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“My Hair has a Lot of Stories!”: Unpacking Culturally Sustaining Writing Pedagogies in an Elementary Mediated Field Experience for Teacher Candidates


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This qualitative study examined what teacher candidates learned in a field-based mediated Language Arts methods course, intentionally designed to support teacher candidates in learning what is possible rather than typical, in an urban school setting where curriculum is often prescriptive rather than generative. Culturally sustaining pedagogies provided a powerful and important framework for curriculum and inquiry; these pedagogies guided this preservice teacher education course. Findings from this study indicate that this mediated experience served as an initial foray into recognizing and unpacking teacher candidates’ deficit perspectives related to race and class-based assumptions about children and their families, and about the community in which they lived. In addition, teacher candidates began to understand the nuanced and intentional moves teachers must make to affect student learning.
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Action in Teacher Education
ISSN: 0162-6620 (Print) 2158-6098 (Online) Journal homepage:
“My Hair has a Lot of Stories!”: Unpacking
Culturally Sustaining Writing Pedagogies in an
Elementary Mediated Field Experience for Teacher
Tasha Tropp Laman, Tammi R. Davis & Janelle W. Henderson
To cite this article: Tasha Tropp Laman, Tammi R. Davis & Janelle W. Henderson (2018):
“My Hair has a Lot of Stories!”: Unpacking Culturally Sustaining Writing Pedagogies in an
Elementary Mediated Field Experience for Teacher Candidates, Action in Teacher Education, DOI:
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Published online: 03 Aug 2018.
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My Hair has a Lot of Stories!: Unpacking Culturally Sustaining
Writing Pedagogies in an Elementary Mediated Field Experience
for Teacher Candidates
Tasha Tropp Laman
, Tammi R. Davis
, and Janelle W. Henderson
University of Louisville;
Missouri State University College of Education;
Mill Creek Elementary School
This qualitative study examined what teacher candidates learned in a field-
based mediated Language Arts methods course, intentionally designed to
support teacher candidates in learning what is possible rather than typical,
in an urban school setting where curriculum is often prescriptive rather
than generative. Culturally sustaining pedagogies provided a powerful and
important framework for curriculum and inquiry; these pedagogies guided
this preservice teacher education course. Findings from this study indicate
that this mediated experience served as an initial foray into recognizing and
unpacking teacher candidatesdeficit perspectives related to race and class-
based assumptions about children and their families, and about the com-
munity in which they lived. In addition, teacher candidates began to under-
stand the nuanced and intentional moves teachers must make to affect
student learning.
Received 12 March 2017
Accepted 19 June 2018
Culturally sustaining
pedagogies; literacy;
mediated field-based
teacher education
When Janelle Hendersons2
-graders heard the opening pages of Dinah Johnsons (2007) book,
Hair Dance, children said, Hey that looks like my hair. That looks like Kristinas hair.As
Janelle turned to the page with a beautiful Afro, the children looked at Janelles hair that was dyed
pink and worn in a lovely Afro, and shouted, And that is like Ms. Hendersons Hair.And within
just a few pages, Janelle saw her students respond like they had not responded to read alouds before
they pointed to photos, talked spontaneously with each other about the book, and shared hair
stories from their lives. The 2
-gradersresponse to Hair Dance should not be a surprise to teachers.
We have years of studies documenting the significance of diverse picture books and their impact on
childrens sense of self, the power of seeing cultural practices connected to their lives, and the
tremendous opportunity that such texts offer in creating meaningful curriculum (Bishop, 2007,2013;
Jackson & Boutte, 2009). Also, hair holds cultural and social significance in peoples lives (Boutte,
2016; Boutte & Hill, 2006; Majors, 2003). The majority of students in Ms. Hendersons class were
African American. Boys frequently discussed visits to local barbershops and girls talked about the
rituals of having their hair didby their aunts, grandmothers, and mothers. However, these social
and cultural practices are often unfamiliar to teacher candidates who are mostly white and middle
class (U.S. Department of Education, 2016).
This study examines what happened when Janelles2
-graders were partnered with undergraduate
teacher candidates in a mediated field-based Language Arts methods course who conferred with
Janelles students each week as children created digital stories about their hair. In 2014, the majority
of children enrolled in public schools identified as linguistically and culturally diverse (Krogstad & Fry,
2014). Ms. Henderson and her students are part of our universitys professional development school
model in which university faculty members teach literacy methods courses onsite at a local elementary
CONTACT Tasha Tropp Laman University of Louisville, 1905 S. First Street Louisville, KY 40292
Color versions of one or more of the figures in the article can be found online at
© 2018 Association of Teacher Educators
school located in an urban neighborhood, and our undergraduate preservice teacher education
students work closely with children each week during literacy engagements. In an effort to prepare
teachers to identify and leverage studentssocial, cultural, and linguistic resources, we provided teacher
candidates with mediated field experiences. To bring culturally sustaining practices to life, Ms.
Henderson, Tammi R. Davis, and Tasha Tropp Laman 1 engaged teacher candidates and 2
students in a writing study focused on hair stories that grew from the studentsresponses to Hair
Dance (Johnson, 2007) and other childrens literature books about hair (see the appendix for titles).
As teacher educators, we wanted to meaningfully engage teacher candidates in a writing study that
provided explicit demonstrations that bring culturally sustaining literacy practices to life. We wanted our
students to see what is possible and not typical in writing classrooms in academically underperforming
urban schools. In addition, we wanted teacher candidates to examine their own assumptions and biases
in relationship to children and familiesliving in urban communities. We see these kinds of experiences as
integral to preservice teacher education because most new teachers will be working in schools similar to
Allen Elementaryacademically underperforming, urban, and located in underserved communities
(Darling-Hammond, 2014;Headen,2014). The goal of our research was to explore our teacher
candidatesunderstandings about writing instruction and their perceptions of students and families.
Literature review and informing theories
Below we provide a brief history of the literature on culturally responsive and culturally sustaining
pedagogies, explore the literature related to mediated field experiences, and then describe culturally
sustaining pedagogies as our theoretical framework.
Culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogies
In 1995, Gloria Ladson-Billings outlined the tenets of culturally responsive pedagogy that informed
the field of education in general and teacher education in particular. In 2014, Ladson-Billings
contended that her previous work was primarily concerned with practical ways to produce new
generations of teachers who would bring an appreciation of their studentsassets to their work in
urban classrooms populated with African American students(p. 74). These tenets emphasized that
culturally responsive teachers believed that all students were capable of academic success, that
culturally responsive teachers cultivated a sense of belonging for students and an authentic connec-
tion to students, that culturally responsive teachers also understood that pedagogy is an art, that
knowledge is constructed, and that there must be multiple and multifaceted ways for teachers to
assess learning and for students to demonstrate learning. Today, these tenets are still significant but
are often missing from elementary classrooms and colleges of education. Yet like many terms,
culturally responsive teaching has come to mean everything and too often is also bleached of
meaning while still able to evoke strong emotion(Chubbuck, 2010, p. 197). For example, in
many schools, we see Dr. Martin Luther Kings birthday celebrated with cut-outs of clouds with
childrensdreamswritten on them. Some educators would deem this activity as culturally
responsive,though others would see this as a superficial level of engagement. At the same time,
childrens books that discuss race or culture are often challenged and create a backlash in some
communities (Meyer, 1999). Ladson-Billings (2014) wrote:
Many practitioners, and those who claim to translate research to practice, seem stuck in very limited and
superficial notions of culture. Thus, the fluidity and variety within cultural groups has regularly been lost in
discussions and implementations of culturally relevant pedagogy. (p. 77)
In response to the ways in which culturally responsive teaching became an umbrella term for
practices that were not culturally responsive or essentialized cultures, Paris (2012) coined the phrase
culturally sustaining pedagogiesas a way to build on the foundation of culturally relevant
pedagogy. Culturally sustaining pedagogies recognizes the dynamic nature of culture to teach
students. Paris and Alim (2014) defined culturally sustaining pedagogies as a new construct for
pedagogy, one that seeks to perpetuate and fosterto sustainlinguistic, literate, and cultural
pluralism as part of the demographic and social change(p. 88). Boutte and Hill (2006) reminded
us that, to ensure that African American students achieve educationally and socially to their fullest
potential, educators need sufficient in-depth understanding of studentscultural backgrounds if
learning is to be meaningful and transformative. This research project grew from our personal
commitment and professional understanding that situating university-based courses and field
experiences in schools provides teacher candidates with the opportunity to learn about practice
in practice(Darling-Hammond, 2010) in general but specifically culturally sustaining pedagogies in
urban schools.
Mediated field experiences as sites for teacher candidateslearning
The two-world pitfall(Feiman-Nemser & Buchmann, 1985) in teacher education is well docu-
mented. Teacher candidates (TCs) learn practices in their university-based methods courses that
advocate for student-centered, culturally responsive pedagogies and then enter field experiences
where TCs witness pedagogies that are contrary to what they learned in university coursework (i.e.,
direct instruction, transmission models of teaching, scripted programs, etc.). It is also well docu-
mented that TCs begin to form habits of instruction(Daniel, 2016, p. 590) in these sites that
perpetuate educational inequities. In addition to the challenges of the two-world pitfall,Campbell
and Dunleavy (2016) remind us that another challenge in teacher preparation is that K-12 class-
rooms are focused on student learning and not TC learning. The authors argue that one way to
disrupt this pitfall is through mediated field experiences. In their study, Campbell and Dunleavy
found that methods instructors who provided TCs with mediated field experiences whether inter-
acting with students each week in a school setting, observing a lesson then debriefing with a
classroom teacher, or learning about a strategy then practicing that strategy with students, the goal
of each of the mediated field experience helped to move the focus back to TCs learning. TCs also
developed strategies to address student learning, reflect on observations, and develop positive
relationships with students and school community members.
The two-world problem becomes more exaggerated when it comes to issues of diversity. Daniel
(2016) documented that many TCs believe that their diversity courses were unrelated to methods of
teaching. Diversity courses are often stand-alone courses that are not directly tied to a field
experience. Other times diversity courses include field experiences that do not build in opportunities
for connections and reflections related to TCsexperiences in schools (Daniel, 2016). In addition,
TCs may notice inequities within school settings and instructional practices, but they may not know
how to address them and may have the least power to do so (Daniel, 2016).
In studies focused on literacy courses with mediated field experiences, 59 found that TCs who
worked closely with children in a school setting developed skills that made them feel more prepared
to teach readers. For example, TCs understood by the end of the semester the need for kidwatching
skills that informed individualized literacy instruction. The TCs also claimed to have a stronger sense
of professional belonging and professionalism. Laman (2013) found that working weekly with
children in an elementary school setting helped TCs develop the ability to notice & name
(Johnston, 2004) aspects of childrens literacy development and how to teach into their literacy
Situating literacy methods courses in urban schools provides TCs the opportunity to explore and
challenge their assumptions about children, families, and communities (Lazar, 2007; Leland &
Harste, 2005). The literature that we reviewed regarding methods courses and mediated field
experiences did not highlight or indicate a direct focus on engaging TCs in mediated field experi-
ences that intentionally wove culturally responsive/sustaining pedagogies into the mediated field
experience as it related to the content area methods. Allen, Hancock, Starker-Glass, and Lewis (2017)
argue that TCs too often feel like they serve their timein diverse urban settings as a requirement
for their teacher education program without developing the skills and/or dispositions to effectively
reach and teach the students in these schools. Leland and Harste (2005) found that some students
retained surface level understandings of race, class, and culture after working in an urban school
setting during their literacy methods course.
Despite the challenges and possible pitfalls when it comes to mediated field experiences, findings
suggest that if experiences provide opportunities for TCs, university faculty, school administration,
community members, and classroom teachers to work together, there are opportunities that are
boundary spanning(Zeichner, 2010). There continues to be a call for universityschool partner-
ships, and within these partnerships there is a need to understand the structures and practices that
support TC learning in these contexts (Campbell & Dunleavy, 2016).
To continue to understand the impact that mediated field experiences have on TCsunder-
standings regarding literacy development and literacy teaching, this course was designed to explore
literacy as a social and cultural practice, and to support TCs as they reflect on their previous
experiences in light of structural barriers and inequalities. Mediated field experience courses can
provide a context for exploring ones assumptions and investigating teaching practices in light of
these new understandings. Like previous researchers, we designed the literacy methods course to
challenge the deficit perspectives often inherent in TCsunderstandings of children living in high-
poverty, underserved, urban communities; to disrupt views of childrens families as uninvolved; and
to increase their interest and confidence in teaching in urban settings (Lazar, 2007; Leland & Harste,
2005). We also believe in the transformative potential of teacher education programs to prepare
teachers to serve children of color in high-poverty communities(Lazar, 2007, p. 413). We were
especially interested in how TCsperceptions of students change over time because we realize many
teachers hold deficit views of children living in poverty in general and children of color in particular
(Milner, 2014). In this study, we wanted to move ideas about diversity from the margins of teacher
education to the experience of teacher education(Daniel, 2016, p. 592). This study contributes to
the growing body of research regarding what TCs learn in mediated field experiences and to
understandings of how we may further mediate TCs learning and outgrow our current
Culturally sustaining language arts pedagogies as informing theory
A culturally sustaining pedagogy has important consequences for how early childhood and elemen-
tary children engage in their English Language Arts classrooms, particularly as it relates to devel-
oping expanded understandings and practices of the English Language Arts (Machado, Vaughn,
Coppola, & Woodard, 2017; Woodard, 2015; Woodard, Machado, & Vaughn, 2016). In synthesizing
the research on culturally sustaining language arts pedagogy and what it means for elementary
language arts curriculum, Seely Flint (2015) identified the following distinct, but intersecting
constructs: dialogic practice; social, cultural, and linguistic resources; identity and agency; and
critical imagination.
In dialogic classrooms, teachers cultivate environments where childrens talk is valued and
teachers understand that talk mediates learning. Children in dialogue-rich classrooms learn to
make intentional linguistic choices in speaking and writing, which includes translanguaging, writing
in languages other than English, and writing in dialect. Such talk raises childrens understandings of
the metalinguistic and powerful choices authors make. Within culturally sustaining pedagogies,
writing is positioned as a social and cultural endeavor wherein writing collaborations are fostered
throughout the writing process (Laman, 2013; Zapata, Laman, & Seely Flint, 2017; Heffernan, 2017).
Childrens social, cultural, and linguistic resources are leveraged to create meaning across languages,
to write about topics that matter, and to acknowledge the complex lives of children. When childrens
resources are leveraged, teachers foster studentsauthorial decision making. Teachers also do not shy
away from topics that may not be standard elementary fare, such as vacations, pets, or siblings.
Instead, children have the opportunity to write about less-sanctioned topics from popular culture to
the fear of gunshots at night (Dyson, 2013; Flint & Rodriguez, 2012; Kissel & Miller, 2015). Children
also develop a sense of agency as they create meaning that is linked to childrens social and cultural
worlds (Fisher, 2010). Finally, Seely Flint (2015)argues that the role of a critical imagination is
essential as learners compose texts about sociopolitical issues that have the potential to transform
their worlds (Heffernan, 2017; Lewison & Heffernan, 2008).
Although a culturally sustaining language arts classroom emphasizes a curriculum rich in learn-
ing, collaboration, and inquiry, teachers working in schools with high levels of poverty often
implement a narrow writing curriculum with limited opportunities for students to write for
authentic reasons (Bettini & Park, 2017; McCarthey, 2008; Woods, Baroutsis, Kervin, & Comber,
2017). In situating preservice undergraduate teacher education methods courses in an urban school
where curricular mandates often guide instruction, this methods course offered a mediated field
experience in which beginning teachers learned alongside children to help them become teachers
who do not allow the school culture to dictate the norms of their pedagogical practice, [and] end up
conforming to the standards of practice that exist within the schools they enter(Hoffman et al.,
2005, p. 270). This course was designed to help TCs mediate their understandings of writing
instruction and to reflect on how their teaching decisions impacted childrens writing development
(or not). Reflection was also an integral component throughout the course for TCs to unpack their
emerging understandings about teaching writing and to explore their shifting (or not) perspectives
regarding students and their families. To examine the impact of this experience, the following
question guides this study: (1) What do teacher candidates learn about teaching writing from
working with 2
-graders? (2) How do teacher candidates perceive students and families?
Our College of Education is committed to working in underserved urban school contexts to support
TCs as they learn about the complexities of teaching in schools often very different than the ones
they experienced as students (Headen, 2014; Zeichner, 2010). Our university and college are also
committed to affecting educational outcomes for the children who attend these schools. This study
took place in in a professional development school setting where TCs were immersed in the school
and the community. Students attended a full day block with their language arts class in the morning
and a Building Learning Communities course in the afternoon. This study looked more deeply at the
language arts course in the morning, which met 3 hours per week, where preservice teachers
conducted writing conferences with 2
-graders each week, and spent an additional half-day a
week in field placement classrooms in grades kindergarten through 5th grade. The goals for this
mediated course and field experience were to support TCs in learning with and from children and
their classroom teachers about the teaching of writing, to gain an appreciation for studentsfamilies
and the local community, and to begin to understand the importance of leveraging studentssocial,
cultural, and linguistic resources when creating curriculum.
Like Bettini and Park (2017)we conceptualize urban schools as those predominantly serving
students who experience structural, racial, and socio-economic barriers to pursuing self-determined
goals(p. 3). Allen Elementary is situated in a neighborhood with a longstanding reputation of
community activism as well as high crime and unemployment rates. It also is situated in a zip code
that is part of our university and college community engagement initiative. In the fall of 2015, when
we conducted this study, there were approximately 350 students who attended the school, and 98%
of children received free or reduced-price lunch. Within Ms. Hendersons classroom there were 18
students ages 7 to 8. Seventy-five percent of students identified as African American and 25% as
White. Janelle Henderson is a Black teacher who was in her first year of teaching and was
participating in a national study about culturally responsive teaching in early childhood classrooms.
Ms. Henderson read and heard about culturally responsive practices in her Master of Arts in
Elementary Education (M.A.T.) preservice methods courses, but like many teacher education
candidates she did not observe or enact such practices in her teacher education program or her
student teaching placement.
Davis, a White woman, was the professor of the Language Arts Methods Course. Davis taught 22
teacher candidates. Seventy-eight percent identified as White and 22% as African American (almost
the exact inverse of Ms. Hendersons2
-grade class, and reflective of national teacher demo-
graphics). Davis also served as the university liaison to the school as well as the studentsuniversity
supervisor. Each week after the TCs worked with second grade students, the TCs reflected on their
experiences in writing and participated in a class discussion about their experiences. Davis piloted
the project in 2015 wherein all 22 of her students were also assigned to spend one half-day per week
in a classroom at Allen Elementary rather than spread throughout the larger metropolitan area.
Davis wanted the TCs to become immersed in the local schools context, to know students and
families more deeply, and to build stronger professional mentoring relationships with teachers in the
building. The TCs engaged with guest speakers from the community and read culturally relevant
childrens books and read articles on the topic. Davis selected childrens books as read alouds (see the
appendix) for TCs which served as launching points for discussions about culturally responsive
pedagogy. Additionally, TCs read the same books in the hair text set as the second graders.
Laman, a White woman, was Ms. Hendersons partner in the national study of culturally
responsive pedagogy in early childhood settings. Laman visited Janelles room each week and worked
with children during literacy instruction. She and Janelle implemented and studied how students
engaged with the culturally responsive curriculum they created. Laman also provided writing
demonstration lessons when Davis TCs visited Janelles classroom. In addition, she conducted two
guest teaching sessions with the TCs focused on writing conferences and also modeled writing
conferences with individual children while TCs worked with their second-grade partners.
As part of this unit, Ms. Henderson and the two university professors demonstrated writing
lessons. The 2nd-grade students wrote their own hair stories in collaboration with their under-
graduate preservice teacher and then used iPads to transform their handwritten stories into digital
stories. The semester culminated in an authors share that included family and community members
as well as TCs, school faculty, and staff.
In this article, we focus on four TCs who had their assigned field placement in Ms. Hendersons
classroom. During their field placement, they conducted individual reading conferences and also
worked with small reading groups during the literacy block. They were in Ms. Hendersons class for
a half-day each Wednesday and also met for their coursework in the school each Thursday. The TCs
met with Ms. Henderson each week to debrief their experiences and to plan for the following week.
All four students were of typical undergraduate age. Claire, Bailey, and Jenna identified as White
and Justine identified as African American. Claire grew up in a more rural area and was a little
uncomfortable at the beginning of the semester but grew to embrace her placement. Ms. Henderson
ended the semester commenting that Claire was always responsive to the needs of students by never
failing to ask for help when she had questions about students. Bailey, who grew up in a nearby
suburb, began the semester describing her fear of the school because of the reputation of the
neighborhood but also quickly changed her mind. Ms. Hartwell described one of her strengths at
the end of the semester as always being proactive about meeting the needs of students. Jenna, a
young mother of two small children, admitted that before she started working at the school she
assumed the students of poverty in this school had poor home lives and no one at home to support
them. Ms. Henderson appreciated her willingness to lead small groups and to do extra in the
classroom. Justine was an elementary education major with a concentration in English and was
inspired to be a teacher by her mother and grandmother who were teachers. She was enthusiastic
about her class and field placement being in a Title I school because she described herself as a
product of Title I schools in this district.
Data collection and data analysis
For this study, we collected the focal TCswritten conference reflections and their final papers
synthesizing what students learned over the course of the semester working with 2
-graders. They
answered questions such as:
What happened in the conference?
What went well?
What surprised or frustrated you?
What would you do differently?
What did you learn about writing instruction this semester?
What did you learn about yourself?
What did your student teach you?
How (if at all) have your assumptions changed this semester?
At the end of the semester, after the culminating AuthorsShare experience where parents and families
were invited to celebrate and view the 2
-gradersdigital stories, a graduate student conducted a focus
group interview scheduled for 30 minutes but went well beyond the time allotted because the students
seemed to enjoy talking about their experience. The following questions guided the discussion:
What was your experience like today during the AuthorsShare?
Were you able to talk to families?
Describe your 2nd-grade buddys experience today and/or describe your experience.
What has it been like to have your two classes, field experience, and some Monday activities in the same school?
We also collected the childrens digital stories. Data were collected under an approved exempt
protocol from Instructional Review Boards (IRBs). IRB permission was granted for analysis of
willing participantsclass assignments who were not identified to the researchers until after Davis
had submitted final grades.
The following questions guided our analysis of data chosen and language used by each TC as she
described her experiences of the semester working with second graders:
(1) How do teacher candidatesperceptions of student and families change over time?
(2) What do teacher candidates learn about teaching writing from working with second
We organized the data involved by placing the data from TCsreflections and interviews in tables.
Next, to glean meaning and to construct themes or patterns that might otherwise be thought
meaningless (Saldaña, 2012), the authors and a graduate assistant completed the emergent coding
that resulted in broad themes. For example, the codes from our raw data excerpts led us to the
subthemes of let the student do the workand stopping myself,which resulted in the broad theme
of backing off.See Figure 1 for an example of the emergent coding step.
Next, for increased validity, the researchers came together to reach consensus and identify prominent
themes related to Seely Flints(2015) intersecting constructs of culturally sustaining pedagogy: dialogic
practice; social, cultural and linguistic resources; identity and agency; and critical imagination. The
themes related to dialogic practice; social, cultural, and linguistic resources; and identity and agency
aligned with TCsexperiences with 2
-grade students and their families, while we noted the critical
imagination construct was more closely aligned with the TCscritical imagination of their future
teaching practices (see Figure 2). The most salient themes were identified not only by frequency of
occurrences in the data, but also guided by the tenets of culturally sustaining pedagogies.
Below we share data excerpts that corroborate our findings and illustrate the intersecting tenets of
culturally sustaining language arts pedagogies: social, cultural linguistic resources, dialogic, identity
and agency, and critical imagination.
Figure 1. Example of Data Analysis.
Shifting perceptions of students
In analyzing the data, we learned that TCsweekly interactions with students served to disrupt deficit
narratives regarding perceptions of students that were often rooted in race and class biases. This
section of our findings aligns with Seely Flints(2015) tenet of social, cultural, and linguistic resources.
Seeing students as more than good kids and bad kids
This mediated field experience provided an entry point for TCs to begin to know and appreciate
children. In this study, we found that TCs began to shift their perceptions of students as more than
good kids and bad kids.Throughout the TCsreflections, observation notes, and group interview,
the TCs noted the challenge of addressing problematic student behavior. As a 1st-year teacher, Ms.
Henderson faced challenges regarding disruptive classroom behavior that were common for new
teachers; student verbal outbursts and refusals to complete work were the most frequent challenges.
The TCs sometimes encountered these same behaviors when working one on one with students.
Surprisingly, the TCs appreciated seeing Ms. Henderson and the trials she faced. For example,
Justine noted in the group interview:
I like that we kind of had a difficult class to work with because not all teachers have it easy their first year. So
kind of, you know, being with the first-year teacher, we get to see all the things that will work, wont work, how
we can change that. And Ms. H does a really good job of making those accommodations. So, its just really nice
to observe and see.
However, learning to appreciate the opportunity to work with a 1st-year teacher did not mean that
TCs werent confused about how to respond when students did not comply with instructional
expectations. As Claire reflected on her experiences with Sheila, a child who was prone to crying
Figure 2. Salient Themes Alignment to Informing Theory.
We also had to deal with many behavioral issues such as Sheilas crying almost every time we met with her.
Whether it was for not getting to draw or not getting called on, she cried a lot. We realized that it was for
attention but werentsurehowtohandleit.Whenitwasjustusinourgroup,wewouldencourageherand
normally get her calmed down, but when it was in the whole group and she would lay out on the floor
crying, we didnt know what to do and [we] just let Ms. Henderson deal with it which would usually mean
it would be ignored.
However, over time, the TCsperceptions and interpretations regarding student behavior shifted.
Rather than interpreting childrens behavior as goodor bador attention seeking,TCs began to
think about instructional choices that may mitigate studentsbehaviors and support the children as
learners. Although Sheila cried frequently during class, Claire noted how Sheila overcame her
sadness when she learned that her father was unable to attend the Author Share.
Even today she was . . . really bummed that her dad couldnt be here. She really wanted him to see it, which was
sweet, but she was able to push through that and really enjoy celebrating other people and was excited to see
other peoples work. So I think that . . . it was really cool to see that she could do that as a writer .. . I think that
she grew as a little person.
Although Sheilas crying frequently served as point of confusion and frustration for the TCs, Claire
saw Sheilas academic engagement and her personal growth on that particular day in that particular
moment. In her end of semester reflection, Jenna wrote:
Thats what Ive learned more than anything through my experience at Allen, is that students are complex little
people, not to be underestimated, who are where they are developmentally. They are not good kids nor bad
kids, because they cant be reduced to that. They are changing, living beings that experience failures and
victories every single day in the classroom.
Jennas response distilled her developing understandings of student behavior that disrupted one-
dimensional views of children.
Seeing students as brilliantand motivated
It is common for teachers to have low academic expectations of children who attend urban schools
and who live in underserved neighborhoods (Milner, 2014). Through this mediated field experience,
TCs began to unpack their deficit perspectives and to notice and name (Johnston, 2004) the growth
in childrens writing. Bailey reflected:
I also learned that both of the students were way smarter than I originally went in there thinking. Being able to
observe the student beforehand gave me a preconceived idea about how the conferences would go. I was
completely wrong in my pre-judgment. The students were brilliant in my eyes and were much more hard-
working than I had ever imagined they would be during my time spent with each of them. She included several
pieces of dialogue from her mother. Even in the beginning of the story, she started it with a dialogue. I loved
that she knew what that was and I told her how awesome I thought it was that she included that in there.
This experience also caused TCs to rethink their original ideas about childrens academic ability.
Jenna noticed:
During our final meeting, Eriqa was so motivated to work by her desire to use the iPad. She still got
overwhelmed, but was much more at ease when I broke the assignment parts down, and she pushed forward
to finish her story. Finish she did, and it was great. She was able to take control of the creation of her story
through the use of her iPad, which I feel instilled such a sense of ownership of her work.
In addition to expanding understandings regarding student behavior as well as identifying academic
growth, TCsperceptions of families and communities broadened.
Shifting perceptions of families & communities
TCsperceptions of families also shifted over time as they began to get to know children, their families,
and communities in more meaningful ways. In analyzing the data, we learned that TCsfrequent
interactions with families and communities began to disrupt deficit narratives. However, these initial
perceptions were often rooted in race and class biases. This section of our findings also aligns with Seely
Flints(2015) tenet of drawing upon studentscultural, social, and linguistic resources.
Seeing families as support networks
As TCs spent time at Allen Elementary, they reflected on how their views of childrensfamilies
and the community changed over time, moving from deficit narratives to an appreciation for
families and the complex lives they lead. Justine reflected on the relationship she formed with
I grew a connection with Lydia that she and I understood and that her mom loved. I loved the interactions
I had with Ms. Donaldson and learned a lot about her family background. She told me that Lydia would
not write in the beginning of the year and was impressed with her hair story. Ms. Donaldson hugged and
gave Lydia a kiss when she heard the story about how she once braided her hair and it turned out to be a
complete disaster. It was an intimate moment to observe and share with the individuals who helped to
make this experience what it was.
Working with children in Ms. Hendersons classroom also challenged TCsinterpretations of
childrens familial experiences. Jenna shared:
One of the girlsparents are recently divorced, and she is shuttled from one parent to another, which sometimes
creates chaos and stress in her life that is visible in the classroom. However, that same girls father is in constant
communication with Ms. Henderson and is very much a part of the support network for his girls academic and
behavioral success.
Both of these data excerpts reflect how Justine and Jenna saw the childrens families as loving and
caring adults who wanted the best for their children. Culturally sustaining pedagogies recognize and
leverage the resources of families and communities.
Seeing the school and children as part of the neighborhood
Inextricably linked to perceptions of family were perceptions of the neighborhood where the school
was located. All of the TCs noted how their initial impressions of the school changed and grew more
complex over time. Bailey wrote:
The first time driving into the schools neighborhood, I thought that the students were all from a low
poverty level based on the houses around the school. I honestly was rather nervous about being at this
school being the location it is in and the reputation of the neighborhood. I quickly realized how beautiful
and unique the school was on the inside. This school has many resources for families that are of low
poverty. The staff at this school seems to truly care about the students and want what is best for them. ... It
also taught me that I should never judge a school based on the neighborhood it is in. Therefore, coming
into the building and watching the kids learn and their excitement from being at school really turned my
first assumption about the school around.
For example, Jenna wrote:
When I first came to Allen I was a bit apprehensive about the neighborhood, but not really the school. I had a
bit of misplaced confidence, and a desire to work with underprivileged children, so I felt like maybe this would
be a good fit. I was right that it was a good fit, I love it, but I had too much confidence in my abilities to
magically wrangle children into doing my will, and needed to realize that the children are a part of the
neighborhood, the school is a part of the neighborhood, but any of the elements within that ecosystem can
make a change.
children (Zygmunt & Clark, 2015) and though we do not claim that this stance was completely
disrupted, we did see TCs becoming more reflective about this stance after they spent more time
working in the school and getting to know the community in more meaningful ways. These more
nuanced understandings were also evident in TCs growing understandings about teaching
Shifting perceptions of writing pedagogy
Through the mediated field experience, TCsperceptions of writing pedagogy began to shift as they
experienced and implemented writersworkshops with 2
-graders. We found that participating in
and implementing a writers workshop engaged our TCscritical imagination because they saw the
power of what was possible in writing curriculum rather than typical. Additionally, the importance
of conferring and the Authors Share with children reflected the dialogic component of the culturally
sustaining framework. Also, TCs recognized the need to foster students sense of identity and agency
by backing offduring writing conferences.
Given that the content of the Language Arts methods course was to learn about components of a
writing workshop in general and that the hair story assignment was about learning to confer with
children in particular, it was not a surprise that overwhelmingly the data reflected the importance of
conferring with individual child writers.
Writing conferences focused solely on her
Talking with students each week about their writing helped TCs become reflective about the teaching
moves that they made during conferences. For Bailey, conferring helped her see her own short-
comings as a teacher.
During this time spent with the students, I was able to learn so much about myself as a teacher. I learned to not
be so lengthy in what I am saying. I found it hard sometimes to make my instructions precise and clear. It took
a few times of blank stares to realize it was me that was not giving clear directions instead of the student not
understanding my directions. I tried to fix this as conferences went on, but it is still a learning process and
something I will work on forever.
Jenna reflected on the significance of the questions she posed, the importance of the spaces where
she held conferences, and the impact that conferring had on childrens writing identities and
It was clearly a special time; I was focused solely on her and, as Anderson (2000) recommended, we were not at
a special teachers or specified conference desk, but rather sitting beside each other in an equal workspace. I was
able to ask her open-ended questions such as the recommended, Hows it going?or even What will the
reader think about that?that allowed her to feel validated as a student and as an author, while giving me an
insight into how she thinks of and through her writing. Even more than that, I was able to find out how she
struggles and how best to encourage her, so that I can support her better as a writer.
These data samples illustrate the dialogic nature of teaching and how in conversation with students,
TCs were learning to listen and be responsive to students and tailor their own words as well as their
actions in order to support young writers.
Overjoyed to celebratein Authors Share
Authors Share experience. As products of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era, most of the TCs never
experienced this type of celebration of writing as students themselves. During the author celebration,
children, TCs, teachers, and community members moved about the library, watching each others digital
stories and writing comments to the authors in response booklets. Justine recalled:
The author share almost brought me to tears when I saw how proud students were of their work, and teachers
and administrators and parents. And not only did the students root and celebrate themselves, they also
acknowledged each other, and thats a goal that I see Ms. Henderson push everyday with her students is respect
and compassion with each other.
Jenna also noticed how her writing buddy responded to the Author Share:
She was proud and confident, and I think she carried that confidence into the author share with her. She was
very excited to have others write nice things about her story, but she was overjoyed to celebrate her classmates. I
think that part of her ability to focus on celebrating others was that the pride and confidence in her own work
was freeing to her.
In these examples, TCs saw the power of audience and reflect the dialogic nature of writing
workshop. They witnessed the importance of responding to writing and having ones writing
responded to by peers and significant others. The celebration of ones writing impacted student
confidence and fostered a writing community.
Backing offand letting students write
Just as TCs were learning to engage in dialogue an
that they frequently wanted to control student writing. Oftentimes they wanted to influence the
content of the childrensstory,edittheirstudents writing, or operate the iPads to create the
digital story. Justines interview reflected the tension between teaching the writer and not the
writing(Calkins, 1994,p.228):
We met, just before we recorded her hair story, we thought of different ways to start her story. I told her she
can start by asking a question, talking, giving details. It was so hard not to do this for her. Author 1 told us to
teach the writer, not the writing and all I wanted to do is push her out of the way and let me have my go! But I
didnt, I let her drive. All in all, she did not use our lead we came up with for her final publication of her hair
story, but she did teach me a lot about myself when it comes to control!
Claire also recognized the importance of working alongside students and relinquishing control:
The most important thing I learned from this project is that it is the students work, not mine, so I need to let
them be the pilot and take on the role of copilot that is there to assist them when they need it.
Bailey added, For the next time, I would be less hands-on with the iPad and let her do most of
the controlling. She was great at working and was excited to work on it when she did have
control over it.
Integral to Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy (CSP) is the belief that children must develop a sense of
identity and agency to grow academically. The TCs saw this too as they began to recognize their internal
desire to control studentstopic choice, technology use, and to let students make the authorial decisions.
Discussion and implications
Working closely in a mediated field experience supported TCs in beginning to unpack their deficit
orientations to children, communities, and families.ItalsogaveTCstheopportunitytolanguagetheir
learning and emerging understandings. Yet we know that one course is not enough. However, underlying
much of the TCsreflections were deficit perspectives relatedtoassumptionsbasedonchildrens racial
identities, academic abilities, zip codes, and families. TCs reflections often included notions rooted in
pathologies regarding their own fears about the neighborhood where the children resided. Also, underlying
these comments was a misconception that children who attended this school were not academically
capable. These kinds of biases are well documented in the research regarding Black children and children
living in underserved communities (Boutte, 2016; King & Swartz, 2015; Milner, 2014).
Understandings of students, families, and neighborhoods
We believe how teachers view and interact with childrenis foundational to the classroom culture teachers
create. The TCs in this study, enrolled in their first methods course, were initially struck by students
behavior, which for many of them reinforced stereotypes perpetuated in media and many teacherslounges.
We also believe that seeing Ms. Henderson struggle with behavioral issues may have surprised some
students who assumed Black teachers would be more effective in managing Black studentsbehaviors.
Although some may argue working with a 1st-year teacher was not ideal, it seemed for our TCs it was in
their zone of proximal development in that they could see themselves in Ms. Hendersonsprofessional
The TCs also began to understand that childrens behaviors did not reflect studentsacademic
ability, and in fact, through working closely with children in conferences, TCs saw that students
behaved differently in different contexts. This experience also moved teacher candidates into
developing and growing relational literaciesseeing children as connected to significant others.
Within writing conferences and in creating digital stories, there were fewer behavior issues than
when preservice students observed students at other times during the week. Although this under-
standing was not directly related to writing instruction, it did help teacher candidates see that within
a culturally sustaining classroom, curriculum and engagement matter.
In learning how to confer, teacher candidates talked about the importance of backing off.This
finding was particularly interesting because underlying backing off is recognizing a need to control.
TCs were becoming aware of their own authority while also learning how to tailor their teaching to
individual student needs. We wondered if our teacher candidates felt that children in this school
needed to be told what to do more than those in other schools.
Essential to culturally sustaining language artspedagogyistheroleofstudentidentityand
agency. As TCs become early career teachers, recognizing that students should make authorial
decisions is essential for academic learning and success. It is also essential as early career
teachers to understand ones power in the classroom. Learning not to control student writing
could happen in many kinds of writing classrooms, yet the classroom and school context dictate
how children are positioned. For TCs who work closely with children in a school where deficit
discourses circulate, experiencing the power of conferring helps to disrupt narratives that they
will continue to run into throughout their preservice education experiences and into their
careers. TCs in this study understood that holding the pen or directing a story only taught
young writers that what they had to say does not hold value.
In addition, TCs began to form positive relationships with childrens family members, which also
disrupted deficit perspectives as TCs saw the joy and appreciation that families experienced during the
Author Share, their frequent communication with Ms. Henderson, and how schools are frequently not
built around family memberswork schedules. However, we also saw TCsbiases lurking beneath the
surface of their writing. For example, JustinesrelationshipwithLydias mother seemed to surprise her.
And we argue that Ms. Donaldsons engagement with Lydia surprised Justine because it disrupted the
cultural model that parents in this community are not involved in their childrens lives and do not care
about their childrens academic achievement. We also know that TCs still had lingering biases and
misunderstandingsTCs assumed that divorce created chaos in students lives rather than under-
standing that children from a divorced family were still loved cared for.
We left this study concerned that TCs did not understand the history of this neighborhood and
the institutional constructs that contributed to the economic barriers the community faced. For
example, in our data, TCs talked about initial perceptions of the neighborhood and the school. Our
data showed that TCs quickly saw the school as a positive and welcoming place. We did not see
evidence of this in relationship to the neighborhood.
Pedagogical understandings of writing workshop
In addition to growing more nuanced and complex understandings of children, families, and
communities, TCs also began to grow their pedagogical understandings of writing workshop.
Because most high-needs schools receive poor writing diets (McCarthey, 2008), it is essential that
TCs experience other ways of reaching and teaching writers. For example, writing conferences are
frequently missing from elementary classrooms for a variety of reasonstime, lack of knowing how
to support the writer, and lack of pedagogical content knowledge (Laman, 2013). The weekly
conferring engagement created mediated spaces wherein TCs outgrew their previous understand-
ings. It caused TCs to see the childrens stories as windows and mirrors for their own cultural
orientations to hair (Bishop, 2016). Teacher candidates learned about the cultural nature of hair and
provided children with an opportunity to express their cultural knowledge that most of the TCs did
not hold. Although the 2
-graders were excited to share hair stories, mandating the topic really
benefited adults more than the children. Since this study, we are holding firm to our commitment
for children to choose their topics because we want children to grow a sense of identity and agency,
and one of the most powerful ways that is accomplished is through topic selection.
Although we, as experienced writing teachers, see the Author Share as a curricular nonnegotiable
(Laman, 2013), the TCs had not experienced or witnessed celebrations of writing. TCs were visibly
moved by its impact on studentssense of identity and agency. The celebration also reinforced the
significance of including families in their curriculum.
Insights and actions
We recognize the limitations of studying such a small group of students. The purpose of studying
our focal group was not to answer questions like how muchor to generalize findings, but to
understand more deeply how and what TCs learn within a mediated field experience, which was new
in our program. We recognize the lost opportunity we had to allow students to do member checks of
our work. However, this shortcoming provides some direction for our future practices and has the
potential to inform other teacher educators as well.
Findings from this study have informed changes that we implemented in subsequent semesters.
The mediated field experience within the school clearly affected TCsperceptions regarding the
school, the children, their families, and teaching. However, we found that TCsperceptions of the
community did not shift as much as we would like. Therefore, we began engaging TCs in tours of the
local history museum and community centers. These sites served as new and significant mediated
spaces. For example, TCs learned about how the history of redlining that has continued to impact
this community for over five decades. It also introduced TCs to community-run organizations, one
of which hosted summer school for children while was Allen Elementary was being repaired.
Across our program, we now address systemic inequities earlier in our preservice courses. As TCs
enter their professional program, they learn how race, class, linguistic, and gender biases play out in
classroom curriculum and pedagogies. This sets a foundation for subsequent content methods
courses. We are also becoming more explicit in supporting TCs toward understanding the political
nature of curriculum and how teachersdaily professional decisions inform studentsacademic
experiences and identities. As Ms. Henderson enters her 2nd year of teaching, she continues to
collaborate with us and has grown in her own writing pedagogies as students take up important
inquiries into their neighborhood, child activists, and the Black Lives Matter movementall which
serve as powerful examples for our teacher candidates who are hopefully being and becoming
teachers who orient their curriculum to culturally sustaining writing pedagogies and who understand
childrens cultures and communities as rich with resources for lifelong learning.
The authors would like to thank the reviewers and the Action in Teacher Education editors for their thorough and
thoughtful feedback from submission to publication.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
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