Rob Petrone rides a skateboard in the bowl of a skatepark.

Robert Petrone's latest book, "Dropping In: What Skateboarders Can Teach Us About Learning, Schooling, and Youth Development" draws from multiple years of ethnographic research of young men typically classified as "at-risk" to bring readers into the rich environment of a rural skatepark — a place that meets their intellectual and literate needs; where they cultivate meaningful and supportive relationships; and develop a larger understanding of their place in the world.

Ever since Robert Petrone spent the first few years of his career teaching English and coaching basketball in the public school system, he has been curious about how to increase student success, especially for students who have historically been labeled “at-risk.”

This curiosity led to a career in academia, and Petrone – now associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development – has been building relationships with high schools and the students in them to conduct research that seeks to answer this question and several others.                                                   

Rather than asking what’s “wrong” with students labeled “at-risk,” he focuses on where they are having success. His inquiry led him to an unlikely locale for an education researcher — a skatepark. 

For several summers, Petrone got to know the skateboarders who called this skatepark home, all in the name of uncovering what could be learned about the human dynamics that take place there, and seeing if any takeaways could be applied to the modern-day classroom. 

The culmination of all this work is Petrone’s latest book: "Dropping In: What Skateboarders Can Teach Us About Learning, Schooling, and Youth Development."

Dropping In book a top a skateboard
More broadly, what is your research focus area?

A lot of my work looks at the ideas that we have of youth or adolescents, how those circulate in our society, and how that might affect the way we treat them or build curriculum for them.

Almost all the dominant ways of understanding that demographic are deficit oriented. If you’re an adolescent, the labels already placed on you are that you’re not yet an adult, your brain isn’t fully formed, your body is out of control. If someone tells you an adolescent is “at-risk,” these deficit positionings get even more exacerbated and you’re automatically going to download all sorts of assumptions of who those kids are and interact with them in particular ways.

So, I try look at how we in education might reposition our own understanding and thinking of who young people are, especially those labeled “at-risk,” and how to build curriculum that might be more empowering for them.  

Tell us more about how you landed on the skatepark as a place you wanted to observe.

I was working with a teacher in a school district in a rural area, and I got to know some of the “at-risk” young men in that space. I keep putting air quotes around at-risk because that’s how they’re being labeled in a particular context—it’s not intrinsic to who they are but rather the broader situation they’re in.

My research approach is very relational and humanizing. I’m not interested in statistics; I want to build relationality with the people I’m going to be researching. So, I asked them, “Where are you guys being successful?” And they were like, “You should come to the skatepark.”

So, I started going to the skatepark, and I hung out there for a long time and I got to know these guys. I wanted to study this space that these guys were gravitating toward. This space was meeting their learning needs, their literacy needs, their intellectual needs and even their relational needs. I wanted to understand what this place meant to them and also what structurally what was enabling this success.

Rob Petrone stands with a skateboard
What were some patterns you saw emerge?
  • Learning is individual and communal.
    • An individual has to practice to master the tricks, but the guys I interviewed told me that what makes skateboarding skateboarding is that everyone at the park is a resource. Style is a big thing in skateboarding, and everyone is constantly learning from each other. In addition — and this was the most impactful thing for me as an educator — is that we segregate kids by age in schools. At the skatepark, you have guys of all ages practicing together, learning from each other, and it makes the environment more collegial and collaborative rather than competitive.
  • Failure is central to learning.
    • One of the guys in the book says, “You have to get it in your head that you’re going to fail, and you have to accept that reality.” At the skatepark, failing is actually supported in a way, because there is an understanding that in order to develop mastery, you have to practice, practice, practice, which will involve some falling and failing.
  • Youth thrive when they feel they have something to contribute.
    • Over and over again, the guys I interviewed would say “Here—at the park—I matter. I have something to say.” And for a lot of them that was different than how their traditional school system made them feel. At the skatepark, whether it’s mentoring a younger skater or paving the way for a new trick, they said it was the emotional equivalent of being a “big brother.” They experienced an intense emotional connection and a sense of belonging, but also the sense that they had something to contribute was key.

There’s more I could list — but just as someone coming from schools into a skatepark, there’s so many things that it popped open for me about learning that had been so constrained by schooling. There’s a lesson there for people who are interested in working within schools to go outside of schools and pay attention to how kids are engaged in their lives  — what one theorist calls the “means and motivations” for their engagement.

What are you seeing happen as a result of the book?

One exciting thing is that nonprofits who are trying to do advocacy work to get skateparks built in rural communities have reached out me. In addition, the owner of a skate shop here in town came to a recent talk I did and was like “Can we get together and build curriculum around this?” And I was like “Absolutely!” The book is really opening up conversations with people I wouldn’t have otherwise been connected to. Typically, I’m in conversations with educators and academics, and now all of sudden it’s community activists.

What are some of the challenges of writing a book like this? What advice would you have for other researchers wanting to do something similar?

There are lots of challenges when writing something of this size. I really wanted to be mindful of how I’m representing folks. My name is on the cover of this book, and I am representing a group of people who are not me, and so I think as a cultural outsider and an academic, I wanted to be really mindful of fairly and accurately representing the people I involved in my research.

And then beyond that, just trying to keep it all in mind and making myself do it. I would advise people to bring others into the process — to read chapters, to give feedback and set schedules to get it done.

I was trying to weave together the participants’ perspectives with my own, along with theory and scholarship, too. I wanted to make it beautiful, and there was some anxiety with that, and I think bringing other people into that and normalizing those feelings — that was really helpful.

Tell us about your experience as a Mid-Career Research Development Fellow.

It’s a space to support each other because there are lots of support structures for new faculty, but not as many for those of us who have been around for a while. The group has monthly workshops or speakers, and I’m going to facilitate the next one around writing.

The group has been really helpful because just like anything in life, I’m just in my job, scrambling to stay ahead of emails, and this group gives me time to reflect and think about where I’m going with my career and think about “What’s my why? What’s my aim here?” We can get so busy if we’re not careful. This program has helped me get things done, learn when to say no, and just to allow whatever's going to emerge to emerge. It’s been super valuable.

What is your “why”?

For me it’s twofold. The first is external — I want to look at the educational system and youth development and discover how we can reconfigure this so that the greatest number of people can have the greatest success.

The next is internal. There’s a quote I love from Shawn Wilson, an Indigenous research methodologist from Canada who says “If you don’t change as a result of doing research, then you haven’t done it right.” And for me, I research to learn, to grow, to heal, to develop, to change the way I see and think about the world.

And after writing this book, I can never see a skateboarder the same anymore. I’m changed as a result.