Book Reviews

Finding and Framing a Story

Soep, E., and Chávez, V., Drop that Knowledge: Youth Radio Stories. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-520-26087-0

Review by Sara Cooper

In 2002 Oakland neighborhoods were making headlines, but not for reasons residents would want to brag about. The city’s homicide rates were on the rise. Local news outlets had “daily body counts running like sports scores across newspaper pages” (Soep & Chávez, 2010, p. 30). Reporters from the Oakland-based Youth Radio were in search of a counternarrative, one that would privilege not the death toll but the lived experiences of young people who had grown up in the neighborhoods under media siege. What emerged was “Oakland Scenes,” a multigenre radio story mixing spoken-word poetry with interviews of Oakland residents, many of whom were also Youth Radio participants.

“I’m here today to tell a story,” 19-year-old poet Ise Lyfe announces in Oakland Scenes’ opening track:

A twisted story of ghetto glory. Now, I know you heard of Romeo and Juliet, but I bet you ain’t heard of Rome and Net Net. See, their story’s a bit different. A bit more explicit. So sad, almost all bad. They’re young, beautiful and don’t even know. Society told him to be a thug, told her to be a ‘ho. They victims of a system placed on us years ago (p. 34).

The poem’s opening lines are followed by Youth Radio graduate and mentor, Gerald Ward II, interviewing his student Bianca as they drive down Oakland’s 78th Avenue:

Gerald: What do you see?

Bianca: Liquor stores, nail shops, there’s a whole bunch of people.

Gerald: This your neighborhood?

Bianca: Yeah. I try not to go outside at night. Because you never know [when] you might get killed.

“Oakland Scenes” says there is more than one way of telling a single story. It comments on the cycle and repercussions of poverty in certain neighborhoods as experienced by those who live there. Appearing in Elisabeth Soep and Vivian Chávez’s Drop that Knowledge: Youth Radio Stories, it is emblematic of the kind of work the book aims to describe and theorize. As Oakland Scenes refuses the master narrative about violence, so do Soep and Chávez refuse romanticized notions of projects that ‘give voice’ to young people. Instead, they draw from critical pedagogy and theories of media literacy to both advocate and complicate working with youth. The first task of a youth radio reporter is “finding and framing the story” (p. 50). The story told here is that of Youth Radio, an award-winning organization that produces youth-created stories for National Public Radio (NPR) and online venues. It represents a convergence of perspectives, including those of Soep, the program’s research director and senior producer, of Chávez, a professor at San Francisco State University, and of many of the Youth Radio students. It is also metadiscursive (e.g., “metaphorically speaking”) (Jung, 2005). It challenges its own assumptions. The authors are aware of their subject positions as producer, researcher, storyteller, and comment on the role this plays and ought to play in the building of narrative. They ask both how do we encourage young people to tell good stories and how do we talk critically about the stories they tell? What we find here is a book about process, both the students’ and the authors’, that achieves that rare balance between theory and praxis, all the while giving students space on the page to tell their own stories. The text is accessible. Like Youth Radio, it prioritizes clarity and a good story, but never at the expense of critical engagement with the subject matter. Soep and Chávez draw from Henry Jenkins’s (2006) conception of convergence, or the content that arises “through a range of technologies all housed in one place” (p. 21) and theories of media literacy (Kress, 2003; Ong, 1999) to describe the kind of learning they advocate at Youth Radio. “Convergence literacy,” as they have coined it, brings together the ability to “make and understand boundary-crossing and convention-breaking texts … draw and leverage public interest, and … claim and exercise the right to use media to promote justice” (p. 16). Students face intersections, daily, between their own “intimate” experiences and “public” controversies (p. 27). Through radio stories written in hybrid forms, they probe these intersections in an attempt to represent themselves as political agents and reconcile conflicting notions of place, society, and self. This is in step with composition theorists and feminist scholars who insist on the value of theorizing the personal (Hooks, 1994; Hindman, 2004; Miller, 1996). Encouraging content that is complex and boundary-breaking requires challenging the very boundary that defines many learning spaces: that between teachers and students. To draw from Freire’s (1999) emphasis on prepositions, adults participating in Youth Radio work with students, teaching them to “compose compelling stories” and “critique mainstream media products” (p.53) while listening to their takes on contemporary issues. To this end, the authors advocate “collegial pedagogy,” defined as “two or more people jointly engage[d] in a significant task for a shared purpose” (p. 53).

The students in this text are three-dimensional. They have names and faces (pictured throughout the book). They are granted authorship, with an entire chapter dedicated to personal essays they have written about their experiences with Youth Radio and transcripts of the stories they have created. “Why should their names be replaced with pseudonyms, as is often the convention,” Soep and Chávez ask, “when we are writing about the creative contributions to a field in which they already have to fight for recognition?” (p.8). These students also have critical and emotional responses to a process they take seriously. One student, 17-year-old poet Rafael Santiago Casal, wrote a poem for Youth Radio criticizing America’s obsession with style and mass consumption. The poem included sexual references and explicit language. When told he would have to edit the poem for a radio audience, he opted out of the project, suggesting “perhaps [Youth Radio] had missed the message of the poem … which was about media manipulation of a personal truth” (p. 77). Another student, Rachel, in response to a suggestion from Soep that her story on standardized testing ought to include her own perspective as a student test-taker, responded, “It’s a little condescending to ask me to make it a personal story, as if I don’t have a political perspective that’s not necessarily based in personal experience” (p. 75).

In other instances, Youth Radio mentors guide students through the process of revision, of finding or unburying a story’s “lede.” This is an active task thatsometimes requires refuting a student’s initial instincts. One cannot assume, the authors point out, students will produce meaningful, critical work just by expressing themselves and their opinions. They don’t automatically produce counternarratives. It is a mentor’s job to teach students to read a text and to build one. Intersections, between the personal and the political, between teacher and student, mentor and mentee, can also be defined as points of tension. Soep and Chávez push students to create work that is engaging and audience specific, to demonstrate “humility” alongside their “right to speak” (p. 20). And sometimes the students push back. That the authors are willing to share these points of tension is testimony to their belief in collegial pedagogy and converged literacy. The text refuses the idealized progress narrative (Carrick, Himley, & Jacobi, 2010) for a more nuanced story in which people and places are represented in all their complexity.

A question necessarily arises about the book’s relevancy. In an age in which most students download and even create digital content themselves, what is the role of Youth Radio? The authors argue that in addition to the skills they provide students, such programs also provide “a platform for collective activity,” “opportunities for local organizing” and a chance to “build leadership and advanced skills” (p. 15). Further, “they engage young people who are otherwise marginalized from digital privilege” (p. 15). The latter seems of particular importance as the gap continues to widen between those with technology access and those without. Whether or not radio is losing relevancy, the critical conversation Soep and Chávez introduce could potentially be applied to projects incorporating diverse media and technologies. Their insights are applicable to a wide range of educational settings, largely because they are based in both theory and the very real interactions, and tensions, they occasionally must make to content and style ultimately worthwhile? Interestingly, this is something of which the students seem aware and even use to their benefit as a means of thinking about audience. Student Orlando Campbell writes of Youth Radio, in his reflective essay, “It was basically taking issues that might come up in my raps and delivering them in a way that a middle-class white public broadcasting audience could understand” (p. 166). Whereas it is common to hear adults speaking about how to reach a youth audience, Campbell in a sense turns the tables, identifying the challenges a young person faces in reaching a demographic different from his own. Youth Radio’s King Anyi Howell takes a different approach to the issue, insisting, after a version of his story is censored by NPR, that “multiple platforms means never having to compromise” (p. 97). In other words, what he can’t share with a national audience he can via iTunes, social media networks, and other online venues. Soep and Chávez remind us, however, that there is a difference between “actual and hypothetical audiences” (p. 98). They push back. In this intersection of voices—Orlando’s, Anyi’s, the author’s—readers are asked to recognize the complexity of adults representing students and students representing themselves. Ultimately what is important is students who come to Youth Radio with something to say have the chance to be heard. Sometimes this means changing the message to meet the requirements of a broader audience. The book’s appendix, a collection of resources for educators from the “Teach Youth Radio” online curriculum, draws creative exercises from successful youth radio stories. It includes writing prompts like this one, created after a piece by Youth Radio’s Evelyn Martinez conflating her mother’s memories of guerillas in El Salvador and her own experience of violence in East L.A.: Evelyn’s story starts with a striking visual image:

“My mom says she hated the night sky growing up. It was a place of danger.” Have students brainstorm images, and write them up on the board. Then hold a five-minute free-write that starts with this sentence: “I always hated (nighttime image—fill in the blank). It was a place of danger”… (182).

As an educator who works with youth on creative media projects, I found myself taking notes and marking pages to return to as I use Soep’s and Chávez’s concepts to think through my own pedagogies. The practical suggestions for the classroom are as useful as the theory that backs them up. The authors’ willingness to be critical of their own work and refuse easy answers earns my trust as aneducator who knows teaching is, at best, complicated. Our lives, students’ lives, are multidimensional. We require counternarratives to represent them. Soep and Chávez, and the students of Youth Radio, give us these narratives.

References

Carrick, T., Himley, M. & Jacobi, T. (2010). Ruptura: Acknowledging the lost subjects of the service learning Story. In T. Deans, B. Roswell, & A, Wurr (Eds.), Writing and community engagement: A critical sourcebook (298-313). Boston, MA: Bedford/ St. Martins. Freire, P. (1999). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: The Continuum Publishing Co. Hindman, J. (2004). Making Writing Matter: Using ‘the Personal’ to Recover[y] an essential[ist] Tension in Academic Discourse. College English, 64, 88-108. hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York, NY: Routledge. Jung, J. (2005). Revisionary Rhetoric, Feminist Pedagogy, and Multigenre Texts. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. Miller, R. E. (1996). The Nervous System. College English, 58, 265-86.

About the Reviewer

Sara Cooper is a doctoral candidate inRhetoric and Composition at the Univeristy of Houston Alta Vista.

 

A New Paradigm in Parent-School Relationships

Soo Hong, A Cord of Three Strands: A New Approach to Parent Egagement in Schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2011. ISBN 978-1934742549

Review by Robert McKinney, Jr.

Soo Hong is passionate about schools, education, and that critical union between schools and the communities in which they operate. In A Cord of Three Strands: A New Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools, her passion for, and knowledge of this union come to life as she deftly articulates what might rightly be described as a new paradigm in parent-school relationships. Through a detailed qualitative case study, Hong focuses on the experiences of one Chicago community as its residents and school personnel struggled to improve the quality of education for students. The process that emerged led to the creation of a strong, active system in which parents and schools come together in a mutually supportive system that brings out the best in their children. Out of the experiences of this community, Hong extracts the three strands (induction, integration, and investment) that she believes are necessary to replicate this parent involvement model in other communities. In the book, Hong articulates how one neighborhood developed these three strands in a joint effort to improve its schools.

The community that serves as the basis for this study is the Logan Square section of Chicago. As in many other communities, parents of school-aged children in the Logan Square community felt disconnected from their schools. Other than cursory knowledge of the names of their children’s teachers, parents had very little information about the school and its inner workings. This dynamic is not unique; unfortunately, this is the norm in many communities across the nation. In A Cord of Three Strands, Hong dissects the education process and points to critical junctions at which parents and schools can or should be able to work together in a symbiotic relationship. Hong sees the underlying theory as an ecological one. “With an ecological perspective on parent engagement, schools design processes for parent participation that actively center around parents rather than limiting them to roles in the periphery” (p. 26). This attitude is the crux of the entire model Hong puts forth.

The model is not a simple one, however. The bar set by the residents of Logan Square is a high one, yet it is not unattainable. For this community, the change took place over the course of approximately 40 years, although the foray into educational reform is a relatively recent one. Their particular paradigm shift began with the efforts of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA). This community organization was established in the early 1960s and has served the members of the community well by ensuring that city leaders consider the needs and desires of the community members, by bringing disparate community groups together, and by developing the sense of mutual support that makes communities strong. These activities are similar to those of many other community organizations across the country. It was the change of focus onto the educational system, however, that began to differentiate the LSNA from many other community organizations.

Early school-based activities for the LSNA consisted primarily of local school councils that provided representation for families in the educational hierarchy; however, members of the LSNA began to see the need for something more than mere representation in order to create meaningful, systemic changes in the schools infrastructure. In the mid-1990s, the LSNA began to shift its school-based activities from a representative capacity to a more engaged, hands-on function. At the heart of this effort was the LSNA Parent Mentor program. This was a collaborative effort in which parents were actively involved in the educational process. Parents worked right alongside teachers in classrooms. Members of the LSNA sought ways to become actively involved in the innermost operations of the community schools. Key to the success of their endeavors was the attitude of mutual respect and support that was assumed by people on all sides of the issue at hand. LSNA members made no attempts to usurp the roles of the school personnel; rather, their function was to step in to assist with tasks that schools had not been able to complete successfully.

As might be expected, the process of changing roles from that of a parent of a child in school to that of a Parent Mentor who is intimately involved in the educational process is not an easy one. Hong follows the experiences of one cohort of Parent Mentors at one school and chronicles their successes and struggles as they learn to navigate school policies and familial responsibilities. Some parents find the role of Parent Mentor to be a very difficult one, while others take on the responsibility quite naturally. Through a detailed description of the different processes of parents, Hong illustrates how parents bring their unique backgrounds and interests to the learning environment their unique backgrounds and interests to the learning environment, which serves to add to the overall breadth of experiences for the students. Hong reports the comments of one Parent Mentor about another:

She is like the mother hen. What she does is she holds us all together; she makes me feel that we are capable and can make a difference here. I see her as a leader in this school. And by being with her and getting to know her, it definitely encourages me to think about what I might be able to do, you know, what kind of leader I could become (p. 77).

Hong draws from the examples provided by the Logan Square community to cut to the underlying principles that made this model work. Parents who serve as Parent Mentors are not relegated to the back corners of classrooms to alphabetize the crayons; instead, they are given responsibilities that make them fully invested partners in the educational processes. In this capacity, parents become well acquainted with their children’s teachers and classmates. This interconnectedness extends back into the community and helps to bind residents together outside of the school environment. Additionally, teachers report that the presence of parents in the classrooms helps to motivate and inspire children to perform better. As parents become more involved in the classroom, teachers also begin to experience changes in their attitudes. Instead of seeing parental involvement as a burden, teachers truly think of their Parent Mentors as assets, additional tools to help provide students with positive outcomes. The struggles many teachers face today, including the perfect storm of increasing class sizes and decreasing discretionary funding, reveals how the presence of invested parents an indispensable part of the teachers’ toolkit in the Logan Square community. Hong’s work is a testament to the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and to the schools and students of the Logan Square community. As a study in community activism and parent involvement, it is difficult to imagine a stronger example than the transformation that this community has experienced. Hong’s writing is compelling and clear, even when she elucidates complex theoretical constructs. By organizing the book as a progression through the historical context of the LSNA, the organization’s development of the Parent Mentor model, and individual stories that reveal much of the details of why this program works, Hong provides the reader with the necessary contextual framework to describe the development of the program and still offer the intimate day-to-day details of its successful operation.

As an appendix, she includes a detailed, readable, description of the theoretical underpinnings of her work, in which the work of qualitative researchers Joseph Maxwell and William H. Schubert figure prominently, as well as the particular research methodologies she employed in the writing process, providing a useful component for readers interested in exploring similar approaches in parent involvement and community engagement research. Hong also describes her own particular ethnographic approach, something she calls layered ethnography, in which she employs many of the elements of portraiture concurrently with her basic ethnographic research. This methodological approach allows Hong to describe the broad systems at play (ethnography) and to illustrate how those systems impact particular students at particular locations (portraiture). The combination of these two methodological approaches enables Hong to provide deep, rich understanding of the systems at play.

At the heart of A Cord of Three Strands is Hong’s understanding of the context of the community and the individual experiences of the residents of Logan Square. The depth of her knowledge, gained through meticulous analysis of interviews and field notes collected during her research, comes through as she describes parents’ everyday triumphs and tragedies. The examples she provides help the reader feel the urgency and importance that the parents and teachers experienced as these community schools experienced positive change over time. This work makes a valuable contribution to our current research literature, and is well suited for people who are interested in community development, educational policy, education reform, or community activism.

About the Reviewer

Robert McKinney, Jr., LCSW, ACSW, is a doctoral student in The University of Alabama School of Social Work.

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