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You're Forcin' It, Miss.

Even though I'm not a classroom teacher, I hear this phrase quite a bit. It's usually associated with phrases such as "why are you wandering in the halls?" and "hats off, please." or sometimes even, "hey, how's it going?". This response can mean anything from a friendly, "yeah, I'm too cool to be responding to you right now", or "you are dangerously close to making me hit the roof." It's actually started to become ingrained in my vocabulary, as in: "they are totally forcin' it right now, thinking I'm going to pay $3.25 for a gallon of gas." But it sounds much different, and admittedly, a little inauthentic when I say it. Which makes me think: as someone about to dive into a massive piece of research studying students, how can I tell their stories truly and authentically?

The truth is, I come from a completely different background than those of the students with whom I want to work. There are very few moments of shared experience, and infrequently can I say to them: "I know what you are going through because I've been there". But that's not the only difference. When I started working at the school I am in now, I was early enough in my 20's to be trusted as someone who could potentially "get it". I have now crossed the age threshold that has placed a chasm between me and my students. In telling the story of someone with whom I have shared experience, I am telling my story alongside theirs. Indeed, as a researcher, I will always be telling my own story in the words that I choose, the perspective that I bring, and the tone I set. But how can I reconcile two very different stories: mine, and those of my students?

I'm in two very interesting classes this semester that are all about storytelling in very different ways. In my statistical analysis class, I am learning how to tell stories of association, significance, confidence, and analysis of variance. In qualitative research methods, I am learning how to tell the stories of why, how and what. Each conveys meaning in a unique way. And with each method, if I am not careful, great parts of the story can be left untold.

I have to wonder - if my voice saying the exact words of my students doesn't sound authentic, how can I make sure that their stories are told in a way that shows their true selves? The students that I want to work with have all experienced academic failure for many different reasons, and are now enrolled in a school that has given them the promise of another shot at success. Their stories are rich, complex, meaningful, and at times frightening, raw, and violent. Terms such as "at risk", and "off track" are commonly used to describe them, but fall short of describing who they really are, instead placing a label on a large diverse group that tells us: these kids need help.

Well, what kind of help? How can we possibly know how to help them without hearing their complete stories? And how do we know when we are telling their stories fairly and accurately, and in a way that opens the door to solutions?

Every good research project should have an overarching goal. I am excited to continue this semester and learn more about how to tell the stories of students who overcome academic failure to achieve academic success. My goal? For now, I just want to make sure I'm not forcin' it.

Posted by Nastasia Lawton on January 31, 2011 12:57 PM

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