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“On a group of theories one can found a school; but on

a group of values one can found a culture, a civilization,

a new way of living together among men.” -Ignazio Silone


The idea of educating classrooms full of students can be a daunting thought; there is so

much they have yet to learn, so much they will need to understand in order to succeed in life.

Just as important as all of the information these students need to learn is the information the

teachers need to learn in order to successfully teach students. In order for a teacher, parent, or

any other adult figure to maximize their time and impact upon an adolescent, one must work to

understand the ways in which adolescent operates. By reevaluation our definitions of a learning

environment and reassessing the relationships between students and teachers, schools can

maximize their potential of success and the learning potential of each individual student.

To truly understand the art of teaching, teachers must first strive to gain insight into the

art of learning. If we can gain insight into the ways in which adolescents learn to behave, perhaps

we will be able to learn the techniques necessary to evoke positive student behavior. Beginning

with the most basic elements of education, I conducted a study which focuses on people and

place: I visited a site which attracted a continuous adolescent audience in an effort to figure out

how and why these teenagers respond to the environment. The purpose of this study is to

understand how adolescents read non-print texts; more specifically, this study attempts to learn

how teenagers read people and physical settings and use their findings as a guide to determining

their own individual behaviors.

Research Method:

Caribou Coffee is a growing chain, but the specific Caribou that I used as my research

site is on the corner of Walton and Rochdale in Rochester Hills, Michigan. This particular store

is part of a plaza holding other businesses such as Subway, Martinizing, Oliver's Pizza, Greek

Coney Island, Whole Foods Market, Bruegger's Bagels, Hallmark, Rite Aid, GFS Food Supplies,

and Blockbuster Video. Caribou has the corner space next to the Greek Coney Island, with one of

the exposed sides facing Walton and the other facing the plaza's parking lot. There is a marquee

along Walton holding the names of many of the companies within the plaza, while Caribou

Coffee is not represented on this marquee, it is visible to passing traffic due to it's location in the

plaza. There is a wooden deck with a wooden railing surrounding the shop's two exterior walls:

these two walls are large glass windows making the interior of the shop is in plain view to

anyone in the vicinity. Until the snow falls, there are green, plastic tables and chairs occupying

the outside deck of the shop, during the Spring and Summer months it is not uncommon to find

the deck littered with groups of adolescents sitting in the chairs and on the deck's railing.

The only way to enter the shop is through a single door which serves as both exit and

entrance. With the exception of the glass walls, the interior is made entirely out of various types

of wood, alternating between raw, clear-stained, or painted wood. A large portion of the wooden

table and chairs within the store are painted different combinations of maroon and forest green,

the repetition of these colors contributes to the familiar and relaxed environment of the store.

Enlarged photographs of various nature scenes are framed and hung as posters on the two

interior walls. A number of these posters still have the florescent orange date in the corner

suggesting that they are not professional posters, but rather photos taken by an armature. In

addition to the seemingly authentic photographs hung on the walls, there is also a poster hanging

above the register displaying a cup of each size- small, medium, and large. Rather than the

foreign sizing codes that are associated with other coffeehouses, Caribou uses standard sizing

and displays the size of each drink the the customer before they even step up to order. These

small details help to make the environment seem more welcoming than that of other

coffeehouses; the informality of Caribou Coffee seems to reach out and welcome the “everyday”


The store does not play music; it is never played over a sound system nor are there any

traces of music coming from the employee area. Without a specific genre of music being played,

incoming customers are not able to categorize the typical type of customer this shop attracts,

perhaps allowing a wider variety of customers to feel comfortable. Despite this absence, the store

is usually filled with sounds other than music. Muffled conversation is apparent whenever there

are customers seated in the store, and the sounds of passing traffic and various coffee machines

are a constant source of audio within the shop. Depending upon the specific moment in time, it

would not be unlikely to hear the click of laptop keys, the turning of book pages, or the melodic

ring of cell phones; this shop welcomes a sea of customers ranging in age from about 13 to 65,

all of whom frequent the shop for different purposes. While many customers come to Caribou

simply for a cup of coffee, others use it as a place to work, meet friends, people-watch, be seen,

read, socialize, hold intimate conversation, or any other imaginable purpose.

Data Collection:

During a span of three months, I visited this Rochester Hills ethnographic site six times. I

collected 18 pages of field notes, and created one map detailing the internal arrangement of the

shop. On all but one visit, I went into the shop and took notes while sitting at a seat inside of the

coffee shop. On my October sixth visit, I parked in the parking lot in a space directly across from

the Caribou's patio seating. I rolled down my windows and took notes with paper and pen of the

customers sitting outside. Every set of notes, except for the field notes taken on November

fourth, were written on lined paper using either pen or pencil. After leaving the site, I would take

these scratch notes and transfer them into a word document adding nothing other than my own

additional mental notes- which are mixed in with my observations, but enclosed in brackets. The

notes I obtained on November fourth were documented directly into a word document as I took

my computer with me to the site; this is the only date that does not have an accompanying set of

scratch notes.

Social Location of Researcher:

During this study I remained an observer. My hope was to observe adolescents without

their awareness in an attempt to document their truest behaviors. I chose not to conduct

interviews with any of the customers because I didn't want to make them aware of my presence; I

wanted to remain another nameless customer whom these adolescents seemed uninterested in.

Another reason I decided against interviewing adolescents is because I wasn't sure if I would get

the opportunity to see the same teenager, or group of teenagers, on multiple occasions. On the

chance that I did find a recurring face, I wanted to make sure that I would be able to note their

behavioral tendencies without them being conscious of it.

My particular seat for each set of field notes depended upon the date the field notes were

taken. As I have previously stated, there was one visit in which I chose to sit outside in my car in

order to remain inconspicuous while observe two teens sitting on the patio. On most occasions, I

chose to sit in close proximity to any subjects of interest, however, the level of proximity was

dependent upon the number of other customers in the store. There is something of an unspoken

law that requires one person to sit an appropriate distance away from the next, as long as there is

the room to do so. For instance, if any person is sitting in one of the two seating areas- each

containing an upholstered couch and chairs- it is generally accepted that another customer is not

to sit in the surrounding chairs unless they are familiar with the customer already seated there.

The only exception to this rule seems to be during the shop's busiest times when seating is

limited, even still, these surrounding seats are usually only filled if they are the last available

seats remaining. As best I could, I tried to obey these social demands; I tried to sit an acceptable

distance away from my subjects as long as it didn't compromise my view.

Regardless of all of these situational factors, once I sat in a seat, I never switched to

another within a single visit. I tried to appear as if I were any other customer; if I wanted to get a

closer look at something, I was always already sitting in the same vicinity to it. For instance, if I

wanted to look closely at the shop's bulletin board, I sat in the back seating area which is right

next to the board, but if I wanted to get a look at the merchandise for sale, I chose one of the

middle tables which are near the sales racks. I usually purchased a drink on my visits, but there

were a few times when I simply sat down and observed without ever going to the register.

Data Analysis:

This study focuses on non-textual literacy events: rather than looking at adolescent

relationships with printed literature, this study examines their relationship with non-print

material such as environment and people. The social texts that will be examined throughout this

study consist of any event in which an adolescent uses his/her surroundings as a behavioral

guide. The most commonly noted social literacy events consist of adolescents using surrounding

Caribou customers as behavioral models and adolescents responding and reacting to the physical

setting of the Caribou coffeehouse.

Since the people and atmosphere of the coffee shop were different upon each of my field

visits to the coffee shop, during my time there I tried to document as much detail as I could

write. I used a bulleted format as a convenient way to gathering large amounts of observations in

a short period of time; depending upon each visit, I used different codes to refer to each

customer. Most commonly I numbered adolescents and referred to them by their gender and

numerical order, for example G2 would signify the second girl sitting at the table I was


As my visits began to accumulate, I found myself using certain terms to refer to certain

locations or groups of people within the coffee shop. To differentiate between customers sitting

inside the coffee shop and those sitting somewhere on the outdoor patio, I labeled them as either

“indoor/inside” or “outdoor/outside.” When it came to indoor seating, most of my coding is self-

explanatory (example: tall table refers to tables that are taller than the average height table),

however I used the terms “comfortable,” or “seating area” when referencing the two clusters of

upholstered furniture.

When I analyzed my data, I tried to look for similarities or commonalities among

different people. I tried to group people according to apparent age and type of dress in an effort

to categorize typical behaviors among these different groups of people. Since I wasn't able to

observe the same people throughout my study, I had to make generalizations based upon the

observable behaviors. One such generalization is my classification between “new” customers and

“regular” customers; based upon the behaviors I observed, I was able to begin estimating the rate

at which each subject frequented the coffee shop. Another generalization was in my

categorization of clothing styles. I occasionally used categories of “sleepwear,” “grungy,” and

“preppy” to distinguish one type of adolescent from another, while these categories are not

exclusive, they seemed to be the most apparent styles I observed. Sleepwear consisted of people

wearing stretch pants, sweatshirts or pants, running shoes or sandals, or other combinations of

mismatched or oversize clothing. Grungy consisted of torn, ripped, faded, patched clothing often

accompanied by uncombed hair and unshaven face. Preppy was the label used for people

wearing fitted clothing current with up-to-date trends, these outfits usually looked like the person

has spent some time putting the ensemble together. The only reason for these classifications was

to look for commonalities among the type of dress and the behaviors or seating choices of certain



Reviewing my notes have helped to to find a number of findings regarding the

communicative competence of adolescents. Adolescents first observe, then ingest the social

behaviors and setting of a given environment. Once this information has been processed, it is

then used to help teenagers determine their own, most appropriate, form of behavior to

accomplish whatever goal they hope to obtain. Teenagers who sit inside tend to enter the store

with one other friend, occasionally other teenagers will come to join these two, or perhaps a teen,

or a group of teens who are also at the shop come over to join the original two. The tendency

among indoor adolescents is to come to Caribou with one to two other friends, and anyone else

who ends up joining them is more of an afterthought or unintentional-either being called and

invited to join, or coincidentally being at the same place at the same time.

Certain teenagers chose to sit outdoors, even when the weather is cold, rather than join

the majority of customers sitting in the warm, comfortable seating within the store. These

teenagers who prefer to sit on the patio often come in larger groups, both entering and leaving

Caribou with three or more friends; this behavior contrasts the behavior most commonly found

among customers who chose to sit indoors. These groups of teenagers often behave in a manner

more associated with rebel, or trouble-making kids. For instance, smoking is almost always

present among these underage kids, many -if not all members of the group- wear bandannas tied

around their heads, and dark clothing and hoods are most popular among these teens. It is more

common for adolescents sitting outdoors to use the site strictly for its location, and do not bother

ordering anything from inside of the store. It is also interesting to note that the patio tables are

located next to a brick pillar, upon which, a “No Loitering” sign is clearly posted. For these

teenagers to chose to sit in this specific location without ordering is another way that they can

proclaim to the public that they don't care about rules.

Choice in seating provides another opportunity to learn about the ways in which

teenagers learn. As mentioned earlier, there is an unspoken agreement among teenagers-and

adults- that no one customer will sit close to another customer unless there is no other option, or

unless the two customers are intending to converse. This social understanding within the Caribou

community is the social equivalent to Hymes' thoughts on communicative competence; she

explains, “that communicative conduct within a community comprises determinate patterns of

speech activity, such that the communicative competence of persons comprises knowledge with

regard to such patterns” (Hymes 13). Rather that adolescents gaining communicative

competence, the adolescents at Caribou are learning social competence by acknowledging and

abiding by the social standards of seating.

As teenagers become more familiar with the “rules” of Caribou, their behavior is a

reflection of their more comfortable, and confident attitude. The behavior of new Caribou

customers parallels the behavior of new members in Alcoholics Anonymous as described by an

article which tracks the learning process of a drinking non-alcoholic as they are transformed into

a non-drinking alcoholic. Lave and Wenger explain that “the contribution of an absolutely new

member may be no more than one silent gesture,” newcomers feel comfortable that this simple

action is all that is expected of them because “newcomers have access to a comprehensive view

of what the community is about” (80). Without a clear understanding of the rules of Caribou

Coffee customers, new customers are unsure of the behavioral rules, and with no frame of

reference to depend upon, it is up to these new customers to observe as much as they can, as

quickly as they can, all the while seeming like a regular. Searching for model behavior, these

newcomers look to the older coffee shop customers -who often purchase items at the counter

then sit quietly alone, or with a friend while they finish their drinks. It seems that teenagers

unfamiliar with Caribou come into the shop and don't really "belong" yet, but rather, they

perform a few elementary actions like buying a cup of coffee in an effort to integrate themselves

into the coffeehouse community. These few minimal interactions with the coffee shop

community are comparable to the beginning actions of a new A.A. member picking up a white

chip at the end of a meeting (Lave 80). Despite these obvious gestures, newcomers still express

behavior that reveals their uncertainty with the environment.

Newcomers are usually easy to spot within the store because their behavior conveys the

anxiety they are feeling: nervously glancing around at other customers, conferencing with their

friend(s) before deciding upon an order, apparently busying oneself with shelved merchandise

while waiting for their drink to be filled, etc. Adolescents new to the Caribou community are

most likely to sit indoors and are dressed with precision; girls often have curled hair and fresh

make-up, and both genders usually come dressed in outfits that place them in the “preppy”

category. Newcomers are looking to the adult customers as models for appropriate coffee shop

behavior, but because of their age, adolescent teenagers seem less content with the more solitary

behaviors of the average adult customer. This creates dissonance within the adolescent because

they want and expect to enjoy the Caribou experience since they know many other teenagers do,

but mimicking the behavior of older customers does not bring satisfaction to the youth.

During this period of uncertainty, adolescents are in something of a zone of proximal

social development: as adolescents “collaborate to construct meaning, they create their own

personal zones and move through those zones toward the realization of their potential”

(Vygotsky 85). Whereas Vygotsky discusses the benefits of a more capable peer working

directly with a student to help advance the student beyond his/her individually achievable goals,

the adolescents at Caribou use complete strangers as their more capable peers (85). Adolescents

go through a series of trial and error behaviors until they find an identity at the shop, this

processes, as Zebroski describes, “often foreshadow the reorganization and restructuring of

experience and prepare for the developmental leap that follows” (Vygotsky 89). Initially, new

customers try their best to learn and abide by the social norms of Caribou Coffee in order to

appear like a regular, and through the process of observing more capable social peers and

experimenting with these behaviors, adolescents learn to declare themselves veterans by

deliberately breaking the so-called rules of being that are stereotypical to coffee shops.

The regular adolescent customers exude confidence while inside, or on the outdoor patio,

of the coffee shop. These teenagers seem less concerned with their appearance, they don't seem

to worry about whether or not they fit in with the adult coffee crowd. These regular teenager

customers have unique behaviors: some come with friends, some sit alone, some purchase

drinks, some sit for hours without buying anything; the only constant among these teens is their

contentment. In contrast to the newcomers, these veteran customers do not glance around the

store anxiously, instead there is a calmness in the way they take in information. Rather than

looking for confirmation or validation of their own behaviors, it seems that these regular

customers are just looking at what is going on around them. Rather than shying away when their

gaze is met by another customer, these adolescents hold the eye contact without falter, usually

waiting until the other participant breaks the stare. In an effort to disguise themselves as regular

customers, newcomers try to absorb as much information as they can without appearing to be

doing so; actual adolescent regulars, however, are much less discrete with their information

gathering and observe other customers unapologetically.

In this regard, Caribou customers stray from the behaviors of members of Alcoholics

Anonymous. Gradually, AA members work themselves into the center of the community and

find a sense of united identity, the teenagers at Caribou do not follow this trend (Lave 81). From

my observations, as teens spend more time at the coffee shop, it seems that they feel more

comfortable rejecting the behaviors/actions of the Caribou community. As discussed early,

teenagers initially mimic the actions of the older customers by sitting at tables with small groups

and ordering coffee, but as the teenagers spend more time in the shop, they branch away from

these tendencies and begin hanging out with large groups, refrain from buying coffee, and

ultimately use the shop for a different purpose than the older customers.

Comparative Analysis:

Comparing the adolescents I observed at Caribou Coffee and the adolescents I was able to

view in an eighth grade class at Bath Middle School I am able to see some repeating behaviors.

For instance, while at Caribou I observed pairs of adolescents, mostly females, sitting and talking

for extended periods of time, from what I could overhear, these conversations consisted of great

detail. The girls commonly recalled the events of a given situation remembering all of the

exchanged dialog (“'he said...', then 'she said...'” type dialog). While I noticed that these girls

remembered these details with apparent ease, the students at Bath seem to struggle with

remembering even the basic characters within a few chapters of Treasure Island. This contrast in

memory stresses the importance of classroom material being related to student lives in order to

help assist students in gaining a deeper understanding of the text. Without relevance to student

lives, the classroom content looses its meaning (Moje 89). The girls at Caribou are able to recall

minute details from their daily lives without any form of notes, however, students at Bath aren't

able to explain the relationship between two characters, nor the general plot line in the text they

have read. This stark contrast between social reading and textual reading could be bridged by

working to relate classroom assignments to the students' lives and interests.

As I have mentioned earlier in this study, it was very common that new and regular

adolescent customers kept an eye on all of the other customers within the store. They were

always aware of those around them; while the students at Bath seem less observant that the

adolescents I observed at Caribou, the students at Bath are equally, if not more curious than the

adolescent customers. The classroom at Bath consists of eleven, two-person desks arranged in

straight rows, all facing the front dry-erase board; once students get involved in an activity they

seem to be aware and interested only in the students directly in front or next to them. As soon as

there is laughter, or any other sort of commotion in a different section of the room the students

all become very interested in what happened. They will actually get out of their seats, or yell

over to the other students until they are aware of what happened (or are scolded by the teacher).

Although the Bath students aren't as observant of their peers as the adolescents I observed at

Caribou, both sets of teenagers prove to be very curious kids who want to make sure they aren't

missing out on any excitement.

One significant difference between these two groups of students is the treatment of

different groups of adolescents. While the different groups of Caribou adolescents (indoor,

outdoor, preppy, grungy, sleepwear) seemed to coexist peacefully, the students at Bath seem to

have more alliances. Certain students only associate with other students, there is a clear hierarchy

within the classroom which all students seem to be aware of. It is uncommon that a harsh

comment is made after one of the “popular” students answers a question or volunteers to read,

however, after the less popular students participate in class there is a higher chance of criticism

being made by other classmates. In addition to snide commentary, name calling is common at

Bath; one student at Bath will create nickname for another student (example: “chins” for an

overweight student) and it will quickly catch on and become a part of every other students'

vocabulary. I never observed any such degradation during all of my visits at Caribou


Understanding the ways in which adolescents interact and respond to an environment and

its inhabitants is crucial to creating a positive learning environment. These findings can be

especially pertinent to an English classroom which hopes to facilitate discussion; adolescents of

all ages frequent Caribou Coffee and use it as a place to meet with peers and talk. It is not

uncommon that these teenagers spend hours a day sitting and talking with their peers, and if a

teacher could incorporate some of these ideas into his/her classroom, perhaps getting students to

engage in class discussion would be less difficult.

Since many of the adolescents I observed visited Caribou more for its social setting rather

than for its coffee, it is clear to see that adolescents highly value social relationships.

Adolescents meet and stay within the coffeehouse for hours on end just talking and spending

time with one another, this regular activity is where adolescents maintain the relationships they

have. Time spent at Caribou with a friend is time spent reaffirming the friendship between two

friends. If teachers recognize the important role social relationships play in adolescent lives,

he/she should work to create a strong teacher/student relationship. Nurturing a social relationship

between a teacher and student is something that adolescents truly value; if they begin to

appreciate and value the teacher for their efforts, the student will be more willing to cooperate

within the classroom (Moje 59). This type of learner-centered instruction “also includes a

sensitivity to the cultural practices of students and the effect of those practices on the classroom

learning” (Brandsford 135). If a teacher respects students, then they will respect the teacher: if

the teacher cares about what the students think is important, then hopefully they will care about

the classroom materials that the teacher finds important.

One characteristic of Caribou could easily be worked into the average classroom is

simply providing students with options. Caribou contains a large variety of seating: individual

tables with two chairs, paired tables with four chairs, oversize, upholstered seating arrangements,

long tables offering seating for six or more. Rather than a classroom being designed with either

individual desks or grouped seating arrangements, the room could offer both varieties. My

findings show how adolescents read their surroundings and behave accordingly, so going along

with this behavioral tendency, a teacher should offer different seating arrangements for different

classroom activities. If groups of adolescents used the comfortable seating areas of Caribou as

places to talk with larger groups, perhaps a teacher could offer alternative seating within the

classroom as well. If students are working on any discussion based activities, something as

simple as a few bean bags or cushions could help facilitate discussion among these teenagers.

Realizing that students will read the physical setting of the classroom will help a teacher to

consider the most appropriate seating arrangement for the desired classroom goal.

Since it can be assumed that a standard goal in most English classrooms is to have

students understand and interpret texts, it is important to consider behavior that will help

encourage this behavior. Just as adolescent at Caribou experiments with behaviors until they find

an identity as a coffeehouse customer, a teacher should embrace students' original thought. If

students bring a different perspective to the class material, or even argue against it, a teacher

should appreciate this action as the student's evolution of thought. Rather than ignoring or

treating new ideas with skepticism, a teacher should recognize this risk-taking behavior as the

beginning step to reforming and reevaluating the student's perception of the material (Vygostsky


In addition to the relationship between student and text, this study also holds implications

regarding the relationship between an adult and an adolescent. As observed with the new teenage

customers, at moments of uncertainty, adolescents often turn to adults for guidance. Once

adolescents have obtained a clear understanding of their surroundings, or objectives in regards to

school work, this study suggests that teenagers will resist the adult in an effort to define

themselves as individuals. Moje explains the rational behind this implication by stating that,

“they [students] do not want to make all decisions in their learning careers, but they do want their

voices to be heard and heeded” (89). This shift in relationship is significant within the classroom

because it is a teacher's obligation to provide guidance and modeling when covering new and

uncertain materials, but as soon as students feel stable with these new concepts, they will resist

the teacher's guidance. Rather than fighting this shift, a teacher should work to embrace this

behavior and help his/her students to find their own understanding of the material. In short, a

teacher should present the information and help make students aware of the topic then step back

and allow the students to have time to create their own interpretation.

Work Cited

Brandsford, J.D., Brown, A.L., and R. R. Cocking eds. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, and


Hymes, Dell, and Janet Mayben ed. Language and Literacy in Social Context. Philadelphia:

Multilingual Matters LTD, 1994.

Lave, Jean, and Etienne Wenger. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation.

Cambridge University Press.

Moje, Elizabith. “All the Stories That We Have” Adolescents' Insights About Literacy and

Learning in Secondary Schools. Newark: International Reading Association, 2000.

Vygotsky, Lev. The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Class Handout.