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Review of  Literacy and Advocacy in Adolescent Family, Gang, School, and Juvenile Court Communities

Reviewer: Constance Mary Ellwood
Book Title: Literacy and Advocacy in Adolescent Family, Gang, School, and Juvenile Court Communities
Book Author: Debra Smith Kathryn F. Whitmore
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 17.2002

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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
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

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).

Ball, S. (Ed.). (1990). Foucault and Education. London: Routledge.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: Free Press.

Donald, J. (1992). Sentimental education: schooling, popular culture and
the regulation of liberty. London: Verso.

Farrell, L. (2000). Ways of doing, ways of being: language, education and
'working' identities. Language and Education, 14(1), 18-36.

Fine, M. (1991). Framing dropouts: Notes on the politics of an urban public
high school. New York, NY: State University of New York.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison.
London: Allen Lane.

Fuller, A., Hodkinson, H., Hodkinson, P., & Unwin, L. (2005). Learning as
peripheral participation in communities of practice: A reassessment of key
concepts in workplace learning. British Educational Research Journal,
31(1), 49-68.

Fuller, A., & Unwin, L. (2003). Fostering workplace learning: Looking
through the lens of apprenticeship. European Educational Research Journal,
2(1), 41-55.
Gee, J. P., Allen, A.-R., & Clinton, K. (2001). Language, class, and
identity: teenagers fashioning themselves through language. Language and
Education, 12(2), 175-194.

Gee, J. P., Hull, G., & Lankshear, C. (1996). The new work order: Behind
the language of the new capitalism. St Leonards: Allen & Unwin.

Goodman, P. (1962). Compulsory miseducation. Harmondsworth: Horizon Press.

Ibrahim, A. E. K. M. (1999). Becoming Black: Rap and Hip-Hop, Race, Gender,
Identity, and the Politics of ESL Learning. TESOL Quarterly, 33(3), 349-369.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: legitimate peripheral
participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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.

Smith, R., & Wexler, P. (Eds.). (1995). After Postmodernism: Education,
Politics and Identity Knowledge, Identity and School Life. Bristol: The
Falmer Press, Taylor & Francis, Inc.

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.

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