It Takes a Village: Digital Dialogue in a Pre-Service English Classroom
Teaching can be so messy. And learning to teach even messier.
Having in most cases only personal experience to draw from, many student-teachers struggle to consider how theory might translate into classroom practice. Sure, rich dialogue happens often in pre-service programs. And students are frequently called upon to be reflective as they journey through their education courses (heck, when I was working on my teaching certificate, we wrote reflections about reflections that we had while we were reflecting…yes, you get the point). And maybe, just maybe, new educators are given some powerful, experiential kinds of inquiry tasks…tasks that require them to create products that embody or perhaps critique some of the concepts they encounter while learning to teach. Most would agree that taken together, dialogue, reflection, and production are important acts for both teachers and learners to practice. However, these acts without an understanding of context can be vapid. Furthermore, it might be far too easy to overlook the ideological undercurrents of teaching decisions if one is not given the opportunity to interrogate what each of these acts mean to particular people, in distinct places, and for a variety of purposes.
Consider themes and skills that pre-service classes focus on, for instance: effective planning, classroom management, fostering connections between texts and the “real world,” to name a few. Each of these mean something different given the young people that these teachers are in front of, given who they are, given what communities they reside within, given what problems and opportunities surround them, given what is happening at the local, national, and even global levels. While many pre-service teachers read about diverse perspectives and are exposed to interpretations of events that are happening outside of their everyday experience, it is not often that they have opportunities to engage in interactions with the people- the human beings, who possess these divergent perspectives and interpretations. Consequentially, it becomes far too easy to dialogue, reflect, and produce in ways that re-affirm their own viewpoints rather than challenge them. And therein lies the difficulty in preparing student teachers to enter into classrooms that reflect an increasingly pluralistic society. Most simply don’t have enough opportunities to engage in authentic human interactions with educators on the ground who possess diverse viewpoints about teaching and learning.
connect(ing) educators as a “connect(ed) educator”
Given this, for teacher-educators (teachers of teachers) who are tasked with disrupting viewpoints while also constructing a safe space for tensions to be held with care, crafting generative discussions that push pre-service teachers outside of their comfort zones can be challenging. As a new(er) teacher-educator myself, I quickly discovered that neither the readings I assigned nor the discussions we had were enough; I knew we needed more. Supporting student-teachers in navigating and constructing teacher identities, I soon realized, would take a village. It would require multiple voices and perspectives, and a variety of tools. Very much influenced by the Connected Learning framework as a Connected Learning Ambassador, I thought about how I might tinker with digital tools in our classroom to facilitate powerful, relevant, and engaging conversations about teaching and learning with folks outside of our classroom. I was also inspired by Cindy O’Donnell and Antero Garcia’s work with educators at Colorado State University; Cindy planted the seed for this initiative when she assigned her students to engage with a resource I created while teaching in Detroit, and later invited me in for a conversation via Google Hangout to speak to her class. Here is the reflective piece I put together after I participated in this exchange.
In this resource, I share the small moves I made to bring multiple voices into our classroom around topics and themes that are common in pre-service classrooms. Using Google Hangout as a platform for dialogue, I helped mediate discussion panels between pre-service English teachers enrolled in a course I taught at Teachers College, Columbia University, and individuals around the country wearing hats as professors, teachers, graduate and undergraduate students, and teaching artists. This allowed for critical insight into teaching decisions and the varying contexts that significantly influenced them, as each person who I invited in worked with young people in a different capacity. Imagine watching, for instance, a young community organizer/artist/writer from Nigeria, a third-year college student from Detroit, and a post-doc at UCLA with several years of teaching experience under her belt discussing ways to build stronger school/community connections. Organic exchanges like this touched on the subtleties and nuances of teaching and learning. Far from neat and scripted, the dialogue that occurred surfaced tensions while also modeling powerful inter-generational dialogue, and did so in a way that in a manner that felt intimate, accessible, direct, and authentic.
embracing the messy
Like teaching, this initiative was messy and uncomfortable at times. There were instances of panel speakers pulling out at the last minute, our technology was sketchy during one of the conversations, and there were silences that felt amplified by the physical distance between the invited speakers and our classroom in New York. Nevertheless, the questions that students posed later on inside of papers and classroom discussions led me to believe that the challenges were worth it, and probably a necessary part of the process. In sharing pieces of the process in the following pages of this resource, I am aware that there is much to be improved upon, and that my exploration in many ways has just begun. With this in mind, while I hope that educators from varying backgrounds will find the videos, discussions and student reflections here helpful, I am also aspiring to connect with more educators who would like to join our conversations and engage with our educator community. If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @flipster33 via Twitter.
Teacher As Planner
Above is a video discussion featuring panelists Antero Garcia and Jennifer Heymoss. Here, they discuss lesson planning. Many of the teachers in our course had questions about conceptualizing lesson plans and what content felt most important to include. Humorous but dedicated, these phenomenal educators offer glimpses into the intricacies of a unit plan and point to larger issues teachers might consider when approaching any unit of study.
Guiding questions around lesson planning that might be discussed more in depth:
- What does a lesson plan look like?
- Where do I begin…With a text? A theme? A standard?
- How do I plan for an entire unit? A year?
- What do I/should I prioritize as I begin planning?
- How might I navigate tensions that arise around assessments, standards, Common Core alignment/Ed TPA requirements?
Teacher As Community Member/Teacher As Connector
This discussion featured panelists: Tolu Olorundu, Nicole Mirra, and Joshua Nelson, each of whom talked about the ways they thought about generating stronger connections between classrooms and the community. The inter-generational dialogue that occurred was phenomenal in that it gave teachers an opportunity to witness how a discussion comprised of individuals from varying backgrounds might be held with care and respect. There are moments where the adults in the discussion, for instance, call upon Josh, who is less vocal in the conversation, to offer his perspective on the issues at hand. As a young adult, Josh offers a unique perspective that, while important, could have easily been overlooked had Tolu and Nicole spoken over him and did less prodding.
- What does it mean to be part of a school community? A neighborhood?
- How does a teacher connect content to the multiple contexts that students navigate? Why are these connections important?
- What kinds of relationships happen around this work and how are they built and maintained?
- How does a teacher make the connections between the classroom and the community more explicit?
Teacher As Evaluator
This panel featured veteran teachers Sheila Derrickson and Jennifer Marella, both from the Detroit, MI area. While this was one of the most challenging panels largely because of technical difficulties, some important tensions surfaced as we discussed the theme of evaluation and asessment. Given the current climate in schools as it relates to high-stakes testing and teacher accountability measures, the students in our course were genuinely curious about not only the ways that Sheila and Jen thought about evaluation and assessment, but also how they were handling the challenging discourses that arose from recent educational policy decisions.
Some Guiding questions around assessment that we explored in our seminar included:
- How do I know where my students are?
- How might I employ a variety of ways to assess and build from their knowledge? What is the difference between formative and summative assessments?
- How do I know that students have learned what I set out to teach?
- What pedagogical moves become important in creating a classroom space where students see assessment as important?
- When does assessment make a difference, and under what circumstances?
- Who should be involved in creating assessments and assessment protocols?
- What should be done with the information that is gathered from assessments?
Pre-Service Teacher Reflections
Below are excerpts taken from student reflections written up after the panel series ended. Some students published their reflections to the Digital Is Website, and links to them can be found at the bottom of this page.
“However, when we initiated a willingness to listen to their perspective, they too willingly listened to ours. The concession to hear becomes the first act of acceptance that will hopefully inspire more inclusion. This is the real potential in expanded discourses through technology. It is why I believe efforts to expand the borders of a classroom beyond even that of the surrounding community can prove so fruitful.” ~Andrew
“As most people so painstakingly have portrayed teachers as the “experts,” what we have failed to realize is the expertise that young people have and how we could have been using that to plan our lessons and guide our instruction and curriculum. Something that resonated with me that Nicole touched on was how we can teach students to use English to “advocate for themselves” rather than feeling burdened by a class that is required of them for their academic lives.” ~Margarita
“However, when I examined my own situation in this regard, I found myself wondering how one approaches this if he or she is completely new to a school’s environment? How do we begin to approach this issue of authentic community involvement if we are entering this community as a total outsider?” ~Kelsey
“Nicole unwittingly answered a major question I had about teaching. I have often wondered how teachers get to know their students when there is so much material that must be covered. According to Nicole, relationship and team building should be connected with the curriculum: “Get to know who your students are. Relationship and team building should be built into content, not separate from content.” In retrospect, I wish I had asked her for tips on how to do this; it sounds easier said than done. I know this is an element of teaching I will need to work on.” ~Katherine
“According to Wittgenstein, we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems because our language has remained the same. Even when we attempt to implement new methods and incorporate technology into the classroom, we often face the same issues because we simply “replicate existing literacy practices”–the literacy practices we grew up with and were subjected to as students (Garcia, 95). We use what we know, what is familiar, even though these practices end up reproducing the same disinvestment and alienation we may have felt as students ourselves. If we want to change the way students see English class, we need to change our definitions of reading as a passive or isolated activity and writing as a finished product. “Reading the word implies continually reading the world,” since reading is a transformative act that involves negotiating and navigating the differences between reader and writer contexts (Duncan-Andrade and Morrell, 3).” ~Katie
“English education = developing a voice = advocating for oneself. This idea holds additional value in that it can help us to be explicit with our students about the importance of what we’re doing in our classrooms. Student resistance to participating in school can be attributed to several factors: un-engaging curricula, un-engaging teaching, and low student self-esteem, just to name a few reasons. But one factor that educators at the secondary level seem to most often overlook is the lack of transparency with our students concerning what and why we are teaching what we teach.” ~Joanne
Inviting Speakers In: The Process
The seminar course that I instructed, entitled “The Supervised Teaching of English,” served to guide new pre-service English teachers through the beginnings of their experiences inside of the classroom, providing a safe space for them to share, dialogue, and reflect as they launched their teaching lives. To help provide a glimpe into the content for the course, I have included a screenshot of our syllabus below. While there were some alterations of the syllabus as well as the panel line-ups, I include it also to demonstrate that the panel discussions referenced in this resource aligned with our theme-driven weekly meetings. Themes included:
- Teacher as Authentic Self
- Teacher as Space Holder/Facilitator
- Teacher as Lesson Planner
- Teacher as Community Member & Connector
- Teacher as Evaluator
- Teacher as Researcher
- Teacher as Cultural Worker
Students engaged with these themes in multiple ways: via discussions, readings, activities, projects, reflections, and in some cases- Google Hangouts. Featured in this resource are the Hangouts, which required some organization on my part to facilitate.
organizing virtual panels
In order to set-up these discussions, I first sent out an e-mail to those whom I thought would be both engaging and willing to participate, offering them a context concerning what, where, and whom I was teaching. I asked recipients to send back Wednesday evenings that they would be available along with focus areas they would be willing to speak about, offering the list above as potential options. Once I received responses from those I invited, I then “assigned” dates and topics, being sure to notify panelists that the chat would be recorded on Google Hangout and shared publically. When a panel date approached, I sent out a reminder e-mail that specified the start time along with a set of questions to initiate thinking along the lines of the focused topic. Contained within the remaining pages of this resource are the videotaped discussions, names of participants, and the guiding questions I sent out. The last page contains pieces of student reflections, as well as links to full reflections that some drew up and posted publically to the Digital Is website.
Readings On The Course
I thought it might be useful to include some of the readings that we interrogated in our course. They include:
Alim, H. S. (2011). Global Ill-Literacies Hip Hop Cultures, Youth Identities, and the Politics of Literacy. Review of Research in Education, 35(1), 120-146.
Appleman, D. (2000). Critical encounters in high school English: Teaching literary theory to adolescents. New York: Teachers College Press.
Christensen, L. (2009). Teaching for joy and justice: Re-imagining the language arts classroom. Rethinking Schools.
Ferrance, E. (2000). Action research. Providence, RI: Brown University: Northeast and Islands
Regional Educational Laboratory
Freire, P. (2008). Teachers as cultural workers Letters to those who dare teach. Handbook of Research on Teacher Education: Enduring Questions and Changing Contexts, 208.
Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 1970. Reprint, New York: Continuum.
Garcia, A. (2012). “Like Reading” and Literacy Challenges in a Digital Age. English Journal,
Giroux, H. A. (1988). Teachers as intellectuals: Toward a critical pedagogy of learning. Greenwood Publishing Group.
Gutierrez, K. D., Baquedano‐López, P., & Tejeda, C. (1999). Rethinking diversity: Hybridity and hybrid language practices in the third space. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 6(4), 286-303.
Milner, J. O. B., Milner, L. F. M., & Mitchell, J. F. (1999). Bridging english. Merrill.
Morrell, E., & Duncan-Andrade, J. (2005). Popular culture and critical media pedagogy in secondary literacy classrooms. International Journal of Learning,12, 273-280.
Paris, D. (2012). Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy A Needed Change in Stance, Terminology, and Practice. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 93-97.
Vinz, R. (2008). If we Could, Only, What. In S. Miller (Ed.), Narratives of social justice
teaching: how English teachers negotiate theory and practice between preservice and inservice
spaces (Vol. 332, pp. Foreword): Peter Lang Pub Incorporated.
Yosso *, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race, Ehnicity and Education, 8(1), 69-91.