Academic journal article Teacher Education Quarterly

"We Make It Controversial": Elementary Preservice Teachers' Beliefs about Race

Academic journal article Teacher Education Quarterly

"We Make It Controversial": Elementary Preservice Teachers' Beliefs about Race

Article excerpt


The impetus for this study began during an elementary teacher education course meeting, where, as the instructor, I listened to preservice teachers discuss whether or not it was appropriate to discuss controversial topics--including race--with young children. As the discussion progressed, I was troubled to hear preservice teachers disclose their "uncomfortableness" with race at large and emphasize that discussions about race in the elementary classroom were inappropriate. Their responses compelled me to thoughtfully consider how the topic of race, students' experiences with race, and students' ideas about the presence and function of race in school could be more deliberately woven into my courses in elementary teacher education.

In this short series of exercises about race, I aimed to engage my elementary preservice teachers in thinking about race as a concept, the presence and function of race in their own lived experiences, and their preconceived notions about race. Additionally, I hoped to pose questions that fostered their thinking about race while also positioning them to articulate their beliefs about race. Finally, I wanted to begin a conversation with undergraduate elementary preservice teachers that ultimately would continue and develop both throughout our semester together as well as in my future courses in elementary teacher education.

Literature Review

The Problem with Race

Often considered a controversial topic too taboo for the classroom (Evans, Avery, & Pederson, 1999), race remains front and center in relation to daily life, teaching, and learning. Race is a continual influence of students' and teachers' lives, shaping how they understand themselves and others, impacting their lived experiences, and contributing to how they understand race. The influence of race also extends to schools, where White teachers continue to dominate the teaching force (Causey, Thomas, & Armento, 2000; Sleeter, 2001), widening the racial identity gap between increasingly diverse students and White teachers. For decades, teacher educators have urged fellow teacher educators and classroom teachers to recognize that race is and continues to be a persistently contentious topic in schools, one that is particularly glossed over or misunderstood by White preservice teachers (Grant, 1988; Haviland, 2008; Howard, 2006; King, 1991; Ladson-Billings, 1994, 1996; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995).

Further complicating the classroom divide is the documented avoidance of race and perceived colorblindness among White teachers and preservice teachers (Howard, 2006; Howard, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 1994, 1999; Laughter, 2011; Williams & Evans-Winters, 2005). These factors point to a need for teachers to frequently examine race during the teacher education experience. Effective strategies for examining race in teacher education include structured seminars and deliberations (Buchanan, 2012; Hess, 2009; Parker, 2001; Parker & Hess, 2001) that position a shared text (e.g., written, filmic, or art text) to elicit shared dialogue, experiences that explicitly bridge coursework with the local community (Cooper, 2007), and structured reflection exercises (Brown, 2004; Dinkleman, 2003; Pewewardy, 2005). Additionally, deliberately couching these course exercises within preservice teachers' field experiences can help elicit more persistent engagement with race in teacher education.

In response, teacher educators propose preservice teachers should examine race as part of a larger construct of multicultural education within their teacher education program, a framework that they assert is central to understanding all other aspects of teachings and learning both in the teacher education program (Howard, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 1994, 1999; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Milner, 2006; Sleeter, 1993, 2001; Ullucci, 2010) and in schools (James & Peterson, 2013; Landsman & Lewis, 2011). …

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