Academic journal article Teacher Education Quarterly

Functional Literacy in a Constructivist Key: A Nontraditional Student Teacher's Apprenticeship in a Rural Elementary School

Academic journal article Teacher Education Quarterly

Functional Literacy in a Constructivist Key: A Nontraditional Student Teacher's Apprenticeship in a Rural Elementary School

Article excerpt

What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff--I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all.

--Holden Caulfield, narrator, The Catcher in the Rye

In this study we investigate the experience of Sandy, a nontraditional university undergraduate whose student teaching took place in a small, impoverished rural community in the southwestern U.S. (All names of people and places are pseudonyms.) Sandy's background was far different from that of most elementary education majors in universities, who tend to be roughly 22-25 years of age (Chin, Young, & Floyd, 2004). In contrast, Sandy had enlisted in the Marines following high school, served for several years, and gotten married twice while a soldier. After her honorable discharge she had become a police officer. Her police work left her with the belief that most criminals commit offenses because they lack the literacy skills to succeed lawfully in society.

Like Holden Caulfield, she decided to catch children before they fell from the precipice, becoming an elementary school teacher and teaching children life and literacy skills through which they could become capable citizens who lead satisfying lives within the parameters of the law. In this study we focus on her student teaching experience with third graders in a community whose youngsters, living in rural poverty, were at-risk in their literacy development. To Sandy, such children were similar to those Holden hopes to save: They needed a caring intervention to enable them to understand and negotiate the terrain of their lives with competence and fluency.

That intervention was available through their education, particularly in terms of literacy tools that would enable them to participate successfully in the mainstream economy. Sandy revealed her understanding of how to teach literacy when she stated,

   These kids, they respond a lot better if they know that it has
   some real meaning, and it's not just for a test.... It has to be
   functional. They have to be able to use it. They have to be able
   to apply anything that you teach them. Yeah, it has to be some
   skills, but you can work skills into anything.... You can't just
   say, 'Oh, write about this' and not tie it to anything. It has to
   be meaningful to them.

Given Sandy's mission as a teacher, we attempt to understand what accounted for the conception of teaching that she ultimately adopted to guide her instruction during student teaching. To do so, we investigate the following question: Over the course of student teaching, within what tensions does Sandy's concept of functional literacy emerge, and how do these tensions contribute to and shape this conception? We focus in particular on her instruction in sequencing, a recurring emphasis in her teaching that was supported by both her mentor teacher and university supervisor. This concrete ability to order information, we infer, embodied Sandy's belief that students needed direction and order as part of their meaningful transactions with their worlds.

Theoretical Framework

Our theoretical perspective is grounded in a sociocultural theory of human development (see Grossman, Smagorinsky, & Valencia, 1999; Smagorinsky, Cook, & Johnson, 2003), particularly Vygotsky's views on concept development. A key influence on teachers' paths of concept development is the settings in which they learn to teach, not all of which share the same goals and related practices for learning and instruction or are consonant with a teacher's own values, which themselves are learned through prior social experience.

University programs, for instance, tend to emphasize instruction that is progressive, developmental, process-oriented, and constructivist without attending to the constraints of parental influence, state mandates, institutionalized values, standardized testing, and other factors that limit choices for teachers in schools. …

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