AUTHORS: Smith, Debra; Whitmore, Kathryn F. TITLE: Literacy and Advocacy in Adolescent Family, Gang, School, and Juvenile Court Communities PUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates YEAR: 2006
Constance Ellwood, School of Education, University of Western Sydney, Sydney, Australia
This book's main purpose is to present an alternate picture of a 'gang'. It discusses in detail the lives of four Mexican American male adolescents who were active members of a gang in Arizona, USA. It seeks to display the complexity of the lives of these four young men and how schools and juvenile courts effectively blocked their chances to succeed. By validating the stories of the young men and allowing their voices to be heard, the book hopes to challenge the perceptions and assumptions of those who work with marginalised adolescents such as these gang members. It seeks to question assumptions that such students are incapable of success in schooling, and to show that, for many students, it is not a matter of quitting school, but rather of being forced out of school.
The first author and researcher, Debbie Smith, used ethnographic methods to study the lives of the boys in her roles as their teacher in an alternative classroom setting, in their homes and in their neighbourhood. At a later stage, she attempted to become their advocate and this role is also documented. The book employs Lave and Wenger’s (1991) notions of ‘communities of practice’ and ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ to discuss case studies of the four boys and their relationships to, and participation in, five communities: the family community, the gang community, two different kinds of school community - traditional and alternative, and the Juvenile Court community. Smith discusses the literacy practices within each community and demonstrates how some of these practices, such as court orders and school policy, exclude participation by the boys and their families, and Debbie’s own participation as advocate for the boys. She also validates the literacy practices in the gang community, demonstrating how tagging and rapping are meaning-making literate practices.
There are nine chapters in the book. The first introduces and gives a short biography of each of the four boys, and introduces their communities. In the next five chapters, Chapters 2 to 6, these communities are discussed as 'communities of practice' and the extent of participation by the boys in each community is outlined, largely through the conversations with Smith which were collected as data. Each chapter has a section on the literacy practices of the community under discussion, and concludes with a summary written jointly with the second author, Kathy Whitmore, who had formerly been a college teacher for Debbie. This summary is offered as an exploration of the theoretical issues which arise from the data which Smith presents in each chapter. Chapter 7 is a brief discussion of the literature on gangs and includes discussion of representations in the media and of publications by a variety of ex-gang members in the U.S. Chapter 8 presents Debbie Smith as advocate, and discusses the difficulties she experienced in being allowed membership into the traditional school community and the Juvenile Court community as an advocate for the boys. The final chapter, Chapter 9, is jointly written, and returns to the theoretical issues which ground the writers' interpretations of the boys' stories.
Smith brings the boys’ worlds alive to the reader. Her own journey with them is also documented and we see the shifts in her knowledge and understanding of the boys’ lives. We gain a clear picture of the life circumstances of these boys, of their generally negative interactions with educational and legal institutions, and of the meaning and significance of gang life to them. As part of Smith's description of gang life, we are introduced to their literacy practices, including rapping, tagging and substitutions. For example, Smith describes how writing practices are determined by gang membership. Their membership in their own gang, the Manzanita Lynch Mob Crips, positioned the boys as sworn enemies of the gang known as the Bloods. This entailed substitutions and deletions of particular letters of the alphabet. For example, the letter ‘b’ in the word ‘blood’ had to be 'disrespected' because it was a word associated with the enemy. This meant that if one of the boys needed to write the letter ‘b’, it would be written with a cross inside it . Similarly, since the letters 'CK' stood for ‘Crip killer’, the Crip gang avoided any use of the letters ‘ck’. If the word, such as ‘kick back’ required a ‘ck’, they would instead write a double ‘cc’, as in ‘kicc bacc’. Many other letters also required some kind of alteration due to their symbolic associations. This re-production of language and its association with identity issues offers the potential for some fascinating analysis and further research.
The book fits within a long tradition of critiques of schooling of which Dewey (1916) was perhaps the earliest representative. Such critiques suggest the importance of recognising the relationships between schools and larger social forces, and the impact of this relationship on marginalised students. Smith, like Goodman 40 years before her (1962:19) is concerned to ''learn the life-style of the underprivileged”. Thus the book, quoting Fine (1991: 221), suggests that if “the lives and subjectivities of low income adolescents are taken seriously, then the very boundaries and concerns of public school must stretch to incorporate that which is central to their lived experiences''. While such statements are not unfamiliar, a particular benefit of this book is that it allows insight into the lived experiences of members of a relatively under-represented group, Mexican-American adolescent gang members. At the same time, this insight is made possible by the relationship of mutual concern and respect between Debbie and her students. In this sense Smith’s research models the kind of social relationships she seeks to encourage.
The jacket blurb states that the book is directed at ''educators and researchers''. However, one of the weaknesses of the book, from an academic point of view, is that the theoretical discussion is underdeveloped. The book is descriptive rather than analytic and, for the most part, the findings are implicit rather than explicit and the reader is left to search for the argument being made. Additionally, the theory is presented in a relatively mechanical and repetitive manner with constant reference to Lave and Wenger's (1991) notions of ‘communities of practice’ and ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ but a relative dearth of other reflective frames. Little link is made, for example, between the literature discussed in the review and the other chapters.
While the deployment of the notion of communities of practice justifiably gives recognition to the importance of interaction in learning, the book's heavy reliance on Lave and Wenger limits it in several ways. Lave and Wenger’s work has been criticised for failing to explore issues of control, power, exclusion and conflict (Fuller, Hodkinson, Hodkinson, & Unwin, 2005; Fuller & Unwin, 2003; Owen-Pugh, 2002) and this remains problematic in Smith and Whitmore's book.
Thus, for example, the writers omit any analysis of social structures and power. The book's top heavy reliance on Lave and Wenger continues the attitude of those writers to communities as ''rather stable, cohesive and even welcoming entities” (Fuller et al., 2005: 53). This emphasis on communities as benign has been exploited by neoliberalism (Gee, Hull, & Lankshear, 1996), invoking a call to scholars to be wary of abstract notions of communities of practice and to pay particular attention to an explicit analysis of power relations and inequalities. Thus there is no mention in the book regarding why it should happen to be Mexican Americans who were apparently targeted to fail. Indeed, there seems to be no awareness of race at all and the hegemony of white norms is not considered, even though one of the boys clearly sees the world in terms of race difference when he says, for example, ''This is the white man's country” (p107) and “This is Whiteman's school'' (p174). As part of the lack of awareness of social structures which determine the students’ lives, there is a kind of naivete in Smith's approach, encapsulated in statements such as ''I kept wondering - why would a school stop students who had worked so hard to graduate from walking in their commencement ceremonies?'' (p159).
While there is evidence of some intuition of a gap between traditional schooling practices and the real lives of students, there is no substantive analysis of this gap. Smith comments that ''education in the abstract, and school registration in the literal” (p126) were not considered in a court order which required one student to attend a 30 day live-in rehabilitation centre for drug and alcohol abuse which prevented him attending school and even compromised his return to school because of attendance requirements. Thus although, because of Smith's role as advocate, the authors see the work as a critical ethnography (p164), it is precisely a critical view which is missing here since there is no analysis of society or relations of power.
Apparently contingent on this lack of social analysis, the book employs a problematic notion of literacy. As it is used here, literacy has become reified, an active agent blamed for the boys’ failures and individual powerlessness. Statements such as “Literacy kept the boys, their families, and Debbie powerless on the periphery'' (p180) ; ''Literacy was part of what was done to them [the boys]” (p180); and “Written policy allowed full members of these communities of practice to wash their hands of decision-making in the school and the court'' (p180) conceal the power relations, stereotypical beliefs and social constructions of identity which underlie the way language and literacy is used to exclude members of certain marginalised groups from mainstream social activities.
Finally, although the book acknowledges, following Lave and Wenger, that learning involves the construction of identities, it continues Lave and Wenger's primary concern with the way individuals construct their own identities through membership of communities of practice and is less concerned with the construction of one's identity _by others_ which seems to be key to the exclusion of the four boys from mainstream schooling. The book may have benefited I believe from the wealth of work on identity in recent years (see for example Farrell, 2000; Gee, Allen, & Clinton, 2001; Ibrahim, 1999) and the role of schooling in the creation of socially desired identities (see for example Ball, 1990; Donald, 1992; Foucault, 1977; Smith & Wexler, 1995).
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Owen-Pugh, V. (2002). The elite British basketball club as a 'community of practice': A critique of Lave and Wenger's model of situated learning. Management Research News, 25(8-10), 147-149.
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ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Constance Ellwood is a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. Her dissertation, completed at the University of Technology Sydney in 2004, employed a poststructuralist approach, through the work of Foucault, Deleuze and Butler, to theorise the production and performance of teacher and student subjectivities in second language learning contexts. Her current research interests include the discursive construction of teacher and student identities, with a focus on marginalised and at-risk adolescents.