Learner identity, space and Black, working class young women

“It’s almost like she’s two different people; one in English Literature class and another in song-writing club.  I’d like to think the second one is the true her” (English teacher, inner London post-16 college)

This comment refers to a student who appeared to inhabit very different learner identities within two distinct contexts in her college: her academic English Literature class and an extra-curricular song-writing group.  Within her English Literature class she had a reputation among her teachers for being disengaged, unproductive and sometimes disruptive; she was at risk of being removed from the course and frequently expressed her own desire to “drop out”.  Within her song-writing club, she impressed staff members with her commitment, patience and creativity; she expressed positive feelings about this learning experience and the work she was producing.

How could this student almost simultaneously inhabit such diverse learner identities within the same overall college environment?  Did she somehow manage to be “two different people”, as her teacher suggested, and was only one of these the “true her”?

In my work as a dance and English teacher in this inner London college, I often witnessed such fragmentations of learner identity across two contrasting ‘spaces’: the formal, academic classroom and the informal, extra-curricular, student-led performance group. A number of the students for whom I witnessed this identity “splitting” also participated in a particular social identity group and performance: the Black, working class female.  Much research has shown that classrooms are white, middle class, masculine spaces and this research suggests that it is difficult for a student inhabiting an identity as a Black, working class woman to simultaneously inhabit a positive learner identity within formal learning spaces.  Could achieving positive learner identities be possible in alternative, more informal learning spaces?

As Elesha’s [a pseudonym] form tutor, I received an email from one of her teachers expressing a concern about her behaviour in class.  The teacher suggested that Elesha had exhibited a fundamental disrespect for the learning process.  I read on to see that the teacher’s concern centred around Elesha taking out a compact mirror and applying make-up in the middle of a small-group activity.  The teacher felt that such an action indicated not only a reluctance to learn, but was also subversive and defiant.  Putting on make-up in this classroom had constructed a negative learner identity for Elesha.

Later in the year, the dance club that Elesha attended started being used by students to rehearse for a dance exam; within this more informal context the students could prepare for the exam as they wished.  In the last of these rehearsal sessions, the students spent much of the time designing hair and make-up ‘looks’ for each other and afterwards practising their dances in an excitable manner in front of the mirror.  To an onlooker this would not have appeared to be a ‘serious’ rehearsal session!  Yet, Elesha had carefully designed a clever make-up look that reflected the shapes and movements within her choreography.  From the point of view of an onlooker and an assessor, I observed that her dance performance that afternoon was enhanced by her choices of hair and make-up; she also performed with a sense of energy and confidence that I had not witnessed in previous performances.  For this assessment she gained one of the highest marks in the class; the formal measure of a ‘successful student’.

The creation of a glamorous appearance, through clothes, hair-styling and make-up, is clearly important to young women in the college, particularly those who perform a Black, working class femininity; it seems to act as a source of self-confidence and as a key component of their identity. In positioning investment in bodily appearance as “antithetical to educational engagement and success” (Archer et al. 2010, 71), students such as Elesha run the risk of being demonized in the classroom for engaging in a (sub)cultural act.

Of course, Elesha’s make-up application in the context of her formal lesson was not directly conducive to her learning; and of course, the application of make-up in preparation for a dance performance is common practice.  But my point is that in the classroom, this cultural act was seen as deviant and Elesha was almost demonized for it. It seemed to provoke a far more negative reaction than other common classroom (mis)behaviours that suggest a higher level of disengagement such as “off-topic-talking” or texting with a mobile phone under the desk.

Feminine glamour is clearly an identity performance with which Elesha associated herself. How can a student learn effectively where they are aware that something which is key to their sense of identity is categorically rejected by the space within which they learn? Further, where and when in the school space would it be deemed not just non-deviant, but actually appropriate and valuable for Elesha to apply her make-up, and in so doing value her as a whole person with specific, embodied cultural practices?  To limit such a cultural practice to the invisible and unrecognised spaces of the toilets or corridors in break times is to reinforce the notion that there is no space for Black, working class, female culture within school or the learning process.

Perhaps informal learning spaces, such as Elesha’s dance club, can bridge the divide between formal learning spaces and the student; in being allowed to inhabit a positive learner identity without cultural transformation or suppression, the student can start to identify with the school as a space where achievement and success “comes naturally” without having to transform or play a role.

Camilla Stanger (MA student, Goldsmiths)

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