This book began as the primary research for my doctoral dissertation, which was part of a larger interest in supporting the needs of students and teachers in urban schools, particularly in South Central High School. As such, it belongs to a tradition of ethnographic research studies conducted in schools and a smaller subset of such studies conducted by classroom teachers. In this statement, I briefly describe how I entered classroom teaching, what led me to begin my research, and what methodologies I employed in conducting this research. In this background description of my positionality, I try to present clearly any biases I carried with me throughout this study as I attempted to offer an emic (insider) look at student life at SCHS in an effort to ensure that I did not “speak for others, but about them.”1
As the son of activists and educators, I was raised with an appreciation for literature and social justice. As a multiracial, cisgender male, I regularly heard comments from my students that revealed that they perceived me as someone who came from a background that was more privileged than their own. Although my last name signifies that I am Latino, I am a monolingual educator and was often assumed to be white by my students. After receiving a B.A. in English with a creative writing concentration, I began a social justice–oriented teacher credential and master’s program, and through this program I connected a passion for education with a foundation in critical theory and critical pedagogy.
Through this master’s program, I began my teaching career at South Central High School and was an educator there for eight years, the second half while concurrently enrolled in a Ph.D. program focused on urban schooling. At SCHS—as a member of the School Site Council, a lead teacher for a social justice small learning community, a member of the school’s instructional cabinet, and a member of the local teacher’s union and in several other leadership roles—I advocated for the needs of the students on the inequitable B track schedule (described in chapter 1). My experiences in these contexts helped me develop a nuanced perspective of how the school’s organization affected classroom practice.
In 2007, through a grant from the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Competition, I codeveloped an alternate reality game for helping students increase their environmental literacy skills. The Black Cloud game (described in chapter 4) functioned as a larger portal for understanding nontraditional approaches to critical education and civic engagement. My collaboration on this game became a turning point in my understanding of school policy and educational theory.
In addition to my grounding as an educator and researcher, my personal cultural and racial background shaped the work I did in this study. Within and around my classroom, I was seen as an advocate for student needs. Over years of teaching, various students confided personal information to me, asked for personal assistance, or admitted to feeling intellectually engaged for the first time in my classroom. I write of these discussions not to boast of effectiveness as an educator but to outline ways I worked closely with a student population that came to trust me.
Because of my unique position as an insider in the school’s adult population and as someone already familiar with some conceptions of the school’s social spaces for students, I was able to gain access for a study that focused on the day-to-day activities within the school. At the same time, gaining the trust of students who were aware of my position of adult authority was an initial struggle. Students sometimes hesitated to answer questions and were initially unclear about whether I was looking at their mobile use as a researcher or as an on-campus adult witnessing school policy violations. However, former students helped me gain entree into the world of youth mobile-media practices on the campus. Seniors I had taught the previous year advocated for me and introduced me to their peers to help reassure students that I was not looking at their mobile practices with a disciplinary eye. Perhaps more important than the issue of gaining access was the need to challenge my preconceived beliefs about student cultural use of media technology on campus. Although teachers, administrators, and students had in the past seen me as an advocate for youth use of mobile media, I also used my role as a researcher to explore critically how mobile devices hinder classroom learning. For this purpose, using disconfirming evidence to analyze ethnographic fieldnotes was key throughout the study. As such, the perceptions of others that I was a technology advocate as well as my own approach to critical theory contributed to “the epistemological and political baggage” I lugged into this study.2
One of the biggest struggles I faced in this study was conducting research within my own classroom and within my own school. Although there is theoretical research that helps rationalize the necessary contributions of teacher researchers,3 I struggled with the day-to-day challenges. In contending that I did not find an optimal balance between my roles as researcher and teacher at SCHS, I want to note that the findings in this book are often informed by my teacher perspective. This conception of power as a factor of both teacher and researcher roles is one that researchers such as Kathryn M. Anderson-Levitt insist must be made clear when conducting qualitative research.4 As the needs of students within the classroom were not the same as my needs as a researcher, I often grappled with balancing my conflicting roles in the classroom. For example, although I sometimes wanted to stop activities in my class to ask my students for more details or to write down a detailed note about what I was observing, my responsibilities as a teacher meant that I needed to move at a teaching pace appropriate for the students I taught. To this extent, I audio recorded my various interviews and focus groups and also created ethnographic “jottings”5 of my in-class observations that were developed into longer field notes and research memos at a later point.6 My insider perspective as someone interacting with the students balanced with my outsider perspective as an adult watching youth cultural practices helped yield the “dualistic approach” that exemplifies ethnographic research. I also shared early drafts of these chapters with teaching colleagues and some findings with students to get their feedback and responses. Revisions to my analysis (such as my discussion of Solomon when he was “like reading”) are informed by these conversations. Although my name appears on the front of this book, the research was done with the guidance and intellectual consideration of as many of my students and colleagues as I could involve.
For the key findings around schoolwide mobile-device use, I interviewed students from all three tracks of the school’s year-round schedule and in all four high school grades. I started with a predetermined protocol for the interviews and asked follow-up questions as necessary. I also treated my own classes as interview participants, and their voices echoed and usually corroborated the key claims I’ve made. In addition to classes with my own students, I conducted a total of sixteen focus groups with more than a hundred students. Each focus group averaged forty-five minutes.
For the instructional portion of this study, I relied on backing up my notes with audio recording and used a LiveScribe recording pen to take notes and to facilitate the tracking of key moments of exchange within the class. In order to best analyze and organize these fieldnotes, I initially coded these data using an inductive approach.7 I looked for repeating words, ideas, and actions that arose from the fieldnotes and coded these patterns. In analyzing the data, I was particularly interested in ensuring that I did not selectively choose only the data that confirmed the value of mobile media. Instead, I continuously sought disconfirming data for the patterns that I identified. Relying on different types of data, I used “converging lines of evidence” to triangulate my main findings.8 For example, in one classroom, I observed a student discreetly walking into the hallway as though he was looking for a stronger signal for his phone. Later, in discussing phone reception at the school, students shared locations in the school that are known for having strong and weak phone reception, and one student pointed to various locations on campus and shared how to continue to receive messages from peers in these spaces. By looking at the nexus of these various data, I tried to represent the practices and views of students accurately rather than select unique instances within my data that supported a particular point of view.
My main unit of analysis for this coding was the specific speech event that I documented. As described by Del Hymes, “The term speech event will be restricted to activities, or aspects of activities, that are directly governed by rules or norms for the use of speech.”9 Relying on the recordings made in class and messages written, sent, and read, I was able to listen to and transcribe student speech and analyze the digital speech that occurred in text messages and e-mails. Speech events are “a key way of understanding written language … to examine specific observable events and the role of texts in these events. The literacy event becomes a basic unit of analysis.”10 Because literacy events are “dynamic activities” that can include multiple perspectives, purposes, and participants, an understanding of dialogue and text in this study stems from a critical perspective.11 As a result, the discussions noted throughout this study about mobile media use and gameplay at South Central were analyzed with a discourse analysis that focused on how language as a cultural tool mediates relationships of power and privilege in social interactions, institutions, and bodies of knowledge.12 For example, students created narratives that challenged the existing discourse of school structures and locations. Dede labeled the sole green shrub on the school grounds as “Captain Green” in a playful way that (she later told me) was meant to make people look at the shrub “in a different way” (chapter 4). This mode of analysis is “an approach to answering questions about the relationships between language and society.”13 As a study that looked at literacies and civic participation from this critical perspective, the data analysis here explored the verbal and online dialogues that were produced in and shaped meaning in my South Central classroom. Because a discourse is “productive” and iterative,14 dialogue in my class was something that I viewed not as isolated incidents of speech but more as a string of incidents related to student literacy development.
Finally, concurrent to my analysis of data, I was also designing the curriculum and alternate reality game Ask Anansi to implement with students in my ninth-grade classroom. My design philosophy behind this process reflected my beliefs about the need for students to be codesigners of their own civic learning experiences. This curricular process was designed based on my experiences with doing youth participatory action research (YPAR).15 Working alongside young people in playing, researching, and designing the work was a key consideration in developing Ask Anansi and the in-class activities the class participated in during the study. As a model that accounts for student voice in the spaces of traditional research, YPAR can potentially upend existing research paradigms in disruptive ways that evoke the disruptive shifts ushered in by mobile media and participatory culture.