Make Me! Understanding and Engaging Student Resistance in School
reviewed by Stacie DeFreitas - October 10, 2016
Title: Make Me! Understanding and Engaging Student Resistance in School
Author(s): Eric Toshalis
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1612507611, Pages: 362, Year: 2015
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In the era of No Child Left Behind and teaching to the test, we find ourselves in a world where there continues to be high school graduation rate disparities based on income, race, and ethnicity. According to the U. S. Department of Education (2015), 76% of Hispanic students, 73% of Black students, and 75% of low-income students graduate compared to 87% of white students. Make Me! Understanding and Engaging Student Resistance in School, by Eric Toshalis, challenges the notion that our schools are designed in an ideal manner to assist all of our students. He notes that schools are based on a middle class ideology that drives the entire culture of schools, which alienates many learners. The author has over 20 years of experience working in schools, serving as a middle and high school teacher along with many other positions, including teacher educator and curriculum developer. Toshalis has used a non-deficit approach to help teachers and administrators understand that students are not always the problem; sometimes it is the school.
In Chapter One, Toshalis states that this book is about how to understand student resistance in school, not how to control it (p. 3). He forces teachers and other school personnel to examine the purpose of student resistance and use it to engage them. He outlines several themes that he returns to throughout the text, including resistance is normal and healthy and resistance can be productive for students and for educators" (p. 12).
In Part One, Toshalis uses theory to help us understand adolescents and the purpose of resistance. In Chapter Two he uses social reproduction theories to examine how school systems keep inequalities in place, investigating issues such as meritocracy and social mobility. Chapter Three examines resistance theory, helping readers understand that students often resist finding their power and agency.
Part Two examines resistance from a psychological perspective. Chapter Four explores the cognitive development of adolescents, noting that this is the time period in which abstract thought and executive functioning skills begin to take form. Toshalis helps us understand that these higher order levels of thinking do not occur without effort, so school personnel must create an environment that facilitates their use by creating spaces for hypothetical thinking and curiosity. Chapter Five examines motivation and the dangers of telling students that they are smart instead of noting their persistence and effort. Chapter Six examines disengagement and helping students develop mastery- and intimacy-goal orientations so that they feel safe being wrong because they value the process of learning. Chapter Seven examines shy and angry students and helps teachers understand that those who do not speak up may have given up, and learners who yell at them at least still care. By challenging how we understand these students, we can better engage them in the classroom.
Part Three examines resistance from a political perspective. Chapter Eight examines the impact of socioeconomic status on school resistance, examining how class can marginalize students and create rejection sensitivity. Toshalis further discusses how identities such as redneck or gangsta can be an active choice that makes students feel powerful despite their class status. Chapter Nine investigates the impact of racial and ethnic identity on resistance, strongly refuting oppositional identities theory by noting that African American and Latino students may value education more than white students (e.g., Carter, 2008) but want to maintain their ethnic identities while performing well academically. Chapter Ten proposes explanations for resistance that are better supported by research than the oppositional identities theory, including an examination of ethnic and racial identity development and the impact of racial microaggressions.
Part Four examines the pedagogical impact of resistance. Chapter Eleven is about the importance of changing our teaching practices by connecting with students on a personal level while also building agency and trust. Chapter Twelve suggests that some actions school personnel take might incite resistance in their students, noting that the Student Handbook may push students to rebel against it. Toshalis also discusses the negative impact of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Chapter Thirteen concludes by summarizing the text, ending on a high note about how powerful it is when teachers and students resist together. Toshalis throws down the gauntlet and challenges school personnel to rise to the occasion.
Overall, Make Me! is a tremendous book for school personnel and parents of students who are marginalized so that they can be advocates for their children. It teaches the importance of creating a community of trust between students and teachers so that learners are allowed to challenge rules and ideas as well as feel safe from ridicule in the classroom. This type of environment is how you start making resistance educational and not something to be punished. In each chapter, Toshalis provides tangible examples of strategies to engage student resistance called promising practices. These practices give school personnel a starting place to begin thinking about concrete changes that can be made immediately to empower our students.
Despite the significant value in this text, there are some weaknesses. Each chapter begins with a scenario that starts a dialogue about the general theme of the chapter, but it is never touched on again throughout the chapter. It would be useful to provide solutions or reactions to these examples based on the framework suggested in the chapter. Another weakness, noted by Toshalis himself, is that there is little discussion of factors that marginalize students other than socioeconomic status and race; there is only a cursory discussion of immigration status and language issues and no discussion of sexual orientation or ability. This does not mean that the principles set forth here cannot work in these populations, but they are not directly addressed.
My greatest concern with the text was the author's suggestion that we encourage students to express their anger in classrooms. I see this as irresponsible, particularly for Black and Brown male students who may find that expressing their anger without checking it first can result in them being shot. I understand the principle behind it, and students must be educated that they can express anger, but they must also learn to do so when it is safe. Further, school personnel may feel overwhelmed with the sheer volume of suggestions provided that are so different from what they may have previously believed. However, they would likely be able to implement significant change in their classrooms by utilizing just a few of the promising practices. It would have been good if Toshalis noted that this is not an easy job and teachers were meant to struggle with this as they begin using these new practices.
Make Me! challenges our views of student resistance and forces us to examine our responses to it while promising that both teachers and students will be better off for the effort. As educators, we come away knowing that our mission is to change the culture of the school and the classroom, not to change the student.
Carter, D. (2008). Achievement as resistance: The development of a critical race achievement ideology among Black achievers. Harvard Educational Review, 78(3), 466473.
U. S. Department of Education (2015). Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Consolidated state performance report, 2013-14. Digest of Education Statistics 2015, table 219.46. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_coi.asp#info