“We’re More than Cows and Plows”: Preservice Agriculture Teachers Use Young Adult Literature to Construct Professional Identities

Winter 2021

Source: Action in Teacher Education, 43:4, 496-512

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This article outlines the benefits of literacy integration on agriculture teacher candidates (TCs’) professional identity development from a recent study investigating the role of young adult literature (YAL) in content area literacy (CAL) coursework.

The purpose of this research was to understand the role of YAL in supporting agriculture TCs to establish professional identities that can impact secondary students’ learning of content knowledge.
This study was driven by the following two questions:
1) How can YAL contribute to preservice agriculture teachers’ development of professional identities in a CAL course?
2) What role can YAL play in preservice agriculture teachers’ design of literacy instruction?

Participants were recruited using purposive sampling (Merriam, 2009).
A total of four agriculture TCs participated in the study, which took place over eight weeks during the fall, 2018 semester.
All four participants (pseudonyms used) were seniors majoring in agricultural education who had connections to agriculture prior to college and were one semester away from student teaching.
Sal, who grew up on a cattle ranch located one hundred miles north of campus, had been an Agricultural Education major for four years and identified as a Latino male.
Camille, whose family grew pistachios and pecans in the eastern region of the state, was a new addition to teacher education, having transferred into the program from Agriculture Science the semester before.
She identified as a Latina female.
Dean identified as a Caucasian male and had been in the Agricultural Education program since enrolling at the university.
His upbringing was urban, though he participated in 4H and other agricultural programs throughout his youth.
Rita had also been in the education tract since her freshman year and identified as a Caucasian female.
Her family operated a pumpkin patch on the outskirts of the city.

Data Collection and Analysis
To align with Hsieh’s (2016) framework of exploring literacy experiences, theoretical knowledge, and practical application, the author utilized a collective case study design to examine how agriculture TCs used YAL to design instruction.
Plummer (2001) argues that case studies assist researchers in studying specific phenomena related to individuals and their experiences in a single setting.
The four participants within the larger phenomenon of professional identity represented the collective case study design (Stake, 2005), and the data the author collected included semi-structured group interviews, observations of participants’ interactions with themselves and others, and lesson plans created by participants.
To understand the central phenomenon of how participants may have been developing professional identities, the author selected a semi-structured interview format which included both predetermined as well as improvised questions that allowed participants the shared platform to flexibly share their thoughts related to their agriculture literacy pedagogies (Creswell & Creswell, 2018).
The author first interviewed participants as a group to understand their literacy backgrounds (Hsieh, 2016).
He asked questions about their past experiences with literacy and tried to gauge the level of emphasis they had placed on literacy throughout their agricultural education.
Then, using the YA novel, If I Ever Get Out of Here (Gansworth, 2013), participants read a selection of chapters each week within their agriculture group and identified disciplinary practices in the text that could demonstrate mastery of an agricultural domain.
Using these operations as a springboard, participants created a lesson plan each week that they could use with secondary agriculture students.
Participants collaborated within their content area during each class meeting to discuss the literacy practices they identified and to brainstorm ideas for instruction, but the lesson plans were individually generated in the days leading up to the following meeting.
When class convened the next week, participants taught their lesson plans in interdisciplinary peer groups comprised of multiple content areas who followed each demonstration with a feedback session.
The whole class then discussed the chapters together.
In addition to observing interactions and lesson plans, the author conducted semi-structured interviews with participants throughout the research, including a final session at the conclusion of the study.
Each participant created five agriculture lesson plans inspired by the novel and participated in three interviews.
As a practitioner-researcher and course instructor, the author’s role with the participants was very much as a facilitator and data collector.
While he designed the YAL unit and set expectations for the assignments, the literacy work conducted by participants was entirely student driven.

Results: Agriculture TCs Construct Professional Identities
Using YAL Preservice agriculture teachers used YAL to construct professional identities in four ways: by cultivating a community of literacy, developing their instructional design, establishing themselves as experts across multiple fields, and expressing feelings of isolation and skepticism.
This study examines the construction of professional identity of preservice teachers within the three components of Hsieh’s (2016) identity framework.
Agriculture TCs reflected on their backgrounds and futures in literacy in ways that helped them formulate authentic approaches to incorporating literacy in their content area instruction.
Writing lesson plans and exchanging feedback allowed participants to put into action their theoretical knowledge of agriculture content and pedagogy.
With the help of a common text to draw from, TCs generated literacy-based applications of discipline specific concepts and practices.
While previous studies have shown that preservice agriculture teachers often struggle with designing quality instruction and feel lost when searching for connections between their discipline and literacy, this research indicates that a focus on community and developing a professional identity can help TCs overcome challenges stemming from a lack of familiarity with literacy (Rice & Kitchel, 2015).
These findings hold implications for teacher educators who prepare TCs to work in schools that increasingly expect quality teaching while meeting demands of Common Core that call for greater literacy integration across disciplines.
Implementing YAL was a positive intervention for agriculture TCs because it allowed them the chance to cohere around a central text as collaborative learners before using discipline-related content in the text to design their own lesson plans (Alsup, 2010).
Working with YAL also complemented participants’ construction of professional identity because they explored their own positionalities and perspectives in relationship to those characterized in the novel (Sokoll, 2013).
Basing participants’ identity development in YAL allowed for growth in both literacy and in preparing to teach agriculture skills, a finding which responds to Rice and Kitchel’s (2015) call for comprehensive agriculture teacher education.
Participants leveraged their community-building and coherence around a central text to emphasize disciplinary practices, generating pedagogy from a foundation of domain mastery (Marlatt, 2018a).
Discipline-specific practices channeled through YAL was a powerful approach to content area instruction for participants because the novel’s characters and storylines illuminated literacy operations and practical applications within their field (Marlatt, 2018b).
In addition to implications of communities of practice, teacher educators may also find significance in how participants analyzed characters of various ethnicities and cultures while considering literacy based strategies to respond to the needs of diverse learners (Bernadowski, 2013).
Multicultural learning opportunities are an important component of teacher preparation, especially in agriculture, where TCs often struggle to empathize with the lives and academic needs of students whose backgrounds may differ from their own (Vincent et al., 2012).
Agriculture TCs developed communities of literacy, designed content area instruction, and solidified their expertise by challenging themselves to reframe their relationship with literacy, all the while extending their perspectives across race, language, religion, and culture (Villegas & Lucas, 2002).
Their experience in coursework as “the other” impacted their efforts to support one another in responding culturally to learners through curriculum and instruction (Gay, 2010).

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Updated: May. 14, 2022