Peers, Power, and Privilege

The social world of a 2nd-grade classroom

By Lauren G. Mednick

Illustrator: Alain Pilon

Illustration: Alain Pilon

I vividly remember standing at the door of my classroom on the first day in my new school, a highly regarded urban magnet school. I was 8 years old, and I looked around at my classmates — they were so different from those at my old private school where everyone had pretty much looked like me. Here were kids with a wide variety of skin colors, hairstyles, and clothes. I wanted to throw myself into the classroom and become friends with them all!

Unfortunately, it did not turn out that way. There were confusing barriers. I remember one day on the playground walking over to a group of black girls and watching them play a hand game that was unfamiliar to me and listening to them talk, using many words that I did not understand. I hovered for a while, hoping that someone would invite me in, but I felt awkward and invisible and slowly walked over to the other side of the playground where a group of mostly white kids were playing games that I did know.

Gradually my circle of friends (all girls) coalesced and included four white girls, one biracial (Puerto Rican/white) girl, one black girl (often teased by other black kids, who called her an “oreo”), and a child from India. What I did not realize at the time was that they were all from middle class families. Our families lived in similar neighborhoods; our parents became friends. For the kids, it translated into frequent play dates and carpools to gymnastics and soccer, places where I never saw my classmates from low-income families.

I enjoyed my schooling, but at some level, I always felt troubled by the racial divisions in my elementary and secondary schools and the fact that teachers did not seem to be concerned about them. These unsettled questions and the desire to help out in the schools led me to volunteer as a teaching assistant in a similar magnet elementary school throughout high school and college. I became aware of the gap between the rhetoric and reality of “desegregated” schools. I heard administrators and teachers congratulate themselves on having achieved a “balanced” and “diverse” population in their school. In contrast to my childhood experiences, they seemed to assume that all they had to do was to put children together and integration would magically happen because, after all, young children are “colorblind.” I saw attempts to “keep white families in the schools” with enrichment programs and “gifted and talented” classes. While these initiatives satisfied some parents, they widened the racial and social class divisions among the children.

Illustration: Alain Pilon

Based on these experiences I decided that the culprit was “ability grouping.” As Ray C. Rist discovered 40 years ago and others such as Jeannie Oakes have described more recently, the white middle-class children were in the higher groups while their low-socioeconomic-status (SES) peers of color were assigned to the lower groups.

The kids, of course, immediately figure out which are the “smart” and “dumb” groups — despite cheerful non-hierarchical group names (e.g., Giraffes, Lions). When I was in 3rd grade, the teacher let us choose our own names. My “high” group settled on Whiz Kids, whereas a “lower” group called themselves Cool Cats. In 4th grade, I was put in a “low” spelling group with several of the black kids that I had so eagerly wanted to befriend when I first came to the school. However, by then I equated this placement with being “stupid.” I felt ashamed, and my main goal was to work hard enough to get back up to the higher group (which I did). At the time, I was only conscious of my own humiliation, but now I see the devastating effects of ability grouping on children.

As I spent time in different classrooms, I realized that it was not just the ability grouping per se that caused the divisions, because children still clustered in their own racial and social class groups at other times. Segregation seemed to be propelled by other forces as well, and I wanted to understand what went on in children’s interactions that reflected and reinforced these divisions and why these dynamics seemed to be “invisible” to teachers. So with the help of my advisor Patty Ramsey, who has been a longtime advocate for social justice and for multicultural anti-bias education, I examined these patterns for my senior thesis at Mount Holyoke College.

With the permission of the teachers and parents of the children in the classroom where I was volunteering, I systematically observed and recorded the children’s contact patterns and conversations in different activities. The school where I made these observations was a racially and economically diverse urban magnet school located in the Northeast. (I’m not naming the school here, because I promised anonymity in order to record these observations.) The classroom of 28 children had a fairly even balance between white and black children, with three biracial children and one Latino child. Race and social class almost completely overlapped with the exception of two middle-class black boys and two middle-class biracial girls. (Estimates of social class were based on available information on family income, household size, and residential neighborhood.)

I realize that this is just a snapshot of one class of students, and so I don’t want to overgeneralize based on my observations. Nonetheless, what I found helped me to reframe my own childhood experiences and to rethink the kind of teacher I’d like to be.

The ways that social class divides children were evident in my observations of the children’s interactions, making cross-group conversations and play difficult. The white middle-class children often talked about books they were reading with their parents, structured after-school activities, and expensive family vacations in conversations that excluded their low SES peers.

In a fast, high-pitched voice, with a smile on her face, Megan (a middle-SES, white female) says to Amy (a middle-SES, white female), “Are you going skiing this weekend?” In a low voice Amy responds, “Noo.” Cody (a low-SES, Latino male) walks over and says in a slow voice with a small smile on his face, “I’m going ice skating this weekend.” Amy and Megan continue talking about skiing as they giggle. They do not respond to Cody.

In contrast, the low-SES children talked about neighborhood and family events and were more likely to interact with humorous, physical actions such as playfully bumping into each other, which often led to reprimands from the teachers.

It is lunchtime, and Summer, Andrea, and Arianna (all low-SES, African American females) are sitting next to each other. Andrea is in the middle and is sliding back and forth, bumping into each girl. She is giggling and saying in a high pitched voice, “Tornado, tornado.” Summer and Arianna begin to laugh and sway their bodies back and forth. After a few minutes, the teacher on lunch duty yells at them over the microphone.

When I started to observe what actually occurred in children’s conversations and play, the biggest and most disturbing surprise was the extent to which the white girls and one biracial girl (all middle class) dominated the low-SES boys and girls of color, with threats of reprisal including reporting their actions to teachers or principal.

The children are finishing breakfast and the teacher has just announced to the entire class that they had 10 minutes to finish eating. Liza (a middle-SES, white female) turns to Ricki (a low-SES, African American male) who is sitting next to her eating his breakfast, and, in a harsh tone, she says, “All breakfasts must be thrown away before specials,” as she rolls her eyes. The boy replies in a quiet voice, “I’m almost done.” The girl then says in a very stern tone, “You better be… Or I am getting the principal.” The boy looks around the room, then gets up and throws away his container, leaving cereal in the bowl.

The boy complied, suggesting that the hierarchy was well entrenched by this time (January-March) of the school year. The classroom teachers — both very experienced and sensitive — and I were stunned that we hadn’t noticed this pattern before. Even more disturbing was the realization that the teachers (and undoubtedly I, too) frequently reinforced this hierarchy, sometimes punishing based solely on a white girl’s report.

The teachers also frequently put these middle-SES girls into positions of authority by asking them to do special jobs (e.g., hand out papers, stack chairs, run errands to the office). Over one three-day period the teachers assigned 21 tasks to members of the class. Almost 90 percent of their choices were middle-SES females, who, in turn, often used these responsibilities to dominate or intimidate their peers.

On the rare occasions when low-SES children of color tried to make demands on a middle-SES white child, the teachers often undermined them.

Todd (a low-SES, biracial male), while looking at the nearby teacher, says in a loud voice to Amy (a white, middle-SES female who has taken his marker), “Give me my marker back!” Amy continues to look at her paper and draw with the marker. Once again Todd says, “Come on!” Amy still continues writing. The teacher then tells Todd to sit down and be quiet.

As others have found, and I had observed in many classrooms, the white middle-class children were placed in the highest ability groups and in the “talented and gifted” program. They also were chosen most often to read aloud when the whole classroom was reading together. However, what surprised me, when I observed children’s interactions more closely, was how frequently they flaunted their academic skills by belittling the work and interests of their low-SES peers (e.g., “I’ve already written two pages!… How come you’ve just started?”).

During free time in the library, Daisy (a low-SES, African American female) says excitedly, “Oh, look at this!” as she lifts up a book and shows it to Amy (a middle-SES, white female). Amy answers in an abrupt tone, “I read that in 1st grade.” Daisy puts the book back on the shelf, turns her back to Amy, and walks away slowly, looking down at the floor.

Often the assumption of authority and academic superiority converged.

Lindsay (a middle-SES, white female) walks up to Randal (a low-SES, African American, male), and says in a stern voice, “Why are you still writing about your small moment? Everyone else finished days ago.” Randal looks at Lindsay with wide eyes, then looks back at his paper and continues to write.

In this incident, Lindsay got out of her seat and walked over to Randal to reprimand him for being behind on his work. He didn’t overtly resist Lindsay’s criticism. The teacher, who was within hearing distance, did not say anything.

The message about academic superiority appeared to have been absorbed by all the children. In several observations, low-SES African American children went out of their way to ask middle-SES white girls about assignments, frequently bypassing peers of color.

While the divisions and hierarchy of the classroom seemed fixed and tacitly accepted by children and teachers alike, there were some positive and equitable cross-group interactions. These were more likely to occur when teachers explicitly conferred equal power on all the children involved. One time a teacher asked Megan (a middle-SES, white female who often dominated her peers of color) and Carla (a low-SES, African American female) to work together to organize a bookcase and they collaborated quite well.

Megan takes a pile of map placemats from the bookshelf and says, “A little help please… ” with a gentle smile on her face and a high-pitched voice and a slight giggle. Carla takes the maps and places them on a lower shelf with wide eyes and a big smile. She puts one of the maps on the table, looks down at it and with a smile on her face says, “Look . . . I found Connecticut.” Megan looks and in a high-pitched voice says, “Cool!” Carla replaces the map on the shelf and then takes a pile of books, which Megan is handing her. Then Megan turns around and says (to the observer), “Miss L., look at how good it looks. Me and Carla did this all ourselves.” Carla has a huge smile on her face as Megan talks about how well they had worked.

The children also had positive and balanced cross-group interactions when they were engaged in physically active play, such as playing tag at recess, or when they were all interested in a novel event or object.

During recess, Isabella (a middle-SES, biracial female), Summer and Andrea (both low-SES, African American females), Lindsay (a middle-SES, white female) and Pete (a middle-SES, white male) are all intently looking at a tree. Isabella and Pete are touching it and then slowly pulling their hands away. In a piercing voice Isabella says, “Ahh, it’s sticky.” In a loud voice and a smile on her face Summer says, “Cool… that’s sap.” Pete and Summer then call over to the teacher, and Pete says, “Look Mrs. M…. There’s sap on this tree!” All of the children are talking animatedly with one another and most of them are smiling.

Interestingly, given the prevailing assumptions about the white middle-SES girls’ academic superiority, it is Summer who appears to be the most knowledgeable about the sap.

In retrospect, the same dynamics and power differentials existed in the classrooms that I attended as a child. My friends and I enjoyed being the “best” students and the recipients of praise and privileges. I now realize that despite my long-term concerns about the racial segregation in classrooms, I have not fully appreciated the divisive effects of social class nor “seen” the power differentials among the children. Thus, it is not surprising that teachers, preoccupied with the many pressures of running a classroom and meeting multiple expectations, are often unaware of these dynamics and ways that they unwittingly reinforce them.

The racial segregation and power inequities that I observed are deeply rooted in the divisions in the larger society. In the past year and a half, I have worked in a couple of other classrooms and have seen these patterns emerge in different dimensions. For example, in a classroom of refugee children, the students who spoke more English were clearly at an advantage both academically and socially. Teachers tended to talk more to English-speaking students and frequently bestowed responsibilities on them, and thereby supported the existing hierarchy.

By learning to observe the nuances of children’s behaviors, I have become better at monitoring my own decisions and reactions. I see clearly how the social norms of children from middle-class families are aligned with the expectations in the classroom and, as a result, how easy it is to put more advantaged students in positions of leadership. Often these decisions are driven by the need to get a job done with the least disruption — in other words “convenience.” However, now I try to consciously equalize power and ensure that all children have opportunities to hold positions of responsibility. Likewise, I discourage children from reporting on others’ misbehavior and am especially careful not to act on white middle-class children’s negative comments about peers of color.

Encouraged by the positive cross-group interactions that I did observe, I try to create opportunities for children of different groups to work together in cooperative situations where power is explicitly shared. So we put on plays, do collaborative murals, play cooperative games at recess, to name a few activities. My goal is not only to equalize power but also to help children reach out across economic, racial, and cultural barriers and to find and develop common interests.

Observing children’s interactions — closely and systematically — expanded and deepened my understanding of peer relationships and how they are influenced by the larger society. Because children often mask their discriminatory and exclusive behaviors, we need to learn to see “below the surface” so that we can identify and challenge children’s assumptions about different groups. Armed with this information, we can monitor our decisions about program structure and our moment-by-moment responses to specific situations to be sure that we are challenging, rather than reinforcing, the racial and economic divisions and hierarchies of our larger society.

Lauren G. Mednick is a teaching assistant in a kindergarten classroom in an urban public school and a teacher in an after-school program for refugee children. She did this study for her senior honors thesis at Mount Holyoke College in 2006. Patricia G. Ramsey (who assisted in this project and writing the article) is Professor of Psychology and Education at Mount Holyoke College. She is the author or co-author of several books on multicultural education, including What If All the Kids Are White? Anti-Bias Multicultural Education with Young Children and Families (2006).