Adolescents at School: Perspectives on Youth, Identity, and Education
reviewed by Christopher C. Weiss - 2004
Title: Adolescents at School: Perspectives on Youth, Identity, and Education
Author(s): Michael Sadowski (editor)
Publisher: Harvard Education Publishing Group, Cambridge
ISBN: 1891792113 , Pages: 200, Year: 2003
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The majority of education reforms over the past decade have sought to improve children’s and adolescents’ performance in school by increasing the level and quality of students’ work and improving the way in which instruction is delivered. Reforms such as the development and implementation of curricular standards and the expansion of standardized testing are intended to help students learn and achieve more by attaching strong negative sanctions to failing to do so. By focusing on the implementation of standards and the consequences of achievement, this recent wave of educational reforms has either downplayed or lost sight of important ideas about the non-academic side of students’ lives in school – and how these non-academic factors also influence students’ academic performance. Overlooked are findings of previous research showing how students’ connections to aspects of their school (e.g., teachers, curriculum, friends) are important predictors of academic outcomes such as the odds of completing high school. For many adolescents, school is important largely because it is the principal site of social interaction with their friends and peers. It is the primary arena in which adolescents struggle to establish their own identities, separate from their families.
Adolescents at School: Perspectives on Youth, Identity, and Education, edited by Michael Sadowski, corrects this recent imbalance in policy focus by highlighting some of the issues that many adolescents face and struggle with in forming their identity and how these struggles influence adolescents’ performance in school. Indeed, as Sadowski states in the book’s introductory chapter, an understanding of issues related to adolescent identity is essential to understanding students’ academic success.
The book is designed for an audience of practitioners, though scholars new to the field may find it a helpful introduction. As Sadowski writes in his introductory chapter, “…this book is intended to be highly practical, one that educators, counselors, youth leaders, parents, and others can consult to deepen [understanding of issues facing adolescents]” (p. 2). With this orientation, the authors craft concise, approachable chapters that summarize major research findings in adolescent identity research, with a list of references for those seeking to learn more about the scholarly literature on a particular topic.
Adolescents at School has a number of strengths to recommend it. For example, one of the most impressive aspects of the group of authors assembled to create this volume is that almost all have significant experience teaching in the classrooms they write about. Thus, they are coming to this area of research with a particularly well-grounded understanding of the issues facing their intended audience. Moreover, several chapters draw upon adolescents’ own words, with their energy and power, to illustrate the issues discussed. In addition, the volume’s format is an excellent one for introducing research to a non-scholarly audience. The book’s chapters are organized around dimensions of adolescent identity: race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, and disability status. Each of these themes is treated with a separate chapter and a profile of a particular student who illustrates the chapter’s points or an interview with a group of experts.
The book is largely successful in highlighting a number of issues facing adolescents as they seek to establish their identities. For example, in the second section, which examines adolescent racial identity, Pedro Noguera frames his discussion of race and academic performance with the example of his son Joaquín. The chapter is a skillful blend of the findings of prominent research in racial identity, the results and experiences of his own research, and the personal experiences of his son. One of the book’s strongest chapters is Michael Kimmel’s chapter linking cultural ideas of masculinity, homophobia, and school violence. In examining issues related to the school shootings of the past few years, Kimmel goes beyond a review of research to make connections or call readers’ attention to hidden links.
Although the chapters of the book address numerous dimensions of adolescent identity, one dimension is conspicuously absent: students’ identity with respect to the school itself and its representatives (teachers, administrators, etc.). Students’ identity in relation to the school is a theme that appears in several prominent educational case studies, particularly those that focus on how adolescent identity unfolds along lines of social class. Willis’ (1977) “Lads” or Eckert’s (1989) “Burnouts” represent sizeable portions of the student bodies of their respective schools and are identities that are largely defined by their anti-school stance. Such identities might be of particular concern to the practitioners that Adolescents at School seeks to reach.
Given the current policy environment, it may be difficult for educators to create a school environment consistent with some of the advice and suggestions offered in the book. For example, teachers who must follow a highly proscriptive curriculum will likely be unable to follow the suggestion to introduce literature or other course elements that speak directly to the identity issues some students face.
Nonetheless, Adolescents at School is a powerful introduction to the many dimensions of identity confronting adolescents. The combination of academic research and adolescents’ own descriptions of the issues they face highlights the importance of tending to the non-academic side of students’ lives.
Eckert, Penelope. 1989. Jocks and Burnouts: Social Categories and Identity in the High School. New York: Teachers College Press.
Willis, Paul. 1977. Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. Farnborough, England: Saxon House.