Harvard Educational Review
  1. Pregnant with Meaning

    Teen Mothers and the Politics of Inclusive Schooling (Adolescent Cultures, School, and Society, Vol. 13)

    By Deirdre M. Kelly

    New York: Peter Lang, 2000. 257 pp. $29.95.

    While many authors have written a variety of books about teenage motherhood that deal primarily with its causes and consequences, Deirdre M. Kelly approaches the topic from a new angle by focusing on the overlooked issue of inclusive schooling for teen mothers. In Pregnant with Meaning: Teen Mothers and the Politics of Inclusive Schooling, she defines “inclusive schooling” broadly as “the ideal of including a wide variety of students, particularly those who have been traditionally excluded, either formally or informally” (p. 6). Kelly describes the historical background for her study of inclusion, explaining how pregnant and mothering teenage girls were customarily expelled from U.S. and Canadian public schools prior to the 1970s. In 1971, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling made this practice illegal, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (which did not take effect until 1975) strengthened this position in the United States. Many Canadian school districts, such as those in British Columbia, made similar changes, “mov[ing] from a policy of formal exclusion to formal inclusion of pregnant and mothering students in the early 1970s” (p. 11). However, Kelly explains that, despite the move away from expulsion of teen mothers, most of them continue to receive their education in self-contained programs, either in separate classes in regular public high schools, or in alternative settings such as high school equivalency programs or more comprehensive alternative programs that combine schooling with child care, counseling, parenting classes, and other health and social services. Few schools offer adequate support, particularly on-site day care, that would enable teen mothers to attend and participate fully in regular public schools.

    Pregnant with Meaning is based on Kelly’s ethnographies of two public secondary schools (grades 8–12) in British Columbia where, unlike the situation in most school districts, “increasing numbers of teen mothers have been encouraged to attend mainstream high schools with day care and other support on site” (p. 3). The Teen-Age Parents Program at “City School” was founded in 1982; the Young Parents Program at “Town School” was founded in 1994. During the time of the study, thirty-one women aged sixteen to nineteen were enrolled in the Teen-Age Parents Program at City School, and nineteen women aged seventeen to twenty in the program at Town School. Both programs follow a model of “supported integration” (p. 93), with special services for teen mothers located on site and different levels of integration into regular classrooms. These schools’ programs served teen mothers across their respective school districts — that is, not only those teen mothers enrolled at City School or Town School prior to their pregnancies. (Teen fathers were eligible for participation in the program at City School, but none had enrolled since its founding.) Both programs provided on-site day care for infants and toddlers; the day care along with other program components, such as a weekly support group at City School and informal counseling at Town School, were administered and staffed by nonprofit community organizations. At Town School, most program participants were fully integrated into regular classes. At City School, participants chose either “self-paced instruction in [a] self-contained classroom or various degrees of integration into regular classes” (p. 5).

    After introducing the book and setting the context of the study in the first chapter, in chapter two Kelly delineates some pervasive stereotypes that stigmatize teen mothers — namely, “stupid sluts,” “children having children,” “teen rebel,” “the girl nobody loved,” “welfare moms,” “drop-outs,” and “neglectful mothers.” In chapter three, she discusses the tendency to criticize the “choices” of teen mothers, showing how this “good choices” discourse “fail[s] to acknowledge the complexity of the human decision-making process” (p. 50) and “lead[s] those with relatively more power in society to think about limiting or controlling the choices of those with the least power while appearing on the surface to be neutral with regard to gender, race, and class” (p. 64). Throughout chapters two and three, Kelly critiques the stereotypes and cites research that offers a more complex picture of teen mothers and the different contexts of their lives. Chapter four follows with a discussion of media images of teen mothers, highlighting the stereotypes and stigmas against which teen mothers position themselves. Unfortunately, Kelly does not fully return to the topic of inclusive schooling until chapter five, which feels like a long wait for those expecting it to be the focus of the book. Certainly, the book’s organization relates to the author’s goal of showing “how the politics of inclusive schooling shape, and are shaped by, the politics of representation” (p. 7). It may also relate to her advocacy for the teen mothers in the study who “made clear that they did not see themselves as my book’s primary audience. Instead, they wanted me to counter stigmatizing representations of teen mothers, and single mothers generally” (p. 206). However, the connections between the “stigmatizing representations” in general and the particularities of the inclusive schooling attempts at City Schools and Town School were not always clear. Until chapter five, readers barely begin to get a sense of what inclusive schooling of teen mothers is like at the two schools.

    Chapter five addresses many of the key questions about how inclusive schooling was implemented at City School and Town School. Kelly found that “City School tended to emphasize the difference [between teen mothers and the rest of the students], while Town School was more inclined to ignore it” (p. 92). In this chapter, Kelly briefly discusses topics such as initial reasons for resistance to inclusive schooling at each school; location choices; effects of tracking; relationships with teachers; student-mother attendance and academic progress; and the use of teen mothers as role models. Chapter six then focuses on the Teen-Age Parent Program at City School and explores the significant tension (including related benefits and problems) between envisioning the program as

    a microcosm of the “real world,” where the student and future worker identities took precedence and teen mothers were expected to give birth, return to school, and adjust to the status quo . . . [or as] a therapeutic haven, where the mother identity took precedence and students were provided a safe space, albeit sometimes at the expense of the confidence and skills they needed to succeed in the wider world. (p. 121)

    The remaining chapters depart again somewhat from a close focus on inclusive schooling. In chapter seven, Kelly identifies telling “silences” at Town School about sexuality, particularly in the school’s sex education curriculum, that contribute to constructing a view of teen mothers as “cautionary symbols” (p. 158). Chapter eight highlights the difficulties of portraying a collective identity that remains true to the individual experiences of teen mothers in an analysis of a play-building activity in which some teen mothers at City School took part. The teen mothers were asked to create a play about teenage motherhood to present to their school community. They struggled to incorporate their diverse experiences of pregnancy and motherhood into a cohesive narrative within a single play that they knew would give only a snapshot view of what it is like to be a teenage mother. With the guidance of a play-building facilitator, they discussed what messages they wanted to convey and found many differences in their feelings, experiences, and approaches to the play. This chapter provides one opportunity to hear more directly from teen mothers about how stereotypes affect their lives as they choose to focus their play on dispelling these stereotypes. It also demonstrates how stereotypes affect their experiences in school as Kelly presents the responses of teachers and fellow students to the play. In chapter nine, Kelly explores “dilemmas of a critical feminist ethnographer,” relying on (though questioning) the framework of “studying up, down, and across.” This chapter spends too much time explaining the issues a critical feminist ethnographer should consider and not enough showing how the author dealt with the particularities of each consideration in her own research process. Although she mentions some of the difficult situations she faced during her research at each school, these episodes are not well connected to the rest of the narrative, making it unclear how they ultimately affected the project as a whole. Nonetheless, the author’s intention to present her reflections on her research process is commendable.

    In chapter ten, Kelly concludes that “the ideal of an inclusive school is impossible to separate from the ideal of an inclusive society” (p. 220), which explains why the book’s contents are weighted toward critiquing societal representations of teen mothers. Pregnant with Meaning assembles most of the cutting-edge scholarship on teenage motherhood, which makes it an excellent resource for further references about this topic. This book is ideal reading for school administrators, teachers, policymakers, program developers, and all those who want to find ways to make schools more hospitable places for teen mothers or who simply want to learn more about teenage motherhood. Deirdre Kelly has written a book that combines her advocacy for teen mothers with insightful analysis and makes a meaningful contribution to the literature on teenage motherhood and inclusive schooling.

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    Book Notes

    Pregnant with Meaning
    By Deirdre M. Kelly

    Edited by Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco and Mariela M. Páez

    Arts with the Brain in Mind
    By Eric Jensen

    Bodily Discourses
    By Michelle Payne

    Young Children Learning at Home and School
    Edited by David K. Dickinson and Patton O. Tabors

    Renaissance in the Classroom
    Edited by Gail Burnaford, Arnold Aprill, and Cynthia Weiss