In response to the persistent gender gap in literacy achievement levels in international, national, and state assessments (Brozo et al. 2014; Chudow – sky and Chudowsky 2010), some literacy researchers have turned to researching boys’ out-of-school literacy practices in order to better understand where boys are literate. Building on research that suggests the importance of texts in young people’s lives out of school and their motivations to interact with these texts (Hull and Schultz 2002), this body of research examines the “unrecognized or untapped” literacy practices that boys participate in outside of school and identifies patterns in boys’ literate behaviors and preferences, for example, problematize the notion that boys simply prefer different literacy texts and tasks because of who they are as boys. They argue adolescent boys often reject literacy because of its association with formal schooling and that boys’ purposes for reading, writing, and viewing texts are often different than those encountered in school. In focusing on how boys themselves talk about and experience literacy, Smith and Wilhelm’s work, among others, has helped to shift conversations from what others think boys do with literacy to what boys themselves say about their literacy practices.
Deborah Brandt’s (1998, 2001) concept of literacy sponsorship provides a heuristic that examines literacy learning in different contexts. Brandt argues that whenever people learn to read or write, “sponsors” appear in formative roles at the scenes of literacy learning. Drawing on her interview research with 80 people born from the mid-1890s to the early 1980s, Brandt defines literacy sponsors as “any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, or model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy—and gain advantage by it in some way” (2001: 2). Sponsors lend resources and credibility to the sponsored and stand to benefit from their success. Tracking patterns of literacy sponsorship can help expose how unequal literacy chances are related to “systems of unequal subsidy and reward for literacy” (1998: 172). In this way, literacy sponsorship places individual literacy experiences in larger contexts, shedding light on what might shape and inform individuals’ literacy choices.
The purpose of this study is to extend Brandt’s concept of literacy sponsorship by applying it specifically to adolescent boys and their religious involvements. According to recent statistics, the “vast majority” of adolescents embrace some religious identity, the “majority” are affiliated with a religious organization, and a “sizable minority” are regular participants in local communities of faith (Smith and Denton 2009). To these adolescents, religious institutions and leaders, in varying degrees and to varying extents, become literacy sponsors who impart their ideologies, beliefs, and values as they pertain to literacy.
To help identify these ideologies, beliefs, and values, I utilize John Szwed’s (1981) elements of literacy by exploring texts, participations, contexts, functions, and motivations surrounding religious involvements of adolescent boys. Specifically, I examine ways that 11 adolescent boys, participants in a qualitative in-depth interview study, were prepared and positioned by their religious literacy sponsors. I also explore the implications of how these boys viewed themselves and what they do with literacy. In doing so, I extend the concept of literacy sponsorship by framing it as relational, highlighting the boys’ identities as part of their sponsoring relationships. I argue that the adolescent boys in my study were encouraged to be and act in particular ways, which then influenced their literacy practices. My findings provide new lines of inquiry in the out-of-school literacy practices of adolescent boys by examining a literacy context (religious involvements) that is often overlooked. It also contributes to larger conversations about the ways gender identity and literacy are intertwined.
Literacy Practices of Adolescent Boys Who Identify as Religious
Few studies have explored the complexities of boys’ out-of-school literacy practices within the context of their religious involvements. The handful of studies that do approach the topic tend to contrast boys’ literacy experiences in religious contexts to those in school (Ek 2005, 2008; Farr 1994, 2005; McMillon and Edwards 2000; B. Moss 1994, 2001). Gwendolyn McMillon and Patricia Edwards (2000), for example, examine the experiences of Joshua, an African American boy, who was considered exceptionally literate in his Sunday school class but socially illiterate in his kindergarten class. In their research, McMillon and Edwards consider ways the different environments encouraged or discouraged his attempts to be a reader and argue that, unlike his school experience, he had a rich literacy experience in Sunday school because his teacher “created a nurturing environment where students felt safe to take risks” (119). Similarly, Lucila Ek (2008) examines an immigrant Mexican Pentecostal male adolescent’s differing experiences in church and school contexts and concludes that the church provided richer language and literacy experiences that “validated [her participant’s] language and literacy identity” (11). These studies highlight how boys experience literacy in different contexts and the particular literacy practices within religious communities.
A closer look at how religious beliefs, values, and experiences inform adolescents’ literacy practices has been the focus of more recent scholarship. While these studies do not look specifically at adolescent boys, they provide rich descriptions of what contributes to particular ways of reading, writing, and interacting with religious texts. Eric Rackley (2014) explores the literacy practices of nine Latter-day Saint and seven Methodist youths. In subsequent research, Rackley and Michelle Kwok (2016) analyze similarities and differences in the ways adolescents experience complex religious texts. In her critical review of scholarship across a number of disciplines, Mary Juzwik (2014) characterizes evangelical biblicism as an interpretive tradition that is mediated by a complex set of sociocultural practices and textual ideologies. Juzwik and Cori McKenzie (2015) explore the ways that Sam, an evangelical Christian high school student, used his populist evangelical faith to conceptualize highlights how religious beliefs and contexts involve more than just religious texts themselves. How, when, where, and with whom these texts (and others) are read and composed should also be considered. I wish to contribute to this line of inquiry by further conceptualizing the literacy practices related to adolescent boys’ religious commitments and experiences and analyzing them through the lens of literacy sponsorship.
In her 1998 article “Sponsors of Literacy,” Brandt defines literacy sponsors as local or distant people, institutions, or commercial forces who are involved whenever people are learning to read or write. These sponsors subsidize the events, benefit from the exchange, and are responsible for the materials. Sponsorship involves the sharing of the sponsor’s ideologies, beliefs, and values of literacy. According to Brandt, the sponsored can be “oblivious to or innovative with” the ideology of the sponsor, and that “obligations toward one’s sponsors run deep, affecting what, why, and who people write and read” (20). I use this literacy sponsor concept to analyze the ways religious institutions sponsor adolescent boys’ literacy practices by encouraging or discouraging particular ways of reading, writing, thinking, behaving, and being. However, unlike Brandt, who focuses on the literacy sponsors themselves, I look at how the “sponsored” experience and make sense of their religious literacy sponsorship situations.
In order to frame the ways boys understand and make sense of these literacy sponsorship situations, I draw on sociocultural perspectives of literacy. I define literacy as reading, writing, viewing, listening, speaking, and visually representing print, visual, and digital texts (National Council of Teachers of English [NCTE] 2007) and look at literacy practices as “what people do with literacy” but also as the “values, attitudes, feelings, and social relationships” (Barton and Hamilton 2012: 8) that surround these actions. I specifically draw on work from the New Literacy Studies, which maintains “reading and writing only make sense when studied in the context of social and cultural practices of which they are but a part” (Gee 1990). Moving away from a focus on individuals and their “private minds,” New Literacy Studies foregrounds social practice and interaction and emphasizes how literacy does not focus solely on the technical (skills), but also on the social community. Members of different racial, ethnic, age, socioeconomic, and gender groups (to name a few) experience literacy differently because of their socially situated beliefs, values, and purposes (Barton and Hamilton 2012; Street 1984, 2002). These different literacy experiences can be hard to identify because beliefs and values are often not articulated.
John Szwed’s (1981) five literacy elements provide a way to identify and analyze literacy practices. In response to an inadequate conceptualization of literacy by other sociolinguistic scholars in his field, Szwed proposed that five elements, taken from the point of view of members of a particular group, form a complex whole that should not be reduced to simple diagnoses. These five literacy elements include:
- text (What do adolescent boys read, write, view, and then discuss in religious contexts?)
- context (When, where, and why do adolescent boys read, write, view, and discuss particular texts?)
- participants involved (Who else is involved? What kind of relationships are present? Are there power dynamics involved in the relationships?)
- function (What values are related to these uses of literacy?)
- motivation (What motivates boys to participate in particular literacy practices in certain ways?).
Addressing these elements allows for a rich understanding of the social and cultural practices surrounding adolescent boys’ literacy practices.
Though literacy practices are the focus of my study, it is important to clarify the ways that I approach gender and masculinity. My study is informed by the theory that gender is performed and acted out according to the discursive tools available to people in particular local and historical contexts (Butler 1990). Gender operates in relation to particular constructions, through particular discourses, and within specific contexts. Thus, practices of masculinity become normalized and are regulated within everyday talk and action (Peyton Young 2000). Within this, there are multiple ways to be a boy, though not all ways are treated equally because hierarchies and exclusion exist (Connell 1995). Typologies are sometimes used to describe these different ways to be a boy, but some scholars argue that these are limiting because of the different patterns of masculinity that occur both between and within various settings (Mac an Ghaill 1996; Swain 2004, 2006). Finally, there is reciprocity between gender identity and literacy; gender shapes and is shaped by literacy practices (Cherland 1994; Davies 1989, 1993, 2010; G. Moss 2007).
Given these theoretical underpinnings, the research questions that guide my study include: What are the texts, contexts, participants, functions, and motivations involved in the literacy practices of adolescent boys who identify as religious? What else might religious institutions sponsor other than literacy?
The 11 adolescent boys discussed in this article were participants in a larger study I conducted with 21 adolescent boys. Since narrow definitions of literacy, reading, and writing prevail among many adolescent boys (Love and Hamston 2003; Smith and Wilhelm 2002), I did not ask my participants directly about what they liked to read and write. Instead, I asked them to bring artifacts that represented who they were in the past, present, and future to the first interview and texts related to these artifacts to the second interview. The two interview phases, length of interviews, duration between interviews, and interview prompts were based on Irving Seidman’s (2013) in-depth phenomenological interviewing model. Participants in my larger study were diverse in race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and educational experiences and were from a small midwestern city. I recruited these participants by contacting people who worked with or around adolescent boys, such as coaches, Boy Scouts leaders, skateboard shop owners, and youth group leaders.
For the purposes of this article, it is important to note that at least initially, I did not directly ask my participants to talk about their religious involvements. My interview prompts addressed participants’ chosen artifacts, and interestingly, none of these artifacts directly related to participants’ religious involvements. However, as 11 of the participants began to talk about their artifacts (a basketball or set of LEGOs, for example), they began to talk about their religious involvements. This is not to say that the rest of the participants in the larger study did not have religious involvements, but rather that this information was not volunteered. Table 1 describes my participants’ religious affiliations and their varied religious involvements. All the participants in my study identified as Christians, but their religious experiences and involvements differed in terms of theology, worship style, and demographics.
Analysis of the data was informed by methods of constant comparative analysis (Corbin and Strauss 2008). I transcribed the interviews, made memos, and coded for Szwed’s (1981) literacy elements and instances of literacy sponsorship with religious institutions and leaders.
When I began data analysis, I expected to find specific examples of how adolescent boys were encouraged or discouraged to read and write in particular religious contexts. What emerged from my data, however, were themes pointing to particular ways of being, doing, and thinking as religious adolescent boys rather than specific ways to read and write. These ways of being, doing, and thinking do indeed lead to specific ways of reading and writing in religious contexts, but as I analyzed religious literacy sponsorship per adolescent boys’ experiences, what surfaced was the direct sponsorship of ways of being religious adolescent boys and indirect sponsorship of literacy. In the sections below, I share three themes that highlight different ways churches sponsored what it means to be a religious adolescent boy and the particular literacy practices that extend from these themes.
Separate and Different vs. Part of the Family
The first theme that emerged was conflicting constructions of who adolescent boys are in relationship to other churchgoers. Some churches construct adolescent boys as being “separate and different” than other groups of churchgoers; other churches position boys as being integral to the larger church family.
SEPARATE AND DIFFERENT
At Adam’s church, there are separate worship services for adolescents, services usually led by a youth pastor and a contemporary music worship band. There are primarily social youth group activities held during the week. Alan’s church holds similar kinds of activities and experiences and has an indoor skate park located in the youth wing of the church’s large facilities. On Alan’s church’s website, this appeal is made to adolescents:
We realize that you don’t want to just sit in church and listen to someone preach. We know you love to skateboard, chill with your friends, Guitar Hero and engage in amazing worship … There’s killer events like cookoffs, friend day, potlucks, study breaks, youth rallies, beach nights and other nights of just plain chillin’!
Embedded in this description of what happens in the church’s youth group are assumptions about what adolescents like and do not like to do. The assumption is that they “don’t want to just sit in church and listen to someone preach.” Instead, they would rather be doing things like skateboarding, hanging out with friends, and playing Guitar Hero. It would take “killer events” and indoor skate parks to convince such adolescents, boys in particular, to come to church. The assumption seems to be that these boys need separate and different activities and locations in order to want to attend and enjoy church.
The adolescent boys in my study who attended these churches seemed to be aware, at least to some degree, of how church leaders were trying to appeal to them. In the excerpt below, Adam describes what happens at his youth group every week and demonstrates awareness of efforts on his behalf. He says,
First you shoot baskets inside for a bit. We hang out at the beginning and then we have a talk session, they’ll show videos so we’ll stay interested, a talk, show another fun video and then you go to your group and you say the most important things or favorite things in life and you come back out and share. Your group does it on a big piece of paper.
In Adam’s experience, teenagers like himself get to do what they want at first—shoot baskets, hang out—then youth group leaders use a video “so we’ll stay interested,” and then there is a variety of predictable activities.
Adam does not seem to resist these constructions of adolescent boys but rather use them to his advantage. When he talked about his church involvements, Adam framed them in terms of his peer relationships and said he does not often attend youth group when he knows that his friends will not be there. Interestingly, Alan’s experiences were similar to Adam’s experiences. Alan said he attends a different church’s youth group because his friends attend. When a view of adolescent boys positions them as peer-oriented and separate from the rest of the church community, it seems that they are encouraged to be involved in religious activities for social reasons. They are also encouraged to read separate and different texts and to engage in these texts differently because of who they are as adolescent boys.
PART OF THE FAMILY
In contrast to the notion that boys represent a separate and different group, other churches seemed to sponsor the idea that adolescent boys are part of a larger church family. Multigenerational lunches after the service, social gatherings, and worship services are some experiences that treat adolescent boys not as entirely different from other age groups but rather as integral to the life of the whole church family.
This kind of sponsorship was most evident in the African American and Latino churches that some of my participants attended. When Jamal, Jayson, and Alberto talked about their church involvements, for example, they did not emphasize their peer relationships. Instead, they talked about older or younger people in their churches and of instances where they helped out as contributing members of the church. Jayson, for example, regularly spends his Sunday afternoons helping to make and then serve a lunch that is provided for the whole congregation after the worship service. Alberto shared with me that he was planning to attend a fiftieth wedding anniversary party for an older couple in his church. He also shared that he relies on an assortment of church members to drive him to church because his own family members do not attend. “I don’t get the chance to be myself unless I go to church,” Alberto reflects of the small and diverse Spanish-speaking Assemblies of God church he attends.
The interests of adolescent boys were also encouraged and embedded in the larger experiences of the church. Jamal told me that his pastor had approached him several months ago to ask him to write and perform a freestyle rap for the Sunday worship service. Jamal gladly obliged and has since continued writing, choreographing, and performing rap songs for worship services. He eagerly told me about his most recent song, “‘G.O.D.,’ that’s what I call it. The kids have shirts with ‘G.O.D.’ on them, they dance to it.” Freestyle rapping in many contexts characterizes male youth culture and separates it from other cultures. In asking Jamal to write and perform his songs in church and for the benefit of the entire church family, his pastor encourages him to integrate these interests into his identity as a churchgoing adolescent boy.
Seeking Authority vs. Interpreting Their Own Experiences
A second theme is the different ways adolescent boys were positioned in relationship to church leaders and religious texts. Some adolescent boys seemed to approach the Bible as having the final and only authority in their lives. Other boys seemed to interpret the Bible more subjectively on the basis of their life experiences.
When some of the adolescent boys in my study discussed their relationships with church leaders, they emphasized the leaders’ authority in their lives and in the life of the church. In the passage below, Jamal describes to me why he loves going to church. He says,
I love going to church. I love the choir, how the pastor be doing the preaching, doing things like teaching you about real life and stuff, what’s really going to happen and how the world going to come through, like if people don’t bow down now some people are surely going to die in hell so I don’t want to be like one of them other peoples who go to hell I want to go to heaven.
Jamal’s comments demonstrate the authority he gives to the pastor, someone who teaches him how to think about “real life.” He later described his Sunday school class as an opportunity “to learn more about scripture” from his pastor. These kinds of references were echoed by Jayson, who shared that he took notes during Sunday school so he could write down what his pastor said about scripture.
The approach to viewing the pastor as an authority and scripture as the ultimate authority was one that Jamal saw his parents do at home. He said,
My parents read the Bible a lot. They get into the word, in a room by themselves and read, they learn something in church and they got to go back and read over it and see what they figure out and they got a commentary and it supplies what it is and what it means to you.
Jamal sees his parents take what they learned from the pastor in church and continue learning at home. The way Jamal talks about his parents’ Bible reading suggests that his parents go to the text to extract meaning from it. If they have trouble figuring things out, they get a “commentary” and it provides “what it is and what it means to you.” What the Bible says or what the pastor teaches you is what you try to live by. Jamal does similar kinds of reading practices on his own—reading a Bible verse, looking up commentary about this verse, and then telling his mom what he learned about it. Though books are full of words, Jamal uses “the Word” as a reference for the Bible, illustrating his (and his parents’ view) of the Bible’s authority in their lives.
Being a boy who identifies as religious, at least for Jamal, Jayson, and others, means that you learn from an outside authority, religious leaders, for example, about how to live your life. The Bible becomes a text that does not get questioned or interpreted to fit particular experiences, desires, or needs.
INTERPRETING THEIR OWN EXPERIENCES
In other church contexts, adolescent boys were encouraged to view themselves in relation to church leaders and the Bible in more evenly distributed ways. A number of the boys in my study emphasized that what mattered most was how they applied biblical principles to their lives. As people with unique life experiences, they were uniquely positioned to interpret scriptural truths and find implications for their lives. Jeremiah, an African American who attends a predominately white youth group, outside of his own African American church involvement, stated, “We don’t talk so much about God but about what God wants you to do and how to make the right decisions.” While his youth group leaders might not agree, youth group for Jeremiah is more about making connections to personal experiences. Outside authorities are not needed to extract meaning from a text; adolescent boys in these church contexts get to decide for themselves the relevancy and meaning of texts.
During his second interview, Chris brought a devotional—which includes short biblical passages and accompanying reflections/application— that he uses in his weekly youth group meetings. After meeting, youth group members are asked to keep reflecting on the passage by answering questions that connect the Bible passage to daily life issues. When the youth group meets again, members are asked to share the connections they made with the passage. To do this kind of assignment, commentaries are not needed, nor is the expertise of a pastor. Even reading the Bible is not always necessary to answer the questions posed.
When Isaac talked about church involvements, he framed them in terms of being mostly “boring,” focusing specifically on his experience of “sitting and listening to the sermon.” “Sometimes it’s like I can’t relate so I start daydreaming,” he reflected. Isaac contrasted this experience with a recent youth group trip. “But when we went to Detroit, they used really personal examples and it was really easy to relate. Detroit was fun. It was so much easier to relate to what happens.” The youth group service project to a larger urban city was something that connected with Isaac and got him excited about his faith. He contrasts this with the experience of sitting and listening to his pastor’s sermons and reading the Bible.
This theme of using texts to interpret one’s own experiences was also evident in how some of the adolescent boys talked about their different purposes for reading the Bible. Eric, for example, discussed how his dad, a college professor, shared with him his theory “that Harry Potter was like Jesus,” something that Eric had not yet before considered but later used in conversations with his friends. Eric predicted to his friends that Harry would die in the last book and then come back from the dead. He recalled, “I was like, ‘What if Harry dies and he comes back to life?’ and then I found out that’s what happened. It was like really weird.” In our discussions, Eric was proud that his prediction came true and recalled that his friends were impressed.
Eric’s father’s approach to reading and expressing his faith illustrates a particular religious literacy practice. Discussing possible interpretations of characters is pleasurable to him. He engages in the imaginary world and applies his religious beliefs to that world. When Eric shares this interpretation with his peers, he gains social status. This suggests something about Eric’s peer group, a group that is most likely accustomed to using literacy in this regard. It also suggests something about the Harry Potter books and their “acceptable” status for some religious boys to read and enjoy. Not all texts have this prestige, and not all boys who identify as religious are encouraged to read these books. To illustrate, Jamal’s parents approached scripture as a place to find authoritative meaning. When Jamal talked about the Harry Potter books, he did so by way of saying that his parents’ religious beliefs led them to ban the books and films from their house. Jamal described the books and films and his experiences thus: “Witchcraft. I seen the movie but too much dealing with demons. My parents they don’t want me to see it. They said a evil spirit was inside that. I say okay. I won’t watch it.” Jamal complies with his parents’ demands and seems to agree with their assessment of the Harry Potter books.
Though Eric’s and Jamal’s families both read the Bible as part of their faith commitments, the same text plays different functions in their lives. In both cases, their parents frame other books as being religiously appropriate or not. In Eric’s case, his dad saw the book as an opportunity to see and talk about a “Christ figure.” In Jamal’s case, these books were representative of something that did not align with his family’s religious beliefs and practices. The ways Jamal and Eric were encouraged to view and respond to authority had implications on what and how they read.
Focusing on the Future vs. Focusing on the Present
A third theme across my data was that while some religious adolescent boys were encouraged to focus their faith commitments on the future, others were encouraged to place faith within the context of their present-day experiences. Being a religious adolescent boy in some church contexts means focusing on future goals and rewards. In other contexts, adolescent boys are encouraged to focus on immediate experiences.
FOCUSING ON THE FUTURE
For a number of the boys, their church-related activities seemed to be motivated by their view of the future. Jamal reflected,
I used to hate going to church, when I started hating going to church I was like 13, 14 and as I started getting older I was like man, why am I not going to church because you see the devil doing his work ’cause I used to be getting in trouble a lot cause I was like I don’t want to be doing that anymore I want to change my ways. I used to have an attitude with everybody, so I’m doing pretty good now.
For Jamal, his motivations for involvement and participation in his church seem to be for future reward. Whether or not this was explicitly addressed in their churches, many of these boys seemed clear on the purpose of going to church, reading the Bible, and following Christian principles. They wanted to learn “how to live better lives,” and so they encountered religious texts, either by themselves, with a congregation, or in a youth group, as a way of achieving this future-oriented purpose.
This theme also surfaced when some of my participants anticipated their current religious involvement affecting their future lives. In the cases of Jamal and Jeremiah, their expressed future identities (the artifacts they brought in to the first interview) had to do with their future identities as Christians. Jeremiah said that he wanted to live up to his biblical namesake by living “as a man for God.” Jamal talked about wanting to be a pastor at some point in his life. His current involvements at his church required a 25-minute drive to his church four nights a week. This demanded significant time and energy investments on his part. However, unlike other participants who drew attention to (and in some cases complained about) the time and energy involved with their church commitments, this was not too much for him. He was choosing to invest in his future. His motivations for engaging in religious activities were future-oriented.
FOCUSING ON THE PRESENT
In contrast to being motivated by future reward, other boys in my study seemed motivated (or not motivated) to read and write religious texts for immediate and pragmatic purposes. These boys often described their church involvements in terms of what they tried to do when their busy schedules allowed it. Adam, for example, reflected on some of the things his family did together. “We try to go [to church] regularly,” he said, “but our lives are so hectic.” He added, “And I try to pray every night but usually I forget because I’m like texting or showering. When I pray I start sleeping.” When Alan talked about attending his church’s youth group, he confided that he did not like going when it was nice outside, saying, “I’d rather be outside playing sports with friends.” During the summer, time spent at his family cottage took the place of going to the Sunday service. In contrast to Jamal, who prioritized reading and writing religious texts and church involvements because of his desire to invest in his future, Alan and Adam seemed to read and write around their religious commitments when there were not other, more desirable, activities to do. Being a religious adolescent boy was based on immediate satisfaction and meaning. When other activities provided that meaning, there seemed to be less motivation to participate. It was hard for them to be motivated to participate in religious activities such as reading the Bible or a devotional because other nonchurch activities were more appealing.
In seeking to extend Brandt’s concept of literacy sponsorship by applying it to adolescent boys and the literacy practices connected with their religious involvements, my findings suggest that religious institutions and leaders directly sponsored different ways of being adolescent boys and indirectly sponsored literacy practices. Particular constructions of religious adolescent boys are sponsored through explicit and implicit ideologies, beliefs, and values. Whether intended or not, adolescent boys learn particular ways of thinking, being, and doing from religious literacy sponsors and this then influences their literacy practices.
The three themes that emerged from my data—separate and different vs. part of the family, seeking authority vs. interpreting their own experiences, and focusing on the future vs. focusing on the present—are in no way exhaustive or prescriptive. Rather, they offer a glimpse into some of the ways adolescent boys experience literacy through their religious involvements. Some are consistent across other age demographics as well as what it means to be a religious girl, but some seem specific to adolescent boys.
The view in some churches of adolescent boys as “separate and different” from other demographic groups seems specific to adolescents and perhaps adolescent boys in particular. This can perpetuate many prevailing negative constructions of adolescents and essentialist notions about adolescent boys. Jamal’s and Alfredo’s experiences in church, however, illustrate that all adolescent boys do not “need” a skate park or separate music or activities in order to go to church and enjoy being there. They do not need separate “boy” versions of religious texts in order to sustain their engagement.
Analyzing the ways in which boys are encouraged to be in religious contexts can provide insight into essentialist constructions of adolescent boys that might need to be challenged. Future research could explore the ways adolescent boys resist, confront, or push against expectations of religious membership and identity and the ways they appropriate their religious identities for their own purposes and goals.
Many existing claims about boys and literacy suggest that boys participate in literate activities for immediate and pragmatic purposes (Smith and Wilhelm 2002). Some of the adolescent boys in my study, however, participated in literacy for very different reasons. The possibility of future reward, framed in terms of life after death, seemed to motivate some of the boys to read and write in religious contexts. Jamal talked about “not wanting to die in hell” and explained that he read the Bible because of his desire “to get in heaven.” In this case, being a boy identifying as religious means having an eye on the future and on what might happen to someone after death.
Many adolescents do not draw attention to the literacy practices connected with their religious identities because such identities are often so embedded in the fabric of their daily lives, interests, and values that they are not seen as “reading” or “writing” (as defined in school terms). Rather, these out-of-school literate acts happen as part of something else. In the case of my 11 participants, none of them made connections between what they read and wrote in school and what they read and wrote in their religious contexts. With the exception of Isaac, who made a “Christ-figure” connection to Harry Potter, church-related literacy practices were seen as entirely different than school-based literacy practices. As a literacy researcher, this is fascinating. Schools sponsor literacy practices, but so do many other institutions, people, and commercial forces. Helping adolescents recognize the myriad ways they are literate and experience literacy in other contexts might help them better identify the ideologies and ideological differences between these contexts.
Recognizing different literacy sponsors’ ideologies, values, and beliefs requires analysis of more than what texts get read and even how they are read. Szwed’s (1981) elements of literacy shed light on what else could be considered when studying literacy practices. The whys, whens, wheres, and with whoms of particular literate acts complicate interactions with texts. The implicit assumption in much of the research on boys’ out-of-school literacy practices is that literacy practices differ only in the specific genres, content, and texts that adolescent boys prefer and value. Similarly, assumptions are often made that literacy practices in religious contexts are homogenous for entire traditions or consistent across religious texts. Focusing on the “what” of adolescent boys’ literacy practices is important, but it fails to more fully address the myriad of reasons why and how boys read and write and what happens when boys do not necessarily choose texts themselves. As my findings suggest, adolescent boys read religious texts for different reasons. While the same text, the Bible, is read by boys from different religious denominations and traditions, boys read it in different ways and for different purposes.
My hope is that my study offers an important starting point in thinking more deeply about adolescent boys’ literacy experiences in religious contexts. Further research could examine how masculinities are constructed, formed, and produced in religious settings, which masculinities are encouraged and discouraged by “sponsors,” and what cultural resources and strategies are available to adolescent boys in these religious contexts (Swain 2004; Skelton and Francis 2011). Examining differing constructions of masculinity in relationship to literate identities could be another direction for future research, along with analysis of how religious traditions other than Christianity sponsor religious literacy practices.
For many adolescent boys, religious involvements are not only significant in terms of time and resources but also because they are central to how boys understand themselves. Research on adolescent boys’ out-of-school literacy practices needs to include the literacy practices that occur around their religious involvements because these involvements matter to many boys. Educators are encouraged to support wide and regular reading of a variety of texts related to boys’ individual interests and to focus on practices for boys that promote reading engagement (Brozo et al. 2014). Including religious texts and having adolescent boys talk about how they interact with these texts would be a good fit within these recommendations. In addition, learning more about how adolescents read, write, speak, listen, view, and visually represent in religious contexts is important because of the varied, complicated, and even contradictory ways that adolescent boys are encouraged or discouraged to interact with religious texts. Studying these practices can reveal ways of thinking, being, and doing adolescent boys bring with them into other literacy contexts.
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