Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

The Role of Context in Learning to Teach Writing: What Teacher Educators Need to Know to Support Beginning Urban Teachers

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

The Role of Context in Learning to Teach Writing: What Teacher Educators Need to Know to Support Beginning Urban Teachers

Article excerpt

Teaching writing in elementary classrooms is particularly difficult in urban schools where the literacy focus is often placed exclusively on reading. Finding ways to squeeze in effective writing instruction, although challenging, is possible for experienced teachers (Dyson, 2003; Manning, 2000). For beginning urban teachers, learning to teach writing is often neglected to prepare children for high-stakes testing and to meet policy requirements. The recent federal policy of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (U.S. Department of Education, 2001) focuses primarily on reading and mathematics and ignores writing, even though research supports the parallel nature of the cognitive skills needed to acquire reading and writing (Kucer, 2001; National Writing Project & Nagin, 2003) and demonstrates that many teachers find success in teaching the processes of reading and writing together (e.g., Tracey & Morrow, 2002).

In addition, many classroom teachers express discomfort and a lack of knowledge and confidence for teaching writing (Murphy, 2003; Napoli, 2001). Teachers often feel that they never learned to write well during K-12 schooling and that they were not taught how to teach writing in their teacher preparation classes (Graves, 2002). In fact, most states do not require prospective teachers to take a writing course and less than half of teacher education institutions even offer such a course (Graves, 2002). In a study of preservice teachers in a nine-credit block of language and literacy methods courses, Napoli (2001) found that preservice teachers often talked about their own K-12 writing experiences as negative and uninspiring. Beliefs such as these translate into a lack of attention to the teaching of writing in K-12 classrooms.

This situation is even more problematic in urban contexts where there is a disconnect between students' worlds and the world of school (Dyson & Freedman, 2003; Gee, 1992; Heath, 1983; Lareau, 1987, 2000; Purcell-Gates, 1995). In a landmark study, Heath (1983) reported that students in two poor communities in rural North Carolina, one White and the other Black, had different experiences and successes in school, in part because of the language mismatch between the Black homes and the local school. Heath found that when the language and culture of a child's home did not match that of the school, the children often became marginalized and less able to access school curriculum. James Gee (1992) described schools as having their own Discourse (the capital D is intentional) where words hold certain common meanings and, in theory, all members have equal access to the ideas in the Discourse. However, Gee also found that

   mainstream parents very often spend a huge
   amount of time practicing (school-based) literacy
   with their children, and what this means is that
   they mentor or apprentice their children into certain
   Discourses that schools and wider mainstream
   culture reward. (p. 123)

Children of color and other nonmainstream children do not receive this additional mentoring and, therefore, find themselves left out of the Discourse of the school community.

This problem intensifies when we consider that urban schools often have the least qualified teachers (Oakes, Franke, Quartz, & Rogers, 2002), and many of the teachers are of a different race, background, culture, or language than those they teach (Delpit, 1995). This further complicates the issue concerning how teachers in urban contexts learn to teach writing. The study described here explores how beginning teachers in urban settings struggled with policy, students, and their own commitment of learning to teach writing to their students.


This work is framed by a sociocultural perspective that suggests people act and react in certain ways because of cultural expectations (Kucer, 2001). Many researchers have conducted ethnographic research through the lens of sociocultural theory (Britzman, 1991; Dyson, 1993, 2003; Florio-Ruane, 2001; Raphael & Au, 1998). …

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