This Little Light of Mine: How Agency and Praxis Can Cultivate Student Empowerment



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Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade (2009) wrote that if failure to provide quality education continues, it will not be because we lack the know-how to effectively educate all children, it is because we lack the resolve to do it. As a steadfast leader of teaching and collaborating with children, Duncan-Andrade mentors hope in students and teachers alike. This resolve, to effectively educate all children, acknowledges how difficult ‘know-how’ is actually then translated into a hopeful, realistic process. New information from political, economic, geographic, cultural, and social influences constantly disrupts how elementary students are taught and learn. This constant tension between what a quality education offers a child versus what a child offers their education plagues the social and interactive process that can measure quality educative growth. A strategic plan of action that emphasizes positive self-identity, hope, and a sense of purpose is fundamental to academic achievement (Duncan-Andrade, 2009). This study closely examines the intentional practices of this teacher researcher and the predominant lived experiences of her past students’ parents to realize a quality education for their children. It explores how this teacher researcher interacts and responds to her time and place within her personal and professional identities, as well as the influence of time and place on students based on long-term observations and interpretations their parents watched them go through. Public school education, especially for low-socioeconomic elementary children, has pedagogically been approached as a banking system of knowledge (Freire, 1970). It fails to develop the cultural capital of low-socioeconomic elementary children. This study investigated the incipient insights and perspectives of this teacher researcher and the longitudinal effects of an after-school program using the empowering AGENTS framework. AGENTS – Awareness of issues, Gathering knowledge, Empowering others, Navigating and Negotiating pathways for change, Taking action, and Speaking out (Rock & Stepanian, 2010) – was created and developed by this teacher researcher so that elementary students had a safe place to explore their cultural capital. AGENTS offered to foster interest and competence in community involvement and the formalities of social engagement in pre-adolescent elementary students. Critical pedagogical perspectives are central to nurturing these elementary students’ agency, which is informed by social justice praxis (Shor, 1992). This study seeks to answer the questions: What are parents’ perspectives on the impact of AGENTS for elementary students? How can a teacher(s) support and develop a sense of ownership within a students’ evolving awareness of self? How do these interpretations inform future views and practices in upper grade level environments? The main methods of research were narrative inquiry and critical ethnography in a qualitative case study, allowing this teacher researcher to investigate the AGENTS framework and four parent participants’ stories related to their observations of their children within their educational career. This teacher researcher chronicled her experiences in a written journal. Designed as a reflection of the researcher’s understanding of the experiences and issues presented throughout the year-long work with students, observations of students’ behavior and comprehension of their community interaction choices were recorded. Parent participants were recruited from the Humble/Atascocita area in Texas, with a recruitment email sent to this teacher researcher’s former students’ parents asking them to volunteer for the study. Participants were self-identified and based on self-determination of the inclusion criteria that they spoke English or English as a second language, were at least 30 years of age, and gave parental permission to their child to participate in this teacher researcher's after school organization one to nine years ago. In all, five parents responded with an interest to be a potential participant, but only four parents were able to meet face-to-face for interviews. Two parent participants identified as white, one identified as Hispanic, and one identified as Asian. Data collection consisted of digitally recorded individual parental participant interviews. This teacher researcher conducted two interview sessions with each parent participant. Sessions were structured into one 30-minute individual interview and one 90-minute whole group interview, four weeks apart. This teacher researcher reviewed the previous interview session to ensure questions were still pertinent for the next session. The second session was also an opportunity for the participants to reflect on the stories and experiences shared and add any other information that they weren’t aware of during the first interview. Interviews were conducted with parent participants, both individually and in a group, to gain insight into their perceptions (i.e. feelings, values, attitudes, motivations) of their child, from elementary school to their current grade level, and the benefits, issues, and impact of participating in AGENTS at a pre-adolescent age. Parent participants also reflected on their student’s subsequent educational opportunities, experiences, decisions, and choices on their child’s development within their educational career using designated prompts. After a thorough transcription, all data was numbered, color-coded, and interpreted to reveal major themes. Broadening was used to determine that the context of the study was an authentic part to developing pre-adolescent students’ values. Tracing and restoring was used to highlight and make connections among particular stories, values, and experiences over time. AGENTS was an important connection to the broader educational landscape of acknowledging pre-adolescent students’ capabilities and talents. Major themes to emerge from the data were the character development of pre-adolescents, exercising humanity towards others, and bolstering a multi-dimensional parenting presence. The transition from elementary school to middle school had a major impact on pre-adolescent self-perception and capabilities. A desire to maintain and forge strong bonds with a leadership figure, such as a teacher, was highly valued. Information gained through this research informs individual practice, teacher/student action programs, and other elementary empowerment programs on how to better foster agency and ownership within school environments. AGENTS had something more to offer pre-adolescents in their educational career than typical after-school elementary clubs. It provided a unique perspective where their ideas were championed and their ability to make a change based on their choices alone. Within a world of ever-changing challenges, the auspicious ideas and actions of pre-adolescent students could be a game changer for the future of elementary education.



Elementary students, Agency