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Creating Dialogic Spaces Around Controversial Issues in Teacher Education


by Jill M. Hermann-Wilmarth - April 04, 2008

Background/Context: Dialogic space is imperative for teacher educators and students to grow and learn around polemic issues. For this space to work as dialogic, it is imperative that the histories and truths of the people interacting within the place are taken seriously and acknowledged. For a dialogic space to be present in classrooms, teachers and students must be willing to engage in conversation that pushes the boundaries of participant comfort zones and provides a place where participant identities and histories are taken into account.

Focus of Study: This article examines qualities that encourage engagement in dialogue around polarizing issues between a teacher educator and a preservice student. In this case study, “Jianna,” a self-described conservative Christian, and the present author, the out lesbian instructor in the class, engage in a dialogue around gay and lesbian issues in elementary education. At the center of our dialogue is the timely and contentious issue of the intersection of conservative Christianity and the inclusion of gay- and lesbian-themed texts in elementary classrooms. This case provides an example for educators who seek to address polarizing issues with their students. I identify three characteristics necessary for the creation of dialogic space: the desire for dialogue among all dialogue participants, common texts and common language, and the coexploration of personal perspectives.

Research Design: This is a qualitative study with data drawn from in-depth interviews with one participant, teaching journals, student papers, and student discussions.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The researcher argues that when teachers work to establish space where reciprocity is both modeled and expected among their students, the opportunities for dialogue around threatening issues could be increased. This dialogue provides the opportunity for increased knowledge around these issues.

As a teacher educator in the South, I regularly encounter students in my undergraduate methods classes who vocally resist the inclusion of multicultural education in our teacher preparation program. Brown’s (2004) assertions about student “reluctance to engage in class discussions and activities, and lack of commitment to required cross-cultural interactions and research” (p. 326) match my own observations. Anonymous course evaluations of my language arts methods class also reflect this reluctance. The following is an example of one such comment made by a student 3 years prior to the present study:


Our readings and discussions had nothing to do with teaching language arts, the whole focus of the course. Instead, we talked about how white people are evil and all are racist, rich people suck, homosexualism [sic] should be taught in the classroom, and how our country was “founded” by an awful, villainous man.


Comments like these and the vocal resistance to, or silent refusal to participate in, discussions of issues such as how race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or linguistic diversity affect the teaching and learning of language arts in elementary schools led me to wonder how I could engage with students who came from opposite ideological positions to the ones I was employing in my teaching. If my students associate me with discussions or readings that require them to interrogate their belief systems, would they resist anything that I had to say, therefore undermining the purpose of teacher education? Would my students give me labels such as “teacher with an agenda,” “bleeding-heart liberal,” or “that lesbian educator” rather than “teacher”? And, on the other side of the coin, would I ignore the needs of my resisting students, again undermining the purpose of teacher education? Would I label my resisting students with words like “bigot” and “close-minded,” and meet their ideas with an eye roll rather than with the eye of a teacher engaged with a student?


How do you create the space for dialogue to occur within the context of a teacher education classroom? With this question as my guide for the present study, I used class sessions in which students discussed gay and lesbian issues in elementary education because my choices of gay- and lesbian-themed literature had in the past brought student resistance. Likewise, I had begun to recognize the ways that I was engaging in the same kinds of resistance that my conservatively Christian students employed—rolling my eyes at the inclusion of scripture in seemingly every children’s literature response paper, complaining to my colleagues about the ways my students used their religious stances to marginalize or exclude issues that I brought into class, and ignoring students who, on religious grounds, claimed that they saw no place for, or outright denied the existence of, gay and lesbian issues in elementary school classrooms. Although there were and have been other issues that resulted in my own frustration with student resistance, and certainly other issues that resulted in either vocal resistance or silence directed at me by students, here I explore dialogic conversations between one self-described conservative Christian student and myself, an out lesbian teacher educator. These conversations took place around gay and lesbian issues in education—issues that had previously put me at odds with students who identified themselves as conservative Christians.


I collected the data as a part of a larger study in which 12 participants, myself included, examined through individual inquiry how our culturally held beliefs influence our views of teaching diverse students. Although the issue at the center of our dialogue is the timely and rather contentious issue of the intersection of conservative Christianity and the inclusion of gay-and lesbian-themed texts in elementary classrooms, I am concerned with the question of what dialogic spaces might look like in teacher education classrooms around any perceived controversial or risky topic. What role does the teacher educator play in helping students engage in what might be risky topics for all involved?


DIALOGIC SPACES IN TEACHER EDUCATION


Dialogic space is imperative for teacher educators and students to grow and learn around polemic issues. Blackburn (2003) suggested that “space” is different than “place,” in that a place can “exist in and of itself,” but a space “is not just place brought to life; it is the people within a place and the ways in which that place brings people to life” (p. 2). For this space to work as dialogic, it is imperative that the histories and truths of the people interacting in the place be taken seriously and acknowledged. “Space,” as Blackburn defined it, “can be squelched by assumptions that everyone shares a particular perspective or by impositions of such a perspective” (p. 2).  Likewise, Fecho (2001) described threat as an important component of a critically inquiring classroom where dialogue can occur. “Coming into contact with different cultures, with hegemonic overtones clearly in evidence, forces language transactions that have potential to both enrich and threaten one’s sense of self” (p. 13). He suggested that addressing rather than denying this threat through the use of dialogue in classrooms will aid students in “developing their capacity as critical inquirers” (pp. 14–15). So, for a dialogic space to be present in classrooms, teachers and students must be willing to engage in conversation that pushes the boundaries of participant comfort zones and provides a place where participant identities and histories are taken into account. This is a delicate balance.


Wells (1999) proposed that “classrooms should become communities of inquiry . . . created . . . in the many modes of conversation through which teacher and students dialogically make sense of topics of individual and social significance” (p. 98). Through his analysis of Bakhtinian and Vygotskian notions of language and knowledge, Wells concluded that learning is not merely a situation of transmission and reception, but must be both “situated and dialogic” (p. 106).  Wells and Arauz (2006) stated that reciprocity is essential for dialogue to occur, and that dialogue is


difficult to attain in practice because speakers do not always take their listeners’ expectations sufficiently into account and listeners are not always able and/or willing to adopt the speaker’s perspective. When these failures . . . happen, misunderstanding is likely to occur, and if this is not clarified in the subsequent discourse, there is likely to be a breakdown in the dialogue. (p. 383)


When teachers work to establish space (Blackburn, 2003) where reciprocity is both modeled and expected among their students, the opportunities for dialogue around threatening issues (Fecho, 2001) can be increased. This dialogue provides the opportunity for increased knowledge around these issues.


Singh (2002) and Freire (1970/1993) were particularly helpful in my creation of a definition of dialogic space to use during analysis. In my analysis, I employ the following definition of dialogue: Dialogic space is where participants in a conversation feel free to express their divergent stances on a topic, while they also listen to the other’s stance. In their listening, participants evaluate their own stance and evaluate that stance based on the knowledge gained during the conversation. Although the stance isn’t necessarily changed by this dialogue, a new approach to the issue is formed. Between teacher educators and their students, I have come to define dialogic spaces as the places where the student-teacher hierarchy is dismantled, and where the participants in the dialogue grow their understanding of a viewpoint that is seemingly opposite of their own.


Freire’s (1970/1993) language about dialogue is informative: “The teacher’s thinking is authenticated only by the authenticity of the students’ thinking” (p. 58). This authenticity is not possible when students feel required to repeat the values and beliefs espoused by their teachers, nor when teachers ignore the belief systems that their students adhere to. That meeting place of ideas where my students and I all feel welcome is one of the greatest challenges but most important goals of my teaching. Although there are many reasons—both personal and political—that I embarked on a study of how my students’ stated religious beliefs intersect with issues of homosexuality in education, that question of intersections has really become a facilitator for, I think, even deeper questions. How can teachers and students listen to, value, and learn from each other without giving up pieces of our identities or our strongly held beliefs? How can we come to the table and learn from each other without leaving the marginalized or oppressive parts of ourselves at the door? Or can we?


Freire wrote that “dialogue is a moment where humans meet to reflect on their reality as they make and remake it” and that dialogue occurs when “we reflect together on what we know and don’t know” (Shor & Freire, 1987, pp. 98–99). Dialogue among teacher educators and their students requires a reflexive stance by teacher educators. Elbaz-Luwisch and Pritzker (2002) described the spaces that they created for dialogue through their preservice teachers' personal writing in order for them as “teacher educators to connect with and understand the experience of their students” (p. 277). Likewise, they investigated what they could learn about themselves as teacher educators through their responses to student writing. These teacher educators were interested in “interrupting academic discourse through narrative and autobiographic writing” (p. 288) by using dialogue rather than transmission as a learning model. Young and Tran (2001) were also interested in shared reflection with their preservice teacher students. Although they didn’t label this process dialogue, they noted the importance of creating safe spaces for preservice teachers to explore challenging issues in multicultural education classes. A teacher educator “can discuss his or her own experiences and how they shaped his or her opinions. Students can then model this behavior” (p. 13).


In the work that I describe in this article, self-reflection by both participants in the dialogue is necessary. The safe space that was created for the dialogue between Jianna1 and myself required that we each look at our language, our beliefs, and our experiences so that we could meet each other in a respectful way that would encourage intellectual growth around a very sensitive issue.


DIALOGIC STRUCTURES IN A LIBERATORY CLASSROOM: A THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK


During my first year of teaching undergraduates, a student questioned my stated stance as a liberatory educator by telling me in an end-of-the-year e-mail that I had not listened to him or valued him as a student (Hermann-Wilmarth, 2005b). Although Anthony’s comments failed to take into account his responsibility in participating in the classroom culture and community, they did illuminate for me the ways in which I privileged voices in the class that made me comfortable and that reflected my own beliefs. I was using my power as the teacher to give voice to ideas and beliefs traditionally silenced in our conservative, White Southern climate and simultaneously silencing students who did not agree with me. Anthony helped me to think about my perceptions of my teaching and the different perceptions that my students might have.


Once I became aware of the need to create spaces for all voices, even those who had previously marginalized my own, I began to struggle with the tension between the theory and the practice of dialogue between myself and my students. As a literacy educator, I believe that powerful text can induce powerful dialogue that can, in turn, promote change in classrooms. But if the text was silencing the voices of my students, how could I honor my integrity as a teacher while still honoring the voices of my students? When I asked my students to engage in discussions about marginalized people using children’s literature after they had been indoctrinated for their entire educational careers with the idea that the United States provides equal opportunities for all people, it was natural that resistance or silence was often their first response. As Michelle Fine (1992) wrote, “Silencing signifies a terror of words, a fear of talk” (p. 115). My aim as a liberatory educator is not to indoctrinate my students into my way of thinking. Without a deliberately created space for dialogue between us and the kinds of texts and discussions that they are required to participate in for my classes, however, students could be led to the conclusion that, indeed, indoctrination is my goal.


THE SUBTEXT: LOOKING AT RELIGION AND HOMOSEXUALITY IN TEACHER EDUCATION


As a teacher educator, I have seen the homophobia of preservice teachers being ignored, unchallenged, or unproblematized. A verbal survey in my children’s literature class told me that it was the only one in which my students discussed gay and lesbian literature or families. When we did discuss these issues, students were more often than not resistant to their appropriateness in elementary education. Likewise, when my students brought Biblical text to our children’s literature and language arts methods classes and used these texts to privilege their ideas over the opinions of their colleagues, my response has been resistance. I have ignored the religious identities of my religiously conservative students, much in the same way that they have dismissed gay and lesbian families.


Although there are no exact numbers, recent estimates suggest that there are between 1 and 10 million children in the United States being raised by same-gender parents (Pawelski et al., 2006). Given the growing diversity in elementary school classrooms across the country, particularly the growing numbers of children of same-gender parents attending public schools, I believe that teachers have an increased responsibility to address issues and harassment facing the diverse children in their classrooms. Concerning the attitudes and feelings about homosexuality of teachers, students, preservice teachers, and guidance counselors, Sears (1992) found that in 258 preservice teachers surveyed, 8 out of 10 “harbored negative feelings toward lesbians and gay men” (p. 39) and that “prospective teachers pursuing certification in elementary education were more likely to harbor homophobic feelings and express homo-negative attitudes than those planning to teach in the secondary schools” (p. 40). He found that preservice teachers were unaware of elementary classroom (mentor) teachers’ knowledge about homosexuality, and thus, the preservice teachers were unaware of how to address it in the classroom. “The absence of classroom discussion in all but a few classrooms may explain why so few respondents could assess the position of their teachers” (p. 49). Maney and Cain (1997) found that of the 195 preservice elementary school teachers they surveyed, 23.3% are “very uncomfortable talking to homosexual parents regarding [their own] familiarity with gay and lesbian families” (p. 239). They also found that students with “stronger religious attitudes were significantly more likely to have had a negative attitude toward mothers who are lesbians than those with weaker religious attitudes” (p. 240). These quantitative studies point to the importance of looking at how to both teach and explore with preservice teachers issues of homophobia.


DATA COLLECTION


Data collection took place over two semesters during which I taught a children’s literature class and a language arts methods class to the same cohort of 25 undergraduate preservice elementary school teachers at a large southeastern university. Eleven students responded to my invitation to participate in an inquiry group outside of class, in which we examined how our culturally held beliefs affected our thinking about the teaching of diverse students. Here I look at data that centered on the interactions between one participant, Jianna, and myself. These data were obtained from my teaching journals written after each weekly class from August through May; Jianna’s reaction papers to readings for the class sessions about gay and lesbian issues; the e-mailed written responses that I made to those papers as I graded them; Jianna’s responses to those comments; one tape-recorded and transcribed participant discussion of what happened in class during the discussion of gay- and lesbian-themed children’s literature; and two tape-recorded and transcribed hour blong interviews with Jianna—one that occurred 2 days before the group talk, and one that occurred 2 days after the group talk.


DATA ANALYSIS


My data analysis began with the writing of my teaching journals. As I wrote, I questioned my responses to Jianna as a student, her approaches to class discussion, and my feelings about how to engage with her around issues that we disagreed on. Further analysis occurred in the reading of the written data from Jianna’s assignments, our e-mail exchange about those assignments, and the transcriptions from our hour long interviews and the small group session in which other students, Jianna, and I discussed the talk that occurred during the gay and lesbian literature class session. As I read the data, I had a former student’s anonymous comments on a course evaluation in my head:


[I] didn’t share my true views on the issues [discussed] in this class. While I’m

comfortable sharing my views with my [classmates], I don’t feel so comfortable with Jill because I know she holds much different views from myself. In her support, she said that we weren’t graded on our opinions and that we could say whatever we wanted. . . . No matter what anyone says, we write and respond for (and to) the teacher. If the teacher believes one thing, I’m much more likely to temper my response to more closely match hers [emphasis added].


The most salient theme that I identified was that of cultural contradictions. Jianna and I came from seemingly polar ideological positions—I an out lesbian and liberal Christian, and she a conservative Christian who believed homosexuality is a sin—yet we managed to learn from and listen to each other.


STUDENT/TEACHER DIALOGUE


In the following section, I describe characteristics of dialogic space and provide examples and analysis of how this space was created in my teacher education classroom.


A DESIRE FOR DIALOGUE


For dialogic space to be possible in classrooms where there is an ideological chasm, the desire for dialogue has to be present in all dialogue participants. For me as the teacher educator, this meant actively challenging myself and others with whom I shared an ideological stance to listen to and discuss multiple perspectives. When I first met Jianna, she seemed to reflect the studies that found preservice teachers adverse to any discussion of gay and lesbian issues. Her exposure to these issues had primarily been at church and included the belief that homosexuality is a sin against God. I was first aware of her religious beliefs when, during her small group’s discussion of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Rowling, 1997), she cited Biblical text as a rationale for this book’s inappropriateness for elementary school students. I wrote the following in my teaching journal about that particular class:


Because of prior discussions among students about this book, I was a prepared for a little bit of student resistance—self-identified conservative Christians make up a majority of my students, and many have heard about the evils of the witchcraft and wizardry of Harry Potter from the pulpit. More students now than ever have read the text or seen the movie before entering my class, but there were still those who raised their eyebrows as they perused the syllabus on the first day of class. Today, the fourth day of class, I don’t feel like I know my students very well, or have very many assumptions about who will take what positions when we talk about polemic issues. I did learn about one student today—Jianna sat quietly as her peers shared their enthusiastic responses to Harry Potter. They all brought the articles I asked them to find about the controversy surrounding this fantastical character, and words like, “ridiculous,” “stupid,” and “unbelievable” were frequently used as Jianna’s group became exasperated with the idea of a parent censoring a book that they loved so much.


As I watched Jianna, I remembered what it felt like to have my own voice silenced around unpopular issues that are close to my heart. I agree with what her group was saying—and stated that I did to the group—but that silenced look was so familiar to me, so I stepped in after students cut Jianna off when she expressed concern about the text and said, “Jianna, why don’t you explain what you’re trying to say? Remember, everyone’s ideas are important to the discussion.” I think she looked at me with grateful eyes, but I’m not sure. I wonder if this student, so sure in her beliefs, will participate in discussion in class and with a teacher, also sure in her beliefs, if words like gay and lesbian rights and Christianity are central to the discussion? I wonder if we’ll listen to each other?


My initial interactions and wonderings about Jianna were filled with my past experiences with students who publicly claimed a similar ideology. My willingness to create space for multiple opinions on an issue, even when I didn’t agree with those opinions, might have been the beginning of our engaged dialogue about several ideologically charged issues over the 9 months that she was in my classes. When she joined the study, I wondered what kinds of discussions my choice of literature with gay and lesbian characters—books that are much less of a cultural phenomenon than the Harry Potter series—would bring between us.


Of the 12 participants in this study, Jianna and I seemed most divergent in our ways of understanding the world. Her thinking most influenced my own, not only because we had the longest philosophical journey to travel to meet each other, but also because her commitment to engaging with me as both a student and a teacher constantly challenged me to reflect on and evaluate my teaching practices. We had each had a "road to Damascus" conversion experience that shifted us to deeper understandings of our own spirituality. These individual religious and spiritual commitments had been life changing. Jianna wrote in her cultural memoir assignment (Allen & Labbo, 2001) about leaving her Catholic roots as a teenager to join an evangelical congregation, severing for a time her relationship with her mother. Similarly, when I embarked on my religious studies major in college and tried to share some of my new understandings and thoughts about Christianity with my own mother, her response was less than receptive. As I cut ties with my Presbyterian roots, my mother lamented, “You’re showing me that you don’t believe anything I taught you as a child.” Both Jianna and I resisted familial norms, risking relationships along the way as we claimed our Christian identities. It was from these religious positions that we approached each other’s spiritual understandings; our hard-fought struggles made our ability to dialogue even more compelling.


USE OF TEXT IN OPENING DIALOGIC SPACES


Another mediator for creating dialogic space is the use of text. With the shared experience of common text, participants in the dialogue can refer to this text as a touchstone to help clarify and explain their positions, and as a center for the dialogue. As I expected, Jianna and I used course readings as our common text, but Biblical text became a central theme in our engagement with each other.


Peeking around the door to my cramped graduate student office, Jianna asked, “Are you ready?” As I invited her to sit down, I noticed that she was carrying a children’s Bible. “You came armed!” Jianna laughed. “I left mine at home, so I checked this one out from the library. I’m ready to keep talking about scripture with you!”


With a Bible in her hand, it seemed that this first interview of the study—which occurred at the end of the fall semester—between Jianna and me would be a continuation of the e-mailed scripture swap we’d begun shortly after the class in which we read of a piece of gay and lesbian children’s literature. This e-mailed colloquy occurred from the safety of my home, with texts from that long-ago undergraduate religious studies major aiding my Biblical memory. We each drew from what seemed to be our favorite passages—me citing images of Jesus as liberator of the marginalized (Matt. 20: 16, New Revised Standard Version), implorer of those with privilege to use that privilege in ways that help the oppressed (Luke 14: 13–14), and disrupter of the establishment (Matt. 12:9-14), and Jianna referring to the Leviticus codes and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.


This exchange was the result of a comment I made on Jianna’s response to Woodson’s (1997) The House You Pass on the Way, a book about a young girl’s struggle with her attraction to another girl; Casement’s (2002) “Breaking the Silence: The Stories of Gay and Lesbian People in Children’s Literature”; and Lewison, Leland, Flint, and Möller’s (2002) “Dangerous Discourses: Using Controversial Books to Support Engagement, Diversity, and Democracy.” In her response, Jianna contended that she could not accept the argument that gay and lesbian literature should be included in the elementary school classroom because she is a Christian, and Christians believe that homosexuality is a sin. She wrote,


Both these articles promote the inclusion of homosexual literature in classrooms and curriculum and I am not okay with that. I am a Christian and for me homosexuality is a sin not because I say it is but because my God says it is. If homosexuals do not like that then that is their choice, but I love God and cannot accept something that grieves his heart.


My comment that I am a Christian and don't believe that homosexuality is a sin, and neither do many other Christians  I know, ignited Jianna’s emailed question—“Is this just somebody’s opinion, or can you find scripture that supports your stance?”


Jianna later asked if she could borrow some of the books that I’d read that helped me to interpret the scriptures the way that I did. When I did loan her a book (Furnish, 1994), she read it before she took it to her minister to see what he thought about it, giving him a particular authority. When she returned it, she told me how he refuted most of the text, implying that she refuted it, too. Although our interview included much scriptural discussion, and much discussion about how we read the Bible differently, just like we all read children’s literature differently, ultimately, Jianna took the words of her minister as Truth, and the ideas expressed in my books and by me during our interview as mere interpretation of scripture—and a flawed interpretation at that.


Jianna and I brought multiple voices to our dialogue, whether dialogue around our written words, in a group setting, or during our interviews. We relied on the authoritative voice of Others to validate our own positions. Jianna’s minister helped her interpret God’s desires and Biblical text as the literal word of God, her ultimate authority. What I would call one interpretation of text, Jianna would call Truth. Like Jianna, I relied on Biblical authority during our dialogue, but I allowed scholarly text more authority than one person or position.  


Our Christianity Situated


Although religious dialogue might not be recommended between teacher educators and their students, this exchange between Jianna and me laid the groundwork for our inquiry into how we could better meet the needs of students who challenge us. It was after this interview that, as a part of the larger inquiry study, Jianna began to investigate how to teach students who challenged her moral beliefs. As we entered into that first interview, we seemed to be feeling out one another’s claims to Christianity. Jianna’s belief system matched that of students in my past three cohorts of undergraduates: Those who were most vocal about their Christianity typically held beliefs that fall under what Bruce Bawer (1997) labeled “legalistic Christianity,” in which there is a focus “on law, doctrine, and authority” (p. 5).


Although Jianna and I claimed the same label—Christian—that label holds different meanings for us. Heyward’s (1999) question, “Who is this Jesus whom people like me and unlike me claim to have met as a friend or brother, a lover or savior?” (p. 2), helped me to think about the very different approaches to Biblical text taken by Christians like me and Christians like Jianna. Heyward described the “variety of double images—simultaneous images of power as well as vulnerability . . . a powerful presence and a suffering brother” (p. 9)—that reflect Jesus the man. These two seemingly contradictory images help to explain why Jesus didn’t disappear into history:


We do not know Jesus at all, and we cannot know him, unless we see that the justice-loving brother who refused to collude with the injustices, corruption, and pettiness of both the state and parts of his religious tradition was one and the same rabbi who kept the Sabbath and practiced Judaism, who prayed, fasted, and healed the sick. Jesus the prophet and Jesus the teacher was both a social activist and a religious leader. (p. 9)


Heyward (1999) noted, however, that this double image is missing from the theology of the Christian Right. That Jesus is a socially and historically constructed figure (Pelikan, 1985) and the actual actions that he took as a human being are two gaps that Heyward sees in the message of the Christian Right. One reason for this, she believes, is


that Jesus of Nazareth must be kept in the background precisely so that Jesus Christ as Lord and King of All can be fashioned and adored by those who are right. This Jesus Christ becomes thereby an icon of human aspiration for economic, intellectual, gender, racial, and other forms of social, political, and psychological control. (p. 18)


This “reluctance to speak boldly of the poor man from Nazareth” (p. 18) also characterizes many Western Protestant mainline Christian denominations.


Heyward (1999) suggested that historically there have been four images of Jesus reflected in these messages: “Jesus Christ as authoritarian Lord; Jesus Christ as moralist; Jesus Christ as adversary against his enemies; Jesus Christ as obedient son of his Father” (p. 19). These are the images that my students often called up in their responses to literature. In stark contrast, Marcus Borg (1994) described images of Jesus as “spirit person,” “teacher of wisdom,” “social prophet,” and “movement founder” (p. 30). These conflicting images expose a fundamental difference between the religious understandings and experiences of conservative Christians, like many of my students, and progressive Christians, like me. Gary David Comstock (1993) captured the manifestation of these divergent understandings: “Christian Scripture and tradition are not authorities from which I seek approval; rather, they are resources from which I seek guidance and learn lessons as well as institutions that I seek to interpret, shape, and change” (p. 4). Because the central and common tie of our religious beliefs is so differently constructed and experienced, it is easy to see how Jianna and I expressed our similarly labeled religious beliefs in such contradictory ways.  


A CONVERSATION MOVES TO DIALOGUE


A third necessity for the creation of dialogic space is the co-exploration of personal perspectives. Jianna and I did this intuitively as we felt around for how we could speak respectfully with each other, but students and teachers could provide intentional time for participants to explain their stances to each other.


Settling into the cloistered office environment for that first interview, Jianna seemed initially hesitant, worried that our previous e-mails had started her off on the wrong foot:


JIANNA: Yeah, I mean I guess with all of that I wrote down, I wanted to tell you that I don’t want you to feel, like offended, because I don’t want to come across that way, but I guess it’s just defending how I feel about things, but I don’t want to come across. . .


I tried to reassure her: “Yeah, well we’re both doing the same thing. We’re both defending where we’re coming from.”


“OK,” she ventured.


JIANNA: Yeah. We’re just explaining where we’re coming from. . . . So for me, the biggest thing is that I, as a Christian, feel like I need to share the truth of the Bible and salvation of people. And I don’t want to come across in a way, you know like I said, that is going to push religion down somebody’s throat. I mean, that’s just not cool. I mean, that’s not what God does. So, but I do feel like we need to talk about and share. So when I see something that contradicts what the word of God is saying, like, I want to try to clarify that because I mean, I don’t want anyone to be led in the wrong direction or be led astray or, you know. That’s just where I come from.


And this began our first face-to-face dialogue about how we could, from our own particular religious positionings, address the needs of students for whom gay and lesbian issues are pertinent. We first meandered through Paul’s ideas about slavery:


JIANNA: OK. I can see where you’re coming from but, at the same time, it doesn’t come right out to me and say, OK. Let’s have slavery. I think he was just addressing a present issue that was around at that day and age.


Then we moved to concepts of reader response as it applies to both children's literature and Biblical text:


JIANNA: I know especially, like with The Devil’s Arithmetic we definitely have a

lot of interpretation of it, even within our class. And I think that even with the

Bible, yes, because there is historical context you have to take [into] consideration.


And finally, the meaning of “Jewishness” during Hebrew Bible times and today:


AUTHOR: I think that we don’t live by the Levitical Codes anymore, even though Judaism is a part of Christian heritage. People eat shellfish and mix their fibers, you know? And part of the essence of being Jewish was that you didn’t do those things.


This initial conversation set the groundwork for our future dialogue. We listened to each other talk about Biblical text, showing each other that we did have a common text even though we thought about that text differently. By giving each other the respect of listening to the other’s positions (a necessity of creating dialogic space) and ideas about Biblical text and reader response (even when we disagreed with them), each of us let the other know that an expression of difference was acceptable. We began with an interview exchange: one person asking questions (me, the teacher, researcher, and traditional holder of knowledge), and one person answering them (Jianna, the student, the researcher, and traditional receiver of knowledge).  But then we disrupted the paradigm of banking education (Freire, 1970/1993) and entered a paradigm where we were both knowers, interested in sharing our understandings with each other.  


The relaxed give-and-take conversation between Jianna and me stands in stark contrast to Jianna’s earlier written language surrounding her religious positioning, and my earlier feelings about discussing religion with students who label homosexuality as a sin. We opened a space for each other by first acknowledging our contrasting ideologies and then, even as we disagreed with each other, finding points of shared belief.  This listening and sharing of diverse opinions and explaining our personal understandings characterize dialogic space.


THE TIME AFTER: DIALOGUE SETS THE STAGE FOR CHANGE


Creating dialogic spaces requires multiple opportunities to think about and engage with challenging topics. In the case of this study, Jianna’s reading of class text, e-mails with me, conversations with other students, and conversations with me provided her with a canvas for our dialogue and her growth. My own reading of Jianna as a student in my classroom (particularly during the Harry Potter incident), my reading of texts about multiple definitions of Christianity, my e-mail with Jianna, my listening to and transcribing Jianna’s classroom conversations about gay and lesbian issues, and my conversations with Jianna provided me with a canvas for our dialogue and my growth.


As a part of the larger study (Hermann-Wilmarth, 2005a), Jianna received transcripts of the five small-group discussions that occurred in class around the inclusion gay- and lesbian-themed literature in elementary school classrooms. The 11 participants and I had a gathering planned for a week and a half after the “gay and lesbian” class so that we could share what we’d noticed in our talk. I was curious about how Jianna would react to the differences in group discussion and if she’d interject some of the scriptural banter that occurred in our first interview. Arriving a little late, Jianna joined the group around the large conference room table in my department’s meeting room. As she sat down, she admitted apologetically that she had only read two of the five transcripts. As members of the group discussed the differences among the five small-group discussions, Jianna listened intently but did not join the discussion of the very divergent group discussions. However, as we completed our talk about the transcripts, Jianna made a statement that both surprised and delighted me: “Well, if we hadn’t read this and talked about it, I wouldn’t know to address it in my classroom. Seeing how other people might approach it helps me see how I might.” Not only had there been a shift from, “I don’t want to deal with it in my classroom,” but she also seemed to be genuinely glad that I had chosen to deal with issues of homosexuality in my classroom.


Later that week, at our second interview, the change in her thinking was even more apparent. However, she maintained her scriptural stance about the sin of homosexuality:


Well, how do I put this? Um. It’s not that I want to undermine you or anyone else, it’s just that I believe that if you are to be in a right relationship with God, we do our best not to sin. And if we do sin, we need to ask for forgiveness so that we can still be in right with God. And I think that based, and I’ll say, based on the way that I’ve read the Bible and that I’ve understood it, um, I feel that anybody that chooses to walk in what I see as sin um you know, one day will go before God’s, you know, throne and you know, God will say, “Depart from me you who live in iniquity. I don’t know you.” Because we choose to maybe disregard some things in the word that he did consider sin. And when we choose to live in disregard of that sin, then we’re not really making him the lord of our life because we’re saying, “OK God, I’m going to all this, but just not this.” And it’s not just homosexuality, it can be a lot of other things. . . . It just makes me sad because I don’t want anyone to get before God and then not be accepted into heaven because they didn’t make Christ the lord of their life. So, that’s kind of where I come from.


Jianna expressed how and why she maintained her scriptural stance. At the same time, she showed that she had moved from seeing that there was one way to read Biblical text (and she was one of the owners of this truth) to understanding that there are multiple readings of the Bible when she said, “based on the way that I’ve read the Bible.” My eyes opened during this exchange. Jianna took our conversation about different interpretations of The Devil’s Arithmetic (Yolen, 1990) and applied it to text that she sees as sacred. This stance seemed to be part of a larger shift in her thinking. I was struck by the distance she traveled from “homosexuality will not be an issue that I have to address” to “I want to meet the needs of all students, regardless of who they or their families are.” Along with this new, more inclusive approach to ways of reading Biblical text, Jianna also expressed an understanding that her position was not the only position to be valued in her future classroom:


Well, I always believed that I didn’t want my students using any kind of derogatory, um, terminology with one another. So, if that were to come up, I would definitely address it, and just be like, you know, “You don’t say that. It’s not right.” And I would explain why. So that hasn’t really changed because I already felt that way before the readings. What has changed is that, um, beforehand I never really thought about the need to have to address it at all in the classroom in regards to, you know, if I had a family who has parents that were homosexual, or if there was a kid that was. I never really thought about having to address it. Now, I see that it could be a prevalent issue, so I do need to address it. But I think that I’ve come to the conclusion that I would just say, you know, “There are people out there who believe it’s OK to practice it. And there’s people who don’t agree with that and, you know.” I think I would just kind of leave it at that. I mean. I wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing a book in like The House You Pass on the Way because I just feel like that is much more intimate and shedding much more cultural light on that, and I just don’t feel like I have an obligation to that, so. And I have to be honest, because I don’t know if I was teaching a family, if I would necessarily just talk about that kind of a family unless I knew that there was a student in my classroom that, you know, could identify with it, or if their family was that way or whatever . . . cause I wouldn’t want them to feel singled out. That’s one thing I’ve learned from readings and from our class discussions is to talk about that there are families like that.


As Jianna talked, I saw the integration of our classroom and one-on-one dialogue into the ongoing development of her own teacher identity. The opportunity to engage in dialogue about gay and lesbian issues in the elementary school classroom and in literature helped Jianna to form a broader definition of family and of the kinds of students with whom she would be working as an elementary school teacher.


My previously held assumptions that generalized students like Jianna—students who vocally shared their conservative Christian identities and used them to accept or resist classroom texts—as those who wouldn’t be willing to engage with students who claimed gay or lesbian identities or who came from homes with same-gender parents began to fade. Jianna pointed me to the complexities that each of our students brings into our classrooms.


EVALUATING MY STANCE


Returning to the definitions of dialogue and dialogic space that informed my analysis, I found that the dialogue that Jianna and I engaged in changed me as a literacy instructor. Dialogic space is where participants in a conversation feel free to express their divergent stances on a topic while they also listen to the other’s stance. Jianna and I both hold dearly to the identities that we claim. Jianna continues to maintain that homosexuality is a sin, based on Biblical text, and I continue to claim a lesbian identity and the importance of exploring the role of gay and lesbian issues in elementary education. However, Jianna now sits on my shoulders as I teach and interact with my students. Jianna challenged my notions of the conservative Christians whom I—and all of us, regardless of the redness or blueness of the state in which we teach—continue to teach. In their listening, participants evaluate their own stance and evaluate that stance based on the knowledge gained during the conversation. Although the stance isn’t necessarily changed by this dialogue, a new approach to the issue is formed. Whereas I used to lump all my conservatively Christian students into one box, Jianna has showed me that there is just as much diversity within her identity group as I see in my own. bell hooks’s (1994) requirement that teachers be just as open and vulnerable with their students as they expect their students to be with them runs through my teaching. Our mutual engagement stopped my eye-rolling, opened my ears, and pushed me to keep pushing, to keep being open, and to keep learning from those in my classroom whom I perceive as most resistant.


Dialogic spaces are the places where the student-teacher hierarchy is dismantled and where the participants in the dialogue grow their understanding of a viewpoint that is seemingly opposite of their own. Jianna taught me how to create dialogic space around a controversial and polemic issue. The intersections of Christianity and homosexuality are particularly poignant considering the political context in which we spoke, but the creation of dialogic space around shared text or experience or definitions could occur among myriad issues. Co-construction and co-vulnerability created a dialogic learning space for both Jianna and me. Relinquishing the need to assert my opinion, my beliefs, and my self in my position as Teacher was central to this co-creation. Even in my giving up of authoritarian privilege, however, I held on tightly to my beliefs about religion and homosexuality, as did Jianna. This, I think, is how we managed to dialogue in the truest sense. Together we created dialogic space—places where Jianna and I disagreed with each other.  Instead of tempering our responses—biting our tongues, as former students had with me and I had with them—we listened to and learned from each other. Jianna challenged me to discuss something that had felt risky to former students in her position—gay and lesbian issues from a Christian standpoint—and I accepted that challenge using our shared language: Biblical and classroom text.  


CONCLUSIONS


Freire (1970/1993) wrote that “education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students” (p. 53). Maxine Greene (1988) posed these questions: “Does not one have to act upon one’s freedom along with others—to take the initiative, to break through some boundary? Does not one have to claim what are called ‘human rights’ to incarnate them in the life of community?” (p. 3). If as teachers we are striving to create a community with the possibility of freedom in our classrooms, we cannot be the only classroom member working toward that freedom. Clearly, Jianna wanted to learn how to value all students in her future class; over the course of that first semester, she recognized how ignoring an issue that contradicted her strongly held religious beliefs could be damaging to children. As she was learning to break through this boundary issue, I was learning how to hear her thinking between the lines of religious language that had previously marginalized me with its accusatory tones. We had to “act upon [our] freedom along with [each] other.” Our change was, if not simultaneous, certainly symbiotic.  


To create authentic classroom communities, teachers must provide spaces, share power, and anticipate resistance so that they can work with students to create common goals. Looking closely at practice, Greene (1988) drew a picture of what it might mean to imagine the boundaries of classrooms as more fluid: “We might think of freedom as an opening of spaces as well as perspectives, with everything depending on the actions we undertake in the course of our quest, the praxis we learn to devise” (p. 5). Greene (1995) argued that we are called as teachers to “find ways of creating situations in which persons will choose to engage in cooperative or collective action in order to bring about societal repairs” (p. 66) within our teaching and learning communities. To live better lives, to revise our living, we have to think about and critique the most normed aspects of ourselves. This is not a solo act. The ideals of freedom from oppression must be discovered collaboratively. “They have to be realized within the transactions and interchanges of community life. Moreover, they have to be chosen by living individuals in the light of the individuals’ shared life with others” (Greene, 1995, p. 66). In a classroom community, the collaboration of the students and teacher to find ways to create a more just society must be based on the lives of all members of the community and take into consideration how those lives affect each other.

Without having the benefit of course readings on emancipatory pedagogy, Jianna put her faith in the process. Her courage in asking that original question over e-mail, “Is this just somebody’s opinion, or can you find scripture that supports your stance?” was the beginning of our dialogic space. Challenging the teacher’s position can be a dangerous act. She, as Greene (1995) implored students and teachers to do, actively chose to engage in the “transactions and interchanges” of our experiences “in the light of [our] shared [lives]” (p. 66). Perhaps the high grade on her papers, even though I clearly stated that I disagreed with her positions, helped her to trust that we could build a relationship around the issue of homosexuality. Regardless of when it occurred, we had found a place where a challenge was not a threat, but an opportunity for understanding. And, even now, when we have both moved to new teaching positions in new states, we consult each other about what is happening in our respective classrooms, and we are interested in the particulars of each other’s very different life. Dialogue, I have found, is quite powerful.


The dialogic spaces created by Jianna and me are unique to the time and space, and the people we were in those times and spaces. But this one case provides insight from which we may be able to draw insight for other instances. Each issue and each student–teacher or student–student dialogue will, by definition, be its one particular case calling for unique understandings. Dialogue, I learned from Jianna, effects most change when it has the chance to percolate, when we are given the freedom and safety to muck around with our thinking on a hard issue, and when we get to see how many people—those from our own ideological positionings and from opposite ideological positionings—address the issue at hand. Jianna and I gave ourselves these gifts. These gifts enriched our dialogue and shifted our gazes.


Note


1. I have obtained permission from Jianna, not her real name, to use her data in this report.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 04, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15189, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 7:25:31 PM

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About the Author
  • Jill Hermann-Wilmarth
    Western Michigan University
    E-mail Author
    JILL M. HERMANN-WILMARTH is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Western Michigan University. Her research interests include critical perspectives on teacher education and GLBT issues in education and literacy. Her most resent publications include “Full Inclusion: Understanding the Role of Gay and Lesbian Texts and Films in Teacher Education Classrooms” in Language Arts and the coauthored “Queering Early Childhood Practices: Opening Up Possibilities With Common Children’s Literature” in the International Journal for Equity and Innovation in Early Childhood.
 
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