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Centre for Urban Schooling

The Learner, the Teacher, and the Space In-Between


Big Questions:

1. What is the relationship between inclusion and achievement? 

2. What is a teacher's role in creating a conscious community, and what does this kind of community feel like?

Researcher: Dr. Kathleen Gallagher
Research Theme: Schooling, Student Engagement, and Academic Achievement

This case study is based on conversations over two years with a teacher, Denise Langley, who works in a school and community in “challenging circumstances.” Her choices, descriptions, and insights reveal how she sets her pedagogical goals, engages with the lives and families of her students, and navigates her professional relationships. Many of the students who attend her school are economically disadvantaged, and the neighbourhood in which they live faces many challenges associated with poverty, unemployment, racism, drugs, and crime.

The teacher recalls the importance of social context in her own past learning experiences:

“I had the most negative, horrible experience being a student. And I think—well, I don't think, I know—that that’s what pushed me into becoming a teacher because I thought, oh hell, there’s got to be a better way to do this thing.”

Denise Langley is a teacher who uses the biographical details of her life to understand herself as a teacher and to make sense of her sometimes precarious, always intense and often playful relationship with her grade eight students.

Watch the full interview with
Dr. Kathleen Gallagher




Theoretical/Conceptual Framework

Theoretically, this study shares the view that students, inside schools and out, live in an “eco-system” (Sokal 2003) and that teachers need to understand the system if they are interested in building relationships that promote learning and achievement. This socio-cultural framework is not new, nor is there agreement on the best way for teachers to understand, work within, and sometimes challenge, the larger education system of which they are a part.

A large amount of educational scholarship has focused on the idea of “community” in classrooms and schools and on the notion of a teacher as a community builder. Less well documented are issues of how teachers come to understand what is meant by community, how their own biographies shape those understandings, and how hegemonic ideas about community often limit the potential of students.

In fact, it is often easier to notice when community is present or absent in a classroom than it is to define the term community. Gereluk (2006) points out, the word community, coming from the Latin root, communis means being “linked together by obligation” (p. 7). Just as a neighborhood community is linked together by geography, situation, or circumstance, so too is the classroom community of students. Whether the students or teacher like it or not, a community will develop and evolve. The question thus becomes, what kind of a community will develop? And that question, theoretically and practically, sits at the centre of this case study. Early on, the observations and interviews that provide the empirical data for this case study pointed to a strong notion of community as central to the pedagogical contract. Therefore, our theoretical interests, as we continued to spend time in our site, became: What does a “conscious community” look like; how does a “supportive community” feel; how is a “healthy community” developed; and how does a teacher understand and perform her central role in this work?


Research Questions and Methods


  • What role do issues of diaspora, and immigration and settlement, play in school/student success or underperformance?
  • What relationship does “inclusion” have with “achievement”?
  • Do certain pedagogical practices better recognize the interplay between identity, social activity, and achievement?
  • How do student-driven pedagogies of drama impact on students’ classroom relations and achievement outcomes?


Five one-hour interviews with Denise Langley and seven two-hour participant observations in her grade eight classroom were scheduled between 2008 and 2010. One classroom discussion (one hour in length) with twenty-six students was also audio-recorded and transcribed.

All interviews were digitally recorded and transcribed using Express Scribe software (CITE). From here, a coding manual was developed from the emerging themes and categories in the transcripts. We wrote narrative accounts of the prevalent themes that emerged from the data; the aim was to have the professional life of one teacher in one setting to have meaning for others beyond the unique specificity of her teaching world.

Read significant findings


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