Reflective Practice in an Online Literacy Course: Lessons Learned from Attempts to Fuse Reading and Science Instruction
by Donna E. Alvermann, Achariya T. Rezak, Christine A. Mallozzi, Michael D. Boatright & David F. Jackson - 2011
Background/Context: One of several challenges to fusing reading and science instruction through the use of reflective practice arises from recent claims that it is questionable whether anyone can “make” preservice teachers into reflective practitioners. This challenge has implications for researchers and teacher educators in general, especially if one assumes that novices are without sufficient resources for reflecting on their own experiences and interactions.
Two frequently cited commissioned reviews of reading research conclude that skills-based instruction in graphic organizing, self-questioning, summarizing, and other similar generic reading strategies can improve adolescents’ comprehension of written texts. However, there is a growing consensus about the importance of domain-specific pedagogical knowledge, and preservice teachers who view science instruction as largely concept oriented may not view reading instruction as highly relevant. Little research has been directed toward understanding how preservice science teachers learn to integrate what they know about their subject matter with the generic reading strategies they are taught in content literacy courses.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The researchers documented a prospective science teacher’s struggle to make sense of an online content literacy course that attempted to strengthen her capabilities to combine skills-based instruction (reading) with concept-based instruction (science). Specifically, the researchers were interested in her reflections on the feedback she received from the course instructors and, in turn, how her struggle caused the researchers to reflect on several contradictory discourses in the online course that needed addressing before offering it in subsequent semesters. While looking at the course through the eyes of this student’s experiences and interactions, the researchers were also mindful of how her professional identity as a science teacher was being informed by those same contradictory discourses in small but incremental ways throughout the semester.
Research Design: In the context of an online content literacy course, 11 pairs of prospective and mentor teachers worked as partners in the instruction of middle school students reading one or more grade levels below actual grade placement in one or more content areas. This interpretive case study focused on one of those pairs. The concept of approximations of practice framed this study and led to a focus on the clinical aspects of reflective practice manifested during periods of preactive teaching (e.g., lesson planning) and reflective teaching (e.g., explaining and receiving feedback on the planned lessons).
Data Collection and Analysis: Data sources included a prospective teacher’s four intervention lessons plans and e-mails containing reflections on those lesson plans from the prospective teacher, her mentor teacher, and the teaching team. Analysis was a four-step process that included coding key sources and writing analytic memos through the use of deductive and inductive methods. The primary researcher used discourse analysis to interpret the researchers' and participants’ written reflections related to preactive and reflective teaching.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Implications derived from the study’s findings for literacy educators point to the value of collaborating with colleagues in schools of teacher education who have expertise in teaching their specific discipline’s content. Most importantly, the implications point to the need to reexamine the assumption that prospective teachers are without sufficient resources for reflecting on their own experiences and interactions in situations that call for fusing skills-based reading instruction with concept-based science instruction.
In their executive summary of Literacy Instruction in the Content Areas: Getting to the Core of Middle and High School Improvement, Heller and Greenleaf (2007) argued that, while it is not the responsibility of content area teachers to provide basic reading instruction, it is nonetheless imperative that members of every academic discipline define the literacy skills that are essential to their content area and which they should be responsible for teaching (p. 1, emphasis in the original). The need to distinguish between taking responsibility for instruction in basic reading skills (e.g., decoding using phonics) as opposed to instruction in higher-level reading skills needed for comprehending subject matter texts is an old idea, dating back at least four decades (e.g., Bean, 2000; Herber, 1970; Moore, Readence, & Rickelman, 1983). Rarely, however, is Heller and Greenleafs (2007) argument persuasive at the middle and high school levels possibly because both prospective and practicing teachers at those levels tend to view themselves as content experts and mistakenly assume that the basic reading instruction students receive in the lower grades will be sufficient for comprehending complex subject matter texts.
Even if the argument were persuasive, it is doubtful that generic instruction in higher-level reading skills would be sufficient for teaching students to read, write, and discuss subject matter texts that are laden with difficult concepts representing a vast network of assorted symbols, relationships, and underlying assumptions in each of the core disciplines (science, mathematics, social studies, and English language arts). For instance, in their multivariate analyses of various linguistic and textual features of high school science textbooks, Freebody and Muspratt (2007) documented that clear and interpretable distinctions exist among physics, biology, and chemistry texts. These distinctive features are part and parcel of what science content experts in teacher education know about their disciplines that enable them to support prospective teachers in the selection and adaptation of various reading strategies and materials appropriate for particular learning situations. Yet, according to Conley (2008), attempts to fuse reading and science instruction, while theoretically sound, often run into difficulty at the practical level for reasons best explained by findings that suggest prospective teachers hold fast to their views of teaching and learning based on their own experiences as students (p. 97). This tendency to hang on to what Conley called an authoritative narrative of science knowledge (p. 97) presents its own set of challenges to researchers interested in studying the integration of reading and science instruction through reflective teaching practices.
One such challenge, identified by Fendler (2003) in her critique of the literature on teacher reflection, stems from efforts to situate contemporary definitions of reflective practice somewhere between Schöns (1987) concept of practitioner-based intuition and Deweys (1933) earlier notion of rational and scientific thinking. Prospective teachers who hold fast to a narrative that presents science instruction as largely concept oriented may not view reading instruction as all that relevant to the task of teaching middle-grade students how to comprehend science texts. Another challenge arises from Zeichners (1996) claim there is no such thing as an unreflective teacher (p. 207). Zeichners critique of the notion that anyone can make prospective teachers into reflective practitioners has implications for researchers and teacher educators in general, especially if one assumes that novices are without resources for reflecting on their own experiences and interactions.
PURPOSE OF THE STUDY
It is this assumption, in fact, that we seek to redress by documenting a prospective science teachers struggle to make sense of an online literacy course that attempted to strengthen her capabilities to combine skills-based instruction (reading) with concept-based instruction (science) through reflective practice. Specifically, we were interested in her reflections on the feedback she received from the course instructors (two in reading, one in science) and, in turn, how her struggle caused the instructors to reflect on several contradictory discourses in the online class that needed addressing before offering it in subsequent semesters. While looking at the course through the eyes of this prospective teachers experiences and interactions, we were also mindful of how her professional identity as a science teacher was being informed by those same contradictory discourses in small but incremental ways throughout the semester.
We use Grossman and her colleagues notion of approximations of practice (Grossman et al., 2005; Grossman & McDonald, 2008) to frame this data-based paper on reflective practice. Building on earlier scholarship in the area of teachers discipline-related knowledge (Shulman, 1986), reflective practice (Schön, 1987), and instructional explanations (Leinhardt, 2004), Grossman et al. argued for focusing on the clinical aspects of practice that are manifested during periods of preactive teaching (e.g., lesson planning) and reflective teaching (e.g., explaining and receiving feedback on the planned lessons). Clinical practice in teacher education research has its roots in earlier studies of microteaching that were common in the 1970s and mid-1980s. As Grossman and McDonald (2008) indicated, that line of inquiry, while much maligned for its singular focus on discrete behaviors, nonetheless provided novices with opportunities to engage in simulations of interactive practice (p. 190). Still, focusing on discrete behaviors in isolated simulations created a situation in which researchers tended to overlook contextual factors that made most classroom instructional practices difficult to master in the first place. As a corrective theoretical framing device, the concept of approximations of practice uses context by focusing attention on microlevel instructional routines (e.g., lesson planning and reflection on evaluative feedback) that are embedded in the sociocultural and discipline-related practices of real classrooms.
In this paper, we propose that approximations of content literacy practice are better understood, at least in theory, when contradictory discourses that inform prospective teachers identities are taken into account. Working from that perspective, we use Gees (2000-2001) thinking on Discourse identity, which takes into consideration what it means to be recognized as a certain kind of person [caught up in] the workings of historical, institutional, and sociocultural forces (p. 100). Gee used the term Discourse to distinguish it from discourse as simply a string of words. According to Gee, Discourse identity derives from an individuals engagement in constructing and sustaining ways of being (e.g., through acting, reasoning, speaking, reading, writing, dressing, and any number of other communicative acts) to both recognize and be recognized by others as members of a common group. It is an identity kit, to use Gees terminology, for belonging or fitting in with others like oneself. We use the notion of Discourse identity (hereafter referred to in lowercase) as an analytic lens through which to show theoretically how one prospective teachers professional identity as a science educator was being informed by contradictory discourses that surfaced in an online course designed to fuse reading and science instruction.
REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
Two frequently cited commissioned reviews of reading research (Biancarosa & Snow, 2004; Kamil, 2003) concluded that skills-based instruction in graphic organizing, self-questioning, summarizing, and other similar generic reading strategies can improve adolescents comprehension of written texts. Although steeped in evidence, these earlier reviews of the literature largely overlook the fact that the pedagogic nature of each disciplines domain knowledge is unique to a great extent (McEwan & Bull, 1991; Moje, 2008) and that it is this uniqueness that renders generic reading strategies somewhat less potent than tests of statistical significance might suggest. Because content determines process (Herber, 1970), science educators, like other content area educators, look for pedagogical approaches that support their fields conceptual understandings (Gess-Newsome & Lederman, 2002; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008).
Despite a growing consensus about the importance of domain-specific pedagogical knowledge, relatively little research is directed toward understanding how prospective science teachers might engage in reflective practice as a way of integrating domain-specific knowledge with the generic reading strategies they are taught in content literacy classes. Moreover, studies of domain-specific reading instruction in the middle grades have tended to focus overwhelmingly on the English language arts curriculum, if not specifically on the strategies thought to improve comprehension of narrative texts (Alvermann, Fitzgerald, & Simpson, 2006). This is particularly problematic given that most subject matter texts used in science classrooms in the middle grades are written with an expository text structure. As Lemke (1990) pointed out, the ways in which people talk about science, comprehend and write science texts, and engage in science experiments are vastly different from the ways they might go about reading, writing, and discussing texts in an English class.
Regardless of the content area and grade level studied, prospective teachers have generally demonstrated that they are capable of reflecting on their personal theories about pedagogical content knowledge in relation to course assignments (Risko, Vukelich, & Roskos, 2002), dialogue journals (Bean & Zulich, 1989), guided reading and interactive writing lessons (Wold, 2003), and videodisc cases of conceptual change teaching and learning (Abell, Bryan, & Anderson, 1998). However, simply requiring prospective teachers to reflect on their instructional practices is insufficient because it rarely brings about changes in those practices (Alvermann, 2006; Lester, 1998).
The same could be said for scaffolding, which is similar in some ways to Grossman and McDonalds approximations of practice. Although scaffolding is known to have potential to help prospective teachers select appropriate reading strategies in relation to certain domain-specific learning goals (Reinking, Mealey, & Ridgeway, 1993; Wold, 2003), scaffolded instruction by itself has not provided these teachers with the experiences they need to challenge the larger discourses of teaching and learning (Bean & Stevens, 2002), especially when discursive practices divide content (science) and process skills (reading) along strictly departmental lines. A question worth exploring, then, is how prospective science teachers might use reflective practice in ways that would predispose them to identify with both skills-based instruction (reading) and concept-based instruction (science) in the face of contradictory discursive practices.
The larger funded project (Alvermann, Rezak, Mallozzi, & Boatright, 2009) from which data were drawn for this paper used a multicase design (Merriam, 1998) to evaluate the effectiveness of an online course that required 22 prospective and mentor teachers to work as partners in the instruction of middle school students reading one or more grade levels below actual grade placement in one or more content areas.1 The course also featured a built-in mechanism for mentoring prospective teachers by university instructors with different subject matter expertise.
For the present study, we chose to focus on one prospective science teacher whose lesson planning and reflecting on the course instructors feedback provided insight into how contradictory discourses were at play in this teachers professional development. Although contradictory discourses were also operating in the math group (and to a lesser degree in the English language arts and social studies groups), they were most prominent in the group that included the one (and only) prospective science teacher. Given this set of circumstances, we selected an interpretive case study design (Merriam, 1998) because it afforded the necessary parameters in which to analyze a smaller subset of the available data.
RESEARCHERS AND PARTICIPANTS
For ease of reference, the researchers and participants in this case study are listed in Table 1 with their pseudonyms and roles/positions identified. What follows is a fuller description of each of the researchers and participants.
Table 1. Researchers and participants
The two online course instructors were the first and second authors of this paper. Lois, a professor with over 25 years of experience as a literacy teacher educator, was a former middle school teacher. She had designed the online course and was responsible for supervising the mentor teachers who enrolled in it. Sari, a graduate teaching assistant with expertise in reading education and learning in an online environment, had helped to design the course and had taught it in a previous semester. Sari was responsible for supervising the prospective teachers who enrolled in the course. Two doctoral research assistants, Eve and Mark, contributed to the review of the literature and analysis of the data. Eve had five years experience teaching language arts, science, and social studies in the middle grades. Mark, with seven years of ESOL teaching experience, focused on the historical developments of ELL and immigrant literacies in the United States. Both were coauthors. The science teacher educator, also a coauthor, taught science methods courses for prospective middle school teachers in the same college.
Peggy was a prospective teacher who had identified science and math as her primary and secondary areas of concentration, respectively, prior to entering a middle school education program in her junior year at a large university in the southeastern United States. Like all entering juniors in that program, Peggy had spent the first two years as an undergraduate taking courses in the College of Arts and Sciences before deciding upon science and math as her areas of concentration in the College of Education. During the face-to-face orientation meeting for the online course, Peggy chose a middle school speech pathologist as her mentor teacher in the field. This teacher, who worked one-on-one with students who had semantic language disorders that interfered with their reading achievement in various content area classrooms, chose to focus on life science because it was an area of difficulty for Student X, a middle school struggling reader who was part of her caseload. Referred to as Student X for reasons of confidentiality, this fifth-grade girl had been retained one year and had failed the science portion of the states criterion-referenced test the year prior to the start of the study. She also had difficulty with vocabulary and struggled to comprehend school-assigned texts, especially the fifth-grade life science text. Due to the universitys policy on confidentiality, neither Peggy nor her mentor teacher could serve as our coauthors.
CONTENT AND STRUCTURE OF THE ONLINE COURSE
Course content was delivered through Web Course Tools, commonly referred to as WebCT. Nine content modules were created to ensure the manageability of the course. Each module was embedded in a clinical practice framework that provided opportunities for students to learn how the content of their particular discipline (science, social studies, mathematics, or English language arts) was organized. The goal was to engage students in activities that were approximations of preactive and reflective practice (Grossman et al., 2005) so that they would learn to use domain-specific knowledge to make informed choices of reading strategies. When teachers perceive connection between content knowledge and strategy selection, they are likely to choose reading strategies that have the potential to bring out, or highlight, the organizational structure of their disciplines, which in turn can make written texts easier to comprehend and recall (Jetton & Alexander, 2004).
Five of the nine content modules dealt with reading strategies deemed effective for middle school students by the National Reading Panel (2000): graphic organizing, self-questioning, comprehension monitoring, using text structure, and summarizing. Two additional modules focused on predicting using prior knowledge and reflecting on what was read. Vocabulary, which is deemed essential to all domain-specific learning, formed its own module, as did assessment. The latter included information on pre- and postassessment strategies to use with middle school struggling readers.
Each content module contained at least four different kinds of material. The first was a PowerPoint mini-lecture containing a description of the reading strategy and examples relating directly to the content area. The second item was a research article that linked content and process, such as a science article on graphic organizing. The third item was a practitioner article that described how to use the strategy in a particular content area, and the fourth item was a link to an Internet resource that could be used as an interactive resource in lesson planning.
DATA SOURCES AND LEVELS OF ANALYSIS
Data sources included Peggys four intervention lessons plans that were based on recommended National Reading Panel (2000) strategies; e-mails containing reflections on those lessons from Peggy, her mentor teacher, Lois, Sari, and the science teacher educator; midterm and end-of-course interviews with Peggy and her mentor teacher; pre- and postassessments of Student Xs comprehension of a grade-level science text; and the final for the course, which was a case report of Student Xs progress.
Data analyses used in addressing the purpose of this paper focused on levels 3 and 4 of a four-step process. However, levels 1 and 2 of that process are described briefly as a context for understanding levels 3 and 4.
The larger study (Alvermann, Rezak, Mallozzi, & Boatright, 2009) used an evaluative multicase design (Merriam, 1998) that allowed for coding key data sources within and across each prospective and mentor teacher pair (n = 11 pairs) for each of five questions.2 The codes, which derived from both inductive and deductive content analyses (Patton, 2002) of the data sources, were entered into the software program called ATLAS.ti 5.2 (ATLAS.ti GmbH, 2006). Lois, Sari, and Eve met biweekly to establish intercoder reliability. When differences were noted, the coding scheme was adjusted, and previously coded data were recoded.
To ensure a systematic approach to addressing the five questions guiding the larger study, Lois, Sari, and Eve individually analyzed each of the ATLAS.ti data sets for all 11 prospective/mentor teacher pairs. Mark independently addressed the same set of questions across the 11 pairs and wrote a report that Lois and Sari used in checking for agreement and differences in their answers. Consensus was achieved on the answers to the five questions prior to Lois, Sari, and Eve individually writing analytic memos of between 120 and 500 words (see example in Figure 1) that addressed the larger studys guiding questions within and across the 11 pairs.
Figure. 1. Example of an analytic memo
Saris Reflection on Peggys Fourth Intervention Lesson Plan
I worry that while Student X might have learned strategies, the way in which Peggy and her mentor teacher planned and taught their lessons was not based upon the [science teacher educators] approved domain structure. Student X often found it difficult to remember [vocabulary] terms from lessons, even if her reading/writing strategies were passable.
According to the mentor teacher, Student X did pretty well with her note-taking. She continues to have difficulty remembering which cell parts go with which cell type, so [the mentor teacher] had Student X write these down at the bottom of her notes (P255:lesson4_ins_responsedoc-255.1). This indicates to me that Student X might not have been learning about life sciences in a manner appropriate to thoroughly comprehending the subject area.
Sari reread each analytic memo from level 2 (see example in Figure 1) that contained preactive and reflective teaching practices associated with data obtained from Peggys four intervention lessons, her mentor teacher, Student X, and the science teacher educator. In line with the papers theoretical perspective on approximations of practice, Sari highlighted instances in the memos that pertained to planning lessons and reflecting on feedback associated with those lessons. She also identified cultural artifacts (Bartlett, 2007) that pointed to both concrete (e.g., a graphic organizer) and symbolic (e.g., a label) meanings associated with preactive and reflective teaching.
Lois used Gees (1999) method of discourse analysis to interpret the researchers and participants written reflections related to lesson planning and explaining/receiving feedback on the lessons. The central premise of Gees analysis is that whenever we speak or write, we always and simultaneously construct or build six things or six areas of reality (p. 12). The six areas refer to questions about (1) the relevancy or irrelevancy of social languages; (2) the discourses that are being re/produced; (3) the actions that are taking place; (4) the relevancy or irrelevancy of situated roles/positions and their accompanying knowledge, beliefs, feelings, values; (5) the relevancy or irrelevancy of status and power; and (6) the connections made to other people, effects, ideas, institutions, and discourses.
Specifically, Lois looked for patterned repetitions, such as labeling ones feelings (I dont understand, confused, seems strange) and linguistic details (I-statements) in written reflections on various preactive and reflective teaching experiences that Sari had identified at the third level of analysis. Lois also used Gees (1999) conventions for representing transcribed data. For example, in Table 2, she numbered the lines of talk written down (broken into idea units) and underlined words that were salient to the questions associated with Gees (1999) six areas of reality. Then, she organized the lines into stanzas and subsequently gave them descriptive titles for the purpose of showing both their macrostructure (set off by bolded font) and microstructure (numbered lines within stanzas). The numbered lines serve as points of reference in the combined discussions of level 3 and level 4 findings that follow. Member checks conducted earlier with Peggy through online interviews helped to strengthen the validity of the patterned repetitions that Lois found in Peggys written reflections.
Table 2. Example of Gees (1999) micro-analysis applied to an e-mail on lesson planning
Stanza 1 (Peggys e-mail to Sari about lesson intervention #1)
1a I have been working on my lesson plan
1b for the past few days
1c and I cant seem to get anywhere.
2a The more I read and look at peoples examples
2b the more confused I get.
Stanza 2 (Peggys attention to Student Xs needs in science class)
3a My mentor teacher and I decided to focus
3b on graphic organizing for this first assignment
3c and have found website relating to cells
3d (which is the topic, student x needs
3e science instruction especially in vocabulary).
Stanza 3 (Peggys frustration in fitting the reading strategy to science content)
4a I have ideas for the graphic organizer,
4b but I dont understand at all
4c how to make this lesson plan
4d for this format.
Stanza 4 (Peggys confusion about the courses research component)
5a I am especially confused
5b about how to incorporate research.
Stanza 5 (Peggys reflection on her frustration)
6a Also, as far as material to use,
6b this seems to be strange to me
6c because I have never seen
6d the science text my mentor teachers school uses
6e so it is difficult to plan a lesson from it.
Stanza 6 (Peggys frustration leads to request for help)
7a If you could give me any clarity
7b it would be greatly appreciated.
8a As you can imagine
8b it is frustrating working on this for hours
8c and not seeming to accomplish anything at all.
Stanza 7 (Peggy anticipates a response from Sari)
9. Thanks so much.
DISCUSSION OF FINDINGS BASED ON LEVEL 3 AND 4 ANALYSES
This discussion focuses on our interpretation of Peggys attempts to make sense of the contradictory discourses that surfaced during a semester-long online course aimed at fusing skills-based instruction (reading) with concept-based instruction (science). As noted earlier, we also attended to evidence of Peggys professional identity as a science teacher being informed incrementally through the feedback she received from these competing discourses. We present our findings in a manner that is consistent with Grossman et al.s (2005) call for studies of approximations of preactive and reflective teaching practices.
Peggys first e-mail to Sari pointed to uncertainties that she was experiencing in planning for Student Xs pretest by attempting to locate a text that was on the students reading level:
I [sic] trying to work on my science pretest and am having a difficult time understanding where to draw my information from. Should it have a reading from which the student will answer questions? [If so], how can I know what the student would reasonably know since they dont always realistically know what they should based on grade level?
In fairness to Peggy, these questions need to be contextualized. Prior to her enrollment in the online course, only prospective middle school teachers with an emphasis in English language arts, social studies, or math had enrolled. This meant that Peggy and her mentor teacher were trailblazers, in a sense, due to the fact they had no examples of existing science lesson plans from which to draw in the WebCT course. It fell to Peggy, in her role as chief lesson planner, to find materials that were appropriate to Student Xs needs.
After deciding on a text that she would use for its content (cell types) in a pretest and as the basis for each of her four intervention lessons, Peggy began planning her first lesson. In yet another e-mail to Sari (see Table 2), Peggy indicated that she was once again experiencing uncertainties about the online course. For example, in Stanzas 1, 4, and 5, Peggy expressed her frustration with the following: the sample lesson plans, the research requirement, and the selection of materials, respectively. Although lines 3a through 3e of Stanza 2 suggest that Peggy and her mentor teacher felt comfortable with the reading strategy (graphic organizing) they had selected based on its potential to provide a focus on vocabulary (a specific need of Student X), lines 4b through lines 4d of Stanza 3 reflect Peggys uncertainty about how to show in her lesson plan that there was a fit between the strategy she had selected and the science content she wanted Student X to learn.
Peggys request for Saris assistance in stanza 6 of Table 2 is salient not only for what it discloses about the uphill struggle Peggy was encountering as a prospective teacher in an online course focused on fusing reading and science instruction, but also for what it reveals about her developing identity as a future science teacher. Prior to enrolling in the course, Peggys choice of science as her primary area of specialization suggested that she had already begun to construct an identity of a future science teacherone, however, that may not have incorporated images of herself teaching struggling readers how to comprehend science texts. For such imagery to take hold, Peggy would likely need the experiences provided by the online course. And, in fact, she seemed to sense the same. For instance, in lines 7a and 7b of Stanza 6, Peggy appealed to Saris perceived status as one who can bring clarity to the situation because of her expertise in how to fuse reading and science instruction. Peggy also signaled her identity as a novice science teacher by stating that she expected Sari to understand the frustration she was experiencing (Stanza 6, lines 8a through 8c). This and other similar discursive moves throughout the semester by Peggy to position herself as learner and Sari as knower suggest that she was using her interactions in the course to build her reality (Gee, 1999) of what it means to be a teacher responsible for both reading and science instruction.
In this section, we attempt to show the parallel nature of preactive and reflective teaching experiences, structured as they were within a clinical practice framework. We do this by connecting a reflective practice to the preactive teaching experience that prompted it. When this is not possible due to space constraints, we provide a brief description of the preactive teaching experience that led to a particular reflection.
Sari recognized Peggys continuing need for clarification on matters related to the selection of a text passage for the pretest. Thus, she sent Peggy an e-mail in which she suggested that Peggy contact her mentor teacher to request additional information on Student Xs background and reading needs:
I strongly suggest that you contact your partner teacher and discuss Student X with her. Ask all the questions that you want to about Student X so that you can judge better what [she] needs. Also, ask your [mentor] teacher what the best procedure would be[in terms of her preference for] using class material or using alternate material. Since the end result is hopefully to help Student X, anything that best serves this interest is what we need to do.
In following Saris advice, Peggy learned that her mentor teacher did not use a textbook and was unable to recommend specific reading materials in the life sciences to use with Student X. After reflecting on this new information and sensing the urgency in Peggys e-mails due to an approaching deadline for turning in the pretest assignment, Sari e-mailed her, asking, Can you get to a library? If so, there are bound to be books of the appropriate age about cells in the nonfiction section To this, Peggy responded, The library idea didn't even cross my mind. Thanks! However, Peggy revealed in a later e-mail that she did not go to the library, preferring instead to search the Internet for what she decided would be an appropriate text (see Figure 2)one that Sari tacitly approved when she gave Peggy full credit for the pretest assignment.
Figure 2. Excerpt from the text Peggy selected for the pretest
Cells are the Starting Point
Adapted from www.biology4kids.com
All living organisms on Earth are divided in pieces called cells. There are smaller pieces to cells that include proteins and organelles. There are also larger pieces called tissues and systems. Cells are small compartments that hold all of the biological equipment necessary to keep an organism alive and successful on Earth.
A main purpose of a cell is to organize. Cells hold a variety of pieces and each cell has a different set of functions. It is easier for an organism to grow and survive when cells are present. If you were only made of one cell, you would only be able to grow to a certain size. You dont find single cells that are as large as a cow. Also, if you were only one cell you couldnt have a nervous system, no muscles for movement, and using the Internet would be out of the question. The trillions of cells in your body make your life possible.
There are many types of cells. In biology class, you will usually work with plant-like cells and animal-like cells. We say animal-like because an animal type of cell could be anything from a tiny microorganism to a nerve cell in your brain. Plant cells are easier to identify because they have a protective structure called a cell wall made of cellulose. Plants have the wall; animals do not. Plants also have organelles like the chloroplast (the things that make them green) or large water-filled vacuoles.
We said that there are many types of cells. Cells are unique to each type of organism. Humans may have hundreds of types of cells. Some cells are used to carry oxygen (O2) through the blood (red blood cells) and others might be specific to the heart. If you look at very simple organisms, you will discover cells that have no defined nucleus and other cells that have hundreds of nuclei. The thing they all have in common is that they are compartments surrounded by some type of membrane.
[Note: sections on the cell membrane, cell wall, cytoplasm, nucleus, and chloroplasts have been omitted to conserve space.]
Peggys Attentiveness to Student Xs Needs
Peggy kept Student Xs difficulty with vocabulary in mind while searching for appropriate reading materials. She also attended to what Student X already knew about the science content of a reading passage and what was likely to be unfamiliar. This was a pattern that we observed in Peggys reflections across the semester. For example, barely three weeks into the online course (and close on the heels of her frustration in locating a suitable passage for the pretest), Peggy reflected on a potential mismatch between the reading materials she had selected and Student Xs prior knowledge: As a future science educator, I could not help but think of how disconnected much of the teaching that takes place is from what students know about themselves and their world.
Then, a week later, while preparing to send her first reading intervention lesson plan as an e-mail attachment to Lois and Sari, Peggy wrote in her cover e-mail that she was pushing through what she referred to as her comfort zone:
I am really hoping I did this correctly. [My mentor teacher] and I like it, but I still feel a little out of my comfort zone with all this. Maybe the future science people will have an easier time of it since if [sic] I can pave the way, haha.
This last statement, made somewhat in jest, was in reference to the fact that Peggy had no science examples from which to draw in constructing her lesson plans. As noted earlier, no prospective science teachers had previously enrolled in the online course. Thus, Peggy had to break new ground in her attempt to fuse what she knew about domain knowledge in the life sciences (particularly cell division) and what she could infer about effective reading instruction based on the National Reading Panels approved reading strategies.
Different Subject Matter Discourses
In supporting Peggys choice of the Internet text, Sari revealed something of her own discursive identity, grounded as it was in a reading/language arts perspective that did not offer specific expertise or insight into the attributes of a good science passage. On the other hand, the science teacher educator, being knowledgeable about such attributes, immediately noted flaws in the Internet text on cells. Consequently, his evaluation of the text Peggy had selected was not as positive as Saris. In his words: There is some good information here, but it is hidden among too many irrelevant or probably incomprehensible details, some unclear writing, and several examples of what I believe [amount to] misinformation, or at least significant partial scientific misconceptions.
As she had done in her evaluation of Peggys choice of texts for the pretest, Sari assigned full credit to Peggys lesson plan that featured the compare/contrast graphic organizers on plant and animal cells (see Figure 3). Similarly, as he had done in his evaluation of the pretest passage, the science teacher educator was less positive than Sari about Peggys instructional choice of a reading strategy. The discursive identities that informed these two individuals different assessments of Peggys graphic organizer lesson are evident in their e-mailed reflections (see Figures 4 and 5). For instance, Saris discursive leanings toward a reading teacher identity reproduced the notion that drawing a cell and labeling its various parts would reinforce vocabulary learning (see Stanza 2, lines 2a through 2e). The science teacher educators discursive identity, on the other hand, was dominated less by I-statements (only 2 in 21 lines) and more by statements regarding the relevancy or irrelevancy of criteria for determining what counts as an appropriate learning strategy, such as concept mapping (see Figure 5: Stanza 1, lines 1e through 3d; Stanza 2, lines 4a through 5b; and Stanza 3, lines 6a through 6c). He also questioned why Peggy would believe that writing definitions in the ovals of the graphic organizers would lead Student X to understand how the vocabulary terms relate to each other.
Figure 3. Peggys graphic organizers for labeling cell parts with vocabulary terms
Figure 4. Saris reflection on Peggys graphic organizer lesson
Stanza 1 (Saris positive, uncritical response)
1a Peggy, I think
1b youve nailed the idea of the science lesson plan.
1c I liked your choice of material
1d as well as the strategy that youve chosen.
Stanza 2 (Saris predicted usefulness of graphic organizer)
2a Drawing a cell
2b will definitely reinforce the vocabulary
2c behind the parts of the cell.
Figure 5. Science teacher educators reflection on Peggys graphic organizer lesson
Stanza 1 (Differences between graphic organizers and concept maps)
1a The layout of the two graphic organizer templates
1b (Plant Cells and Animal Cells)
1c suggests that they might be used as
1d the framework to facilitate something approaching
1e what I would call a concept map,
2a in which individual entities
2b (nodes: vocabulary words, broader concepts, etc.)
2c are not only listed,
2d and perhaps augmented by definitions
2e or other descriptions of themselves,
3a but also linked together graphically
3b by drawing lines between nodes that are, in turn,
3c labeled to indicate the nature of the relationship
3d between the entities/concepts/terms.
Stanza 2 (Science teacher educators reflection on Student Xs response)
4a As far as I can tell from the description,
4b this did not happen
5a the student just wrote definitions or paraphrases
5b in each oval in isolation.
Stanza 3 (An attempt to get Peggy to reflect on her choice of strategies)
6a In what way does this give any guidance
6b as to what the important vocabulary words are,
6c much less how they relate to each other?
In an attempt to make sense of the contradictory messages from different subject matter discourses, Peggy pushed further in her quest to obtain clarification on what she needed to do to be successful at designing intervention lessons for Student X. Some encouraging feedback came in the form of an e-mail from her mentor teacher (see Figure 6). According to the mentor teacher, Student X remembered general information from Peggys lesson but had difficulty recalling the vocabulary terms that distinguished one cell part from another (Stanza 1, lines 2a through 3b). In reflecting on Student Xs performance after a discussion of the two types of cells, the mentor teacher noted some success (Stanza 2, line 5) and offered suggestions for how Peggy might improve the lesson, such as using a shorter passage and different learning aids (Stanza 3, lines 6a through 6b).
Figure 6. Mentor teachers reflection after implementing the graphic organizer lesson
Stanza 1 (How Student X responded to Peggys lesson)
1a The lesson was on the different parts of animal cells and plant cells.
1b Student X had difficulty reading the passage
1c so I had to read it out loud.
2a Student X remembered some general information
2b (i.e., all living organisms are made up of cells,
2c knew that plant cells and animal cells
2d had some similar parts and different parts),
3a but had difficulty remembering the specific vocabulary terms
3b (i.e., parts of the cells).
Stanza 2 (Mentor teachers reflection on Student Xs performance)
4a After the graphic organizers were completed,
4b we discussed if [there were] any similarities and differences
4c between the two types of cells.
5 She did pretty well.
Stanza 3 (Mentor teachers reflection on how Peggy might improve the lesson)
6a A few changes I would suggest are
6b using a smaller passage;
6c using a Venn diagram to compare and contrast the plant cells and animal cells;
6d and also using line drawings of the cells for her to label the parts.
Still struggling with the text selection process, Peggy pushed Sari further for help in finding an appropriate passage for her second lesson plan. She e-mailed Sari with this question:
So am I supposed to use the same text as before? I know I need to shorten it based on [my mentor teachers] reflection, but should I just shorten and use basically the same text and use it for this different activity? Sorry I keep bugging you, but I just feel like I am in a constant state of confusion with this.
Sari responded: Give yourself leeway with the text. Whats most important is implementing (and learning) the strategy. This advice was contrary to the science teacher educators admonition to stress conceptual clarity over everything else:
At [Student Xs] age/level of learning, I would prefer that a text and/or teacher speak of plants and their chloroplasts capturing/collecting light, which plants need to grow and function, or some such wording, rather than the language used here of energy conversion (the conversion is into chemical energy, a very advanced concept).
Overall, the science teacher educators evaluations of Peggys lesson plans conveyed the need to teach for conceptual understanding, whereas Saris conveyed her inclination to teach for the sake of implementing a reading strategy successfully.
Taking Action on Peggys Reflections
Noting the conflicting discourses that were becoming apparent, Lois and Sari decided to invite Peggy to a face-to-face meeting on campus to discuss the science teacher educators evaluation of her work, especially in relation to her choice of text and reading strategy selection. The science teacher educator could not participate in this offline discussion due to the universitys policy on confidentiality, which prohibited professors other than Lois from knowing the names of students in the online course. It was during this meeting that Peggy, in considering the science teachers feedback, acknowledged the weaknesses in the text she had selected for the pretest, and she pointed to aspects of the graphic organizing strategy that she found problematic. As a consequence, Peggy volunteered to revise the graphic organizers she had used earlier in an effort to demonstrate her understanding of the science teachers approach to mapping concepts so that relations among vocabulary terms are represented graphically. True to her word, a cover e-mail arrived in Lois and Saris mailboxes and with it an attachment that included a concept map Peggy had constructed (see Figure 7).
Figure 7. Peggys cover e-mail to Lois and Sari (substitution of a concept map for graphic organizers)
Subject: Concept Map
Message no. 1195
Here is the type of concept map I would use for cells. It is tailored for a 5th grade classroom. It is mostly analogy based so that students can make sense of the terms rather than just fill in the correct definition. It is also a good idea to have students to make an analogy of their own to help the ideas become more concrete and memorable for them . Let me know if you have any questions! I hope this is helpful for you guys and those who will do the science domain after me.
Arguably, as a result of having had the opportunity to reflect on her first lesson in light of the science teacher educators evaluation of graphic organizing as a reading strategy, Peggy was able to use what she learned to improve her second, third, and fourth lessons on vocabulary squares, summarizing, and comprehension monitoring, respectively. As indicated by the science teachers evaluations of lessons 2 and 4 (see Figures 8 and 9), Peggy was making progress, at least in terms of the strategies she was selecting. As for her text selections, the verdict is out. For instance, the science teacher educator noted the following in his evaluation of her third lesson:
Maybe I am just not seeing the forest for the trees overall, in that I am so used to the way information is structured in a well-written science text, that it is transparent and unproblematic for me in a way that it is not for either students or for teachers in other disciplines.
Figure 8. Science teacher educators evaluation of Peggys second intervention lesson
Page 1, full paragraph 2:
Most of this makes sense, but what are inquiry strategic vocabulary strategies? I dont see any inquiry aspect to any of the descriptions of these activities.
Page 2, Activity:
Good, clear description of the Vocabulary Square approach.
1) Good questions! Should provide the structure for a great discussion that both brings out prior knowledge and can clarify current scientific views! Great!
2) I strongly suggest a better-quality text. The abridged revision is definitely an improvement. Good!
3) Yes, students would notice that some words were highlighted, some of which were the specific target vocabulary and some of which were not.
Figure 9. Science teacher educators evaluation of Peggys fourth intervention lesson
I agree 100% with the statement Many students go through their school years answering science questions correctly, but never really understanding the concepts being taught. In fact, I believe that I essentially said the same thing in my own words (heavy irony) above in commenting on the previous lesson!
Again, a very insightful and well-explained sequence of activities. I emphasize sequence for this plan in particular, since not only is each step sensible and potentially useful alone but they crucially build upon each other.
When asked in an exit interview to comment on the practicality of the National Reading Panels approved reading strategies for teaching comprehension in the various content areas, Peggy responded:
They are much to [sic] vocabulary based and not concept and thinking based . Science education focuses on students [sic] thinking and making sense of ideas and concepts through manipulation, experience, discussion, etc. The reading strategies focus on the words and definitions, which is [sic] of course a part of science but comes [sic] secondary to the concept as a form of good communication, not memorization.
This reflection mirrors in important ways what Sari had noted in her evaluation of Peggys fourth lesson. In relaying her concern that Student X may not have made sufficient gains in conceptual learning in the area of science, Sari wrote in one of her analytic memos (see Figure 1): Student X might not have been learning about life sciences in a manner appropriate to thoroughly comprehending the subject area. Notwithstanding these valid concerns, Student Xs progress, at least as reported in Peggy and her mentor teachers final case report, was impressive. As shown in Figure 10, Student X moved from answering no questions correctly on the functions of cell parts in relation to different cell types on the pretest (comprised of 12 matching items) to answering 8 of 10 questions correctly on the posttest (multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank items).
Figure 10. Excerpts from Peggy and her mentor teachers final case report showing Student Xs progress
Excerpt from the pretest:
Before beginning the lesson plans, Student X was asked to complete a science pretest on cells. The test was comprised of 12 matching questions. She was instructed to write the letter for the correct definition for each cell part. Student X did not do very well and missed every single question. This was a somewhat surprising because her class did a whole lesson on cells right before the winter break.
Excerpt from the posttest:
For the posttest, Student X had to read a short passage and answer 10 questions. The questions were a combination of multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blanks. She did much better with the posttest and answered eight out of 10 questions correctly . Overall, her score on the posttest confirmed that she did benefit from the four intervention lessons.
LIMITATIONS AND IMPLICATIONS
Peggy never made a direct statement in either her online interactions with Lois and Sari, or in her reflections in the final case report, that would lead us to conclude she might actually use one or more of the reading strategies she had selected for her four intervention lessons in future lesson planning. She did, however, produce a concept map that she claimed better depicted the relation between specific scientific concepts and targeted vocabulary terms. Peggy stated in the final case report that she had gained a much stronger appreciation for why [her] content knowledge is so vital. Arguably, this statement could be interpreted to mean that she was indeed developing an identity of a future science teacher.
Because discipline-related literacy practices and situated identities are built over time and require interpersonal recognition by others in the same discourse for validation of group membership (Bartlett, 2007; Gee, 2000-2001), we are limited in what we can say in terms of any influence our one-semester course may (or may not) have had on predisposing Peggy to identify with both skills-based instruction (reading) and concept-based instruction (science). It is likely that her emphasis on the precedence of science concepts over science vocabulary, both in priority and in ideal temporal order in lesson design (The Learning Cycle; e.g., Lawson, 1995; Moyer, Hackett, & Everett, 2007), is an outgrowth of the treatment of these ideas as a leitmotif in her two prior science education methods courses. Although science educators are often frustrated by their lack of practical influence on teacher practices at the K-8 level, especially in light of accountability pressures (e.g., Smith & Southerland, 2007; Southerland, Smith, Sowell, & Kittleson, 2007), it appears that Peggy, at this point in her development as a teacher, is taking seriously the messages she has explicitly and implicitly received from science educators who are predisposed to greatly downplay the value of text-based instruction of any kind.
Nonetheless, what our findings do support is the usefulness of providing students with opportunities for experiencing approximations of preactive and reflective teaching (Grossman & McDonald, 2008) in online literacy courses, such as the one in this study. Peggys persistence in getting answers to questions she had about text and strategy selection resulted in our changing the course for the next semester in two notable ways. First, we included articles about science instruction in the life sciences that were published in science practitioner journals, rather than focusing entirely on science-related articles in literacy and language education journals. Second, we substituted Peggys concept map on cell types for the one we had originally included in the module on graphic organizing. We did this on the basis of what we had learned from the science teacher educators evaluation of Peggys first lesson and from Peggys reflections on why and how she wanted to move beyond the notion of graphic organizing as presented in the online course. Although these actions may seem fairly insignificant in the broader context of the study, we believe they have potentially important implications for reading teacher educators.
Traditionally, reading instruction has been viewed as the responsibility of elementary teachers, English teachers at the middle and secondary level, teacher educators in departments of language and literacy education and, only on rare occasions, the shared responsibility of teachers in other disciplines (Wellington & Osborne, 2001). In fact, having to attend to issues of text and strategy selection is perceived by some science teachers and science teacher educators as taking time away from meaningful science instruction (Moje & OBrien, 2001; OBrien & Stewart, 1990; Stewart, 1990). This perception makes the initiative that Peggy took in constructing a concept map for science majors who might enroll in future offerings of the online reading course all the more noteworthy. It also provides evidence that people use cultural resources, such as graphic organizers and concept maps, to contest positioning within a specific social context (Bartlett, 2007). Although Peggy was viewed by the course instructors as a noviceand she, in fact, positioned herself as novice teacher in relation to Sarithis fact did not deter Peggy from offering a better mouse trap, so to speak, than the one originally provided in the online course.
Similar to AbuSharbain (2002), who recommended that science teachers focus more on scientific concepts than on vocabulary instruction, the science teacher educator in our study criticized Peggys lesson on graphic organizing for putting tasks of memorization and definitional work ahead of conceptual learning. In his evaluation of Peggys lesson, the science teacher educator pointed to important discipline-related differences between a concept map and a graphic organizer. Peggy could easily have taken the science teacher educators critique of her lesson as valuable feedback but not acted on it. There were no requirements built into the online course that would have caused Peggy to construct a concept map as a replacement for the two graphic organizers she had used earlier. The very fact that she did construct a replacement suggests to us that she benefited from being exposed to more than one discourse and the contradictory advice that such exposure presented.
Current discursive practices in literacy teacher education at the middle school level tend to focus prospective teachers attention on reading instruction informed primarily by the National Reading Panel (2000). Although critiques of the Panels recommendations (e.g., Allington, 2002) take the report to task for failing to include a broad range of research methodologies (most notably, qualitative research) and for excluding English learners from the population of students who were studied, the skills-based recommendations are for the most part still visible in the literature meant to influence literacy instruction in the content areas (e.g., Biancarosa & Snow, 2004; Kamil, 2003). At the same time, there is a growing call for disciplinary-based literacy instruction (e.g., Moje, 2008; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008) that can fuse content and process skills. The present study is an example of one such attempt to do that.
As noted earlier, Peggys interest in advancing her content area knowledge and expertise in teaching science became apparent when Lois and Sari shared with her the science teacher educators evaluation of her initial lesson plan. Peggys inclination to favor concept mapping over graphic organizing as a way of representing content would seem in line with what Shanahan and Shanahan (2008) learned about science experts thinking processes. Namely, it is the transformation of information, conceptually, from one modality to another modality that makes concept mapping valuable. Graphic organizers, such as those available through the online reading course, proved problematic because they were similar to (Nesbit & Adesope, 2006), but not enough like, the concept maps science experts favor, as evidenced by the science teacher educators feedback.
Acknowledging the existence of contradictory discourses across disciplines is, perhaps, the first step to using them productively as literacy educators. Draper (2008), for instance, suggested that, instead of focusing on reading as a goal in content area literacy instruction, reading could be considered a tool for gaining access to subject matter information and concept development simultaneously. We agree and suggest that our attempt to fuse reading and science instruction taught us several lessons that have implications not only for how we teach the online course in the future, but also for how we think about discursive differences across disciplines.
First and foremost, we learned from Peggys attempts to negotiate the contradictory advice she received regarding text and strategy selection. Like Draper (2008) and Hudson (2002), we have come to appreciate the value of collaborating with persons who have expertise in teaching their specific disciplines content. The science teacher educator in our study, well versed in his field, strengthened not only Peggys knowledge of discipline-based literacy, but also that of the researchers. In reflecting on Peggys experiences, we have also come to a better understanding of why the purpose of teacher education courses should not be to settle anyones identity within a particular discourse, but rather to support teachers experimentation with different identitiessometimes being more reading focused and other times being more content focused. Keeping binaries or oppositions in play may very well unsettle any attempts by reading teacher educators to make reading teachers out of content specialists.
1. The online content literacy course had been offered only one time previous to this studys offering. The earlier course, which was a pilot study in 2006, had an enrollment of 20 prospective and mentor teachers (paired by content area specialty). Data from the pilot were used to identify procedures and materials that were problematic and needed adjustment prior to offering the course the following year (this study). Students who enroll in the course can read its purpose in the first full paragraph of the syllabus: This is a newly developed course for middle school teachers, both inservice and preservice, who want to experience hands-on teaching and learning strategies known to be effective by the National Reading Panel for improving motivation and learning in the core subject areas. The course is designed around a two-level-mentoring model. This model provides students and instructors (from reading and the core subject areas) with multiple opportunities for reflecting on their preactive and reflective practices. Rubrics posted on the WebCT site provide detailed information about expectations of the course.
2. Question 1: What instructional approaches were viewed as relevant to specific disciplines?
Question 2: Did the reading and content area instructors enable prospective teachers to plan appropriate lessons?
Question 3: Did struggling middle school readers benefit from the prospective teachers lesson plans?
Question 4: Did multilevel mentoring of prospective teachers lead to domain-specific lessons?
Question 5: What are the implications of multilevel mentoring for reading and content area instructors?
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