Academic journal article English Education

To Witness and to Testify: Preservice Teachers Examine Literary Aesthetics to Better Understand Diverse Literature

Academic journal article English Education

To Witness and to Testify: Preservice Teachers Examine Literary Aesthetics to Better Understand Diverse Literature

Article excerpt

Stat i sties suggest that, by 2019, approximately 4 9 percent of students enrolled in U.S. public schools will be Latino/Latina, Black, Asian/Pacihc Islander, or American Indian (Hussar & Bailey, 2011). Those preparing to work with these students as teachers, however, are predominantly white (Gomez, Black, & Allen, 2007) and too often possess limited knowledge of and/or lived experiences with those who are culturally and linguistically different from them (Aud et ak, 2010; Cummins & Miramontes, 2006; Darling- Hammond, Chung, & Frelow, 2002; Fuentes, Chanthongtliip, & Rios, 2010; Garcia & Guerra, 2005; Menken & Antunez, 2001; NCES, 2002; Sleeter, 2008; Vavrus, 2002; Zeichner, 2005).

Reading and reflecting on ethnically unfamiliar literature can provide opportunities for teacher candidates to expand their repertoire of available texts to better support every student in their care (Glenn, 2012; Gort & Glenn, 2010; Williams, 2004). Through diverse titles, readers can read the text and world critically, recognize the limitations of depending on outsider and mainstream depictions of people and their experiences, build background knowledge, and expand their worldview (Banks, 2003; Burns, 2009; Ching, 2005; Christensen, 2006; George, 2002; Laman, 2006; Santman, 2005; Short, 2009; Simon, 2010; Simon & Norton, 2011; Wolk, 2004).

However, ethnically unfamiliar literatures can be difficult for readers to understand and appreciate due to the experiences, settings, and aesthet- ics (style of representation, narrative structure and strategies, terminology, etc.) they embody (Bradford, 2011; Enciso, 1998; Glenn, 2013, 2012; Lewis & Dockter, 2011; Short, 2009). Additionally, in the field of English Education, preservice teachers' experiences with and training in literature tend to center on canonical texts that contain limited inclusion and representation of people of color.1 And when these candidates are exposed to multicultural titles, the response is often defined by confusion (Stallworth, Gibbons, & Fauber, 2006), tension (Glenn, 2013; Thein, Beach, & Parks, 2007), and the need for transformative experiences to shift perspectives in a meaningful, lasting way (Szecsi, Spillman, Vazquez-Montilla, & Mayberry, 2010).

This study addresses this disconnect by infusing literature study among preservice teachers with the explicit examination of the literary aesthetic, or ethnically influenced literary conventions, an approach not documented in the existing research. The study of literary aesthetics extends beyond pro- viding readers background information in the form of author biographies or historical context and focuses instead on the culturally bound elements inherent in a piece of literature. The aim is to expand the knowledge base of preservice teachers to better understand these elements in hopes of en- couraging an informed, complicated response to ethnically unfamiliar texts. In working with students of diverse backgrounds, teachers must unsettle their "habitual ways of thinking and reading by taking on the perspectives of others" (Bradford, 2011, p. 32). To do so, teachers must be conscious of the assumptions they bring to a text and how they hold subject positions shaped by particular histories; they also need to be aware of the politics of textuality and how knowledge and power intersect in the creation of text, particularly when looking at texts that are created by those not validated by mainstream culture.

This study builds, too, upon earlier work (Glenn, 2012) that examined how exposure to counternarrative portrayals of youth of color in contempo- rary young adult fiction influenced the development of preservice teachers' cultural competence. Through a series of activities in a secondary English methods course, preservice teachers engaged with examples of counternar- ratives in young adult literature to define, challenge, revise, and refine their knowledge of and dispositions toward teaching students of color. …

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