Academic journal article High School Journal

Narrative Interviews: An Approach to Studying Teaching and Learning in English Classrooms

Academic journal article High School Journal

Narrative Interviews: An Approach to Studying Teaching and Learning in English Classrooms

Article excerpt

The real-world consequences of high school students' success or failure to negotiate challenging works of literature is a topic that comes up regularly in a university seminar in English Education I teach. The course is designed for undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in a certification program in secondary English and runs concurrent with their student-teaching semester. As student teachers, they come to understand, often for the first time, the difficulty complex and often-lengthy canonical works present to many secondary students. They worry that these texts serve as sorting devices (Apple, 1982; Bowles and Gintis, 1976; Bordieu and Passeron, 1977; Oakes, 1985), which limit the academic options of capable and promising secondary students. Newly aware of the difficulty many students have in engaging with these works, and concerned about the possible injustices of institutional sorting, student teachers in the seminar are nonetheless reluctant to abandon teaching "great works of literature," often the very works which inspired them to become teachers.

During one semester of the seminar, Josh Barlow(1) raised concerns about his high school students' comprehension of The scarlet letter.(2) He wanted to understand more fully how his students negotiated the text and what he could do to teach more effectively. I suggested we undertake a series of interviews with the students which would address his questions. My goal was to use this interview as "a quiet form of research" (Britton, 1983) and to introduce this process to the student teachers in my classes.

As a teacher educator, I was searching for a modest and manageable way for teachers to respond to what appear to be increasingly conflicting demands on their time and attention. Professional norms now favor personalized student-centered, inquiry-based, active learning, often labor-intensive efforts for beginning teachers. At the same time, they are expected to engage in "reflective practice." Building upon foundations laid by Dewey (1933), and more recently Schon (1983, 1987), educators such as Branscombe, Goswami, and Schwartz (1992), Goswami (1987), Bissex (1987), and others widely respected in the profession call on teachers to document and reflect on learning and teaching, to become teacher-researchers. They are to continue their own professional development through study groups and ongoing coursework, while developing and maintaining a reflective stance toward their own teaching and learning.

In light of these myriad demands, if it is to happen at all, teacher reflection must be efficient, focused, and purposeful. Martin (1983) addresses this challenge by suggesting that teachers simultaneously study student work and talk with students about their work. With Martin's recommendations in mind, I proposed that Josh Barlow interview selected students in his class to learn how they negotiated the task of reading and responding to challenging texts.

Josh was a student teacher at University High School, a public urban academic high school located in a medium-sized city in the northeast United States. Admission to the school, whose mission is to prepare students for highquality post-secondary education, requires students to pass an entrance exam. Many of its eleven hundred students are immigrants, or children of recent immigrants; many are not native speakers of English. Josh worried that students enter his grade eleven English class unprepared for the rigors of authors such as Hawthorne and with few productive strategies for fulfilling challenging nightly reading assignments.

Josh chose to interview four students whom he felt represented a range of responses to the material, and whose responses he wished to understand more fully in order to improve his own teaching. Together, we designed a guide for an interview which could be completed in 30 minutes.(3) I estimated that we could transcribe, code and analyze the interviews efficiently, using 6 hours for transcribing, and 6 to 10 hours for coding and analysis. …

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