The Collision/Collusion of Human Capital and Social Capital
Human capital and social capital are often at odds. While the emphasis in Ms. Gypsy’s, Mrs. Earle’s, and Mrs. Faye’s classroom typically centered upon grade level standards, amiss in this assessment-driven, human capital assumption was community buy-in from students (in this case young children). Pedagogic decision making, left out of the hands of the teacher and driven by codified content is often rote, unidirectional, and disconnected from the life of the child. One of Mrs. Earle’s mentees, Janine, noticed this and attempted to work within and against the content given from textbooks so that it would strengthen children’s interest in learning.
Janine described the conflict between what she wanted to perform on behalf of students after she communicated with them and second- grade-level expectations often taken from worksheets and basal texts. To Janine, the collision between human capital and social capital was visible in her teaching priorities:
Janine commented: Sometimes it’s, is like, confrontation . . . There just wasn’t enough time. You had to get a certain amount of worksheets done. And, it’s hard to incorporate [children’s interests] when you’ve got to get this math worksheet in and we did worksheets a lot . . . that’s what the curriculum is . . . worksheets. SO it was hard.
And I just don’t think there was enough time to incorporate children’s ideas. When I did my 3-day curriculum project, I found out so much more from the children, and I felt like learning was more meaningful for them, because they created that book and it was their book and they were proud of it. They worked really hard on their pictures and some of them cried when they didn’t get them done because they wanted to be part of the process. I feel like there wasn’t enough time in the day to incorporate community—more so in the classroom.
According to Janine, children’s enthusiasm for learning was diminished both because of the rote memorization of skills and drills around math and because lengthier constructed projects using children’s ideas and interests took more time, time that Janine had to create within Mrs. Earle’s classroom. Conflicting priorities between skills in math content—taught on worksheets—and writing, because worksheets reduced any time for other pedagogic interests despite children’s obvious care, enthusiasm, and joy with which they completed work.
Social capital and human capital at times may be interdependent. These preservice teachers’ conversations about children’s learning centered on the nature of what children valued. When children saw a useful purpose in writing, authoring, storytelling, and rapping their own segments of texts to persuade others, their writings configured into highly motivating choices. When creating a poem about themselves from their neighborhoods during Sacha and Angelines work on the origins of rap music and its ties to poetry, these student’s writings were lengthier, more detailed, and preservice teachers noted their students’ persistence in “learning” for longer stretches of time. Janine’s project in Mrs. Earle’s room allowed her to capitalize upon this community strength. Janine said the following of her work:
It was so powerful to see them, to see these children just work. Like,
I had never seen them just sit and work on something and to have them be so proud of something. When you are given worksheets, you hand them in and you don’t ever see them again unless they go home in a folder. But, like this, I’ve never seen . . . like we read them out loud and they were just beaming. It showed me that I need to take the little things and make them into victories. They needed something that they could be proud of that that was theirs. And I think that was another thing. As a class, it was their book. So, like, little victories.
Preservice teachers commented that during their instructional leadership observations of persistence were noted among young writers. Preservice teachers learned about the communities in which they worked. Watching children’s desires to write revealed the many ways in which neighborhood schools have family groupings that are interconnected rather than illustrating a nuclear two-parent, mother-father-headed household. Thinking of this family beyond a hegemonic ideal (Heilman, 2008), Janine continued,
All the families are intertwined. Every single one of my students was, like, “that’s my cousin, I know him he lives down the street from me.”
I realized (that) growing up in a rural school, we weren’t all related in that way. We all kind of came from our own separate families . . . but, in this school, I felt like the community was so tight. Like they go to each other’s houses every week. Children told me, “I’m going to my cousin’s house and he’s in that room,” so I just felt like it was very tight.
When evaluating the relationships among students in her field site, Janine became conscious of the powerful relationships supported between grades within her school and the ways in which the school community could be acknowledged to build cohesion around learning and cohesion around shared positive values. Capitalizing upon the ways in which children’s relationships to others in the school mattered, Janine framed curriculum around intra-dependent narratives in writing and self-expression. Struggling to overcome the negative frames of meaning imposed on her setting because of poverty, Janine asked questions:
I asked . . . What does your part of the community have to offer? Like somebody who lives next to the grocery store, what can you offer, you know? And so, I think just involving them more so in realizing that they are connected. I feel like they all know that this somebody is with this somebody, but I don’t think they realize how close-knit.
In this excerpt, the preservice teacher recognized the power of community dynamics within the school, the neighborhood, and the families’ lives as a “fund of knowledge” and imagined further curriculum development (Street, 2005). More importantly, Janine became conscious of her own potential in exploring the social capital of the relationships children held with others in the school as she created meaningful writing and curriculum examples. This readily available social capital was largely unrecognized within the individual accountability assumptions of test-taking preparation in this second grade.
Human capital lenses may lessen the positive potential of parent and community views when those views are not accompanied by community presence. At a time when attendance at community events is quantified and used as leverage for school funding and accountability, attendance at community gatherings is highly valued. In our course, we not only examined event attendance but also unique contexts that disallow job flexibility and personal privilege such as easily available transportation and/or child care, setting the stage for attendance and thus, event success. Charlise, Rhonda, and their mentor, Mrs. Faye, recognized that in this inner-city school, hourly wage employment, focused training for welfare recipients, and single parenting often interrupted the taken-for-granted expectations of teacher-parent relations during event attendance. Seeking ways to communicate with parents and involve them in school events, Charlise and Rhonda, spoke highly of their own work: inviting a college step team to teach kindergarten children new steps, chants, and beats, as well as discuss staying in school, doing well, and going to college.
Charlise and Rhonda utilized important communication strategies in order to reframe the social construction of parents, who commonly were portrayed by school people (and the larger public) as not being involved in children’s lives. By using a written survey (a group communication tool) to communicate directly and appropriately with kindergarten children’s parents, Charlise and Rhonda learned parents wanted their children to do well in school and attend college. Within communication strategy, Charlise and Rhonda had to capitalize upon found moments of conversation or to develop strategies to communicate with family members beyond sending notes home in book bags. This meant taking advantage of community presence when it was available—not expecting it at the school’s convenience.
Community presence in this case was fabricated not by the event (as it is commonly portrayed in policies) but by many small “physical” face-to-face teacher-parent interactions. The majority of these small interactions were independent conversations happening beyond or during drop off and arrival times in the school parking lot. Charlise spoke about her work with Rhonda, commenting,
I think my view of community involvement has changed. And doing this project really opened my eyes. When we sent out our group communication tool (survey) we learned a lot. The parents really wanted their kids to succeed. To read some of their responses to our ques- tions—It was like, “Okay, wow, they really do care.”
The experience of getting information changes your thoughts . . . For example, this guardian wrote for their goals and hopes for their children, “that she be mature and responsible, and to conduct themselves in society. I want them to function and have a strong work ethic" But just in your daily classroom happenings, we would have never known that.
Charlise and Rhonda spoke of the relative absence of parents in the school due to social circumstances. Yet, they were able to foster a culturally appropriate community presence in their classroom and often times in their school because their step team experiences, which drew the larger African American community into the school, went beyond parental attendance at events.
Parents and grandparents in this urban community had obligations such as work, other children, and schooling that limited face- to-face attendance at school events; Charlise and Rhonda did not allow this to overshadow the community’s desire for school success. Reinforcing families’ values toward college attainment, Charlise and Rhonda created a community event. Seeking to inform themselves of parents’ perspectives allowed Charlise to see parents’ expectations for their children and school success even if parents themselves could rarely attend events. Charlise spoke of how conversations with Mrs. Faye and her families’ input allowed her and Rhonda to make this decision:
Tapping into children’s interests and [parents’ hopes], that’s why we decided to do the Step Team. Because the kids in Mrs. Faye’s room loved to dance . . . you love to dance, go do that in college, go dance there. Showing them that there is a world of possibilities.
What may have been misinterpreted when viewed only through a human capital perspective was reexamined and repositioned through intercultural understanding on the part of these preservice teachers. Janine described an overall ethic that she thought her teacher training had taught her and which she would take with her into the profession. Her comments echoed Charlise’s ethic of responsibility and support for families as both women’s skills of teaching grew. One thing Janine stated was her own awareness of social networks and their importance:
Making yourself known in the community . . . You may not live in that community, you may not live in the same county, but showing that you support these families, no matter what income, and that you’re doing it for the child, and you’re not . . . you are not showing . . . bias.
But you are willing to say, “I am here for this child. I’m going to be here. Just so you know, I am here for this whole entire community.” And that way, you can network, you can create different networks within that community.
Preservice teachers and mentor teachers perceived children were difficult to teach unless or except in conditions when they also achieve “social relevance” in the learning tasks. Though teaching to standards was a common frame of thinking, more culturally relevant strategies were always necessary to foster trust, which then merited success in academic achievements (Ladson-Billings, 1994).
Ms. Gypsy, a Caucasian teacher, described herself as “spending a life growing with other cultures”; Ms. Gypsy’s parents were missionaries, though she was not. She believed that due to her own experiences she “quickly adjusted to new environments and cultures.” Ms. Gypsy and her male and female preservice teachers co-constructed and defined CRP, and across the course of several semesters, I often noticed her using social capital resources to reorder some of the classroom expectations while our preservice teachers worked in her room.
One poignant episode confirmed for me that academic progress would not come without social trust. In other words, social capital knowledge may be precursor to realizing the potential of academic learning in heavily human capitalist environments.
Social capital may be an important precursor to initiating human capital. Mrs. Gypsy described one of her harder-to-teach students at a moment when he was demonstrating large successes due to his individual reading fluency work with her preservice teacher, An:
[During] individual work each day . . . he [the child] would say, “that’s too easy. Can we try something harder?” And so An would say, “Where do I go from here? Can I try just a regular book?” I said, “Please do!”
So they moved from the fluency builders on into the Hundred Book Challenge books and into the Harcourt manual for him to tap out. And so he was taking notice of punctuation, commas, where could a natural phrase be, all of those things we would take into account.
Mrs. Gypsy was one of the most effective teachers in this study and had an individual goal of supporting “male role models” for her male third graders. As part of this research project, she initially chose to focus on a challenge in her classroom with a young boy accepting and taking her leadership as a woman. She conjectured that family disruption made one male student less trustful of women, and to meet her goals, a male preservice teacher (Alan) was selected as her field student for the experiential learning component of the project.
Mrs. Gypsy described the ways in which she utilized the support of field students to supplant what she could not accomplish alone. She needed to make headway with one challenging student who she described as “always moving and tapping and drumming.” After noticing this child’s desire to tap his pencil throughout lessons, she and An devised a plan to build a firmer relationship with the student and accomplish successes with reading:
Alan could joke with him and give him direction and redirect and this little guy would take it. This little guy, we noticed real quick, is [sic] extremely bright, but he’s never been successful academically. Now, Alan had a huge part of that. We noticed that he was struggling with his reading and it was because he thought he didn’t like reading. And his fluency was below where it needed to be for third grade.
He always has to dance when he moves. He’s always tapping out rhythms and writing his own raps. So I took that and I told Alan, I said, “You know, I wish we could find a drum core for him. I wish we could find some sort of musical program for him.” But [Alan] said, “I can read music and I know enough about the drums that we can do this!”
Alan took the fluency builders and he left the room with the drum and went to where no one could hear them. The student Alan worked with went from being in the second to lowest reading group to the highest reading group. His fluency is now 156 words per minute correct. So he has really come a long, long way. And the math scores are following suit, just because he’s finally figured out that he really can.
Conclusions: Step It Up; Social Capital as Power Will Need to Trump Human Capital If School Culture Is to be Effective for Children on the Margins
In this chapter, I have explored and disseminated information on the impact of preservice teachers’ work in classrooms of low-income urban children, and in doing so also featured the merits of community-focused curriculum to circumvent deficit views. As these mentor teachers and preservice teachers worked together, they resisted the human capital constraints in this public school environment. More instrumentally, I argue the practice of constructing intentional critical dialogues around teaching serves as the action point for decision making (Wertsch, 1991, 1998).
Culturally relevant strategies like rap, drumming, poetry, and writing became the central focus in children’s learning. As a consequence, families and this community of African American urban children held cultural and social capital within the school community. Drawing upon theories of social and cultural capital, the author/researcher analyzed interviews and focus group data to share how preservice teachers come to understand their particular responsibility (agency) toward African American inner-city children. Nevertheless, preservice teachers didn’t come to conclusions of agency in isolation, but only in relation to each other, their mentors, and university setting: “With regard to agency, such an approach assumes that agency is not automatically attributed to isolated individuals; rather, it is often socially distributed or shared” (Hokka et al., 2012, p. 85).
Such an approach explores the values of educators in these opportunities for dialogues provided by experiential efforts, collaboration, and university/school partnering. The data illuminates the varied chronotopes of our times (Bakhtin, 1934/1981), centered upon two opposing value systems, one that describes low-income families and their children as society’s problem and burden, and the other that features the strengths, resilience, topics of interest, and skills to a frame a particular cultural capital of children as teachers act with conscientious intent to identify student and community strengths. This theoretical lens has given congruence to the ways in which cultural and social capital theories exist counter to, within, or even in concert with human capital theories. Such opportunities reconstruct the universality of education for the “economic good” of society and allow the formation of local power dynamics that situate the child as her own knowing subject.
In conclusion, I feature the writing of Johanna’s work And you gotta believe me from Sacha and Angeline’s third grade classroom with Mrs. Gypsy. In this instance, Sacha and Angeline reported that Johanna had written several of her longest sentences in the context of their powerful curricular unit on the history of rap music and its relationship to poetry:
Ma name is Johanna
Am like math. Am a girl. And you can ask ma dad.
And I like to cheer. And I like to cheer.
Ma sister is four. She is horrible every time am come home.
My room is messed up. Ma Brother is crazy. And you gotta believe me.