Harvard Educational Review
  1. Making and Molding Identity in Schools

    Student Narratives on Race, Gender, and Academic Engagement

    By Ann Locke Davidson

    Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. 257 pp. $19.95 (paper).

    Anyone who works with high school students — college counselors, curriculum developers, teachers, or administrators — can find something of value in Ann Locke Davidson's look at the ways that school and classroom structures influence students' identity development. Her analysis of the confluence of race, ethnicity, class, and academic engagement provides descriptive illumination in the form of six case studies and liberal use of student narratives; insightful interpretations vis-à-vis theories of race, ethnicity, and school achievement; and provocative suggestions for enhancing school and classroom environments taken from students' experiences. Davidson argues that student identities are fluid, changing from one context to another, and that school structures such as tracking, disciplinary policies, and "significant speech acts" (what is said or not said by school personnel and other powerful actors) play a critical role in whether students manifest identities in schools that are in opposition to or in harmony with academic engagement.

    Davidson and colleagues Patricia Phelan and Hanh Cao Yu at Stanford's Center for Research on the Context of Secondary School Teaching conducted the Students' Multiple Worlds Study, a three-year longitudinal investigation of fifty-five students from four large urban high schools in California. Davidson drew on this study to focus on school-level practices that students identify as influencing self-perceptions, social interactions, and attitudes toward education, particularly with regard to race and ethnicity. This book comes from data drawn from a two-year study of twelve cases, during which Davidson (with assistance from Phelan and Yu) followed twelve sophomores from the Multiple Worlds study, conducted interviews with students and school personnel, and examined school records and district-level statistical data.

    The result is a text that highlights six students' voices, describing their backgrounds, their context-dependent identities, and the school practices particularly salient to these students' school experiences. There are five parts to this book that essentially serve three purposes: to provide a theoretical and research context (Part One), to present the six cases (Parts Two-Four) that represent three "patterns of identity construction" (p. 10), and to consider additional issues arising from the data that have policy implications for schools (Part Five).

    The two chapters that comprise Part One give readers a helpful introduction to the context within which Davidson frames the cases that follow. Chapter one considers the shift in current understanding of racial and ethnic identity from purely cultural and anthropological factors to include local and school factors. Chapter two narrows the focus to describe five factors identified by students from the Multiple Worlds Study that impacted school engagement: tracking, negative expectations, differential treatment of racial and ethnic groups, bureaucratized relationships, and barriers to information.

    The bulk of this text (Parts Two-Four) present six student cases chosen to describe three patterns of identity construction: unconventional, conformist, and transcultural. In Part Two, Davidson provides examples of alternative identity construction: two Latinas, one Mexican immigrant, and one Mexican-Cuban American silence and inhibit manifestations of their ethnic identities in order to succeed academically against negative ethnic stereotypes and barriers to information. In Part Three, a high-achieving European American male and a Mexican American female enrolled in general courses highlight the costs associated with conforming to stereotypes and local expectations. To illustrate two cases of transcultural identity formation, Davidson selected an African American male and a mixed-race Mexican American female to depict the processes by which these two were able to maintain individual conceptions of self as racial or ethnic and academically engaged.

    In the epilogue (Part Five), Davidson suggests several issues that arise from this study that have implications for school and classroom practices. In this section she seeks to move beyond attributing student behavior and attitudes solely to race or class factors, and to consider the implications of her findings from students' voices on current theoretical and policy debates around race and ethnicity, multicultural curriculum, pedagogy, and approaches to student discipline.

    Davidson's overall presentation is thorough and convincing in her analysis of student narratives. Each case provides portraits of the student's home background, as well as the student's peer and school contexts and relationships. Excerpts from interviews successfully maintain the authenticity of student voices while depicting the multiple and sometimes conflicting identities with which students can contend in their negotiation of peer relations and school culture. This willingness to portray multiple student identities strengthens her argument that students draw upon various aspects of their identity in different contexts, dependent on external feedback from peers and authorities, and that this construction of identity supports or deters behavior and attitudes necessary for academic engagement.

    In addition, Davidson analyzes each case in terms of the influence of classroom and school practices in these students' creation and expression of self as students, making appropriate and insightful use of theoretical concepts. Each case highlights some disciplinary technology that serves to encourage or inhibit aspects of student identity. For example, the case of Marbella Sanchez in chapter three describes how sorting mechanisms isolate and marginalize a high-achieving Latina student and how disciplinary practices and bureaucratized relations disproportionately penalize African American and Latino students at her high school.

    While most of the cases (particularly in Part Three on conventional identities) present a somber and discouraging portrait of these selected U.S. high schools, Davidson balances her analysis by providing examples of classroom and school practices that students identify as affirming of ethnic and racial identity and that defy cultural stereotypes of low-income minority students by encouraging academic engagement. Throughout the book, there are descriptions and quotes from teachers and counselors who succeed in creating an "atmosphere where learning rather than discipline was the primary focus" (p. 227).

    Davidson is thorough and convincing in her analysis of student narratives. Each case provides portraits of the student's home background, as well as the student's peer and school contexts and relationships. Excerpts from interviews successfully maintain the authenticity of student voices while depicting the multiple and sometimes conflicting identities with which students must contend in their negotiation of peer relations and school culture. This willingness to portray multiple student identities strengthens her argument that students draw upon various aspects of their identity in different contexts, depending on external feedback from peers and authorities, and that this construction of identity supports or deters behavior and attitudes necessary for academic engagement.

    Davidson explicitly sets out to focus on school practices; however, her descriptions of home situations for each student invites more attention to –– or at least greater acknowledgment of –– family influences on students' identity formation, particularly with regard to issues of gender. In the case of Sonia (ch. 5), the example of a Latina student who conforms to school and social expectations, Davidson mentions Sonia's fear of her father's "possibly violent reaction" (p. 113) to her report cards, but fails to consider the extensive psychological literature on the relationship between physical or domestic abuse on women's and girls' self-perceptions and behavior. In chapter seven, she describes the changes that Johnny, an African American male, underwent following his move from an inner-city school in St. Louis to California, where he lives with his uncle. While she describes Johnny's relationships with his uncle in California and his mother and grandmother in St. Louis, she makes little reference to the importance of having a male role model and father figure in Johnny's transformation from disengaged gang member to conscientious high school sophomore.

    Any consideration of identity should necessarily include a discussion of sexual identity. Unfortunately, not only does Davidson fail to address gender issues adequately, she also makes no mention of issues of sexual identity, despite increasing attention in educational and psychological research to this subject. While no book can be fully inclusive, it seems that at least she might have included in her introduction a rationale for why this aspect of identity was excluded in her analysis.

    Selecting cases to illustrate certain points always comes with a risk of omission, and in this case Davidson fails to adequately address the situation of Asian American and Asian immigrant students, a large racial minority group in California that is often misrepresented. While she distinguishes between Latinos as Mexican Americans or Cuban immigrants, she refers to the Asian and Asian American population as "of Asian descent," ignoring the political significance of the substantial population of Asian Americans in that state. Furthermore, she consistently lumps this group together with academically successful, middle-class European Americans, in effect perpetuating the "model minority myth" and ignoring the racial discrimination and economic barriers that many within this highly heterogeneous group face in U.S. schools and society.

    One final question lingers from Davidson's analysis. How might educators and researchers make sense of the reality portrayed in these narratives that some schools and some classrooms manage to serve some students exceptionally well while alienating and marginalizing others? As Davidson suggests, we need to continue moving beyond simple cultural explanations of group behavior to seek out an understanding of student identity and learning that deftly acknowledges the roles that the multiple worlds we all inhabit play in our ability to transcend psychological, cultural, local, and socioeconomic barriers. How we do this will certainly affect our future decisions about school organization, curriculum, pedagogy, and disciplinary procedures.

    B.T.
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    Abstracts

    Ethnicity and Education Forum
    What Difference Does Difference Make?
    HER Board
    Between Nationality and Class
    Stanley Aronowitz
    Latino Studies
    New Contexts, New Concepts
    Juan Flores
    Dancing with Bigotry
    The Poisoning of Racial and Ethnic Identities
    Lilia I. Bartolome, Donaldo P. Macedo
    Communities of Difference
    A Critical Look at Desegregated Spaces Created for and by Youth
    Michelle Fine, Lois Weis, Linda C. Powell
    Rewriting the Discourse of Racial Identity
    Towards a Pedagogy and Politics of Whiteness
    Henry A. Giroux
    Learning in the Dark
    How Assumptions of Whiteness Shap Classroom Knowledge
    Frances A. Maher, Mary Kay Thompson Tetreault

    Book Notes