Growth Through Crisis: Preservice Teachers Learning To Enact Culturally Relevant Literacy Teaching

Winter 2021

Source: Action in Teacher Education, 43:4, 479-495

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This article reports findings from a larger qualitative study of preservice teachers (PSTs) outcomes in learning to teach reading in culturally relevant ways.
The purpose of this exploratory study was to begin to understand the ways PSTs worked through the crisis, or cognitive dissonance, they experienced when learning to teach in culturally relevant ways.
The authors' research question was, “How do PSTs work through crisis encountered while learning to teach elementary reading in critical and culturally relevant ways?”
They argue that teacher educators must intentionally design opportunities for candidates to both experience and work through crisis as they begin their journey toward becoming culturally relevant literacy teachers.

Critical ethnography was used to explore the ways PSTs worked through their individual and collective crisis.
Critical ethnography has been described as “critical theory in action” and begins with an ethical responsibility to disrupt the status quo in ways that promote community well-being and human freedom (Madison, 2005, p. 16).
The use of critical ethnography can and should also attend to documenting the process of empowerment and accelerating the conscientization by valuing “the right to voice in one’s own language and through one’s own experiences’’ (Trueba, 1999, p. 594).
With these ideas in mind, the authors found critical ethnography appropriate for this study because it encouraged attentiveness to how PSTs attempted to work through crisis.

Course Context and Course Focus
This study focused on PSTs in an undergraduate literacy methods course, the second in a series of four literacy methods courses PSTs take to meet state licensure and graduation requirements.
The course focused on literacy instruction for children in grades two through six and met for 16 three-hour sessions.
The overall conceptual focus of the course was to invite PSTs to begin to construct a vision of effective elementary literacy teaching grounded in critical understandings about the complex ways social factors such as race and racism, culture, socioeconomic status, language, ability, and gender shape literacy teaching and learning experiences of racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse children.
The course also included a focus on agency and praxis, in that it encouraged PSTs to consider their roles and responsibilities in increasing the positive literacy outcomes through engagement, achievement, motivation, and community building in the classroom.

Participants were purposefully sampled (Patton, 2002) from PSTs who were enrolled in an elementary literacy methods course at a large, predominantly White, research-intensive flagship university located in the southern region of the United States.
A total of 19 students were enrolled in the course.
Seven students volunteered to participate in the study. All PSTs identified as women, three identified as African American, one as Asian American, and three as European American.
Aside from literacy methods coursework, students were in local elementary school field placements for two full days a week.

Data Sources
The primary sources of data included one end of course portfolio and artifacts completed by each PST over the course of one semester.
The portfolio included
(a) one detailed written reflection and
(b) one written critical academic commentary.
Madison (2005) posits that personal narratives, or participants’ writings about their experiences is a hallmark of critical ethnography data collection techniques.
Artifacts included:
(a) book club responses,
(b) quick writes (reflective writing based on a prompt), and
(c) an ethnographic research project reflective commentary.
Students completed the artifacts throughout the semester using their own computers and submitting their work to Blackboard.
A total of four book club responses, two quick writes, and one ethnographic research reflective commentary per PST were included.
Data sources were well-suited to address the research question given our interest in how PSTs work through crisis encountered while learning to teach elementary reading in critical and culturally relevant ways.
Data sources ascertained pre-service teachers’ reflections about the course in general and more specifically their experience in their community-based field placement.
PSTs were not solicited to participate in the study until the semester ended.
Moreover, data were not analyzed until after PSTs consented to participate in the study.

Data Analysis
Drawing on Gee (1999), analysis was an iterative, inductive process that began by reading each PST’s end of course portfolio (teacher reflection and critical academic commentary) separately and coding instances when PSTs described what the researchers interpreted as a crisis moment.
As codes were re-read and discussed, descriptions of PST’s negotiating crisis were grouped into the themes that were most prominent across all participants.
To illustrate this process, researchers re-read the data aligned with the code confronting notions of care and engagement.
The code, moving from reflection to action emerged from this level of analysis.
The code, moving from reflection to action was then linked to theme pedagogical risk-taking

Findings and discussion
The authors inquired into the ways PSTs worked through moments of crisis encountered while learning to teach elementary reading in culturally relevant ways.
Such findings are important to the field of teacher education because it highlights potential PST outcomes connected to crisis and discomfort, which can encourage teacher educators to approach the preparation of reading teachers in critical, justice-oriented ways.
While no one literacy methods course alone can provide the full scope of what is needed to teach in culturally relevant ways, the present study of PSTs growth through crisis highlights the role that not just experiencing crisis but working through crisis contributes to the preparation of conscious and competent reading teachers.
Findings highlight that preservice teachers worked through moments of crisis through cracking open the crux of the crisis, taking pedagogical risks in their teaching, and developing counternarratives that reified success.
Such experiences put teacher candidates in a better position to meet the needs of racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse young readers through the development of their cultural competence, social consciousness, and vision of pedagogical excellence, reading achievement in racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse classrooms.
It was within this socially-situated literacy methods learning space that PSTs could begin to develop humanizing, culture-centered knowledge, which acts as a conduit for powerful pedagogies such as culturally relevant pedagogy (Acosta, 2016).
A second important way an inquiry community helped PSTs work through crisis was that it encouraged them to test out alternative theories about literacy teaching and learning that emerged as they questioned themselves, the education system as a whole, and prevailing ideas about elementary literacy education.
Kumashiro (2015) argues that in order to challenge oppression productively, PSTs must move beyond awareness toward a willingness to step outside of the boundaries of comfort.
Through taking risks and experimenting, PSTs in the present study began to witness success in terms of their own professional learning as well as student engagement and learning, which was another activity that facilitated productive struggle.
PSTs used personal, eyewitness accounts they generated while teaching to help them produce new stories, or counternarratives, that anchored the course ideas and theories they were introduced to about teaching reading effectively.
These new theories spoke back to deficit narratives about racially, culturally, or linguistically diverse students reading performance, parental support for reading, and reading engagement.
Developing counter stories that promote excellence, equity, and justice in teaching young readers is crucial to demonstrating African American pedagogical excellence (Acosta & Duggins, 2018; Acosta, 2016).
Thus, the authors agree with Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2009) and Lazar (2018) in their description of the utility of critical inquiry in teacher preparation.
They extend these ideas in response to Kumashiro (2015)’s charge to teacher educators to explore specific strategies, interventions, and methods that can be used to productively support PSTs work through crisis.
They argue that critical inquiry communities can also be spaces where PSTs can lean into their moments of crisis toward the cultivation of pedagogical dispositions foundational to effective pedagogy for diverse learners that create a sense of urgency and an oppositional consciousness (Acosta & Duggins, 2018; Acosta, 2016).

Acosta, M. M. (2016). Reauthorizing effective literacy teaching for African American children. In L. M. Scott & B. P. Cassidy (Eds.), Culturally affirming literacy practices for urban elementary students(pp. 27–37). Rowan & Littlefield.
Acosta, M. M., & Duggins, S. (2018). Community literacy learning spaces as counterhegemonic figured worlds for African American readers. Reading Horizons, 57(3), 49–67.
Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. (2009). Inquiry as stance: Practitioner research for the next generation. Teachers College Press
Gee, P. (1999). An introduction to discourse analysis: Theory and method. Routledge.
Kumashiro, K. (2015). Against common sense: Teaching and learning toward social justice. Routledge.
Lazar, A. M. (2018). Preservice teachers’ varied experiences in urban literacy practica: A challenge for teacher educators. Teaching and Teacher Education, 71, 262–270
Madison, S. (2005). Critical ethnography: Method, ethics, and performance. Sage Publications Inc.
Patton, M. Q. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods. Sage Publications.
Trueba, H. (1999). Critical ethnography and a Vygostkian pedagogy of hope: The empowerment of Mexican immigrant children. Qualitative Studies in Education, 12(6), 591–614 

Updated: May. 15, 2022