The Alan Review
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Volume 26, Number 2
Winter 1999

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Interested in increasing your understanding of what happens during literature lessons, when adolescents are part of a learning community? Read what Professional Resource Connection editor, Kathleen Carico, has to say about a text that presents the lessons learned by a researcher who spent two years with middle grades students and their teacher of Language Arts, then talked with the students again, four years later.

Professional Resource Connections

Susan Hynds's On the Brink: Negotiating Literature and Life with Adolescents:
A Review Essay

Kathleen M. Carico, editor, Professional Resource Connections

On the Brink: Negotiating Literature and Life with Adolescents, by Susan Hynds.
Teachers College Press/International Reading Association, 1997.
Paperback: ISBN 0-8077-3687-2, Price $20.95;
Cloth: ISBN 0-8077-3688-0, Price $42.00

On the Brink: Negotiating Life and Literature with Adolescents grew out of Susan Hynds's research in the classroom of Meg Andrews, a ten-year veteran English teacher who was enrolled in the Masters Program in which Hynds taught. On the Brink is the story of Andrews' struggles to provide a learner-centered curriculum for a group of students in their seventh and eighth grade years, drawing on a constuctivist theoretical framework. It is the story of the students in Andrews' classroom, illustrated through the case studies of Luis, Kianna, Jason, Samantha, and Angel, then, and four years later. It is also the story of Hynds as she, through her position as observer and researcher, confronts her own assumptions about literature teaching and learning from her perspective as a former middle and high school English teacher, and currently, as a teacher educator.

Hynds narrates the stories, weaving in scholarly critique and insight. In Chapter One, she describes the setting of her research, Logan Middle School (LMS), located near a small university city in the northeast. The school serves only 7th and 8th grade students, and the 587 students who attended LMS at the time of the study were mostly European Americans (53.5%) and African Americans (39%), with very small representations of Asian or Pacific Islander and Latino/Latina students.

In addition to the introduction to her research, Chapter One serves another important function. Entitled "Literature and Literacy as Sociopolitical Practices," this chapter sets out her provocative assertion that current conceptions of literacy studies, which are often based on teachers' understandings of the cognitive development theories of Piaget and the social language learning theories of Vygotsky (1978), are insufficient in describing what actually happens when adolescents learn to make sense of literature. She bases this statement on two concerns: 1) the emphasis on cognitive processes over social and political concerns and, 2) the almost exclusive attention on the individual learner. I have been provoked by this book to do further study and, while I continue to do so, I will also continue to value Vygotsky's contributions to our understandings of the social nature of learning. It is important that teachers and teacher educators examine whether or not the brand of constructivism that many of us espouse is, after all, effective in challenging classroom practices, texts, and behaviors that ignore prejudice, and that privilege or prohibit democratic aims.

Hynds's objective was to explore her longstanding questions about the differences in students' abilities to perceive characters in literature. She refers to this ability as a "social construing" ability that allows readers to develop interpersonal constructs. The differences in the ways readers transact with texts, she argues, must be related to a process of social learning. The factors that influence social construing, that motivate students to utilize social construing, and that account for differences in abilities even among able readers are at the center of her inquiry. She began the first phase of her research by using questionnaires and interviews that she hoped would allow her to chart students' social construing patterns and motivations.

Phase One yielded "disappointingly slim findings" about the cognitive processes in which students engaged as readers. Hynds realized that she needed to concentrate on the student readers, not as individuals who performed alone, but as members of a group who interacted with others. The interaction, she reasoned, was likely to be a factor in the development of the students' identities as readers and literate persons. This realization pointed her to the next phase, which was to look at the social interactions, both those that occur within the classroom and those that occur beyond it, and support or interfere with students' literacy development.

At the end of Hynds's Phase One, Andrews, the classroom teacher, agreed to participate in a pilot project. She agreed to teach the same five cohorts of students from the beginning of seventh grade through the end of eighth grade. She was asked to implement collaborative grouping as an instructional strategy, and would eventually be asked to conduct workshops on the strategy for other teachers in her system. Thus, Hynds had the opportunity to follow a single group of students for two years, while they worked with the same teacher. She was also able to research Andrews' work in the pilot project.

To begin Phase Two of her research, Hynds made some changes. She decided to use the same questionnaires that she had used in Phase One, but for a different purpose: this time, they would help her identify focal "informants." These informants would represent students who demonstrate a range of social construing patterns. She would observe, interview, and follow the informants during the two years, collecting their writings and other artifacts to inform her research. A final phase would come four years after the informants graduated from middle school, and would involve Hynds and Andrews conducting follow-up interviews with four of the original focal informants. These students would provide a retrospective on their work in the middle grades as well as an opportunity for Andrews and Hynds to find out what happened in the intervening years. These students' stories would eventually become the case studies of Chapters Four, Five, Seven, and Eight.

In Chapter Two, "On School Bells and Bumblebees: the World of the Young Adolescent," Hynds reviews the needs of the middle school-age child vis a vis the curriculum. For example, the social nature of adolescence that we acknowledge and try to accommodate, through imposing collaborative activities, does not necessarily correspond to adolescents' social requirements or codes. For example, they may be unwilling to collaborate in school with students who exist outside of their social circles, or they may be reluctant to be successful because of the risk of being called a "nerd" or some other pejorative label.

Also in this chapter, Hynds provides an analysis of two concerns: the unique needs of the middle schooler in this particular period of history, and the realities faced by students and teachers from minority groups. Hynds points the reader toward these and other compelling topics: the overwhelming flood of images and information that confront adolescents through the media; the frames for schooling and literacy that students bring with them from elementary school; the changing family and home structure; and the need for texts, methods, and teachers with whom adolescents can identify.

With these demands in mind, it is helpful--and at the same time sobering- for teachers of middle school students to realize how much goes on in our students' hearts and minds that we cannot apprehend. "Teachers like Andrews must be crafty navigators, sounding the depths of their students' hidden literate lives". The remainder of the book recounts Hynds's attempts to uncover "hidden literate lives" through careful observations of and interviews with Andrews' students. She pairs her observations with a consideration of theories that might inform our efforts to recognize and deal with our students' needs.

Chapter Three, "Falling Apart and Coming Together: Constructing a Literate Community in the Middle Grades," recounts the personal and professional upheavals Andrews experienced during the first year of the pilot study. After meticulously preparing for her seventh graders, she was immediately disappointed by their lack of enthusiasm and outright criticism of her classroom arrangements and strategies. They preferred desks in rows to the tables she had worked hard to procure; they asked for worksheets rather than journals; they wanted "A-F" grades, even if it meant "F," rather than Pass/Fail. Neither Andrews' ten years of successful teaching experience, her enthusiasm, nor her progressive ideas, "empowered," thrilled, or seemed to connect with her students. Andrews understood adolescence and she understood constructivism, but she was not prepared for the needs her students had as they went through academic transitions from elementary school. Neither was she aware how sociopolitical forces would undermine her careful plans.

Perhaps Andrews was operating under the common assumption that, if all conditions are right at school (and Andrews had done everything "right"), students will be ready to benefit. However, students bring the following variables with them to school: cultural dispositions; experiences as members of a certain race, class, gender, or sexual orientation; natural inclinations or gifts; or particular social needs. Unattended, any of these conditions may prevent wholehearted participation, and push students further toward the margins from which we hope to draw them. Reflecting in her journal at the end of that year, Andrews wrote this of her students, "...I must study them carefully".

In Chapters Four, Five, Seven, and Eight, we find case studies of five of Hynds's original focal informants. In Chapter Four, we meet Kianna, an African American female. "If You Look Hard Enough, You Will See a Butterfly," is a line from Kianna's poetry. The line is also an apt title for this chapter. Kianna is the girl many of us encounter: we believe she has great potential, but that she won't/can't/doesn't "behave," or submit to our structures. Kianna was particularly frustrating to Andrews because of her constant, loud appeals to leave the classroom, and her resistance to Andrews' menu of activities. Andrews had a hard time not viewing her as a pest.

It would not be until 8th grade, when Andrews' new strategies prompted Kianna to connect literature with real life, that she would begin to look more like a "butterfly." To her and to other students who have one schema for school and another for life, aspects of school (like literature) don't belong in real life, and therefore do not deserve attention. Until Kianna could connect literature with real life, she withheld full participation. It was finally through poetry writing and dramatic performance that she began to make the connections, and by the end of 8th grade she was working in a playwriting group.

Chapter Five focuses on Jason, a White European-American boy who had a transformation after 7th grade, similar to Kianna. In 7th grade he was loud, hyperactive, and not particularly engaged in schoolwork; in short, he was a crazymaker. In 8th grade, however, Andrews and Hynds were able to glimpse a burgeoning interest in language, and, four years later, they interviewed a much-matured Jason whom, they discovered, had kept a poetry journal throughout high school.

In 7th grade, Jason's reading preferences were hidden from Andrews. It was only through interviewing Jason as an eighth-grader that Hynds discovered a number of beliefs that would otherwise have remained hidden. Jason revealed the following impressions of his class: response journals were "practically writing the book over"; books that related to his life didn't interest him because "I've already been there and don't need that"; Literature Circles were "an exercise in talking about books that no on else has heard of except for people in the class"; that Stephen King turned his reading life around; and that Andrews' "change-the-ending" strategy revolutionized his ability to respond by causing him to enter the lives of the characters in a way nothing else did.

In Chapter Seven, Hynds shows us Angel and Samantha, and in doing so, grapples with the definition of a successful reader. Is an "A" reader the one who will be the lifelong reader? Will she be a critical reader? How do we help students close the gap between social competence (ability to perceive characters) and academic competence (ability to perceive the expectations of teachers, thereby becoming academically successful)? Socially competent, Angel, a White European American, was also academically competent. She was able, for a number of reasons, to move in and out of the roles that allowed her to be academically successful.

Samantha, a light-skinned bi-racial student (who passed for white and did not talk about her ethnicity), on the other hand, demonstrated neither competence quite so clearly as Angel. However, after interviewing Samantha--first as a seventh grader then four years later--it was clear that of the two, she would most likely remain the lifelong reader. It also became obvious over time that her social construing ability was linked to how and why she chose to read. This fact created problems for Hynds's notion of "A" readers as critical readers. By later understanding some of Samantha's motivations, it was possible for Hynds to assume that Samantha's reading was purposeful, and, perhaps, even critical, despite the early evidence that suggested that she had low levels of social construing or academic competence.

Chapter Eight tells the story of Luis, bi-racial adolescent who was most frequently identified as African-American. Luis would not allow Hynds to record him or consent to being a focal informant during his 7th or 8th grade years; in fact, it took him months to acknowledge Hynds's presence. Like Jason and Kianna, Luis went through a transformation between 7th and 8th grade. At one time uninvolved in classroom literacy, he eventually began participating centrally. Luis' transformation came about as he learned to express the reality of his life through poetry.

Luis presents a unique case as an African-American who must master not just the usual two cultures (African-American at home and European-American at school) but three (the particular culture Andrews created as a European-American-female teacher). Andrews felt the distance as well, expressing concern over her difficulties in reaching the African-American males. Her insecurity was heightened by the contrasting success of the artist-in-residence working with her. Ed Jackson, an African-American actor and writer, seemed to interact effectively and effortlessly with the males in her classroom. This difficulty notwithstanding, Andrews' genuine concern for Luis, and her efforts to build his trust in the face of his off-putting behaviors, began to bear fruit. Finally, in the spring of his 8th grade year, he began to "...edge steadily toward a vision of himself as a literate person".

Seventh-graders Luis, Kianna, and Jason challenge us to take on the students who "bug" us, elude our best efforts, or don't fit in. They remind us that students need teachers who can accept resistance as a challenge, not as a personal affront. Andrews' level of understanding of the students, when she first began to work with them, was varied. She did not understand Kianna's need to be visible, through unsanctioned practices. Yet Luis understood and eventually articulated both his problems and his needs to Andrews, she was able to understand better why he kept his teachers and his classmates at arm's length, and ultimately was able to help him. As a white male, Jason's behavior, though exasperating, was more easily understood by Andrews as well.

All three students were resisters, but only Jason and Luis, at the time of the final interview, had resisted "successfully." It was, for both of them, a bittersweet victory. Jason was able to understand the power structure and keep himself in school, but to do so meant putting up with the "mindlessness" of high school experiences that involved teachers who, in a phrase reminiscent of Andrews' journal comment, Jason perceived as being too lazy to "read" their students. Luis made it through high school and into college, but he had to virtually ignore his personal life and problems in order to focus only on his goals. Kianna, however, did not make it through the requisite channels toward graduation. At the time the rest were graduating from high school, Andrews and Hynds heard that Kianna, only in 10th grade, was being transferred to an alternative school for what the district called "at risk" students.

The stories of all of the students challenge us to view our own students as "under construction." Andrews had the privilege of teaching the same students for two years. As it turned out, the 8th grade versions were preferable to the students as seventh graders: Jason responded positively as Andrews opened up some choices for the students and allowed them to sample numerous literate behaviors; Kianna found her niche in dramatic performance; Luis responded most to Andrews' consistent integrity and care for him. Although most of us have students for only a year, and thus we have only a partial (and necessarily distorted) view of their growth as thinkers and as people, we, too, need to remember that each is under construction. Remembering that students grow emotionally, socially, and academically might prompt us to exercise faith in the learner, to "sound the depths" for those hidden literate behaviors, and to look for the window of opportunity we might otherwise miss.

These students' stories also caution us against assumptions that students will understand both the purposes and the directions for many constructivist strategies. The seemingly dual nature of the young adolescent (child/adult) works against them at times: the thoughtfulness and maturity that they demonstrate, at times, masks the differences between their immature conceptual abilities and our more experienced ones. In addition, our certainty about and enthusiasm for our new methods can affect our perception of the students' abilities. Hynds's interviews with students showed that they regarded both the purpose and the application of Andrews' collaborative strategies differently from the way she did. In talking with our own students, perhaps we, too, we will find that their comments will inform us in similar ways, and further, that we may not be clear on our purposes.

Both Chapters Six and Nine prominently feature the second year of the pilot study. In Chapter Six, Hynds describes the changes Andrews made to her curriculum: increasing the number of choices students had through a new readers/writers workshop; allowing students some room for peripheral participation, rather than as official "members" of literature circles or writing groups; broadening the choices for reading responses; and, particularly, becoming a "learner" herself through sharing her own writing with the class. The new curriculum was to be a major improvement over the 7th grade model, yet Andrews was to discover that with the changes came unexpected problems that she felt ill-equipped to handle.

In Chapter Nine, Hynds goes further in describing the second year of the study, highlighting the significant successes Andrews and the 8th graders achieved, due in large part to the changes Andrews made. Hynds also adds her observations about the difficulties Andrews encountered. First, "choice" often led to students' grouping themselves along gender or racial lines. Second, while the nearly exclusive use of small groups maintained a more orderly, less disruptive classroom, issues of race, class, gender, sexual orientation or other sociopolitical issues were also protected from disruption. Third, the sharing of private responses and writings in the classroom characterized by a certain privileged discourse (Gee, 1991) was not equally rewarding--personally or academically-- for all groups.

Although Andrews voiced her considerable worries about many of these concerns in her journal writings, when in the classroom, she made no indication that these were part of her business as the teacher. Constructivism, as she was practicing it, gave her no public way to address and deal with these issues; she was left with only private agonizing. Hynds explains the tension Andrews must have experienced:

Versions of social constructivism based on apprenticeship, enculturation, or other forms of expert-novice relationships often ignore important issues, such as the resistance that disempowered learners must exert, the right of marginalized learners to refuse enculturation into a realm of "knowledge" that excludes or attempts to eradicate other cultures, and the responsibilities of teachers to bring larger political concerns into the public arena of the classroom.

In Chapter Ten, Hynds proposes an alternate version of constructivism, based on an examination of the above-stated issues. Through the lens of a revised constructivism-- Kinchloe and Steinberg's (1991) "critical constructivism"--Hynds shows what Andrews could not see through the lens of her own theories. For example, a cognitive constructivist learning theory helped Andrews get inside Kianna's head, to see more clearly how she learned, and this theory ultimately moved Kianna from a role as a non-participant to a leader in her playwriting group. Her progress during her time with Andrews was undeniable. However, the theory did not move Andrews to look beyond the classroom methods to the undercurrent of sociopolitical forces that kept Kianna and her African-American classmates from mixing in groups with their White classmates or from confronting racist or sexist ideas they held and would sometimes display in subtle ways.

In an important discussion of democratic schooling, Hynds suggests that our responsibility as teachers goes beyond putting materials and opportunities "out there," and letting students make sense of them however they will. Indeed, of what use is our role as "more knowledgeable other" in the classroom if not to assist students in recognizing and confronting prejudice and tyranny in its many forms?

In discussing the teacher's role, Hynds adds a most significant point: the balance between power and love:

...[E]ven if Andrews magically were able to hand all power over to her students, this alone would not have "empowered" them. The world is altogether too full of young people who feel too much power over (translate: disconnection from) those who are supposed to guide and nurture them into adulthood. Admittedly, we need to rectify the power imbalances that have kept students unquestioning and servile. On the other hand, there were many times when students in Andrews's classroom seemed in desperate need of something much more tangible and comforting than power.

In her years of observing Andrews, Hynds was reminded of the inability of power to serve people, unless love is also present. She is wary of a form of critical theory that focuses on transforming power relations, without focusing equally on transforming personal relationships. In this final point in which she overtly speaks of a compassionate critical theory, she illustrates feminist theory at its best.

As a teacher educator, I am left to wonder how teachers can be prepared to negotiate life and literature with adolescents. In which classes or experiences in our teacher education programs does this happen? When do practicing teachers have the opportunity to consider such ideas? How can we empower teachers with a brand of critical theory that will work for them and for the kids in their public school classrooms? And how can we keep love at the center of it?

Part of the answer, I believe, lies in the work that Hynds did in researching this classroom, the result of which is this book. Reading it is an occupation I would urge upon teachers and teacher educators. But we need more. More of us need to take on research tasks that will put us in connection with teachers, not in opposition to them, in power over them, or in subservience to them. We would benefit from borrowing from the model of research provided by Susan Hynds: we must be caring, skillful, and trusting/trustworthy equals.

In the Foreword to the book, Judith Langer notes that Hynds tells Andrews' story with sensitivity and grace. I agree, and believe Hynds does so in part due to the way she viewed Andrews, her research, and her role in it. Hynds saw Andrews as a collaborator, not the research subject; in fact, it is clear that Hynds and Andrews, if not friends, share mutual respect and fondness. How tricky it must have been for Hynds to critique Andrews in a public way; nevertheless, she does so, and credit goes to Hynds for her honesty, along with her grace and sensitivity. There is no hint in the book that Hynds sees herself as the expert consultant, showing Andrews where she went wrong. In fact, she admits that some of these things she notices and articulates so well were invisible to her until she studied the data. Remembering her own days as a teacher, she acknowledges the great challenge it is to both to recognize bias in its many subtle forms and to have the presence of mind, the experience, the freedom, and the knowledge to handle it. She never forgets that the position of researcher is indeed a privileged one. She uses her position, I believe, in the best possible way.

To Meg Andrews we owe a debt of gratitude for allowing us to peer into her classroom and study her journals, and for allowing Hynds to use her work to illustrate a need for a constructivism that will not simply transform language arts, but has the possibility of transforming schooling for children who now remain on the margins. Her courage, humility, openness, and scholarship provide a model for teachers on all levels. What Andrews allowed Hynds to do with her lifework was a tribute to what she thought of Hynds, of the importance of her work, of her students, and of the people who will be able to read and benefit from this remarkable book.


1. I mention the racial and gender identities of each of the case studies because they are critical factors in the types of experiences students encounter in schools.

2. For an instructive contrast between helpful and unhelpful uses of common constructivist practices.

3. Andrews admitted feeling helpless to do anything about the things she only guessed were happening, but did not know how to confront. In addition to illuminating the anti-democratic forces at work in the classroom, Hynds gives several concrete and simple examples of how Andrews could challenge such ideas.

Works Cited:

Gee, J. Social Linguistics and Literacies : Ideology In Discourses. 2nd Ed. New York: Taylor and Francis, 1996.

Kinchloe, J. and Steinberg, S. "A Tentative Description Of Post-Formal Thinking: The Critical Confrontation With Cognitive Theory." Harvard Educational Review, 63. 3. (1993).

Vygotsky, L. Mind In Society. Ed. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, and E. Sourberman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Reference Citation: Carico, Kathleen. (1999). "Professional Resources Connection." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 2.

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