Sunday, October 26, 2014

Race, Ethnicity, and the Adolescent

In a powerful chapter entitled Ethnic Identity Development, Michael J. Nakkula and Eric Toshalis disassemble common societal perceptions, particularly among the white majority, that race and ethnicity are one in the same.   The authors use many poignant examples of some of the students to whom they introduced us in past chapters to show how many minority adolescents, on top of struggling to negotiate their different identities among their peers and families, have the additional burden of being associated with stereotypes of "race" as opposed to "ethnicity."

As Nakkula and Toshalis and as most people understand, ethnicity is a much smaller subset within the larger category of one's race.  As a white Irish woman, I may choose to celebrate my Irish ethnicity when listening to Irish jigs and reels with my family at our numerous gatherings.   My family can reminisce about our visits with our Irish cousins abroad, celebrating ourselves and our traditions in the privacy of our own home or at large gatherings on St. Patrick's Day.   At the same time, to people who meet me, I am a white woman who is presumed by my last name to be Irish and Catholic.  I'm not Catholic though-I'm an Episcopalian- something I can choose to point out or not point out.  Without knowing my last name, I could be Scottish or English or almost anything- I am white, and I am in the majority.  There are no pejorative connotations with being white in our larger society.  Within other non-white ethnic groups, I could be scorned, but overall, I hold cultural capital because of the the color of my skin.

Interestingly, as the authors point out, there are connotations and stereotypes that are affiliated with one's race, particularly when one's race is "anything but white."  For Asian people, as Korean student Steven Chang quickly learned, the assumption is that one is "Chinese" (both ethnically and culturally incorrect) and that he and other Asian students "like him" will excel in school.  The authors write, "If he bothered to correct their ignorance and identify himself as Korean, someone would invariably ask, 'You're from Korea?' to which he'd have to correct them again and say, 'No, my parents are'"(p.167) Steve learned at a young age when inviting a white friend for dinner that he was "other"  His family's food was perceived as strange and repugnant to his young white companion who left without eating dinner.  Steve, on top of juggling becoming "masculine" to impress a girl, needs to factor in his race and how he will negotiate being Asian and "normal" among his white peers.  His race puts him in a position of being force to examine himself with respect to his peers; how he chooses to identify himself, whether strongly or weakly with his Korean ethnicity, strongly or weakly with being "Asian", or strongly or weakly with being the majority of his white friends is something that Steve needs to consider and his white friends do not (p. 161). Steve must undergo an additional level of self-searching by virtue of being in a cultural minority.   In reading this segment about Steve, it made me reflect on some of my "Asian" and "Arabic" students who face similar stereotypes.  It makes me wish that I had addressed ethnicity in a unit on racial stereotypes.   It also makes me want to design my units of study around my students' own cultures now that I'm realizing that "race" is too big of an umbrella.

Lorena faces similar challenges as a "Latino" adolescent woman.  She feels comfortable speaking Spanish at home, and to her, English feels like "somebody else's language" (p. 159).   She is forced to endure racially charged situations; she lives in a Chicano-Latino community but increasingly hangs around with "gringas" through rowing.  She, like Steve, needs to consider her race and what it means when she disassociates with her community expectations.  She worries about how to negotiate the prospect of going to college without abandoning her "family" in the community in which she was raised.  

Julian, a Haitian-American, most poignantly for me demonstrated the true angst one can feel with being labeled as simply a Black or African American.  When Antwon harasses Julian for not calling himself "black" but rather, "Haitian," I immediately realized that there are stereotypes among African Americans as to what "blackness" means.  "In making distinctions between themselves and what they considered the stereotypical Black American to be, Water's research subjects described 'the culture and values of lower-class Black Americans as including a lack or discipline, lack of work ethic, laziness, bad child-rearing practices and lack for respect for education'" (p. 172).  Well-meaning teachers like myself may bring conversations about culture into our classrooms, but until we ask students to speak specifically to their ethnicity as opposed to race, we are inadvertently promoting further identity withdrawal.  I want now to know where all of my students are from; what are their traditions and values; what else do they want to find out?   Until this chapter, I had felt that I was doing a great job breaking down stereotypes among my students.  After reading it, I realize that I need to do much, much more.   

I was in the emergency room all day and night yesterday with my son Kevin (the trumpet player) who broke his wrist skateboarding.   I had about a million different things going through my head as I wrote what I just wrote and what I didn't write because race is so tremendously prevalent-- so  much more than ethnicity.  We circle "white" or "Asian" or "Hispanic" or "black" on forms; we see a myriad of races and social classes of people in emergency rooms in city hospitals like Hasbro, and throughout the day and night, Kevin was treated by white paramedics, Latina receptionists, white female nurses, white male nurses, a black female doctor, and finally, a white orthopedic surgeon who set his arm in his cast at 2 in the morning.  My point is this; I'm tired and overwhelmed and behind on my work, but I really appreciate the diverse and exceptional melting pot that is the United States.  At the same time, I am sickened and disheartened by all of the stereotyping and lazy "clumping" of people into groups.  It makes me mad that last night (prior to reading this chapter today), I was intently observing and chatting with people but not truly noticing them.  In a way, that is the point of being an adult; people respecting people at face value.  But at the same time, I wonder what drove each of the diverse adult professionals with whom we interacted to become the professionals they are today.  Did somebody celebrate their ethnicity along the way?

Here's an awesome link I just found on racial stereotypes, but don't use the "Black men are well-endowed" one in your classrooms!!!!!      Top 10 Racial Stereotypes

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Creating a homespace at school: How do teachers combat prescribed gender roles?

In their chapter "Gender Identity Development", Nakkula and Toshalis introduce a litany of contradictions about the prescribed roles of females versus males in today's society.  They argue that in their adolescence, students learn to acclimate to societal expectations of what being a boy or a girl means; how boys and girls "should" behave in order to be accepted by their peers.  While hormones play a limited role in shaping young men and women, "Much of our gender scripting is implicit.  We internalize gendered norms for masculinity and femininity that are picked up through family life, in the neighborhood, and throughout the media," state relational theorists Sapon-Shevin and Goodman in describing how gender stereotypes become learning guides (p. 100).  When I read and subsequently reread the chapter, I found myself not only nodding in agreement, but also sorting out the myriad of terms the authors introduced with respect to the gender identity "scripts" for girls and boys.

Steve vs. Lisa
As the authors contend, "gender-appropriate" behavior is a force that is already defined for boys and girls by early adolescence.  Freshmen Steve Chang and Lisa Prescott learn quickly in high school to "hide" their true selves in order to conform with the cliques that surround them.  Steve learns that being "cool" means making homophobic slurs, an action that the authors cite as a pervasive part of male scripting (p.111).  On the other hand, Lisa, an intellectual, finds that her attractive physique rather than her intellectual capacity is what is valued by both her clique of girlfriends and many boys in her high school.  Nakkula and Toshalis argue that Lisa, like many young girls, learns "what others want her to be, and in that sense has lost an opportunity to become the person she might have imagined"  (p. 107).  Subsequently, both Steve and Lisa begin to shape their public persona into those of the stereotypical "homophobic boy" and "ditsy girl" in order to conform with their peers. This leads to the next set of contradictions that exists, "going internal" versus "going external".

Going internal vs. Going external
Nakkula and Toshalis show how adolescent girls like Lisa are engaging in a process of going into psychological hiding, or "going underground" (p. 103).  They describe the inward flight of outgoing, predominately white, middle- and upper-middle-class girls; girls who may have confidently soared through middle school academically but feel the need to repress their talent and intellect; to be refined, less outgoing, and less aggressive.  The closing off of oneself or going internal, just as often happens with homosexual students who prefer the refuge of being "in the closet" as opposed to facing public ridicule, denies adolescents of their flow.  Girls, according to the authors, are taught to "act" within their prescribed "supporting roles" (p. 103)  "The energy to hide is lost energy," state Nakkula and Toshalis (p. 114).  It is literally exhausting to play the role of someone you aren't, as I learned myself in my own inward flight as an adolescent female.  I was a tomboy who was initially isolated by my peers school in eight grade for being overly confident, and then at home for being too feminine in the eyes of my doting father who felt "betrayed" by my new feminine conformist identity.  Something has to give, and in the case of Lisa, it is her academics as she exhausts herself socially.

On the other hand, society prescribes that adolescent boys should "perform" as strong, emotionally-controlled leaders (p. 104).  Sadker and Sadker define the "prescriptions of patriarchy" when they show the role of "boys in action" and "girls' inaction" in classrooms.  They argue that value is placed on boys' academic contributions and girls' social skills (p.105).  The authors suggest that boys are preconditioned by society to show toughness; a hyper-masculinity that overshadows showing any sort of vulnerability.  It is a fear that showing any signs of compassion or sensitivity is a weakness, or even worse, feminine or homosexual.  Among of the greatest insults I have seen on Twitter is calling a guy a "faggot" or a "girl."  Using one's gender or sexuality a negative stereotype is not only detrimental to the group being slurred, but also to the psyche of the recipient of the slur.  It is, in effect, the stifling of one's true self, one's dignity, and one's ability to achieve flow.

Interestingly, the same gender stereotypes for middle- to upper-middle-class white girls do not necessarily apply to African-American girls, according to the authors.  In fact, the authors say, a subset of African-American from Philadelphia were shown to feel strong leadership roles in the home environment.  Those girls who tended to drop out of school because they possessed real-life competencies to raise and provide for their families were perceived to be stronger than their in-school counterparts (p. 106).  This example made me think that perhaps the young black girls in this study were not provided with enough power and leadership opportunities in school.  The educational system itself along with culturally-prescribed feminine roles is to blame for these young girls' unwillingness or inability to stay in school.

"Schools themselves are gendered spaces" (p. 105)
Because school have inbred gendered roles as defined by the contradictions above, it is incumbent upon teachers to create "safe spaces" or "homespaces" where the stereotypes can be explored and dismantled.  I felt somewhat heartened by the authors' description of Janie Ward's homespace as "not so much a physical place within a particular system, whether family, school, or community setting, but rather a collective psychological space designed to promote healthy resistance to oppression (p. 110).    From previous chapters, we know that learning requires a certain amount vulnerability in a space where it is safe to take chances and make mistakes.  We are given examples by the authors; mothers read to their children about real world examples of people overcoming oppressions.  Teachers give their students texts and ask them for five-paragraph interpretations followed up by comparisons to their own gender roles and upbringing.  To me, as a female, it seems easier to create homespaces for girls at school.  

The authors admit that most homespaces for boys, whether in athletics or at home on videogames, breed homophobia, male dominance, and uber-masculinity.   As I write this blog, my eleven-year-old son Kevin is practicing his saxophone in our dining room.  He is also a proud member of his middle school chess club and cross country team.  It breaks my heart that Kevin will likely be subjected to ridicule at least once in these formative adolescent years because many "mainstream" boys consider playing music with the school band a "gay" activity.   The arts are perceived by uber-masculine boys as "gay" in many high schools, including my own.  It is evident that football is more valued by mainstream New Englanders in Anywhere, Southeastern Massachusetts than the members of the marching band or the cheerleaders who accompany the players to every game.  I worry that my son Kevin will be faced with abandoning his true self for a conformist, mainstream persona.  I worry as a female white teacher that my solitary homespace in school is not enough to combat mainstream homespaces like the school bus, the locker room, and Twitter, where societal messages of being homophobic prevail.  Kevin, my amazing little intellectual, is embarking on the cruelty of the adolescent society, and I just hope that I help him have the confidence to be who he is; to run, to play chess, and to play the saxophone with passion.   It is something that as a teacher and a mother I find frightening.  As an educator, I feel the authors fell short of providing good examples of how to effectively combat the hyper-masculinity among adolescent boys.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Tracking Lorena: Chapters 4 and 5 of Understanding Youth

Michael J. Nakkula and Eric Toshalis demonstrate how tenth grader Lorena Chavez comes to find her "flow" in chapters 4 and 5 of Understanding Youth.  What becomes apparent as the chapters unfold is that hope is the essence of what many high school students lack when it comes to the possibility of passing standardized graduation tests.  The questions lingering for educators in the subtext of these chapters become apparent: How can we foster hope in students who have "checked out" of school?  How can we provide support and a sense of possibility for students, even in areas other than academics, to foster confidence?

Lorena, a born leader whose "confidence" got her through elementary and middle school, finds that she is faced with having sub-par writing skills in high school that make passing a standardized test a seemingly impossible task.  Lorena acts out in inappropriate ways during school, but two teachers  who see possibility in Lorena advocate for her to receive counseling in lieu of expulsion.  Lorena is then steered down a path of self-development through the help of her school counselor, Maggie.  

 My nagging questions:  What happens to those kids who lack the athletic ability or charisma?  What happens to those "unlovable" souls who don't have an adult mentor to stand up for them?  How can we ensure that every child has an influential adult in the school setting looking over their shoulder?

Lorena confides in her adult mentors that her father was recently laid of and her mother was battling cancer.   Had those teachers not taken an interest in Lorena, realizing they were "losing" her , quite possibly to the streets, they may not have found out this crucial element of information.  This harkens back to Julian in the first chapters; when we take the time to get to know our students, we understand the many pressures pushing and pulling at them all day long.  How can we get our students to confide in us when crises are impacting their ability to learn?

Michael Nakkula's 1993 initiative Project IF: Inventing the Future and his subsequent research at Harvard's Graduate School of Education encourages educators to focus on students' strengths and possibilities rather than their weaknesses.  But, as the authors write, "Whether in the classroom or the counseling office, the shift from prevention and intervention to invention (also, at times called promotion) implies a great deal.  In implies that prevention work, although critically important and a key step forward from treating problems after they occur, is still a course of action fundamentally oriented toward student difficulties rather than their strengths" (Nakkula and Toshalis, 67).   

My question:  Is my own high school's "Freshmen Academy" and this year's brand new "Sophomore Academy", which are aimed at a small cohort our under-served student population, in fact mislabeling students who have a myriad of strengths, some of which are beginning to take shape academically? Or, would these two groups of students have been "lost" to dropping out had some concerned guidance counselors and teachers not advocated on their behalf?   From which side of the coin should we view invention and promotion?   And when exactly does that heartbreaking shift in adolescence occur from when nearly every student imagines he or she can be a doctor or lawyer, yet, later in high school, loses all hope of even graduating?

Nakkula and Ravitch argue that if students are presented with possibilities, their skills will ensue. It all comes down to educators fostering a sense of hope in our students.   We need
to show students how to view the world through the lens of possibility.  "We must nurture high-end skills just was we must help students develop in areas of relative weakness" (Nakkula and Toshalis, 70).   

As we see with Lorena, her involvement with a local college's crew team provided her a sense of pride, and her teamwork skills and confidence transcended to her academics.  She learned to "relate and negotiate," to "trust her teammates and her coach," and "to be in a relationship with her peers" (Nakkula and Toshalis, 80).  Subsequently, her academic achievement began to rise. She found her flow.  

Psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan argued in the late 1950's that the deep and emotional "bond of chumship"  could help adolescents reinvent possibly "damaged" childhood upbringings.  Selman takes the concept of "chumship" to the next level in asserting that counselors and therapists could even "utilize peer relationships and friendships to study moral development...and promote such development through these relationships" (Nakkula and Toshalis, 87). In this context, the role of peers as well as adult mentors become equally important in shaping adolescents.  While neither peers nor teachers should "replace" parental roles, both can become "mentors" to struggling adolescents.  

Toward the end of Chapter 6, Mr. Harrison, a true "mentor," helps Lorena and her lab partner, Steve, to come to a consensus about their lab project.   He listens carefully to their arguments, encourages them to list their own ideas, allows for a day of reflection, asks the two to reconvene and read each other's ideas, and ultimately, walks away as the two reach a compromise.   This was the highlight of both chapters for me, and it is an approach that I plan to take forward in my teaching experience.  Mr. Harrison, in effect, promoted a genuinely reciprocal friendship between students who were, in spite of appearances, not all that unalike.