Telling different stories differently: The possibilities of multimodal (counter)storytelling with African American adolescent boys

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Review of Relevant Literature

Terrains of surveillance

The predicted futures of urban youth are assumed to be delinquent in nature, and consequently youth are treated as such. They are perceived as a glossed identity whose discursive practices are recognized through the lens of delinquency. This illustrates the reflexive relationship between discourses and recognition (Gee, 1996) where one could arguably claim that as discourses are recognized (perceived and interpreted) as “delinquent” they “become” delinquent; and reflexively if youth engage in discourses that “are” delinquent then they are recognized as delinquents. In this way, adolescents living in urban areas whose social and literacy practices are recognized as delinquent are so branded, treated, and summarily discarded. This is a fate not confined to youth within the walls of incarceration but one that extends to affect the lives of many of the urban adolescents who are marginalized by race and class.

Qualitative researchers have begun to explore the terrain of urban education with increasing frequency, and in doing so offer challenges to the claims made by earlier research. Especially important in challenging the taken-for-granted allegations about delinquency and education in the lives of urban youth has been the critical and ethnographic turn in education research (e.g. Fine 1991; Levinson, Foley, & Holland, 1996; Heath & McLaughlin, 1993; Weis & Fine, 2000). In addition to providing more textured accounts of urban youths’ schooling and education experiences, research in this vein openly challenges what we mean by “dropping out,” “teaching and learning,” and “delinquency.” In his study of youth who traveled the halls of a juvenile detention facility in Chicago, Ayers (1998) offers us stories behind the otherwise essentialized identities of urban boys who are identified as “juvenile delinquents.” His study, similar to others in the folds of the “social turn” in research, doesn’t valorize the youths or their actions, but rather questions the simplicity of bad-good, guilty-innocent dichotomies.

The dialogue about “delinquency” and education remains stilted and limited to theorizing about the educational and intellectual deficits of “delinquent youth.” Smith (2001, p. 53, quoting I.M. Young) writes “delinquents are legally marginalized, and also often socially, racially, and/or educationally marginalized.” This legal marginalization and institutional labeling of youth as “delinquent” presupposes that the characteristics of “delinquency” are immutable, are commonly understood, and are simplified to “breaking the law as a minor.” However incomplete, “delinquency” and education studies provide a necessary landscape of what has and hasn’t been asked in relation to “delinquency” and, more broadly, the education experiences of youth attending urban schools; it is also helpful in considering who is and isn’t involved in telling these stories.

With the exception of a handful of qualitative studies that pepper the juvenile “delinquency” research landscape (Ayers, 1998; Humes, 1997), the overwhelming stories that are being told about the juvenile justice system, “juvenile delinquency,” and the lives of the youth and families that are intimately bound up in the politics of both are largely being told through a deficit lens. In the mass of quantitative studies of “delinquency”, youth and their families are pathologized and re-incriminated by numbers, statistics, and the assumed predictive value of both to determine the potential dangers of youth who meet the environmental or “propensity” criteria for “delinquency” (Johnson, 1999; Katz, 1997). The available images of youth living in urban areas, therefore, remains stilted as research done to understand “delinquency”, urban education and youth continues to ask the same kinds of questions yielding the same kind of “findings.” These questions have been limited to an understanding of education as school-based and a priori theoretical presuppositions of “delinquency”. The findings claim correlations between “delinquency” and school performance (e.g. grades, high school completion) (e.g. Lawrence, 1998) and suggest that school performance measures are “statistically significant predictors of variations in adult criminality, “delinquency” rates, and/or school misconduct” (Smith, 2000, p. 296). “delinquency” and education studies “assume essentialist student identities” (p. 300) and labeling practices continue to follow the patterns of race and class wherein poor and/or minority students more likely to have the “delinquent” label (identity) imposed upon them. These labels are followed in relation to schooling experiences in several studies (e.g. Lawrence, 1998; MacLeod, 1995; Willis, 1977) that attempt to give a more complex picture of the interactions between identities and labeling – both socially constructed by youth and those imposed on youth through lenses of policy. The former point about socially constructed identities, and the related issue of the power/knowledge4 bound up in the processes of labeling and identity construction/resistance (Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, & Cain, 1998), are also missing in claims made by this primarily quantitative body of literature.

At the same time that the education system is losing ground to the criminal justice system, and more specifically to the juvenile court, a strangely symbiotic relationship has emerged between the two whose ultimate result has been the increased correctional control of the lives of urban youth (Mauer, 1999). An urban education system overrun with the phrases “delinquency prevention,” “violence prevention,” “school safety,” and “zero tolerance” (Ayers, Dohrn, & Ayers, 2001; Casella, 2001) is the hostile learning environment that passes for schools in the inner-city. At once lost and hypervisible in the midst of the growing symbiosis between urban education and the discourses of “delinquency” are the youth that move through the schools in which this symbiotic relationship is made manifest.

Youth Out-of-school

That a significant number of urban youth are under some form of correctional control is fact that stands alongside another claim that 40% of the “waking hours of these youth is discretionary, and when they get out of school…they are claimed by the streets” (McLaughlin, 1994 cited in Mahiri, 1997, p. 58). The research literature that looks at urban youth in out-of-school and after-school contexts that youth inhabit falls mainly in two distinct areas. One cluster of research contains evaluation and impact-focused studies, the majority of which are concerned with program effectiveness, and are fraught with deficit discourses. I will briefly review the key points from these studies, highlighting how theses discourses permeate even the non-school programmatic spaces situated across a variety of social contexts. A second area of out-of-school research about youth is more critical and ethnographic in nature and looks beyond as well as into official out of school and community contexts where youth gather. This latter area of work yields few studies in comparison with the effectiveness research, but offers far greater insights into the nuanced lives and practices of youth.

Out-of-school programs. Much of the literature about out-of-school opportunities in which youth engage focuses on the objectives of after-school programs and tangible results they have shown, in the areas of ‘growth’, ‘progress’, or ‘changes’; these results, especially in assessments of urban after-school programs, take the form of self-report surveys, participant performance on standardized and informal assessments (particular emphasis on skill development and reading assessments), staff evaluations of participant performance (usually surveys), and external evaluations of programs (typically looking at impact of participant attendance on participant performance in other social institutions, e.g. school) (Halpern, 1992; Hamovitch, 1996). From this section of the literature emerges a seemingly immutable association between the inner-city, poverty, and violence. A report on a network of after-school programs in Chicago found that most after-school programs, along with other community initiatives, are almost always focused on eradicating these “undesirable” conditions (Halpern 1992). Further, the focus of youth programs involves the messages of staying in school, punishing law offenders, and preventing/halting the cycle of crime and substance abuse; “youth development,” and more broadly (re)socialization, have become the key catch phrases for the function and purpose of youth programs in urban areas. Youth programs in urban areas often include the objective of serving “at-risk” or “high-risk” youth in their program description. “At-risk” youth are defined as such “because of pervasive social and economic problems, including violent crime, alcohol and other drug abuse, poverty, and physical abuse” (“What Young Adolescents Want,” 1992); and as youth who are “at risk of dropping out of school” (Hamovitch, 1996, p.300). A report of faith-based institutions – a burgeoning presence in the realm of out of school programs – by Public/Private Ventures describes “high risk youth” as “youth who are already involved in criminal and violent activities or who have been deemed likely candidates for such behavior by neighborhood residents, law enforcement and juvenile justice agencies, school officials or community leaders” (Trulear, 2000, p, 8, my emphasis). In his study of the informal curriculum of a state-funded after-school program for students at risk of dropping out of school, Hamovitch points out the paradox involved in the socialization model employed by program staff, who want earnestly to socialize youth (into “the right path”) yet resist engagement with their authentic concerns for the sake of maintaining a “positive” outlook. He writes, “Socialization without open and honest interaction only gives the appearance that teaching and learning are occurring” (Hamovitch, 1996, p. 289). This caution raises the issue of whose discourse is valued and whose is devalued in different spaces, namely formal learning institutions.

Out-of-school possibilities. There are notable exceptions to the effectiveness-based research on out of school lives of urban youth include (e.g. Heath, 2001; Heath & McLaughlin, 1993; Hull & Schultz, 2002; Weis & Fine, 2000). These researchers take up the call to conduct research with adolescents in out of school spaces, where youth can be free from some of the “social politics” that govern their in-school lives. Recognizing that “learning takes place in varying spaces” Weis and Fine (2000, p. xi) point out that a “sustained look at the ways in which youth develop political and social identities, investments, and relations, both within and outside school contexts, is noticeably absent from the literatures on education and adolescence” (p. xi). The literature to which Weis and Fine (2000) are referring ignores – or hasn’t bothered to appreciate – the creative production that lives in the hours outside of school, in the “third learning environment,” in addition to time spent within the spaces of oft-studied families and schools (Heath, 2001). I further discuss the possibilities for representation and identities in out-of-school space in the review of literature on out-of-school literacies below.


A fundamental shift in the perception and conceptualization of literacy occurred in the moments when literacy came to be understood as social and connected to “who we are” rather than a primarily cognitive function or skill. Literacy, Gee suggests, is “inextricably connected to ‘identity work’” (Gee, 2000, p. 412) and the evolution of literacy studies is of particular import to educators and education. This ‘social turn’ is where the evolution of the field of literacy studies is situated and is reflected in the New Literacy Studies.

Current understandings of literacy as a practice, and more specifically as a social practice, draw significantly from the work of Heath (1983), Street (1984) and Scribner and Cole (1981); the latter extends Vygotsky’s theorizing about how language informs how we understand our social realities (1986). In particular, Heath analyzed how families in each of the three communities socialized their children into language practices and illustrated the ways in which the children from the middle-class families, whose home reading and writing practices were closely aligned with school practices expectations, experienced greater school-based academic success. This conclusion challenges the widely accepted belief that the literacy of school – “standard” literacy – is neutral, is one that is solely comprised of discrete and “learnable” skills, and in fact demonstrates the relationship between social context and literacy. Insistence on “schooled literacy” as the dominant form of literacy (Cook-Gumperz, 1986), then, positions non-schooled forms of literacy as not only non-dominant but as inferior to schooled literacy; this tradition of viewing forms of literacy as dichotomous enables the persistence of the belief that demonstrable literacy proficiency is attainable if the child/adult/community would just work hard enough (e.g. Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines, 1988).

Street (1984, 1995) further challenges the limits of the lens of school on our conceptions about literacy and offers a shift in the theorizing from an autonomous model of literacy – a view that literacy is neutral in its purpose and function, and reducible to a set of technical skills – to an ideological model of literacy, which suggests that literacy is complex and embedded within its social and cultural contexts. Street uses the term “literacy practice” to suggest that within literacy events, we employ a variety of observable and unobservable literacy practices in order to carry out tasks; this notion builds on and enhances the idea of literacy events by incorporating practices that we cannot necessarily observe: values, attitudes, beliefs, social relationships, etc.

Out-of-school literacies. Hull and Schultz (2001), in their review of research on literacy and learning out of school, note that the significant theoretical shifts in literacy research have been informed by studies so located. This observation brings into question, again, the dominance that school has asserted over the “literacy” in the public domain – a dominance that continues to persist – and illuminates Street’s assertion of the “pedagogization” of literacy (1995). Recently, studies of literacy practices have challenged conventional perspectives about what literacy is and what literacy counts, daring us to imagine literate activities living beyond the walls of the classroom and outside of the confines of pencil and paper (Hull and Schultz, 2002; Knobel, 2001; Mahiri, 1997; Moje 2000). These inquiries into the informal spaces where literacy learning and production occur offer portraits of youth whose “unofficial” literacies flourish, and whose school literacies belie their otherwise literacy-rich lives.

Boys, literacies, and labels. Current literature on boys within the contexts of gender and education is vast and speaks heavily to the different ways in which boys and girls experience and are treated in school-based learning environments. Qualitative perspectives, by researchers and practitioners, who are exploring the terrain of boys in the contexts of learning and literacy across urban education, however, are much less frequent. Dominating the discourses about literacy and learning in the lives of urban boys are partial descriptions that claim to tell this story in totality that are translated across urban education policy to emphasize a “contain and remediate” strategy. Discussions about boys and literacies are couched in “discourses of crisis” (Rowan, et. al., 2002) and are perpetuated “arboreally” in that layers continue to be added to these discussions “and do nothing to tackle the limitations with this discourse” (p. 74). These discourses are centrally located in schools and are primarily concerned with dichotomizing the literacy engagement and achievement of boys and girls across gender lines (Smith & Wilhelm, 2002). Current reform trends that perpetuate this dichotomy are harmful in the ways that they further silence boys’ discursive identities. These reform practices include, but are not limited to, the aforementioned “zero tolerance” policies and scripted curricula that are primarily intent on standardized test performance with little room for play. As this article discusses, play in the context of the literacy across modalities is closely bound up in the meaning making practices of adolescents in general, and of the boys in this study, in particular.

To supplement this conversation about boys, literacies and labels, I also draw from cultural studies that discuss this terrain in different ways in order to establish an epistemological foundation on which to base my discussion of the labels ascribed to and imposed on urban boys. Embedded in assertions about gender and literacies is the recognition that masculinities (as well as femininities) are culturally constructed, and that boys’ engagement with “schooled literacies” may, in fact, be threatening their literate identities. Studies of schools (e.g. Ferguson, 2000) further complicate the construction of masculinities in schools by highlighting the role that race plays in school practices and policies, namely the disproportionate numbers of African American boys who are placed in special education, and disciplined. In her year-long research in an urban elementary (2000), Ferguson names the labels that have been assigned to black boys – among them, “troublemakers” and “future prison inmates” – by school insiders; the supposition here is that insiders might know the youth that inhabit the school walls daily, and thereby be better able to support youths’ learning. Instead, Ferguson (2000) suggests, the deficit narrative permeates school expectations of black boys, not only in how they are assumed to learn and engage in literacies, but in the essentialized identities assigned to them, and the life pathways assumed for them by these “insiders.”

There is a need for boys’ stories about literacies and schooling in the ongoing debate about boys and literacies. In this context, an understanding of stories as culturally and ideologically produced resonates with the earlier discussion of a socially constructed reality, a notion that complicates the debate between structuralists and culturalists, who ascribe social inequities to structural forces and environmental factors or cultural deficits, respectively, and centralizes the perspective of individuals through which to mediate an understanding of structures and cultures. Noguera (2003) interrogates the “experience of Black males in education” (p. 432) by calling for an understanding of “how environmental and cultural forces influence the way in which Black males come to perceive schooling and how those perceptions influence their behavior and performance in school” (p. 433). I believe stories are one way to not only understand youths’ perceptions, but to also feed new knowledge about these negotiating maneuvers, rich with literate and intellectual engagements, into the literature that informs the policies that govern the lives of urban youth.

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