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Finding Yourself in a Book: Marginalized Adolescent Identity Development and Literary Engagements


This dissertation examines the identities of "marginalized" adolescents as they engage in literacy-based activities. Using ethnographic and qualitative research methods (including surveys/questionnaires, audio recorded interviews, video recorded observations, classroom artifacts, and observational notes), a multi-case study occurred over six months. The study took place at South Bay High, a small public charter school, located in a poor and working class neighborhood of major city in Northern California, serving non-dominant youth. Twenty two juniors, and of these, six focal participants, elected to participate in the study, which took place in their English 11 class. The study utilizes socio-cultural theories of learning and identity, transactional theories of pedagogy, and applies figured worlds and positional identity theory in its analysis. This work is in conversation with a growing genre of scholarship referred to as literacy and identity studies (Moje, 2009).

The relative fragility and durability of a student's academic identity is considered. In addition to examining individual identities, this work also takes up the collective classroom identity as a site for examination. By taking into account local histories of cultural and social contextual matters, and by examining classroom culture (i.e., norms, discourses, routines), the classroom studied offers the first case studied. Specifically, I consider the effect of ideologically divergent approaches to literacy instruction on the academic identities of the collective.

Adolescence is a time when young people are in search of narratives and discourses to offer understandings of the past, security in the present, and imagined trajectories towards the future. How one comes to see oneself (and one's future) is often determined by the narratives made available - from peers, media, families, schools, and other institutions. Non-dominant youth have less access to identity resources imbued with social and academic capital from which to construct identities or imagined futures. The second findings chapter follows the focal participants as they take up literacy-based resources as they engage in processes of authoring the self.

The figured world of the high school classroom has a limited amount of roles for students to occupy. Often students are labeled and treated in ways that position them on a relative scale of academic potential and social behavior. Once students become positioned in particular ways (i.e., as the class clown, teacher's pet, slacker) they often accept these positionings and come to define themselves in relatively fixed terms. However, in an ELA class, literacy can serve as a medium for students to "try on" identities not always available to them in other spaces. The third findings chapter looks at how focal participants were positioned and at the positioning events that serves to either solidify or disrupt seemingly fixed identities.

Implications of the study include: Instructional practices that treat ELA classrooms as spaces for interpretations not only of texts but also in ways that provide insights into students own lives. An examination of the multiple competing forces present in classrooms, from federal and state-mandated testing to the teacher's pedagogical stance, illustrates the complexity of classroom spaces, particularly in classrooms for students who have traditionally been underserved by schooling as an institution. The need to examine the spectrum of diversity among non-dominant youth so that young people are not further reduced or essentialized by progressive instructional methods is also considered.

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