Cultural Studies of Science Education

, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp 73–103

Movement expressiveness, solidarity and the (re)shaping of African American students’ scientific identities


DOI: 10.1007/s11422-007-9050-4

Cite this article as:
Elmesky, R. & Seiler, G. Cult.Scie.Edu. (2007) 2: 73. doi:10.1007/s11422-007-9050-4


Science educators have yet to identify ways to enable inner city African American high school students to experience success in science. In this paper, we argue that understanding the ways in which cultural practices from fields outside of school mediate what happens inside classrooms and contribute to the learning of students is crucial to addressing current disparities in science performance. Specifically, we explore the significance of movement expressiveness dispositions to the lives and the learning of economically disadvantaged African American youth. These particular dispositions have been repeatedly observed in our research, and they can be important resources for the creation of individual emotional energy, collective solidarity, and heightened engagement in learning activities since they provide resources for the (re)shaping of identity. Thus movement expressiveness dispositions hold potential for transforming the teaching and learning of these students.


African American students  Cultural dispositions  Movement expression Hybrid identities Creolized science 

Stop that tapping

One fall day in 2001, following our first summer of collaborative research, I called Shakeem, one of our student researchers, to see how tenth grade was going. He was not doing well—in fact, he was getting “kicked out” of classes often. As I engaged him in a conversation about what was going wrong, he gave me an example of his behavior in one of his classes. He explained that, without thinking, he had begun tapping out a beat with his pencil as he “wrote” rap lyrics in his head, after the teacher had already asked him to stop once. As I listened, one part of the conversation stood out and has remained with me over the years. Shakeem expressed, “Music is a part of me. I can’t help it! If I’m not rappin, listenin to music, I’m makin it.” (Student quote from Elmesky’s field notes, 10/01)

For Shakeem, a student researcher1 who worked with us for over 3 years, music is central to his life and to his very existence. The same is true for many of the other 2,300 African American students at City High in Philadelphia. In hallways and classrooms it is common to hear students rapping and singing and to see them breaking into a few dance steps or swaying as they walk. Energy is high, synchronous movement is prevalent, and rhythm seems to be present within individuals and visible in their interactions with others. However, a visit to City High on any day is likely to reveal occurrences, such as the one Shakeem described, that illustrate the generally negative reaction of school personnel to these practices or patterned actions. Despite the respect, admiration, and reinforcement that youth may receive from their peers, teachers and administrators often respond negatively to the same actions. They frequently view African American students’ forms of expression such as movement, singing, rapping, and beating as detrimental to the generation of a productive learning environment and, particularly in science classes, teachers consider them to be outside the norm. When engaged in these actions, students are seen as off-task, delaying work, or being disruptive, and they are usually disciplined or labeled accordingly2 or experience other forms of symbolic violence.

The consequences of such violence are manifold in a school that is highly segregated (98% Black) with the majority of students living in economically disadvantaged circumstances. With high dropout and absentee rates and low graduation and college admission rates, schools such as City High are ineffective in creating opportunities for students to transform their marginalized educational, social, and economic positions. The role of science education in reproducing these inequitable conditions cannot be ignored; student achievement in science class serves to open or close gateways to higher education and to careers in math, science and technology. Therefore, it becomes highly problematic when the science education experiences received by the students are disjointed, lack quality, and feel very removed from what they know and value. For instance, at City High, students complain of being forced to take Biology I following their successful completion of Biology II. Additionally, many of the tracks or small learning communities (SLCs) lack sufficient resources to support students’ active engagement in science activities. Teachers who endeavor to make science class more engaging and innovative struggle to locate materials and space. Furthermore, textbook work and lectures dominate most science classroom instructional practices; for example, due to fear of student misbehavior, lab activities such as dissections were prohibited for years. Beyond such challenges, we find most disturbing the symbolic violence experienced by students like Shakeem as they struggle to exist as who theyare with relation to science as a discipline and with relation to their teachers who are most often very different from them culturally. It is to these latter conditions of science education that our attention, in this paper, turns.

Movement expressiveness and identity

In this paper we use four vignettes to present findings arising from longitudinal critical ethnographic and micro-sociological studies of African American students’ practices in multiple fields,3 including their homes, a university workplace, and an inner city science classroom. Our research provides evidence that movement expressiveness or “the interwoven mosaic of music, movement, and percussive dance” (Boykin & Cunningham, 2001, p. 73) is prevalent across these fields and represents a collage of practices and dispositions4 that are both developed during collective activities and embodied by the individual. The significance of these dispositions lies in the patterns that are personally embodied by the youth and the ways in which they serve as material and symbolic resources for interactions with others. As such, these resources contribute to the structures of the fields in which the youth participate and are shaped by and also shape their power to act or sense of agency. Through the vignettes in this paper, we provide evidence of (a) the centrality and unconscious enactment of movement expressive dispositions as part of students’ identities, (b) how the enactment of movement expressiveness as resources amongst peers and teachers can evoke both positive and negative emotions, and (c) how student identities expand and hybridize as movement expression is enacted in conjunction with science learning activities.

We suggest that music and associated expressive forms of movement and sound are dialogic parts of how the students are in the world. As socially acquired ways of being, movement expressive dispositions connect the youth with others in the fields and subcultures in which they participate. Movement expressiveness then contributes to their hybridized identities, that is, to the multiple and varied ways in which individuals consciously and unconsciously describe or represent who they are (their narratives), as well as the ways in which others perceive them. Identity can be understood as inherently both stable and frail. Yet, even what appears to be a stable identity is, as Roth (2006) describes, the outcome of continuous reproduction. Dialectically constituted both in the individual and collective realms, identity is constantly being formed and reformed5 as narratives are revised.

For the youth attending City High, movement expressive practices are persistent and pervasive in their experiences, serving as resources to produce and maintain identification with others across the different fields in which they participate. As they engage in such practices fluidly, and often unconsciously, they are enacting a narrative of who they are for themselves, and in the process the youth are promoting who they are in relation to multiple groups of others. They continually put aspects of who they are into a public arena for response, uptake, and ultimately valuation or the lack of it. In being with a particular collective, an individual may push forward (consciously and/or unconsciously) particular narratives while different aspects of a narrative may be told to and enacted with other groups. Thus, experiences in interactions within collectives dialectially shape an individual’s identity, as represented in Fig. 1.
Fig. 1

Identity as shifting and stable perceptions of self, mediated through social interactions with multiple collectives

If movement expressiveness is valued within a collective, those parts of one’s identity will be reinforced through interactions, and identification with that collective will be strengthened. Conversely, if movement expressiveness is not valued, well received, or responded to positively, identification with the collective represented in that interaction will be weakened. In the first instance, when movement expressiveness is valued, there is a greater possibility that feelings of solidarity will develop not only between the participants but also between the participants and the larger representative group (collective). In some instances, a new collective will be formed with which the participants identify.

Thus, solidarity can be conceptualized both in terms of inter-personal and intra-collective bonds. In another study (Seiler & Elmesky, 2007), we explored solidarity in terms of communalism—a sense of loyalty to others, having strong emotional connections with a particular person or persons, taking up for another, or “having another’s back,” as Boykin (1986) previously theorized. In our prior research we explored this type of prolonged communal bond by following two particular students across spatial and temporal fields and documenting evidence of the communalism that was generated between them and reinforced through successful interactions. However, in this paper, we theorize solidarity as not necessarily relying upon prior personal attachments (although a history of relationship bonds may serve to strengthen the possibilities for generating further solidarity from any particular interaction). We provide evidence for the solidarity that emerges during interactions with people, who may or may not know each other well, but are able to “recognize” each other based on a shared stock of knowledge of emotionally charged symbols. For example, some African American male teens who are not acquainted still know how to greet each other—the stylized handshake, the shoulders touching, the averted eyes, and the back slap all comprise an elaborate greeting that signals a bond, some shared aspects of their lifeworlds, and an identification with a particular collective. When dispositions are successfully enacted, connections to collectives intensify. Thus, in this paper, we cite the pervasiveness of cultural knowledge enacted during the unconscious unfolding of students’ actions and responses as evidence for feelings of generalized group affiliations, while recognizing that strong emotional, personal ties are also potentially forming simultaneously. In theorizing solidarity as both connections to specific individuals and to general collectives, we do not need to follow certain students, documenting long term personal relationships of support, to make a case for the role of movement expression in identity (re)formation. Rather, our discussions of identity rely upon other types of evidence for the presence and development of solidarity: enactment of verbal and non-verbal cultural understandings; the fluency with which the youth recognize each others’ moves and ways; the eagerness and willingness with which youth engage in interactions using their cultural dispositions and associated symbols; the rapid establishment of mutual focus and synchrony; and the positive emotions that often emerge.

Movement expressiveness, emotions and solidarity, then, are central to discussions of identity. Continuous production of positive emotions, for example, through movement practices in a particular collective, will strengthen solidarity and identification across fields that differ in participants, location or time, if they are materially or symbolically linked.

Identity, emotion, and science learning

We believe that, perhaps, the most highly valued outcome of science education for urban youth from racially marginalized populations is the generation of strong feelings of identification with doing science. Recently, educators have begun to examine the connections between identity, emotion, and student learning to understand the failure of schools to prepare students from oppressed groups. Recognizing vital connections between identity and language acquisition, Gee (2004) writes about the negative consequences of feelings of not belonging when one’s valued home-based practices are unaccepted and denigrated in school. Olitsky (2005), who has also conducted research in urban science classrooms, describes how structural factors, such as school rule systems and classroom discourse norms, often interfere with student claims for group membership and feelings of solidarity around science and how certain teacher practices can mitigate these structures and promote student identification with a classroom science community. Among the teacher practices that she notes is when the teacher creates opportunities for students to make unique, science-related contributions in class. Although Olitsky does not pursue the social and cultural aspects of contributions and interactions that play a role in community development and identification, we believe that cultural dispositions that are socially acquired in fields outside school and shared to a high degree by students can create the type of sustained interest and collective identification that she describes as critical in developing feelings of membership with school science.

Students’ identities (including their science identities) are shaped by the unfolding classroom structures, which may or may not resonate or “feel right” with regard to their cultural dispositions. If an individual, for example, begins to create a familiar rhythmic beat while crushing Alka Seltzer tablets with a mortar and pestle during a chemistry lab, the beat may resonate with a fellow classmate who might unconsciously respond by humming, rapping or swaying as she/he works. When resonance exists, students are more likely to experience successful classroom interactions in which her/his identity expands to include being a successful science learner. In research conducted by Tobin (2006), also at City High, he describes the interactions occurring between a teacher (Alex) who was similar to the students in terms of race, but different in terms of social class. Initially, Alex’s un-informed teaching practices generated negative feelings around being in science class and control struggles ensued. Over time, as Alex came to better know the students, more congruent teaching emerged and classroom structures changed to expand student agency; Alex acquired more of the students’ dispositions and worked to create spaces for their ways of being in the classroom. Tobin’s study specifically points to the importance of teaching with respect, which we argue, more readily occurs when the disposition gap between teachers and students is narrowed and coparticipation is in synch and appropriate. That is, classrooms in which teachers have a strong sense of the students’ ways of being will more likely help students to expand their identities and use their dispositions to connect with school science. In the final vignette of this paper, we illustrate the dynamic interplay between movement expressiveness, emotion, and identity by providing microanalysis of an instance in which Shakeem (the student whose quote opens the paper) and his teacher, Jen, experience cultural disharmony and a failed interaction during a science quiz.

Movement expressiveness, hybridized identities and the culture of science

Science educators such as Lemke (1990) and more recently Roth and Barton (2004) have described how marginalized students tend not to identify with school science. In its authoritative, technical and often depersonalized form, students whose experiences lie outside of the dominant culture struggle to find a comfortable place as members of a science learning community. Roth (2007) further theorizes these feelings of dis-identification with science in terms of diaspora or the sense of being taken away from what one knows and values. African American students living in economically impoverished urban neighborhoods experience diaspora on multiple levels. Their diaspora includes a history of displacement and enslavement as well as residing within modern day racially segregated communities where opportunities for employment and other connections with dominant society are limited. In addition, these students experience diaspora in relation to the culture of science, which is characterized by the Western tradition of dividing human nature into dual parts consisting of either/or dichotomies in which one aspect is valued and the other ignored or even denigrated. This lack of identification with science is experienced by Shakeem and by many other students who attend City High School. Science comes to exist as a foreboding bad taste that students anticipate negatively. As explained by Shakeem when referring to an upcoming science class activity: “Yo. You ever see somethin an be like: ‘Ooh, that nasty!’ But you never had it before? That’s how it is with science. It’s like, ‘Oh, science. Here we go.’”

Embedded in the primacy of Western epistemologies is the dichotomy between scientific, professional, and rational modes of thought in opposition to everyday, expressive modes. The latter are often viewed as primitive, non-rational, characteristic of novices, and inadequate. As everyday modes of thought continue to be contrasted to scientific modes, Lave (1988) reminds us that these dichotomies are often associated with class, gender, or racial distinctions and have been used as a basis for both cultural and cognitive deficit explanations of school performance. For instance, such dualities have led to the generation of commonly accepted negative stereotypes for women’s ways of knowing and often allowed women’s contributions to be maligned (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986). Similarly, the suppression by schools of the ways of knowing and being of some African American youth cause them to feel separated from the familiar resources of home and community.

Intrinsically connected to experiences of diaspora (of which school science is a part) is the development of hybridized identities—that is, aspects of individuals’ identities constantly (re)form in a bricolage so as to accommodate the multiple collectives that have been and continue to be navigated. For example, in our study, student identities associated with movement expressiveness represent a hybrid of rhythmic ways of being, rooted in West Africa, as well as in their families and communities and recent forms of pop culture. Understanding fields as having porous boundaries, we would expect science classrooms to be places where students would enact and further develop such hybridized identities. Viewing science learning as participation in a culture of science presumes that one goal is to have students learn to do, talk, and represent science—to participate in science discourse in a broad sense. However, this is not something that happens in an instant; it is a process of coming to know how to participate in a community of science do-ers over time. Therefore it makes sense that students would “come to know” by combining their ways of talking and doing (their hybrid identities) with the new science ways (further hybridization); both in-coming and on-going hybridity should be assumed, expected, and valued, although that is not usually the case. Instead, when African American youth from economically disadvantaged backgrounds enact stitched-together aspects of heterogeneous cultures, they are positioned as being outside the norms of science and science classrooms, and they struggle to incorporate narratives depicting themselves as individuals who engage in the doing of science. Roth (2007) further explains,

The [symbolic] violence does not come from the fact that they [African Americans] are different—difference exists inside White middle-class culture—but from the fact that enactments of their (inherently hybridized) cultural forms are repressed, punished, thereby leading to the (tacit, acknowledged) experience of oppression.

Recognizing that deeply embodied dispositions for movement expressiveness may exist almost in opposition to the culture of science illuminates how disconnects can emerge between students and science and encourages us to seek out ways in which teachers can promote cultural hybridity and bricolage where science understandings are constructed and represented using these expressive dispositions. A vignette shared later in this paper provides a vivid example of the emergence of reshaped identities and creolized science as two African American students represent their understandings of sinusoidal wave motion through the use of dance movements.

Tuning into movement expressiveness

Readers may question why we have chosen to focus on cultural dispositions such as movement expressiveness in relation to science education. The argument we often hear, as we advocate for classrooms that vibrate with cultural expression, is that this approach denies marginalized students access to mainstream codes needed for success. However, in urban schools, where the dropout rates may exceed 50%, the very nature of science education, as we describe early in this paper, provides marginal opportunities for students’ lives and there are few motivations for remaining in school. We, and others working in such schools, believe that profound changes are needed to reverse this trend, and our research tells us that it is unwise to deny the power of the students’ inherently hybridized and hybridizable identities. Just as creolized languages evolved to serve the purpose of allowing the speakers of a non-dominant language to participate in business transactions, so might the evolution of creolized science afford participatory opportunities for marginalized students. Further, we assert that creating science classrooms that resonate with cultural dispositions and afford identity (re)shaping does not preclude focusing on a specific curriculum aimed at preparing students for high-stakes tests in science. In fact, there is increasing evidence to show that culturally adaptive teaching can ameliorate conflictual situations and reduce instances of student “resistance,” which detract from time devoted to science instruction. Research has shown that changes made in pedagogical styles to include more energy and verve (Carambo, 2005) and in curricula to include student analogies and topics of student interest (Seiler, 2001, 2005) contribute positively to the development of a sense of community in classrooms serving African American students. Hence, through better cultural alignments between students and teacher there arises enhanced potential for promoting greater student identification with and engagement in science.

Readers may also question whether associating urban, African American teens with movement expressiveness dispositions contributes negatively to the stereotypical representation of this group. By employing critical ethnography as a methodological approach that embraces the voices of those marginalized by the dominant social group, we worked with student researchers in ways aimed to promote their empowerment and coparticipation. The student researchers provided access to unique data sources (e.g., student-produced film projects and personal video ethnographies) and contributed to data analysis as described more fully by Elmesky and Tobin (2005), making possible insights that otherwise would have been unavailable to us. Their involvement assisted us in identifying foci for research studies (in this case, our study of movement expressiveness). Working with us for 3 years, including intensive summer research sessions, the youth brought to the forefront both the complexity of their hybridized identities and the centrality of music and movement in their lives, particularly in spaces outside of school. In addition to the emphasis on movement and self-expression in the artifacts that they produced, simply being with the students in spaces that afforded expression of their dispositions was essential in helping us “tune into” movement expressiveness as a prevalent and deeply valued way of being, both inside and outside of science classrooms, that contributes to the (re)shaping of their identities. However, we take seriously Gutierrez and Rogoff’s (2003), reminder that, “[t]he aim is to ground observations across multiple settings and communities and to assume various vantage points to understand the complexity of human activity” (p. 23); thus we do not intend to attribute this disposition to individuals or a group as a trait. Rather we present dispositions such as movement expressiveness as both regular and varying and as “proclivities of people with certain histories of engagement with specific cultural activities” (p. 19). Therefore, we study culture through the experiences of individuals and groups, and we encourage educators to see their students as “participants in cultural communities” (p. 23). Rather than assume that all African American students “have” these traits, we encourage educators to understand the array of cultural dispositions their students demonstrate, both collectively and individually, and how students attempt at various times to enact them in school.

In the following sections, we journey across social fields both inside and outside of school to illustrate movement expressiveness as a resource in collective interactions and as an embodied way of being. We attempt to authentically represent the patterns in what we have observed—specifically, students creating beats and raps in various fields, dancing at home with friends, producing musically vibrant science video presentations in the workplace, and simulating sinusoidal wave motion with dance. Admittedly, the representation of such three-dimensional rhythmic expression, motion, and musical stimulation as text upon paper is challenging and limited in its capacity to genuinely communicate the powerful nature of students’ movement dispositions. We incorporate detailed verbal transcriptions, translations of non-verbal actions into verbal descriptions, and photographs to assist in the process. By studying movement expressiveness of students across social fields, we attempt to represent the pervasiveness of them and the fluid, often non-intentional manner in which they are enacted, even in science learning contexts. We also illuminate the role of teachers in either embracing or truncating students’ use of dispositions such as movement expressiveness and the consequences in terms of students’ identities and the re-envisioning of a community of science learners.

Movement expressiveness across fields

Street corners and bus stops, churches, family gatherings, school hallways, cafeteria and classrooms—movement expressiveness can be seen among the African American communities of West Philadelphia in all of these settings or fields, which Swartz (1997) describes as temporal and physical spaces where culture is enacted. This attention to cultural enactment together with Sewell’s (1999) conception of culture as loosely bounded systems of symbols, practices and their associated meanings leads us to understand movement dispositions as emotionally charged symbols and practices originating within and transgressing across these and other social fields. Since fields have porous boundaries, we see similar practices used within multiple fields, particularly when the appropriate resonance is present.

We have searched across data sources in order to acquire an unfolding, everyday meso level understanding of practices that illustrate a high level of music, rhythmic movement, and dance. In doing so, we have narrowed this paper to focus upon patterns of synchronous body motions involving only two actors. Through microanalyses, which included studying various video segments at fluctuating viewing speeds, we gained access to quickly passing motions, the shared understandings that shape them, evidence of synchrony or the lack of it during interactions, and non-verbal communication including direction of eye gaze and hand/body position and movement. We found that it is useful to first analyze student practices outside of school, since they are most prevalent in such fields. Thus, we begin with the analysis of movement expressiveness in the home, and then move into science learning contexts over the course of three additional video vignettes.

Movement expressiveness in the home

When cultural practices are enacted, they are often done so unconsciously. However, in order to reach a level of unconscious enactment, youth may spend time developing a sense of what is appropriate and feels right within a particular field, both alone and with others. Student researchers shared with and demonstrated to us that they engage in practices individually (Shakeem: “If I’m not rappin, listenin to music, I’m makin it”) and they engage in practices collectively, taking turns rapping in stairwells and dancing together in each other’s homes. Our focus in this section is to provide preliminary images of how movement practices, enacted in pairs, contribute to the way students identify themselves and how others identify them.

In one student researcher’s final edited video ethnography6, which is 12 min in duration, she includes video footage captured inside of her home, and a large portion of it contains images of dance and movement, illustrating the primacy of this disposition in her life. As theorized early in the paper, identity can be understood as both changeable and continual through experiences of self within the collective. In her ethnography, Olivia communicates important information regarding both the frailty and stability of her identity through her choice of video, titles, and transitions in her ethnography. For example, right before the edited video scenes that feature dance, Olivia includes three blank screens, each with its own separate title. The major introductory title reads, “These are the things that make me me!” Thus, Olivia lets the viewer know that the footage to come will provide insight into a narrative of who she considers herself to be. The next screen flashes up a statement reading, “Those who had an impact on me,” indicating that she has become in relation to a collective (“those”). With the final title reading “Mica: Born to entertain,” Olivia specifies one particular friend, “Mica,” as a representative of the collective (“those”) with whom she associates. Through these statements Olivia provides us with insight into how her identity is (re)formed in the existence of self with others—in this case, Mica and others who may dance in a similar manner. Hence, we can understand movement expression as practices that allow Olivia to both represent and further shape who she perceives herself to be in relation to others. In establishing an autobiography of one’s identity, an individual identifies or dis-identifies with specific groups (those who dance); this shapes future interaction dynamics, which in turn further shape the individual’s personal narrative. Dispositions comprising the autobiographical narrative are employed as resources in interactions and, thus, are made public and contribute to the generation of solidarity with the collective. Identity (re)construction reflects the failed or successful nature of the interactions. It is in this interplay between the individual and the collective during interactions, that identity is formed and reformed through integrative, reflexive work on “the ongoing ‘story’ about the self” (Giddens, 1991, p. 54).

Shared understandings of non-mirrored line dance

The video selections following the aforementioned titles feature Mica and Olivia engaging in a rhythmic dance, moving in synchrony in a side-by-side arrangement. Their ability to move in unison without verbal communication indicates that they share an understanding of certain cultural practices. The side-by-side arrangement of the pair is indicative of line dancing or stepping, common within the African American community, and differs from dancing in which the partners are opposite each other. Both young ladies exhibited the knowledge that when engaged in this dance, you do not mirror your partner’s action; instead, you raise, lower, or move the same foot, hand, leg, or arm and not the opposite one from your partner. Both in real time and in slow motion, the coordination of the young ladies’ arm, leg and body motions is nearly perfect and without verbal communication. They rely instead on the musical beat, eye gaze, and the close proximity of the other’s movements, all of which are structures that afford their synchronization. Slow motion viewing of the video additionally emphasizes the shared practices and understandings that Olivia and Mica hold with regard to the dance. In Fig. 2, the frame-by-frame photos capture the female pair moving first their right arms and then their left arms in identical paths. Olivia and Mica move to the music playing in the background with the same timing and rhythm, such that their arms bend to the same angle at the same time. Their left arms remain extended downward throughout the movement of their right arms, and as they raise their left arms, they hold the right arms in place.
Fig. 2

Olivia and Mica engage in rhythmically synchronous movements

The fluidity with which the movement expressiveness dispositions, described and shown in Fig. 2, emerge suggests that these youth held common knowledge of how and when to enact certain motions. As they enact movement expressiveness together, the young ladies are reinforcing and sharing who they are as individuals (“things that make me me”). Specifically, Olivia’s actions and her accompanying commentary (the titles preceding the video) illuminate the collective process through which she reinforces part of her identity (e.g., a narrative of herself as a talented dancer); thus, movement expressiveness afforded by the structures is contributing to the continued telling of her story of self. In subsequent vignettes, we engage in more detailed analyses to illustrate how similar movement practices are associated with the expansion of agency and can generate solidarity and (re)shape identity in science learning contexts.

Movement expressiveness in inner city science classrooms

While Olivia and Mica’s dance emerged somewhat consciously as they performed for the camera, the following vignette analyzes a similar line dance that occurred between two different youth, Nathan and Ashley, under different conditions. Instead of a planned video recording, Nathan and Ashley were caught on tape as they spontaneously came together in an almost identical dance in a few free minutes at the close of a chemistry class at City High. Recognizing Olivia’s conscious choice to include line dancing in her ethnography greatly assisted us in understanding that Nathan and Ashley’s sudden yet synchronous enactment of movement expression in chemistry class was not an isolated event; rather it exemplifies movement expressiveness as recurring cultural practices that rely on shared dispositions and understandings and are frequently enacted when afforded by structural resonance. In the following sections, we analyze Nathan and Ashley’s spontaneous dance through the lenses of successful interactions, solidarity, emotional energy and identity.

Learning from Nathan and Ashley: successful interactions, solidarity and identity

In Anita’s7 class, we often saw evidence of movement expression, developed in other places and times, seeping through school walls and into the classrooms due to porous cultural boundaries. One day in March of 2002, in a few minutes of free time at the end of class, as students distributed papers and traveled around the room, movement expressiveness was prevalent as they moved in rhythmical ways, swaying while they walked and sometimes dancing alone or in synchrony with another student. They sung or rapped to each other and to the camera, and there were many smiles and the constant sound of laughter as the youth moved around the classroom, providing evidence that feelings of membership and positive emotions were experienced when classroom structures afforded the use of their cultural dispositions. In the midst of these interactions, one exchange involving Nathan and Ashley appeared particularly interesting.

In viewing their interaction in real time, Nathan and Ashley appear to simply come together, from different parts of the front of the classroom and dance in synchrony. It is immediately obvious that there are many similarities between these youth’s actions and Olivia and Mica’s way of dancing. Similar to the two females in Olivia’s ethnography, within a few seconds, Nathan and Ashley lined up side by side and rhythmically swung their arms and bodies in a coordinated and harmonious manner, while remaining in place (see Fig. 3). That is, once attaining synchrony, they began to lift and lower their arms at the same pace, bending them to the same angle and raising them to the same height, fists closed, perfectly timed, alternating between left and right arms, while stepping slightly and swaying.
Fig. 3

Nathan and Ashley engage in spontaneous, expressive movement during free time at the end of chemistry class. Note that the right arms of both participants are in synchrony as they move through the four frames

By observing the images of the two dances provided thus far in the paper, one may conclude that there is an interesting pattern of synchrony and non-mirrored motion in both cases. In each scenario, only two individuals are involved. In addition, both pairs first move their right arm upwards, bending at the elbow; their left arms remain at their sides, extending downwards. Once the “right” level has been reached with the right arm, the dancers then begin to move their left arms. The meso-level comparison of the two interactions discussed thus far provides important evidence that some African American youth embody similar rhythmic ways of being in relation to others. However, a microlevel analysis of Nathan and Ashley’s interaction produces additional evidence that this type of dance performance creates structural resonances that elicit deep understandings among some African American City High students. In the next section, we analyze the interaction to show the subtleties of how the two youth attained synchrony with each other during this unplanned display of movement expression. These subtleties are significant, for without shared understandings of “appropriate” practices, the youth could not attain such precise, harmonious motion with each other. For example, as middle-aged mixed racial (Rowhea) and White (Gale) females whom have been enculturated into other forms of cultural practices, we would most likely have failed miserably in reading Ashley’s cues and would not have been able to engage in the interaction successfully, had we been invited. Ashley and Nathan’s shared understandings are evidence of their solidarity with a larger collective that is perhaps situated on neighborhood streets, in homes and churches, and with peers in school. When used in interactions, movement expressiveness becomes part of the classroom structures that students like Nathan and Ashley can unconsciously yet agentially access and appropriate, further strengthening feelings of solidarity and identification with those who enact movement expression.

A closer look

This synchronous dance becomes possible when Ashley and Nathan are drawn together into the same physical space; this occurs through a series of non-verbal cues. Initially, it appears that from a distance, Nathan and Ashley share eye contact across the room full of individuals. As he approaches Ashley, we can observe the subtle signals that she provides to communicate the type of dance that will unfold (see Fig. 4 for the detailed transcription). Specifically, as they look at each other, Ashley points her finger and nods her head. Originally perpendicular to Ashley, Nathan then repositions himself to line up alongside Ashley.
Fig. 4

A series of non-verbal practices draws Nathan into a dance interaction with Ashley

Once the initial contact is made and both individuals are spatially located in the appropriate alignment with respect to the other, the challenge in this unrehearsed dance seems to be in developing a rhythm in which they both move the same arm at the same moment. We would expect this pattern of movement based upon our analyses of the ethnography dance segment, and in accordance with our theoretical view of fields having porous boundaries. In other words, if non-mirrored line dancing represents a common set of cultural practices among some of the students of City High, we would expect that structural resonances of what feels “right” would result in Nathan and Ashley moving the same arm (e.g., right) in synchrony, then the other, and so forth.

In fact, Nathan and Ashley start off out-of-synch by swinging opposite arms—Ashley, her left (9:02) and Nathan, his right (9:01). (See Fig. 5 for a detailed description of their actions.) However, Nathan maintains the position of his right arm (9:01–9:19) until Ashley lowers her left arm and raises her right arm to match the position of his right arm. If Nathan had not kept his right arm stationary, giving Ashley time to become in synch with his motion, their dance would have taken on a mirror effect (when you lift your left arm, I lift my right arm, etc.) Once Ashley has gotten her right arm to the same position as his, Nathan takes the lead for a second time by starting to lower his right arm (9.20). Ashley follows within a thirtieth of a second to also lower her right arm (9.21). Upon reaching the lowest level with their right arms, Nathan leads again by beginning to lift his left arm (9.24). This analysis reveals that Nathan’s unfolding actions resonate with Ashley and become structures that shape the manner in which their arms move, such as the distance to which they are lifted before descending and the length of time that each arm remains in a certain location.
Fig. 5

Nathan takes the lead in establishing the order in which their arms will be raised and lowered

Fig. 6.

Randy and Ivory evoke movement expressiveness as they learn about sound waves

By studying this interaction at the micro level, we can see that this cultural enactment relies upon shared understandings of subtle gestures and other signs. Within nineteen thirtieths (19/30) of a second, these youth are able to generate an understanding of the order in which to move when Nathan takes the lead in establishing that their right arms should be swung first. The rapid manner in which these youth are able to establish harmonious movement creates further evidence that this type of dance pattern was already deeply embodied knowledge. Owing to the porous nature of field boundaries, their identities are hybridized and heterogeneous, yet certain dispositions are called into play by the unfolding structure and by collective symbols. Thus, movement expressiveness is successfully enacted across fields when individuals share in-the-moment understandings of how to act together and when emotionally charged symbols provide resonance. Further analysis allows us to recognize that solidarity emerges through the enactment of coordinated movement.

Solidarity: contributor and outcome

Although it was a brief interaction as the chemistry class was preparing to leave the room, Nathan and Ashley’s dance represents a successful interaction, for which Collins (2004) describes several necessary ingredients. In the remainder of the paper we will explore the nature and repercussions of such interactions, looking particularly at solidarity or feelings of group affiliation, a critical collective outcome of a successful interaction. According to Collins, successful interactions involve at least two individuals (Nathan and Ashley) whose presence within a particular field (the chemistry classroom) is virtually or physically separated from the others within that space. Nathan and Ashley were apart from each other within the front area of classroom, yet came into closer proximity as the interaction developed, virtually isolating themselves from the others around them. Others in the room were not involved in the interaction and did not appear to react to it in any way. However, bodily presence and definitive boundaries are not enough to ensure that an interaction generates solidarity. Two additional dimensions crucially shape the nature of an interaction and its outcomes. If an interaction invites and sustains mutual focus upon a common object, action, or activity (in this case, the dance), entrainment or the sharing of a common mood between those involved in the interaction should emerge. Here, entrainment takes the form of synchronous movement. Since mutual focus and entrainment reciprocally strengthen one another, their presence then makes the possibility of experiencing a successful interaction more probable. In Nathan and Ashley’s dance, their movement expressiveness also played a crucial role in making the interaction successful. When individuals share dispositional orientations, they are more likely to experience successful interactions; common dispositions and shared understandings of each other’s ways of being, themselves evidence of solidarity and identification with a particular group, promote unconscious recognition of and attunement with particular cues, making it easier to develop and prolong shared emotional entrainment.

The solidarity/emotional energy dialectic

Positive emotional energy is both an immediate rush of good feelings rising from a successful interaction and a long-term manifestation of the solidarity generated in a successful interaction, which, as Collins (2004) notes, can carry over after the individual has left an interaction and arise again when resonance affords it. That is, the emergence of positive emotional energy as a long-term outcome for an individual is continually shaped by and shapes successful interaction experiences within the collective. While emotional energy may seem to be an unobservable phenomenon, it is perhaps “measurable.” For example, Collins suggests that emotional energy can become evident through body postures and movements, eye contact, voice rhythms, or speech patterns. On an extremely micro level, emotional energy creates patterns of strong, steady motion and acting with initiative and resolve, which may be most apparent during interactions within the collective. He describes expectations for what emotional energy would “look like” or “feel like”—for instance, positive emotional energy might be manifested in erect posture, firm and smooth movements, or dominating eye gaze. We find the theoretical notion of emotional energy useful in understanding how feelings of belonging (generated in group interactions) can become prolonged and lead to further engagement within the same collective and reflexive identity work in response; however, we question whether Collins’ indicators of emotional energy are culturally appropriate. In fact, it is unclear what shape or appearance positive emotional energy would take among urban, African American youth. Although we are in an ideal position to follow the students’ experiences and to explore micro indicators of emotional energy across time and place, our analyses here remain predominantly focused upon interactions and solidarity. Nonetheless, we believe it is important to address emotional energy here so as to illuminate the overlapping dialectical nature of emotion on the collective and the individual levels. Theoretically, over prolonged periods of time and many chains of interactions, students who have opportunities to experience solidarity and carry away positive emotional energy from successful encounters will have greater tendencies to feel confident and take initiative than students who repeatedly experience failed interactions and come away without positive emotional energy. That is, emotional energy (in addition to solidarity) can shape the ways in which students conceptualize their biography as learners, the modes of participation they enact, and the hybrid school science identities they (re)form over time. Therefore, the inter-relationship between cultural dispositions, solidarity and positive emotional energy is crucial to understanding how science classroom structures can create opportunities for inner city African American students to integrate positive feelings regarding their participation in science class into their personal narratives.

The (re)construction of science learner identities

Even though the solidarity generated from Nathan and Ashley’s interaction occurred during free time and was not connected to their participation in a science curriculum, educators should not underestimate the significance of such an interaction in shaping students’ identity (re)construction in science classrooms. Enacting movement expression can actually assist youth in developing feelings of membership with a culture of science, where they typically may feel alienated and unmotivated, by generating a new, creolized science community with which they can identify. That is, just as a particular handshake used by urban teens binds individuals with the collective and expands the field structures and their possibilities for agency, symbols associated with positive emotional energy and solidarity around movement might promote affinity of students to human and non-human resources and artifacts associated with science. As Nathan and Ashley strengthen parts of their personal narratives around symbols associated with movement expression (e.g., swaying arms, high stepping), they may come to unconsciously expand such positive feelings to symbols of being in the chemistry classroom (e.g., posters, texts, equipment or the instructor). As students generate a sense of belonging in science class through practices unrelated to science learning, their hybrid identities can expand to include being participants in science activities. These analyses point to the importance of developing planned and spontaneous approaches to curriculum enactment in which students can feel increasingly connected to science learning activities through movement expressive practices or other dispositions that are part of their identities.

Ivory and Randy’s science-related dance: hybridized identities, creolized science, and agency

In this section, we build on understandings that emerged from the vignette of Nathan and Ashley by analyzing the emergence of similar dance practices,8 this time within a science education workplace where two of our student researchers, Randy and Ivory, were employed. Although the previous two examples of movement expression feature four different youth (Nathan, Ashley, Olivia and Mica), we continue to present new faces in providing examples of movement expression so that we can build a sense of how prominent such practices are among many of the African American youth we have worked with and observed in City High School. By looking broadly across fields and youth, we are able to highlight patterns of how movement expressiveness dispositions can substantively contribute to the (re)shaping and further hybridization of students’ identities as science learners.

During their first summer of work, five high school student researchers produced a movie about sound in the city, which required that they learn about the physics of sound, including translational and longitudinal wave movement, standing waves, and wave reflection. As a resource for the lesson, Rowhea brought in a plastic slinky that she taped to the wall at one end. Soon Randy had grasped the slinky with one hand and began to set up varying standing wave patterns by fluctuating the frequency of his arm movement. As Shakeem played some “beats” on the computer, Ivory caught hold of Randy’s hand; they lined up alongside one another and began to dance in a manner that gave the illusion that a translational wave of energy was passing through their bodies, through the slinky to the wall, and then reflecting back in the opposite direction. When asked to consciously verbalize what they had just performed, Ivory explained: “Today, we’re going to show you how, by usin’ this slinky, as you see, how the wave can travel as the energy goes through us and the slinky, our body and the slinky...”

Figure 6 provides still shots and a detailed translation (from video images of actions to text on paper) of the non-verbal dance that was enacted by Randy and Ivory as they spontaneously explored wave motion through movement expressiveness. This “wave dance” is similar to the dance enacted by Nathan and Ashley in the previous vignette; both spontaneously erupt without discussion, draw upon rhythmic dispositions, presume shared understandings, and resemble each other in the positioning of the participants whom are aligned side-by-side. Further similarities will become evident as the analysis reveals that this dance, like Nathan and Ashley’s, is successful, and that participation in the dance reinforces their feelings of membership and identification with a collective that values movement expression as well as encourages their identification with a science community.

As discussed in the previous vignette, a key ingredient for a successful interaction is two or more people located in the same place in such a way that each bodily presence becomes a resource for the others’ actions. The close proximity and physical contact between Randy and Ivory meet this criterion. Although others were present in the room, there is a sense of a boundary around the two actors; no others moved to join the interaction either verbally or physically. Since a successful interaction emerges through the presence of a common focus and a shared mood that simultaneously reinforce one another, it is salient to study how Randy and Ivory are both acutely focused on creating the wave dance. Each participant’s attention is trained on the other, and the non-verbal nature of their coordinated actions indicates that their focus is shared. Additionally, successful interactions are recognizable by synchrony and fluidity as those involved anticipate and react in a timely fashion. In observing the vignette frame by frame, both Randy and Ivory were cued into synchronous motion by following the direction in which the other’s head is turned. For instance, it is not until Ivory’s head turned toward Randy that he began to move his arm upward (00:24); Ivory’s head direction remained toward Randy (00:24 – 01.27) as she waited for him to “pass” the wave to the slinky and then return it to her. As Randy and Ivory were able to establish synchronous movements through the non-verbal cues received and offered, they controlled the timing of their bodily actions. In addition, the physical connection between Randy and Ivory (holding hands) required bodily coordination on multiple levels; in order to achieve synchrony, their individual and collective movements needed to blend harmoniously together as well as with the slinky. Timing was crucial as their representative wave of energy had to first “travel” through Ivory’s body before continuing on to Randy, to the slinky, to the wall and then back again. In constructing the wave dance, Randy and Ivory represented their understandings of wave energy through a complex coordination of hand, arm, head and full body movements—indicating that Randy and Ivory’s wave dance is yet another example of a successful interaction featuring movement expressiveness. Through the successful interaction, the youth were building positive feelings of identification with both a collective of “those who dance” as well as “those who do science” as a new creolized science community was being shaped and Randy and Ivory were experiencing in-the-moment (re)hybridization of their identities.

In fact, this wave dance is one of our earliest examples of numerous ways that the student researchers unconsciously merged music, rap, dance and other embodiments of rhythm into research and science activities over the three summers of their work with us. Based upon the previous vignettes shared, we can infer that their ability to appropriately engage in this collective activity is linked to ingrained autobiographical narratives as people who can dance in a coordinated and harmonious manner with others. Additionally, previous experiences of successfully enacting movement expressiveness (with other participants who share these understandings in other fields) make it more likely that Ivory and Randy would engage in this dance together in the classroom. Moreover, the success of this interaction in a science learning context is contingent upon Ivory and Randy previously generating feelings of solidarity with peers most probably during non-science instances of movement expression such as the ones shared earlier in the paper. Thus, these types of dance moves represent emotionally charged symbols of aspects of their hybridized identities. We further argue that residual and newly developing feelings of identification serve to (re)shape their already hybridized identities to include a narrative of being someone who can utilize movement expression to represent science understandings. When identity (re)construction includes science and persons associated with science, the hybridized identity inscriptions can propel science engagement and learning, potentially across spatial and temporal fields.

We propose that such hybrid identities represent the generation of a creolized form of science; similar to creolized languages, creolized science provides new opportunities for communication and participation for those who contribute to it and employ it. Emerging from situations of diaspora and hybridized identities, we suggest that science educators view creolized science according to what Tobin and Roth (in press) have described as a triple dialectic of cultural reproduction, production and transformation. Creolized forms of science would then include (a) existing practices and symbols of science culture (e.g., cultural reproduction of accepted representations of wave motion), (b) new practices and symbols of science culture (e.g., cultural production of new ways of representing sinusoidal wave motion through dance), and (c) possibilities for expanded action both in science classrooms and in other fields (e.g., transformation of students’ notions of science learning as well as changed forms of line dancing).

If a scientist were to walk into the room during the wave dance, it is likely that she/he would know that Randy and Ivory were representing wave motion; if youth from the school or neighborhood in West Philadelphia were to walk into the room, they might join in the dance. Through their interpretation of wave energy, Randy and Ivory successfully blend their own culture and the culture of science as their hybridized identities (re)form. Creolized forms of science are developed as Randy and Ivory endeavor to earn membership both in the community of science and with youth who can dance to a beat. This kind of “remixing”9 of cultures powerfully represents the students’ exercise of agency.

We view agency, as Sewell (1992) suggests, as both individual and collective power to act in innovative ways that afford the meeting of personal and/or collective goals. Since agency and structure constitute a whole, as agency expands or shrinks, structure changes, and simultaneously as structure changes, agency also shifts. Randy and Ivory’s hybrid practices can be conceptualized as agential since they (re)form structures as they access and appropriate existing resources (movement dispositions) in new ways and transfer and extend schema (generalizable rules and norms) into fields different from those where the schema were formulated (school fields versus neighborhoods). This is similar to the way in which a creole language develops, as extant words and ways are used differently or mixed and merged to produce new forms, and new opportunities are created for the users of the new language. Science classroom structures alter as new resources become available, namely strong emotional alignments with particular groups. This solidarity, generated through movement expressive practices that are typically non-scientific but, in this case, are representative of creolized science, comprises both an outcome and a fuel. Once generated, it becomes a resource that shapes the ways in which an individual may affiliate with groups in fields outside of school as well as with those representing the school science community.

Theorizing movement expressiveness and failed interactions

As we have shown thus far, music, rhythm, movement and beats are vital to the identities of the African American youth represented here. In portraying a pattern of successful interactions involving movement expressiveness that promotes identification with particular collectives, it is also important to devote a portion of this paper to discussing contradictions to this pattern. The final vignette we share is one involving Shakeem and his student teacher, Jen. It reinforces the unconscious nature of movement expressiveness as part of a student’s identity, the contradictions inherent in the diaspora created for African American youth by schools, and the ways in which an interaction between a teacher and student can fail. Failed interactions with teachers, whom are also representatives of the culture of science, hinder the potential for students to generate positive feelings of identification or membership with their science class, the larger community of science or, most importantly, with a new hybrid science learning community.

It was an afternoon during the spring of 2001 and the students in a biology class at City High were taking a quiz. Captured by the video camera, Shakeem and Mario were sitting across from each other at a lab table; each was looking down at the quiz in front of him. Jen (a student teacher) stood next to Mario and leaned over as she pointed to his paper and spoke quietly to him about the quiz. Shakeem held a pen horizontally in the fingers of his right hand. He began to tap slowly and lightly on the table. He tapped 3 times at a pace of about 1 beat per second while his head moved at a quicker pace. After 3 beats, his rhythm quickened, and beat he made with the pen changed to a three-count. Then he added a low vocal sound to one set of three beats and continued the pattern of single beats and triple beats. For approximately 25 seconds, Shakeem continued to make this patterned beat with his pen on the table; during this time his head, though moving, was lowered over the table and his eyes were on his quiz paper. Across from him, Jen continued to speak with Mario about the quiz. Although Mario was seated directly across from Shakeem, he did not appear to react to Shakeem’s beat. Likewise, Jen did not appear to respond to it until after 21 seconds when she looked at Shakeem and interrupted him.

Living life to a soundtrack

Upon viewing this video clip within his student researcher capacity, Shakeem explained, “I think of beats all the time, whatever I do. Every time I walk down the street there’s a song in my head I’m thinking about. I live life to a soundtrack.” In this vignette, Shakeem illustrates his unconscious embodiment of dispositions toward rhythm and percussiveness as he beats out a complex polyrhythm10 using his head, hand, and voice. Shakeem’s body mediates between his private and public lives, between his narrative self and his self engaged in a social field, as his identity is (re)produced. Throughout the “soundtrack” of Shakeem’s life, he has cultivated a narrative of self as a rapper, performer, and composer that can be considered counter to, or incompatible with, mainstream culture especially school culture. However, the repercussions of his embodiment of these dispositions and their use as resources for construction of his identity are significant in science classrooms where expressive movement and sound are typically not welcomed, making it more likely that failed interactions will occur between him and his teachers.

This vignette also reveals that Shakeem’s focus on his task of completing the quiz coexisted harmoniously with his task of creating a sophisticated, polyrhythmic beat, until interrupted by Jen. His concentration is indicated by the direction of his eye gaze down on his quiz and the manner in which his head and shoulders were bent forward as he leaned over his paper. As we continue with detailed analysis of the subsequent seconds, we can see that while beating, Shakeem was creating a context that resonated with his cultural dispositions and afforded his efforts to focus on the quiz; both the resonance and the focus were broken when Jen interrupted him.

Failed interaction with the teacher: lost opportunity for connecting with science

The transcription of the verbal and nonverbal actions in Fig. 7 provides ample evidence of the failed nature of the interaction between Shakeem and Jen.
Fig. 7

Lack of solidarity emerges as Jen attends to Shakeem's movement expression

First, their actions do not unfold in a fluid manner. They lack a sense of anticipation of each other’s statements; rather, statements have to be repeated despite their close proximity. For example, “How much time...?” is repeated three times by Shakeem. In addition, physical proximity and boundaries to outsiders are violated as Jen alters her position with regard to Shakeem several times. First, she moves nearby Shakeem (00:26), then away from him (00:42), and then back again (1:02). These multiple shifts in location break the interaction, making it difficult for continuity and flow to emerge; nor can mutual points of focus develop or be sustained. The interaction continues to unfold unsuccessfully as Jen touches Shakeem’s arm. Unlike all of the instances of movement expressiveness discussed thus far in this paper, the physical contact between Jen and Shakeem is accompanied by negative discourse from Jen and, ultimately, a frustrated response from Shakeem.

At 00:26, as Jen first touches Shakeem’s arm, she makes a comment that positions herself in opposition to rather than aligned with Shakeem, “Come on. You’re wasting time.” Shakeem stops his rhythmic beat and removes his focus from the quiz; his response is mild with only his eyes moving to look at Jen. Jen’s statement does not invite Shakeem to experience positive emotions with her or with the rest of the classroom who is taking the quiz as well. Instead, he is positioned as an individual who is engaged in out of place activities that waste time, although video analysis shows that while Shakeem is beating the tune, he is also bent over his quiz intensely, in a manner similar to all of the other students within the video camera span. Later, at 00:39, Jen again touches his arm, this time accompanied with the statement, “No, no, no, no, no.” Shakeem’s reaction is stronger this time; instead of simply looking at her as he had done earlier, he puffs his cheeks and turns his head away, followed by more intense production of his beat. Specifically, Shakeem taps the table harder with the pen, moves his head more forcefully, adds vocalization and begins tapping his foot underneath the table (00:50). Any possibilities for building feelings of connection with Jen are lost. It is probable that Shakeem failed to carry away positive emotional energy and that he remained bereft of the initiative and confidence as a science learner that a successful interaction with the teacher could have enabled.

However, the interaction between Jen and Shakeem has implications that extend beyond the two participants. It is informative to think about what did not happen in terms of solidarity, not just between Jen and Shakeem, but more importantly, considering Jen as a representative of science and in terms of solidarity within a larger collective of participants in a creolized science community. The failure of solidarity with such a collective can be understood not only as the failure of emotional energy to be generated between the two participants, but also the failure to form new, shared symbols, charged with emotional energy. Instead, an already emotionally charged symbol of Shakeem (making a beat) was devalued in the interaction. Thus, emotional energy between Jen and Shakeem and solidarity with an emergent science community was likely damaged and certainly was not built. In the next section, we examine how chains of failed interactions, such as this one, and lack of solidarity around school science experiences connect with the relationship between the stable and frail, and individual and collective elements of Shakeem’s identity.

Integration into the on-going story of self

Looking back at the quiz vignette, it is clear that the impact of Jen’s interruption on Shakeem was significant. The increased intensity of his beat following the interruption might perhaps be interpreted as a confrontation to the teacher’s authority, or as behavior that could be seen as resistant or oppositional. However, conceptualizing the interaction in terms of attempts at solidarity within a diaspora provides a more situated interpretation. In this view, Shakeem’s actions represent his efforts to integrate the events that occurred in the external world with his on-going story of self. Shakeem’s goal no longer seemed focused on making sense of the quiz, but rather to reestablish his identity as a beat/music maker, which had been disrupted by Jen’s actions. A failed interaction such as this can be understood in terms of the continuing (stable) and changing (frail) parts of Shakeem’s identity. At Shakeem’s core is an autobiographical narrative of himself that is built on rapping and making music. Rather than being supported by this interaction during the quiz, his narrative was devalued and diminished, and Shakeem worked to create, maintain, and revise his movement expressiveness identity in the face of this failed interaction.

Similar to Tobin’s (2006) findings of a chemistry classroom interaction between Victoria, a new teacher of Asian ethnicity, and Mirabelle, an African American student, we argue that Jen and Shakeem’s interaction failed primarily due to their disposition gap. During a student-researcher data analysis session, Shakeem asserted that his beat was not distracting to anyone except Jen, and indeed the videotape supports this assertion. Interestingly, Mario and the other students in the class did not react to Shakeem’s beat. In fact, they did nothing to acknowledge it until Mario stopped working on the quiz following Shakeem’s significantly increased volume that signaled his frustration.

When Jen viewed the videotape, she wondered about the nature of her response and recognized that she was bothered by the beat Shakeem was producing. Her expectations for quiz-taking in science class included the norm that students would work silently. She assumed that if she heard the beat, it was likely to be interfering with the concentration of other students. Her concern was also that it was causing Shakeem to waste time and therefore would hurt his grade on the quiz. For example, when she first addresses Shakeem she does so in a whisper, looks at her watch, cautions him that he is wasting time, and encourages him to answer question number 16. Implicit in this concern was the assumption that making a beat was likely to interfere with, rather than enhance, Shakeem’s thinking about science. Thus Jen did not consider that Shakeem’s polyrhythmic expression could establish a context that resonated in a positive way for him and might afford his performance as a science learner.

We recognize that Jen’s reaction is not unusual since few educators have begun to view cultural dispositions like movement expressiveness as potentially engaging and motivating resources for student participation. For this reason, we see a need to provide teachers, administrators, and university faculty with visual and textual images of the ways in which students’ movement dispositions can work between the individual and the collective, to shape both structure and agency, and to serve as resources for science learning. In doing so, we suggest viewing students’ hybridized identities and new forms of creolized science as positive and potentially transformative occurrences.

Dancing to a new beat: implications for science education

Our goal in this paper is similar to that described in Women’s Ways of Knowing (Belenky et al., 1986). Like those authors, we endeavor to reshape the vision for school and science participation to include others’ voices. Moreover, we expand the concept of voice to include non-verbal ways of knowing and coming to know with others. Just as those authors explored aspects of women’s intelligence and modes of thought that are largely unrecognized and valued by the majority culture, we do the same for African American teens who are students in our urban schools. Mainstream White norms and conceptions of learning and knowledge have shaped traditional pedagogical and curricular standards, and we suggest this has created bias that continues to marginalize certain populations of non-White students. Propelled by emotional energy emerging from the individual\collective dialectic, students infuse their dispositions into science class and act as bricoleurs who compose heterogeneous identities; but their efforts often counter the desired norms of objectivity and rationality in science.

Movement expressiveness pervades the daily experiences and identities of many African American urban teens. It is part of the schema and resources with which they act and interact in the social realm, and it plays a role in the social interactions through which youth identify with certain groups and construct understandings both inside and outside school. The schema and resources that a teacher employs appear to make or break the creation of an environment where students can participate comfortably and where they might develop a sense of solidarity and a hybridized identity around science. Roth and Tobin (2007) used microanalysis to study the “beat” of classroom communication. They report that speech pitch and other features such as eye gaze and hand, head, and body position and movement of teachers and students frequently align during non-conflictual interactions and in classrooms where the teachers, although culturally different from the students, were experienced in understanding the students’ cultures. They note that, in some cases, this alignment helped to defuse potentially confrontational situations that are common in urban schools where teachers and students are culturally different. We believe that highlighting the role of cultural dispositions, such as movement expressiveness, as both contributors and outcomes of emotional entrainment is a crucial piece to add to this discussion, since these dispositions are enormously significant in the students’ lives and can play an important role in producing hybridized identities and knowledgeabilities in science.

In this spirit, we have endeavored to portray our understandings of movement expressiveness as a set of embodied resources with potential for enhancing student participation in school science. By making their potential visible, we attempt to contest traditionally accepted teaching and learning practices that often shut down the expression of cultural dispositions in science classrooms. However, it is important to note that none of the examples of movement expressiveness in successful interactions took place in a classroom setting during a formal science learning activity. Olivia’s ethnography was filmed at home. Nathan and Ashley’s “line dance” occurred during free time at the end of a science class period, and the “wave dance” took place in a summer work and learning environment at the university. If these dispositions are part of the students’ ways of being, we would expect them to be expressed by students during more structured science classroom activities (such as whole class and small group discussions, lab work, and group work) and they are. However in those instances we have found that they are often fleeting, since they are rarely viewed as resources through which agency might be realized and learning opportunities transformed. Shakeem and Jen’s vignette reminds us how easily student agency and the creation of purposeful hybrid identities around science are truncated when the practices involve movement expressiveness.

Implications for teachers: expanded ways of being

We suggest that the construction of successful inner city science classrooms requires broadening our perspective of what constitutes participation in science, embracing a wider range of students’ cultural resources within the learning process and welcoming unconscious and conscious efforts by students to hybridize their ways with science ways. As expressed by Barton (1998), “Teachers need to know more than what is conventionally included in the school curriculum ... so they can provide opportunities for personally relevant engagement in science by a wide variety of students” (p. 12). We have found that determining what constitutes opportunities for “personally relevant engagement in science” is explicitly linked to students’ identities. That is, students can engage more effectively in science classrooms if we better understand how they define themselves, the collectives within which they find ownership, and the emotional power of this ownership for the youth.

There has been a continual call over the years for teaching in many disciplines that is culturally responsive, relevant, sensitive, congruent or otherwise affirming of marginalized students’ histories and experiences (e.g. Ladson-Billings, 1995). Solidarity and emotional energy provide a means to understand why culturally relevant teaching “works.” Noddings and Shore (1984) emphasize the role of emotion in classrooms; they describe a disposition of “feeling with” among successful teachers and their students in urban schools. Many studies of culturally relevant teaching portray a classroom ethos in which students experience confidence, enthusiasm, and initiative—all outcomes that can be associated with positive emotional energy. It appears that shutting down practices that seem inappropriate, in an effort to make students look and sound consistent with external norms, denigrates their own purposes and symbols and alienates students from school’s purposes and symbols, and thus, counters the goals articulated in No Child Left Behind legislation and in Science for All documents.

Shakeem and Jen’s interaction illustrates the importance of culturally different teachers becoming attuned to their students’ embodied dispositions and recognizing the power within a diaspora for generating new forms of science in schools. Improvements to urban science education are more probable as teachers, initially, recognize and understand the role of movement and other cultural dispositions and, eventually, seamlessly enact teaching practices that are harmonious with them. The research of LaVan and Beers (2005) has emphasized the need for creating spaces via cogenerative dialogue where teachers and students can come to understand their unconscious and conscious practices and negotiate multiple ways for participation in science. For students this means ways that are “their own” as well as ways that are closer to mainstream.

Our prolonged contact with Jen as co-researcher throughout her first years as a new teacher has illuminated that science classroom structures can evolve to be more embracing of the connections students have with others whom embody movement expressiveness. Several years following the interaction with Shakeem, Jen similarly approached an African American student who was tapping out a beat on the table. In contrast, this time she motioned for him to beat his hand against his legs, which would produce a softer sound than beating on the table. Now more tuned in to the importance of rhythmic movement to the student’s engagement in the activity and comfort in the classroom, Jen has developed schema and resources that provide a mixture between the students’ needs and those of herself and, possibly, the others in the room. Thus, Jen’s own dispositional ways of being in the classroom have hybridized to include, rather than shut down, movement expressiveness. Jen has continued her own transformation in these areas, and she is participating in the study of her own trajectory, which will be chronicled in future manuscripts.

Connections to macro issues

Science educators, policy makers and other readers may question how our microanalysis of emotional processes in various settings provides insight into macro issues such as social reproduction and school success. To begin with, we have shown that movement expressiveness, when enacted among African American youth, who may or may not have personal ties, promotes successful interactions that will reinforce connections with larger collectives and produce emotional energy that can have long term, macro consequences both inside and outside of school. As positive emotional energy emerges during interactions in science classrooms, it becomes more likely that the students will expend effort to combine their own ways with the ways of science and attempt to create hybridized identities and creolized forms of science and see themselves as members of a new science community that they are shaping. Emotional energy also offers an understanding of commonly advanced assertions linking poor African American student performance to an explanation of resistance to schools and science. Like Seiler, Tobin, and Sokolic (2001), we seek to reconceptualize behaviors commonly labeled as student resistance in ways that do not fuel deficit models or explanations based on individual intentionality. Over time, and given the opportunity, individuals tend to participate in interactions in ways that will generate positive emotional energy and solidarity within the collective. If an individual takes part in an interaction that is likely not to lead to solidarity and positive emotional energy, he/she might engage in practices that will reaffirm or give voice to parts of the identity that have been associated with collectivity and positive emotional energy in other interactions in the past. Hence, students in potentially unsuccessful interactions with teachers will act in ways that reconnect with their collective self, relying on practices associated with solidarity among other groups like their peers; this, we believe, is typically interpreted negatively by teachers and school personnel—as resistance.

Furthermore, utilizing theoretical lenses from the sociology of emotions and cultural studies in science education research provides new insights into the mechanisms through which schools function as agents of social control and reproduction. By insisting that African American students abandon their cultural dispositions, schools insure that current power relationships will be maintained, not because the oppressed actually do acquire “normative” ways of being, but rather because they do not. As they continue to enact cultural expressive practices, they are increasingly weighed down by low emotional energy resulting from their daily experiences in science learning situations in which there are few opportunities to achieve emotional entrainment and to feel connected to their expressive identities that have (re)formed over time and field, decreasing the chances for agency, purpose, and perhaps hope. African American students are further disadvantaged when the lack of emotional energy that they experience in science classrooms carries over to other situations, particularly those associated with other systems that duplicate the stratification of power by race and class; they are often disempowered in situations in those institutions as well. Thus, hindered opportunities for experiencing solidarity and positive emotional energy can be linked to a system of internal colonization, as described by Watts and Erevelles (2004), that limits African American success in high school science and locks the doors to many higher education and career opportunities.

The final word

As science educators begin to understand the dialectic relationships between cultural dispositions, emotions, identity, and agency in school science and other spheres of life, we must be committed to the creation of classrooms where participation involves the use of students’ own cultural resources and the generation of creolized science ways, as a means for students to acquire additional ways of participating over time. Adhering to an insistence on canonical ways of expressing and representing scientific concepts and viewing creolized interpretations and understandings as deficient seems out-of-synch with the world in the 21st century, in which an “ontology of difference” (Roth, 2007) would be much more fitting and productive. We can learn from Shakeem, Randy, and Ivory’s practices and capitalize upon the notion that students can and do unconsciously work to create a context that resonates with their own and their peers’ cultural dispositions. In doing so, they are agential—creating new forms of expression as well as focus and engagement in science learning. We strongly advocate embracing a “new beat” in science education—a vision that looks beyond student dispositions such as movement expressiveness as off-task, resistant, or non-productive—a new beat that promotes cultural “remixing” in science and moves towards an understanding of the role of cultural dispositions in (re)shaping identities.

Rowhea Elmesky

is an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis where she continues a program of research on the teaching and learning of science in urban schools. Along with Ken Tobin and Gale Seiler, Rowhea edited their book entitled, Improving urban science education: New roles for teachers, students and researchers, which won the Choice Award for Outstanding Academic titles in 2006. Her main contributions to the science education field have been developing macro, meso, and micro level understandings regarding the ways in which resources and schema from social fields outside of the classroom shape what occurs within and the identification of students’ cultural capital.

Gale Seiler

teaches science education as well as multicultural education courses in her position as an associate professor at McGill University. Before obtaining her PhD, she was a high school science teacher for 16 years, teaching culturally diverse students in a variety of settings from Baltimore to South America. Her current research is school-based and employs theories from cultural sociology, Black psychology, and cultural studies to explore the teaching and learning of science among urban, African American high school students. She is also involved in collaborative research with participants in local schools and is interested in the development of new teachers who are able to work with students and parents from communities that are marginalized and oppressed. In 2005, Gale founded the Baltimore Freedom School, a summer program that is part of a national Children’s Defense Fund initiative to empower African American youth.


A number of student researchers have worked with us during the school year and summers. Here we use pseudonyms for the student researchers, their school peers, and their high school.


The disproportionate percentage of African American students who are in special education and labeled as emotionally disturbed, along with their high rates of suspension, expulsion, and attrition (Noguera, 2003; Office of Special Education Programs, 2003) provide evidence of this type of cultural normativity.


Swartz (1997) builds on Bourdieu’s conception of fields and describes them as temporal and spatial arenas where culture is enacted. In this paper, we refer to the neighborhood, home, science classroom and workplace as different fields. Fields fluctuate across location, time or through the presence of different participants.


We view practices and dispositions as interconnected. Practices are patterned actions and dispositions are embodied tendencies to act.


Throughout the manuscript, we use parentheses to represent the idea that actions and processes occurring in relation to identity at times produce a new form and at other times produce something that resembles an existing form—e.g., (re)form, (re)produce, (re)construct and (re)shape.


In order to construct their video ethnographies, each student researcher recorded video footage of salient fields in their lifeworlds, and in most cases they edited the footage to produce a final representation. See Elmesky and Tobin (2005) for a detailed definition and examples of student researcher video ethnographies.


Anita was a chemistry teacher at City High and also a teacher researcher who collaborated on the NSF grant.


This vignette has been previously described in Elmesky and Tobin (2005). The analysis conducted here is significantly different.


Remix refers to an alternative version of a song that is different from the original version in noticeable ways. It is a common phenomena in dance music, hip-hop, and R&B as verses are added to songs and beats conserved or modified to build on the audiences’ familiarity with the original song while also extending it in new directions to appeal to new listeners. Stanford law professor Lessig (2004) points out that much creative art as well as technological innovation has been derived in this way, and he advocates for a participatory remix process that might advance society in many arenas. We suggest that science is such an area.


Polyrhythm is the simultaneous sounding of two or more independent rhythms.



The research described in this paper is supported in part by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. REC-0107022. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in the book are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. We are grateful to Michael Roth and Ken Tobin for their extensive theoretical feedback, encouragement and patience during this process.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Washington University in St. LouisSt. LouisUSA
  2. 2.McGill UniversityMontrealCanada

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