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

Methods of data collection and analysis

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Methods of data collection and analysis

I designed a critical, multi-sited, qualitative study shaped by the methodological implications of my conceptual framework in order to inquire deeply into the possibilities of stories and (counter)stories to de/re/construct assumptions about literacy practices, spaces, and modalities with a group of urban African American boys. During the fifteen month study I worked collaboratively with the group boys to explore the relationships among literacies, identities and racialized discourses through a range of storytelling practices and modes. My hybrid researcher-practitioner identities are reflected in the evolving nature of the questions since the inception of this study, as the focus quickly shifted from “the boys” to “our group.”

An understanding of literacy as multiple and situated in social practices necessitates the collection of data about the social practices in which literacy is embedded. Ethnographic research provides “ways in” that reflect this emphasis on the sociocultural context; however there is a potential danger of traditional ethnographic methods to render the researcher invisible and the representation of data to maintain a disembodied voice of authority. I addressed these concerns by situating ethnographic methods within the methodological implications of my conceptual frame. That is, I systematically sought out ways to center the boys’ (counter)stories, create a participatory research space with them, and engage a variety of modalities to collect and represent the stories that the boys and I co-constructed.

The methods I used in this study draw primarily on the traditions of ethnography – and specifically multi-sited ethnography – and the ethos of participatory action research. Both traditions are well suited for a critical study of literacies in practice as they provide tools for attending to the social aspects in which literacies and discourses are situated. In this study, I aimed to engage in “prolonged observation of the group” (Creswell, 1998, p. 58), however I departed from the concept of a single and solely physical context by adopting a multi-sited ethnographic approach (Marcus, 1995). Marcus (1995) writes, “[e]mpirically following the thread of cultural process itself impels the move toward multi-sited ethnography.” (p. 97). I followed discursive threads of dialogue about race and institutional policies and practices, of the boys’ engagement with technology, and of the relationships between literacies, technologies and our space. I also depart from a traditional ethnographic stance, as primarily observer, and am instead drawn to the words of Ruth Behar (1996) who raises the quandary of vulnerability when she writes (p. 273):

We ask for revelations of others, but we reveal little or nothing of ourselves; we make others vulnerable, but we ourselves remain invulnerable.

Behar pushes us – those who engage in reflexive ethnographic research – further when she asks “who has the authority to speak for whom?” (p. 162) and “to whom do we speak?” (p. 166). My inclinations as both a researcher and practitioner resonate with Behar’s perspective on the ethics, purposes, and responsibilities of observation and documentation of people’s lives. Similarly, recent work in visual ethnography (Pink, 2001) also creates certain demands of this study, both in its call for how and what data is collected, as well as the gaps in this literature about how and to what extent researcher and participants collaborate to render visual representations. Thus, as I sought a range of data to inform this inquiry about literacies in the lives of African American adolescent boys, I was also aware of the contexts in which we engaged in creating these stories across modalities. Our analysis was ongoing during the study, as our meta-awareness of and explication about our group often guided the digressions that we pursued. I continued additional layers of analysis following the conclusion of data collection. In doing so, I used traditional ethnographic methods of coding and categorizing the range of data we had constructed and collected as a group. Additionally, the concepts that were key to this study – (counter)stories, multiplicity, and researching with – supported my definitions of analytic categories and units of analysis, and helped me to identify and investigate emerging patterns (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995; Hammerseley & Atkinson, 1995). These analyses also reflected the sorts of data, described below, that helped to construct the story of this dissertation.

This study was informed by four main sources of data: participation observation and fieldnotes, multimodal documentation, conversations, and a research journal. With the exception of certain parts of the research journal, all of the data were co-constructed by all of us within the space of the group.


In this study, I interrogated the ways in which the lives of urban African American boys are storied in dominant public discourses by centering my inquiry about the lives of urban African American boys with their stories. Specifically, I co-constructed a third space of and for multimodal counterstorytelling with a group of five boys in which we made meaning together in a variety of ways and by engaging a range of representational modes. I advocate, in this study, an understanding of multimodal (counter)storytelling, as a practice of textual construction and discursive enactment. It is in this definition of (counter)storytelling that I see the two theories of my conceptual framework, critical race theory and new literacy studies, to have the greatest convergence, and in which their specific areas of focus – race and literacies, respectively – resonate together.

(Counter)storytelling, as a method and a Discourse, holds transformative potential for disrupting existing deficit beliefs about the African American boys and literacies that are embedded in the policies and practices of education; and for releasing our imaginations to consider the possibilities for transcending the scope of the current pathologizing discourses.  That is, not only do we have to tell different stories, but we need to find different ways to tell them. Over the course of this study, I came to appreciate not only the boys’ desire to discursively resist these images, but to engage in our space as one in which we remade ourselves together. That is, while we might have begun as researcher and youth playing arbitrarily assigned roles, we quickly evolved into a group that met together, talked, hung out, shared stories, took photographs, played with audio and video modes of representation; our stories also became sites for (the recovery of) imagination.

Telling different stories

I entered into this study wanting to tell different stories differently. I began with youths’ stories initially to explore textual articulations of resistance; that is, in what ways did and would Cyrus, Jamal, Shawn, TJ, and Romeo construct narrative accounts that presented challenges to the deficit ways in which urban minority youth – primarily male, predominantly Latino and African American – are represented. Thus, from the outset these would have been different stories to gather and disseminate. I could have solicited (counter)stories that reflected the boys’ experiential knowledge about race and racism in their literate lives. These are important stories to tell and some have been shared within these pages.

Additionally, I was interested in how stories, in presenting these challenges to the often quantitative nature of delinquency and education studies, would not only add flesh to the numbers but would provide new sites of inquiry in which to interrogate the ever-growing “school-to-prison pipeline.” I intended to center the boys’ voices and experiences as sources knowledge about how literacies are situated in their lives because I anticipated, based on my prior experiences, that their stories would hold knowledge about the institutions that they traverse that is not reflected in much of the existing research. Others who engage with counterstories as a method, too, seek out and make public stories about racial inequities in educational contexts (e.g. Fernández, 2002; Lawrence & Matsuda, 1997). The power of these stories to disrupt meritocratic assumptions about our educational system is great. However, I was still left with the question of how we might tell stories differently.

Telling stories differently

At the time I was introduced to the notion of counterstories in critical race scholarship (Delgado, 1995), I was heavily steeped in recent literacy research and conversations that were exploring how the nature of literacy is changing with the advent of increasingly available technologies. Specifically, these studies argue that our practices of reading and writing are differently situated in the presence of technologies – for example, reading a website is categorically different from reading printed text given the semiotic and interactive demands of the former (Kress & Van Leeuwen, 1996; Lankshear & Knobel, 1998). They also assert that new literacies are emerging from engagements with new technologies (Alvermann, 2002; Gee, 2003). As my dissertation research progressed, my understanding of counterstories evolved to the definition mentioned above and described throughout the previous chapters. My conceptualization of (counter)storytelling as a third space that we, the boys and I, co-constructed grounds this discussion of the major conclusions of this study. This definition builds on earlier discussions of the ways in which we went about creating and enacting our space and the extent to which our enactment disrupted the expected notions of what a research and practice context for literate engagements might be. We consistently and explicitly engaged multiple literacies and modalities to discursively perform this disruptive work within the broader transformative scope of possibilities that (counter)storytelling affords. Furthermore, because of my penchant for seeking out technologies as a space to make the liminality of inquiry visible (Vasudevan, 2002), I intended to engage the digital landscape in representing the voices of the youth with whom I wanted to work; thereby creating different ways to tell stories.

Our (counter)storytelling – the ways we read, wrote, and imaged against and beyond – was full of both possibilities and challenges that provide an important context for considering the conclusions and implications of this study. In calling for the practice of (counter)storytelling as both a method and a Discourse, I want to call specifically to the potential for making changes in the lives of urban youth as we work with, as we come to know, and we hear the invitation to play. Although our overarching narrative was a (counter)story of school, I understood this to be a discourse of possibilities. The boys used our space to not only share accounts of daily school life – rich with critique, retellings, and sometimes re-enactment – but also to use our space to re-imagine what school might be. I did not fully appreciate the import of this latter point until later in the study when I recognized the disconnect between the textual constructions we engaged – the horror movie, TJ’s multimedia stories – and the boys’ talk and critique of school. The ways they engaged in our space, within the context of the counterstory of schooled discourses, was both against school and beyond it; all the while demonstrating a commitment to participating in a learning context.

Emerging from the multilayered (counter)story to pedagogized Discourses on literacies in the lives of African American boys – which includes the space of with, the nature of knowing, and play – are two main conclusions in which I found the overarching point about multimodal (counter)storytelling as a hybrid third space to be made manifest:

  1. Youth (counter)story their worlds through playful and imagined engagement with multiple modalities; and

  2. Engagement with technologies within a hybrid third space reveals a social dimension to the notion of modal affordances, related to the context and representation of literacy practices and research.

Convergences in the two theories that guided this study, which were focused on literacies (NLS) and race (CRT), respectively, pointed to the gaps that persist in the research literature that engages both socially constructed concepts. It is in the context of heightened attention to test-based measures of literacies that we embarked on our multimodal (counter)storytelling adventures; and against and beyond which we constructed our space of possibilities.

The importance of play in the literacy practices and contexts of youth

The first conclusion alerts us to the possibilities of engaging adolescents’ systems of knowing by creating spaces for knowledge construction in which to represent their textured lives. In this study, as we made our space together the boys’ multiple subjectivities were not only at play, but were also made visible through the interconnectedness of the dimensions of our space and our layers of engagement. The sharing and constructing of stories in order to enact our with-ness, as we came to know, and through our play, occurred within the context of (counter)storytelling.

I focus on play for a few reasons. First, existing discussion of adolescents’ play is limited and is rarely described as productive or generative of literacies and literacy learning (with some notable exceptions, e.g. Gee, 2003). Studies of youth geographies and youth culture (Skelton & Valentine, 1998; Holloway & Valentine, 2000) show us the how play is embedded in the daily lives and practices of youth, and in so doing present challenges to the predominantly child-centered landscape of play theorizing and research.

Secondly, I want to address the multifaceted importance of play in our space for both our textual constructions and our discursive enactments. Play was central in how we existed and functioned as a group, and play in our space also grounded the boys’ critical reflections on the racial and relational dynamics in their school lives. That is, they storied against the ways the felt mis-known by their school, as described in Chapter 4, within and in the process of co-constructing our space in which they made themselves known.

The last reason I focus on play builds on the first two and has to do with the ways that play in our space disrupts the gendered notions of boys and literacies. In ours, a third space, literate engagements were often mediated through play and, in some cases, these mediation practices were made visible through technologies. These mediations were also unobservable contexts for our multimodal literacy practices in moments such as Cyrus’s spontaneous “Action News” sequences and our collective oral scripting of the horror movie as we climbed the statue in front of The Art Museum.

These nuances are not represented in the numbers that the quantitative accounts proffer (about dropout rates, suspension statistics, reading levels, etc.), but were explored through the layered and liminal space of stories. Rule by numbers is a concern for adolescents in schools – increasingly punitive consequences for low test scores, i.e. MCASS (Noguera, 2003) – as well as for adolescents moving in and out of the justice system – as they are defined by predictors of “delinquency” and deviance (Smith, 2000). The five boys in this study belied the numbers in myriad ways, often raising spaces of inquiry in their spatial interactions. That is, their discursive hybridity (Gee, 1996) interacted differently with sites of discursive rigidity (for example, The Public Library) than with locations that allowed greater discursive hyrbdity (for example, the park).

The social affordances of technologies

This conclusion calls for a recognition of the ways in which technologies are more than just a mediating tool for learning, communication, and representation. In fact, the contexts in which technologies are engaged reciprocally shape the engagement of the technologies. As I described in the previous chapters, the technologies in our space both guided and were shaped by the social relationships that developed in our group. By introducing technologies into our space from the first conversation, I was able to extend to the boys the possibility of a different way of being as a group who meets in the summer. That is, the meeting atop the jungle gym was an important event as it modeled for us how the rest of our time together would progress. As I noted earlier, all of the elements that emerged as salient in my analyses – with, knowing and play – were present from that fateful beginning. Thus, it is also important to mention that the inclusion of technologies from the beginning was contextualized within my own proclivity for discovery and play, and my active suspension, at times, of my authority as the knower about technologies in the group. (I discuss the vulnerability involved in such a decision below.) This finding highlights the context of this research once again and suggests that technologies have affordances for new kinds of social relationships, particularly within this literacy research context. I propose, therefore, that this assertion adds a social dimension to theorizing of multimodal affordances (Kress, 2003; Kress & Jewitt, 2003).

I strongly believe that our relationships in the group, and the expectations for each other that emerged, were also mediated by technologies. I entered this work with an assumption of trust in the boys. I readily handed them the cameras, tape recorders, and the like without the heavy monitoring that often occurs in more structured contexts. In addition to a pedagogy of play, that I briefly described in Chapter 5, I also believed that I had a lot to learn from how the boys would choose to take up the different technologies in their literacy practices. However, I was equally interested in the social and cultural dimensions that might arise from this stance of learning with and co-constructing. Not only did I come to appreciate the great importance that play has for the boys’ identity and for creating a literacy research and learning context, but I also was made aware of reciprocal ways that use of technologies and relationships can evolve in a group. My identity and the boys’ relationship with me was constantly (re)made through these decisions on my part, and informs how my role was constructed as part of the group.

Finally, the contextualization of technologies as multiple modalities affords new modes of representation toward disrupting the “school to prison pipeline” by making possible new representational spaces in which youths’ stories might be heard. Together, the boys and I were able to engage the myriad social contexts that we traversed individually – the game store, The University, our homes – through hybrid texts and multimodal discursive spaces. As shown through their images, words, and imaginings, the boys had stories that they wanted to tell and that needed to be told. We assumed a multimodal stance to meaning making – what Kress (2003) suggests is natural as all literacy, he notes, is multimodal – that would make our texts and practices available to multiple audiences. The variety of ways to make their words visible, coupled with the possibility to render their discursive hybridity, gave technologies additional social purpose in our space. We co-constructed a third space for (counter)storytelling that recognized and was constructed by our hybridity, and in which we made meaningful otherwise silenced digressions.

1 I am using Gee’s (1999) understanding of “Big D” Discourses as “language plus ‘other stuff’” (p.17) wherein “Discourses are always embedded in a medley of social institutions” (p.18). In particular, I am looking at the “situated identities; ways of performing and recognizing characteristic identities and activities; ways of coordinating and getting coordinated by other people, things, tools, technologies, symbol systems, places, and times; and characteristic ways of acting-interacting-feeling-emoting-valuing-gesturing-posturing-dressing-thinking-believing-knowing-speaking-listening … reading-and-writing” (p.38).

2 I take this subheading from the volume edited by Anne Haas Dyson and Celia Genishi (1994) in which they describe the importance of stories in making an educational context that is full of the range of voices and experiences of all who are present. I discuss my use of story (as a text and discourse) in further detail in Chapter 2.

3 When I specifically discuss the boys in this study, I use the term Black to refer to their race/ethnicity as it is how they self-identified.

4 I am referring here to Foucault’s (1972) discussion of the connection between power and knowledge, which he fuses and represents with a slash, in order to emphasize the interdependency of both concepts on each other.

5 I use parentheses when I situate (counter)story, and its derivatives, in the context of this dissertation in order to intentionally and visually represent the interconnectedness I recognize between story/ies and counterstory/ies, the two concepts that I understand to be evoked by this term. I expound on my understanding of (counter)stories at the end of chapter 2, in the section titled Conceptual tools for understanding.

6 Here I am referring to ongoing discussions in literacy studies, particularly those focused on the literacy learning of urban adolescents, about whose literacies count and whose ways of knowing are recognized.

7 A central critique of CLS by CRT scholars has to do with the adherence to existing legal doctrine and, in effect, not going far enough in their critique of the US legal system. CRT scholars write extensively about and against the existing nature of inequity surrounding property rights (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995), prevailing colorblind policies of mainstream discourses (Guinier & Torres, 2002), and the belief in and practice of meritocracy on which colorblind policies survive (Parker, Villenas, & Deyhle, 1999)

8 I thank Kathy Schultz for her conceptualization of literacy practices as circulating across the contexts of home, school, and the community.

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