Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

The Necessity of Uncertainty: A Case Study of Language Arts Reform

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

The Necessity of Uncertainty: A Case Study of Language Arts Reform

Article excerpt

The call for language arts reform is clear. The expectations are high. The mission is to create classrooms in which all children are becoming strategic, critical, independent, and lifelong readers and writers (National Council of Teachers of English, 1996). Policy makers and administrators, however, cannot create these classrooms through instructional mandates. Duffy and Hoffman (1999) argue that teachers are key and that the success of language arts reform hinges on independent, problem-solving, and spirited teachers who understand that their job is to use many good methods and materials in various ways according to students' needs (p. 15). The educational community has repeatedly demonstrated that conceptualizing reform as training teachers to reenact an instructional program results in superficial or short-lived reform (Duffy, 1997; Fullan, 1996). A reform effort begins to fail when its participants become too focused on promoting the solution and lose sight of the challenges that gave it life (Hoffman, 1998, p. 109). Substantive and lasting language arts reform is inescapably linked to the abilities and the willingness of teachers to embrace and act upon the uncertainties that emerge as they teach students with many diverse needs.

Reform efforts that focus on preparing teachers to implement preordained practices without question or adaptation constrain teachers' abilities and willingness to refine their craft through reflective, insightful, critical, and ongoing inquiry (Allington & Walmsley, 1995; Duffy, 1997; Fullan, 1996). Thus, such efforts discreetly undermine the process of real reform. Dewey (1929, 1933) explains that uncertainty is the force that creates space for real growth and change. A technical conceptualization of teaching and educational reform cannot provoke or sustain the ongoing reflection and inquiry needed for substantive and meaningful language arts reform. Knowledgeable teachers engaged in thoughtful decision making and probing inquiry who use instructional models as ideas for further refinement and who understand the role of uncertainty in their professional development are essential to successful language arts reform. Their uncertainties are its cornerstone.

I have worked with and observed the professional development of countless preservice and inservice teachers. My experiences have convinced me that developing more complex understandings of how teachers respond to and act upon the uncertainty that they uncover in their practices is a critical piece of understanding effective language arts reform. In this case study, I explore the varied ways in which elementary teachers in one system reacted to uncertainties inherent in a language arts reform effort. The teachers' varied responses were most likely linked in complex ways to differences in their beliefs, dispositions, and knowledge (e.g., Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986; Schlechty, 1993); however, the primary purpose of this study was to describe how teachers responded to the uncertainty inherent in language arts reform.

Case Profile

Located in the same city as Auburn University, Auburn City Schools (ACS) is a district of nearly 4,300 students and approximately 300 teachers. Slightly more than 35% of the student population is minority (primarily African American). For many years, teachers in the district have been exploring how to teach language arts in more meaningful and effective ways. Many ACS teachers have challenged themselves to create more student-centered classroom environments that feature higher-order thinking and more active inquiry than traditional teaching paradigms. ACS teachers, to varying degrees, have been using children's literature, literature discussions groups, reading-writing workshops, and thematic units as they work toward teaching skills and strategies in authentic contexts, promoting self-regulating behaviors, and presenting language and literacy as lifelong ventures rather than simply school tasks. …

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