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Criminalization and acts of resistance among elementary school boys of color
Vincent Basile, PhD
Assistant Professor, School of Education
Associate Faculty, Ethnic Studies
1588 Campus Delivery
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, CO 80523-1588
This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Race Ethnicity &
Education on July 20, 2018, available online: https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2018.1497964
Unjust racial disparities in the United States criminal justice system continue to worsen, fueled in
part by a school to prison pipeline which, through criminalizing processes, disproportionately
and unjustly targets boys of color in our public schools. This criminalization and the ways in
which boys of color resist, remains largely under-researched on the elementary school level. This
study utilizes data from multiple qualitative sources collected from three elementary school
STEM programs during a year and a half time period to examine acts of resistance in which boys
of color engaged, and ways in which educators and school staff responded to this resistance.
Findings indicate that criminalization and resistance were regular, normal, and ordinary parts of
the daily experiences of boys of color; and that the acts of resistance themselves were regularly
hyper-criminalized, creating cycles of escalation. These findings support a counternarrative that
boys of color engage in resistance as a normal and healthy response to oppressive measures.
Keywords: resistance, criminalization, punishment, school to prison pipeline, elementary
school, African American boys, Latino boys
The United States incarcerates significantly more of its own citizens than any other
country in history, by disproportionately and unjustly targeting men and boys of color through
multiple sophisticated mechanisms, including the now well-established school to prison pipeline
(Alexander 2012). By naming and identifying the embedded, normalized, and prevalent process
by which boys of color are funneled into this pipeline, we can view criminalization as an
oppressive and discriminatory set of school practices and beliefs that boys of color should resist
(Hirschfield 2008). Despite this, resistance by boys and youth of color in school settings have
largely been mislabeled and mistreated, often identified as oppositional, defiant, and
disrespectful instead of a healthy response to an oppressive system (Freeman 2015). While some
critical researchers have worked to bring a racial lens to youth resistance theory in high school
(Factor, Kawachi, and Williams 2011; Lindsay 2005) and university settings (Twyman Hoff
2016), little work has been done on the elementary level to understand and further theorize
resistance in boys of color. By closely and specifically researching and thus better understanding
the ways boys of color resist criminalizing practices and how that resistance is perceived and
treated, we can then begin to identify teaching practices and perspectives which work to disrupt
both the criminalization fueling the school to prison pipeline and the ways in which student
resistance is further criminalized.
To begin to better understand these sometimes complex processes, I spent a year and a
half on-site at three elementary schools participating in a STEM after-school and summer
program. By observing, participating, conducting formal and informal interviews with students
and staff members, and collecting their stories, I focused this longitudinal study specifically on
the lived experiences of the 3rd, 4th and 5th grade boys of color. Over time, patterns in the staff’s
interactions with the boys, and their subsequent responses emerged. Using criminalization and
resistance analytic frameworks to better understand these patterns, I found that (1) boys of color
engaged in acts of resistance as ordinary and normal means of liberation against criminalization
and oppression; and (2) acts of resistance were themselves hyper-criminalized, which in turn
incited more resistance, forming escalation cycles.
Theoretical frameworks and relevant literature
Criminalization is the collective processes by which a criminal identity is prescribed to an
individual or group of individuals through discourse; demeanor and modes of punishment;
monitoring; and control (Boduszek and Hyland 2011; Costelloe, Chiricos, and Gertz 2009). The
criminalization of men of color in our society serves specific economic hegemonic purposes by
way of a prison industry complex, which, through a collective mode of targeted racialized and
gendered incarceration via a privatized, for-profit corporate conglomerate (Donziger 1996),
works directly to the economic benefit of the ruling class (Justice Policy Institute 2011; Ogbar
2005). These now very normalized practices and concepts such as racial profiling (Cole 1999),
gang databases (Alexander 2012), and racially targeted actuarial methods (Harcourt 2008),
among others, have spread beyond the criminal justice system and into our society at large,
including our school systems. All of these mechanisms have worked to create and maintain,
through notions of fear and blame, a dominant social view that men of color are by nature
criminals and as such, need to be controlled and punished (Aldama 2003; Costelloe, Chiricos,
and Gertz 2009).
These enduring views are projected not just to the adult man of color, but to the boy of
color as well, which has led to the marked and continued increase in the incarceration rates of
juvenile boys of color in recent years. The Sentencing Project (2017) reported that in the United
States, African American boys are five times more likely to be detained and incarcerated than
their White counterparts, and this disparity has increased since 2001 when African American
boys were four times more likely to be incarcerated than their White counterparts. Rios (2006),
and Rios and Rodriguez (2012) detailed the lived experiences of working class Black and Latino
youth in west coast urban settings with an expressed focus on the ways the criminal justice
system and law enforcement hyper-police and criminalize the boys. Among other criminalizing
experiences, he described how boys of color routinely experienced police ‘stop and frisk’
interrogations, sometimes handcuffed on a curb or bus stop for 45 minutes or more for no
apparent or justifiable reason.
As we see boys of color subjected to these criminalizing processes in public spaces (Rios
2011) and in the generational reproduction of criminal identities (MacLeod 2009), it is no
surprise school settings have become a significant vehicle through which the criminalization of
boys of color is mechanized (Flores-Gonzalez 2005; Leonard et al. 2010; Winn and Behizadeh
2011). Garland (2012) identifies it as a natural progression. Wacquant (2001) described this kind
of criminalization as a symbiosis wherein schools in low-income neighborhoods have now taken
on the same processes, apparatus and treatments as prisons including guards, property and body
searches, video surveillance, strict dress codes, bars on doors and windows, et. al. (Nolan 2011).
Boys of color bear the brunt of this criminalization in schools. By 4th and 5th grades,
many boys of color are already labelled as criminals by teachers and administrators (Ferguson
2010). In teacher discourse, elementary school boys of color are described with direct language
indicating incarcerated futures. They are scolded, sent to backs of rooms, sent out of rooms, sent
home, isolated in the classroom and often not permitted to speak even when White peers are
allowed (Langhout 2005). ‘[Students of color] are disciplined and suspended more frequently
than White students for subjective behaviors like disrespect, excessive noise, threats, and
loitering (Meiners, 2007, p. 33)’ (Winn and Behizadeh 2011, 153). Although boys of color are
criminalized in school and disproportionately punished, policed, and incarcerated, they do not
engage in violent behaviors or drug use any more than their more affluent White peers
(Thompson 2011; Winn and Behizadeh 2011). Teachers and administrators have come to expect
and accept this disparity as acceptable, normal, and ordinary, producing a culture of normality
with regard to the school–prison nexus (Brown 2009; Hirschfield 2008; Wacquant 2001).
Acts of resistance
In a broad sociological sense, resistance theorists examine the ways in which humans
engage in defiance, the affordances and consequences of those conscious and subconscious
decisions, and how defiance affects identity and other outcomes. In education research,
resistance theorists have focused on youth resistance, with an emphasis on socio-economic class
and opposition (Bourdieu 2000; DeMarrais and LeCompte 1999; Giroux 1981; Giroux 1983).
This literature has largely made the call to view acts of resistance from students as moral and
political acts of an oppressed working class (Abowitz 2000). Freire (2000) saw resistance as a
process by which an individual first comes to understand the reality of one’s oppression, and
then engages that oppressive reality in transformative ways.
With a significant focus on socio-economic class, resistance theory has largely ignored
issues of race (Akom 2003), and in some cases has even openly dismissed race as a significant
issue pertaining to resistance in the classroom. According to Solórzano and Bernal (2001), ‘…the
majority of resistance studies provide information about how youth [of color] participate in
oppositional behavior that reinforces social inequality instead of offering examples of how
oppositional behavior may be an impetus toward social justice’ (p. 310). Rios (2006; 2011)
identified resistance as a measured and often strategic way for boys of color to maintain some
level of freedom and independence of their own bodies in minds in an oppressive environment
built to exert constant surveillance and control over them. Among the general themes that
emerge from the scholars who have researched resistance among youth of color, the notion that
acts of resistance from boys of color are, as a collective, acts of rebellion against an oppressive
regime of punishment and marginalization is central.
Acts of resistance in STEM education research
Akom, Scott, and Shah (2013) theorized resistance in STEM education using an approach
‘…based in critical education, ethnic studies, science, technology, engineering, math,
environmental studies, sociology, history, law, and public policy- to better understand the social
and material conditions impacting Black working-class youth in STEM fields and how to
transform these conditions’ (p.164). With this approach, they critiqued the dominant body of
academic work on resistance theory and particularly in STEM education as largely remaining
silent on issues of race. They argued resistance theory in STEM education has failed to address
the deficit frameworks used explain Black STEM educational underachievement nor the deficit
paradigms which have served the interests of Whiteness, making the power, privilege, and self-
interest of dominant groups invisible.
Akom, Scott, and Shah called for the creation of counternarratives to hegemonic
resistance theory, and claimed that in order to challenge oppressive structures and systemic
racism, youth of color engaging in structural resistance is necessary and healthy. While they did
link race and the accompanying socio-economic issues to power-privilege structures, dominant
ideologies, and oppressive practices in STEM education, they did not specifically consider the
role of criminalization and the school-to-prison pipeline which significantly impacts youth of
Other critical STEM education scholars have identified and referenced acts of resistance
of boys of color in their research, but have not made it a focal point in their data collection or
interpretations. Martin (2006; 2007; 2009; 2013) has consistently used iterative approaches to
coding which reference acts of resistance in ways that may suggest it was an emergent pattern in
his findings. Similar references or connections to acts of resistance appear in the works of R.
Gutiérrez (2010), Gutstein (2006), Leonard, et. al. (2010), and Stinson (2006; 2008).
Resistance in elementary school youth
While the research above has focused entirely on high school aged boys or students of
color and their critical understandings and strategic uses of acts of resistance, elementary school
students have gone largely under-researched in this area. According to Duncombe (2002), youth
may engage in acts that serve the purposes of resistance without having resistance in mind when
engaging in those acts. Youth, particularly those with emerging critical understandings such as
those in intermediate grades, may engage in acts of resistance without fully understanding it as
serving that purpose.
Langhout (2005) set a precedent of researching acts of resistance of elementary school
students of color by examine the ways in which students of color resist control. She identified
multiple categories of resistance and theorized acts of resistance from boys of color in ways
congruent with broader social analyses. In doing so she has provided both the space and context
for examining resistance in boys of color in elementary schools: ‘Examining resistance in
children allows us to see how the resistance is manifested for those who are developing and may
not yet have the cognitive complexity and language skills to fully name their oppression, yet
know that something is amiss’ (Langhout 2005, 152).
Categorizing acts of resistance
One significant challenge in researching resistance in youth of color lies in distinguishing
it from other forms of oppositional behavior. To address this challenge, researchers have used a
categorical analytic approach to distinguish and delineate acts of resistance. Foundational to this
approach, Solórzano & Bernal (2001), in their work examining Chicana/Chicano student
resistance, identified and defined five categories of oppositional behavior - three of which they
define as acts of resistance.
The five categories of opposition are neither discrete nor static, and may vary particularly
between girls and boys. Derived from Giroux’s (1983; 1981) work on resistance theory,
Solórzano and Bernal (2001) identified reactionary behavior and self-defeating resistance as
oppositional but not resistance behavior. They identified conformist resistance, transformational
resistance; and resilient resistance as categories of acts of resistance.
Solórzano and Bernal describe reactionary behavior as non-resistive behavior which is
disruptive to the school environment without any connection to social conditions or awareness of
oppressive practices, and may result from things like student boredom. They describe self-
defeating resistance as the traditional notion of resistance. This is behavior which indicates an
awareness of social conditions on the part of the student but bears no orientation in social justice,
creating social change or creating tensions with possibilities of positive outcomes. An example
of this is a boy of color quietly dropping out of high school because of racially differential
treatment he continually receives from the school system. While these first two categories
represent oppositional behavior but not acts of resistance, the next three categories represent acts
Conformist resistance is motivated by or works toward social justice, but without much
awareness of or challenge to the systems of oppression. These acts of resistance operate within
the system. Social change is a possible but unlikely result from these acts. Students engaging in
these acts often blame themselves for oppression. An example of this is a student persistently and
repeatedly asking for more food during school-provided breakfast despite being continually
denied and dismissed. The student cites the fact that he is very hungry and cannot concentrate
during school, but still blames himself and his family for not having food. Transformational
resistance is an act of resistance which demonstrates some level of awareness of systemic
oppressions and a desire for social justice. An example of this could be a student who assists
another student with his math homework to help him improve his grades and math abilities, even
though the school-day teachers frown on and sometimes discipline the behavior. The student is
aware of the social justice nature of his actions and that the rules of working alone
disproportionately negatively affect many boys of color like himself.
The fifth category - resilient resistance - are responses beyond full compliance by the
student to direct microaggressive and oppressive treatments, with the intention of surviving
and/or succeeding through the microaggression. The student chooses a resilient resistance act
with some level of awareness of the oppression being levied. An example of this is a student who
is suddenly asked to leave the room by a teacher for no discernable serious infraction does so
quickly without objection only to quietly return without permission a few minutes later when the
classroom activity changes. These five categories of opposition and resistance provide and
inform not only initial coding schemes for my own analytic approaches to my data, but also a
means by which to discern acts of resistance from other forms of opposition which may be
In addition to the five categories Solórzano and Bernal put forth, Rios (2011) – and along
with co-author Rodriguez (2012) – add a type of resistance called dignity work:
Dignity work involved acts of resistance that often placed the boys at risk of punishment.
The delinquent boys calculated that it was worth taking the risk of losing their freedom in
order to gain some dignity from the system. The non-delinquent boys worked at fighting
for their freedom by evading situations in which they might encounter school discipline,
police contact, or targeting for criminalization. These boys found creative ways to avoid
criminalization…even when they followed the rules, authority figures still criminalized
the boys…Even if the boys attempted to adapt to school or police norms and codes, they
were still treated with the suspicion that they might commit a crime… (Ch. 7, paragraph
Here Rios described the contradictory nature of criminalization in schools: regardless of whether
or not boys of color conform, they are still treated and thought of as criminals by the school
system and police. Thus, for youth of color dignity work becomes a functional and
understandable modality of resistance.
Acts of resistance can be categorized and organized in several ways (see Table 1) but in
practice exist as a continuum rather than categorical. Acts of resistance are oppositional in
nature, but not all oppositional actions are acts of resistance. Acts of resistance can be overt or
covert (Solórzano and Villalpando 1998); verbal or non-verbal (Langhout 2005); and direct or
indirect responses to oppression (Langhout 2005). Acts of resistance can occur as an immediate
or delayed response to direct instances of targeted oppression and also as an unpredicted
response to longitudinal and continued oppressive practices. They can take multiple forms of
social justice orientation and can be on behalf of the student or of his peers (Yosso 2005).
According to Bernal (2001), acts of resistance should be viewed as a positive means by which
boys of color resist panoptic control of their bodies and minds. To that end Solórzano and
Villalpando (1998) expressly called for research ‘that identifies and analyzes how individuals
and groups use different and often unrecognized forms of resistance in response to domination’
This manuscript represents one of several research inquiries which emerged from a
longitudinal mixed methods study which began with a goal of better understanding some of the
experiences and characteristics of a district-supported after-school and summer STEM program
which serviced multiple low-income urban elementary schools. The program was interwoven
into each of the schools it serviced and had been going on for over a decade. It had a reputation
throughout the district and the region as being particularly impactful for boys of color. While the
study as a whole contained data from multiple quantitative and qualitative sources, this inquiry
into criminalization and resistance draws from my fieldnotes, formal and informal interviews,
and stories I collected during the year and a half I spent researching the program. Drawing from
Critical Race Methodology (Solórzano and Yosso 2001; Solórzano and Yosso 2002), my
research foregrounds the ways in which race and ethnicity, as they intersect with gender, impact
the lived experiences of the participants in this study.
I conducted this research across a year and a half period at three different elementary
schools in an urban school district in Colorado. Throughout the year and a half time period, I
visited each of the three schools, one to two times per week on average. While the participants in
this study were fully aware of my role as a researcher, while on-site I was welcomed as an active
participant in what was going on, often assisting students with activities and learning, and
teachers with lesson ideas and development.
Each site may have serviced up to 100 students in a given school year, but at any given
time may have as few as 35 students on the current roster and a daily attendance sometimes as
low as 20 - 25 students, and as high as 40 – 45 students. Students in the program were almost
entirely from various Latino/a and African American backgrounds. On any given day, boys
comprised half to three quarters of the attendees. Students did not appear to sub-group
themselves according to any discernable racial or ethnic category or sub-category. I report this
information with the caveat however that the demographic data on file with each school was in
line with US Census Bureau practices and as such offered only a male-female gender binary
option for identification, and utilized narrow means of identifying race and ethnicity. As such,
throughout the rest of this manuscript I use the term ‘boys of color’ to refer to a collective of
students who in practice chose a variety of terms of to refer to their marginalized racial and/or
ethnic identities including but not limited to Black, African American, Afro-Caribbean, Puerto
Rican, Mexican, Chicano, Latin, Latino, and Hispanic. In addition, multiple participants
expressed various and sometimes complex iterations of a multi-racial/ethnic identity.
Each school employed 5 – 7 staff members for the STEM program, including certified
teachers and other education-oriented personnel. In addition to the regular program staff, other
teachers in the building would at times pass through the physical spaces of the program, often
interacting with the students when they did so. The adults involved in the program
predominantly identified as female and White. Some of them either lived or grew up in the
schools’ neighborhoods and often leveraged their community knowledge to help bridge racial
and gender distance between themselves and their students.
Data collection and analysis
In my field notes, I focused on high quality capture of interpersonal relationships by
closely examining individual voices, personal experiences, engagements with others (Goodall
2000). I interacted with students and staff during my visits not only as a researcher but also as a
member of the community. In doing so, I attempted to ‘hear in’ to the interactions and
relationships the boys of color had with other staff, teachers, and other students. I conducted
informal and formal interviews of staff and boys of color regularly across the year and a half of
research as well, often including forms of participant validation to better understand specific
interactions I had previously observed or patterns of interaction. I used an iterative open coding
approach to the initial analysis, looking and refining emerging themes (Miles, Huberman, and
Saldaña 2013) and then a second series of coding rounds using a resistance coding scheme
assembled from previous scholars’ research (see Table 1 for an overview). Comparing the results
of the two approaches produced congruent and complimentary findings, allowing each approach
to further inform the other.
Stories and storytelling were a common and embedded practice in the program and the
local communities. Because of the level of reverence participants placed on this practice, I
collected stories, particularly from the staff, through multiple modalities including writing them
up shortly after hearing them, transcribing them alongside of a storyteller in real time as an
iteration of a formal interview, and retrieving them from an online repository which was started
as part of the program’s professional development. All stories were participant validated/member
checked both for accuracy and later to validate the ways in which I, along with a small group of
staff members, interpreted the stories.
The invisible boys
As stated in the introduction, not every boy of color regularly engaged in resistance.
Across the three research sites, about a quarter of the boys of color appeared to consistently exist
in a stage of complacent lethargy, completing any tasks asked of the class as a whole, but rarely
leaving their seats and almost never speaking, even on the very rare occasions that teachers
interacted with them. They were, from the staff’s perspective, effectively invisible.
This pattern of delineation in which some members of an oppressed group accept their
position and their oppression as normal and out of their control, while others engage in regular
and active resistance to oppressive measures, has been identified by community psychology
researchers in multiple intersectional minority groups in various settings (McDonald, Keys, and
Balcazar 2007). These ‘invisible’ boys did not appear to directly impact the cycles of
criminalization and resistance, and as such, were not a focus of this manuscript. They
nonetheless make up an important component of understanding resistance and criminalization,
and as such I name them here to honor their experiences; make them visible in this framework;
and call for more research into better understanding their unique lived experiences and responses
To increase and maintain a high level of trustworthiness, I operationalized frameworks
put forth by Merriam and Tisdell (2016); Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw (2011); and Miles,
Huberman, and Saldaña (2013). To increase research credibility and internal validity, I engaged
in data and investigator triangulation; longitudinal engagement; and participant validation (of the
stories, in particular). To increase consistency throughout the study, I engaged in a series of
peer/external researcher examinations of data analyses; maintained an audit trail of data
collection and analysis across the year and half; and incorporated reflexivity into my field notes
and analyses through the use of separate, discrete comments recording my thoughts, emotions,
and self-connections to what I was observing, from my position as a trained researcher and as a
man of color (Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw 2011; Miles, Huberman, and Saldaña 2013). I employed
what Merriam and Tisdell (2016) call ‘rich, thick description’ in all of my recordings. This
coupled with the consistency of findings across three different research sites served to increase
the transferability of the findings of this study.
I identified two major findings from my analysis: (1) boys of color engaged in acts of
resistance as ordinary and normal means of liberation against criminalization and oppression;
and (2) acts of resistance were hyper-criminalized, which in turn incited more resistance,
forming cycles of escalation. I provide details, variations, and typical examples of these findings
Ordinary and normal iterations of resistance
At each of the three sites, acts of resistance were common. During every site visit I made,
I observed multiple and regular acts of resistance from boys of color. The acts of resistance I
witnessed were twice as often overt than covert. All other categories of resistance occurred with
some degree of regularity. Most frequently, boys of color appeared to operational acts of
resistance as a means of maintaining or regaining control of their bodies using two sets of
resistances: (a) dignity work and academic resilience; and (b) symbolic and conformist
Dignity work and academic resilience
Boys of color often engaged in acts of resistance to regain or maintain control of their
bodies with academic resilience and dignity work. These types of resistance were usually brief,
sometimes occurring in less than a minute, but several went on for extended periods of time – in
a few cases an entire class (30-40 minutes), and typically occurred when students were in small
groups, but engaged in individual or worksheet-based activities such as homework sheets or
extension problems. This example demonstrates what an ordinary iteration of this style of
resistance looked like. In this example Tyrell, a 4th grade boy of color, was uncharacteristically
sitting with three girls and they were all working together on similar homework. At the start of
this excerpt students were working together in small groups to help each other with their math
homework. I could not discern anything Tyrell was doing that was different from everyone else
in the class, and his group appeared to be working well together, with Tyrell showing his group
how to solve a particular math problem:
…[a teacher] suddenly walked up and told Tyrell to move to a table by himself because
he could not behave. Tyrell shook his head and refused to move. He said, ‘Why? I’m
working hard and I’m helping my friends with their homework like we’re supposed to.’
[The teacher] said while tensing her body and pointing, ‘I asked you to move. Now move
your body to that empty table!’ Tyrell again refused to move saying he’ll stop talking to
the girls and get his work done but that he wasn’t going to move…the staff member
exhaled loudly and left. Tyrell immediately continued to complete his homework and
help the girls with their work.
In episodes like this Tyrell, although potentially lacking the full recognition that he was likely
being singled out because of his race and gender, recognized that something was unfair and
amiss. By engaging in an act of resistance – refusing to move – he maintained control of his
body, resisting the criminalization of the adult. He acknowledged and expressed that he was
engaging in academic discourse and doing nothing wrong. This is particularly salient in a
mathematics setting such as this wherein students are engaging in academic discursive practices,
which the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (2013) has identified as a best practice
and a vital component to students’ development of mathematical problem solving skills. Stated
another way, Tyrell appeared to have reached some level of mastery in the particular
mathematical task, and by teaching it to his peers he was not only acting in the benefit of them
but also strengthening his own understanding of the way(s) to solve the problems and the
mathematical concepts underlying the problems. The dominant social narrative about Tyrell,
from which the instructor appeared to be operating from, would instead suggest that Tyrell was
engaging in deviance by sitting and engaging in discourse with students who were not part of his
gender-race intersectional subgroup, and thus violating a form of social-academic hierarchy.
Further, moving to an empty table in a room when all other students are working in
groups would single him out and indicate that he was being punished unfairly (i.e. criminalized).
As a form of resistance to this, by leveraging the fact that he would continue working but would
not move, Tyrell demonstrated academic resilience by continuing his learning and school work
despite the criminalization. Thus, by refusing to move Tyrell used resistance to (a) maintain
control of his body; (b) maintain some amount of dignity; and (c) continue academic learning.
In another example, demonstrating a more acute version of dignity work, Antwon refused
to show a staff member his completed math work:
…[a teacher] approached Antwon and asked if he finished his math work. Antwon said,
‘Yeah’ without looking up and continued to pick out colored markers for a math-oriented
extension project he had started. The staff member said she wanted to see it. Antwon
said, ‘I did it,’ without looking up. She said, ‘Ok good, then let me see it because I think
you’re lying.’ [While it is common for teachers and staff to check over students’ math
work to look for mistakes or places to help the students, I have not previously seen it
done under the premise that a student was lying] Antwon said, ‘Ask Juan, he saw me do
it. Why aren’t you asking to see everyone’s homework?’ Antwon never looked up or
stopped working. She ordered him again, ‘Look at me. Get the sheet out and show me. I
know you didn’t do it. I don’t care what Juan says.’ Antwon said, ‘Nope’ and remained
seated, not having looked at her at all. The teacher stood very close to him standing over
him not saying anything. Eventually, and only once Antwon completed the coloring
portion of his extension worksheet, he pulled his book bag over with his foot, took his
homework out and held it up, first to Juan, then to the teacher – he never looked at the
teacher the entire time. Antwon’s homework was complete and correct. The teacher
walked away without saying anything to him.
This episode is a representative sample of what was a common and ordinary pattern wherein a
boy of color recognized disparate and criminalizing treatment, and engaged in acts of resistance
centered on attempting to maintain control of his body. In this example, Antwon only revealed
his completed homework when he was ready to do so (and showing it to Juan before the
instructor), thus to some degree maintaining control of his body and some amount of dignity
against what became a public display of attempted hyper-control and degradation of Antwon.
Symbolic and conformist resistance
Another common way in which boys of color maintained control of their bodies often
occurred through conformist and symbolic resistance. Conformist resistance typically took forms
such as how students located themselves in the classroom, such as sitting in a chair in the corner
of the room when ordered to sit down; and how students complied with orders that compromised
their dignity such as picking up the very smallest bits of paper next to their feet when ordered to
clean the floor. Symbolic resistance took form in the ways boys completed academic tasks, for
example one boy, in response to being blamed for something he didn’t do, immediately drew a
large animal face on simple machine he built which he had frequently and openly described as
being an animal that hated mean teachers.
In one particularly salient example of these types of resistance, several boys of color
engaged in a symbolic act of resistance in response to a culturally and racially insensitive action
of a teacher trying to enforce control over his students, who were all standing and working in
small groups on engineering tasks:
…the teacher said, ‘Kids, I need your attention for a moment. Everyone stop what you
are doing.’ When very few, if any, students complied, he then said louder and more
sternly, ‘Everyone put your hands on your head!’ Most students immediately did so.
Julio, followed by two other boys of color in the room, crossed his arms across his chest
and sat upright, appearing tense in his whole body, staring straight forward. Julio then
shook his head left and right, in a ‘no’ motion. The teacher seemed to notice the three
boys had done this, but did not react directly to it. He gave the class a new task, which
included sitting down. The three boys did not sit down immediately even when all others
in the class had done so and begun writing. After about a minute of maintaining their
upright stance, one at a time, they each sat down and began the writing task…
In this example, the three boys engage in symbolic resistance in refusing to put their hands on
their heads. While it is unclear as to the intent of the teacher’s command for everyone in the class
to put their hands on their heads, it was nonetheless levied toward a group of students who reside
in a community with a high police presence. According to many of the staff in the program,
many of the boys of color at all three sites had themselves already had multiple run-ins with the
police or had family members significantly impacted by unjust police practices. For these three
boys, the command to put their hands on their heads incited the need to resist this culturally and
racially insensitive attempt by the teacher to exert control over their bodies.
The examples above represent the iterations of the very normal and ordinary resistance
which occurred during every site visit I made across the year and a half timeframe. While the
examples above demonstrate reactions from teachers and staff that terminate with teachers
ignoring or walking away from the resistance, with varying frequency (possibly dependent upon
the teacher’s changes in disposition from day to day), acts of resistance were met with increased
oppressive measures, both in intensity and severity.
Escalating cycles of criminalization and resistance
I frequently observed the escalation of criminalization inciting acts of resistance, which
then led to more intense criminalization. The initial or inciting criminalization was sometimes
directed at the whole class, systemic, or otherwise more diffuse with regard to the direct impact
to an individual student. More often the criminalization was directed toward the individual
student. Whether diffuse or directed, when a marked boy of color engaged in an act of resistance,
it was frequently met with much more intense and direct criminalization such as hyper-
interrogation, hyper-controlling the body, labeling, disparate punishments, etc. At times in a
single episode of interaction involved multiple repetitions of acts of resistance leading to hyper-
criminalization leading to more acts of resistance leading to more hyper-criminalization and so
on. Other times the pattern ran through one cycle terminating with severe and disparate
In one example of this type of escalation cycle terminating in severe and disparate
punishment, a boy of color was exploring and experimenting with reading lenses to see how they
interact with light:
Orlando took one of the lenses outside [the back door of the room was propped open and
students were moving freely in and out to have more room to work]. He put the lens in
the sunlight and noticed a small circle of concentrated light at his feet. He crouched down
to look at it closer and seemed surprised that it changed size. [Most students reported
never have touch a lens before and very few students in the program had glasses, despite
many needing them]. He moved the lens up and down noticing the size of the
concentrated circle of light changing…a teacher came outside moving quicker than
normal and in a loud and stern voice said, ‘Orlando, what are you doing? Stop that!
You’re supposed to be figuring out how the lens helps you see. Not screwing around! Get
back inside.’ The staff member suddenly shifted her attention to another
student…Orlando stood up slowly with his hand holding the lens discreetly by his side,
watching the circle of light change size. While the staff member was still looking the
other way, Orlando tilted the lens so the circle of light moved onto the foot of the staff
member and wiggled it around. The staff member looked down at the light on the staff
member’s foot and yelled, ‘I thought I told you to get inside and knock off all this
screwing around. This is constantly happening with you. You never listen or do what I
tell you to do. That’s the worst part! Give me the lens. You’ve lost the privilege to use it
since you can’t use it appropriately. No get inside and sit down quietly. You’re done for
the day!’…Orlando went inside, sat down, discreetly took out his science notebook and
under the table began drawing a picture of the lens and his own version of a scientific ray
diagram of the light going through the lens and getting smaller.
In this example, the initial criminalization from the teacher worked to stop Orlando from
engaging in experimentation. Orlando responded through non-verbal conformist resistance,
standing up and facing the teacher as commanded but still manipulating light through the lens.
The teacher then hyper-criminalized this resistance by labeling Orlando a perpetual deviant and
removing Orlando from learning altogether. Orlando then resisted this hyper-criminalization,
while still conforming, through academic resilience going back inside and covertly diagraming
what he thought was happening through the lens in his science notebook.
Orlando’s actions demonstrate typical types of resistance involved in the escalation of
criminalization-acts of resistance-criminalization pathways. Showing a notable amount of
academic resilience during this entire episode, even during the escalation pathway, Orlando was
learning through tinkering (Schwartz, DiGiacomo, and Gutiérrez 2015) and in a very
sophisticated and academically meaningful way, was doing what he was supposed to be doing:
actively learning. Having the lens in hand, experimenting and instantly implementing his new
knowledge are quintessential examples of inquiry-based, hands-on learning espoused as highly
effective by the National Science Teachers Association (2004), the National Research Council
(2000), and the Next Generation Science Standards (2013).
These cycles of criminalization-resistance-criminalization escalation, which occurred on
a daily basis and were treated as normal and ordinary, illustrate the significant and detrimental
impacts the hyper-criminalization of resistance can have in denying boys of color the
opportunities to engage in learning, particularly in STEM content areas where experiential and
inquiry-based approaches are vital to building knowledge. Not only was Orlando overtly denied
the opportunity to continue engaging in the learning activity, but also through the initial
interaction with his teacher, he was also denied the opportunity to demonstrate to her and thus
validate his discovery that the eyeglass lens, in an interesting and important way, adjusted
In the United States, we live in a racialized prison state, fueled in part by the school to
prison pipeline. This longitudinal study makes a needed contribution to better understanding acts
of resistance from elementary school boys of color as a response to criminalization, and the ways
in which resistance is subsequently hyper-criminalized. Understanding these cycles of escalation
as ordinary and normal parts of the lived experiences of boys of color in elementary schools may
now allow us to begin to disrupt these cycles in positive and uplifting ways, and to see acts of
resistance from boys of color as a natural and healthy response to oppression.
Resistance theory has framed certain of types of resistance as self-defeating, and this
notion has been historically infused into a dominant narrative surrounding students of color in
education (Akom, Scott, and Shah 2013; Solórzano and Bernal 2001). The dominant narrative
would have us see resistance from students of color as detrimental and without value. Some
research has expressly named this as fact (McFarland 2001), while others have recognized
problematic tensions in labeling resistance in boys of color as self-defeating, calling for more
research to better understand the phenomenon (Hand 2010). Critical research has and continues
to challenging this frame, demonstrating that resistance in youth and boys of color serves
liberatory and meaningful purposes. The findings of this study continue our evolution of
understanding acts of resistance from boys of color, suggesting that acts of resistance in which
boys of color engage are complex and functional responses to oppressive environments, systems,
The findings of this study add a dimension to the ways we understand acts of resistance,
how they may serve boys of color, and ways in which the education system continues to choose
to respond to them. Boys of color appeared to be purposeful in many of their actions. One of the
educators on site proposed a hypothesis to me: ‘Ya know, everybody thinks them boys sit far
away from teachers so they can get away from learning and to get away with more mischief. The
more I talk to ‘em, I’m pretty sure they sit back there to try and reduce the volume of all that
policing. Shit, if I was getting hit with all that crap, I’d sit as far away from it as I could too.’
Likewise, staff members described situations where boys of color would not turn in completed
math homework for weeks at a time even though they completed them all correctly. Another
educator on site identified this kind of symbolic act of resistance as a powerful statement of
‘what is important to our boys’. They do the work, engage the learning, but refuse to turn it in
even when they know it is done correctly – an act of resistance that an outsider with a deficit
view may label as self-defeating, while the framework of this study would allow us to see as
empowering, liberatory, and healthy; and worthy of our celebration.
In examining youth in other social contexts, scholars have described resistance as a
normal response to oppression (Abowitz 2000; Bourdieu 2000; Giroux 1981; Giroux 1983). Rios
(2011) saw dignity work as a healthy response to criminalization, and one of the few modes of
resistance consistently available to boys of color who are heavily criminalized in all aspects of
their lives. It is therefore reasonable to see resistance from boys of color in educational settings
as a normal and healthy human response to oppressive measures. In this study, boys of color
operationalized resistance to retain control of their bodies and their dignity in an environment
which consistently worked to unjustly remove that control and dignity. Thus, the findings of this
study lead to a counternarrative of celebration: that it is a good, normal, and healthy thing many
of our boys of color are resisting oppression and have not yet given in to the criminalization our
education system continues to levy upon them.
A counternarrative of celebration
At the foundation of this celebration are the basic premises that oppression is unjust,
resistance to oppression is healthy, and as a society we want any student in our public school
system to be healthy. In this way we can position acts of resistance from the boys of color in this
study as a healthy thing – a thing that we want. In viewing resistance from this perspective, as
educators and stakeholders in our education system, we can then rethink our approach to how we
choose to respond to resistance. Of the many ways we may conceptualize responding to acts of
resistance using this celebratory lens, further criminalizing them is undeniably unjust and cruel.
Further and beyond the foundation of this counternarrative of celebration, we may also find
celebration in some of the types of resistance the boys in this study enacted.
In the face of consistent, normalized and often escalating criminalization and oppression,
the boys regularly engaged in academic resilience. That is, they often positioned themselves to
overtly or covertly find ways of resisting while maintaining active engagement with their
learning. The boys who were the most heavily and most often criminalized often found the most
innovative ways of being academically resilient. When kicked out of class, they would position
themselves to be out of the view of the teacher but still be able to see demonstrations, activities,
or videos; while being verbally berated they would continue to complete practice math problems
correctly and efficiently; when told to put their heads down on their desks they would continue to
write in their science notebooks in their laps; and when send out of class in groups or
subsequently would team up and continue group work in the hallway. These and other examples
demonstrate the ways in which boys of color resisted without compromising their desire to learn.
This suggests that many boys of color want to learn and engage in meaningful and
interesting academic STEM activities despite the criminalization and oppression levied upon
them. As a staff member told me during one of my site visits, ‘They aren’t like that with reading
and writing. They really like doing math probably ‘cause they’re good at it. And they LOVE
science. They love building all that stuff and solving all those problems. They brag about what
they know.’ As this staff member indicated, STEM learning is important to the boys.
Seeing many of our boys of color as responding in healthy and sophisticated ways to an
oppressive system differs from the view that our educational system spins. It also creates a moral
dilemma. If we accept this counternarrative of celebration, we must also own the fact that the
ways in which our educational system treats our boys of color is acceptable – and even
encouraged - in the eyes of dominant society. Many of the staff members at the research sites
seemed to genuinely think of and often describe the boys as ‘good kids’ that were unfairly
treated by society, the school, and teachers and administrators. Some staff openly acknowledged
that they themselves routinely targeted and criminalized the boys in ways they knew were unfair
and unjust, and even irregularly engaged in emerging decriminalizing practices (Basile 2018),
but cited things like job expectations and lack of support for reasons they didn’t regularly
implement more just and empowering ways of interacting with the boys. The questions which
emerged from this are oriented around understanding what we must do to change this culture of
criminalization on the local, ground level – perhaps even one school at a time – to begin to
provide the training and support necessary for educators who want to disrupt these cycles of
escalation in criminalization and resistance.
And of course, our boys of color are not helpless. Rather, many of them are empowered
in ways their higher socio-economic White peers are not. They regularly resist their oppression
in powerful ways. The findings presented here and many other of the observations made during
the year and a half I spent among the boys in this study, along with my own lived experiences,
have guided me to believe that many boys in color in fact have far more awareness of the
complexities of their oppressive surroundings, the ways in which they resist them, and the
affordances and constraints of resistance, than previous research and popular discourse in
education has given them credit. One educator described the resistance of boys of color as
‘badass’ and the boys themselves as ‘the strong kids’. Based on these findings, I add to this
educator’s statement that the boys of color in this study are also brilliant, dignified and
academically resilient. As an education collective, it is imperative that we foreground these
aspects of the lived experiences of our boys of color in ways that work to simultaneously
deconstruct criminalizing processes and to honor and respect the ways in which our boys resist
them, both in our research and in our classroom practices.
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Categories of Acts of Resistance Described by Critical Scholars
Acts which are external and visible to others
Solórzano & Villalpando (1998)
Acts which are either internal (deciding to
act the way requested but with
oppositional compliance) or subversive
in nature (deciding not attend a history
class with racist undertones under the
guise of being sick)
Solórzano & Villalpando (1998)
Resistance situated in discourse or
Resistance situated in actions and body
positioning (deliberately not moving
when told to do so)
Not turning in homework for credit even
though it is completed correctly
Defying demeaning teacher demands such
as ‘put your head down on your desk
while the rest of us learn’
Following rules or orders while still
resisting the spirit of the rule or order,
often through minimal compliance
(walking only slightly faster when
ordered to hurry up)
Solórzano & Bernal (2001)
In a classroom that bans collaborative work,
helping another student learn a difficult
Solórzano & Bernal (2001)
Quietly returning to class without
permission after being kicked out to
complete an assignment