty, and virtue); the importance of individual character in fostering social mobility; the central role of personal industry in defining rectitude and merit; the delineation of a highly respected but limited domestic roles for women; the importance for character building of familial and social environment (within certain racial and ethnic limitations); the sanctity and social virtues of property; the equality and abundance of economic opportunity in the United States; the superiority of American Protestant culture; the grandeur of America’s destiny; and the necessity of a determined public effort to unify America’s polyglot population, chiefly through education. (Adams, 1995, pp. 13-14)

Efforts to reform schools seldom address these enduring historical and philosophical ideologies about race/ethnicity, class, and gender that are entangled in memories and stories, which guide the behaviors and actions of many educators. Reculturing is defined as changes in schools as a result of educators and community members rejecting the paradigm of sameness and beginning to reflect, evaluate, and expand their own mental models regarding the education of children (Caruthers, Thompson, & Eubanks, 2004). Mental models are the images, assumptions, and stories in our minds about others, institutions, and every aspect of the world. They shape how we act and are often untested and unexamined (Senge, 1990).

Memories, as a process of “cultural production” (Giroux, 1994, p. 31), and removed from historical, social, and political context, can provide opportunities for us to open up rather than close history. To break the silence that binds us to a paradigm of sameness in our schools, educators, and community members must examine historical and philosophical ideologies about cultural differences that are often portrayed through teaching methodologies, codes of discipline, administrative practices, and policymaking. In what ways do stories reveal historical, social, and cultural ideologies related to the construct of difference? How do stories reveal insights into how educators in the United States address racism, sexism, and classism? What do these stories suggest about practices for reculturing schools?

Hence, the purpose of this qualitative study was to (a) to explore storytelling as a staff development strategy for getting administrators, teachers, and community members to break the silence surrounding race/ethnicity, class, and gender; and (b) to draw implications from qualitative data regarding the use of storytelling as a reculturing tool for schools and communities. Current stories in schools can be changed to those that contain conceptual schemes that are essential to breaking the paradigm of sameness and creating transformative relationships. Achieving such a goal requires educators to examine beliefs and assumptions about cultural differences and put the needs of students at the forefront of thinking; this distinction is the major difference between restructured and recultured schools. While this strategy cannot significantly change the lives of many students without making broader structural changes in our society, it would give educators and community members opportunities to become stronger advocates and to embrace a personal mission of possibilities for all learners. To illuminate findings and demonstrate the strategy, a story and the subsequent interview with one of the five informants is presented, and implications drawn for helping educators, including counselors and community members implement storytelling in their schools and communities.


The current educational restructuring movement, especially in urban districts, espouses democratic ideas and reordered relations among teachers and administrators under the guise of improved teaching and learning; supported by an excellence reform agenda that touts standards and accountability as the only way to achieve equality in education. Unfortunately, these efforts are unlikely to address enduring historical and philosophical ideologies about cultural differences that guide the behaviors and actions of many urban educators.

Anderson (2004) provides a comprehensive analysis of recent research in the area of the history of African American culture and its effects on schooling. In his work, he suggested that “in post-Civil Rights America, among media pundits, scholars and politicians, the tendency to view African Americans as people uniquely damaged by their own group experience and culture has continued well into the present” (p. 362). In fact, he argued, there has been in recent years, “a conservative backlash” against civil rights, school desegregation, and affirmative action that is rooted in the fundamental belief that African Americans have only themselves to blame for their ongoing problems with regard to equality of educational opportunities. Furthermore, scholars such as John Ogbu, Orlando Patterson, and John McWhorter have asserted similar ideas about the culture of African Americans and state that at some level, culture has played a significant, negative role in the educational processes of Black children. McWhorter states that Black underachievement stems from “a strong tendency toward anti-intellectualism at all levels of the Black community” (2000, p. 126). Ogbu (1994) believes that African American students are probably discouraged from working hard to succeed in school by generations of collective experience; “consequently, African Americans have devoted a considerable part of their ‘collective struggle’ toward compelling Euro-Americans and the schools they control to provide them with ‘equal’ and ‘quality’ education” (p. 383). Patterson (1995) stated that culture-more so than segregation ,inequality or class difference-is the reason so many Black children do poorly in school. “If culture is the savior against the hereditarians and those persuaded by The Bell Curve, culture must contain the answer as we search for an explanation of the pathological sink into which some 10 million Americans have fallen” (1995, p. 209). Anderson calls for the “intersection” of the ideas between historians of African American culture and identity and historians of African American education, as there are studies that support the notion that Blacks have had a long history of valuing education as a means for liberation and opportunity, thus refuting the ideas mentioned above (Caruthers & Davis, 2005).

Moreover, the challenge of addressing many of these issues are often juxtaposed to indifferent social and political climates in our cities that render the topics of race/ethnicity, class, and gender as “undiscussables”-subjects that we choose not to talk about because they have often been “taboo” in schools (Caruthers, Thompson, & Eubanks, 2004; Smith, 2005). The failure to have critical conversations with policymakers at all levels about social and racial organizations in our cities is often identified by social research scientists as a barrier to reculturing urban schools (Anyon, 1997).

The refusal to acknowledge the influence of culture on teaching and learning is reflected in school reform legislation. Thompson (2004) noted that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB, 2001) appears to emphasize the principles of efficiency and productivity and gives less attention to “both the cultural mismatch between teachers and students of color and the impact that this mismatch has on the Black-White achievement gap” (p. 4). She argued race remains a volatile issue for America and most school initiatives do not address race relations between teachers and students, or among students and their peers. The U.S. Department of Education’s study of twentyseven school reform models, funded by the National Institute on the Education of At-Risk Students, concluded that fewer than 40 percent of school reform models described dealt with cultural diversity and only a third stressed the importance of social skills (Thompson, 2004). The reforms related to cultural diversity tended to address improving teachers’ knowledge, attitudes, and instructional practices for students of color with less interest in race relations between teachers and students or among students and their peers.

Study and observations have provided data that when educators are presented with stories that contained hidden conscripts of race/ethnicity, class, and gender, they are able to critically question and explore the principles that have guided the development of urban schools. Storytelling is a meaningful and critical approach to create overt dissatisfaction with a paradigm of sameness and begin the process of reculturing urban schools.

The Paradigm of the Personal

Stories are the way we make sense of our lives: by telling them we tell ourselves who we are, why we’re here, how we come to be what we are, what we value most, and how we see the world. (Colombo, Lisle, & Mano, 1997, p. 5)

The suppression of personal experiences within schools and teacher education often contributes to the absence of reflective practices, relationships, and overall caring that tends to reproduce technocratic and corporate ideologies that promotes change without difference (Gay, 1993; Irvine & York, 1995; Wexler, 1992). Storytelling, in the context of staff development with educators and community members, involves the use of a deconstruction process that connects concepts to broader ideology or culture rather than a simple reflection of reality (Alcoff, 1988). The power of the strategy, demonstrated in this article, is magnified when it is combined with inquiry and dialogue with others around the often hidden transcripts of race/ethnicity, class, and gender. Participants are also likely to discuss other topics related to cultural differences. Storytelling helps teachers think more deeply about the meaning of teaching, learn about teacher socialization, transform teacher-educator’s research and practice, and promote school reform (Clandinin, 1993; Gruenewald, 2003; Hollingsworth, 1994; Jalongo & Isenberg, 1995; McWilliam, 1994; Wallace, 1996).

Hollingsworth (1994) used collaborative conversation to help teachers understand their common stories about learning to teach culturally diverse students. Recognizing the need to develop leadership that is diffused throughout the school community, Wallace (1996) incorporated Storytelling as a strategy for broad-based leadership development. Storytelling and dialoguing with colleagues enabled teachers to “explore their feelings, emotions, situations, and events that vividly evoked various aspects of their professional work . . . through reflection, they constructed meaningful insights based on the shared themes found embedded within their stories” (p. 16). Other educators have used stories or narratives to help change the culture of schools and indoctrinate new teachers to the values and norms of the institution (Stolp & Smith, 1995). As Gruenewald (2003) suggested,

my hope is that reading poems and stories about school can help teachers, and others entrusted with the education of children, to begin asking, and living, some fundamental questions, and to rethink the entire proposition of what does, and does not, happen within ‘the shutter’d room.'(p. 284)

A critical approach to Storytelling challenges the ways knowledge is constructed, illuminates the relationship between knowledge and power, and redefines what is personal and political so that we learn to rewrite the dialectical connection between what we learn and how we come to define our history, experience, and language (Giroux, 2004). Key concepts for the use of stories are voice, inquiry, and personal knowledge.

Voice enables us to use our constructed meanings for active engagement in the community. Britzman (1990) pointed out that voice implies “the individual’s relationship to the meaning of her/his experience and hence, to language, and the individual’s relationship to the other (p. 14). Questioning and challenging the status quo results from inquiry. “Inquiry is necessary at the outset for forming personal purpose. While the latter comes from within, it must be fueled by information, ideas, dilemmas, and other contentions in our environment” (Fullan, 1993, p. 15). The failures of many educational reform initiatives have come about because “they didn’t get at fundamental underlying, systemic features of school life: they didn’t change the behaviors, norms, and beliefs of practitioners” (Evans, 1996, p. 5). Acquiring personal knowledge about race/ethnicity, class, and gender allows us to affirm and question the experiences as well as help students find spaces to talk about difficult topics-keeping alive the possibilities of social transformation and the reculturing of schools.


Design of Study

Storytelling, as a reculturing strategy for schools, is explored through grounded theory; an inductive process for studying phenomenon, “it is discovered, developed, and provisionally verified through systematic data collection and analysis of data pertaining to that phenomenon” (Strauss & Corbin, 1990, p. 23). Using “substantive” theory rather than formal or “grand theory,” grounded theory is more practical for educators who benefit from rich descriptions of instructional programs, organizational behaviors, or teacher-student interactions (Merriam, 1998).

Stories, in this study, are the data that speak to the phenomenon of making meaning of the culture of schooling. Narratives or stories are well suited for personal experience methods; they are “a way to permit researchers to enter into and participate with the social world in ways that allow the possibility of transformations and growth” (Clandinin & Connelly, 1994, p. 425). Triangulation was a key design element of the project through the use of documents, interviews, and observations.

Fifty-nine stories were collected from 20 administrators and teachers enrolled in a recultured K-12 certification and preparation program at a major Midwestern university. The participants voluntarily submitted two to four stories each to the program coordinator. The program challenges graduate students to examine their beliefs and assumptions about cultural diversity and to develop knowledge and skills for the work of promoting social justice and equity in schools (Thompson, Davis, Caruthers, & Gregg, 2003). Fourteen stories written by two Black females, a White female, and two White males were selected from the larger sample. Five of the fourteen stories were selected to demonstrate the staff development strategy. This sampling procedure, generally indiscriminate, was open to those persons who provide the “greatest opportunity to gather the most relevant data about the phenomenon under investigation” (Strauss & Corbin, 1990, p. 180). The names of informants were changed to ensure anonymity.

Semi-structured interviews began with general questions or topics, and allowed for more focused, conversational, two-way communication between the researcher and informants (Merriam, 1998). The majority of questions are created during the semi-structured interview, allowing both the interviewer and the person being interviewed the flexibility to probe for details or discuss issues. Conversations began with the following questions: Now as you look at this story today, is there a different interpretation or view about what happened based on the experiences you have had? What do you believe is needed to transform the instructional climate in urban schools? Observations were conducted in three urban sites-elementary, middle, and high school-or the purpose of understanding the context of urban schools and to validate emerging findings from the stories and interviews. Interactions between teachers and students, teachers and their peers, students and peers, administrators and teachers, and others were observed within the school.


Guided by a data management tool, Ethonograph, v5.0 (Seidel, 1998), 59 stories, interviews with the five informants, and observations in elementary, middle, and high school sites were analyzed by conducting open coding, axial coding, and selective coding. Ethnograph, vS.O, a computer program designed to manage qualitative data analysis, facilitated the processes of (a) noticing interesting patterns in the data, (b) marking patterns with code words, and (c) retrieving them for further analysis. The research questions revealed themes that emerged through the theoretical sampling of categories and incidents in the data. Voice, reflection, silencing, relationships, race/ethnicity, class, and gender became the categories to propose relationships that suggested causal conditions, phenomenon, context, intervening conditions, action/interactional strategies, and consequences (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). The categories of the framework were defined as follows:

1. Voice-refers to the cultural grammar and background knowledge that educators use to interpret and articulate their experiences as well as shape and mediate school and student voice.

2. Reflection-refers to intellectual and affective activities in which educators engage to explore their experiences in order to lead to new understandings and appreciation of self and others.

3. Silencing-this is a result of societal beliefs and values about cultural diversity that have perpetuated a culture of denial and silence in schools and communities.

4. Relationships-those that are characterized as power and control are named, understood, and confronted in ways that contribute to the cultural work of schools.

5. Race/ethnicity, class, and gender-these constructs are often difficult to separate and must be understood contextually.

The deconstruction strategy that emerged from analyzing the data constituted a staff development strategy for engaging in complex conversations related to cultural diversity. The stories of five respondents and portions of their interviews are deconstructed using the knowledge and experiences of the researcher. The process of unraveling the constructs of voice, reflection, silencing, relationships, race/ethnicity, class, and gender embedded in these stories is illuminated with the following questions: (a) what did I see relative to race/ethnicity, class, and gender?; (b) what did I not see about race/ethnicity?, class, and gender; (c) why is there silence about race/ethnicity, class, and gender?; and (d) why did I see race/ethnicity, class, and gender?

The semi-structured interviews enabled the researcher to have meaningful dialogue with the respondents that revealed acts, meanings, intentions, motives, contexts, situations, and circumstances of actions contained in the stories.


The findings suggested that (a) stories of urban educators contain historical and socio-cultural ideologies that have shaped American education; and (b) storytelling, if combined with opportunities for dialogue and inquiry, may help to break the paradigm of sameness that perpetuates the silence surrounding cultural differences in schools (Caruthers, 2000). Deconstructed stories were replete with historical ideologies that have guided the development of American education; ideas about individualism, merit, equality, and abundance of economic opportunity, cultural superiority, the role of women, and other socio-cultural and historical paradigms. Subtle and sometimes overt themes in the observation scripts were similar to the themes in the stories and interviews. There were also individual events and actions of teachers that depicted the theme of transformation, “a critical and affirming pedagogy . . . constructed around the stories that people tell, the ways in which students and teachers author meaning, and the possibilities that underlie the experiences that shape their voices” (McLaren, 1989, p. 229).

A dominant theme that emerged in the stories and interviews was that schools are “sorting machines” (Spring, 2006, p. 24) where students are separated by interests and abilities and graduates enter jobs that match their programs in schools. John Polk, a teacher in a newly integrated suburban district, discusses sorting based on race and gender:

Interviewer (I): The first question I have is about how you would interpret the meaning of this story today?

Respondent (R): I am angry that this kind of stuff happened. They [teachers] just have a deal where they have to cut them [students] down. All of these students were middle class and White. A female teacher done in the female students. This situation knocked them [female students] out of scholarships. This situation had to do with the old guard pretending the school was all White. They were watching the minority students.

I: Were there special efforts in the district to increase the participation of females in math and science?

R: There were no special efforts done by the high school. This was a group of very high achieving students who had been a part of the gifted program in elementary and middle school. They got together and started their own tutoring group trying to help themselves. These students were bright enough to do this. At the middle school females were encouraged to develop their abilities in this area. The system had watched and monitored their progress throughout the years. Many of the girls didn’t feel comfortable with a male math teacher at the middle school, and they bailed out of the class. This teacher was later fired from the district because of sexual harassment; this hit the paper and everything.

I: Was this a culturally diverse group of students?

R: Yes, there were two or three African American students. The district at that time was about 40% minority. Pretty mixed group.

Carol Holmes, a middle school teacher, also identifies schools as the sorting machines using dispositions and behaviors of students. Teachers tend to interact more with students whose dispositions and behaviors are aligned with their own (Seashore, Louis, & Smith, 1994). The trip was developed for a select group of students who had demonstrated school interest, appropriate behavior, and an enthusiasm for the environment. Due to financial restraints and the number of sponsors, each grade level was allotted a specific number of student invitations.

Carol Holmes did not recognize the act of designating a “select group of students who had demonstrated school interest, appropriate behavior, and an enthusiasm for the environment,” as embedded in the language and ideology of schools as sorting machines.

The researcher’s observation in an urban middle school illustrates the theme that “children of color need to be controlled and managed more closely.”

When I arrived at an urban middle school, the principal was standing in the hall with a bullhorn. A hall freeze was in progress. A security guard yelled, “Keep your behind right where you are. Don’t move.” I immediately thought to myself, “another Joe Clark.”

A similar theme was apparent in an elementary school observation, where the majority of the students are Latino/a and African American. Teachers attempted to work out a schedule for student advisement periods. The intent of these periods was to promote better relationships between teachers and students as well as students and their peers. The agenda quickly shifted to classroom management:

One of the teachers said half of the staff is new to the school and many have not started the advisement period. New staff members are also having a hard time becoming familiar with and implementing other school programs. They mentioned that in the past there was a focus on efficacy principles and helping kids get along with each other. This year they want to implement sessions that focus on conflict resolution skills and the code of conduct for the school.

Seelye (1993) suggests teachers control through a hidden agenda of five simplistic golden rules for classroom management: obey the teacher, behave properly, stick to the schedule, keep busy, keep quiet, and still.

The researcher’s observation in a high school, implementing a major reform initiative, revealed that the staff may be trapped in a set of beliefs and assumptions based on deficit thinking about the culture of African American students and their abilities. The setting is a staff development session focused on ways to solve the discipline issues in a school with a majority population of children of color. The staff is listening to an all-White student panel present their ideas about ways to address discipline in the school. In addition to security officers and students, they have gathered input from certified and classified staff. Afterwards, the researcher inquired about the participation of African American students in this process.

When I asked about the representation of African American students on the panel, the teachers stated that they were lazy and did not want to participate. I know Mr._________did not exclude them. He is not like that.” I asked, “Has anyone talked to them about why they did not want to participate?” [silence] The second staff person, when asked the same question, said, “They are just lazy. There was one Black student, but he dropped out. “I probed: “Has anyone talked to these students to find out why they felt alienated from this process?” [silence].

Children of color are generally less intelligent and cannot learn at the same rate as White students is a theme-illustrated Rose Sanders’ story, an administrator of an urban high school. She described the reactions of White teachers, who allowed students to watch a movie with sexually explicit themes, with one White teacher admitting that he thought the movie was okay because the kids were use to these types of movies.

I immediately went over to the two White male instructors and informed them of the movie (thinking it was an error). They let me know that not only did they know of the movie, but that it was one of them that brought it. One of the instructors then stated. “Oh these kids are used to that anyway.” The other instructor went on to say, “If you want it off, then you turn it off. I’m not going to get these kids mad at me.”

While many of the stories and observations contained negative transcripts about difference, there were a few instances of transformation focused on efforts to improve relationships with students and to help students question and examine their experiences. During an observation of classroom instruction in an urban middle school, the researcher later discussed the lesson with the teacher.

Kids don’t think they have any knowledge because the opportunity for literacy development through their experiences has been limited. The culture of urban schools communicate to children that it is only the adults who have knowledge and if you are quiet we will give you our knowledge. They don’t have an understanding of the experiences that affect their lives, for example, Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education. Our program says you bring experiences with you and through your experiences you can gain new knowledge. We use dialogue to capture their experiences.

The paradigm of sameness provoked informants to silence about race/ethnicity, class, and gender apparent in their stories and the observation transcripts. Culture diversity was not connected to concrete actions for open dialogue and exchange in their schools; seemingly, they were scarred by the paradigm of sameness that impacted administrative practices, relationships between teachers and students, and teaching and learning. The greatest inhibitor to recultured schools is the legacy from the ideologies and socio-historical processes that have promoted a paradigm of sameness. Storytelling alone is not sufficient to illuminate assimilation ideologies and monocultural perspectives. Educators must have opportunities to examine and inquire about behaviors and practices that continue to marginalize the lives of their students.


Storytelling as a staff development strategy for getting administrators, teachers, and community members to interrupt the paradigm of sameness and talk about undiscussables is demonstrated with one of the stories of the five informants. Karen Jackson’s (pseudonym) story and interview are deconstructed by the researcher, demonstrating the reculturing strategy that emerged from this project. The researcher deliberately incorporates her voice, to illuminate her experiences and to speak for self, by inserting first person in the text.

In the deconstruction of Karen’s story, descriptors of gender and racial bias describe rigid or negative attitudes toward a group or groups that are formed with disregard to the facts. Bias is related to discrimination; however, there is a difference. Discrimination entails violations of federal, state, or local human rights or civil rights laws.

Karen Jackson’s Story

Karen Jackson, Vice Principal of an Urban High School. I sat in on an interview for a high school drama/forensics teacher. The candidates that applied for the positions had impressive credentials. There was one candidate that had very impressive credentials, but all of his work had been done in a small, somewhat rural community. The candidate had a small stature and looked somewhat timid. Why on earth, 1 remembered thinking would he want to work in this school? The students would take one look at him and have him for lunch. But this particular candidate had numerous reasons why he wanted the position, but the number one reason was he felt he could build an exciting program at our school in the drama and forensics areas. The principal and I were the interviewing team. While we both were very impressed with his interview, his physical stature, the lightness in his voice, and lack of experience in working in an urban setting, made us somewhat reluctant to offer him the position. Nevertheless, his passion for wanting the teaching position inspired us to give him a try.

The first day of class, he was overwhelmed with the language of the students. During the first few weeks at the school, he had to endure quite a bit of name-calling from the students. His classes weren’t going very well and he would visit with me about the culture of the school. He also asked many questions about urban students and how to relate to them. He was very passionate about his subject matter, but he didn’t quite know how to relate to his new population of students. We visited for hours after school about relating to his new students. But I had only one piece of advice for him, “Never let them see you sweat.”

In addition to the problems he was having in the classroom, the school was experiencing problems as well. With a number of personnel changes in the administration and teaching staff, to put it bluntly, there was almost anarchy each day in this school. The drama teacher had never worked in so much chaos and was trying to make sense of it. His first year in our building was truly difficult. He often talked about quitting during the first semester. During the second semester, he began to understand the language of the students, and they began to understand that when you came to his class you were expected to work and learn. He held auditions for his plays. The students were reluctant at first, but the ones that did audition and were cast in the performances became overnight success stories among the other students.

The next time auditions were held, the number of students who where interested in auditions overwhelmed him. A similar thing happened with his forensic class. He chose material that was culturally relevant to the students (Ladson-Billings, 1994). They began to win a few rounds at the tournaments, and eventually they were successfully competing with the suburban schools. The teacher was inspired and decided to come back another year. His second year, we continued our talks. I think that I became his biggest supporter on the staff because I really saw that he cared about the students and he could teach.

His classes were in demand the second year he was in our building and the students continued to blossom on stage. He sought out scholarships in drama for his seniors. He began taking his students out into the community to give them more exposure and to let the community know that there were some good things going on in our school. The students also began to take first place in the forensic tournaments. The newspaper picked up on the great job the kids were doing. This also was a plus and inspiration to the kids. Students kept their grades up so they could participate in tournaments and they also took much pride in being on stage in front of their peers. There was no more name-calling, only respect and love for this teacher. The kids would work exceptionally hard for him because they knew the end product was for them.

Talk about a transformational learner, he was one of the best I have ever seen and had the opportunity to work with. He did wonders for the self-esteem of the students. Also, the principal supported him in most of his endeavors and this also helped his program tremendously. The drama teacher from the small rural town became an urban teacher to the fullest extent. I wish this story could have had a happy ending as it was a great success story for the students. The third year for this teacher became a nightmare. There was a new principal assigned. The drama teacher and the principal did not see eye-to-eye. The new principal got rid of the drama teacher by the end of the year. The students were saddened beyond belief. How could the new principal treat this teacher so miserably? What could have been so bad about his teaching?

At the end of the school year, the teacher left, the principal received a promotion, and the drama/forensics department is back to square one. I can’t make any meaning out of this story other than teachers that don’t teach and fail large percentages of students appear to be safer than teachers who do teach. Either way, the students in this particular school are losing. They sometimes lose the teachers that teach and lose an education from the ones that don’t or can’t teach. How sad!

Interview with Karen Jackson.

Interviewer (I): When you look at this story today, is there a different interpretation or view about what happened based on the experiences you have had?

Respondent (R): The thing I would add is that this principal was on the fast track. He used his bi-racial wife for universal appeal. If he sees something Black becoming too strong, he crushes it. He is a user. This teacher was one of the two best teachers in the school. He was a small man and would come and ask for help. He wanted to make the kids the best they could be. The new principal saw what a good job he was doing to promote Black kids. Whenever he saw a teacher interested in Black kids and trying to make them great, the person would be shut down. This teacher used the strength of the kids. You can come into urban schools, but you have to watch who is watching you and rather or not you will be able to make a difference.

(I): What do you believe is needed to transform the instructional climate in urban schools?

(R): Teachers need a voice that will be heard. They have ideas and want to work. Teachers need more information on how schools have improved. Need to keep abreast of the literature, know what is going on. Parent involvement is imperative. Schools will not get parents until teachers make a personal commitment. They have to hear something nice about their children. Make parents feel their kids are special. Schools need to become more of a community center. Incorporate more community activities that involve less formality than learning.


What did I see about race/ethnicity, class, and gender?

The inexperienced teacher, described by Karen, perceives that the culture he is confronted with in his new assignment is strange and different. The students also sense his fear of the strangeness. The perspective he brings to this strange and different context is a candid view of his shortcomings and a yearning to understand cultural differences. He did not seem to understand that the students may have been alienated from an official curriculum that did not include their histories, lived experiences, interests, and backgrounds. After years of exposure to the dangerous memories of exclusion, the students learned to anesthetize their fears of inadequacy and alienation through the development of a subculture that included ways to gain acceptance from peers. Humor, distinct ways of communicating and behaving, and even acts of cruelty promoted a subculture of acceptance and belonging within their own peer group. They had learned how to resist.

Ms. Jackson recognized the veiled challenges to the status quo and cautioned her young protégé to “never let them see you sweat.” She also viewed this advice as a strategy for desisting negative behavior. She viewed the students’ use of language to demean the teacher as cultural phenomenon rather than a reaction to the culture of schooling. Acting-out behavior is often a reaction to students’ alienation from the school. High achievement may be associated with “acting White” and buying in to a culture of exclusion. Through dialogue and deconstructing his stories with Karen, the teacher gained more confidence in his abilities. Karen helped him to establish relationships with the students through using their backgrounds and interests to engage them in school. Students soon learned that he was offering them opportunities for success and ways to experience schooling in a differently. Unknowingly, she captured the power of storytelling. The stories of both the teacher and students changed the second semester. They began to live a different reality, seemingly letting go of their old dangerous memories. In the interview, Karen added more description to this teacher’s unique ability to engage culturally diverse students and described the danger inherent in being an advocate for them. At the same time, she saw the personal risk teachers take when they attempt to change the status quo. “This teacher used the strength of the kids. You can come into urban schools, but you have to watch who is watching you and whether or not you will be able to make a difference.” This risk is also named in her story. “Teachers that don’t teach and fail large percentages of students appear to be safer than teachers that do teach.”

What did I not see about race/ethnicity, class, and gender?

In both the story and interview, Ms. Jackson appears unable to understand the assumptions she made about the teacher’s inability to teach Black students because of his size and voice tone. Her reluctance to hire this teacher because of physical characteristics appeared to indicate gender and race bias. She had formulated some expectations about maleness and assumed that a large size male with a deeper voice was needed to control and manage African American students. Karen’s dangerous memories impacted her beliefs and assumptions:

The principal and I were the interviewing team. While we both were very impressed with his interview, his physical stature, the lightness in his voice, and lack of experience in working in an urban setting, made us somewhat reluctant to offer him the position.

She had difficulty naming the cultural understanding that took place between this teacher and his Black students and did not connect his transformation to school reform. Karen understood the importance of teachers using their voices and being heard and valued, but did not connect teacher voice to challenging issues of social justice within the school. Instead, she used the values of expert and efficiency, the current language of cognitive reform, during the interview to explain what is needed to transform the instructional climate of urban schools. “Teachers need a voice that will be heard. They have ideas .and want to work. Teachers need more information on how schools have improved. Need to keep abreast of the literature, know what is going on.” Karen writes about her frustration with the system but cannot name racial bias as a reason for the demise of this teacher. During the interview she talked more about the issues of race/ethnicity, class, and gender-breaking the silence surrounding the undiscussables with this description of the new principal:

If he sees something Black becoming too strong, he crushes it. He is a user. This teacher was one of the two best teachers in the school . . . The new principal saw what a good job he was doing to promote Black kids. Whenever he saw a teacher interested in Black kids and trying to make them great, the person would be shut down.

Why is there silence about race/ethnicity, class, and gender?

Karen’s silence about the issues of race/ethnicity, class, and gender may be attributed to the topics being taboo in her school. She did not use her voice to construct meaning about why “teachers that don’t teach and fail large percentages of students appear to be safer than teachers that do teach.” She recognized the importance of valuing the culture and background of students, but it did not occur to her that efforts to understand cultural differences should be included in school reform.

Why did I see race/ethnicity and gender?

I was able to recognize issues related to race and gender bias because of my personal and professional experiences in these areas. I was reminded of my own dangerous memories. The assumption that being female or African American equips you with the ability to recognize and label sexist or racist attitudes and behaviors is often erroneous. The individual must be able to construct meaning from their cultural knowledge and experiences in order to name and understand these areas. The deconstructed story of Karen Jackson represents my constructed reality of race/ethnicity, class, and gender (Caruthers, 2000).


The limitations inherent in this qualitative study center on the personal and professional experiences of the researcher, who viewed this project as a way to incorporate self and narrative for reculturing urban schools. However, the researcher has been involved in the other discourse of changing schools using the old story, one that focuses on standards, curriculum, and “fixing the children” in urban schools. Semi-structured interviews, “. . . an extension of constructions developed by the inquirer (member checking)” (Lincoln & Guba, 1985, p. 185) as well as peer examination and outside-the-field review verified emerging themes in the data, contributing to intercoder reliability (Miles & Huberman, 1994).

The stories of five respondents and their interviews were deconstructed using the researcher’s constructed and contested meanings of the terrain of urban schools. However, it is only through meaningful dialogue with the authors of these stories that the acts, meanings, intentions, motives, contexts, situations, and circumstances of actions become real for both the researcher and the respondents.

The researcher also acknowledges the risk in assuming that getting administrators, teachers, and community members to talk about undiscussables will promote substantial change in urban schools. These groups will also have to collaboratively with others to bring about structural changes that challenge institutionalized racism, sexism, and classism from the larger society as well as promote efforts to restore economic and political opportunities to residents of urban communities.


The subtle and overt messages, contained in stories such as Karen’s, cannot be fully apprehended and understood unless there are opportunities within the school to inquire and to examine the memories and thinking that shape the attitudes and behaviors of all persons. Storytelling, as a critical stance for staff development, provides opportunities for administrators, teachers, counselors, and community members to delve beneath the surfaces of acts, motives, behaviors, and practices-breaking the paradigm of sameness.

The first step in initiating Storytelling in schools and the broader study of culture is to identify administrators, staff developers, teachers, counselors, and professionals from the community who are comfortable in leading this process. Next, everyone involved in the effort writes a story about life in school. The story might describe a teaching and learning event, interactions with students and other adults, a discipline issue, special celebrations, or other significant and relevant events. Participants are given the options of identifying themselves or remaining anonymous. The group spends time learning inquiry skills or ways of talking together. The goal of the exercise is to help the group engage in internal listening, accept differences, and build mutual trust. Participants must suspend judgment, listen, and explore other points of view without resorting to debate. Practicing advocacy and inquiry should first be done with less-sensitive topics.

Senge (1990) suggests ways of balancing advocacy and inquiry so that all persons involved confront their own and others’ assumptions, reveal feelings, and build common ground.

1. Make your own reasoning explicit (How did you arrived at your view?); encourage others to explore your view (Are there gaps in my thinking?); encourage others to provide different views (Are there different conclusions, different data, different perspectives?); and actively inquire into others’ views that differ from yours (How did you arrive at your view?).

2. When inquiring into others’ views, state your assumptions clearly and acknowledge that they are assumptions; state the data upon which your assumptions are based.

3. When you arrive at an impasse, ask what data or logic might change their view or if there is any way you might together engage in future studies that might provide new information.

4. When you or others are hesitant to express personal views, encourage yourself and other people to think out loud what might be making it difficult. If there is a mutual desire to do so, design with others ways of overcoming these barriers.

The facilitator selects two or three stories for small groups to deconstruct following the use of advocacy and inquiry with less sensitive topics. The process consists of the following questions: (a) what did I see relative to race/ethnicity, class, and gender; (b) what did I not see about race/ethnicity, class, and gender; (c) why is there silence about race/ethnicity, class, and gender; and (d) why did I see race/ethnicity, class, and gender. Remaining in small groups, participants take turns discussing the stories and their responses. After each person has had a chance to provide input, participants are encouraged to use advocacy and inquiry skills to explore their own and others’ ideas. This process is repeated with other stories. As trust develops among the group, the facilitator encourages the group to bring in stories about their current teaching experiences. From this activity, opportunities to study other subjects emerge; the Storytelling strategy becomes a spring board for in-depth study. Topics in Karen’s story for further study included the history of school desegregation, culture and language, the official curriculum, the hidden curriculum, culturally relevant curriculum, identity formation, resistance theory, interpersonal skills development, and ways to create community-based schools that are democratic and self-fulfilling.

Current stories in schools can be changed to those that contain conceptual schemes that are essential to breaking the paradigm of sameness and places where both cognitive and affective learning is valued. While this strategy cannot significantly change the lives of many students in the world without making broader structural changes in the society, each of us has the power to make a difference for the youth we serve.


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Loyce Caruthers University of Missouri-Kansas City


LOYCE E. CARUTHERS is Assistant Professor, Urban Leadership and Policy Studies, School of Education, University of Missouri, Kansas City.

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