“I Didn’t Want to Make Them Feel Wrong in Any Way”: Preservice Teachers Craft Digital Feedback on Sociopolitical Perspectives in Student Texts


Source: Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 19(4), 605-639

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this paper, the authors build on two emerging bodies of literature: calls for support for preservice teachers’ (PSTs’) development of social justice pedagogical content knowledge (Dyches & Boyd, 2017; Garcia & O’Donnell-Allen, 2015; Minor, 2018) and scholarship on ideologies shaping English Language Arts (ELA) teachers’ beliefs and practices (Barnes & Chandler, 2019; Laughter, Huddleston, Shipman, & Victory, 2018; Sherry, 2017).
Aligned with the sociopolitical discourse related to teaching writing, their study sought to understand how prospective teachers think about and respond to students whose argumentative writing is grounded in potentially polarizing ideological perspectives.

In this study, in which PSTs and students never met face to face, the authors examined how PSTs reflected on the sociopolitical perspectives embedded in students’ writing and perceived the digital tools to mediate their feedback.
They asked, how did PSTs respond to sociopolitical perspectives in high school students’ writing?

The present study stemmed from a multicase analysis of five undergraduate English methods courses that used the Writing Mentors program for field experience hours (two methods courses at the rural university and three at the urban university).
The study began at the start of the spring 2018 semester with two courses and continued in the fall 2018 semester with three courses.
In total, the authors had 12 participants (three from the rural university and nine from the urban university) across five different courses.
Studying each course as a case allowed the authors to examine connections between course objectives, what the PSTs learned about their mentees’ social and cultural selves during the field experience, and their experiences giving feedback to these students using digital technology.
The technology the PSTs used to give feedback consisted of Google platforms (Google Docs, Google Drive, and Google Community) as well as a screencasting tool.

Data Sources and Analysis
Data sources for the study included audio files from focus groups and corresponding transcripts and 12 PSTs’ responses to 46 mentees.
Semistructured questions for focus groups elicited participants’ approaches to teaching writing as well as the opportunities and challenges they faced as they used Google Docs and other digital tools.
Over a 9-month period, the authors conducted nine focus groups with PSTs.
The authors used thematic analysis to identify patterns in the ways the PSTs identified or reacted to sociopolitical content in the students’ drafts.
Their thematic analysis was collaborative so that they could cross-verify the content of the themes.
For the present study, the data sources included the coding book from the original study and the PSTs’ digital responses to their mentees’ writing.
After identifying any sociopolitical perspectives the PSTs themselves espoused, as well as instances when the PSTs perceived tensions between their perspectives and those their mentees employed in their drafts, the authors examined the PSTs’ digital feedback to their mentees to understand how PSTs responded to sociopolitical perspectives in students’ writing.

Findings and Discussion
The authors report that although authentic opportunities for responding to student writers supported PSTs’ critical reflection on teaching writing, the data indicate that such authentic practice may not be sufficient in preparing them to navigate sociopolitical issues and may, in fact, exacerbate their impulses to enact educational niceness.

Responses to Sociopolitical Perspectives in Students’ Writing
The authors found that throughout all five cases in the Writing Mentors program, PSTs reported encountering sociopolitical perspectives in high school writers’ drafts. They responded in ways that they describe as “neutral” (i.e., the PSTs refrained from commenting on the writers’ views and, thus, did not align themselves with or against those views) and “engaged” (i.e., in their feedback on student writing, the PSTs explicitly aligned themselves with or against the PSTs’ sociopolitical views). In the analysis of PSTs’ responses, the authors problematized their perceptions and choices and discuss the ways in which educational niceness seemed to influence their response practices.

PSTs’ neutral responses to high school students’ sociopolitical stances
Several PSTs avoided engaging with writers’ sociopolitical content.
They articulated that they stayed neutral by withholding information about their own political opinions and by privileging structural form in their responses.

PSTs’ engaged responses to high school students’ sociopolitical perspectives
Rather than remaining neutral, several PSTs responded to sociopolitical content in their mentees’ writing by taking an explicit stance on their mentees’ views.
Perhaps not surprisingly — in keeping with the legacy of educational niceness — no PSTs explicitly disagreed with writers’ views when they commented on drafts.

Toward a dialogic mentor-mentee stance
While these findings point to a number of important affordances made available to PSTs in the WM program (e.g., opportunities to work with secondary writers outside of their regional purview, to try out new technologies to facilitate their response to writing, and to reflect on how their feedback was taken up or not taken up by their mentees), the authors recognize important shortcomings as well.
One theme was seen by the authors as important: the implication for PSTs’ ability to respond to sociopolitical perspectives when they have limited information about their mentees.
Despite the authors’ attempts to improve community building and promote the development of productive working relationships between mentors and mentees, PSTs working with students outside of their sociocultural contexts seemed even more cautious of disrupting educational niceness, resulting in their clear reluctance to address sociopolitical issues they disagreed with.
The authors conclude that in sum, the Writing Mentors program provided PSTs with valuable experience responding to authentic student writing, but it did not prepare PSTs to navigate sociopolitical issues in students’ writing.
PSTs drew on numerous rhetorical and semiotic strategies to remain either neutral or engaged without imposing, in some cases recognizing their own sociopolitical stance after reflecting on their students’ sociopolitical content.
PSTs who espoused both perspectives — neutral and engaged — expressed a diverse range of argumentative epistemologies in their presemester surveys. There was no correlation to their stances on engaging sociopolitical content.
The authors also note that when the capacity and opportunity to share information between PSTs and mentees was improved in the second semester of the study, a corresponding engagement with students’ sociopolitical content did not follow.

Barnes, M. E., & Chandler, C. (2019). Leveraging digital spaces for pre-service teachers to practice reading and responding to student writing. Journal of Language and Literacy Education, 15(1), 1-23.
Dyches, J., & Boyd, A. (2017). Foregrounding equity in teacher education: Toward a model of social justice pedagogical and content knowledge. Journal of Teacher Education, 68(5), 476-490.
Garcia, A., & O’Donnell-Allen, C. (2015). Pose, wobble, flow: A culturally proactive approach to literacy instruction. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Sherry, M. B. (2017). Prospective English teachers learn to respond to diversity in students’ writing through the student writing archive project (SWAP). English Education, 49(4), 347-376.
Laughter, J., Huddleston, A., Shipman, M., & Victory, H. (2018). Our students are watching: Navigating heightened polarization during class discussion. English Teaching: Practice & Critique, 17(2), 103-115.
Minor, C. (2018). We got this: Equity, access, and the quest to be who our students need us to be. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Sherry, M. B. (2017). Prospective English teachers learn to respond to diversity in students’ writing through the student writing archive project (SWAP). English Education, 49(4), 347-376. 

Updated: Apr. 18, 2020