Documenting Literacy in the Community: Preservice Teachers' Engagement & Learning with Students outside of School

By Wiseman, Angela M. | Multicultural Education, Spring/Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Documenting Literacy in the Community: Preservice Teachers' Engagement & Learning with Students outside of School


Wiseman, Angela M., Multicultural Education


Introduction

It is a common theme in our discussion that we are not comfortable dealing with issues related to race and diversity. I know we've taken classes on it, but we are still not comfortable and don't feel prepared to handle it when we start teaching.

Ava, a senior in an undergraduate elementary education program with an emphasis on diversity and culture, made the above statement in a university language-arts methods class. We were using the Socratic Seminar discussion method to explore ideas and summarize relevant topics related to teaching literacy. Ava's comment about race and diversity not only reflects the feelings of students in this methods course, but also is reflective of many preservice teachers who are getting ready to enter public schools-many feel unprepared to teach in diverse classrooms (Cochran-Smith, 2004; Hollins & Guzman, 2005). Despite our program's efforts to create experiences that support preservice teachers' cultural understanding, this topic came up as a concern.

According to a recent report, by the year 2020, more than 50% of the U.S. public school population will be classified as persons of color; that is, students from African, African-American, American Indian, Latino, and Pacific Islander backgrounds (Aud, Fox, & KewalRamani, 2010). As a result of these changing demographics, it is essential for teachers to understand how to teach students who are diverse both linguistically and culturally. As a university professor who teaches language arts methods classes, the call to address diversity and literacy is imperative. Course readings and assignments should build upon classroom experiences and increase knowledge and skills related to teaching diverse populations, with the goal of increasing teachers' capacity for instruction and efficacy concerning their students (Delpit, 1995; Sleeter, 2008).

The purpose of this article is to examine an assignment that is part of my language arts methods class. This course was designed as part of our undergraduate program's focus on diversity and as a way to address preservice teachers' cultural understanding in the context of literacy pedagogy. In this assignment, called "Literacy in the Community," students select an experience in the community, examine the literacy practices occurring, and then propose classroom connections and implications.

When researching this assignment, I found that it provided a springboard for building knowledge about students' literacy, culture, and diversity. The feedback from the course also highlighted some challenges for designing responsive curriculum for a methods course. I begin this article by presenting research on preservice teachers and cultural diversity. After describing the research methods used in this study, I present the findings and recommendations based on this research.

Preservice Teachers and Cultural Diversity

While our teaching force remains predominantly White and middle-class, classrooms are increasingly comprised of a large percentage of minority students (Ferguson, 2003). There is still much to learn about what makes teachers effective as they work with students from different cultures and backgrounds (Cooper, 2007; Knight & Wiseman, 2005). Teacher knowledge has been identified as the greatest factor in student achievement (Cochran-Smith, 2004); therefore, teachers' understanding of how to accommodate diversity in the classroom influences educational outcomes and opportunities for students.

One way to expand teacher knowledge of their diverse students is to support their understanding of the literacy and cultural knowledge of students and their families (Cochran-Smith, 2004; Hyland & Meacham, 2004; Hyland & Noffke, 2005; Sheridan-Thomas, 2007). Students' classroom learning is affected by experiences acruired through participation in multiple contexts, such as home, school, sports, church, or peer groups.

Because classrooms have "multiple layered and conflicting activity systems" (Gutierrez, 2008, p. …

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