A SONIC ETHNOGRAPHY OF AN URBAN FIFTH GRADE                                                                   CLASSROOM

                                                                               Walter Gershon


Sounds have long been an integral part of interpretive research. Lagging behind text, photography, and their inclusion in film, it is only recently that the sonic has begun to be considered as a means for representing research findings (e.g. Bauer 2000; Makegon and Neumann 2009). This piece is a performative representation of one such sounded methodological possibility, a research method I call sonic ethnography (Gershon 2012). As such, this article both provides a rearticulation of the methodological foundations of sonic ethnography and then demonstrates how sonic ethnography can function in practice. The empirical portion of this piece focuses on a year and a half in Mrs. Grindall’s fifth grade classroom, part of a collaborative, four-year study that examined how songwriting might be used to alleviate race and gender gaps in science education for urban students and the multiple contexts that informed their daily classroom interactions.

In order to better explicate the methodological underpinnings of sonic ethnography and the ways in which this methodology functions in practice, the remainder of this piece has been organized as follows. It begins with an overview of sonic ethnography as a methodology, a discussion that details its positionality within ethnographic traditions as well as its similarities and differences to other sounded methodologies. Where this section does present a broader discussion of data collection, analysis, and representation, the specifics of each are braided throughout this texted portion in relation to the the data presented.

The remainder of this article is in many ways typically ethnographic in form and function, moving in concentric circles of meaning from the larger sociocultural contexts that serve as a backdrop for the classrooms in this study to more local ecologies of meaning through to the participants and their interactions. This set of tasks begins with a section that links the relationship between sound and education to the broader contexts of high-stakes testing in contemporary United Stated education, a context that strongly informs students’ academic and social lives in Mrs. Grindall’s fifth grade classroom, the locus of this case. A discussion of the collaborative longitudinal study from which this data is drawn follows this presentation of broader educational contexts, a discussion that is in turn followed by a review of more local contextualizing information about the school, its district, and students’ test scores.


Attention then turns to the fifth graders, their teacher Karen Grindall, and the classroom they shared at Portage Path Community Learning Center, the people and place that are the focus of this piece, a section that also provides information about the sounds in the accompanying sound/work. Rounding out the texted portion of this article is a discussion of how processes of data collection and analysis functioned in this study, a section that concretizes the methodological understandings expressed in the preceding sections. This written portion ends with a relatively non-traditional conclusion that serves as a reminder of the mediated, interpreted nature of sounded representations and underscores the significance of listening to traditionally marginalized children’s voices, contexts, ideas, ideals and processes.


Sonic ethnography (Gershon 2012) is one methodological response to recent calls for a sounded anthropology (e.g.Feld and Brennis 2004; Samuels, Meintjes, Ochoa and Porcello 2010). As I have described in greater detail elsewhere, and as Samuels, Meintes, Ochoa and Porcello suggest, sonic ethnography is, at its essence, the sonic representation of ethnographic data. In this way, sonic ethnography is similar in kind to visual anthropology and ethnographic films. As such, it adheres to contemporary practices for interpretive research that include attention to questions of agency and power, the importance of transparency and centrality of ethical considerations, and address constructions of sense-making, both epistemologically and ontologically, according to local actors’ perspectives (Agar 1996; Erickson 1986; Howes 2003; Faubian and Marcus 2009; Spindler and Hammond 2006; Stoller 1997).

It is important to note that sonic ethnography relies on a long history of sound and understanding in and through sound, from musique concrète to Cage, field recordings to digital reconstructions, constructions of sound in, as, and through the performing and visual arts, and the centrality of sonic meanings throughout time (e.g., Bull and Back 2003; Erlmann 2004, 2011; Kahn 2001; Kim-Cohen 2009; Pinch and Bijsterveld 2011; Smith 2004; Sterne 2003,2012), not to mention the depth and breadth of non-Western sound understandings. It is similarly indebted to both the wide variety of meanings currently ascribed to the term “soundscape” (Schafer 1977) and, even more so, to Feld’s work in general and construction of acoustemology in particular. Furthermore, where Feld (Feld 1996;Brennis and Feld 2004) discussed acoustemology as a marriage between acoustics and epistemology, he has recently further defined acoustemology in the blurb on the cover for his forthcoming book, as “a way of knowing the world through sound” (Feld 2012), a move that further complicates and blurs distinctions between sonic ethnography and acoustemology.

Just as Feld’s move from soundscape was in no small part motivated by both his desire for greater political discussions of the relationships between sound and understandings and the need to include people and their sounds in studies of sonic ecologies, sonic ethnography presses at acoustemology in two key ways. First, while acoustemology does address ways of being in the world, it tends to foreground questions of epistemology, focusing more on social constructions of meanings than social constructions of being, of is-ness. Second, acoustemology is often a texted endeavor.

To be clear, this does not mean that there are not field recordings associated with acoustemology, that there are not albums produced from those recordings, or that music and its creation is in some way absent of either epistemology or ontology. Additionally, as Howes (Howes 2003) notes, writing is one way to remind readers of the distance of interpretation, something that can be lost in film and other media where the medium can lull audiences into mistaking an interpretation for the completeness of an experience.

What sonic ethnography offers is an opportunity to further build on the sound foundation of soundscape, and acoustemology, as well as Erlmann’s (Erlmann 2010) and Thibaud’s (Thibaud n.d.) constructions of otology. For example, the ability to listen to another’s talk, their sound ecologies, and their artistic sonic expressions provides the would-be-reader an opportunity to instead hear these sounds for themselves in their own terms. This move simultaneously re-introduces sonic aspects that are removed in their translation to text (i.e. prosody) while taking away a layer of translation, the movement of rendering sounds to text. The ways in which sound can interrupt mainstream notions of meaning that often rely heavily on visual metaphors is another example of the advantages that a sonic ethnography can provide researchers (e.g. Kim-Cohen 2009).

Furthermore, because human beings make sense of their world through the sensorium (e.g. Howes 2003, 2009;Stoller 1997, 2002), both in their constructions of signification and in their ways of being, listening to interpretive research is a fundamentally different experience from reading it. Not necessarily better, but certainly different. Sounds resonate in ways that text cannot (Gershon, 2013a). Attention to sounds requires a different way of being than reading text. As anyone who has tried to render hours of audio or listened to a song knows, listening unfolds temporally in ways that reading does not—skimming through sounds is not the same as skimming through a text.

Sonic ethnography is also fundamentally different from sound art. Sound art can be understood as the sonic/mixed-media expression(s) of an artist’s or artists’ intention(s). In sonic art, the artist’s(s’) intentions and expressions are in many ways independent of an audience member’s perception of either—an audience member need not have her perceptions be in any way aligned to a piece of sound art in order for it to be meaningful. However, like ethnography, sonic ethnography is intended to convey to others how local actors make sense and what they find to be sensible. From this perspective, sonic ethnography has the ethical obligation to work hard so that participants’ perceptions of events is conveyed through a given piece. In other words, as Wolcott so aptly discussed, while interpretive research is necessarily partial and fragmented, one must “go to considerable pains not to get it all wrong” (Wolcott 1990: 127).

Additionally, sonic ethnography appears to interrupt the sonic portion of Pink’s (Pink 2009) construction of sensory ethnography. While Pink acknowledges the importance and possibilities of sound for ethnography, she nonetheless maintains that sound cannot interpret with the power of text or film. Pink’s construction of meaning overlooks the visceral, somatic, haptic aspects of sound and the ways in which sound can necessitate attention. It also again privileges the optic over the aural and, in so doing, inadvertently reifies some of the very notions about Western constructions of thought and experience that her strong work in sensory ethnography seeks to disrupt.


Some further points of clarification are necessary here. This is not an attempt to elevate the sonic over the texted or intended to create some form of binary between acoustemology, soundscape, or any other form of sounded anthropology/social science and sonic ethnography. This is also not a naïve exhortation of the “realness” of sound. Sonic ethnography is a construction that relies as much on local and less local sociocultural norms and values as it does on the sounds that are recorded at any given moment, the equipment that is used to conduct a recording, and the ways in which a person chooses to make an audio recording. Like ethnography, sonic ethnography is also an act of interpretation, of selecting some sounds and not others in order to construct this narrative over that one (Sterne 2003). In addition, sounds can be as silencing as they are enabling (cf. Martin 2006; Schwartz 2004; Sterne 2005).

Sonic Ethnography and Text

Why, then, this texted portion? One answer lies in the difference between sonic ethnography and sound art. Because I understand the act of representation as inexorably tied to questions of ethics, transparency, agency, and voice, it is important that I make clear not only the method through which I collected data but also delineate between my perceptions and those of participants in an equally clear fashion. It is similarly essential that I provide contextual information about the people whose daily lives became data through my presence in their lives, the sounds heard in the sonic portion, and the processes through which those sounds were selected.

This is information that could be rendered sonically. However, adding my own voice to the work in such an overt way could run the risk of overemphasizing the authority of my voice over the representation of others’, particularly in light of the ways in which voice-overs are often understood to operate in documentaries and film. A “voice of God” approach could be both an ironic inversion of contemporary ethnographic research practices as well as removing a methodological strength in sonic ethnography: the agency of local actors literally voicing their own perspectives. Yet, there are other ways in which a researcher might incorporate discussions of context in her or his literal voice, perhaps including voice-overs. I therefore wish to call for caution and awareness for both intended and possible unintended methodological consequences in sounded representational practices, an attention that mirrors strong ethnographic work across the methodology’s multiple interpretations and permutations.

Another answer for the inclusion of this texted portion is that this text supports sounds as opposed to more common relationships between sound and text found in most ethnographic forms, where sounds are utilized to support the ocular, be they images or texts, similar to the ways in which direct quotations support an author’s argument. Whereas the sounded part of this piece might stand alone without this texted layer of interpretation, with the exception of this section on methodology, this text is about the sounds and would be rendered much less sensible without the accompanying sounds.

Yet the question of whether a sonic ethnography might be texted remains. Scholars such as Greg Goodale (Goodale 2011), who strongly agrees with Levine’s argument that sounds can and should be literally read, and Seth Kim-Cohen’s (Kim-Cohen 2009) use of Derrida’s notions of text to make a similar argument about texted sound towards what he calls “a non-cochlear sound art” raise some compelling arguments about the possibilities at the intersection of sound and text. I tend to agree with Kim-Cohen’s discussions of how sounds can interrupt visual metaphors and with his assertion that visual metaphors do not translate well outside of the ocular yet disagree with his conclusion about sounds and texts. However, in spite of my own reservations about notions of sound-as-text—a position I find troubling particularly in terms of the arguments I made above about significant (literal and metaphorical) ontological differences between being-in/with/as-sound and being-in/with/as-text—I nonetheless wish to leave open the possibility of a texted sonic ethnography.

This, then, raises two important questions: 1) if sonic ethnography were texted, what would it look like and how might it function and 2) how would this then be different than Feld’s most recent discussion of acoustemology? In answer to the first question, some possibilities include cartographic and narrative expressions of sound (Gershon, 2013b; Gershon and Van Deventer, in press) and the multitude of ways that sounds have been rendered vis-à-vis text/graphics (e.g. Ashton 2003; Sauer 2009). Although such possibilities would be different from acoustemology as it has most often been expressed, the boundaries between acoustemology and a texted sonic ethnography are at best blurry and fluid. I therefore look forward to further discussions about what might constitute either orientation towards sound/social science.


Finally, while sonic ethnography might be rendered as a piece of sound art or a soundscape, sound art and soundscapes are not necessarily sonic ethnography. Ultimately, the difference between sound art, soundscape and sonic ethnography is that, while it can be represented as sonic art or as soundscape, sonic ethnography is the sounded representation of “data” collected and analyzed over the course of an ethnographic study. The remainder of this text attends to questions about the study, contexts, participants, and their sounds in this expression of sonic ethnography in practice.

High Stakes Testing as Common Sense in Contemporary US Education

Sounds form educational systems, ways of knowing and being that are physically and symbolically resonant (e.g.Erlmann 2004, 2010; Erickson 2003, 2004; Feld 1982, 1991; Gershon 2011a, 2011b). However, in spite of much talk across the educational literature about listening to students, the majority of scholarship about the importance of listening to students is most often written about rather than with students and the most prevalent (if not the only) voice tends to be that of an adult/scholar, a point Speier (Speier 1976) made clear over thirty years ago[1]. Parallel to Halberstam’s cautionary reminder about the ways in which scientists have mapped heteronormativity onto animal behaviors (Halberstam 2010: 32-42), adults’ writing about students’ voices is at least doubly interpretive—it first interprets the understanding of students’ sounds through adult-centric epistemologies, then renders the sonic in text. The point here is not only about the difficulties of translation and interpretation but also about what is intentionally and unintentionally lost when commonly held practices become common sense understandings (e.g. Apple 2000; Gershon 2011c; Halberstam 2010; Kumashiro 2008, 2009).

In formal educational ecologies such as schools and classrooms, such omissions, missed translations, and consensus about what “counts” as common sense is indeed a high stakes game (Anderson 2009; Taubman 2009; Valenzuela 2005). This is particularly the case in contemporary United States education where students are literally measured against prescribed standards that regularly work to define them as successes and failures.

It bears noting here that schooling in the US has at least a one hundred year history of inclusion and exclusion through standardized measurements (Kliebard 2004; Winfield 2007) and an equally long history of producing sociocultural and socioeconomic differentiation in ways that do not necessarily require formal, standardized measurement (e.g. Rist 1970; Valencia 1997; Varenne and McDermott 1998). Yet it is only in recent years that this particular combination of standardized measurement through annual tests has been more colloquially referred to as “high stakes” (e.g. Koyama 2010; Nichols and Berliner 2007; Valli et al. 2008). As these cited authors indicate, as a result of the ways in which school funding and constructions of teachers’ and students’ success is directly tied to students’ test scores (e.g. ODE [Ohio Department of Education]-Accountability; ODE-NCLB), consequences for students in general and for traditionally marginalized populations in particular are high stakes indeed.

This now-common-sense understanding of schooling is troubling on at least the following three counts. First, it conflates two separate interactions: teaching and learning. As I share with the future high school teachers I teach each fall, the learner learns and the teacher teaches. As most teachers and parents know, teaching something well does not necessarily equate to someone learning what is taught and, conversely, learning something is not necessarily a result of strong teaching. This is because learning takes time and is dependent as much on the sociocultural contexts that inform one’s learning—whether how one is expected to learn in school aligns with how one is expected to learn in one’s home community for example (e.g. Heath 1983; Varran 2001)—as it is on one’s own pace in learning a particular idea or idea, concept or construct.

From this perspective, the dismantling of the No Child Left Behind Act as “fundamentally broken” and “broken,” as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted on Michelle Morris’ show on National Public Radio in the United States, hides rather than alleviates what is perhaps the central problem with this form of testing. It is not only that the tests are punitive and internally invalid (how can 100% of students receive a passing mark on a truly standardized assessment?) but it is also more fundamentally the problem of this culture of testing and the very assessments used to measure students. Creating a more equitable assessment does not remove the conflation between teaching and learning.

Second, this vision of schooling privileges the privileged. Where all public school students, teachers, and schools in an overwhelming majority of states have been and will continue to be categorized as either successes or failures by students’ scores on mandated, statewide assessments, students in private schools are not required to test at all. This means that much of the push for students to learn the relatively narrow knowledge needed to pass state assessments, a point to which I will return momentarily, and the large amount of time which would otherwise be spent learning that material, teaching to the test or not, can be spent in open-ended inquiry and other such educational interactions that have long been documented to be ways through which elite students become elite workers and members of society (e.g. Anyon 1981; Bratlinger 2003; Howard and Gaztambide-Fernandez 2010).

Additionally, and of equal importance, public schools and districts are not equal in very material, economic ways. It is various forms of “standardized” and “objective” testing that have a history in the US of separating individuals according to race, class, gender, and other such sociocultural markers. In light of this ongoing historical context, it is not as much about the kind of test as it is about the existence and use of the testing, neither of which appear likely to change with recent adjustments to federal education policy.

Finally, testing focuses on a relatively narrow bandwidth of knowledge, the kind of information that Mehan (Mehan 1979) famously referred to as “known information questions”. As opposed to open-ended inquiry or other forms in which the purpose of questions is to find out information that is not known to the questioner, known information questions are those that tend to be posited by the teacher and those to which there is already a prescribed answer, questions that can be adjudicated as right or wrong.

In this way, standardized testing strongly informs an educational system that is increasingly geared for both narrow questions and lessening possibilities. This is a particular irony given the ever-widening access to information, creating a context where educational questions are often as much about what content to disregard as they are about what information can be found about a given topic. By this I do not mean that standards cannot be helpful or that assessments are necessarily punitive. However, the content of all tests is necessarily a choice of this over that according to particular sets of ideas and ideals. From this perspective, how formal standardized testing is utilized in US schooling often continues to marginalize the marginalized and privilege the privileged while hiding the political and biased nature of testing. In this way, explicit decisions about such matters as which educational ideas and ideals are valued or choices about the content and method of testing can hide behind a veil of objectivity and standardization that is often presented as fair, balanced, and unbiased.

(1) Lourdez Diaz Soto and Beth Blue Swadener’s excellent book, Power & Voice in Research with Children in which only one chapter is co-authored with a child is but one example of this tendency. The point here is not about the book’s value, for it offers many strong ideas about the significance of listening to children and the power of their ideas/ideals. Rather, it is that a lack of children’s voices as authors is generally present, even in such a well constructed book that speaks to the importance and power of children’s voices.

The Listening to the Sounds of Science Project

It is in this educational context that I began working with four teachers in three urban schools to see if songwriting might serve as a means for mitigating race and gender gaps in science (for more on this as an educational possibility see, for example, Dimitriadis 2009; Hudak 1999). I was additionally interested to see if there was room for such an educative tool at this point in American curricular history as well as what “science” meant in practice, particularly in light of all the national and international attention focused on science education and careers. Over the course of the study, this project has moved from questions about a pedagogical tool to what participating teachers and I have come to think of as “listening to the sounds of science.”

Science, technology, as well as the two remaining STEM subjects (Engineering and Mathematics), have become the focus of much national attention and consternation. There is similar talk and focus about the continuing underrepresentation and lack of success of students of color and girls in science education and science professions as well as the ways in which schooling reifies these tendencies (e.g. Feldman, Divoll and Rogan-Klyve 2008; Huang and Fraser 2009; Prime and Miranda 2006). As such, questions at the intersection of science and education carry a particular kind of weight at this historical moment.

It is important to note that this study was not conceived as a “program” to improve test scores and, even if it were, there would be far too many variables—time spent in science classes, attention to science in previous years of elementary school, tutoring after school, or the need to take care of younger siblings, to name but a few—for me to state that this songwriting had a definitively positive impact on students’ test scores. The test scores presented in this texted portion are therefore intended to provide context to the district, school, and participants rather than as posited to be yet another indicator of student success or failure.

However, it is equally important to note that this project was explicitly intended to document what fifth graders were able to express about science through song and talk in their weekly meetings after school and occasional lunch and recesses. The sonic portion of this piece can therefore serve as another means for considering what city kids know about science, how they are able to express those ideas, and the ways in which their teacher approaches supporting their science learning. It is an opportunity to listen to how often-marginalized students make sense, understandings, and experiences that are at once epistemological, ontological, and sensorial.


Rather than seeking to represent the project over the course of multiple years (Gershon and the Listening to the Sounds of Science Project) or a particular student within this study (Gershon, 2013b), this piece focuses on Mrs. Grindall’s[2] fifth grade classroom over the course of the 2008-2009 and 2011-2012 academic years. The remainder of the texted portion of this sonic ethnography focuses on the methodology utilized to collect and represent data, the context in which that data was collected, and interpretations of that data as well as some possible implications for those interpretations. It is to this task that I now turn.


Local Contexts: School and Score

Over the course of this study, Portage Path Elementary School became Portage Path Community Learning Center. It did so in grand fashion, transforming being transformed from one of the Akron Public School’s (APS) more run down schools to something of a showcase for the district as it was gutted, remodeled and rebuilt. In addition to new facilities throughout the building that includes a gym and separate cafeteria with a stage, art and music rooms, a large school library, and a space for a Head Start program, Portage Path Community Learning Center (PPCLC), as a page of APS’s website dedicated to CLC’s states: “The Portage Path CLC is equipped with the latest and greatest in learning technology. The 56,800-square-foot facility includes classroom projectors, smart boards and high-speed Internet.” In addition, each classroom is equipped with a speaker system and microphones so that teachers can be heard throughout the room without having to overly raise their voices.

Prior to their move back into their newly configured school, the students and teachers of PPCLC spent two years (academic years 2008-2009 and 2009-2010) in another modern building that represented a large leap from the physical building that was Portage Path Elementary. These two years also represent the first two years of this project, now in its fourth and final year.

This move from schools to community learning centers also represents a fundamental change in APS’s approach to education. Here is how the district describes CLC’s:

What is Akron CLCs?
Akron Community Learning Centers is an aggressive, 15-year plan to remodel or rebuild Akron Public Schools and transform the buildings into "community learning centers." With joint funding from the state and local community, more than $800 million is available for this program – the largest construction opportunity in the history of Akron. CLCs benefit everyone. Students get the best education possible, and taxpayers get the best value for their dollars. During regular school hours, CLCs serve as the modern school facilities Akron kids and teachers need. After school, on weekends and during the summer, many can be used for recreation, adult education, after-school and summer school programs, and a wide variety of community activities. (Retrieved from:

In addition, on the same page the district states that, “studies show a direct tie between modern facilities and a quality education,” (para. 14) and that these new schools will be “equipped with the tools necessary to keep pace with ever-changing techonology [sic] and 21-st-century jobs.”

PPCLC, the same grounds that PP El used to occupy, resides within and adjacent to one of the more hip, affluent neighborhoods in Akron. However, even after its rebuild, the overwhelming majority of students at PPCLC are from poor to working class families. Because of the ways that information about income is made public as it relates to schools in the United States and Ohio, the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch prices due to their annual household income are commonly used as indicators of students’ socioeconomic class.

According to the most recent statistics, in academic year (AY) 2009-2010, 90% of students at PPCLC received free lunch and 8% received a reduced priced lunch. Although the school’s demographics state that 80% of students in AY 2008-2009 and 83% of students in AY 2010-2011 were “Black, non-Hispanic,” only five students in Mrs. Grindall’s fifth grade room (3 in AY 2008-2009, 2 in AY 2010-2011) did not classify themselves in some way as African American, a category that also includes the few students who talked about themselves as “mixed” or “bi-racial” but self-identified on record as “black.” Of these students, only one student each year was Anglo. The majority of families of means in the area send their students to private schools. As the school’s racial demographics indicate, mirroring schooling throughout the US, race is inexorably tied to social class.

Due to funding issues across the state, after AY2008-2009, students are no longer tested in social studies and, rather than test students each academic year in science, students are tested in fifth grade for grades K-5 and in eighth grade for grades K-8, cumulatively. For this reason, there is immense pressure on fifth grade teachers who are charged with the task of not only teaching the fifth grade content but also reviewing science content from Kindergarten through fifth grade.

Although I have been generally impressed with how the district has been approaching science education and particularly taken with how students in Mrs. Grindall’s classroom approach inquiry and learning, the fifth grade statistics for PP El and PPCLC in science are not positive. Only 54.5% of students in heard in the sounds (found below, AY 2008-09) and, by way of comparison, only 20% of fifth graders in AY 2010-2011 at PPCLC received a “proficient” or passing score on their annual tests in science. By comparison, where fifth graders at PP EL outscored the district but fell short of the state in AY 2008-09 (53%/70.6%), they fell far short of both district and state in AY 2010-11 (50.8%/71.1%).

In discussing the scores with Mrs. Grindall, at least the following three factors contributed to students’ overall low scores. First, there was a dip in all scores at PP CLC in the 2009-2010 academic year, resulting in increased pressure for fifth grade teachers at the school to increase language arts and math scores. As a result, teachers spent less time on science, a test that is important but less heavily monitored than language arts and math, and even less time on social studies. This is also a point of concern for the two seventh and eighth grade teachers in this project who find similar gaps in science knowledge for the students who arrive in their respective classrooms and schools at the beginning of each academic year.

A second complication resides in the focus of the academic content tested, differences between what students know and the assessments by which they, their school, and their district are literally categorized as successes or failures. Annual standardized assessments are designed to measure students’ comprehension of the academic content they are prescribed to learn each academic year. Each song contains information that relates to multiple standards both under the previous (through AY 2010-11) Ohio state grade five science standards. For example, here are the Ohio Science Academic Content Standards (OSACS) used at the time of this study for Grade Five about “The Universe” in the category of “Earth and Space Sciences” from the Ohio Department of Education:


The songs about the solar system primarily address standards one and two and, more obliquely, standard four. However, each of these songs contain a good deal of scientific knowledge not reflected in these standards. Examples include that a) a solstice is a moment in time in when the earth’s orbit is in a particular relation to the sun, b) the moon goes through phases, c) the sun like other stars is a ball of gas and that moons have craters, and d) the names of all eight, not nine, planets. This is important information that is not reflected in the state standards for grade five. They do, however, relate to the first standard of grade eight about the universe: “Describe how objects in the solar system are in regular and predictable motions that explain such phenomena as days, years, seasons, eclipses, tides and moon cycles” (OSACS: 198). Additionally, while discussions of cloud types is a fourth grade standard, the ability to “make simple weather predictions based on cloud types associated with frontal systems” and “describe the water cycle and explain the transfer of energy between the atmosphere and hydrosphere” (OSACS: 49) are both gradeseven standards.

As is the case with both of these songs, it may well be that students learning beyond their grade level is ironically part of what is contributing to their construction as unsuccessful at grade level knowledge. This also points to one of the possible difficulties in this particular way of linking academic content standards to standardized assessments to daily classroom lessons. If a teacher were to take the Ohio State Science Standards literally, then there is the distinct possibility that students might be able to “explain the characteristics, cycles and patterns involving Earth and its place in the solar system” without a discussion of solstices, seasons, or the passing of years, which were grade eight standards.

Finally, there is the language of the test. While Mrs. Grindall does what she can to ensure that students learn the academic content vocabulary on students’ annual assessments, she believes that the assessments first and foremost function as a reading assessment. If students are struggling to read, they will have difficulty answering the blocks of text that often accompany each set of selected response answers. Here is how Mrs. Grindall framed this concern during the phone conversation that served as a final member check for this piece.

It’s a reading test. It’s a 100% reading test. So filled with trickery and loooong reading passages. What we were trying to do last year was to hit on the vocabulary, because that is a weakness. The concept sheets, that’s why I give it to them, so that they have the right, in-context information, because it’s already enough of a struggle to get them the correct information.


It is for these reasons that Mrs. Grindall provides students the information sheets on the science constructs they are learning. This is not an isolated perspective. Not only is it shared by all of the teachers in this study, it also echoes points of concern about the standards movement in the educational literature (e.g. Jones, Jones, and Hargrove 2003; Thomas 2009).

(2) In order for students and teachers to be listed on the authorial by-line, the Human Subjects forms for both the school district and university provided the space for students (provided there was both parental assent and student consent) and teachers an option to use their real names rather than pseudonyms. Because all participating students have since graduated and all did not respond to requests to use their full names as part of a member check, I have elected here to split the difference between the two, giving them credit according to our agreement using their first names only.

Participants and Place: Mrs. Grindall’s Grade Five Classroom

Karen Grindall, a well-respected teacher who was in her 43rd year of teaching last academic year (AY 2011-12), tends to set up the rooms in which she teaches with many of the same components. Both of the rooms in which I have worked with her and the fifth graders she teaches were rather large classrooms, particularly for urban schools. By comparison, when I taught fourth and fifth grades in the barrio in Southern California, I had between 31 and 35 students in a classroom about two thirds of the size of the rooms in which Mrs. Grindall teaches approximately 20 students, a number that tends to fluctuate slightly over the course of the year.

Mrs. Grindall has a large library of “about 1000” books of all reading levels, an area rug surrounded by storage benches, both of which are regular seating for class discussions, tables arranged in groups of four each with a computer, and a SMARTBoard. As with the other classrooms in the project, I provided Karen with older eMac computers and a new (2010) Mac Mini computer, a USB microphone, and multiple studio-quality headphones donated by Audio-Technica (they already had one USB microphone and headphones).

As noted above, nearly all of the students who have Mrs. Grindall as their fifth grade teacher are African American and from poor to working class families. Due to the pressures she felt to have students score well on tests, Karen elected to run this project once a week for two hours after school. In spite of her own deep reservations about deciding much of a student’s academic worth on a single standardized assessment, Mrs. Grindall also felt an ethical obligation to do everything in her power to help ensure that the students in her room were measured as successfully as possible within the timeframe she has with them.

This meant that the fifth graders who participated each year in this project were a combination of those students Mrs. Grindall believed were at a point where they could spend the time working with her afterschool and those students she hoped to motivate through their participation. Taking after their teacher, the students also referred to their time writing songs about science afterschool by the name of the program they used to construct those songs, Garage Band.

Each week, Mrs. Grindall arranged with participating students to either drive them home or to have them picked up after Garage Band and provided snacks for them to eat at the beginning of their afterschool sessions. Over the four years of this study, she also provided the space for students to work on their songs during recess and lunch, times where those in Garage Band afterschool often showed some of their non-participating friends how to use the program. In these ways, the sole determining factor for who could participate afterschool was most often Mrs. Grindall’s seasoned understandings of who was academically successful enough to have this extra/special time granted to them without losing academic ground necessary to be successful in their grades and annual standardized assessments and those students who were in need of increased confidence or other kinds of socio-academic bolstering and care.

Yet even the students involved in this project who are academically successful in class were not successful on their annual standardized assessments in science. Of the eight participating students in AY 2008-2009, three students, just under a third of the group, did not receive a proficient rating on their tests. However, as is evidenced in the sounds this text explicates and addresses in the following section, it is not at all clear that these participating fifth graders were either unfamiliar with the requisite science content or did not understand these science concepts and constructs.

Participants’ Sounds

The sound/work this piece accompanies begins with a beat that Austin made during his spare time one afternoon. This beat eventually became part of the rap students made to accompany the slideshow for their moving up ceremony, an assembly that marked students’ “graduation” from fifth grade and their transition to sixth as official middle schoolers. The intro/beat is followed by some contextualizing talk from Mrs. Grindall taken from one of several interviews conducted in the spring of 2009. Following Mrs. Grindall’s talk is a section taken from a conversation with Ashley, George and Austin in which George’s voice is the most prominent.

The most audible sounds in the background are Austin creating a beat and George using a combination of his hand and pencil to create complex rhythms on his desktop. This conversation was recorded towards the end of the 2008-09 academic year, after the kids and I had gotten to know one another well enough that conversations about music were as common as conversations about anything else that might have been on their minds. Next is a data strip of Taris and Gayle working on the song that they created with Tia and Ki-Auna in which they call both Mrs. Grindall and me over to listen to how their recording is progressing. This is in turn followed by the song they created and a discussion about their songwriting process. The final section is Gayle and George working on a song together and concludes with another song they had made earlier in the academic year.

While there is not the space for an in-depth discussion on the differences between music creation, production, and the technological production of music, there are three points about such differences that require some attention here before moving on to processes of data collection and analysis in this project. First, I am not connected to Apple computers. My decision to use Garage Band is based on the program’s combination of ease of use and relatively large selection of prerecorded samples that students can use to create the musical portions of their songs about science. Second, as a seventh grader with Asperger’s shared with me during an interview, “I know I didn’t play the music parts of the songs, but without me, my songs wouldn’t exist.”

The third point is in response to the kinds of pointed questions I have occasionally received about a lack of creativity in students’ use of prerecorded sounds in this project. In general, my responses are as follows. One, what is the problem with teaching students, particularly traditionally marginalized students, how to become producers and engineers, those who often make more money than the musicians who do the recordings? Two, as bell hooks and others have noted, it sometimes takes the master’s tools to dismantle his house. Three, while musicianship and composition are important, it seems to me that societies do not spend much time calling out accountants, professors, or doctors for using spreadsheet, word processing, or video imaging software. From this perspective, discussions about the use of technological tools for the creation of music seems both outdated and, more importantly, speaks more to questions about the marginality of the arts in society than it does to what students might be able achieve as they write songs about academic content.

Data Collection and Analysis

Data collection in this study follows now-established paths in ethnographic research. In addition to the sonic data from sound recordings collected over the years, data collection also included taking fieldnotes, video recordings, formal and informal interviews, and document collection, from assignments to song lyrics. What sets this study apart from some forms of ethnography is its relatively collaborative nature. In addition to writing songs, students also created audio reflections about their processes when they remembered and, less frequently, occasional video reflections with audio and video recorders provided each classroom as part of the study. Teachers also all participated in data collection to some degree. Where two teachers often took pictures of science lessons, students writing their songs, or of me working with students, Mrs. Grindall took the time to regularly collect students’ lyrics, compile their songs in a central location on each computer and occasionally back them up, and to keep track of events as they related to students experiences afterschool so that she might share them with me when I next visited.

In these ways, in addition to being a sonic ethnography, this particular study also has elements of Grant’s (Grant 1988) use of high school students as co-anthropologists and Erickson’s (Erickson 2006) description of working with teachers that he called “collaborative action ethnography.” The central differences between these strong studies and my own are that here, students are named, active participants (vs. Grant) and that the collaboration in this study is inclusive of students as well as their teachers (vs. Erickson).

Due largely to a combination of Mrs. Grindall wanting to get the academic year underway before starting Garage Band afterschool and my own teaching schedule each fall, classroom visits tended to be more frequent in the spring than in the fall semester. In the fall I tended to visit every three or four weeks after introducing students to the program and to visit every two weeks each spring. Over these two years I also had help from my graduate assistants, Arzu Gul (2008-2009) and Bayu Widyatmoko (2010-2012), as well as Katherine O’Neil, a doctoral student who volunteered to help in the spring of 2009, who kindly also helped collect data on occasion.

Data analysis has been in many ways a rather traditional process. Using Agar’s (Agar 1996) language, frames of understanding were constantly adjusted and readjusted so that they explicated ever-increasing numbers of strips of data. This process continued until a given frame’s construction of meanings was what Agar refers to as massively overdetermined, consistently and overwhelmingly present. Similarly, although each piece of sonic data presented is necessarily unique, it is representative of the kinds of conversations, ideas, and songs that one might experience over the course of these two years afterschool in Mrs. Grindall’s room at Portage Path CLC.

In spite of efforts to the contrary and the generally collaborative nature of this research project, as Nespor (Nespor 1997) notes in the appendix to his wonderful work Tangled Up in School: Politics, Space, Bodies, and Signs in the Educational Process, what a scholar envisions as collaboration and the kinds of collaboration that unfold are not the same. While all qualitative research is necessarily collaborative (cf. Gershon 2009), unlike Nespor’s experience, students and teachers were rather collaborative throughout the duration of this project. I remain truly thankful for all of their help and willingness to share their thoughts, feelings, concerns and hopes with me.

My understanding about authorship with students and teachers is as follows. Participants, students and teachers alike, are listed as co-authors when they are actively involved in writing texts or in the compilation of sounds. When their sounds are part of a given soundwork, but they are not actively co-constructing the work, participants are listed as “with.” In some cases, as with an article I wrote about a student’s sonic identity and the racial tensions in his home and school communities, the student opted not to be listed as “with” or a “co-author.” Additionally, students leave each academic year with my email contact should they or their guardians decide either that they would like to participate further or withdraw their participation. In each year of this study, students were provided multiple opportunities to participate in creating soundworks with me, from dedicated times after school to spending time in the Mac lab on campus at my university.

However, students and teachers preferred that I create sound pieces on my own. I also did member checks with participants. All of the audio for this piece was presented to students before they finished the academic year last year, and I received permission from all of them to use the various pieces of sonic data used. As an extra precaution, I also reviewed these sounds with Mrs. Grindall so that she could act on her students’ behalf, a role she takes seriously both in general and on this project in particular.


In the spirit of Spinoza (Spinoza 1959), Maxine Greene (Ayers and Miller 2004) and Ted T. Aoki (Aoki 1991), I wish to conclude here inconclusively, with an unfinished, lingering note. This lack of resolution creates the space for me to draw the listener/reader’s attention to aspects of the sounds presented while simultaneously providing the opportunity for the listener to draw her own conclusions. To these ends I offer the following non-traditional conclusion, a broad contextualizing reminder of the iteratively recursive nature of the ordinarily sensible and a call to sounded attention.

The accompanying sounds are my current impressions, ideas, and feelings about the sounds I translated and interpreted. They are sensational, affective, ordinary, political and meaningful as much as they are sounded and resonant. The ideas presented here about sound, methodology, meaning, translation, ways of being and knowing are always already there (Varenne and McDermott 1998) and always already new (Gitleman 2006). As such, these ideas, ideals, possibilities, and sonic expression are sounded, resounding, and resonant in both theoretical and material ways.

Listen. The sounds students make in talk, interaction, and in music are consequential. Students voice them all the time. Ways of being matter in educational interactions. The constant drum beat of testing and formal evaluation impacts not only who or what is understood as successful but also how teachers and students can exist in school. Listen to what these students said about themselves in relation to others. These messages are as much about what they are taught through schooling to know of their positionality as they are a reflection of community understandings. Listen to how students complicatedly both valorize and marginalize their own knowledge.

Feel the noise, not just of the music and talk but the ways in which mechanical, outside, and other sounds wash over one another to create the sound fields in which students experience school. Be affected by affect. Be moved by the sounds as they vibrate in your body and in your ideas.

Hear how students can learn with one another when provided the space to do so. Hear the ways in which the performing arts become a tool for scientific inquiry and scientific inquiry a gateway for musical exploration. Hear how the aesthetic is necessarily political and the curricular is sensual—it is perceived, embodied, is, and is known.

For this listening can be an ethical act. Agency is relational and often a question of attention. Listening to the voices of those in whose name systems are perpetuated reveals as much about particular participants as it does the systems in which they are acquired (Varenne and McDermott 1998), voices as much about the listener as the sounded. Just as listening can be marginalizing, listening can be just. Sounding social justice. What do these sounds of silence reveal and conceal?

Yet these sounds are ordinary—talk, music, the whirring of machines and the clicking of keyboards. No more than they are and no less. Combined, they can be extra-ordinary. The difference is in attention. Bastardizing Feynman, anything can be interesting or revelatory if one listens closely enough.

Sounds, experiences, and ideas resonate. Hear them. Feel them. Be with them and make sense of them. Listen.


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