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NWJTE has a new Issue, and a new home!

Warm Greetings!

On behalf of the Editorial Team, we are pleased to announce the publication of Volume 12, Issue 2 of the Northwest Journal of Teacher Education. “The Art of Listening: Cultivating Care and Concern” includes five articles aimed at those interested in the exchange of ideas around teacher education and adult learning. We hope they stimulate conversations and thinking–enjoy!

Here is the link to Volume 12, Issue 2

As well, please see the journal’s home through Portland State University. We are delighted to have a new infrastructure of support and communication to ensure that we continue to share our good work in teacher/education in the Northwestern region of U.S. and Canada! To get us started, we have a new call for proposals out. As you visit our new page, please note and share the Call for Manuscripts; the submission deadline for the next issue is January 15, 2018.

With cheer,
NWJTE Editorial Team
(Jeremy Delamarter, Francene Watson & Maika Yeigh)

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NEW NJTE ARTICLE – Opening the Door to the Whirlwind

A new article, entitled Opening the Door to the Whirlwind of British Gothic Literature: Exploring Risk-Taking Practices in the Preservice Classroom by Syndie Allen has been added to  NJTE ONLINE.

“Opening the Door to the Whirlwind” of British Gothic Literature: Exploring Risk-Taking Practices in the Preservice Classroom

ACCESS A PDF VERSION OF THIS MANUSCRIPT

Syndie Allen

University of Idaho

alle2422@vandals.uidaho.edu

 

Abstract

This study explores the connections, reflections, and risk-taking practices of elementary preservice teachers (n=15) enrolled in a Teaching Writing/Language Arts Methods course at a Pacific Northwest University as they engaged in a 4-week thematic unit focused on British Gothic Literature. The big questions asked about the connections and moves made both as student and beginning teacher. The study then looked at how new knowledge was infused into teaching practices. Inductive, phenomenological analysis of reading responses, informal quick-writing, narratives, lesson plans, reflections, and field notes reveal that the preservice teachers participated in the unit with enthusiasm and curiosity as students, arrived at cautious acceptance as future teachers, and then demonstrated nuanced risk-taking with the material as actual teachers.

Introduction

At the intersection of beginning teacher and veteran student, preservice teachers wear both hats as they make the sometimes-challenging transition from primarily being taught to primarily teaching. They have a profound responsibility to their future students to send them into the world as thinking and empathetic members of our citizenry, an endeavor that requires a fair amount of risk as well as a healthy amount of willingness to make mistakes and even to outright fail. The college instructors that lead the preservice classroom are charged with the same responsibility, but as the more seasoned professionals should possess a variety of strategies and tools that provide preservice teachers space for taking chances in all areas of their academic and teaching lives.

The primary objectives of this study were to first explore preservice teacher experiences with a thematic unit focused on using unfamiliar literature, in this case British Gothic literature. And secondly, to examine how the resulting experiences shape and influence risk-taking activities as the students practice being teachers. In other words, the big research questions were (1) what are preservice teachers’ perceptions of, connections to, and experiences with a British Gothic literature-focused thematic unit that includes a variety of reading and writing activities? And (2) does engaging with a British Gothic literature-focused thematic unit prompt preservice teachers to implement this type and other types of literature into their teaching practice and if so, how?

The Power of Literature

Literature as an effective tool in the classroom is well supported. While some have argued more generally that the value of literature is intrinsic and therefore unquestionably belongs in every teacher’s toolkit (Kiefer, Hepler, & Hickman, 2007), there is also abundant evidence that using literature has specific and positive rewards. First and foremost, it influences perceptions of and attitudes toward reading (Eldredge & Butterfield,1986; Morrow, 2003;) and promotes reading achievement (Cohen, 1968; Galda & Cullinan, 2003). And because reading and writing are inextricably linked, literature has been shown to influence writing ability (DeFord, 1984; Lancia, 1997) and increase knowledge of written language and written linguistic features (Purcell-Gates, McIntyre, & Freppon, 1995). It has also been shown to deepen language development (Chomsky, 1972; Morrow, 1992) as well as understanding of and engagement with content (Bean, 2000).

In addition, literature can provide spaces where “readers encounter imaginative and compelling situations;” where they “discover stories of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, tales of faith, hope, and charity as well as narratives that depict pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust” and it is through these encounters that readers develop a more “differentiated grasp of life as well as a wider and more nuanced moral compass” (Roche, 2004, p. 21). Using literature in such a manner is not a new concept, in fact, there is a vast amount of rich and valuable research showing how multicultural education is dramatically and positively enhanced when students are introduced to ethnically unfamiliar texts.

For example, Christensen (2006) determined that students enrolled in a social studies class were more amenable to critical conversations after reading and discussing graphic novels about social conflicts in places such as Bosnia. Later, Burns (2009) discovered that first graders, after engaging with stories about war, were able to reflect on their own visions of what a peaceful world looks like. Such texts and the interactions with them offer readers new pathways into understanding their role in the perpetuation of stereotypes (Glenn, 2012), how systems rather than the individual influence society, (Williams, 2004), and the consequences of marginalization (George, 2002). Given the possibilities and history of literature use in the classroom, it is then reasonable to consider literature as a potential tool that might promote risk-taking in the teaching practices of preservice teachers.

Theoretical Framework

This project is rooted in experienced-based learning theories that argue knowledge is heavily shaped by life and worldly experiences (Foucault, 1989; Phillips, 1995) and in the sociocultural perspectives from Vygotsky (1978) and Dewey (1916) that maintain learners construct knowledge and make meaning through their social interactions with others. Additionally, it is grounded in adult learning theories (Knox, 1977) that argue adult learners have developed a frame of reference or “a coherent body of experience, associations, concepts, values, feelings, [and] conditioned responses that define their life world” (Mazirow, 1997, p. 5). The purpose of the resulting knowledge then is not to equip learners with the ability to describe a universal reality, but rather it is to help them function in the world (Dewey, 1929/1960; Rorty, 1979) and to complicate their established paradigms and morphing them into more inclusive and self-reflective spaces (Mazirow, 1997).

Learners become active participants as they interact with each other and with the instructor, articulating, clarifying, and reflecting on their ideas through classroom conversation and through their writing. Good classroom discussion, like writing, can “engage students in interactions to promote analysis, reflection, and critical thinking” (Goldenberg, 1993, p. 317) and provide the dialogic interaction necessary for learning to occur. Learners begin to recognize and critically think about myriad, and oftentimes conflicting, interpretations that exist around a particular text, after which they can make the move towards understanding how multiple analyses can exist together (Rosenblatt, 1978; Wells, 1999) and subsequently “monitor their construction and apply strategies to ameliorate misconstructions and misunderstandings when they occur” (Henderson & Buskist, 2011, p. 234).

Arriving at the Teaching Table

Preservice teachers coming to teacher education programs do not arrive as blank slates; rather they enter with countless experiences and a wealth of background knowledge about a wide variety of ideas. They also arrive with well-developed personal feelings, attitudes, and opinions about what it means to be a teacher, how a classroom should be managed, and how learning happens (Calderhead & Robson, 1991; Borko & Putnam, 1996; Collinson 1996; Tomlinson, 1999). Some of these predetermined thoughts are formed in the later high school years and during the first few years of college (Yoo, 2005) and some are formed through interactions with other teachers along the way (Lortie, 2002). Because preservice teachers come well equipped with their own beliefs, their willingness to try something new may not be a priority let alone a primary goal.

Given their fixed notions about teaching, it is understandable that preservice teachers are inclined to teach the way they have been taught and the way they have observed other teachers teaching (Holt-Reynolds, 1992; Korthagen & Kessels, 1999) unless their preconceived ideas are directly addressed and challenged in their teacher education programs (Rath, 2001). There is also evidence pointing to the inability to change their minds and to promote risk-taking in their teaching practices (Zimpher, DeVoss, & Nott, 1980). It has also been argued that changing a preservice teacher’s mind is a daunting and sometimes insurmountable challenge (Bramald, Hardman, & Leat, 1995). Johnson (1994) asserts that “asking preservice teachers to test out alternative models of teaching means asking them to take major risks” (p. 451) and for many of them, this is asking too much as they repeatedly return to what feels comfortable. However, as preservice teacher instructors, we need to encourage them to venture outside of their comfort zones and accept a certain amount of risk. Without such daring moves, there is increased danger of stunted growth and underdeveloped learning in preservice teachers (Elliott & Calderhead, 1993; Stanulis & Russell, 1999), which could then be inherited by elementary and secondary students.

Returning to more secure materials –texts, methods, and the like- can partially be attributed to what has been traditionally privileged in the classroom. For example, canonical literature tends to take precedence (Glenn, 2013) and at times, functions as a failsafe for new teachers given that it is largely accepted as appropriate for use inside a P-12 class setting. It is also helpful that an abundance of supplemental materials exist for well-known texts. Looking for supporting material such as discussion questions, activities, or other teaching ideas for The Raven (Poe, 1845) or The Tale-Tell Heart (Poe, 1843) are much easier to locate than supplemental material for something written by Le Fanu or Polidori, even though most of the contexts and tools for the more traditional texts can be adapted to suit the unfamiliar and lesser-known texts.

A new teacher, perhaps anxious about staying ahead of their students and/or getting it right, may be more likely to use literature that comes ready to teach and has already proven “tried and true” in other classrooms by other teachers. The present study examines risk-taking activity on the part of preservice teachers, not merely as students, but also as future teachers in the field. During a Teaching Writing/Language Arts Methods course, preservice teachers were asked to take a chance and read, engage with, and implement literature most of them had never contemplated let alone experienced.

 Methods

The study was conducted in a Writing and Language Arts Methods course at a rural, land-grant university in the Pacific Northwest. During the third month of the semester, the preservice teachers enrolled were introduced to a British Gothic Literature thematic unit designed to introduce them to new literature, and to provide them with new methods and tools with which to teach writing and language arts. Every Monday for three hours, during October 2013, 15 preservice teachers engaged and wrestled with Gothic short stories while participating in various discussions, writing, and teaching around unfamiliar and challenging texts.

The Thematic Unit

The thematic unit texts included three required short stories: The Vampyre (Poldori, 1819), The Sandman (Hoffmann, 1844), and Green Tea (Le Fanu, 2008). In addition, preservice teachers also participated in a literature circle where they read and presented on one additional story. The options for this assignment included The Old Nurse’s Story (Gaskell, 1852), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Stevenson, 1886), Fatal Jealousy (Anonymous, 1807), and Carmilla (Le Fanu, 2008). A small sampling of short stories and film excerpts that provided a brief but intense exploration of the many themes and conventions associated with British Gothic literature were included as part of in-class activities.

The readings were supplemented with formal reading responses where preservice teachers responded to questions about their experience with the text or with the activities. Three of the four days included short, informal quick writing about the day’s discussion or activities. The final piece of writing asked preservice teachers to take a significant moment in their lives and turn it into a mini Gothic short story. Their stories were accompanied by reflections on decisions made, risks taken, and usefulness of the assignment in both their writing and in their teaching. The final assignment required them to prepare one literature-focused writing lesson plan, with accompanying reflection detailing the specific choices made within the lesson plan. A second lesson plan with reflection was required as part of the course and was also collected as part of the study.

Before the unit officially began, the preservice teachers were given a copy of the thematic unit. Titled, “A Character of Malignity – Unfathomable Malignity,” it consisted of a rationale, goals, text list, daily lesson plans, grade scale, assignments, rubrics, discussion questions, a glossary of British Gothic themes and terms, an image cache, and a reference list. The Reading Response Prompts as well as the Narrative Assignment are included in the Appendix. The purpose for delivering a copy of the unit to the participants was to keep them apprised of the activities as well as to provide them with a model for their own thematic unit construction.

Participants

Eighteen elementary (K-8) preservice teachers registered for and completed the course, of which 15 signed and returned the consent form to participate in the study. There were 13 females and two males, and all identified as White. Thirteen arrived as Elementary Education Majors, and two as Early Childhood Majors doing a blended certificate. They were a mix of juniors and seniors within one year of entering into their student teaching, and they were simultaneously enrolled in Reading Methods, Arts Methods, and Field Work Practicum courses. The Elementary Majors were also enrolled in a Children’s Dance course.

The researcher was also the instructor of the course and had completed a graduate-level British Gothic Literature course the previous semester. The texts and several discussion threads appearing in the unit came from that course. The researcher also has an extensive background in literature, including a Master of Arts degree in English Literature. In addition, a fellow doctoral student attended each class session as a participant observer (Spradley, 1980). Each class day, for three hours, she observed and took field notes of the overall tenor of the classroom, the preservice teachers, and the instructor. The field notes, focused specifically on student engagement, participation, and questions, provided necessary context for each of the lessons listed in the unit.

Data Collection

To examine the preservice teachers’ perceptions, experiences, and connections with British Gothic literature, reading responses, narratives, reflections, quick-writes, and field notes were collected. To answer the question of how preservice teachers’ perceptions, experiences, and connections influenced and shaped teaching practices and risk-taking within those practices, lesson plans and reflections on the lesson plans were collected. Table 1 summarizes the type and amount of data collected. All data was scanned into the computer as images and subsequently returned to the preservice teachers after assessment and evaluation were completed. After data collection ended, names were removed, and each preservice teacher was assigned a unique alphanumeric code so as to be able to track them individually, if necessary.

Data Analysis

Using a phenomenological approach, data analysis was initially concerned with the lived experiences of the preservice teachers (Kvale, 1996; Greene, 1997; Maypole & Davies, 2001). During the first phase of analysis, the preservice teacher writings were read thoroughly two times. On the second read through, the pages were cut into paragraph-sized pieces since most of the paragraphs generally contained a single unit of thought. The pieces were then pasted the onto large index cards. Moments of summary, specific textual analysis, and literature circle attitudes were excluded because they were not indicative of perceptions, experiences, and connections. Instead, attention was paid to the reflective and narrative moments that addressed either British Gothic literature and/or literature in general, classroom use, choice justification, and personal anecdotes. This process yielded 352 cards.

The second phase of analysis involved re-reading and re-viewing the data and assigning a code that appropriately described the writing of the preservice teachers. Common codes that began to appear included “Text-to-Text Connection” and “Personal Anecdote.” The second phase of analysis yielded 139 cards. The third and final phase of analysis separated the cards into three general categories: Student Practice, Possible Teacher Practice, and Actual Teacher Practice. Student Practice is here defined as the moves and risks taken as a student/preservice teacher inside the teacher education program. Possible Teacher Practice is defined as what the preservice teachers, still operating on some level as students, assume they will do in the classroom regarding literature and the teaching of such. And finally, Actual Teacher Practice is taken from the two lesson plans preservice teachers crafted while participating in the unit and the course in general.

Findings

Three overarching themes emerged from the data set. The first theme included the practices of the preservice teachers as they engaged with the unit as a student. The second theme was their possible teacher practices as they reflected on how they might use this type of literature in the classroom. The third, and final theme was their actual teacher practices as they crafted two lesson plans. (1) As students, they generally enjoyed their encounter with something new, (2) as possible teachers, they mostly considered the use of such literature fine as long as it was adapted, and (3), when acting as actual teachers, they largely reverted to safer content and did not include Gothic literature in their lesson plans.

Student Practice

The time period for the required texts is the 19th century, and they, therefore, contain language that is not as familiar to these particular preservice teachers as texts with more modern language might be. As the unit progressed, and the reading embarked upon, the preservice teachers found the literature difficult to read and digest. When describing the readings, they used descriptors such as “wordy,” “long,” “boring,” “tough,” and “thick.” One student lamented in a quick write how they wished they could have “selected their own literature circle book” due to the difficulty of The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde (Stevenson, 1886). However, even though they found the language challenging and unfamiliar, they were still amenable to fully participating with the thematic unit.

Overall, through their quick writing, narrative reflections, and reading responses the preservice teachers enjoyed participating in the unit for many reasons. The quick writes revealed many comments about loving the exposure to a new and unfamiliar genre of literature. All of them said they had either never heard of or thought about British Gothic Literature, and although a few claimed they were familiar with Edgar Allen Poe and even fewer with Flannery O’Connor, they had little to no experience with anything outside of American Gothic writers. They were, however, eager to learn more. The final quick write revealed that many found the exploration of British Gothic literature “interesting,” “exciting,” and according to one student, “fabulous.”

In the reflections on their narratives, most were pleased with not only the assignment, but with their ability to navigate and complete it successfully. Although there were two preservice teachers who did not find the assignment purposeful, the majority were pleased with the creative freedom the assignment allowed and found it purposeful for various reasons such as that it allowed them to “think outside the box” and to “tell their own story.” One student in particular said they thought that “the door was wide open and that they were ready to go through.” Another student claimed they “surprised themselves” with their creativity. Still others found space to revise and edit their work and to practice writing in general. The narratives themselves demonstrated knowledge of British Gothic elements (such as castles, labyrinths, frightful weather, omens, vampires, and so forth) discussed and used in class. The assessments, which were based on a predetermined rubric, showed successful convention implementation across the board.

According to their reading responses asking them about the specific texts, all were able to find a pathway to and connect with the stories. The Vampyre (Polidori, 1819) sparked interest and memories as they remembered that they did “like vampire stories” and most of them made connections to other authors such as Stephanie Meyers and Anne Rice, and to other texts such as Dracula (Stoker, 1897) and even the old television show Dark Shadows (Costello, 1966). Two reminisced about Halloweens past and “hanging out with family members who loved everything Gothic and dark.” After reading The Sandman (Hoffmann, 1844), they pondered over whom they empathized with, Nathaniel or Klara, making connections to our present love of technology as well as to negative experiences with former significant others. In addition, following our discussions of Green Tea (Le Fanu, 2008) where poor Reverend Jennings is menaced by an evil monkey, every student had a story about a time when either they or someone they knew were terrorized by an animal, be it a dog, cat, crow, or squirrel.

The final reading response asked them to talk about their experiences and connections in terms of the overall unit. The same words appeared repeatedly and included descriptors such as “exciting,” “rewarding,” “educational,” “beautiful,” “spectacular,” and “intriguing.” Although there was an Early Childhood major who claimed they did not find the unit “super helpful,” most wrote statements like “I developed an appreciation of Gothic Literature,” “I want to read more,” “It actually wasn’t that bad,” and one student even lamented their birth in this time period claiming, “I was born in the wrong era. I feel I would fit in better in 18th/19th century London.” Clearly, the preservice teachers, in regard to their own personal learning as students, were deepening their understanding of and engagement with the content of the unit.

Possible Teacher Practice

As the teachers they think themselves to be, the preservice teachers considered how their learning during the unit impacted their future teaching practices. In the final quick write, many addressed the possible use of British Gothic literature in the classroom. They wrote sentiments such as “it was so fun and will be great to bring into the classroom with some adaptations of course.” Three thought that Halloween was a great time to talk about this kind of literature and one student “really thought it was useful for students to get at their own stories.” Not everyone was pleased with the unit activities. There were two who decided the unit was “not applicable in any way to their own future teaching” and that “religious beliefs and risk of parent offense would never allow them to bring this kind of literature into their classroom.”

In the final reading response, they were asked about the possibility of bringing literature into the classroom and all but three were enthusiastic about the possibility of teaching with literature, saying not only that it was “possible” but also “desirable.” The reasons for such a move included “important messages,” “building vocabulary,” “contributing to a student’s well-rounding,” “building a love of reading,” ”sparking interest in new things,” “connecting to the lives of students,” and “introducing students to new perspectives and cultures.” Most attached qualifying statements to their affirmative answers. For example, they added statements such as “if it is age-appropriate,” “but it would have to adapted,” or “but it is more appropriate in the upper grades.”

There was also concern about future students’ attitudes about English and literature. Some of them remembered the boring classes they took in middle school and high school and vowed to remedy this issue in their own classrooms, claiming that early exposure to literature and more specifically, unfamiliar literature that connects to students’ lives, will help decrease the “dread” and “boredom” that kept them from loving and understanding older stories and other texts. Two did not share the above sentiments, and as Early Childhood majors they disapproved of most literature in the classroom because it had too high a potential of being too mature or too complex for children. They cited fear of “angry parents,” “developmental issues,” and an anecdote about a scary story heard in a first-grade classroom that did not go well.

According to field notes from the first day’s discussion, much excitement was generated over the possibility of using age-appropriate scary stories in their lesson plans. One student claimed that teachers “need to teach them about real life.” However, subsequent writings suggest a reconsideration as well as a demonstration of a deep anxiety around the type of literature and the age of the students- ideas that may have been already firmly implanted as they entered the course and the unit, as researchers such as Borko & Putnam (1996), Calderhead & Robson (1991) and Tomlinson (1999) have argued.

Actual Teacher Practice

Of the 30 lesson plans collected, 21 plans included the use of literature to teach a writing concept. Nine plans did not and instead, implemented other tools such as technology and drawing. Of the 21 that included the use of literature, four included a type of Gothic literature while the remaining 17 chose to include other types of reading. One of the Gothic-focused lessons used an unnamed Edward Gorey image that was part of a larger exhibit, “Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey,” held in Boston, 2011. The second one brought in a grade school-friendly video adaptation of Frankenstein (Vaughn, 2010). The clip is part of a YouTube series titled Speakaboos, where readers tell truncated versions of popular stories and poems. Their mission, according to their Facebook page is to “inspire a love of reading in children through storytelling,” and Frankenstein is one of many clips available.

Of the remaining lesson plans that employed a type of literature, Fairy Tales and Children’s Literature were the most often used types. The fairy tales included unspecified selections such as “Cinderella,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and a few paragraphs from the original version of The Little Mermaid (Anderson, 1837). There were also other stories that might be considered more fable than fairy tale such as unspecified versions of “The Three Little Pigs” and “The Princess and the Pea.” A few preservice teachers also selected from Fractured Fairy Tales (Scieszka, 1996) as companion pieces. The Children’s Literature category included Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business (1993), and Flying Over Brooklyn (2003) as well as selections from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1990) and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) appropriate for elementary school children. One preservice teacher created a lesson that used Anansi the Spider (2009), a children’s book about a West African trickster deity.

Of the three who chose poetry, two used selections from Shel Silverstein (2000/2006)- Hug-O-War and Noise Day– and one used Skippyjon Jones and the Big Bones (Schachner, 2007). For the Young Adult literature, select passages from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Rowling, 2009) appeared. In the “Other” category, the texts were small samples from the U.S. Constitutionand Pride and Prejudice (Austen, 1813), as well as the unnamed “popular stories in multiple genres.” In addition, one preservice teacher used the science fiction short story, There Will Come Soft Rains (Bradbury, 1950).

The reflections that accompanied the lesson plans revealed preservice teachers’ insights about their specific literature choices and overall ideas about using literature in their teaching. There were several who did not provide reasoning and justification for their text selection, but many indicated they had selected their texts because of either their or their student’s previous use or knowledge of the texts, as the following responses indicate.

Emily:             “I love Shel Silverstein’s poems. They are fun and entertaining and most students are aware of him.”

Catherine:        “I am using fairy tales because students love fairy tales.”

Isabella:           “I picked Anasi because I have used it before and I knew what I could do with it and had seen good ways and not so good ways to approach it.”

Jonathan:         “Last semester, I had the opportunity to read Frankenstein in one of my classes. Frankenstein is a classic and was a fun read. The obvious hurdle was the difficult language to read and length of the writing. I found a YouTube video that addressed both concerns.”

Manfred:         “The constitution is something that most people are familiar, but most students don’t understand how powerful the writing is.”

It would appear that although a few beginning teachers reverted to more familiar literature, there were moves being made that demonstrate more careful thinking about its inclusion.

Also present was commentary about literature in general and its place in the classroom. Most responses included descriptors such as “fun,” “balance,” “imagination,” and “well-rounded” as well as phrases such as “building on what the student already knows,” “capturing interest,” and “inspiring creativity.” The following responses capture the pervasive positive attitude that appeared in the reflections.

Agnes:             “By teaching a lesson using fiction, where the students can use their favorite characters, I am hoping to develop a love for writing.”

Antonia:          “With all of my new found knowledge on how to teach literature I can honestly say I am extremely excited. When I have my own class I will definitely be creative when teaching literature. There is so much that I can do with it and so many genres that I would like to cover. When I was in school I can’t remember ever going over sci-fi or horror. These two genres were always fascinating to me and I assume [would be] interesting to other students. I want my students to have the opportunity to learn about a variety of genres, so that when they go to the library they will have a richer understanding of what to look for and what they like.”

Based on their lesson plan reflections, most of these particular preservice teachers were heading in the right direction with the overall, big idea of incorporating literature into their teaching practices.

Discussion

It is important to note that while only two future teachers used British Gothic literature in their lesson plans, most of their discussion and teaching practices were indicative of deep thinking in two areas: (1) how to bring literature into the classroom and (2) how their own experiences compared to the experiences they wish for their future students. They engaged in and at times, wrestled with British Gothic literature, writing about their insights and struggles along the way. They watched trailers for scary movies and felt comfortable to share what scares them, all while reading some admittedly dense prose. They made strong connections between the presented material and their authentic, lived experiences and then made beginning moves to incorporate similar material into their own teaching practices.

This work is just a small piece of the picture wherein preservice teachers connected on a personal level, which is demonstrative of their open and curious minds. In addition, these particular preservice teachers are beginning to develop an understanding of and appreciation for trying something new. Being aware of their own past as well as their less positive, or “boring,” experiences in the classroom has put them in a position to think critically about and analyze what they want for their own students.

Pratt (2002) argues for places of “social and intellectual spaces where groups can constitute themselves as horizontal, homogeneous, sovereign communities with high degrees of trust, shared understandings, and temporary protection from legacies of oppression” (p. 17). Expanding on Pratt’s thinking, Gomes and Carter (2010) suggest that an awareness of stereotypes has to exist before critical discussion can occur. As a parallel, awareness of their own pasts might need to be more thoroughly developed in the preservice teachers before they can take risks with different genres and writing activities. The following students (names have been changed) concisely sum up the awareness that developed:

Emilia:             “I think that if we were exposed to more literature, we would have a betterattitude about it later.”

Julia:                “It’s important to get students out of their comfort zones. Later in life,

students will be reading and analyzing all sorts of things so in order to prepare them, I want to expose them to all types of reading. Reading a variety of material also allows students to see different perspectives. I want my students to understand that the world is seen through different eyes in different ways.”

Some of the attitudes and comments could be attributed to the researcher’s own background and experience with the subject. Five students wrote that their favorite part was the “passion for and knowledge of the subject.” The second researcher noted at least once per class session that “students looked engaged” and “students seemed receptive” as they moved through each three-hour session of literature and methods. When asked to define “engaged” and “receptive,” the second researcher explained that students looked alert, were making eye contact, and endeavored to include their own connections and insights into the discussion. She also noted on the second day that the instructor “sounded very knowledgeable about the topic” as they were provided examples and specific details about related texts.

Their text selections can be attributed to a variety of reasons. As referenced above, some picked what they liked or what they or their students were or might be comfortable with. The abundance of fairy-tale themed lessons may have been the result of their concurrent Children’s Literature course where they were fully enmeshed in various versions of fairy tales and their fractured offspring. Connecting and adapting course material to fit different needs is a good use of time for busy beginning teachers. The science fiction loving preservice teacher who was so excited to “finally introduce Ray Bradbury,” has since been the researcher’s office to breathlessly explain how she is not only taking a British Literature course but has received permission from the course professor to craft and present a thematic unit as her final project. As she turned to leave, she happily exclaimed, “And I’m totally using Gothic Literature!”

British Gothic literature presented these future teachers with a scaffolded space with which to work through unfamiliarity- both in language and in content, a skill they may be able to transfer to their reading of and reflection on more diverse and multicultural texts. There were certainly a few who were relieved to have the unit come to a close and who plan on never using this type or any type of literature in the future. Such reactions were expected, and through self-reflection, a level of comfort was reached with the fact that not everyone has to be as enamored of the material as the instructor is. Nevertheless, the rest of the future teachers provided good evidence that they have come to a more nuanced understanding and that they have expanded their thinking as well as their repertoire of strategies for their future classrooms.

Future Directions

One month of instruction does not a risk-taking teacher make and, as Johnson (2011) argues, if “teachers seek to change students’ initial negative perceptions about classroom materials, [then] they must offer them in-depth, repeated experiences that contradict their misconceptions” (p. 218) and it is reasonable to suggest that the same holds true for preservice teachers. Regardless, one month provided a good starting point, although in the future, it may be better idea to more fully embed such instruction rather than having it stand alone as an isolated and rather stark unit of instruction.

Incorporating different literary genres also provides a place for future direction and would also allow spaces for preservice teachers to connect their personal experiences with the material. For example, Contemporary Literature could also be embedded into a course to open spaces for discussions about marginalized voices or Historical Fiction where students entertain alternative interpretations and constructions of historical events and figures. The student, who was excited about bringing in Science Fiction, connected her work with her own passion about literature with futuristic settings and time travel. And finally, it is difficult to draw solid, long-term conclusions about a specific set of preservice teachers after a few short weeks of interaction. Tracking and talking with them as well as collecting artifacts and interviews as they move into their student teaching and beyond would help provide a bigger, more accurate picture of their risk-taking activities as far as literature is concerned.

Conclusion

Ruminating on the subject of risk-taking, the vampire Lestat tells readers “very few beings really seek knowledge in this world. Mortal or immortal, few really ask. On the contrary, they try to wring from the unknown the answers they have already shaped in their own minds — justifications, confirmations, forms of consolation without which they can’t go on. To really ask is to open the door to the whirlwind” (Rice, 2004, p. 380). What an eloquent phrase for precisely what teacher educators want from their preservice teachers as they embark on their own teaching journey where it is imperative that they foster creativity and innovation in themselves and in their own students.

Appendix

Additional Texts and Materials

 Reading Response Prompts

  1. What do you know about vampires? Are they something you have ever been or currently are interested in? Polidori’s The Vampyre is considered the first literary vampire story. Do you like it? Why or why not? This is considered the first vampire novel. What is it doing and why might it be considered “gothic”? How does Lord Ruthvayne compare to other vampires you know of? Would you have done what Aubrey did? Why or why not?
  2. What major themes do you see at work in this text? Pick one and expand on how Hoffman explores this theme. Weigh in on how effective Hoffman is at this task. Who do you, if at all, feel bad for in this story? What makes it scary? Or not? Does it have relevance to contemporary issues? Does this story remind you of any other tales you’ve heard?
  3. Thus far, we have read three stories and watched a few movie clips. What is your take thus far on the British Gothic tradition? Why do you think this way? Do you think that all types of literature can be integrated into a P-12 classroom? Why or why not? What types of benefits or limitations do you foresee by attempting this move?
  4. Does this story remind you of anything you have read before? If so, what and why? If not, how is this text similar and different from the texts we have read thus far? Why do you think this? The monkey in this story is quite menacing. Can you think of a time when you were menaced by an animal? If not, what about someone you know? How did you react? How did the scene play out?

Gothic Narrative Assignment

Narrative is a significant way in which humans interact with each other and make meaning or sense out of their lived or personal experience. Stories shape our identities and while often told for entertainment, they can also create a sense of shared history, linking people together; they can provide psychological healing. Reading or listening to the narrative of someone who faced a life crisis similar to one you are experiencing can help you through the crisis. They can also help the writer deal with the crisis they can provide insight, facilitating the discovery of values, the exploration of options, and the examination of motives. Whatever the reasons, one of the worst reasons is to fulfill an assignment, so take care in selecting the period for this one so that you are not merely “doing your assignment.” This space is for you to demonstrate your knowledge of gothic conventions and to write about a day in your life that you found especially moving, challenging, enlightening, troublesome, etc.

Assignment: Think of one day that was especially interesting or eventful and turn it into a 500-word Gothic short story. Make use of the themes and conventions we have discussed in class, borrowing the language and tone of the novels and texts we have encountered during this unit. Be specific and concrete and include sensory detail. The story should have a clear purpose and only span the course of one day or less.

Reflection: Spend some time re-reading your narrative when it is all finished and ready for submission. Why did you pick the day you did? Were there other days you considered? Why didn’t you pick them? What strategies did you use to complete this assignment and why? Was this assignment purposeful to you? Why or why not? This section should be 400-600 words.

Table 1

Collected Data

Type Amount
300-word Reading Responses 60 (4 per participant)
100-word Quick-Writes 45 (3 per participant)
500-word Gothic Narrative 15 (1 per participant)
300-word Gothic Narrative Reflection 15 (1 per participant)
Lesson Plan 30 (2 per participant)
300-word Lesson Plan Reflection 30 (1 per participant)

 

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NEW NJTE ARTICLE – A Portrait of Hope

A new article, entitled A Portrait of Hope by Kathleen M. Cowin has been added to  NJTE ONLINE.

A Portrait of Hope: A Beginning Teacher Learns about Community

ACCESS A PDF VERSION OF THIS MANUSCRIPT

Kathleen M. Cowin

Assistant Professor

Teacher and Counselor Education

Oregon State University – Cascades Campus

Bend, Oregon

Kathleen.Cowin@osucascades.edu

 

Abstract

A question listed in the call for this issue was: What are the sources and examples of hope for teachers, school leaders, and students as experienced and gained through learning,…, [and] community connections? This portrait of a beginning teacher’s experiences learning about community as she navigates her first year of teaching provides a way for readers to think about how to develop community within a classroom and school, the roles members of a school community play in community development, and how mentoring may influence community building. Through portraiture methodology (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997) the reader will glimpse a deeper view of Maria in her first year of teaching and as a veteran teacher. Maria’s approach to the tragic death of several parents in her school community helped both children and adults experience a sense of community, renewal, and hope in a very difficult time.

Introduction

I will tell the story of a beginning teacher who, through her experiences in a time of death and loss, was able to create hope for herself, her students, and her school community. This portrait of Maria, interwoven with examples of mentorship by her supportive principal and mentor teacher, may offer insights into how one teacher created a community in her classroom and school during a difficult time, and how her mentors helped her integrate into the school community during her first year of teaching. This portrait also explores how relationships developed within the context of community helped create a supportive and learning-filled community to help both children and adults make sense of the happenings of their lives.

Portraiture Methodology Overview

Portraiture methodology (Lightfoot, 1983; Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997) was used to create this view of Maria (a pseudonym) and a series of events that occurred during her first year as a teacher. The portrait presented here is excerpted from a longer portrait due to its length. A word portrait is shaped by a dialogue between the researcher (portraitist) and the participant (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 3). As the portraitist of this study, I used the essential elements of portraiture: context, voice, and relationship as lenses through which the emergent themes came into view. The aesthetic whole, the portrait that is written, gives the participant and the reader of the research an opportunity to step into the story of the participant as well as the researcher. In portraiture the researcher’s voice is present through her or his own understanding of the setting. Producing “a full picture of an event or person that tells as much about the subject as it does the researcher, or portraitist” (Chapman, 2007, p. 157) and makes the research presented through portraiture applicable to those from a variety of areas of interest – not only practitioners and scholars. Portraiture is a methodology that seeks to “combine systematic, empirical description with aesthetic expression, blending art and science, humanistic sensibilities and scientific rigor” (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 3).

The search for what Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis (1997) call “goodness” (p. 9) is in contrast to research methodologies documenting failures that can often evoke a feeling of hopelessness. Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis explain goodness in portraiture in this way:

Portraiture resists this tradition-laden effort to document failure. It is an intentionally generous and eclectic process that begins by searching for what is good and healthy and assumes that the expression of goodness will always be laced with imperfections. The researcher who asks first “what is good here?” is likely to absorb a very different reality than the one who is on a mission to discover the sources of failure. But it is also important to say that portraits are not designed to be documents of idealization or celebration. In examining the dimensionality and complexity of goodness there will, of course, be ample evidence of vulnerability and weakness. (p. 9)

Critiques of portraiture (English, 2000; Hackmann, 2002) may offer points for further dialogue in the exploration of paradox in the methodology in such themes as truth-seeking, goodness, or stance of the researcher. These themes are important considerations in learning more about the methodology and are welcomed dialogue by this researcher. Hackmann (2002) makes the point in his critique, citing the work of Fullan and Miles (1992), that “reform initiatives fail when educators act on incomplete information, misunderstand the change process, or simply refuse to change” (p. 58). The challenge that Hackmann offers in his critique of portraiture is for practitioners to “see themselves” in the research, otherwise change is unlikely and the research “will merely sit on a shelf, collecting dust” (p. 58). I invite practitioners and researchers alike into a view, through this portrait, of many educational issues. Each one viewing the portrait may come away with different ideas but this is what I believe portraiture can do: invite the dialogue about our views.

Portraiture Process

This portrait was taken from a larger study of 10 candidates who participated in a study about their beginning mentoring and teaching experiences. I interviewed Maria several times based on prepared questions and follow-up probes. The interviews were tape recorded and transcribed by the researcher. Participant checks were conducted to ensure the accuracy of the data. I also conducted site visits to Maria’s classroom and school. Each time I interacted with Maria in her classroom and school, I made notes in what Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis (1997) call the “Impressionistic Record” (p.188). I recorded my ongoing observations and reflections from my interviews and interactions as they were happening, and as I transcribed and listened to the tape recordings, on multiple occasions. Often, as I observed or listened to the tape recordings I would note a tone of voice, or repeated phrase, or a question to follow-up on at a future meeting. The reflections made in my recording of my Impressionistic Record would often help me plan for future visits with Maria and highlight additional themes to review in greater detail.

Listening to the tape recordings of the interviews while making the transcription of the tape recorded interviews, rereading the transcriptions as I listened to the tape recordings, and referring to my notes in my Impressionistic Record and from site visits, I began to construct the word portrait of Maria. I used multiple interchanging aspects of each of the lenses – context, voice and relationship – allowing for an initial shaping of the emergent themes of Maria’s portrait. After multiple readings and editing of Maria’s portrait, I sent the portrait to Maria for her review and then scheduled a meeting to discuss her feedback. Her feedback and our dialogue was noted and used in shaping the final portrait. It is through the layering of all these components that triangulation occurs in portraiture.

In the next section I will discuss the definition of “community” as used in this article, and present related literature.

Definitions of Community and Supporting Literature

The definition of classroom and/or school based community used in this article is based on a developmental model. Schaps and Solomon, writing in 1990, described the first step in promoting community as taking into consideration the “prosocial development” of and among children, focusing on interpersonal awareness and the ability to balance one’s own needs with the needs of others as well as on kindness and consideration for others (p. 39). I echo this developmental approach in my own definition of community, stressing as a primary value the ethic of care for everyone, and extending this ethic of care approach to taking responsibility for our actions and how our actions affect not only ourselves but others and the environment of the classroom and school. The type of community described in this article is not just a group of children and adults banded together by proximity or purpose alone. It is also demonstrated in how the children and adults treat each other and how they think and feel about each other.

This is the type of community I have always strived to form in my classrooms or the schools I have led. Combining an ethic of care with personal responsibility can create an opening for a reciprocal type of care to begin to flourish. From this type of reciprocal care for each other and our environment, I have found that the value of respect can grow and be experienced. Caring and respect, present in action and observable among a group of people in relation to one another – this defines community for me.

A definition of community can also be shaped by what it is not. Lewis, Schaps and Watson (1996), citing the work of Palmer (1986), define caring in the classroom as:

A learning space needs to be hospitable, not to make learning painless but to make the painful things possible . . . things like exposing ignorance, testing tentative hypotheses, challenging false or partial information, and mutual criticism of thought. [None of these] can happen in an atmosphere where people feel threatened or judged. (p. 21)

An environment in which caring and respect is not present can make it difficult to maintain the vulnerability which is needed to learn.

Another definition by Schaps and Lewis (1999) in a study of The Child Development Project, defines community “as a student’s experience of being a valued, influential member of a group committed to everyone’s growth and welfare” (p. 216). The concepts of being committed to not only one’s own growth but to those of the other members of the community are a central component of this definition of community.

Creating Community within Schools

Lewis, Schaps and Watson (1996) named five principles of practice for schools to become “caring communities of learners”: (a) warm, supportive, stable relationships; (b) constructive learning; (c) an important, challenging curriculum; (d) intrinsic motivation; and (e) attention to social and ethical dimensions of learning (pp. 17-20).

Schaps and Lewis (1999) continued their work with the Child Development Project and outlined five areas that educators interested in creating community should consider. The first is “‘caring’ doesn’t mean ‘easy’” (p. 216). The authors expand on this theme by contrasting the fine line educators must walk with their students to make the academic component of school challenging while creating an environment in which students feel safe to express themselves and everyone is supporting each other’s academic successes (Schaps & Lewis, 1999, p. 216). Second, “teachers are still central in the student-centered classroom” (Schaps & Lewis, 1999, p. 217). The role a teacher takes in the delicate balance between acting as facilitator of learning, and taking an expert role not only with consideration of the content of the curriculum but in pedagogy/instructional practices used in the classroom, is vital (Schaps & Lewis, 1999, p. 217). Third, “schoolwide change is essential” (Schaps & Lewis, 1999, p. 217). Interestingly, in their study, in the schools in which change was embraced by less than half of the faculty, students faced a sing-song effect of going between classrooms where building community was a primary agenda and classrooms that were impersonal and in which community was not a focus. The authors determined this was more harmful to the students than trying to build community in the first place. A fourth area was “school values must be examined” (Schaps & Lewis, 1999, p. 217). The content of those values were central to this component of building community and this relates directly back to the teacher’s role in the classroom. For example, the teacher’s authority and use of extrinsic classroom based rewards were discussed as potential issues that could cloud school values. Lastly, “assessment must be aligned philosophically with instruction” was a component of community building outlined by Schaps and Lewis (1999, p. 217). For example, if state based assessments are given based on individualized, competitive processes, and the students have not previously experienced this type of assessment, the results from the assessment may not demonstrate what the children truly know and have mastered.

Others, writing on the development of the concept of professional learning communities (DuFour, 2004, 2007; DuFour, DuFour & Eaker, 2008; DuFour, DuFour, Eaker & Many, 2010; DuFour & Eaker, 1998; Eaker, DuFour & DuFour, 2002; Hord, 1997; Stoll, Bolam, McMahon, Wallace & Thomas, 2006) offer a foundation for the continued study of community within the school. What I have been thinking about is how these writers focusing on professional learning communities, along with others in the area of educational leadership (Bolman & Deal, 2001; Darling-Hammond, 1997; Darling-Hammond & Friedlaender, 2008; Fullan, 1998, 2005; Hargreaves & Fink, 2006; Palmer, 1993,1998, 2007; Senge, 1990; Sergiovanni, 1994; Wheatley, 1992, 1999, 2005) might come together with educational researchers, policy analysts, politicians, teacher educators and practitioners to examine how the formation of community may be at the heart of the work we all do.

With these definitions of community and learning communities in mind, I present Maria’s portrait.

A Portrait of Maria

The fall leaves were turning beautiful shades of orange, yellow, and red as I drove to Maria’s school. The view of the mountains was breathtaking. The area has a rural feel but it is not far from the hustle and fast-paced life of the city or suburbs. The small change in the altitude makes the air crisp and clean smelling as I walk across the parking lot to check in at the main office. The main building has a familiar feel with busy kids moving in and out past the office as I check in and wait for the principal to receive me. After the principal gives me a tour of the main building she walks me out to the darling little house which is Maria’s classroom (Impressionistic Record).

This former home has been reconfigured to accommodate a classroom with work areas for science, and lots of storage for curriculum and materials. Every inch of the main classroom space clearly evidences a project in progress and screams, “This is a place where learning is going on.” The seventh grade students sitting at the tables are actively engaged in a discussion from an earlier presentation and are just about to begin the hands-on project. The students accept me with an air of being used to having adults come and go through their classroom space. The bulletin boards are bright and cheery with all available display space being used. Even the restrooms’ walls have been decorated by these middle school students. The girls’ restroom reminds you that “girls are cool” and to “watch out for girl power!” I move around the classroom watching as the students work on the hands-on project. Maria moves around the room answering questions, offering suggestions and feedback to her students. The students are making a paper box from one sheet of paper. There is a feeling tone that spills from the classroom that says this is a fun project! It is a project in which creativity comes out through drawing and which also allows students to let off a little steam by moving around. The students soon find, though, that it is a challenging project, and the noise level rises as they talk with each other and offer help and suggestions (Impressionistic Record).

As the students work it is clear that collaboration is valued within this group of students. As the students clean up, I help out with recycling paper left over from the project, and note how the students work together cooperatively and help each other with the project, offering positive suggestions to each other. This is a very familiar scene for me. It is the middle schooler dance of give and take, with some showing off for each other, others teasing and pushing the limits, but Maria is not bothered at all and plays along seamlessly with the verbal give and take. She has danced this dance many times before and handles it like the seasoned veteran she is. One student really pushes the limits and finally gets a caution from Maria and immediately draws back a bit. There is a settled feeling in her class; one in which most students know the limits and expectations and adhere to them. Maria’s classroom procedures are clearly defined, and exemplified by how the students clean up after the project and get ready to change classes. As the class period ends, the eighth graders who have home room in this space wait patiently outside the entry door until the seventh graders pack up and leave. They too enter the classroom and get packed up for the end of the day in an efficient manner, but still with the enthusiastic give and take of teenagers. Maria calls the students to their closing activities for the day and reminders for tomorrow. Her ability to relate to each individual student is evidenced by her personalized reminders and remarks to many of the students as they leave for the day. She seems to enjoy the banter with them as they ask the last few remaining questions of the day (Impressionistic Record).

Maria invites me to sit at one of the tables and walks over to the kitchen area to make coffee. With her coffee mug in her hand she begins describing her first year of teaching as being welcomed into a community atmosphere at the school which began during her interview process for the position. Maria describes her experience as “being pulled into community” and given “a ton of support” (Personal Communication). Maria mentions that she had two mentors during her first year who really helped her understand the importance of community at the school. One mentor was Rosa, a teacher from another grade level, who had invited Maria to enter into a mentoring relationship, and whose class was assigned to partner with Maria’s class for school-wide activities. Maria’s other mentor was her principal, Pat.

Maria explained that her principal, Pat, did not “sugar coat things” but that she appreciated this “as you knew where you stood with her” (Personal Communication). Maria’s principal gave her small, accomplishable tasks, concrete things to do and compliments along the way. Maria explained how from the first time Pat assigned her to work on a faculty committee, she encouraged Maria by offering a balance of both positive and thoughtful, critical critique. Pat was also very supportive in Maria’s formal teaching evaluations. “It was not like she didn’t offer insights or areas to improve on, but she always had a compliment about a lesson she observed or work you did” (Personal Communication).

Maria stresses that Pat provided leadership in making the establishment of community within the school a priority. Without the establishment of time to go for out for drinks and snacks after school, and celebrating with parties during the holidays, there would not have been opportunities for relationships and community to grow. Maria recalls that during her interview she was asked by the interview panel how she would feel about going out after school together to socialize and attending parties to celebrate at holidays. Her memory of that interview over 20 years ago is still very vivid and her face is animated as she speaks (Impressionistic Record). She said, “Sounds like fun!” (Personal Communication) and states that this is one reason she felt pulled into her new community from the very beginning.

Maria explains that her principal, Pat, also valued making time for mentoring to occur. Pat balanced such things as time for meeting formally, such as faculty meetings, with ensuring that as a beginning teacher, Maria had time without other duties to talk with her mentor teacher, Rosa. Maria reiterates that she felt invited into her school community, and this invitation and acceptance was the form the effective mentoring she received took.

Maria described how her mentor teacher, Rosa, would stop in at the end of every day to ask how Maria’s day had gone, and to share the events of her own day. This dailyritual of stopping in and sharing how the day went continued not only in the beginning years but every year Maria worked at the school. The story Maria tells to illuminate this daily stopping in to share revolves around a particularly sad grouping of events within the community, involving the deaths of several parents of students in the school. Though the school community had faced the death of one parent from a long illness and a sudden death of another due to an accident, two other deaths of parents in the school community were due to suicide.

During one of her after school chats with her mentor teacher, Rosa, Maria shared her concern about searching for a way to help her students cope during this difficult time. Maria felt the students’ questions about what had happened and the deaths should not be brushed off or the subject changed. Maria expressed that she needed to do something more than she was doing for her students to promote “healing” (Personal Communication).

From this initial chat her mentor teacher, Rosa, shared a story about her own experiences with a death that had occurred in the school community years before. Rosa shared how she worked with her principal to prepare lessons on topics related to death and dying and then to also include parents in the lesson planning process and in the lessons. Maria’s mentor teacher told her how she and other faculty members had used community activities to honor those in the school community who had died by planting a rose bush and a tree, but how as time passed the rose bush and tree had been forgotten and other plants had grown over them and they were no longer a focal point in the school landscape.

This initial chat grew into extended conversations and discussions after school. Soon the discussions became planning sessions for lessons and activities. Later that school year a new garden was being planned. A community garden renovation project was initiated by Maria, her mentor teacher, and their students. The students studied not only about gardening but about dying, death, community service, outreach, and most importantly about empathy for their fellow classmates who had experienced the death of a loved one.

The students, with the support of their teachers, the principal, parents, and community businesses, also learned about gardening, and designing a garden, and then came together with their parents and the entire school community to work, plant, and make a beautiful garden space to honor all those in their school community who had died. The students in Maria’s and Rosa’s classes led a commemoration ceremony to open the garden and the whole school community came together to celebrate the learning and work in creating the garden and honoring the families named in the garden project. Maria, Rosa, and their current and future students committed to a long-term service project maintaining the garden.

From a small after school chat, and time given by her mentor teacher to listen and share, and with the support of her principal, a community was given an opportunity for healing, and the focus on community building in her classroom and school flourishes and is vital and life giving today. As we took a walk to the garden, Maria was oddly silent. Then as the garden came into view and we took in the scene together, she said in a quiet, but firm voice, “I was welcomed into a community and they kept me centered” (Personal Communication). Maria created a community within her classroom and school then, and she continues to do that today. I reflect as I leave the garden that it seems the legacy of community that was shared with Maria is continuing to be shared – those are lucky students to be in her care (Impressionistic Record).

Analysis of the Portrait

In the following sections, I will examine several emergent themes the portrait of Maria illuminates relating to different aspects of community including leadership of her principal, teacher relationships, mentoring relationships, time for mentoring, and aspects of community development among students, parents, guardians, and the greater community in which the school was situated.

Community Connections

Maria’s portrait demonstrates a community building process that is aligned with the definitions and descriptions of community in the work of Schaps and Solomon (1990), Schaps and Lewis (1999), and Lewis, Schaps and Watson (1996) in that Maria and her mentor teacher, Rosa, focused on the interpersonal needs of the children in their care and also worked to balance their own feelings about the deaths that had occurred. The sensitivity required to even begin to approach the topic of death with elementary-aged students was an area in which Maria believed she needed complete support from her mentor teacher and principal. She wanted to be thoughtfully prepared to lead discussions or answer questions raised by her students as well as learn how, as a beginning teacher, to address topics such as death with her students’ parents and guardians.

The need for caring and respect in approaching a topic of which students all have different levels of understanding or experience is aligned with the work by Lewis, Schaps and Watson (1996) who posit that learning is not made painless in a community but the differences each individual within the community brings are respected and other members of the community are encouraged to be mindful of the differences in a way that does not compete or hold others’ views up in a competitive manner. This type of caring and respect can be fostered by a sense of community.

Intrinsic motivation for the garden project was evident throughout the project as students sought to work together on all aspects of the project from planning, to acquiring community and business support for the needed materials, to the physical labor of installing the garden, to the leadership capacities in bringing the whole school community together including parents, guardians, and community members to the opening garden ceremony. Much of the project was led by what the students wanted to do and were able to do.

Maria balanced the need to be directly in charge of the project with the need for student involvement, and used a shared leadership approach which is aligned with Schaps and Lewis’ (1999) approaches to community as “teachers are still central in the student-centered classroom” (p. 217). For example, Maria allowed for a great deal of student input into the garden project but she was always looking for ways to align the children’s interests with curriculum requirements. Both Maria’s principal and her mentor teacher, Rosa, were instrumental in providing feedback on this alignment process as well as assuring the garden project was curriculum rich and assessable. Maria also balanced direct instruction with the questions that the children had, particularly in the areas of the project that focused on the psycho-social environment of the classroom, and when questions about dying and death arose. Maria also balanced her direct leadership of the project with Rosa, and with the children in Rosa’s class, again aligning with Schaps and Lewis’ conclusion that even within student-centered classrooms – teachers are the leaders.

Community Fostered by School Leadership

Maria described the feeling of being “pulled into community” from the beginning of her association with this school as there were questions she remembered from the interview about her willingness to be involved in social events with the faculty. Maria also commented on the leadership of her principal, Pat, who purposefully created an opening for community to develop by allowing for, and scheduling, time to meet with her. Pat also set up specific times for Maria to meet with her mentor teacher, Rosa. Pat had structured the master schedule and duty roster in a way to allow Maria and Rosa joint planning time and time to work together in the daily duties of teachers – such as playground supervision or supervising the end of the day release of students. Maria also described her principal releasing her from some typical extra duties and asked her to use that time to meet with her mentor teacher. Maria described this time as a time to “chat” and how these chats developed into deeper conversations and discussions and were the opening that allowed her to explore the issues she saw coming up with her students around the deaths that had occurred in the school community. Maria underscored that these chats did not feel forced but were very comfortable and conversational. In earlier research I found the theme of providing time for mentoring was a key component of successful mentoring relationships (Cowin, 2013). Pat is an example of a principal who understood how to structure time for mentoring to occur.

The principal’s leadership also provided experiences for Maria to get to know the other faculty through Friday afternoon get-togethers and holiday events, as well as through her step by step mentorship on a curriculum committee. Maria commented that her principal gave her positive feedback that helped her gain a voice in her work on a faculty committee. She described how her principal gave her both positive feedback and critical critique of her work on the committee. It was this balance of affirming and critical critique that Maria said made her feel “pulled into the community” as there was a balance and she did not believe she was being given just the “good news” or having her work “sugar-coated.” Cherkowski (2012) described how “the impact of emotions in leadership is highlighted as an important consideration for fostering conditions for sustaining learning communities” (p. 56) and Maria’s principal is an example of the type of leader who took time to make connections with her teachers daily – especially her beginning teachers.

Community Building among Teachers

Parsons (2013) describes current research findings in which teachers describe the importance of relationship building among teachers to their own teaching and learning success (p. 11). Five key attributes of professional learning were expanded upon: supportive and shared leadership, collective creativity, shared vision and values, supportive communities, and shared personal experience (Parsons, pp. 12-14). When teachers in a particular school come together these are the seeds of community formation that could go on to grow and develop as demonstrated in the portrait of Maria and her mentor teacher, Rosa. Without Rosa’s invitation to Maria to form a mentoring relationship there would have been no relationship. The ability of the mentor to offer an invitation to be in a relationship without it seeming forced relies on many interpersonal dynamics. Cowin (2013) described one quality as an openness to the possibility that the mentee/protégé may not willingly enter into relationship and thus a relationship may not happen. Not forcing a mentoring relationship to happen is key. Maria describes this in her portrait as the relationship being formed by mutual interactions, and being “comfortable and conversational” (Personal Communications).

Seeking to discover the effects of operating a classroom as a learning community, Watkins (2005) reviewed three areas of research on classrooms as learning communities: classrooms as communities, classrooms as communities of learners, and classrooms as learning communities seeking to discover what the effects of operating a classroom as learning community were. Watkins reviewed work by Marzano (1998) which was an analysis of over a million learners from combined studies, and found that “metacognition” and “how the classroom engages learners’ beliefs and learners’ control is crucial” (p. 47). Watkins posits that classrooms as learning communities seek to “embrace both of these conclusions” (p. 47). Studies like these may help us to more fully understand how community enhances learning of all members within a school and provide two additional lenses through which to view individual learning by members in a classroom or school community.

Community Fostered by the Gift of Time

Maria was very clear that her mentor teacher, Rosa, made time for her every day. She was also very clear that the time was not given with a glance at the clock, but was given generously from the perspective of a veteran teacher who knows what the first years of teaching are like. Maria stated that she felt her questions were welcomed and that feeling of welcome was central to not believing the mentorship was something they both had to do as a matter of school policy or duty. Maria stated that she never had the feeling that she was alone. The themes of being invited into a community, time, and scheduling to create space for community to grow, and the leadership of the principal in structuring the mentorship process in a way that allowed their schedules to align, gave them a joint perspective on their work and roles.

Maria was very clear in her description that her principal saw the time for her to meet with her mentor teacher to have worth to the whole school community in that those teachers who were not serving as mentors had to take on extra duties, such as dismissal after school, to allow Maria and her mentor teacher the time to meet together. This mentoring time was viewed as equally valuable to the entire school community as completing any other duty (Personal Communication).

Community Fostered among the Students

In this school there was a built-in process for community building in that students in primary grades were partnered with upper elementary-aged students with opportunities to work together across the grade levels. This cross-grade level time that was built into the school schedule allowed for the collaboration among the students in both Maria’s and Rosa’s classes to grow. The work on the garden project also gave students in both classes many opportunities to form relationships and for community to grow.

Community Fostered among the Parents, Guardians, and the Greater Community

The garden that Maria’s and Rosa’s students built with the support of the students’ parents, guardians, and the school and greater community still stands today. The upper elementary-aged students take great pride in their work with their buddy grade primary-aged students at the school. This tradition has grown and is a positive characteristic that is recognized within the school district and local community where the school was located. There have been other deaths within the community of students and their family members over the years and within the district and Maria’s work has served as a model for other school communities. This is a community where events at the school are well attended and supported not only in a financial manner but in the way community members hold their local school in high esteem as seen on billboards, posters and other public notices that are displayed publically and in private businesses (Impressionist Record).

Finally

I presented this portrait of community building influenced by themes of caring, compassion, empathy, sympathy, and mentoring as an example of hope for all who read it. I believe this portrait offers insights into how community interacts with mentoring themes such as how to extend an invitation to be in a mentoring relationship, welcome, time, and adept mentoring practices by both a principal and veteran teacher serving as a mentor to a beginning teacher. The portrait and its analysis may offer other readers insights into the importance of community as a component of educational practice that could be discussed with inservice teachers who serve as mentors for beginning teachers, and may serve as the basis for continuing dialogue among teacher educators who work with pre-service teachers, their cooperating teachers, and school leaders. There is also potential for this portrait with its intersection of community and mentoring to provide insight to both beginning and inservice school leaders and those who mentor them. This portrait also demonstrates in action benefits to the children in Maria’s and Rosa’s classrooms on many levels. For example, the students learned about science and mathematics curriculum topics related to the gardening project, and also incorporated language arts and design elements as well as leadership and service learning topics to make connections to business community partners for the needed gardening materials. Then there are the topics related to the psycho-social issues of life, dying and death, not only for those children directly affected by their parents’ deaths but also for the children and adults who may respond to others experiencing the turmoil that death brings. Topics such as compassion, caring, empathy, and sympathy were central themes to the students’ curriculum that year, but this curriculum also drew in the parents and guardians and eventually the entire school community to a greater awareness of these issues that may not be directly stated in the curriculum, but are components of classroom and school life. My greatest hope is that this portrait may offer educative examples of how community can be lived out in classrooms and schools.

References

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NEW NJTE ARTICLE – Images of Exclusion

A new article, entitled Images of Exclusion: A Phenomenological Examination of Teacher Dress Codes by Alan Jeans has been added to  NJTE ONLINE.

Images of Exclusion: A Phenomenological Examination of Teacher Dress Codes

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By Alan Jeans

 

Ms. Sanders is new to Meadow Hills Elementary School. Having only graduated from university the previous April, she was shocked at how quickly she was able to find a position as a grade two teacher. Throughout her five-year Bachelor of Education degree she was often instilled with the importance of ‘dressing for success’. Her practicum adviser had even given Ms. Sanders a helpful list of ‘does and don’ts’ for professional teacher dress. Based on this list, Ms. Sanders’ mother took her shopping for professional teacher clothing as a graduation gift. As one of only two students from her graduating class to be teaching in a school this term, Ms. Sanders believes that her attitude of ‘dressing for success’ enabled her hiring. How may Ms. Sanders’ assumptions regarding appearance influence the values she instills in her students? How may Ms. Sanders’ ‘dress for success’ attitude impact her students? Which students may be included? Which students may be excluded?

IMAGES OF TEACHING AND LEARNING

When it comes to student-teacher attire, teacher-training programs often tout the mantra, ‘Dress for Success!’ (Tarleton State University, 2009; Brackett & Brackett, 2013; Pronini & Tomaszewski, 2013). Many teacher-training programs provide guidelines and rationale for ‘dressing for success’ (Tarleton State University, 2009; Brackett & Brackett, 2013; Pronini, Tomaszewski, & Cunningham, 2013). Men are often encouraged to wear dress pants, collared shirts, sport jackets, and shined shoes. Women are encouraged to wear dresses and hose, slacks, blouses (non see-through!), and appropriate shoes (3 inch heels are often recommended). With this ‘dress for success’ agenda comes major issues and implications, not the least of which is the query ‘success according to whom?’

Judith Butler (1993) speaks of gender as a performative role within our society. Likewise, teacher dress codes provide a performative image of ‘success,’ grounded in a conservative, middle to upper class perspective. This performative image of success is a frozen symbol of social norms, projected upon the teacher’s body via the dress code; however, the verb ‘to teach’ dictates the occurrence of action. The paradox of a frozen symbol needing to perform an action brings about tension within the role of the teacher, a tension that can’t help but shape the activities of the classroom.How is classroom learning impacted by these images of success? Who is included and excluded by these images?

The perspective of ‘teacher as upholder of traditional social values’ is implicit within the social construct of the teacher role. In 2011, news broke of a male substitute teacher in Vancouver, Washington, who had worn women’s capri pants in the classroom (Vogt, 2011). Although the school’s personnel director stated that the school’s clothing guidelines weren’t gender-specific and the substitute teacher hadn’t violated any codes of conduct (Vogt, 2011), the event did make news headlines and drew several complaints from parents. Likewise, an attempt to change the wording within the nondiscrimination policy for Orange County Public Schools drew fear from parents and public-groups that it would legitimize teacher cross-dressing in the classroom (ClickOrlando.com, 2012). These stories stand as illustrations of the societal pressure that constrict teacher dress codes into traditional gender norms. The notions of ‘success’ in these cases are based on the teacher’s willingness to adhere to these traditional gender norms.

In the story above, Ms. Sanders’ found herself able to quickly align her personal style with that of the teacher style. In the realm of role theory, this alignment is referred to as ‘role embracement’ (Workman & Freeburg, 2010). Becoming a teacher was an integral part of Ms. Sanders’ personal identity, and she embraced the role. However, for some individuals, personal identity is not congruous with the socially-constructed image of ‘teacher’. These cases represent ‘role distancing’ (Workman & Freeburg, 2010). Dress codes in the classroom become problematized in the face of ‘role embracement’ versus ‘role distancing’.

As dress codes are encouraged, the ‘role distancing’ teacher, who does not adhere to or identify with the socially constructed images of ‘teacher’ set forth in the dress code, may be viewed as unprofessional and therefore unskilled (Workman & Freeburg, 2010) by colleagues. What impact can this ‘unprofessional’ label have on a teacher’s classroom? A common rationale for dress codes is that they help teachers maintain student respect (Santa Ana Unified School District, 1998; Tarleton State University, 2009; Abbasi, 2013; Brackett & Brackett, 2013; Pica, 2013; Pronini et al., 2013). But what has more impact on a teacher’s ability to maintain student respect: a given teacher’s non-adherence to a dress code or a colleague’s labeling of a teacher as ‘unprofessional’ as a result of non-adherence to the dress code?

When dress codes are set in place as images of success based on societal norms, students can be included or excluded based on gender, economics, sexual orientation, race, or role distancing. These same dress codes may also lead to excluding skilled and dedicated teachers based on their ability to match personal identity with the image of success proposed in such dress codes. Do teacher dress codes limit a student’s experience in/of the world? What are the impacts of this educational monoculture on a fertile student’s mind?

It is the first parent-teacher event of the year, and the Fields’ have been excited to meet their son’s favorite teacher, Ms. Smart. This is Ms. Smart’s third year of teaching social studies at Hidden Valley High School, and she is finally gaining confidence in her role, which is evident in her appearance. This year she is often stylishly dressed in the latest fashions of skirts, boots, and tight sweaters, which has gained her rave reviews from her fashion conscious colleagues and students. When the Fields’ tell Ms. Smart that she is their son’s favorite teacher, she is surprised. Bobby Fields never participates in class discussions, doesn’t complete assigned homework, and seems completely uninterested in the topic of social studies. She is aware, however, that Bobby often compliments her clothing. She begins to wonder if her newfound style might have unforeseen impacts on her students? Is it necessary to forgo her fashionable attire for the sake of maintaining authoritative respect in the classroom?

EXCLUSION AT WHAT COST

The history of the teaching profession in the Western world has been conflated with female sexuality, although historically the focus was on suppression and control of female sexuality (Atkinson, 2008; Kahn, 2013). In the early days of the profession, female teachers were forbidden from wearing make-up and required to wear several petticoats, so as not to show the shape of their legs (Atkinson, 2008; Kahn, 2013). Teachers were also forbidden from marrying, which Becky Atkinson (2008) claims to be an exercise of control over the virginal model of a teacher. Female teachers were forbidden from the company of non-familial men, even being required to live with other female teachers and administrators (Atkinson, 2008; Kahn, 2013). When the fear of lesbianism became apparent, women were permitted to marry; however, this decision opened the door for sexuality to enter the classroom (Atkinson, 2008).

In modern days, as in the past, dress codes are more problematic for female teachers than for male teachers. Modern dress codes still highlight control over female sexuality, with dress codes even stating that female teachers are meant to keep “traditionally private body parts covered at all times” (Freeburg, Workman, Arnett, & Robinson, 2011, p. 37). Atkinson (2008) isolates three different styles of female teacher dress (although she admits that more exists). The first style, the apple-jumper teacher, wears long skirts and jumpers and often adorns herself with trappings of the season (pumpkins earrings at Halloween, sweaters with reindeer and snowmen at Christmas, etc.) (Atkinson, 2008). The second style, the teacher babe, is signified by fashionable high boots, short skirts, and low cut sweaters (Atkinson, 2008). The third style, the bland uniformer, is signified by a modest style of pants and loosely fitted shirts that is “rather androgynous, and downplays feminine physical characteristics for the sake of comfort and coverage” (Atkinson, 2008, p. 100). Atkinson reports that female student teachers in her college prefer the bland uniformer style for its utilitarian appeal. This choice raises the question, what is being excluded when role models of positive female sexuality are removed from the classroom?

Ms. Smart’s newly acquired fashion sense places her firmly in the role of ‘teacher babe’. Whereas the bland uniformer allows for the singular vision of teacher as a professional in the school (i.e., public), the sexuality present in the teacher babe projects a duality of teacher as professional in school and woman out-of-school (i.e., public and private) (Atkinson, 2008). But dress codes aren’t meant to keep women from looking like women, they’re meant to keep women from “looking like a certain type of woman” (Kahn, 2013, p. 62). The female teacher body as a sexualized body in the classroom gives rise to the fear of teacher-as-predator. Atkinson expresses this fear as the vision of teacher as mother and student as son, bringing with it an Oedipal vision of incest (Atkinson, 2008). Atkinson (2008) even reports on instances of female teachers referring to a female colleague as ‘the teacher slut’ due to her appearance, and her perceived behavior. How would the classroom differ with the presence of role models of positive female sexuality?

In her article “Their image of me:” A phenomenological study of professional dress choices of female professors, Laura Abbasi (2013) interviewed several female professors to learn of their personal experiences with dress code. All professors pointed to the impact clothing had on their mental and emotional states in the classroom and one professor stated, “I generally like what I wear. If you don’t, you don’t feel confident. It reflects in your performance” (Abbasi, 2013, p. 11). Kahn (2013) supports this experiential account, claiming that dress code policies set “limits on [teacher] performance and can influence in negative ways the expectations they hold for students” (Kahn, 2013, p. 63). How will the pressures to adhere to unwritten social codes about sexuality in the classroom impact Ms. Smart’s clothing choices? What impact will these choices have on her personal confidence? What impact will these choices have on her class?

Conclusion:

The role of teacher is a socially constructed one in which clothing and dress are viewed as outward expressions of a teacher’s professional attitude. Teacher dress codes, set to uphold these socially constructed images of teaching, become particularly problematic in a hiring process. A role-embracing teacher, who adheres to the socially constructed norms of ‘appropriate’ teacher attire, may appear as a more attractive candidate than a role-distancing teacher who does not adhere to the socially constructed norms of ‘appropriate’ attire. In this way, a greater importance might be placed on the performative structures of teaching (i.e., appearance) as opposed to the efficacy of a teacher’s practice.

 References:

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