Panel for AAA 2009 on constructions of childhood in schooling

More happy news: the panel Micah Gilmer and I organized for this fall’s meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Philadelphia has been accepted. Here’s the program; abstracts for the panel and my paper after the jump:

“Schooling Which Child? Contested Constructions of Childhood and Youth in Educational Settings” (sponsored by the Anthropology of Children and Childhood Interest Group)

  • Bambi Chapin (University Maryland, Baltimore County),
    “Developing Understanding in Children, Understandings of Child Development: Sri Lankan Models of Child Development and the New Educational Reforms”

  • Jennifer Adair (University of Texas, Austin), “Immigrant and Nonimmigrant Teachers’ Conceptualizations of Diversity and Childhood in Five U.S. Cities: The Chancla Debate”

  • Micah Gilmer (Duke University), ” ‘These Kids Got to Step Up and Be Men’: Language and Football as a Liminal Space at Eastside High”

  • Alicia Blum-Ross (University of Oxford), “Creative Geniuses or Feral Thugs? Participatory Filmmaking and the Construction of ‘Youth’ “

  • Tyler Bickford (Columbia University), “Competing Public Childhoods: Entertainment Media, Consumerism, and Children’s Expressive Practices at a Vermont Primary School”

  • Chaired by John Herzog (Northeastern University)


This panel develops the claim that schooling and childhood are mutually constitutive, through several papers that explore the multiple and conflicting models of childhood that circulate in educational settings. We seek to bring the insights of childhood studies, which argues that age-based categories of ‘childhood’ are socially and discursively constructed, into dialogue with the anthropology of education, which identifies schooling as a constitutive practice in contemporary societies.

Childhood research is regularly conducted in schools, but it often disregards the central role of educational discourses and practices in the production of childhood identities. And anthropologists of education frequently investigate children as they go about the situated activity of schooling, but education research too often neglects the ideologies about childhood and youth that are central to schools’ missions and practices. Scholars in both fields use similar concepts, exploring agency and identity in particular, but there is minimal overlap in the literature they cite or the forums where they publish. This panel brings together researchers in both fields to examine the intersections between childhood and education that emerge though investigations of immigration, race, gender, media, and nationalism.

Educational anthropology has long argued for understanding schools not just as sites of unidirectional transmission of dominant ethnic, gender, class, and national identities, but as locations of contest and competition between normative bureaucratic practices and collective community standards. We build on this insight from a childhood studies perspective: as educational institutions propagate and are informed by particular models of childhood, they are also sites of encounter and conflict between governmental visions of children’s role in society and various local, community-based, or peer-cultural understandings of childhood.

These papers consider the multiple constructions of childhood that come into contact through schooling, finding in various educational settings that ideologies of childhood and youth presented by institutions and policy makers conflict with alternative models from parents, media, coaches, or children themselves. This panel includes case studies from widely different contexts, exploring the disjunctures between Sri Lankan policy makers’ models of childhood development and local parents’ and teacher’s ideas about children; different visions of immigrant childhoods in the U.S. by immigrant and nonimmigrant teachers; back-and-forth conceptions of students as “kids” and “men” by African American football coaches; educational media initiatives in London that propose to give kids “a voice” despite fundraisers’ need to represent youth as problems to be solved; and differing public childhoods that come into conflict when children consume entertainment media in a Vermont school. These case studies powerfully suggest that negotiations over what childhood is or should be are central to the social organization of schools and to the position of education within broader fields of identity, community, government, and media.

To encourage robust and substantive conversation among the panelists, we forgo a discussant and instead include two periods for discussion. Panelists and moderator will have read each paper in advance, and will come prepared to respond and engage in productive dialogue with the audience and one another.

Tyler Bickford, “Competing Public Childhoods: Entertainment Media, Consumerism, and Children’s Expressive Practices at a Vermont Primary School”

The U.S. children’s entertainment industry has expanded rapidly over the last generation, as marketers are attracted to children’s growing command of family consumer dollars. Children’s media present a sophisticated vision of children as legitimate and active (but still “safe”) participants in consumer society, an emerging public with increasingly influence in the mainstream. With the widespread installation of Internet terminals in schools, increasingly available portable devices like MP3 players and Game Boys, and educators’ progressive turn toward corporate-produced “edutainment” for lessons, elementary schools have become a central location for children’s media consumption and, concomitantly, a site for their performance of public consumer personhood. This role as a site of consumption destabilizes a traditional model of schools as local community spaces that shelter vulnerable children from potentially dangerous public environments while nurturing separate, protected peer communities. From ethnographic research into working-class children’s media consumption at a small rural primary school in Vermont, I consider how students incorporate sound effects and silly songs from television, popular music, and video games into their own expression in various school contexts, as resources through which they position themselves in relation to peers and teachers as public actors. Shifting, interrupting, and layering tropes of entertainment and education with fluency and grace, children negotiate contrasting visions of childhood from media and school. They effectively harness the expressive repertoires of adult commercial and educational institutions in local, micropolitical action that sets empowered consumerism and corporate media in dynamic tension with bureaucratic constructions of passive, sheltered childhoods.