Stories About The Researchers: A Story Is More Than Just A Story
By Emily S.B. Wolk
Over the last five years with the Researchers, I experienced moments that shook me, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively. I wrote the following narratives, in response, to record these pivotal moments or “trigger events.” Eventually, these narratives became data to help me examine my practice as a teacher working with students as researchers in a participatory action-research project.
Britney Spears and Pedestrian Parades
“Hey, Mrs. Wolk! I’ve got an idea,” Edwin said as he moved closer into our conversation in a small, borrowed corner of the teachers’ lunchroom. “What about a parade?” Brenda squished in tightly between the 10 other student researchers and myself and declared, “Yeah, okay, let’s have a parade and we’ll invite the whole community. We’ll ask all the classes to make something like those little banners in parades or carry little stop signs or balloons.” I remarked, “Yeah. What about red, green and yellow ones like the stop light we want?” “And we’ll have a band or something. Let’s get Britney Spears.” Cristina said.
Edwin’s idea was the beginning of one of our most successful events to engage our urban elementary school and our surrounding neighborhood in addressing a serious problem in our community, pedestrian safety. On the day of the event, nearly 700 students - kindergarteners with stop sign hats, third graders with banners and whistles, fifth graders with carefully designed posters with the logo, “Cuidado cuando cruces,” - marched and chanted to rhythm of the Santa Ana Marching Band, “Walk safe, be safe!” The chanting and the drumbeats echoed off the large tenement buildings that make up a large percentage of housing in one of our nation’s most densely populated square miles. What was happening? Onlookers watched curiously from windows and balconies wondering why, at 2:00 in the warm Californian afternoon, the streets were flooded with a pedestrian parade: moms with strollers, police officers and their motorcycles, business leaders, city officials and 1,400 little feet. Reporters from “Rumores,” our neighborhood Spanish language newspaper and the local television station came to cover the parade. This was quite an event. This has been quite a pedestrian campaign.
Whistling Tunes and Conscientization
Within the context of the Pio Pico Researchers, conscientization is knowing we know, coming to a realization of what the issues are and knowing our power and having confidence in it. For example, after a day counting cars and pedestrians in an affluent part of town, I asked Brenda about the differences between our intersection and their intersection. She responded that there was a big difference between the number of cars and pedestrians. She pointed out that one of the researchers was even able to whistle a tune between cars- something that would have been impossible at our intersection. I pointed out that the intersection had a four-way stop and police enforcement in the morning that monitored traffic. “Why do you suppose that is?” I questioned. She replied that it was because the community had more rich people living in this area and they complained a lot more. After this experience, we became convinced that we had to make things “fair” by lobbying harder for a four-way stop in our neighborhood and for a police presence to slow motorists. Our conscientization was emerging. Brenda and the entire participatory action research team was finding power in their own voices, their own knowledge and their own experiences. We were becoming stronger and more confident.
The Beefaroni Incident
The students changed too. They began to behave in a very “unstudently” manner. An illustration of this phenomenon has become known as the “Beefaroni Incident.” One of the greatest indicators of the students’ change was made clear to me when four of the six researchers, who were on vacation, began to “show up” during my lunchtime. They would plop down in my office, lunch in hand, ready to discuss the upcoming meeting. One day, after one of our impromptu lunch meetings, I stepped on a Beefaroni noodle  and laughed about it. There were little tomato sauce encrusted tube-shaped noodles around my office. At that moment, I realized the extent to which my students’ behaviors had changed. Liliana and Lorena, who at the beginning of our study were extremely shy and whispered their questions to me to ask on their behalf, were now set to speak at the American Educational Research Association Conference. Moreover, they were making phone calls during their vacation to remind the other “off-cycle” children about the upcoming meetings. They filled out their own field trip request forms. They easily piled into my car to go out on community field trips and explained to strangers what we were researching and photographing. These two girls also formulated questions and interviewed community members. Every week they seemed to become more confident and engaged. Another student, Oscar, had become a positive leader. Before our Research Club began, the principal described Oscar as a child who could “go either way” (into a gang or become a positive group leader). One day the secretary had mentioned,
Oscar is self-assured, well-spoken and polite. He nearly knocked me over. The change has astounded me. He was so aggressive and so defensive. He’s gone from someone who’s always making excuses for himself to wanting to act more mature and participate more actively in all school activities. (F. McKuen, personal communication, March 5, 1998)
The “official” incident report from traffic engineering had arrived but I hid it for days. I was intensely worried. How could I tell the children? There had not been one accident involving pedestrians, and there had been only a few traffic accidents involving motorists. I was convinced that there was no problem, and we were wrong. I had hoped that this information would help verify our own assumptions that the intersection at the corner of Flower and Highland streets was dangerous. But, what I had not realized was that in my resistance to show the children the city’s data, I had revealed my own bias of what constituted legitimate knowledge. Moreover, I had negated that teachers and students co-construct meaning, and that that knowledge is legitimate.
In our months of work identifying the problem using a Polaroid camera, snapping dozens of photos, interviewing neighborhood leaders, I still continued to hold doubts about whether the intersection was truly dangerous. Once I had revealed the city’s data to the children, to my surprise, they rejected it flatly. “No, that’s not right.” “I know so-and-so and they were hit and broke their leg in two places.” To counter this “official” report, they quickly identified three serious accidents involving children that had occurred within the last two and half years. Incidents like this occurred often and continue to occur when I work with my students in our participatory action research group. The notion of legitimate knowledge is challenged and the dualisms that often exist between teacher and students, teaching and learning are collapsed.
One example of this confrontation occurred during one of our community walks with a professor from one of the local universities. The children fondly referred to her as Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss, the children and I were walking down one of the most densely populated parts of our community. Gang members in the area refer to it as Lil’ Brook. Rents are high in this area and families live in very tight quarters sharing one apartment among many families or extended families. It is not uncommon to see laundry drying on the porch with numerous bicycles, storage boxes or “stuff that just won’t fit in the apartment.” Space is at a premium. Since the children were taking photographs of the problems in the community, Dr. Seuss remarked to me that overcrowding must be a problem in the community. She questioned one of the students about the cramped nature of the living conditions. The students did not respond to her question with concern, but answered that people had their belongings on the porch because they needed more space to store things. Nonetheless, Dr. Seuss pursued this line of questioning further. “Aren’t the doors close together? There are so many people living here. Is there enough space?” The student replied that she was happy to have lots of people living with her. That way she could have all of her playmates close by. I remarked to Dr. Seuss, “I think what the kids are saying is that space is not a problem.” I was surprised to see how different their perceptions were. My friend unconsciously projected a culturally conditioned bias in this new context and assumed that this situation must be intolerable and pose a serious problem in the community. However, it was through this dialogue, with the children, that Dr. Seuss was confronted by her own biases and recognize her sedimented perceptors.
Hanging Out with Mrs. Cazden
Recently, I have begun to record oral histories of the students. Within these dialogues with my students, I have seen the depth of understanding that the students have regarding their knowledge about the issues related to power, control and social injustice confronting our Pio Pico community and families. For example, Julio, a student researcher for the last three years, shared his concerns and questioned the motivation and commitment of the city. He said,
I think that they’re just putting the stop sign and the light that they’re going to put because. . .maybe there just like “Oh , man they’re annoying us! Quit bothering us!. . . They’re just going to use us to get to the people then they’re not going to be with us anymore. (J. Martinez, personal communication, February 27, 2001)
In May of 1998, we requested official data on the number of pedestrian versus vehicle collisions at the intersection of Highland and Flower from the City. From this data and our interviews of victims who had been hit at the intersection, we uncovered a discrepancy in the City’s data. Later, we met with the City of Santa Ana’s traffic engineering division and presented our evidence of a pedestrian safety problem at Flower and Highland and asked the City to consider improving the safety of the intersection by installing a four way stop sign or a blinking yellow light. One of the students said,
We took pictures of the problems in our community. We took pictures of lots of traffic on the streets near our homes. We went to Flower and Highland and we saw people that were trying to cross the street and the cars didn’t stop. We took pictures of the people trying to cross the street. A few days later, we went in the afternoon to count the cars on Flower and Highland street for 10 minutes. We then split up into two groups, one group counted cars going from north to south and the other group counted cars going from south to north. In 10 minutes, we counted 241 cars. . .we think you should listen to us. Please put a light at Flower and Highland. (B. Betancourt, presentation to traffic engineering, May 1989)
His reply to us was clear. We did not have enough accidents to warrant a light at our intersection. We wondered aloud how many accidents did we need to get a light? How many accidents involving our friends? How do you explain the discrepancy in the City’s reporting of pedestrian accidents and those who are actually being hit? Embarrassed, he agreed to launch a formal study of our intersection.
Brenda called from over the table, “Mrs. Wolk, Elan is trouble. You’ll see he’s always getting in trouble. I don’t think he should be a Researcher.” I responded, “Don’t you think we should give him a chance. Maybe this’ll be the thing for him.” “You’ll see Mrs. Wolk,” she responded, “You’ll see. You’ll tell me, ‘I told you so.’ ”
I didn’t know Elan all that well, but what I did know of him worried me. He was only nine years old and already had a reputation of being one of those kids. I’d heard teachers say that he was next in line to be a gang member. And, as unflattering as it may sound, in the back of my own mind, I could hear a voice say, “He’s trouble. Maybe he shouldn’t be a Researcher.” But, I was going to be proven wrong, because today was another day and it was Elan’s turn.
It was hot, and I remember how odd it seemed having 15 Researchers walk down to Brook Street during our lunch break. Brook Street had been one of those places where people conducted drug deals as if they were ordering a burger at some fast-food joint. Though the city tried to address this problem and others, the issues had never been fully addressed and the neighborhood continued to struggle.
As we walked along the street, Elan began to share. He said, “This is where so-and-so got shot. Hey Edwin don’t you remember that?” Edwin reluctantly acknowledged his remark. “And, over here,” Elan continued, “is where the walls leak from bad plumbing. See the water dripping through the garage ceiling.” “And, look inside here.” He ripped off a tissue strapped onto a hole in the fence post, “That’s where they hide the drugs. Smell it. It’s nasty.” “If you look over there that’s where that guy got run over.” I asked the Elan, “How do you know all of this information?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “I just watch people.”
Elan had his day. He became our best resource. He knew who everybody was, why they were there and how community members were affected by their presence. He knew the history of his street: who had been born, who had died and who the real leaders were. He knew with whom he should talk and whom he should avoid. He knew significant events (both positive and negative) and the conditions under which they happened. Elan’s understanding contradicted everything his teacher, the kids and even I thought about him, “Elan doesn’t know that much. He’s trouble.” The fact was that Elan knew more than anyone, even more than the other children in the group. We respected him. He knew his community. Perhaps, he couldn’t analyze a map in chapter three in his text, but he knew a whole lot about what it meant to be part of a community, the way a community functioned and what went on. It was Elan’s turn and everyone knew it.
 The students brought plastic containers filled with a canned pasta concoction called “Beefaroni.”