Contested pasts, complicated presents: Pre-service teachers’ developing conceptions of community

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Published: 
November 2020

Source: Teaching and Teacher Education, Volume 96

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this paper, the author seeks to understand how a group of pre-service secondary English teachers at a public university in the U.S. South defined community, inquired into the community, and drew on community knowledge to inform their teaching.
As part of their required coursework, these PSTs completed a Community Inquiry Project (CIP), wherein they were tasked with spending time in the community surrounding the university, documenting various aspects of the community, creating a virtual community tour, and then analyzing and revising a lesson plan to better align with their knowledge of the community.
Data were collected during the PSTs’ final year of coursework:
during and in the semester following the CIP.
In particular, this inquiry is guided by the following research questions:
1. How did PSTs orient toward the CIP and the community during and after the project?
2. What relationship did PSTs perceive to exist between community knowledge and planning instruction during and after the CIP?
3. What conceptions of community did PSTs hold across the duration of the study?

Method

Participants and context
The twelve PSTs who consented to participate in this study were all seniors enrolled in the undergraduate secondary English Education program at a public university in the U.S. South.
This one-year program consisted of two semesters.
In the first semester, PSTs took five methods courses and spent approximately 16 h each week observing in a middle or high school English Language Arts (ELA) classroom.
During the second semester, PSTs took a bimonthly seminar course and completed their student teaching, ideally in the same classroom they observed in the previous semester.
At the time of data collection, the author was the instructor of the reading methods course in the first semester.

Course and project design
The CIP, in particular, was incorporated into the course to give PSTs the opportunity to learn about students’ community-based lives and to consider how that information might inform their approach to teaching literacy.
Furthermore, the CIP aimed to bridge cultural differences between PSTs and future students (Bottiani et al., 2018), to challenge potentially deficit understandings of difference (Bottiani et al., 2018; Graue, 2005; Philip et al., 2013; Sleeter, 2001), and to encourage PSTs to see communities as diverse and dynamic (Philip et al., 2013). Thus, individually-composed reflections, small-group discussions, and interviews were designed to mediate PSTs’ experiences as they learned about the people, spaces, and resources in their communities.
To encourage PSTs to consider how community knowledge might inform their teaching and lesson planning, each PST annotated one lesson plan they had taught that semester, noting assumptions they were making of students through various aspects of the lesson and revising their plans accordingly.
Finally, each student wrote a rationale paper to explain how their community knowledge was informing the instructional and curricular modifications made to the lesson plan.

Data collection
To address the research questions, data were collected at various points across both semesters of participants’ enrollment in the English Education program.
During the CIP, each participant completed three individual reflections and participated in three audio-recorded small-group discussions.
The directions for the reflections and discussions were open-ended, aimed at having participants comment on what they were learning, why that information was significant, and how they might use that information moving forward.
At the conclusion of the CIP and after having completed their practicum work, each participant submitted their lesson plan analysis, modification, and rationale papers.
Finally, in the semester following the CIP, and toward the end of student teaching, each participant participated in one 1-h semi-structured interview (Seidman, 2013). The individual reflections, small-group discussion recordings, and transcribed interviews form the data corpus for this study.

Findings and discussion
PSTs’ experiences during and in the semester following the CIP contributed to more complex understandings of community.
As they were completing the CIP, PSTs identified two separate community spheres: the town of Lindfield and their college student cohort.
As PSTs completed student teaching, however, their conceptions of community shifted to include the people at their student teaching placement school.
Although PSTs acknowledged that their schools were situated within larger contexts (noting the rural nature of the town or students’ extracurricular activities, for example), their talk during the interviews was primarily aimed at understanding students’ interests and learning profiles to make pedagogical and curricular decisions.
They were simultaneously attentive to students’ personal interests and their community-based experiences and cultures.
PSTs rarely differentiated between these aspects of students’ lives, suggesting that the PSTs were developing sociocultural approaches to student learning and development: understanding that learning is social, contextually embedded, and mediated.
Upon first glance, PSTs’ attention to individual students’ interests and learning profiles could be viewed as reflective of PSTs’ misunderstanding of community-informed teaching and a lack of effort to connect to community people and places outside the school space.
However, when considered through the lens of sociocultural theory and the contradictory nature of community, the author argues that these PSTs were, instead, acknowledging the complex and fluid nature of community rather than attempting to oversimplify the concept of community as merely composed of physical places and people within a certain area code.
On the one hand, then, community-engaged projects, like the CIP, could be viewed as an effective mediational tool in teacher education contributing to the development of complex and fluid understandings of community that could ultimately contribute to the development of a more sociocultural conception of teaching as community-oriented practice.
Further, as they develop understandings of community that extend beyond place-based affiliations and memberships, PSTs could also adopt community-engaged teaching practices that challenge inequities within and among groups.
By casting a wider net and recognizing community to entail many different aspects of students’ lives, PSTs can develop more complex conceptions of communities as constructed, flexible, and relational (Collins, 2010; Philip et al., 2013).

References
Bottiani, J. H., Larson, K. E., Debnam, K. J., Bischoff, C. M., & Bradshaw, C. P. (2018). Promoting educators’ use of culturally responsive practices: A systematic review of inservice interventions. Journal of Teacher Education, 69(4), 367e385.
Collins, P. H. (2010). The new politics of community. American Sociological Review, 75(1), 7e30.
Graue, M. E. (2005). Theorizing and describing preservice teachers’ images of families and schooling. Teachers College Record, 107(1), 157e185.
Philip, T. M., Way, W., Garcia, A. D., Schuler-Brown, S., & Navarro, O. (2013). When educators attempt to make "community" a part of classroom learning: The dangers of (mis)appropriating students’ communities into schools. Teaching and Teacher Education, 34(1), 174e183.
Seidman, I. (2013). Interviewing as qualitative research: A guide for researchers in education and the social sciences (4th ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Sleeter, C. E. (2001). Preparing teachers for culturally diverse schools: Research and the overwhelming presence of whiteness. Journal of Teacher Education, 52(2), 94e106.  

Updated: Jun. 15, 2021
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