Gender and Connected (After-School) Learning: Understanding “Can-Do” Girlhood (Part 1)

July 2, 2013

PROJECTS: The Digital Edge


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     A good portion of our research on the after-school activities at Freeway High School (FHS) focuses on organizations that have formed around digital media like the Digital Media Club (DMC) and the Cinematic Arts Project (CAP). In this analysis, I focus on other nodes in FHS’s after-school learning ecology. The extracurricular involvements of two particular girls in our study, Michelle and Inara, would be overlooked in an analysis that focused on the technology-oriented after-school activities. These girls allow us to see different dimensions of after-school involvement at FHS.

    Modes of informal learning are important to look at in terms of pathways and future orientation when considering FHS’s student population. A combination of factors propel Michelle and Inara toward success – defined here as post-secondary education – including their after-school and interest-driven involvements. While I do not wish to causally link after-school involvement to these girls’ pursuit of post-secondary education, their after-school endeavors certainly helped create the networks and pathways that supported them.

While Michelle earned a full scholarship to an elite private university on the east coast, Inara gained admission to a reputable fashion and design institute located on the west coast. These girls’ stories are noteworthy in the context of a majority-minority school in which about sixty percent of the students are designated as economically disadvantaged. Many of the after-school activities exist because they represent the only access these “edge” students have to extracurricular engagement. FHS is generally regarded as an “at-risk” school, a term we believe stigmatizes the school and obscures the complex community that it is. In this post, my use of the term “at-risk” is informed by the work of Anita Harris and her focus on girlhood.

Considering FHS as an “at-risk” high school, I look at Michelle and Inara as the counterpoint – “can-do” girls. These girls can be considered, by racial and class markers, to be “at-risk” themselves. Yet, Michelle and Inara appear to have become “can-do” girls, marked most notably by their successful navigation of school, after-school opportunities, and their distinct interests and aspirations. How did they overcome the stigma of “at-risk”? Any move between “can-do” and “at-risk,” in regard to girlhood identity, is one way downward. How did each of their extracurricular interests help these two young women become “can-do” girls?

Theorizing Girlhood – “Can-Do” and “At-Risk” Girls

    I want to unpack this idea of the “can-do” versus the “at-risk” girl, posited by Harris. In her article, Everything a Teenage Girl Should Know, Harris asserts: “The sociobiological framework of adolescence is built around a white, male, Anglo, Western model of identity” (113). This focus on the white, middle class subject stems from the greater study of the phase of adolescence, and creates the groundwork for that which Harris identifies as constituting a “can-do” girl. When discussing “can-do” girlhood in Future Girl, Harris reflects upon a new understanding of girls: “Teenage girls are supposed to be more confident and resilient than ever before; they have the ‘world at their feet’” (13). The crux of “can-do” girlhood is based in individualized experiences. Harris continues: “Young women are imagined as having a range of good decisions before them, and therefore those who choose poorly have no one to blame but themselves” (30). This assertion brings in the other side of the binary, the “at-risk” girls. It is through individualized expressions of grit and perseverance that “can-do” girls find success and “at-risk” girls fail. It is through these girls’ agency – for example, involvement in a variety of activities – and the support of peers, mentors, and family that I see a space for Michelle and Inara to challenge their assumed “at-risk” status. Ultimately, I am interested in critically engaging the factors that contribute to their “can-do” girlhood.

Historically, the notion of “at-risk” girlhood has been applied to particular populations of girls. Harris explains: “Young women of quite specific populations have been used symbolically: particular kinds of young women have been constructed as a problem for society” (15). As a result of their racial and ethnic status (Michelle, bi-racial; Inara, Hispanic), economic situation (both are from working class homes), sexual orientation (Michelle is openly gay), and immigrant status (Inara’s parents are from Mexico), both girls are emblematic of a community that is understood by outsiders as “a problem for society.” Michelle and Inara, through racial, class, sexual, and familial disadvantages, can be seen as multiply disenfranchised – multiply “at-risk.”

A Closer Look: Michelle

    Captain of the varsity basketball team, president of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) and openly homosexual, a member of the National Honors Society, and more – Michelle was one busy student. She was also in the school’s AVID college preparation program, helped with her parents’ adult kickball league, and acted as an informal mentor to her friends and peers. Michelle, within the FHS community, is interpolated as a “can-do” girl. She is very visible within her peer networks and with the staff and faculty at FHS; her reputation seems to precede her (as she was identified as someone who should be in our sample before we met her).

Michelle was an incredibly driven student. Still, when she arrived at FHS in her sophomore year she did not know anything about higher education opportunities. Several factors contribute to her “can-do” girl identity. In this piece, I focus on some of her after-school activities. While not technically after-school, the AVID program was a node in Michelle’s learning ecology that provided important resources and relationships. Without AVID, Michelle’s aspirations for higher education would not have been achievable. Without the mentorship and support of the AVID instructor, she would not have been part of the recruitment initiative at the elite four-year university she attends on a full academic scholarship.

    In addition to her college preparation work in AVID and her AP academics, Michelle excelled in extracurricular activities. She skillfully leveraged after-school involvement to find leadership opportunities in sports, FHS’s honors society, and the Gay Straight Alliance. Michelle is extremely self-reflective and resilient, qualities that contribute to her “can-do” girlhood, her success, and her ability to overcome layers of structural disadvantage to fulfill her goals, desires, and aspirations.

    Particularly through athletics and the GSA, Michelle was able to develop and gain many “can-do” qualities on her own, including visibility within the FHS community, leadership responsibility, and self-confidence. These are complimented, and potentially magnified, through her strong network of supportive adults: “part of the formula of Michelle’s success at FHS was a very robust set of relationships with adult mentors.” Advisors, adults in her parents’ kickball league, the principal of the school, and more, all became important adult figures in Michelle’s life, outside of her family, that helped her navigate and move beyond an environment that could have easily held her down.

    In addition to being mentored by other adults, Michelle was a mentor herself to her peers and friends, especially within the queer community at her school. She is observed as “‘in demand’ as a peer advice giver at school … she basically set up a system of appointments.” Michelle is a truly special individual, reflected in her ability to support others while seeking support and encouragement from those around her to navigate the rough terrain of a disadvantaged high school that had low expectations for her success.

In a follow-up post I consider the after school path of Inara individually.  While her experience also embodies the “can-do” girlhood that helps us to understand Michelle’s pathway and how her after-school activities played into her opportunity, it also illustrates how different involvements (specifically after-school ones in this analysis) and pathways lead to different opportunities.

Works Cited
Harris, Anita. “Everything A Teenage Girl Should Know: Adolescence and the Production of
    Femininity.” Women’s Studies Journal. 15.2 (1999): 111-124.

Harris, Anita. Future Girl: Young Women in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Routledge,