Social connections among African American girls influence their participation and recognition in math class, according to a University of Illinois at Chicago researcher who found that students who are more socially connected tend to enjoy more access to learning opportunities.
Maisie Gholson, a UIC doctoral student in curriculum and instruction, studied a third-grade classroom in a public school on Chicago's west side. Through observation, interviews, and her own participation in the class, she determined which girls formed the core of the dominant social group, which were peripheral, and which were isolated from it.
Gholson focused on the two girls who achieved most highly in mathematics: one who was positioned as a "model student" and was central to the dominant group, and one positioned as a "bully" who was isolated from it. Gholson found that their labels and positions followed them from playground to classroom.
"These tags or identities can shape children's access to recognition and learning opportunities. Shawna's identity as a bully, for example, eclipsed opportunities for her to be recognized as a competent mathematics student," Gholson said.
She noted that bullying is perceived differently when enacted by girls.
"The issue of gender is at play here," she said. "It is less socially acceptable for girls to display physical aggression; however, it is more acceptable for girls to engage in relational forms of aggression, like gossiping."
Students were allowed to sit where they wanted during class and in small study groups, leading the dominant group to sit together, encourage each other, and recognize each other's knowledge.
Socially peripheral and isolated students had less support, but not all were equally affected. Those who valued social status often participated less, while those who were indifferent to social status participated more and worked alone by choice.
Gholson cautions that the findings of one small-scale ethnographic study cannot be generalized to every elementary classroom.
"Children's informal social ties are a natural part of development," she said. "Less structured classes allow children to develop autonomy and responsibility for their learning. There are also risks, like children's social network rising in prominence and overtaking learning goals.
"The challenge in my mind is to cultivate an ethos within the school, at different grade levels, where children on their own volition create inclusive social groups focused on classroom learning."
Gholson earned a National Academy of Education fellowship for her analysis, "Smart Girls, Black Girls, Mean Girls, and Bullies: At the Intersection of Identities and the Mediating Role of Young Girls' Social Network in Mathematical Communities of Practice," published recently in the Journal of Education. She previously received a three-year fellowship in STEM education from the National Science Foundation.
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