Dimensions of communication in urban science education: Interactions and transactions


  • Christopher Emdin

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York 10027, USA
    • Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York 10027, USA
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This paper is birthed from my lifelong experiences as student, teacher, administrator, and researcher in urban science classrooms. This includes my years as a minority student in biology, chemistry, and physics classrooms, 10 tears as science teacher and high school science department chair, 5-years conducting research on youth experiences in urban science classrooms, and current work in preparing science teachers for teaching in urban schools. These experiences afford me both emic and etic lenses through which to view urban science classrooms and urban youth communities. This paper, both experiential and research based, forms an ethnography of urban youth communication and introduces the science education community to an aspect of science teaching that has been overlooked in traditional science education research. In documenting urban youth communication across social fields, this paper contributes to the research in science education that addresses science talk with urban youth in science classrooms (C. Ballenger, 1997; P. Gee, 1997). More specifically, I utilize the lenses I bring to urban science education research to interrogate the larger research questions of whether urban students' modes of communication are supported in the urban science classroom and the effects of this support or lack thereof on true participation/engagement of urban youth in science. © 2010 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Sci Ed95: 1–20, 2011


Many highly touted initiatives, newly designed curricula, and transformative research efforts in science education purportedly focus on participation in urban science classrooms as they aim for the collective goal of having all students meet minimum standards in science (National Academy of Sciences, 1996; Roth, 1999). In these programs, participation is framed as an activity or set of physical processes that are assumed to be synonymous with active engagement in science (Gallagher & Tobin, 1987; Rath, 1996). I contend that urban students are often perceived as actively participating in science when they are actually only enacting practices that appear “science like.” These practices, such as using lab materials, following instructions, and getting prescribed results to lab assignments, are used as indicators of student participation despite the fact that they do not involve students' thinking or discussions about science. Rote practices become valued in urban science classrooms, whereas activities and processes that indicate true engagement in science such as questioning, sharing one's thoughts about a concept, argumentation, and debate are rarely supported, and therefore, rarely occur. In research that I conducted in a chemistry classroom, as part of the larger study this paper is rooted in, I found activities that students were engaged in, such as filling up beakers, heating them up, and observing reactions, were perceived by the teacher and school administrators as indicators of active participation in science. In interviews with administrators and teachers, it was evident that this type of participation, despite its remoteness from scientific thinking or true engagement in science, was perceived as indicative of interest in, and/or heightened participation in science. As the teacher in this chemistry classroom explained, the practices these students were engaged in “…shows them like they should be, quiet and learning science.”

To provide more insight into the lack of engagement of urban students, and especially focus on the needs of the predominantly Black and Latino/a students in urban settings, teachers must closely focus on the proposals made by the National Science Resource Center (NSRC) (1997) and American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (1993), which stress the importance of communicating with students through inquiry, discourse, and debate about processes that lie beyond laws, concepts, and theories. These proposals are valuable because they offer suggestions for science teaching and learning that are the norm in the highest performing suburban schools, but that are generally understated, or not implemented in urban schools (Songer, Lee, & Kam, 2002). In high-performing schools, researchers find a “…more ambitious approach to science instruction, including more time on inquiry” (Marx & Harris, 2006). This type of instruction inherently requires active communication between students and the teacher (Polman & Pea, 2001). In predominantly lower performing urban schools, the nonacknowledgment of the communication differences that exist among populations, and the absence of a focus on the interplay between gestures and verbal/nonverbal exchanges that occur with students of color and their teachers are a cause for concern (Simpson & Erickson, 1983) and inhibit the type of fluid communication that is found in schools populated by suburban youth of higher socioeconomic backgrounds.

The proposals recommended by NSRC and AAAS in the preceding paragraph are commendable in their efforts to improve science education and necessary because they pinpoint the critical role of communication with students, which is an area neither understood nor addressed in urban schools. More importantly, they allude to the fact that there is a general lack of teacher preparation on the linguistic and sociocultural differences that may inhibit students' full participation (Smith-Maddox, & Solorzano, 2002). The reality is that even well-intentioned teachers who want to improve student engagement find it challenging to incorporate students' needs for acceptance into the flow of talk in the science classroom (Cazden, 1988). In essence, teachers and researchers do not know how or what to focus on when trying to improve communication with students. Consequently, classroom norms that foster student disinterest in the urban science classroom are allowed to fester and continue to be a cause for the underperformance of urban youth of color in science.

In essence, existent perceptions of participation in urban science classrooms have evolved to include situations where in the worst case scenarios, students idly watch their teacher do science, or in the best case scenarios, students are engaged in “science practices” such as moving, pouring, or measuring. Unfortunately, in both types of scenarios, if communication between students and their teacher, or among students, is not supported, students are still not engaging in science. Furthermore, if students enact practices that traditionally denote participation like raising their hands to answer questions, even if they otherwise do not talk during the lesson, I argue that they are not appropriately participating in the science classroom. This is particularly the case because my research indicates that teachers in urban classrooms oftentimes pose questions to students in classrooms that they end up answering themselves.

At the core of the current view of participation in urban science classrooms is an often-overlooked focus on communication. I argue that the types of communication that urban youth freely engage in outside of the urban science classroom can be used inside the classroom as more accurate signifiers of full engagement in science than existing markers of participation like following teacher instructions or directions in class. While science educators like Duit and Treagust (2003) identify cooperation and communication as key elements of scientific literacy, I argue that these factors are also the chief signifiers of participation in urban science classrooms. This is primarily the case because cooperation and communication are the chief components of students' out-of-classroom behaviors when they are actively teaching and learning from each other and participating in cultural activities within their communities (Smith, 2008). This is particularly the case among urban youth of color who are immersed in hip-hop culture—a way of knowing and being that focuses on talk and communication as the fundamental mode of exchange and chief determinant of participation within a social setting (Flores, 2000).

In response to the significant role that communication plays in students' out-of-school worlds (Kochman, 1972), and in support of the assertion made by many science educators that students' cultures and communication must be included in instruction (Ballenger, 1997; Lee, 2001; Pomeroy, 1994; Roth, 1999), I argue that a particular focus on urban youth communication (as distinct from traditional communication) is necessary. Urban youth must be permitted to be active participants in science classrooms and truly communicate about the science concepts being taught. When this happens, the ways that students communicate in the classroom indicate full participation rather than an exercise in looking or playing the part of full participant (as defined by conventional schooling). For example, if students are engaged in a laboratory activity by following the prescribed steps, but cannot initiate and maintain a conversation about the meaning of the activity, provide justifications for the procedures, or make meaning of the results of the activity, they are participating in ways that are viewed positively by traditional science classrooms but may not be truly communicating or exchanging about science. The point here is that “once we see discourse production as a social and cultural practice, and not as a second order representation of practice, it becomes clear that it must be configured along with other kinds of work in the overall matrix of performance” (Hanks, 1991, p. 3).

Many science educators have looked at themes of communication and discourse through a focus on argumentation and addressed the importance of having students discuss and defend their ideas as pieces of learning science (Driver, Newton, & Osbourne, 2000; Schwartz, Neuman, Gil, & Ilya, 2003). I contend that before scientific argumentation can be supported in urban schools with large populations of Black and Latino/a students, an understanding of the distinct modes of communication of these populations must be in place. Furthermore, an understanding that these urban modes of communication vary from those of nonurban students because of the complex nature of communication within urban contexts must be taken into consideration (Kochman, 1983). Therefore, it becomes imperative to focus on the larger goal of this work, which is to uncover whether urban students' modes of communication outside of school are supported in the urban science classroom, and if a support of these modes of practice can benefit student participation, and science teaching and learning.


Researchers have indicated that it is possible for people within a nation or a social space to be different from each other despite their perceived similarities (Samovar, Porter, & Jain 1981). For many Black and Latino/a urban students, their ways of talking and acting make it challenging for them to communicate within the classroom (Ballenger, 1997; Delpit, 1986; Gee, 1997; Michaels, 1985) because they have their own distinct ways of talking and acting that vary from those that are valued in schools (Goodwin, 1990). This is particularly the case in urban science classrooms where urban students' attempts to communicate are often misinterpreted by teachers as attempts to disrupt the classroom rather than attempts to engage within it (Seiler & Elmesky, 2007). These misinterpretations are tied to general misconceptions about urban youth intentions and abilities (Deschenes, Tyack, & Cuban, 2001) and teachers' inability to understand urban students' ways of knowing, being, and expressing themselves in science classrooms (Emdin, 2007a, 2007b). This has been reflected in my experiences as a student who could not find the space to engage in the urban science classroom despite my interest in the discipline less than two decades ago and is evident in my interviews with students who mention that they see participation in the science class as “not doing (being) me … just following the rules” or following prescribed science activities and teacher directives in what Rodriguez (1997) refers to as a teacher-centered, cookbook brand of science instruction.

In my research, urban youth of color have resigned to engaging in the classroom in ways that reinforce established expectations of disinterest. As teachers in urban schools deliver instruction that deemphasizes higher order thinking and in-depth questioning (Stiggins, Griswold, & Wikelund, 1989), and as they view participation as the expression of a given repertoire of behaviors such as sitting attentively and raising hands, a superficial view of participation, and communicating in science classes exists, and is met. Furthermore, in urban schools, many teachers are afraid to teach in ways that allow students to enact practices other than following rigid instructions and quietly listening to lectures because of a fear of unruly classrooms (Brown, 2004). Consequently, active communication in these settings is stifled and nonengagement of urban youth becomes the norm.

Statement of Purpose: Valuing Students' Knowledge in Urban Science Instruction

To address the support, and lack thereof of urban students' communication and participation in science classrooms, I focus on documenting the interactions among a cohort of students and their science teachers over the course of 4 years. In this paper, I specifically focus on and draw examples from one particular academic year. To supplement this work, I also engaged in a reflection on my prior experiences as student, teacher, and administrator and ethnographic studies of students from a cohort of urban youth. I utilized the information derived from this work to study the ways urban youth of color communicate and participate in activities both outside and within their science classrooms. For many of the participants, the research project involved studies of their science classrooms and observations of their behaviors and communication patterns in out-of-school spaces such as the playground, the cafeteria, and their neighborhoods. This focus on students' experiences and modes of communication both within and outside of school provided insight into the ways that the students communicate across contexts, and the extent to which they participate, or can participate within urban science classrooms.


The focus on communication in this study builds on the work of science educators who explore science talk/discourse as a fundamental part of learning (Gallas, 1995; Roth, 1996) but also involves a focus on the ethnography of communication and its provision of a framework for making sense of different speech patterns in different speech communities; particularly as they relate to comparing western and non-western cultures and contexts (Heath, 1983; Philips, 1972). This framework provides insight into participation and communication in urban science classrooms because of the fact that science and urban science classrooms are rooted in a western tradition (Aikenhead, 1996; Harding, 1991, 1994) that varies from urban youth culture and communication and the ways it is reflected in hip-hop culture (which urban youth of color are immersed in) and its roots in distinctly non-western African oral traditions (Emdin, 2010; Smitherman, 1997). This framework invites a study of the nature of communication in the specific domains that encompass both urban science education, and urban student lifeworlds, and informs the science educator about how these domains are either mutually supportive of urban youth participation in science, or not.

In the ethnography of communication, “a domain is defined as the institutional context such as the official or the educational” (Fishman, 1972). Therefore, the urban science classroom can be viewed as a domain within which official types of discourse or communication exist, and types of discourse outside of the domain can be compared. If we allow the power given to school science (as an official domain) to be shared by “non-western” domains like the out-of-school contexts where students are embedded, a more robust view of active communication that reflects both domains where students communicate is opened up. Once this sharing of power occurs, and both in-class and out-of-class communication is perceived as having value, the way that communication in the science classroom is viewed becomes expanded and is forced to shift. Phenomena outside of the classroom begin to be considered in the understanding of classroom communication, and there is a consideration of the fact that there are various characteristics of communicative events that systematically influence text or talk within closed and sometimes unfamiliar social spaces that must be considered in an overall view of active participation or interaction (Condor & Ataki, 1997).

Communication at its core requires interaction with social life (Hymes 1972; Turner, 2002), and since the type of communication desired in classrooms requires interaction, then we must consider Bronstein's (1994) assertion that ecological factors impact interactions and cause benefits of interactions to vary. Therefore, while interactions are generally perceived as positive, they may be negative if the process, outcomes, or environment of the interaction do not meet the needs of those who are involved in the process (Shinn, Lehmann, & Wong, 1984). Furthermore, these negative interactions shape the extent to which individuals connect to the social settings where they occur (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001). I suggest that many interactions in urban science classrooms are negative and spawn disinterest or disengagement in science. This is the case because traditional classroom interactions follow a distinct pattern that do not look like the interactions that my research and experiences in out-of school settings show many youth of color in urban settings are acclimated to. Heath (1982) discusses the fact that youth from mainstream households have been trained in the initiation–reply–evaluation model of classroom communication by the time they are 2 years old. In urban science classrooms, the initiation–reply–evaluation model is replicated; oftentimes with the reply component of the model being a set of muted practices that involve replicating a set of steps outlined or modeled by the teacher. In contrast, urban youth are oftentimes more acclimated to a non-western, and more fluid model of communication that (particularly with Black males) involves heightened gestures and seamless transitions of talk that break the usual cycle of initiation–reply–evaluation (Majors & Billson, 1992).

The out-of-school communication characteristics of urban youth require an exchange of capital amongst participants that looks different from exchange in conventional interactions. In urban settings, interactions involve an exchange of information and ideas and oftentimes elevate the levels (intensity) and volume of conversation as time progresses. For example, my observations of the urban youth in this study as they engaged in rap cyphers (a social field where youth get together to perform raps to each other) displays that all youth in this domain actively participated through overlapping talk and distinct head and body movements. Based on my ethnographic studies of out-of-school exchanges in these rap cyphers, literature in the ethnography of communication that suggests that communication is at its core an exchange (Cook & Emerson, 1978) and the fact that urban youth in social fields like rap cyphers do not just take in information but exchange it, I suggest that communication in the classroom be viewed as transactions. I argue that by studying these transactions, and the practices enacted by certain people within specific domains, the goal of understanding the modes of communication in the classroom and whether they support students' participation and academic success in the urban science classroom can be achieved.

In this paper, transactions are viewed as instances where there are exchanges in capital (ways of knowing, being, understanding, and even time and effort) or as Gould and Fernandez (1989) describe, an exchange or flow of resources. In using the term capital, I refer to the work of Bourdieu (1986), which considers capital to be the coagulation of certain characteristics that every human holds. I extend the economic metaphor Bourdieu uses with the word capital to include the exchange of capital as transaction. Transactions occur between two people or among larger groups for the purpose of sharing some type of capital and gaining the same (Portes, 1998). In fact, Bourdieu's descriptions of social capital involve “mutual acquaintance and recognition” as fundamental pieces of the concept (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 248). In urban areas, many students communicate with their peers in ways that the giving of capital is exchanged for, or with another person's capital. For these students, communication is based on reciprocity where shared goals assist them in initiating and sustaining communication with each other (Stanton-Salazar & Spina, 2000).

Paterson (2008) discusses the role of compensation and reciprocation in communication and argues for communication as an exchange of capital where all participants give and take at about an even exchange rate. While Paterson utilizes compensation in terms of physical movement, and reciprocation in terms of matching efforts or movements, his focus on the matching of efforts is most significant for improving communication in urban science classrooms. This is the case because when students and teachers do not view their exchanges as mutually beneficial, or when students believe there is no space for reciprocity in the teaching and learning process, no exchange of information (including science content) can happen. Conversely, when urban youth are engaged in dialogues with their peers outside of the classroom, what Gouldner (1960) refers to as the norm of reciprocity abounds.

Leimar's (1997) analysis of communication states that reciprocity is fostered by the support of matching partner investment. However, when individuals consistently strive to engage in transactions, and the forms of capital they express are not valued within a specific domain, the discourse patterns they engage in affect their learning outcomes. More specifically, when discourse patterns in science classrooms are misaligned with those of youth, they hamper fluid exchanges of capital, inhibit science content from being fluidly exchanged, and lead to poor student learning outcomes in science. An example of this is when the teacher delivers science content in a monologue or speech, and students who usually display participation in activities outside of the classroom by overlapping speech and enacting gestures are forced to sit quietly. In this type of scenario, the types of transactions that are fostered in the classroom inhibit the types of science content expertise that can be gained by students. Therefore, it becomes necessary to utilize a tool for measuring the levels of transactions in urban science classrooms that indicate the extent to which transactions are occurring and the extent to which they align to urban students' types of communication. Through my ethnographic studies of urban youth communication, I have identified certain consistent scenarios in regard to youth communication that play out in social fields called “rap cyphers” where urban youth engage in communication, and other scenarios that occur in urban science classrooms where student communication does not reflect that of the cypher. I have used this information to identify the attributes of ideal situations where urban youth communicate and four levels of transactions that occur with urban youth in classrooms. By understanding the attributes of the cypher, and each of the levels of transactions in urban science classrooms, another tool for attaining the larger focus of this paper: understanding communication in the urban science classroom and the extent to which it supports students' participation and success in science, can be achieved.


The rap cypher, which was alluded to earlier in this paper, is a piece of urban youth/hip-hop culture that large numbers of students engage in. My studies of cyphers indicate that within them, students are enacting modes of communication that are representative of urban youth culture at large. In fact, these spaces serve as exemplars of ideal communication of urban youth of color. Within the cypher, tenets of what Smitherman (1977) identifies as “American speech with an Afro-American meaning, nuance, tone, and gesture” (p. 3) are the norm. In addition, Caribbean American intonations, Spanish words and expressions used by Latino/a populations, and even standard English sentences and phrases are interspersed through the transactions in complex ways. In terms of structure, participants in the cypher are positioned in a circle, have equal turns at talk, and support each other in their specific roles (like being the creator of a rhythm that participants move to, or one who cheers for others) that move the dialogues forward. As cyphers are enacted, all those who are involved in the process are communicating with each other and participating in ways that they feel most comfortable (in regard to dialect and pace). This process is facilitated by the fact that participants take turns at rapping (creating sentences that rhyme usually over percussion), while others support them in the process. As participants in the cypher rap, they are concurrently ensuring that their raps are understood by everyone who is a participant in the cypher by having eye contact with them, and constantly referencing them in the rap that is being created. As one person performs a rap, others are listening and providing the rhythm that is being rapped to. This occurs till eventually, everyone who wants an opportunity to rap/talk/perform gets a chance to do so. In the transactions, participants have high amounts of emotional energy, similar levels of pitch and other prosody levels, and use multiple hand and body gestures. As the cypher progresses, exchanges among rappers may foster argumentation on a specific topic that emerged from the talk, active debate on a concept or theme, complex thinking surrounding an idea developed in the cypher, and deep questioning as participants seamlessly go back and forth in dialogues about the content and style of the raps that are performed. During cyphers, the multifaceted nature of the cultural and verbal exchanges among participants leads to the building of communality among participants, and certain rules of engagement that are not formally stated, but are clearly understood by all participants, get enacted. This includes the use of subtle words and gestures that alert the person who is rapping that it is time to pass the verbal baton to another rapper, the supportive noise made at certain parts of a rapper's rhyme, and the filling in of words or phrases of a rapper/performer by observers when a rapper is out of breath. In cyphers, there are equal turns at talk, head nods by people who are present but are not going to rap, and consistent cheers by participants when the rapper that is currently at the helm of the cypher says something profound. In essence, the cypher serves as an example of a social field where students are actively communicating/participating in a process and learning from each other.

Unfortunately, these structures of urban youth communication that occur in the cypher are not always present within urban science classrooms. Rather, there are different types of transactions that are occurring in different urban science classrooms. The overlapping speech present in the cipher is virtually nonexistent, there is little room for questioning or debate, support for one's peers like cheering or filling in one's sentences is not supported, and multiple activities are not allowed to happen at the same time. Therefore, I have used the information derived from my ethnographic studies of urban science classrooms to create a chart that provides information about the levels of transactions in classrooms (see Table 1). While these levels by no means indicate that only certain types of transactions are occurring in a science classroom at any given time, they do show how classrooms can be grouped into transactions that either support or inhibit urban youth communication.

Table 1. Levels of Transactions in the Urban Science Classroom
Transaction Level 1Transaction Level 2Transaction Level 3Transaction Level 4
Heightened use of gesturesDiminished gesturesHeightened use of gesturesHeightened use of gestures
High volumeQuiet classroom/low volumeHigh volumeLeveled volume (more than Level 2 interaction and less than Level 1 transaction)
No focus on science in discussionsLittle focus on science in discussions among studentsIncreased focus on science in discussions among peersHeightened focus on science in discussions among students
Exchanges only with peersLittle to no exchanges with peers or teacherAttempts to exchange with classroom peers and teacherFull exchanges with classroom peers and teacher

In the category of transactions that I have labeled as Level 1, students are physically in the science classroom but are exhibiting the same characteristics that they do when they are communicating outside of school. In fact, they are often enacting practices that are seen in spaces like the rap cypher (such as speaking at loud volumes, and using gestures) in an exaggerated manner. This is done as an effort to bring out-of-school communication into the classroom and disrupt whatever established norms counter their ways of communicating. In these classrooms, students exchange in fluid transactions only with their peers and purposefully alienate themselves from exchanges with science and the teacher. In many cases, there are no conversations in the classroom that involve science, and even the basic practices that indicate traditional science classroom participation like following directions in a prescribed laboratory or reading from the textbook are not present. During Level 1 transactions, teachers forge ahead with teaching science, raise their voices to get students attention as they teach, or simply stand in front of the class and try to find small moments where there is a lull in students' transactions with each other so that they can teach. Unfortunately, when Level 1 transactions between students and the teacher are the norm, students generally ignore the teacher.

The second level of classroom transactions is often the outcome of teachers persistently enacting practices such as yelling, threatening to call students' homes, or talking about the seriousness of science. Eventually, this leads to the teachers' use of the power they hold to truncate students' enacting of their culture. Consequently, students in these classrooms are usually quiet, only respond when specifically addressed by the teacher, and do not invite further dialogues. The goal for the teacher who pushes for Level 2 transactions (whether intentional or not) is primarily to move students away from their out-of-school culture, and through a process of enculturation, move them toward traditional urban school science norms. This process, because it requires continually reprimanding students for enacting practices that are part of their culture, and commending them for being superficially engaged in the science class, leads to an extraction of urban students' ways of communicating from the science classroom.

In classrooms where Level 2 transactions are prevalent, there is significantly more mention of science than in Level 1 classrooms, and there are instances where there is more of an enactment of science practices than Level 1 transactions. Students are enacting practices such as sitting quietly, copying notes, and reading textbooks. However, in classrooms where these transactions are prevalent, students are not exhibiting the markers of interest and participation that they display outside of the classroom. Therefore, I would argue that when Level 2 transactions are prevalent in classrooms, students are part of a classroom structure that does not facilitate true capital exchanges with science that involve their peers, their teachers, or any structures in the classroom that represent science. In these classrooms, the structures in place hamper participation because they tailor the ways students enact agency (Goffman, 1964). More specifically, they tailor urban youths' visible and audible forms of expression and do not allow them to express their interest in science.

Classrooms with Level 3 transactions occur less frequently than those with Level 2 transactions and look very similar to classrooms with Level 1 transactions. This is the case because in these types of classrooms, students' ways of communicating in out-of-school settings are allowed in the classroom and used as a means to foster communication about science. The chief difference between this type of classroom and the classroom with Level 1 transactions is the focus on science talk that is present in these classrooms. It is important to recognize that in classrooms where Level 3 transactions occur, students' expressions of their outside-of-school culture are somewhat exaggerated as they attempt to test established classroom boundaries and determine whether their outside-of-class ways of communicating are truly valued in the classroom. This becomes evident by the fact that in these classrooms, students are talking at high volumes about science, and asking questions that may be purposefully unrelated to the topic at hand, but somehow connected to science. Eventually, when teachers consistently allow students' modes of communication to be accepted in the classroom, and students are able to sense some genuineness about the teacher's commitment to allowing their ways of communication in the classroom, Level 4 transactions become present. In these instances, the communication in the classroom is seamlessly connected to the communication outside of the classroom. The same voice inflections students have in rap cyphers, the same fluid exchanges of words and ideas, and even the same head nods and hand movements are seen in science classrooms. The volume is leveled, and transactions that involve science are occurring frequently. Unfortunately, classrooms where Level 4 transactions occur are a rarity in urban schools. This is why this work focuses on supporting urban students' communication and participation in science classrooms. This goal is accomplished by introducing teachers to the different levels of classroom transactions so they can be awakened to the prevalence and ineffectiveness of Level 1 and 2 transactions and be prepared to support Level 3 and 4 transactions in urban science classrooms.


The type of research conducted in this paper requires an investigation of students' experiences and communication, and therefore, requires an approach that both interrogates a deconstruction of one's experiences within certain social fields, and a thorough interrogation of others' experiences within these fields. Therefore, the chief research approach employed in this paper is ethnography—where there is “prolonged fieldwork in which the researcher gains access to a social group and carries out intensive observation in natural settings for a period of months or years” (Gaskins, Miller, & Corsaro, 1992, p. 15). There is a particular focus on communication, and the subtleties of students' exchanges with each other and their teachers, and therefore, the work specifically aligns itself to the ethnography of communication.

Setting and Participants

The chief site of the research is a prototypical urban high school located in one of the most densely populated counties in the United States (U.S. Census, 2007). The school is located a few miles from the affluence of a large economic hub, yet streets away from areas of high poverty. Despite the school's location next to one of the nation's most socioeconomically advantaged areas, and its location in one of the most diverse cities in the world, the students in the school are 97% African American and Latino/a, are from neighborhoods that are poor and overwhelmingly populated by people of color. Almost all of the students (97%) are from low socioeconomic backgrounds and qualify for free or reduced price school meals. These facts play a significant role in the ways that students communicate and speak to the emergence of social fields like the cypher where urban youth are free to engage in dialogues that express their frustrations at being in an affluent city, yet living lives scarred by poverty and defined by skin color.

The students in this study came to the school from poorer neighborhoods all over the county and were involved in this study as participants/coresearchers for 4 years. By coresearchers, I refer to the fact that students were actively involved in videotaping their science classrooms, describing their experiences in these classrooms, documenting their communication with teachers and their peers in classrooms, and sharing their experiences in out-of-school fields like cyphers.

While this study captured the experiences of 28 students in their science classrooms and followed them through their physics, chemistry, biology, and forensic science classes over the course of 4 years, the work presented here focuses specifically on five students and their communication both within and outside of the classroom over the course of the first academic year of the study. The 28 students in the classrooms were all either African American or Latino/a, and of the five selected students, three were African American, and two were Latina. These students engaged in cyphers outside of the classroom that I was privy to at least twice a month, and that were an integral piece of the study of science class communication because they served as a gauge for how they engage in transactions across contexts.


The most fundamental piece of the research design involved a documenting of my previous experiences in science classrooms and a reflection on the ways that I have viewed student communication in each of my roles within urban schools. This process primarily involved a recollection of my past experiences in social fields related to both urban science classrooms and the communities where students come from. It also involved a documenting of these experiences in reflective notes. For example, as a student, I remember not being able to actively communicate in a classroom discussion about sound waves because the class was functioning with Level 2 transactions, the structures in place within the school fostered silence and docility, and these structures inhibited me from exchanging with my teacher or my peers about science. Therefore, prior to implementing the study, I wrote down notes based on this experience and identified the structures in place in the classroom that affected my ability to communicate in the classroom. I then studied my notes on these experiences, identified the similarities they have to my observations as teacher and researcher, and utilized these connection points as the anchors of my ethnographic research. As Van manen (1990) discusses, reflection of this type is the fundamental model of human sciences research and cannot be done while living through an experience. This reflective step in the research process served as a precursor to the study that ended up guiding and deepening the work. It forced me to consider my past experiences in schools, while making some sense of the complex communication patterns that currently exist in urban schools. I did so by identifying each of the roles I have had in schools and creating four categories (student experience, teacher experience, administrator experience, and researcher observation) that served as a lens through which I analyzed my reflections and field notes.

The next step in the research was an identification of a science class in the school that would be the focus of the study. The class that was selected was one where all students brought back permission slips to have their classrooms researched/videotaped. The 28 students in the class were initially observed for an academic year, and 5 students in particular were focused upon and later identified as student-researchers. These five students were given video cameras and instructed on how to use them in an introductory meeting. Then, they documented their science classrooms and out-of-class communication for the rest of the first academic year in places such as the school cafeteria, the playground, and other spaces in and around the school building. In addition to videotaping their science classes, these students met weekly to discuss the video they captured with the principal researcher.

Student-researchers volunteered to both observe and be observed both within and outside of their classrooms. These students also agreed to write field notes on their communication in and out of science class contexts. This process continued throughout the first academic year of the study and occurred weekly during lunch periods and after school. In these meetings, the five student-researchers shared their observations and field notes about the ways they communicate with their peers and the university researcher, and connections discovered across the various field notes about student communication were discussed.

After observational and field note data were discussed, students and university researchers discussed and analyzed video data from the science classrooms. This process included identifying parts of the video that student-researchers thought were examples of either successful or unsuccessful communication, identifying points where teachers were either supporting or inhibiting student communication, and identifying points in the classroom where the communication mirrored out-of-class communication. In these meetings, videotape of the classroom were played on a computer screen, and the student-researchers would highlight and then extract short vignettes of the classroom communication from the larger video of the classroom. They then categorized these short vignettes as examples of successful or unsuccessful communication and Level 1–4 transactions.

The final phase of the research design involved a comparison of video vignettes that students identified as Level 1–4 transactions with students' command of the subject matter being delivered during the types of communication that was present in the classroom. This was accomplished by identifying the science content taught during different levels of transactions and matching students' responses to unit examination questions to the types of transactions that were occurring in the classroom. For example, if students identified Level 3 or 4 transactions during a particular lesson, unit tests were studied to see whether students scored better on questions related to the topic being taught during these transactions. This test data were accessible through the teachers of the science classes, who provided graded tests to the researcher after each unit.

Data Analysis

Data analysis revolved around making sense of both field notes and video. Field notes that were collected both inside and outside of the science classroom required a system for identifying specific parts of student actions and behaviors related specifically to student communication. This required an identification of specific verbal and nonverbal cues in lieu of more obvious environmental differences between the science classroom and other settings. For example, when students were in the school cafeteria and engaged in rap cyphers (where they would stand or sit in a circle and rap), data analysis focused on communication themes such as students' turns at talk, their smiles, their volume, and their use of hand gestures. These specific parts of students' exchanges with each other were identified and described. Video of classrooms were transferred to digital format, imported to imovie (a Mac-based video storage and analysis tool), and after students identified vignettes from classroom video, microanalysis of the data (slowing down or speeding up of video) to observe more detailed patterns in communication (mostly through a study of student gestures) was conducted. This allowed for the development of a more complex set of criteria for the identification of video vignettes as part of Level 1–4 transactions. In this process, there was a general separation between vignettes where students were engaged-asking questions, raising their hands, or talking among themselves, and those where students were quiet-only talking when they were responding to teachers, and being generally docile. Students were then able to identify different types of video vignettes as different levels of transactions. Once these vignettes had been identified, they were studied closely under microanalysis (slowed down), transcribed, and then described in written notes. For example, if a video vignette showed students in the physics class rarely answering questions during direct instruction, the types of transactions in lessons that focused on direct instruction in that class were all studied until a conclusion could be drawn about whether this type of instruction breeds transactions that support student success in science.

After this step, the two forms of data (field notes and video data) were compared, conclusions about the nature of communication across settings were drawn, and students who were outside of the research team were invited to discuss their thoughts on the validity of the conclusions drawn from the data at the end of each academic year.


As a result of the analysis of the data, and a reflection on, and subsequent comparison of, my observations of urban science classes with those of students, it became evident that Level 2 transactions were the ones that occurred most prominently in the urban science classroom. Level 3 and 4 transactions that foster student interest occurred much less often. The data also showed that out-of-school activities that students engaged in did involve Level 2 transactions. Furthermore, the data suggest that when higher level transactions (Levels 3 and 4) occur in science classrooms, the classrooms structurally mirror out-of-school contexts and are described by students as spaces where teachers value students' thoughts and opinions. More specifically, in classrooms with Level 4 transactions, students were usually seated in a circle, explaining science concepts to their peers, and/or talking about the various activities related to science that they were engaged in. For example, in a physics class on distance and displacement, where the university teacher worked with the teacher to incorporate some out-of-school structure into the classroom, and the teacher was asked to allow student talk to develop even if it ran counter to his traditional teaching style, students spent most of the class time seated in close proximity to each other in smaller circles, and then a larger group circle. They then described both concepts, explained them to their peers, and then drew and explained examples of both distance and displacement on charts that were displayed in the classroom. In addition, they used multiple gestures and overlapped talk and were not reprimanded for doing so. After assessing students' retention of the subject matter in this lesson, students' test score data from their unit examination indicated that they did better on topics related to distance and displacement than they did on other topics. They provided more detail in their explanations of the concepts. For example, in comparison to other topics covered such as speed and velocity that were taught in a conventional manner, students responded to questions about describing the scientific processes by writing two sentences or less 85% of the time. However, when describing distance and displacement, they described the processes by writing three sentences or more 90% of the time. These additional sentences included students' descriptions of the concepts with examples and their use of analogies to describe the concepts. Statements like “you can think of displacement like if you were on a football field and gained yardage and then had to move back when a defender was coming …” or “Think of distance as a just a measure of how far you are going … like if you were playing freeze tag and had to stop and someone measured all the steps you took,” showed that students began to think of these concepts in practical ways, and using the types of analogies and metaphors they use in out-of-school spaces like rap cyphers. In addition, student-researchers often made statements like “When the class is free, and we can really talk regular, I learn more science … I remember more.” These types of statements confirm that the scientific concepts students remember outside of class are those taught when Level 3 and 4 transactions are present.

Out-of-Class and In-Class Transaction

In my observations of student communication outside of the classroom in spaces like rap cyphers and in a study of student-researchers' field notes about the spaces where they have active communication, profound insight into communication was provided. In these spaces, students asked and answered questions, shared their thoughts with their peers, and listened attentively while others were talking (as marked by head nods when others spoke and repetition of other's statements).

While this out-of-school transaction cannot be completely replicated in the classroom, the science classroom can be structured in a way that fosters this type of transaction by identifying certain consistent structures of out-of-school social fields where transactions are always happening. In the rap cypher, participants sit or stand in a circle more often, share equal turns at rapping (making up rhymes over rhythms created by their peers), and use information from each other's rhymes in the creation of newer ones. In these exchanges, they maintain eye contact, acknowledge each other with head nods, and consistently exhibit forms of acknowledgment like smiles and a repetition of what the last person says to acknowledge them. In cyphers, participants question each other, respond to each other's questions, debate, gain camaraderie, express their individuality and creativity through distinct forms of rhyme, and do this all while a clear background noise (usually a rap beat or rhythm) is present. Student notes about these cyphers as they researched their engagement in them included sentences such as “When we're in it (the cypher) everyone gets a chance to talk.” “We can get involved in what is going on without really interrupting,” and “I know when I have a good line or when what I say is hitting home, cuz everybody starts hyping me up, they let me know.” In contrast, a majority of science class transactions had situations where students either chose not to communicate at all with the teacher or opted to follow teacher directions without working toward building higher levels of transactions in the classroom. Student statements about the traditional science classroom included statements like, “I don't care what she (the teacher) has to say, we're just doing our thing and she can do hers,” “ We just do what they (teachers) tell us (students) because that is what they want us to do,” and “It's like science class is meant to be where everybody has to be quiet and do the same thing.”

Teacher Misconceptions About Transactions

By viewing the classroom through the transaction chart (Table 1) presented earlier, I conclude that students often want to be engaged in the classroom but do not always feel they have an opportunity to do so. This conclusion is also supported by a number of video vignettes where students enacted Level 2 transactions that did not progress into Level 3 or Level 4 transactions because the teacher did not recognize any of the small moments where students were talking about science. One student mentioned, “Even when we're talking about the science, he wants us to be quiet.”

Out of more than 5,000 video vignettes that were classified by students as attempts to reach Level 3 and 4 transactions (wanting to engage in science talk by use of gestures and high volume), only 17% were able to develop into full transactions where students are talking, moving, but also thinking critically about the science topic being discussed in the classroom. Herein lies the chief message to the reader, which is that there is a different way to talk about and teach science. This different way, that urban youth of color are comfortable with, does not mean that students are not willing or able to learn science in conventional ways. Rather, it does mean that they are attempting to transact in science classrooms but are not allowed to do so because of their communication styles, which vary from that of the traditional science teacher.

When the classroom was at a Level 2 transaction phase, students often intermittently attempted to move to a higher level. When these attempts to transact were not met, the students' exchanges regressed into Level 1 transactions. I argue that this occurred because the actions that students enact when they engage in Level 1 transactions are the same types of actions that are present when they are at Level 3 transactions. At both Level 1 and Level 3 transaction phases, students are loud and use a lot of hand gestures. Unfortunately, teachers often misidentify students' attempts to actively transact as attempts to disrupt the classroom. For example, students in the science class who were disinterested in the science lesson would speak at high volumes, use a lot of gestures, and engage in conversations with their peers during the time that the teacher was lecturing (Level 1 transaction). The teacher would then enact a practice like raising his voice (increasing the level of decibels) to get students to be quiet (attempt at Level 2 transaction). This process caused students to stop talking to their peers and be quiet, but it inhibited the potential for higher levels of transactions. Because the teacher inhibited students from transacting in ways that harnessed the structures of out-of-class transactions, they chose not to initiate discussions around science or push to ask any questions about the content. They were quiet and in some instances, appeared to be attentive, but when interviewed, would indicate that they were not truly engaging in the classroom.

Moving Toward Level 3 and 4 Transactions

While studying videotape of a chemistry classroom, I observed many behaviors that students enacted that were an effort to spur on Level 3 and 4 transactions in the Level 2 science classroom. In these instances, students looked to transact by talking out of turn, sitting more upright in their seats, and waving their hands vigorously to get the teacher's attention. In one instance, a student was attempting to transact within a chemistry class by waving his hand to get the teacher's attention (expressing gestures), speaking out of turn (at a higher volume than his peers), and getting out of his seat. As the class progressed, he got so frustrated that he put his head down and shut off to the class and regressed back into a Level 2 transaction. In the vignette below, I transcribe his attempt to transact and utilize a convection used by Roth (2005) to analyze the conversation.

  • [beginning of overlapping talk or gesture;

  • = equal sign at the beginning of a turn indicates no appreciable gap between two speakers;

  • () elapsed time in tenths of a second;

  • :: colons indicate lengthening of the preceding phoneme, approximately one tenth of a second for each colon used;

  • (db) sound intensity measured in units of decibel; (Hz) pitch measured in units of Hertz;- a dash indicates sudden stop in talk;

  • ↑↓ arrows indicate shifts to higher or lower pitch in the immediately following utterance part;

  • (()) double parentheses (italicized) are used to enclose comments and descriptions. Teacher: = What is the total number of neutrons? (124 Hz, 74.5 db) ↑What is the total number of neutrons? (124 Hz, 75 Hz)

  • Student: What number is that? ↑You subtract 79 from 34. (123 HZ, 78.8 db)(0.33)((The teacher ignores the student's answer. In the time elapsed between the first and second frames, the student subsequently makes another attempt to transact in the class))

  • Teacher: = ↑ O:k, What is the total number of neutrons? (126 Hz, 76.8 db)

  • Student: You subtract 79 from 34. ↑ 25, ye:eah, 79 from 34 (126 HZ, 74.5 db)(0.68) ((Student is still ignored by the teacher after 2 more attempts to answer the question with levels of pitch and power in the air similar to the teacher's or higher)) Student: uuu:ghg (110 Hz, 54 db)((Student puts his head down on the desk for the rest of the class))

The significant point to focus on in this vignette is the student's behavior and responses at the beginning and end of the vignette. I argue that if visitors to the class had walked into the class during the last frame (when the student had finally given up on Level 3 transacting and put his head down), they would believe that the young man was uninterested in chemistry. However, viewing the events prior to the moment where he regressed to interacting indicates multiple attempts to fully transact that finally resulted in succumbing to Level 2 transactions.

In addition to the analysis of data through observations of student movement and gesture, the regression from an attempt at a Level 3 transaction to a Level 2 transaction was evident through the differences in sound intensity and decreases in volume as his attempts to engage in the classroom were rebuffed.

In this vignette, the student's pitch and intonations matched or slightly increased with the teacher while the student pushed for a Level 3 transaction. While the closeness in pitch that he had with the teacher may be as a result of the fact that they are both male, his movement forward while he tried to answer the teacher's questions, and matching intensity with the teacher indicated a move to transact at a Level 3.

In an interview with this student 3 weeks after this vignette occurred, he mentioned that he had “given up on that class.” Evidence of this “giving up” was captured as he began to engage in Level 1 transactions in the class in ways that were disruptive to the learning of science. During these Level 1 transactions, he enacted the same types of gestures and spoke at the same volume he did when he attempted to transact; only more consistently, and in a way that disrupted the lesson. After his attempts to transact were dismissed, he did not talk at all about science. In fact, subsequent efforts to get him to reengage in the class required a significant amount of time, facilitating dialogues between the student and the teacher.

Moving Beyond the Quiet Classroom/Level 2 Transaction

In classrooms where Level 1 transactions were prominent, students and teachers repetitively referred to the classrooms as not conducive to learning science. In these classrooms, students are loud, animated, and not paying attention to the teacher. However, the differences in opinion about classrooms at Level 2 transactions are a significant finding. This is the case because they have been described by students as examples of when they are not engaged in science, whereas teachers have described them as the ideal case scenario in their urban science classrooms.

For example, Carlos, a student in a biology class, yelled out the phrase “Mitosis or meiosis, who knows this?” in the middle of a biology lesson. While his yelling of this phrase was abrupt and loud, and described by the teacher as “an example of why he is failing this class,” a discussion with Carlos after watching the video of this experience revealed that he was genuinely asking a question about the assignment. Carlos mentioned that he really “… wanted to talk about the difference between the two concepts.” I argue that Carlos' statement could have been perceived by the teacher as an indicator of an attempt to transact rather than an attempt to disrupt the classroom and could have been used as a tool for engaging him in the biology classroom. However, because the larger context in the classroom was one where the class was tuned to function at a Level 2 transaction phase, his attempts to truly transact were misidentified.

Based on students' responses, it became evident that when urban students push toward participating in the science class by increasing gestures and speaking loudly to get their point across, they are searching for opportunities to transact. Therefore, teachers have to learn to differentiate between Level 1 transactions and Level 3 and 4 transactions by paying close attention to the topics students raise in the classroom.


Valuing Students' Knowledge in Urban Science Instruction

In conjunction with the findings of this study in regard to the nature of communication in urban science classrooms, and how it can be identified and addressed, I hope to make clear that students' “struggles for recognition in response to their lack of recognition from the dominant culture … is part of the pathology of oppression and domination” (Oliver, 2001, p. 23). Therefore, student efforts to transact within the science classroom, and the practices of teachers that invalidate these efforts and prevent full transactions create/maintain the lack of access to true participation to science for urban youth. This work is a means to break this cycle of oppression by providing teachers and researchers with new insight into student communication and urban students' consequent participation in the science classroom. I contend that while the recognition of students' ways of communicating and participating are not an absolute approach to improving pedagogy, they are new avenues for improving communication and participation within classrooms and supporting the effective teaching of science to students of color in urban science classrooms.

Contradictions and Revelations

Over the course of this study, I have looked closely at instances where there are patterns of incompatibility to the general observations I have made. My search was for patterns within these exceptions that are helpful in gaining a deeper understanding of communication in the urban science classroom. These contradictions are points of doubt that as Sen quotes from Bacon in the Treatise of Learning, function for “initiating and furthering a process of inquiry, which can have the affect of enriching our understanding” (Sen, 2006, p. 122). One of these contradictions is the fact that in some classrooms where the teacher did not have many Level 3 and 4 transactions, a few students were successful on conventional markers such as examinations. In addition, students mentioned that they liked these classes despite the fact that they labeled many exchanges within them as Level 2. One student mentioned that she liked these classes because sometimes she “… appreciate(s) a teacher who can have a quiet class and some control … and this is what we're used to.”

After close study, these findings, although they initially appear as contradictions, only affirm the fact that when students' modes of communication have been continually ignored in classrooms, students may become alienated from the ways they truly know to communicate. Furthermore, a separation between urbanness, Blackness, Latino/aness, and school or science begins to exist. In response, I argue for an extension of existent approaches to science talk in classrooms, an awareness of the nuances of urban youth communication, and a study of how these ways of communicating can support the teaching and learning of science.

While science educators like Brown (2006) have begun to explore the potentially transformative work in this vein such as studying the linguistic differences between urban youth and school science, this work must be conjoined with work that looks more broadly at urban youth communication and the subtleties that fall under the umbrella of communication such as gesture, volume, and the focus of talk. Herein lies the next wave of urban science education research that provides agency to urban youth of color, values their cultural backgrounds, and provides them with opportunities to utilize the complex understandings they already possess to be successful in school science.