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Staley and Leonardi. Teacher Education for Gender and Sexual Diversity. RTE, Nov. 2016. Posted 01/04/2017.

Staley, Sara, and Bethy Leonardi. “Leaning In to Discomfort: Preparing Literacy Teachers for Gender and Sexual Diversity.” Research in the Teaching of English 51.2 (2016): 209-29. Print.

Sara Staley and Bethy Leonardi present the results of a literacy methods course for preservice English language arts teacher in which practices for supporting LGBTQ students were foregrounded. The authors argue that the “disturbing number of lives lost in recent years among youth who identified or were perceived to identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning” demands attention from educators who have failed to address “the resounding silence around gender and sexual diversity (GSD) . . . that has long pervaded teacher education” (209). The authors contend that LGBTQ students often report feeling that “school was often an unsafe place” (209). Staley and Leonardi discuss the results of a curriculum designed to help novice teachers make their classrooms more welcoming to such students.

The course was piloted in Fall 2012 and the study conducted during the Spring 2013 semester at a large public university in the Mountain West (214). Students in the course were about to commence student teaching (215). Primary data consisted of transcripts of
“two whole-class fishbowl conversations” conducted during weeks 4 and 16, and a blog that students began working with in week 4 (216). The researchers provided specific prompts for the blog. Of the seventeen students in the course, sixteen agreed to participate; three were eliminated as data sources because they contributed only minimally in the assigned venues, so eleven who self-identified as female and two who self-identified as male participated (215).

The researchers, both doctoral students, co-designed the course and the study (215). Staley was the “lead instructor” and Leonardi a “participant observer in three class sessions” as well as a facilitator of various components of the course (215).

The analytic framework for the course and study involved a “queer theoretical perspective on the problem of heteronormativity in schools” that urges teachers to disrupt dominant assumptions that sexuality functions as a binary in which heterosexuality is normal and other forms of sexual identification are deviant (211). The authors contend that such an approach is preferable to standard anti-bullying programs that “locate the problem in individuals, rather than in institutional practices that encourage bullying and oppress on the basis of sex, gender, and sexuality” (212). Staley and Leonardi combine this approach with that of Kevin K. Kumashiro, who casts anti-oppression education in terms of “desire, resistance, and crisis” (213, italics original) and of Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön, who encourages “leaning in” as a way of overcoming the resistance that can derail the process of “unlearning” long-held views about topics like sexuality (222; italics original). The authors define “leaning in” as “a moving toward discomfort, rather than away from it, and inquiry into what can be learned from such energetic responses as emotional pain, fear, and discomfort” (223).

These analytical perspectives led Staley and Leonardi to focus on manifestations of emotion in their data, as well as reactions to the course’s emphasis on the role of teachers in disrupting heteronormativity (217). They identified emotional responses as “discomfort,” “desire to disrupt,” and “desire to resist.” A recurrent theme in students’ responses involved “how” to further GSD-inclusive curricula; this marker was labeled “wrestling with praxis.” As a result of this coding, students were categorized as “dedicated disrupters,” “discomforted,” and “resistors” (217; italics original). The discussion centers on the “discomforted” because this group of eight students exhibited significant changes during the course (218).

The emotional shifts experienced by the discomforted students began with “shock,” “incredulity,” and “disbelief” as they confronted claims in the course readings that school environments were not uniformly progressive and that teachers were often not protected when they attempted to incorporate anti-oppressive curricula on GSD issues (218-19). The students became aware of their own lack of knowledge about responses to LGBTQ concerns in schools and the failure of their own educations as preservice teachers to address these concerns (219). The beginning teachers’ own experiences in grappling with classroom incidents in which they did not know how to disrupt heteronormative oppression led to a shift to “wrestling with praxis” as they began to search for viable tools to protect students (220).

Staley and Leonardi report that these searches and discussions led to positive results as discomforted students in their class began to be able to articulate “specific examples of actionable steps that literacy teachers could take to disrupt heteronormativity,” including recognizing the need to move beyond simply including LGBTQ-themed literature in the classroom (221). The authors note, however, that this increasing practical grounding did not alleviate the students’ sense that there were no simple solutions or “path[s]” they could consistently follow but rather that learning to address oppressive behavior in the classroom was a matter of “ongoing labor” (Kumashiro, qtd. in Staley and Leonardi 222).

The authors provide two examples of students who responded to the emotional crisis generated by unlearning familiar assumptions by “leaning In” to their discomfort. These two students “each began to frame their discomfort as generative and necessary—not as something to be resolved, once and for all” (222). These two responses emphasized the importance of considering mistakes as ways to move forward and of recognizing fear in challenging situations as a necessary component of acting in circumstances where there will never be clear answers (223-24).

Noting that language-arts teachers are especially well-positioned to bring GSD concerns into curricula, the authors call for a deliberate focus on these concerns in teacher education (224), so that teachers have tools that allow them to “move beyond inclusion” to active resistance to heteronormative agendas (224). They note that their own curriculum might have productively incorporated awareness of the necessary emotional journey in their course framework, recognizing and “celebrat[ing]” early “glimmers of leaning in” (225; emphasis original). Student teachers, they argue, will benefit from learning a greater “tolerance for discomfort, uncertainty, and ambiguity” (225). Further, they encourage efforts to engage prospective teachers whose cultural values, for example religious views, make grappling with GSD issues even more problematic than for others (225). The authors endorse the concept of leaning in to discomfort as a way to draw preservice teachers into the “ongoing labor” of anti-oppressive education.


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Zuidema and Fredricksen. Preservice Teachers’ Use of Resources. August RTE. Posted 09/25/2016.

Zuidema, Leah A., and James E. Fredricksen. “Resources Preservice Teachers Use to Think about Student Writing.” Research in the Teaching of English 51.1 (2016): 12-36. Print.

Leah A. Zuidema and James E. Fredricksen document the resources used by students in teacher-preparation programs. The study examined transcripts collected from VoiceThread discussions among 34 preservice teachers (PSTs) (16). The PSTs reviewed and discussed papers provided by eighth- and ninth-grade students in Idaho and Indiana (18).

Zuidema and Fredricksen define “resource” as “an aid or source of evidence used to help support claims; an available supply that can be drawn upon when needed” (15). They intend their study to move beyond determining what writing teachers “get taught” to discovering what kinds of resources PSTs actually use in developing their theories and practices for K-12 writing classrooms (13-14).

The literature review suggests that the wide range of concepts and practices presented in teacher-preparation programs varies depending on local conditions and is often augmented by students’ own educational experiences (14). The authors find very little systematic study of how beginning teachers actually draw on the methods and concepts their training provides (13).

Zuidema and Fredricksen see their study as building on prior research by systematically identifying the resources teachers use and assigning them to broad categories to allow a more comprehensive understanding of how teachers use such sources to negotiate the complexities of teaching writing (15-16).

To gather data, the researchers developed a “community of practice” by building their methods courses around a collaborative project focusing on assessing writing across two different teacher-preparation programs (16-17). Twenty-six Boise State University PSTs and 8 from a small Christian college, Dordt, received monthly sets of papers from the eighth and ninth graders, which they then assessed individually and with others at their own institutions.

The PSTs then worked in groups through VoiceThread to respond to the papers in three “rounds,” first “categoriz[ing]” the papers according to strengths and weaknesses; then categorizing and prioritizing the criteria they relied on; and finally “suggest[ing] a pedagogical plan of action” (19). This protocol did not explicitly ask PSTs to name the resources they used but revealed these resources via the transcriptions (19).

The methods courses taught by Zuidema and Fredricksen included “conceptual tools” such as “guiding frameworks, principles, and heuristics,” as well as “practical tools” like “journal writing and writer’s workshop” (14). PSTs read professional sources and participated in activities that emphasized the value of sharing writing with students (17). Zuidema and Fredricksen contend that a community of practice in which professionals explain their reasoning as they assess student writing encourages PSTs to “think carefully about theory-practice connections” (18).

In coding the VoiceThread conversations, the researchers focused on “rhetorical approaches to composition” (19), characterized as attention to “arguments and claims . . . , evidence and warrants,” and “sources of support” (20). They found five categories of resources PSTs used to support claims about student writing:

  • Understanding of students and student writing (9% of instances)
  • Knowledge of the context (10%)
  • Colleagues (11%)
  • PSTs’ roles as writers, readers, and teachers (17%)
  • PSTs’ ideas and observations about writing (54%) (21)

In each case, Zuidema and Fredricksen developed subcategories. For example, “Understanding of students and student writing” included “Experience as a student writer” and “Imagining students and abilities,” while “Colleagues” consisted of “Small-group colleagues,” “More experienced teachers,” “Class discussion/activity,” and “Professional reading” (23).

Category 1, “Understanding of students and student writing,” was used “least often,” with PSTs referring to their own student-writing experiences only six times out of 435 recorded instances (24). The researchers suggest that this category might have been used more had the PSTs been able to interact with the students (24). They see “imagining” how students are reacting to assignments important as a “way [teachers] can develop empathy” and develop interest in how students understand writing (24).

Category 2, “Knowledge of Context as a Resource,” was also seldom used. Those who did refer to it tended to note issues involving what Zuidema and Fredricksen call GAPS: rhetorical awareness of “genre, audience, purpose, and situation of the writing” (25). Other PSTs noted the role of the prompt in inviting strong writing. The researchers believe these types of awarenesses encourage more sophisticated assessment of student work (25).

The researchers express surprise that Category 3, “Colleagues,” was used so seldom (26). Colleagues in the small groups were cited most often, but despite specific encouragement to do so, several groups did not draw on this resource. Zuidema and Fredricksen note that reference to the resource increased through the three rounds. Also surprising was the low rate of reference to mentors and experienced teachers, to class discussion, activities, and assignments: Only one participant mentioned a required “professional reading” as a resource (27). Noting that the PSTs may have used concepts from mentors and class assignments without explicitly naming them, the authors note prior research suggesting that reference to outside sources can be perceived as undercutting the authority conferred by experience (27).

In Category 4, “Roles as Resources,” Zuidema and Fredricksen note that PSTs were much more likely to draw on their roles as readers or teachers than as writers (28). Arguing that a reader perspective augured an awareness of the importance of audience, the researchers note that most PSTs in their study perceived their own individual reader responses as most pertinent, suggesting the need to emphasize varied perspectives readers might bring to a text (28).

Fifty-four percent of the PSTs references invoked “Writing as a Resource” (29). Included in this category were “imagined ideal writing,” “comparisons across student writing,” “holistic” references to “whole texts,” and “excerpts” (29-31). In these cases, PSTs’ uses of the resources ranged from “a rigid, unrhetorical view of writing” in which “rules” governed assessment (29) to a more effective practice that “connected [student writing] with a rhetorical framework” (29). For example, the use of excerpts could be used for “keeping score” on “checklists” or as a means of noting patterns and suggesting directions for teaching (31). Comparisons among students and expectations for other students at similar ages, Zuidema and Fredricksen suggest, allowed some PSTs to reflect on developmental issues, while holistic evaluation allowed consideration of tone, audience, and purpose (30).

Zuidema and Fredricksen conclude that in encouraging preservice teachers to draw on a wide range of resources, “exposure was not enough” (32), and “[m]ere use is not the goal” (33). Using their taxonomy as a teaching tool, they suggest, may help PSTs recognize the range of resources available to them and “scaffold their learning” (33) so that they will be able to make informed decisions when confronted with the multiple challenges inherent in today’s diverse and sometimes “impoverished” contexts for teaching writing (32).