School and choice: An ethnography of a primary school with bilingual classes
Based on a one-year ethnographic study of a primary school in Finland with specialised classes in Finnish and English (referred to as bilingual classes by research participants), this research traces how nationed, ethnicised, classed and gendered differences are produced and gain meaning in school. I examine several aspects of these differences: the ways teachers and parents make sense of school and of school choice; the repertoires of self put forward by teachers, parents and pupils of the bilingual classes, and the institutional and classroom practices in Sunny Lane School (pseudonym). My purpose is to examine how the construction of differentness is related to the policy of school choice. I approach this question from a knowledge problematic, and explore connections and disjunctions between the interpretations of teachers and those of parents, as well as between what teachers and parents expressed or said and the practices they engaged in. My data consists of fieldnotes generated through a one-year period of ethnographic fieldwork in Sunny Lane School, and of ethnographic interviews with teachers and parents primarily of the bilingual classes. This data focuses on the initial stages of the bilingual classes, which included the application and testing processes for these classes, and on Grades 1–3. In my analysis, I pursue poststructural feminist theorisations on questions of knowledge, power and subjectivity, which foreground an understanding of the constitutive force of discourse and the performative, partial, and relational nature of knowledge. I begin by situating my ethnographic field in relation to wider developments, namely, the emergence of school choice and the rhetoric of curricular reform and language education in Finland. I move on from there to ask how teachers discuss the introduction of these specialised classes, then trace pupils’ paths to these classes, their parents’ goals related to school choice, teachers’ constructions of the pupils and parents of bilingual classes, and how they shape the ways in which school and classroom practices unfold. School choice, I argue, functioned as a spatial practice, defining who belongs in school and demarcating the position of teachers, parents and pupils in school. Notions of classed and ethnicised differences entered the ways teachers and parents made sense of school choice. Teachers idealised school in terms of social cohesiveness and construed social cohesion as a task for school to perform. The hopes parents iterated were connected to ensuring their children’s futurity, to their perceptions of the advantages of fluency in English, but also to the differences they believed to exist between the social milieus of different schools. Parents also produced ideals such as openmindedness and cosmopolitanism in discussing their school choice, and these ideals assumed different content for the ethnic majority and minority parents. Teachers discussed the introduction of bilingual classes as a means to ensure the school’s future, and emphasised bilingual classes as fitting into the rubric of Finnish comprehensive schooling which, they maintained, is committed to equality. Parents were expected to accommodate their views and adopt the position of the responsible, supportive parent that was suggested to them by teachers. Teachers assumed a posture of appreciating different cultures, while maintaining Finnishness as a common ground in school. Discussion of pupils’ knowledge and experience of other countries often took place in bilingual classes, and various cultural theme events were organised on occasion. Pupils were taught to identify themselves in terms of cultural belonging. The rhetoric promoted by teachers was one of inclusiveness, which was also applied to describe the task of selecting pupils for bilingual classes, qualifying which pupils can belong. Bilingual classes were idealised as taking a neutral, impartial posture toward difference by ethnic majority teachers and parents, and the relationship of school choice to classed advantage, for example, was something teachers and parents preferred not to discuss. Bilingual pupils were addressed by teachers during lessons in ways that assumed self-responsibility and diligence, and they assumed the discursive category of being a good, competent pupil made available to them. While this allowed them to position themselves favourably in school, their participation in a bilingual class was marked by the pressure to succeed well in school. ...
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