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Adolescent Lives in Transition: How Social Class Influences the Adjustment to Middle School

reviewed by Kathryn Byrnes - 2006

coverTitle: Adolescent Lives in Transition: How Social Class Influences the Adjustment to Middle School
Author(s): Donna Marie San Antonio
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791460363, Pages: 352, Year: 2004
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In Adolescent Lives in Transition: How Social Class Influences the Adjustment to Middle School, Donna Marie San Antonio offers her readers an insightful look into the transition of thirty students from their local elementary schools in the rural Northeastern United States to their integrated six-town seventh and eighth grade middle school.  She uniquely addresses how the students’ home, school, community values and norms impact this transitional period in their lives.   This ethnographic account of how two communities shape and are shaped by these young people privileges student voices and offers readers a glimpse into adolescent lives, struggles, and resiliency through the eyes of her research participants—the adolescents.  

San Antonio encourages her audience to value and respect the experiences of these sixth and seventh graders as she has: “On a regular basis, I was brought up short by the students’ subtle, discerning insights and I was saddened that their vast knowledge, analytic abilities, and altruism were not cultivated and tapped more regularly in school and community settings” (p. 2).  She also acknowledges the impact of her research on both the students’ understanding of their experiences as well as her appreciation of their experiences:  “To be able to have a critical discussion in which they are the experts on school experience and an adult is the learner, changes the way we both think about that experience” (p. 45).

While attempting to portray an insider’s perspective on adolescents transition to middle school, San Antonio beautifully weaves research from sociocultural, psychological, and ecological perspectives to explore the larger meaning emerging from this one rural Northeastern town.  She addresses a myriad of topics influencing adolescents such as social class, self-esteem, gender, ability grouping, extracurricular participation, parental involvement in schools, peer relationships, and a variety in teaching styles.  She provides thought-provoking questions for all stakeholders involved in education about the institutional structure and policies as well as individual goals and desires for our youth reflected in our rural educational systems.

San Antonio opens and concludes the book by both suggesting to and then reminding her readers of the importance of studying social class and adjustment to middle school in rural America.  She presents her experiences with middle school students and their families and details her research methods including her selection criteria; home visits to students and their families; interviews; surveys; feedback from parent advisory groups; school and classroom observations; and district and school-level data including grades, attendance, and achievement tests.  Her research is thorough, explicitly documented, and reflects ethical care and concern for her research participants.  She addresses how her intimate involvement in the community opens doors for her as a researcher as well as forces her to confront again and again how to make the familiar strange.

Part One describes, explores, and analyzes the two towns where these thirty students live.  “Hillside—On the Way to Somewhere Else” and “Lakeview—Journey’s End” are described using both historical and sociocultural lenses of analysis.  San Antonio presents these descriptive chapters to set the community context for the students’ lives, beliefs, and day-to-day experiences.  She observes both similarities and differences between the two towns and how students from each town view their own as well as each other’s town.  She notes the misconceptions about each town and highlights the strengths each community potentially offers to their students’ academic lives.

Part Two moves from the community context to the school.  Within the school setting, San Antonio explores five interdependent arenas: (a) school structure, policy, and norms; (b) students hopes as sixth graders and their realities as seventh graders as revealed through interviews, focus groups, home visits, and school observation; (c) parent and teacher interactions and transitions, (d)  case studies of classrooms; and (e) students operating as change agents.  While highlighting the strengths that exist in these rural middle schools and communities, she critically examines the impact on individual and groups of students and suggests that schools, teachers, and communities are not meeting the cognitive and social needs and desires of every student.

In Part Three, San Antonio continues the critical analysis through specific issues for adolescent development such as self-esteem, extracurricular participation, and ability grouping.  She utilizes data from multiple sources and offers convincing arguments to support her positions.  San Antonio maintains, “Good schools can and do have a positive effect in the lives of students, especially in the lives of students from low social class backgrounds” (p. 197).   The pathways for high self-esteem look different for boys versus girls, and she acknowledges the multiple sources of influence in addition to schools on students’ lives and self-esteem.  Her work has led her to believe that less competition and more open access for middle school extracurricular activities would have a strong, positive impact on self-esteem, social and emotional development, and openness to people from diverse backgrounds and neighborhoods.  She also suggests that schools reconsider their homogenous grouping by ability due to the detrimental impact it exacts on all middle school students’ social-cognitive development.  

Overall, Adolescent Lives in Transition: How Social Class Influences the Adjustment to Middle School, offers important, meaningful insights for policy, practice, and research in the fields of adolescent development, rural education, and diversity.  San Antonio deftly explores the local and universal; the individual and the social worlds; the home, community, and school contexts with a respectful, yet critical eye on how all of these aspects either serve to strengthen the resiliency of adolescents or limit their opportunities.  The book highlights the complexity of adolescent lives in transition and encourages the reader to acknowledge the complexities and to utilize the strengths inherent in the diversity in young people’s lives.  San Antonio’s research as presented in Adolescent Lives in Transition will be an engaging and stimulating read for all stakeholders involved in educating adolescents.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 5, 2006, p. 897-899
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12136, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 8:14:09 AM

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About the Author
  • Kathryn Byrnes
    University of Colorado-Boulder
    E-mail Author
    KATIE BYRNES is a graduate student in Instruction and Curriculum at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Areas of interest and current projects involve teacher preparation, narrative research, rites of passage, and teacher identity/self. Recently, she published a review of David Labaree’s The Trouble with Ed Schools in Education Review.
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