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Lillge, Danielle. Conflicts in Professional Development for Writing Teachers. RTE, May 2019. Posted 07/02/2019.

Lillge, Danielle. “Uncovering Conflict: Why Teachers Struggle to Apply Professional Development Learning about the Teaching of Writing.” Research in the Teaching of English 53.4 (2019): 340-62. Print.

Danielle Lillge examines conflicts that can affect how teachers charged with teaching writing in the schools apply professional development. She notes that such teachers are often pressured to improve student performance while feeling that their training has not been adequate (340). Teachers often turn to “disciplinary literacy professional development” programs (PD) (340). Lillge reports on what she calls “telling cases” of two teachers’ experiences participating in and applying such PD (341).

Writing that PD programs for literacy professionals emphasize “integrating literacy modes (e.g., reading and writing) in cross-disciplinary instruction” (341), Lillge focuses on her subjects’ encounters with Reading Apprenticeship (RA), a program notable for its concerns with both reading and writing and for its provision of a research-sanctioned PD experience: RA is “sustained over time” with a focus on collaboration and a “cohesive unifying framework” (344). Her two subjects, Abigail and Heloise, are white English teachers in a midwestern urban high school that is 95% African American (343). Lillge is also white, and is a professional in literacy instruction and professional development, with “[v]arying degrees of participantness” in RA programs. She represents her positionality as both ethnographer and participant-observer, and as both insider and outsider (345).

Lillge finds Erving Goffman’s theory of “frames” useful in understanding how Abigail and Heloise negotiated their use of the RA program. A frame, Lillge writes, is

a cognitive structure that reflects the “subjective context” whereby people work with and in relation to one another to interpret interactions by answering the question “What is it that’s going on here?” (342)

Frames, she contends, are social rather than individual, created through interaction, and can be invoked “both explicitly and implicitly” (342). Her study is meant to elicit how “framework conflicts” that teachers may not even be aware of can facilitate or hinder the application of professional development (342).

Lillge’s main consideration is how assumptions about teachers’ self-identity and positionality built into the PD framework may fail to accord with the frameworks the teachers actually bring to the experience (341). She contrasts her two cases, arguing that differences in the degree to which the two teachers’ frames aligned with the frames presented by the RA sessions affected their ability to make full use of the experience.

Both teachers were “eager learners,” were “acutely aware” of the challenges in their teaching environments, and reached out for additional guidance in order to improve as teachers of writing (343-44).

Lillge attributes some of Abigail’s personal frameworks around writing to her participation in a National Writing Project program and her own time in a college continuing education class; both of these experiences led Abigail to hope she could take students beyond “formulaic” writing, which she had found personally frustrating (350). However, in Lillge’s view, Abigail’s framework made it difficult for her to see herself as a writer and to feel confident in her understanding of “what good writers do” (348). Abigail wanted specific guidance to help her achieve her teaching goals and felt that the integrative approach of the RA materials foregrounded reading and in fact barely addressed what she saw as writing (348).

Heloise, as a drama teacher and playwright, could draw on “sustained involvement in disciplinary discourse communities” (355) in order to make use of opportunities for experimentation and integration suggested by the RA approach. She was able to choose specific ideas and adjust them to fit her students’ needs, revising as needed through her understanding of the different kinds of writing possible within an English classroom (352). Lillge presents Heloise as already aligned with an “experiential learning” framework that allowed her to see the “unifying rationale” in RA that connected particular writing activities to a more interlocking approach to writing and learning (352).

In Lillge’s account, Abigail struggled to see how a specific activity, such as students annotating their own texts, supported this broader philosophy and therefore found the outcomes disappointing, whereas Heloise, informed by the larger framework, was able to critique and modify her own applications in light of the unifying rationale (353-54). Heloise’s literacy experiences allowed her to draw on “multiple frames” that addressed her role as a white teacher in a largely African American community as well as “interanimated” the RA frames (354).

Lillge questions what she sees as the assumption in many PD programs that “teachers merely need help transferring their own experiences as writers to their writing instruction” (355-56). In her view, the diversity of the frameworks teachers bring to PD requires facilitators to actively address the differences among these frameworks and make potential conflicts more visible (357). She also challenges the “myth of English as a single discipline and writing as serving a set of commonly agreed-upon purposes” (356). Integrative approaches like those of RA, she contends, risk “artificially unify[ing] English subfields and . . . conflat[ing] purposes for writing,” in the process working against teachers’ efforts to introduce students to a range of writing genres and situations (358).


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Lewis Ellison & Solomon. African American Families and the Digital Divide. RTE, Feb. 2019. Posted 04/04/2019.

Lewis Ellison, Tisha, and Marva Solomon. “Counter-Storytelling vs. Deficit Thinking around African American Children and Families, Digital Literacies, Race, and the Digital Divide.” Research in the Teaching of English 53.3 (2019): 223-44. Web. 25 Mar. 2019.

Tisha Lewis Ellison and Marva Solomon address mainstream narratives that depict African Americans’ relationship with digital resources through a deficit model. Lewis Ellison and Solomon argue that “counter-storytelling” as a research methodology reveals a more accurate picture of the ways African Americans interact with digital environments.

The authors define digital literacy as “multiple and interactive practices mediated by technological tools . . . which include reading, writing, language, and exchanging information in online environments” (223). They see the dissemination of this literacy as imbricated in racial identity, yet believe its impact is overlooked in scholarship on race (223). In their view, stories drawn from African American experience with computers and other technologies must be “honor[ed]” rather than marginalized if a full understanding of the role of digital experiences in this community is to be fully understood (224).

Lewis Ellison and Solomon quote Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic to define “counter-storytelling” as a kind of narrative that “aims to cast doubt on the validity of accepted premises or myths, especially ones held by the majority” (qtd. in Lewis Ellison and Solomon 224). Such stories, in the authors’ view, are an important methodological resource in the attempt to move beyond misconceptions about cultures (238). Such stories, in this approach, are more revealing than data collection about actual practices in their portrayal of the ways people interact with and see themselves in relation to digital literacy (225).

The literature review lists studies that explore the use of digital resources among African Americans and that counter prevailing assumptions about the existence and nature of a digital divide. In addition, scholarship has explored how listening to counter-stories has helped educators improve learning opportunities for minority students in school settings (226-27). Still, the authors maintain, there is a “shortage” of studies of African American counter-stories about the interactions of race and digital access (227).

The authors write that the concept of a “digital divide” imposes “strict binaries” along social, educational, and economic lines (227). Citing Pippa Norris, they break the divide into the “global divide” among rich and poor geographical areas; the “social divide” that delineates “the information the rich and poor receive within various nations or social groups”; and the “democratic divide,” which addresses the degree to which “access plays a major role in an individual’s agency and power” (227-28). Lewis Ellison and Solomon argue that most discussions around the digital divide locate African American users among the poor with limited access and depict users as White, thus furthering a misleading narrative about “what Internet access looks like, who has it, [and] who does not” (228), with the result that digital resources are often not directed toward communities of color. In fact, the authors contend, research shows that African Americans are making substantial gains in Internet use (228).

The authors’ current research derives from two studies. Lewis Ellison used survey, interview, and observational approaches along with analysis of digital story-telling practices for a qualitative case study of the use of computers in the home by five African American families. Her discussion centers on “Chant,” a professor in an urban university in the south, and Chant’s nine-year-old son “Rem” (229). She asked,

In what ways did the digital literacy and story-making practices of an African American family dyad (mother/son) display evidence of agency in the context of a family-focused digital storytelling activity? (231)

Solomon conducted a “naturalistic inquiry” with eight African American first-graders at the school where she had taught for fourteen years in order to learn “what would happen if first graders had the opportunity to use digital tools in their own storytelling” (231). This study also collected surveys, artifacts, observations, and transcripts. Seven of the eight families studied had home computers. Solomon focuses on two girls, “Penny” and “Jordan” (232).

Lewis Ellison’s study of Chant resulted in conversations in which Chant provided counter-stories challenging the view that African Americans were emblematic of a digital divide. As a professor, Chant spent much professional time using digital resources, and she and her son did so at home as well (229, 237). Chant emphasized the importance of being included as “part of the conversation” for minority communities (233). She revealed the effects of the deficit model in that the less-affluent community where she chose to live was seen by Internet service providers as not in need of advanced online options; as a result, her community was forced to pay higher prices for home service (234).

Solomon’s study of Penny revealed another effect of inaccurate assumptions about African American use of digital resources. Penny did not have access to a computer at home, a fact that drove assumptions about her online competence. However, the authors note that she had access through her extended family, and in fact, Penny proved very adept at telling stories with computers (235).

Jordan’s teacher characterized her as “very creative,” and stated that students had many opportunities to use digital resources creatively (236). The authors state, however, that these opportunities were school-based prompts that prevented Jordan from exercising agency (236). Once permitted to write on her own for the study, Jordan produced images that “announce[d] her status as multiracial in a bivariate family and world,” revealing sophistication that had gone unremarked in comments from the teacher 237).

The authors urge educators to invite counter-stories from students and also from families in order to understand more fully how African Americans interact with digital resources and to dispel oppressive assumptions based on the expectation that they will be constrained by a digital divide (238). Using Adam J. Banks’s model of digital access (233), the authors found that their study subjects exercised all five kinds of access Banks listed: material, experiential, critical, functional, and transformative (237-38).

Lewis Ellison and Solomon conclude that

to date, there are no known opportunities to cultivate discussions and strategies for learning between teachers and parents (and particularly parents of color) concerning digital and nondigital practices. (239)

Awareness of counter-stories as a research methodology, the authors state, can serve as a corrective to deficit models that adversely affect classroom practice.

 


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Worthy et al. Teacher Educators’ Perspectives on Dyslexia. RTE, Nov. 2018. Posted 01/05/2019.

Worthy, Jo, Catherine Lammert, Stacia L. Long, Cori Salmerón, and Vickie Godfrey. “‘What If We Were Committed to Giving Every Individual the Services and Opportunities They Need?’ Teacher Educators’ Understandings, Perspectives, and Practices Surrounding Dyslexia.” Research in the Teaching of English 53.2 (2018): 125-48. Print.

Jo Worthy, Catherine Lammert, Stacia L. Long, Cori Salmerón, and Vickie Godfrey discuss a study on approaches to dyslexia in teacher education. The authors note that while research has not been able to clearly define dyslexia or agree on an ideal intervention, many states are passing legislation that treats dyslexia as a specific condition with specific treatment protocols (125).

Worthy et al. address the discourse surrounding dyslexia through the Bakhtinian categories of “ideological becoming” and “internally persuasive discourse” as opposed to Bakhtin’s understanding of “authoritative discourse” (AD) (126). “AD” consists of dicta handed down by those claiming expertise; it tends to take over conversations and silence those it does not credential to speak (127). In the authors’ view, AD surrounding dyslexia is based on a medical model in which dyslexia is a narrowly defined “deficit,” which is described in medical terms and which can only be treated by those specifically trained to do so (127). This discourse, the authors state, views educators as inadequately informed and unqualified to deal with students diagnosed with the condition (130).

The authors, in contrast, address the issue through the “field of disability studies in education,” which sees “variation among learners as natural,” as well as “socially constructed” and influenced by “context and social interactions, as well as social, political, and historical systems and discourse” (127). “DisCrit” scholars or those practicing “disability critical race studies” further note the degree to which matters of “race, class, privilege, and power” affect how labels are assigned and addressed (126; 127-28).

Surveying research in dyslexia studies, the authors note that none of the “top 10 most published authors, . . . none were educators” (126). According to Worthy et al., research has failed to find any specific causal or measurable factor that separates students believed to be dyslexic from other students in the reading continuum (128). Brain imaging studies have thus far been inconclusive (129).

Worthy et al. report consensus that “there is no best method for teaching reading” (128), yet many state legislatures have mandated specific treatments like the Orton-Gillingham program (O-G), even though its “multisensory” processes have not been shown to be effective (130). Programs that focus primarily on decoding, the authors state, also show little effect in themselves (130) and should be part of, rather than the core of, “comprehensive, meaning-based reading instruction” (129).

Worthy et al. position themselves as experienced public-school teachers and teacher-educators who began to question the current discourse on dyslexia when it failed to jibe with their own experiences. They began to find similar discomfort with the AD surrounding dyslexia among students and colleagues (130-31). For their study, they recruited 21 women and 4 men from a range of universities in Texas; the participants, who had many levels of experience both as teachers and as teacher-educators, engaged in semi-structured interviews (131). The authors explain their coding process, which yielded three “a priori” categories and three “inductive” categories (132).

“A priori” categories were “definitions and understanding about dyslexia”; “compliance with dyslexia policies”; and “confidence about dyslexia” (132). The researchers found that their interview subjects reflected the conflict between the AD of dyslexia and a more questioning stance that recognized that research did not provide the same degree of certainty as the prevalent AD (133). The participants reported increased official attention to the question of dyslexia and increased oversight of curricula (134). They reported complying with mandates but, in some cases, “present[ing] the state’s information about dyslexia with a broader discussion of struggle and literacy, where they could contextualize and complicate it” (134).

Participant response regarding “confidence about dyslexia” varied, with five of the educators “express[ing] unqualified confidence” in their ability to address the condition. The authors characterize the “remaining educators” as questioning their own experience in light of the dominant discourse (135); these teacher-educators “stopped short” of claiming they were prepared to work with students identified with the condition (135).

“Inductive analysis” of the interviews (136) led to three categories: teacher-educators’ expertise in teaching reading; their responses to AD; and their use of “critical perspectives” (132). Participants shared a belief that teaching reading should be an observation- and assessment-based, individualized process (136-37). In this view, decoding was important but only as part of a curriculum that engaged students in the whole process of reading (136). New teachers, the educators agreed, would benefit from a “more nuanced perspective” that would allow them to recognize their own ability to teach reading across many skills levels (137).

Participants challenged “the vague definition and subjective identification procedures” (137) that most felt led to “overidentification” and to early labeling that called for unnecessary interventions (138). Some felt that the dyslexia label could remove a stigma from reading difficulties; others saw being labeled as conveying a judgment of “something wrong” (138). The teacher-educators questioned the efficacy of programs like the O-G method that foreground “skill work” and interventions that remove students from classrooms to receive instruction characterized by “a lack of alignment” with classroom work (140). The authors note that these views accord with DisCrit analysis that favors “inclusion” rather than “segregation,” which AD seems to advocate (140).

Challenges to the exclusion of educator voices informed participants’ critical perspectives, with one respondent calling the medical community’s adherence to medical models “cult-like” (“Patrice,” qtd. in Worthy et al. 141). Participants noted that the problematic claim that dyslexic readers were highly creative and intelligent has actually made the label desirable for more affluent parents, with dyslexia “the socially acceptable learning disability” (141) that can shield children from “probable consequences of low achievement” (142). According to “Marty,” discrimination in labeling results in the view that “White kids are dyslexic. Black kids are stupid” (qtd. in Worthy et al. 142).

The authors argue that despite being positioned by the current AD as unqualified to teach students with identified reading disabilities, the teacher-educators they surveyed “are more than qualified—by virtue of their preparation and experience—to teach reading to all children” (142). They advocate for the role these educators can play in helping their preservice teaching students negotiate the rigid political landscape they will encounter when they take their knowledge about teaching reading into the schools (143).

Worthy et al. also recommend that proponents of critical perspectives adjust their use of jargon to communicate with wide audiences rather than falling back on a “righteous authority” of their own (144). Their hope is that research and practice in teaching reading can align more comprehensively, drawing on the contributions of classroom educators to complicate what they see as an ineffective, limited approach to the wide range of variation in children’s paths toward reading skill.


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Sweeney, Meghan A. Audience Awareness as a Threshold Concept. RTE, Aug. 2018. Posted 09/18/2018.

Sweeney, Meghan A. “Audience Awareness as a Threshold Concept of Reading: An Examination of Student Learning in Biochemistry.” Research in the Teaching of English 53.1 (2018): 58-79. Print.

Meghan A. Sweeney presents a case study of a basic-writing student, “Bruce,” who grapples with a composition “threshold concept,” audience awareness. The study tracks Bruce across a three-course composition sequence in his first semester, then through his second-semester work in a research-based composition course as well as biochemistry and chemistry classes in support of his planned major, anesthesiology (64). Sweeney argues that Bruce moved from a “pre-liminal” through a “liminal” phase to end with a “post-liminal” relationship to the concept of audience awareness.

The composition sequence emphasized college reading, which Sweeney finds to be undertheorized in writing instruction (58). Sweeney explores scholarship in disciplinarity to suggest that the development of effective reading practices is important to students’ ability to move beyond the writing classroom and enter “communities of practice,” which P. Prior defines as “a continual process whereby newcomers and old-timers reproduce and produce themselves, their practices, and their communities” (59).

J. Lave and E. Wenger, studying these phenomena, see them “as a set of relations among persons, activity, and world, over time and in relation to other communities of practice” (qtd. in Sweeney 61). Lave and Wenger propose the category of “legitimate peripheral participation” to characterize how students begin their acculturation into such disciplinary sociocultural environments (61).

In studying Bruce’s progress as he approaches the community of practice he intends to enter, Sweeney also draws on the “academic literacies approach,” which emphasizes the ways in which entry into a community of practice involves changes in identity as students begin to see themselves as members of new groups (60). Among the challenges this shift entails are those of transferring practices and concepts from more general academic work to the specialized requirements of the new environment (60-61).

Sweeney’s study examines how such foundational concepts function as students carry them beyond composition. She discusses “threshold concepts” as those that are “potentially transformative” in that, once students grasp them, they begin to think in new ways characteristic of the community of practice in question (63). She gives “opportunity costs” as an example of such a concept in economics (63), advocating more attention to how students introduced to composition’s threshold concepts use these concepts as they transfer their learning into new communities (63).

At the large public research university in the western U.S. where the study was conducted, students deemed underprepared take a semester-long three-course integrated reading and writing combination including “a three-unit composition intensive,” a reading course, and an editing-for-style course (64) before moving on to a second-semester composition course. Sweeney characterizes Bruce, a first-generation Korean American student from a working-class background, as “highly motivated” (64). She quotes B. Flyvbjerg to argue that an atypical subject like Bruce may “reveal more information because they activate more actors and more basic mechanisms in the situation studied” (qtd. in Sweeney 64).

Sweeney observed both Bruce’s second-semester writing course and two sessions of his lecture-style chemistry class, taking notes on Bruce’s involvement and on the ways in which the professors presented the material relevant to their fields (65). Her data collection also included “four semi-structured” interviews in which Bruce provided insights into his reading practices and use of rhetorical concepts across the different classes (65).

Data from Bruce’s work in the first-semester composition combination leads Sweeney to argue that when he entered the sequence, he limited his reading response to summary, failing to engage with audience questions (66). She writes that as the semester progressed, he encountered discussions and readings about how writers differ depending on their situated practice and membership within a field. This exposure, Sweeney writes, triggered Bruce’s deepening attention to audience, and by the end, he

had begun to visualize other readers of his texts, to expect writers to influence others through rhetorical choices, and to expect audiences to keep an open mind while still maintaining an awareness of the choices made. (67-68)

The author describes Bruce’s progress to this point as a transition from “a pre-liminal space” in which the “troublesome” threshold concept of audience awareness posed challenges (67) to a “liminal” phase (68) in which a learner recursively “engages with [the] threshold concept but oscillates between old and emergent ideas” (62).

Sweeney contends that in his second semester, Bruce’s experiences in chemistry and biochemistry classes completed his movement into a “post-liminal” engagement with audience awareness in his new community of practice and with the identity formation involved in this engagement (68). Noting that Bruce learned quickly what information was important to the professor and adjusted his reading strategies accordingly, Sweeney records such moves as the professor’s references to “we” in lecturing, inviting students to see themselves as community members (69).

In biochemistry, Bruce worked with a lab mentor; Sweeney finds it crucial that Bruce recognized that he was not the audience for the technical papers he was asked to read. That realization pushed him to do independent research on Google and other less-advanced sources to develop his acculturation into “biochem jargon” (69).

Sweeney draws on Bruce’s final paper for the course as evidence of his post-liminal growth: she indicates that his exposure to audience awareness in his composition class meant that he “expected a critical reader” (71) and paid attention to the details that would demonstrate to the professor that he had been a strong participant in the class. At the same time, Sweeney notes, Bruce saw the details as “necessary for other scientists who might want to replicate his experiment” (72). Thus he was writing for “dual audiences” but with full awareness of his own standing as a peripheral participant (72). In Sweeney’s view, Bruce’s transformational relationship with audience was further evinced by his assertion that even experts did not read as doubters when encountering new information, and that therefore his strategy of reading new material for comprehension rather than as a critic was appropriate for his early work in science (70).

Sweeney’s study suggests that for students like Bruce who have been deemed underprepared, awareness of audience may drive them to accept this designation (74). She proposes that for Bruce, his struggles to enter the biochemistry community in the light of this designation may have been “generative” because they pushed him to assert agency by developing effective personal reading strategies (76). She argues that actively teaching audience awareness in early composition courses, in contrast to models that assume students will acquire disciplinary identities through “apprenticeship,” can give students a more productive understanding of how they can begin to relate to the communities of practice they hope to enter (75).


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Donahue & Foster-Johnson. Text Analysis for Evidence of Transfer. RTE, May 2018. Posted 07/13/2018.

Donahue, Christiane, and Lynn Foster-Johnson. “Liminality and Transition: Text Features in Postsecondary Student Writing.” Research in the Teaching of English 52.4 (2018): 359-381. Web. 4 July 2018.

Christiane Donahue and Lynn Foster-Johnson detail a study of student writing in the “liminal space” between a “generic” first-year-writing course and a second, “discipline-inspired” first-year seminar (365). They see their study as unusual in that it draws its data and conclusions from empirical “corpus analysis” of the texts students produce (376-77). They also present their study as different from much other research in that it considered a “considerably larger” sample that permits them to generalize about the broader population of the specific institution where the study took place (360).

The authors see liminal spaces as appropriate for the study of the issue usually referred to as “transfer,” which they see as a widely shared interest across composition studies (359). They contend that their study of “defined features” in texts produced as students move from one type of writing course to another allows them to identify “just-noticeable difference[s]” that they believe can illuminate how writing develops across contexts (361).

The literature review examines definitions of liminality as well as wide-ranging writing scholarship that attempts to articulate how knowledge created in one context changes as it is applied in new situations. They cite Linda Adler-Kassner’s 2014 contention that students may benefit from “learning strategy rather than specific writing rules or forms,” thus developing the ability to adapt to a range of new contexts (362).

One finding from studies such as that of Lucille McCarthy in 1987 and Donahue in 2010 is that while students change the way they employ knowledge as they move from first to final years of education, they do not seem fully aware of how their application of what they know has changed (361-62). Thus, for Donahue and Foster-Johnson, the actual features detectable in the texts themselves can be illuminating in ways that other research methodologies may not (362, 364).

Examining the many terms that have been used to denote “transfer,” Donahue and Foster-Johnson advocate for “models of writing knowledge reuse” and “adaptation,” which capture the recurrence of specific features and the ways these features may change to serve a new exigency (364).

The study took place in a “selective” institution (366) defined as a “doctoral university of high research activity” (365). The student population is half White, with a diverse range of other ethnicities, and 9% first-generation college students (366). Students take either one or two sections of general first-year writing, depending on needs identified by directed self-placement (366), and a first-year seminar that is “designed to teach first-year writing while also introducing students to a topic in a particular (inter)discipline and gesturing toward disciplinary writing” (365). The authors argue that this sequence provides a revealing “’bridge’ moment in students’ learning” (365).

Students were thus divided into three cohorts depending on which courses they took and in which semester. Ninety percent of the instructors provided materials, collecting “all final submitted drafts of the first and last ‘source-based’ papers” for 883 students. Fifty-two papers from each cohort were randomly chosen, resulting in 156 participants (366-67). Each participating student’s work was examined at four time points, with the intention of identifying the presence or absence of specific features (368).

The features under scrutiny were keyed to faculty-developed learning outcomes for the courses (367-68). The article discusses the analysis of seven: thesis presence, thesis type, introduction type, overall text structure, evidence types, conclusion type, and overall essay purpose (367). Each feature was further broken down into “facets,” 38 in all, that illustrated “the specific aspects of the feature” (367-68).

The authors provide detailed tables of their results and list findings in their text. They report that “the portrait is largely one of stability,” but note students’ ability to vary choices “when needed” (369). Statistically significant differences showing “change[s] across time” ranged from 13% in Cohort 1 to 29% in Cohort 2 and 16% in Cohort 3. An example of a stable strategy is the use of “one explicit thesis at the beginning” of a paper (371); a strategy “rarely” used was “a thesis statement [placed] inductively at the middle or end” (372). Donahue and Foster-Johnson argue that these results indicate that students had learned useful options that they could draw on as needed in different contexts (372).

The authors present a more detailed examination of the relationship between “thesis type” and “overall essay aim” (374). They give examples of strong correlations between, for example, “the purpose of analyzing an object” and the use of “an interpretive thesis” as well as negative correlations between, for example, “the purpose of analyzing an object” and “an evaluative thesis” (374). In their view, these data indicate that some textual features are “congruen[t]” with each other while others are “incompatible” (374). They find that their textual analysis documents these relationships and students’ reliance on them.

They note a “reset effect”: in some cases, students increased their use of a facet (e.g., “external source as authority”) over the course of the first class, but then reverted to using the facet less at the beginning of the second class, only to once again increase their reliance on such strategies as the second class progressed (374-75), becoming, “‘repeating newcomers’ in the second term” (374).

Donahue and Foster-Johnson propose as one explanation for the observed stability the possibility that “more stays consistent across contexts than we might readily acknowledge” (376), or that in general-education contexts in which exposure to disciplinary writing is preliminary, the “boundaries we imagine are fuzzy” (377). They posit that it is also possible that curricula may offer students mainly “low-road” opportunities for adaptation or transformation of learned strategies (377). The authors stress that in this study, they were limited to “what the texts tell us” and thus could not speak to students’ reasons for their decisions (376).

Questions for future research, they suggest, include whether students are aware of deliberate reuse of strategies and whether or not “students reusing features do so automatically or purposefully” (377). Research might link student work to particular students with identifiers that would enable follow-up investigation.

They argue that compared to the methods of textual analysis and “topic-modeling” their study employs, “current assessment methods . . . are crude in their construct representation and antiquated in the information they provide” (378). They call for “a new program of research” that exploits a new

capability to code through automated processes and allow large corpora of data to be uploaded and analyzed rapidly under principled categories of analysis. 378

 


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Horarik et al. Teachers’ Subject Knowledge about Grammar. RTE, Feb. 2018. Posted 03/11/2018.

Macken-Horarik, Mary, Kristina Love, and Stefan Horarik. “Rethinking Grammar in Language Arts: Insights from an Australian Survey of Teachers’ Subject Knowledge.” Research in the Teaching of English 52.3 (2018): 288-316. Print.

Mary Macken-Horarik, Kristina Love, and Stefan Horarik report a study of Australian English teachers’ attitudes toward teaching grammar in elementary and secondary schools. The study addresses the effects on writing instruction of a recent national program, Australian Curriculum: English (290). This “ambitious program” (291) asks teachers to implement a many-faceted “relational approach to grammar” (291). Macken-Horarik et al. draw data from a 2014 survey of 373 Australian English teachers to assess their support for the incorporation of this approach into writing instruction and to measure their confidence in their ability to effect this incorporation (291).

The authors cite research from the U.K., including Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and from the United States to note increasing calls for grammar instruction that moves beyond workbook exercises to help students understand grammar as a rhetorical element in which choices affect meaning (289, 312). This international research also calls into question whether teachers are prepared to follow through on such a curriculum (289-90).

A “relational approach” as described by the Australian curriculum breaks down amorphous “knowledge about language” into “grammatical subject knowledge” (GSK), which involves “structural resources of lexico-grammar (sentence level and below)” and “linguistic subject knowledge,” which “includes understanding of nonstructural resources such as cohesion (text level and beyond)” as well as “constructs such as genre, register, and discourse semantics” (293-94). GSK includes the ability to recognize and define grammatical elements, while LSK addresses how such elements function in use. In addition to these levels of knowledge, teachers implementing this approach are expected to possess “semiotic subject knowledge” (SSK) that will allow them to extend grammatical instruction to images, performances, etc. (292).

Macken-Horarik et al. identify three features of a relational approach. The first is a “broad scope” that covers multiple genres and forms of communication. The second is a “multilevel” approach, in which “a labeling of grammatical structures is important but insufficient,” with emphasis on how grammatical elements work to enable “higher levels of meaning in language.” Third is a “contextual orientation to grammar,” which allows for analysis of the function of language in diverse communicative and social environments (294).

Australia’s program requires students to study language through this relational lens beginning in kindergarten and throughout their school careers (291-92). The authors point to increasing burdens on teachers not only to convey the higher-level concepts inherent in the relational approach but also to incorporate ever-changing processes important in multimodal genres. They argue that the Australian program has not supplied adequate support to help teachers implement the curriculum (292-93, 313).

The 2014 survey to measure teachers’ appreciation of and ability to teach the curriculum included both quantitative and open-ended measures. Macken-Horarik et al. write that an initial paper drawn from the quantitative questions reported that teachers believed strongly in the value of a contextualized, relational grammar curriculum and generally responded that they were confident in their ability to teach it (296). However, analysis of the discursive, qualitative data “revealed anomalous patterns” (298).

Teachers surveyed overwhelmingly agreed that they valued all aspects of a relational approach, including SSK (the knowledge necessary to engage in multimodal composition) (298). However, questions focusing on specifics received lower positive response rates, and examination of the responses to open-ended questions found that comparatively few employed “a technical metalanguage” (298) that allowed them to discuss how form related to function (300). Despite endorsing the importance of SSK, when asked what kinds of knowledge were important, only 3 of 227 teachers who answered the open-ended version of the question mentioned multimodality (300).

Analysis of demographic data indicated that among the variables studied, including type of school and geographical location, only the teachers’ level of experience and the level at which they taught influenced the importance they attached to teaching grammatical knowledge. Less experienced teachers and primary-school teachers valued this knowledge more than more experienced counterparts teaching higher grades. The authors posit that teachers at higher levels may have assumed that by the time students reached them, the “core business” of grammar was “already ‘in place’” (301). In alignment with research in other cultures, teachers working with students from lower economic strata placed more importance on grammar than did their counterparts (301-02).

When asked in the quantitative sections of the survey about their confidence in their ability to teach the Australian curriculum, teachers again responded overwhelmingly that they felt prepared to do so. New teachers were more likely to express some doubt about their competence (303). Noting prior research that suggests that confidence levels do not necessarily indicate competence (303), Macken-Horarik et al. found that in the discursive answers to a question about the challenges the teachers faced, of 104 respondents, 69 found aspects of grammatical subject knowledge challenging (304). A number of these teachers stated that they had not been taught this knowledge in their own educations; others found “mapping functional grammar terminology onto traditional grammar terminology” difficult, while a third group noted that teaching a relational approach required them to work with more complex and difficult components and texts than they felt prepared to teach (305).

Further coding suggested that 63.5% of teachers responding to the issue of challenges “had already developed [knowledge about language] but needed to add ‘nuance’ to this in one or more areas of knowledge,” while 31.7% struggled with “basic knowledge of language” (305). These same teachers expressed “easy confidence with subject knowledge” in the quantitative measures (306-07). The authors find that this mismatch increases as teachers are asked to articulate specifics, particularly involving the role of lower-level components of language in developing higher levels of meaning (307).

Asked what professional development they needed, teachers identified published resources appropriate to the new curriculum, “infrastructure support,” and collaboration within and across schools (307). Again, roughly 30% of those who answered requested “a comprehensive introduction to subject knowledge” (308), and again, large majorities of those indicating such needs expressed high levels of confidence in their ability to teach the material (309). Discursive responses again revealed “an eerie silence” about the tools needed to teach in multimodal contexts (309).

The authors write that their study of “perceptions” did not allow them to judge whether teachers were actually capable of implementing contextual, nuanced instruction (310). Although more than 60% of the teachers surveyed rejected “decontextualized grammar exercises” (311), the authors call for further research including interviews. focus groups, and possibly text-based testing to illuminate teachers’ actual performance (311). In the authors’ view, Australian literacy education must do more to help teachers understand “how” to achieve the mandated goal of “[c]learly relating grammatical choices to meanings in texts and to contexts in which texts are produced” (312).

 


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Lawrence, Ann M. Teacher-Educator Identity Work in Doctoral Programs. RTE, Nov. 2017. Posted 01/04/2017.

Lawrence, Ann M. ‘(Dis)identifying as Writers, Scholars, and Researchers: Former Schoolteachers’ Professional Identity Work during Their Teaching-Education Doctoral Studies.” Research in the Teaching of English 52.2 (2017): 181-210. Print.

Ann M. Lawrence reports a longitudinal study of the ways in which teacher-education doctoral students specializing in language, literacy, and/or literature education at a Midwestern research university constructed identities as writers, scholars, and researchers. Lawrence’s fieldwork over 16 consecutive semesters (185) gathered data from doctoral students who were previously PreK-12 schoolteachers (189) working toward professional positions as “university-based teacher educators” (182; emphasis original). Lawrence’s research suggested that these students were reluctant to accept the identities of writer, scholar, or researcher for themselves.

Lawrence investigated the process of identity formation in two contexts, the doctoral program itself and extracurricular writing groups. Her data consisted of narratives on the semester evaluation forms for the writing groups, which she facilitated as “writing coach” (195). She focused particularly on “quick-write[s],” which she defines as “10 minutes of continuous, stream-of-consciousness writing” in response to the terms “writer,” “scholar,” and “researcher” and the question, “What criteria are you using to evaluate your writing/research?” (190). The prompts were designed to avoid “assuming connections between participation [as writers, scholars, and researchers] and identification” (190). Follow-up interviews and conversations also supplied data.

An important concept to Lawrence’s theoretical design was that of “figured worlds,” a term drawn from the identity-formation work of D. Holland, W. Lachicotte, D. Skinner, and C. Cain (183-84). In such worlds, participants identify “figuratively in terms of “available cultural associations with the personas” involved in that world, as well as “idealized versions of those characters and familiar plots of their activities” (183; emphasis original). For example, “academia” is a figured world; Lawrence casts the doctoral program and the writing-group environment as “localized figured worlds” in which

particular characters and actors [were] recognized, significance [was] assigned to certain acts, and particular outcomes [were] valued over others. (Holland et al., qtd. in Lawrence 184; emendations in Lawrence)

Both Holland et al. and Lawrence integrate this concept with Bakhtin’s theory that “authoritative discourses” can become “internally persuasive” as people develop identities voa the discourses, which direct activities and perceptions within figured worlds (Bakhtin, qtd. in Lawrence 184).

Lawrence notes that in both the doctoral program and the writing groups, participants produced academic research writing, in many cases successfully submitting to conferences, journals, and books—even “compet[ing]” with faculty mentors (189). She reports that in the doctoral-program figured world, the participants were cast as students under the directorship of an authoritative faculty supervisor. In contrast, in the voluntary writing groups, which met both face-to-face and online, participants were considered colleagues and collaborators (184, 187).

Comprehensive tables track the shifting identifications of the participants across semesters as they worked on a variety of scholarly and professional products. Lawrence’s analysis of the quick-writes of the 10 woman and single man in the study revealed “a genre of (dis)identification narrative recounted by the women” but not by the man (194).

The narrative, Lawrence writes, developed through three “plot points” (195). The women recognized the “figural” personas associated with the terms writer, scholar, and researcher: “literary authors, discerning individuals, and meticulous investigators” (196). In the second plot move, the women distanced themselves from such figures, whom they saw as hierarchical and elite, characterized by “exclusiveness” and, in the depiction of one student, “superiority” (197). Finally, the women “revised their initial images of writers, scholars, and researchers to evoke more of their own values, practices, and goals,” creating

a revised figurative identity that did not require publication, privileged the self as audience, and promoted the aesthetic experience of “spontaneous” composing, rather than adherence to genre “conventions.” (quotations from study participant in Lawrence 197)

In Lawrence’s view, with these moves, the women recognized “figurative identities” affiliated with the figured world of academia but refused “positional” identifications that would have required them to accept the relations of power, authority, and privilege associated with their perceptions of these figures (196). The women opted to recreate the figures into “amalgams” with limited expertise and authority that they were then willing to claim (197).

In contrast, the male participant aligned himself with the conventional academic identities, displaying little of the conflict evident in the women’s narratives (200-01). However, he subsequently revealed to Lawrence that his portrayal of himself concealed responses similar to those of the women that he had felt “inhibited from sharing” because of “sociocultural norms” dictating masculine expressions of weakness or doubt (202).

Lawrence indicates that the voluntary writing groups introduced many of the skills necessary to successful academic research and publication, but that the study participants struggled to accept the role of authoritative colleague that these groups offered, opting more often for the role of “student’ encouraged by the doctoral figured world (202-03), thus, in Bakhtin’s terms, finding the “schoolishness” (A. E. Whitney, qtd. in Lawrence 206) of the program’s “authoritative discourses” more “internally persuasive” (203). For Lawrence, these choices may be related to an “imposter syndrome” derived from the widespread lack of authority granted to schoolteachers and even to teacher-researchers in general, especially to the women who most often occupy these roles (204-05).

Lawrence stresses the importance of teacher-education programs that encourage developing faculty to recognize and act on their authority as researchers and colleagues. She notes that in later correspondence, her participants reported that their tendency to avoid these roles affected their ability to earn promotions and assert their expertise in their later careers (204-05).

In her discussion, Lawrence explores how the figured worlds of the writing groups and the more formal doctoral program might work together more effectively to encourage professional identity formation among students like her participants. Because the groups, as voluntary and extracurricular activities, did not command the “institutional authority” of the program itself, their influence on identities may have been undercut (206).

Lawrence suggests that program faculty might become more proactive as participant-facilitators in these groups by acting as colleagues rather than supervisors and sharing their own experiences as writers and researchers (207). Although faculty might fear “potential risks to faculty authority” (207), Lawrence argues that such roles can lead faculty to explore their own roles as educators and allow group members, including faculty, to analyze their trajectories through different identities, including that of “schoolteacher,” which Lawrence sees as an important springboard for the study of writing education (182). Such interaction, Lawrence contends, can make the doctoral program itself more conducive to collegial interaction (206-07). Lawrence urges more research into the development of faculty identity with attention to gender and to the productive intersection of possible figured worlds (205-06).