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Innovation and Impact in Teacher Education: Community-Based Organizations as Field Placements for Preservice Teachers

by Morva A. McDonald, Kersti Tyson, Kate Brayko, Michael Bowman, John Delport & Fuyu Shimomura - 2011

Background: Research shows that students who are overrepresented when it comes to failure are underrepresented when it comes to being taught by highly qualified teachers who are well prepared to teach students from diverse backgrounds. Teacher education, as one aspect of the educational system, plays a critical role in preparing teachers with the necessary principles and practices for improving the academic, social, and intellectual opportunities available to students of color, low-income students, and English language learners. Acknowledging this responsibility, teacher education programs continue to search for structural, curricular, and pedagogical approaches to prepare teachers to teach in increasingly diverse contexts. One response has been to connect preservice teachers with community experiences, an uncommon strategy that has been asserted at various times over the past century. This study examines one teacher education program’s innovation of placing preservice teachers in community-based organizations (CBOs) to better prepare candidates to teach children whose backgrounds are different from their own—and particularly children who attend high-needs schools.

Purpose of Study: This study addresses questions of both implementation and impact, specifically examining the participation of preservice teachers in CBOs and the outcomes of this innovation on their opportunities to learn. Through this research, the authors aim to advance the field of teacher education’s understanding of community experiences, and in particular to highlight the ways in which partnerships with community organizations advance the preparation of teachers.

Setting: The University of Washington’s Elementary Teacher Education Program (ELTEP), a five-quarter postbaccalaureate master’s in teaching program.

Participants: Participants in this study include case study preservice teachers from two cohorts: faculty who teach in the teacher education program, and staff who work in the community-based organizations in which the preservice teachers are placed.

Intervention: During the first quarter in the program, preservice teachers spend 60 hours each in CBOs that serve diverse youth. The intention behind the community-based placements is to (1) build connections between prospective teachers, community organizations, and local schools, (2) give prospective teachers opportunities to develop a holistic and assets-based view of children and youth, (3) acknowledge education and learning as a process that occurs in multiple contexts, and (4) place students, families, neighborhoods, and communities at the center of teaching and education.

Research Design: We designed a 3-year longitudinal study in which we follow two cohorts of preservice teachers from their teacher preparation through their first year of teaching. We employ qualitative methods of interviews, focus groups, observations, document review, and survey methods. Data analysis occurred as an iterative process. For this article, we systematically coded individual and focus group interviews for concepts that reflected participants’ participation and outcomes in regard to the program innovation.

Findings: Findings highlight specific dimensions of teachers’ participation in CBOs and indicate ways in which the community experiences added to the resources for learning provided by the teacher education program. The authors also classify outcomes of this innovation and explicate the kinds of opportunities such experiences provide preservice teachers. Specifically, the authors identify instances of how placements in CBOs afforded preservice teachers new ways of seeing and understanding children beyond school and across difference. These findings are preliminary and are based on data and analysis from the first year of our 3-year study.

Conclusions: Through the in-depth case study of the University of Washington Elementary Teacher Education Program’s community-based partnership innovation, we contribute to an overall understanding of such efforts in teacher education. By building on a strong conceptual foundation based in sociocultural and activity theories, this study provides preliminary evidence that field placements in community-based organizations are a promising approach to supporting preservice teachers’ opportunities to learn to work with children from diverse backgrounds. In particular, partnerships with community organizations may move teacher education efforts closer to the overall goal of preparing teachers with knowledge of children that allows them to incorporate the complexity of children’s lives into the classroom in ways that ultimately improve children’s opportunities to learn.

Educational disparities persist and continue to challenge all aspects of the educational system. Standardized test scores, dropout rates, and the disproportionate numbers of youth of color and low-income youth in our justice system illustrate the dire need for highly qualified teachers to work with students who are overrepresented when it comes to failure (Balfanz & Legters, 2004; Berliner, 2009; Garcia & Cuellar, 2006; Losen, 2005; Nelson, Leone, & Rutherford, 2007; Orfield, Losen, Wald, & Swanson, 2004; Osher, Woodruff, & Sims, 2005). Research suggests that some of the most striking disparities experienced by these students involve the quality of their teachers. Teachers’ subject matter expertise, knowledge about teaching and learning, and knowledge about the students in their classrooms are important indicators of quality and are critical elements in the work of improving students’ learning opportunities (Darling-Hammond, 1999; Nye, Konstantopoulos, & Hedges, 2004; Sanders & Rivers, 1996). In addition, a significant body of scholarship indicates that for teachers to provide high-quality opportunities for all students, they must develop principles and practices that allow them to learn about, connect with, and leverage students’ diversity, family and community resources, and out-of-school knowledge and experiences (Banks et al., 2007; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Lee, 2008). Teacher education—as one aspect of the educational system—plays a critical role in preparing teachers with the necessary principles and practices for improving the academic, social, and intellectual opportunities available to students of color, low-income students, and English language learners.

From six-week intensives to two-year master’s programs, teacher education continues to grapple with the question, What are the best programmatic structures, curriculum, and pedagogies that prepare high-quality teachers for such contexts? University-based programs, the focus of this research, have responded to this question in numerous ways. Although various features of programs likely contribute, typically programs’ main strategies and commitment to such preparation include multicultural education courses and placements in diverse schools. In other cases, programs take a social justice stance and attempt to infuse that stance through program features (McDonald, 2005, 2007). Overwhelmingly, research teaches that programmatic approaches to multicultural concerns, culturally relevant teaching, or social justice issues typically remain isolated from the core teacher education curriculum (Cochran-Smith, Davis, & Fries, 2003; Goodwin, 1997; Hollins & Guzman, 2005; Ladson-Billings, 1995).1 In part and as a result, the overall impact of such efforts on preservice teachers’ beliefs and practices is limited and often short term. In the context of the increasing demand to prepare teachers for schools with diverse students, teacher education programs dissatisfied with the limitation of current approaches continue to search for structural, curricular, and pedagogical solutions.

For example, a small number of programs (e.g., Florida International University, Indiana University, Ohio State University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Washington) have developed community experiences, in one form or another, with the aim of improving teachers’ preparation. Community fieldwork is not a new idea in teacher education, but it has never been a common strategy. In 1902, John Dewey called for educators to respond to the strengths, interests, and challenges that arise in the communities surrounding their schools. Over time, Dewey’s ideas prompted numerous teacher education programs to assist preservice teachers in learning systematically from community experiences. In 1948, a report commissioned by the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education (AACTE) asserted the need for fieldwork experiences both in and outside school, particularly those that provide “guided contact with children and youth of differing abilities and of differing socio-economic backgrounds” (Flowers, Patterson, Stratemeyer, & Lindsey, 1948, p. 65). This report recommended that programs offer opportunities for teachers to “study the community to better understand learners’ needs and backgrounds” and “work cooperatively with other educational agencies in the interest of children” (p. 27). In the 1950s and 1960s, in an effort to prepare teachers to work in desegregated schools and/or as part of the civil rights movement, scholars argued for community-based fieldwork aimed at improving teachers’ understanding of the lives of children and groups they had not previously taught (although few programs implemented this type of fieldwork; Rodgers, 2006; Smith, Cohen, & Pearl, 1969).

Oriented in this tradition, a handful of teacher education programs currently connect preservice teachers with community experiences. A recent review of research found that field placements in communities can have a positive impact on preservice teachers’ (1) beliefs and attitudes regarding issues of diversity, (2) beliefs about the contributions of families and communities to students’ educational opportunities, and (3) willingness to teach in schools that reflect the demographic diversity of their community placements (Sleeter, 2008). Though promising, the scant research in this area leaves important questions regarding the implementation of such approaches unanswered. The experiences of the different participants, from preservice teachers to community members, and the theoretical foundations of such work, are inadequately addressed.

In this article, we aim to contribute to this developing body of scholarship by examining a new innovation: the placement of elementary preservice teachers in community-based organizations (CBOs) as part of the University of Washington Elementary Teacher Education Program (ELTEP). This study examines questions of implementation and impact that will contribute to the field’s understanding of such efforts. Findings reported here represent a subset of a larger research project guided by the following research questions:


How does one teacher education program implement the structural innovation of placing prospective teachers in CBOs as part of their professional preparation?


To what extent is this innovation integrated across different aspects of the teacher education program?


How do CBO directors, teacher education faculty, and preservice teachers participate in the implementation of this innovation?


In what ways does placing preservice teachers in community-based organizations shape the conceptions and practices of CBO directors, teacher education faculty, and preservice teachers?

In this article, we present findings that address the participation of all involved, but we pay particular attention to the participation of preservice teachers and the ways in which their participation informed their understanding of children. As an orientation to the range of community-based strategies that are used in teacher education, we first describe current efforts identified in research and consider similarities and differences across programs. This brief description provides context for the innovation at the University of Washington and identifies specific areas in need of continued scholarship. We then discuss the conceptual framework, which is grounded in sociocultural theory and activity theory. This framework directed our examination of implementation, participation, and impacts at various levels of the ELTEP system. We briefly describe the research context, design, and methods before turning to the main findings of the study. In this article, we highlight findings regarding preservice teachers’ participation in the CBOs, and the outcomes of this innovation in terms of the kinds of opportunities to learn it affords preservice teachers.


Research indicates that there is notable potential for community-based learning as a strategy for preparing teachers for diversity. Sleeter (2001, 2008) asserted that community fieldwork is the leg of teacher education programs that shows the most promise in interrupting racist attitudes—and the leg most often missing. Intensive immersion experiences in communities have the potential to facilitate the deepest learning for preservice teachers; however, less intensive and shorter visits are easier to construct, and research has shown that they too are valuable.


Several studies indicate that most White preservice teachers who engage in short-term community-based field experiences demonstrate growth in their conceptual understandings and in their attitudes (Bondy & Davis, 2000; Boyle-Baise, 1998; Burant & Kirby, 2002; Seidl & Friend, 2002). They also express a greater willingness to teach in schools that serve children and youth who come from backgrounds different from their own (Bondy & Davis; Boyle-Baise; Burant & Kirby; Seidl & Friend). However, some preservice teachers who engage in short community-based learning experiences are not moved beyond an “eye opening” position; the experiences may raise their consciousness about differences in social realities across groups, but that is where their learning plateaus (Boyle-Baise; Burant & Kirby). In some cases, stereotypes and other misconceptions are actually reinforced (Zeichner & Melnick, 1996). Many scholars assert the importance of mediating the preservice teachers’ experience via guided reflection and fostering a critical regard for societal inequality (Boyle-Baise; Zeichner & Melnick).

In her synthesis of research in this area, Sleeter (2008) found that the most productive community-based learning models are well planned, link directly to the respective teacher education program, and incorporate a substantive guided reflection component. Findings indicate that cross-cultural community-based learning alone does not necessarily lead to excellence (or competence, for that matter) in multicultural teaching. However, such learning provides an essential “experiential foundation” for preservice teachers’ coursework and school-based fieldwork (Sleeter, 2008).


To understand these findings, it is important to consider the community-based experiences themselves. What are they like? Research in this area reveals information about purposes for employing a community-based approach, as well as the range of designs they assume. Although the models vary, sometimes vastly, in a number of ways, one commonality they share is their objective to expose preservice teachers to diverse groups of students (Sleeter, 2008). For some programs, such exposure is the central purpose of the fieldwork; others aim to promote one or more of the following: (1) assets-based thinking, (2) a community orientation to teaching, (3) preservice teachers learning how to learn about diverse children and communities, (4) a broader conception of learning (one that recognizes learning as occurring beyond school walls), and (5) an ethic of service.

Reflecting this range of purposes, community-based learning experiences vary widely in their designs. For example, in some programs, these experiences are elective, whereas in others, they are required. Some programs require such experiences as prerequisites, whereas others include them in the professional preparation core. The designs also differ in location and proximity. Several programs have opted to position the preservice teachers’ community-based work in their “own back yard,” placing them in the same neighborhood or city as the college or university. Other programs have developed cultural immersion experiences in distant locations; for example, Indiana University provides optional opportunities for preservice teachers to study and teach in the Rio Grande Valley, on the Navajo Nation, in inner-city Indianapolis, and other locations overseas (Boyle-Baise, 2002). Some programs use home visits as a way for preservice teachers to learn about communities’ cognitive and social resources (González, Moll, & Amanti, 2005). Similarly, the University of Pennsylvania requires preservice teachers to interview community members who live and work in the working class neighborhoods around their schools (Buck & Sylvester, 2005). Other programs place preservice teachers in community-based organizations. For example, Ohio State University’s preservice teachers are required to work in a neighboring African American church, where they are positioned as learners and tutors (Seidl & Friend, 2002). The majority of community-based experiences in teacher education take the form of an add-on component to an existing course—typically a multicultural education course (Sleeter, 2008)—thus mirroring the fragmentation common within teacher education. A less common design is an integrated one in which the community-based experience is deliberately connected to aspects of the program beyond a multicultural education course (Buck & Sylvester).


To date, our understanding of community experiences in teacher education, as described earlier, is limited by the narrow scope of the research in this area. The vast majority of studies on community-based learning in teacher education are focused on short-term attitudinal changes. Preservice teachers’ beliefs and/or attitudes are typically measured at the beginning of a course (usually a multicultural education course with an add-on community-based learning component) and immediately afterward. Although research has shown that beliefs matter for teacher quality and practice (Carter & Goodwin, 1994), the nearly exclusive focus on beliefs and attitudes limits our understanding of implementation and outcomes of community-based experiences—particularly in regard to practice.2

Just as these community-based experiences are routinely isolated within teacher education programs, they are also studied in isolation from their respective programs—doubly fragmenting the conceptualization and implementation of the work. Rarely do studies employ a scope that examines the community-based experiences along with other field experiences, university coursework, and/or the participants’ beginning years of teaching. In addition, research in this area is often conceptually underdeveloped. Although most of these studies draw on concepts from sociocultural theory (i.e., mediated learning, participation, and an emphasis on learning in context), the general lack of explicit theoretical grounding makes it difficult to aggregate knowledge across the group of studies or to translate findings to other contexts or theories.

Because of these limitations, we know very little about long-term effects of community-based experiences on teacher preparedness, and even less about effects on teacher practice in the long or even short term. Also, the exclusive focus on impact on individuals (namely, individual preservice teachers) precludes the literature from addressing in depth the question, What is the work? That is, missing from the research is a programmatic perspective that examines the implementation of community-based learning experiences.

In summary, research indicates that community-based learning experiences hold great promise as a strategy to better prepare teachers to work in schools that serve diverse populations, and that the experiences must be intentionally mediated and connected to other coursework and field work to be most effective. Although the community-based experiences vary widely from one another in duration, location, and intensity, there is a reemerging body of knowledge about community-based learning in teacher education. In this article, we specifically aim to identify and understand the range of learning opportunities that such experiences afford preservice teachers and to address the question, “What is the work of community experiences in teacher education?”


To investigate questions of implementation and impact and to examine this innovation across the different aspects of one teacher education system, we turned to sociocultural theory and related concepts from activity theory. Sociocultural theory provided the theoretical grounding for this inquiry and a lens for understanding implementation as a negotiated process (Honig, 2006) experienced by individuals within and across multiple contexts. From this perspective, learning is “an endeavor that occurs through social interactions among [participants] as they engage in various activities” (Honig & McDonald, 2005, p. 6). Cultural mediation (Vygotsky & Cole, 1978) is central to social interaction, highlighting the role of activity in learning. In our work, we drew from scholarship that foregrounds the role of participation and activity in learning.

Specifically, in this research study, we focused simultaneously on (1) participants’ participation and tool use within the social practice of teacher education, and (2) how the structures and organization of the activity systems in a teacher education program facilitated (or did not facilitate) preservice teachers’ expanded experiences in community-based organizations. Activity theory (Engeström, 2001, 2008; Engeström & Miettinen, 1999; Leontʹev, 1978, 1981) supports an examination of the organization, structures, and interactions in an activity system—in this case, a teacher education program. From this perspective, we examined if and how preservice teachers’ placements and experiences in community-based organizations shaped the curriculum, pedagogy, and opportunities to learn enacted in three different program activity systems—university coursework, community-based placements, and school-based placements. To understand the participation of CBO directors, teacher education faculty, and preservice teachers, we drew specifically from Lave and Wenger’s (1991) construct of legitimate peripheral participation (LPP). The emphasis on participation and activity allowed us to consider three levels of analysis: (1) individual participation, (2) the systems wherein the participation takes place, and (3) interaction, both between individuals and the activity system(s), and interaction between these systems.

Lave and Wenger’s (1991) theory of LPP informed our first-level of analysis and provided a lens for examining participants’ participation across activity systems as preservice teachers worked to become elementary school teachers. Thus, we aimed to understand preservice teachers’ experiences as they participate in activities that take place at the university and in community organizations—activities that have been designed to prepare the students to become elementary teachers who work with particular students in particular schools. With this foundation, we interrogated opportunities to learn and participants’ engagement in relation to those opportunities; this enabled us to examine the extent to which the preservice teachers’ participation was legitimate and peripheral toward the end of becoming beginning teachers prepared to effectively teach traditionally underserved children. Recognizing that knowledge and meaning are produced, reproduced, and changed in the course of activity, Lave and Wenger argued that “as an aspect of social practice, learning involves the whole person” in relation to specific activities within communities of practice (p. 53). Thus, not only does what participants do matter, but where, when, and how they do it also matters. Participation in communities of practice varied in terms of how it was valued, authentic, and relevant; in our analysis, we found it helpful to consider these ways of characterizing LPP in the community-based and university-based activity systems.

As participants learn to be involved in new activities, to perform new tasks and functions, and to master new understandings, they likely value some tasks more than others, depending on the extent to which that practice is perceived as legitimate and relevant to their ideas of becoming a teacher. Teacher educators, school staff, and CBO staff may hold different perceptions and have different experiences and repertoires based on their respective communities of practice. As we followed each preservice teacher on his or her path, we analyzed how he or she participated across the different activity systems, as well as how other key participants (i.e., faculty and CBO staff) assisted his or her participation. LPP theory suggests that overlap and dissonance within and across systems likely shape individuals’ participation, and thus their learning. With this in mind, we analyzed how the different systems within the program interacted and how people, tools, and activities mediated the preparation of preservice teachers. In the analysis presented in this article, we foreground the university-based coursework and CBO activity systems.

Engeström’s (2001) theory of expansive learning informed the second and third levels of analysis, where we examined the activity systems themselves and the interaction between the different activity systems as they shaped participants’ experiences. Expansive learning theory helped us to more fully account for if and how outcomes across the activity systems were integrated within the teacher education program and what mediating tools and artifacts facilitated participants’ making sense of their experiences. Engeström (2001) described three waves of research grounded in activity theory: The first wave describes a mediated act as the triad of subject, object, and mediating artifact; the second wave expands this basic triad by contextualizing activity as something to be understood by focusing on the “complex interrelations between the individual subject and his or her community” (p. 135), with change being driven by the idea of internal contradictions; and the third wave—expansive learning—highlights two or more interacting activity systems. Grounded in the third wave, we focused our analysis on how mediating artifacts in each system interacted with the other components of the ascribed activity system (the subject, object, division of labor, community and rules) to construct objects (outcomes) within each system that potentially became shared: a jointly constructed object.

The concept of expansive learning directed us to focus on the outcomes of these cross-system interactions and the extent to which there was integration between them. In this analysis, we identified outcomes within different activity systems. Thus, our analysis focused on how mediating artifacts (i.e., assignments, courses, discussions, and placement activities) shaped participation within the interacting activity systems (i.e., the university or the community organization). As a result, we examined how outcomes or opportunities to learn from interacting activity systems became integrated and transformed to varying degrees based on individual participation.

This framework suggests that we look in depth within activity systems and across them. For example, by observing courses within the program, as well as interviewing faculty and case study preservice teachers, we identified mediating artifacts and tools that preservice teachers drew on to participate in courses and in their community-based and school-based field placements. For example, from our interview data, we found that faculty and CBO directors presented different conceptual tools—in this case, different conceptions of definitions of “race and ethnicity” and “community.” This discovery led to an examination of how the use of complementary and contradictory concepts and practices augmented and/or frustrated preservice teachers’ development.

In addition, this conceptual framework directed us to identify what was in each system, how individual experiences were part of a broader network, what was negotiated within and between systems, and what was born out of the multivoiced contradictions in expansive cycles. Engeström (2001) asserted, “In important transformations of our personal lives and organizational practices, we must learn new forms of activity which are not yet there. They are literally learned as they are being created” (p. 138). In other words, this theoretical frame directs us to focus on what is happening if and when these activity systems overlap in new ways, as well as participants’ legitimate peripheral participation across these systems. Grounding our inquiry in this tradition enabled us to dynamically interrogate our data, and provide concrete lessons learned to teacher education programs that aim to better prepare teachers for work in high-needs schools.


The University of Washington’s Elementary Teacher Education Program is a five-quarter postbaccalaureate master’s in teaching program.3 During the first year of the study, in which we followed the 2008–2009 cohort, 46 preservice teachers spent 60 hours each in CBOs that serve diverse youth. This innovation was a seminal element of ELTEP’s 5-year renewal effort as part of the Teachers for a New Era program, and an institutional commitment to fully prepare preservice teachers to work with economically, culturally, and linguistically diverse students in high-needs schools.

The rationale of the innovation is based on research that shows that learning is enhanced when teachers bridge school knowledge with students’ “informal” knowledge (Gutiérrez, Larson, & Kreuter, 1995; Lee, 2001; Moll & Greenberg, 1990; Moll, Vélez-Ibañez, & Greenberg, 1990).Thus, to offer preservice teachers access to students’ out-of-school lives, this innovation involves partnerships with 11 organizations that serve diverse youth populations, such as Boys and Girls Clubs, neighborhood community centers, and culturally based programs. In their first quarter of preparation, preservice elementary teachers are placed in these CBOs for 6 hours per week for 10 weeks. Ideally, preservice teachers are placed in CBOs located in the same neighborhoods as the schools where they will intern in subsequent quarters; this is intended to provide opportunities to engage with the same children across different learning contexts. One aim of the innovation is to deepen preservice teachers’ understanding of the lives and knowledge of children by expanding opportunities for seeing children (Ayers, 2001). Another goal is for them to become familiar with the prospective networks, beyond schools, that support children’s growth and development; as Erickson (2006) argued, there is “no substitute” for the firsthand knowledge teachers gain from spending time learning about students’ personal and community cultural practices outside of school. The community-based placements also intend to:

Build connections between preservice teachers, community organizations, and local schools.

Give prospective teachers opportunities to develop a holistic and assets-based view of children and youth.

Acknowledge education and learning as a process that occurs in multiple contexts.

Place students, families, neighborhoods, and communities at the center of teaching and education.

As described earlier and as research teaches, community field experiences typically show limited effectiveness when accompanied by limited mediation or little programmatic cohesiveness (Sleeter, 2001). In an effort to integrate and mediate prospective teachers’ experiences in community organizations, university faculty teaching in the first quarter strive to connect their methods and theory courses to the community learning experiences. All five courses—social studies methods, literacy methods, CBO field placement seminar, and courses on differentiated instruction and multicultural teaching—require the preservice teachers to complete course assignments that draw from their experiences in the community organizations. In addition, preservice teachers meet to discuss and analyze their experiences in a university seminar that explicitly mediates their experience in CBOs and draws connections to university coursework. By taking an integrated approach to this innovation, faculty in ELTEP aim to have more success in preparing preservice teachers with a repertoire of conceptual and practical tools that provide high-quality educational opportunities to students of color, English language learners, and low-income students.


To understand the implementation and outcomes of this innovation, we have designed a 3-year longitudinal study in which we follow two cohorts of preservice teachers from their teacher preparation through their first year of teaching. Data collection occurred between March 2008 and June 2010. We employ qualitative methods of interviews, focus groups, observations, document review, and survey methods (Graue & Walsh, 1998; Ragin, 1987; Yin, 2003). For the longitudinal project, data consist of individual semistructured interviews with community-based organization staff, teacher education faculty, and 12 case study teachers; two focus groups with non–case study preservice teachers and one focus group with teaching assistants; observations of university courses and preservice teachers’ community-based placements; a review of documents such as course syllabi, course assignments, and performance-based assessments; and surveys completed by preservice teachers at the beginning and end of the program. As mentioned, the data that informed the findings presented in this article are from the first year of the study (see detailed list of data sources in the Findings section).

The qualitative data in this study allow for an in-depth examination of participants’ lived experience and sense-making within and across the focal contexts in this study: the university-based courses, the community-based field organizations, and the partner schools. The pre- and postsurveys administered to all preservice teachers track their beliefs and attitudes as they enter and exit the program, and enable an assessment of the case study preservice teachers’ responses in light of the whole cohort.


We used a strategy of purposive sampling to select the site for our study (Merriam, 1998; Miles & Huberman, 1994). Our site is a sample of convenience. Members of our research team are involved in the implementation of the innovation understudy. We are faculty and teaching assistants in the elementary teacher education program, and we volunteered to implement the community-based field placement component of the program in its first year. It was our interest in the community-based placements that led us to design and implement a research agenda around the implementation of this innovation. Not only do we want to provide feedback to the UW ELTEP program, but we also want to better understand community-based placements as a tool for preparing teachers to teach in high-needs schools.


Data analysis occurred as an iterative process. As themes and patterns emerged, we developed codes and data displays derived from the conceptual framework (Miles & Huberman, 1994). We systematically coded individual and focus group interviews for concepts that reflected participants’ participation, outcomes, and integration in regard to the program innovation. At least two people on the research team coded each interview. In the analysis, we triangulated interviews with observational data and course documents to develop a holistic understanding of participants’ experiences and perspectives related to the community-based organization field placements (Yin, 2003). For intercoder reliability, we held frequent discussions about coding as we compared findings. As we began to identify findings, we worked together to verify claims and reconcile internal validity (Merriam, 1998). For example, we used codes to indicate participants’ conceptions of key concepts such as “diversity” and “community,” compared coding across interviews, and discussed interpretations of the findings as a group.


By studying a program in which we are involved, we are susceptible to bias and other constraints that go hand in hand with doing participant research. However, having inside knowledge of the program allows for in-depth understanding that is sometimes not available to outside researchers. To mitigate some of the traps associated with self-study, we assigned data collection tasks to members of the team who were least involved in the activity, and we coanalyzed all data. For example, all instruments were developed collaboratively, and neither faculty nor teaching assistants conducted interviews of their students. As mentioned previously, all interviews were read and coded by at least two members of the research team, and all potential findings were analyzed and validated by the entire research team.


The findings we present here are based on 12 interviews with 6 case study teachers (age range: 23–38 years; ethnicity: 4 White and 2 non-White; 5 females and 1 male); 26 interviews with 20 faculty in the teacher education program (experience ranged from 1 to 20 years); three interviews with teacher education program directors; 11 interviews with community-based organization staff (experience ranged from 1 to 10 years); one focus group with 7 preservice teachers (who were not case study teachers) at the beginning of their third quarter in the program; and one fourth-quarter focus group with 6 teaching assistants who worked with the cohort. Although we also included data from 30 observations of university courses (which we conducted to examine if and how the community-based innovation was addressed in the content and pedagogy of individual courses), the findings presented in this article come primarily from the analysis of the interview data during our first year of data collection.

First, we found that CBO directors brought a valuable resource to the teacher education program in terms of their conceptions of diversity and deep knowledge of localized contexts. In some cases, we find that the directors’ conceptual and practical work with children in community settings provided preservice teachers with opportunities to reconceptualize their understanding of children and their cultural, racial, and language-based affiliations. Second, teachers’ participation in the community organizations varied but was widely characterized as valued, authentic, and relevant. Finally, we detail a set of outcomes of the innovation. All the outcomes indicate ways in which preservice teachers’ CBO experiences, in conjunction with coursework, provided them with opportunities to better “see students” (Ayers, 2001)—that is, to develop a complex, ecological perspective on children and their educational opportunities. Next, we elaborate on each of these findings.


Guided by our theoretical frame, we contend that participants’ previous conceptions of core constructs may inform the kinds of opportunities made available to preservice teachers (Engeström, 2001), as well as how preservice teachers participate in relation to these opportunities (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Thus, given that one goal of the CBO fieldwork is to prepare teachers to work with students from diverse backgrounds, attending to participants’ conceptualizations of diversity is a key consideration. Drawing on sociocultural theories of learning, we posit that preservice teachers, faculty, and CBO directors’ ways of conceptualizing diversity potentially shaped participation and the kinds of opportunities to learn available to preservice teachers. At the onset of this discussion, we want to emphasize that all participants may have rich and complex understandings of diversity that are partially revealed and differentiated in the various contexts in which they participate. Their views of diversity as reported here reflect their perspective within the context of teacher education work, and this innovation in particular. Through our analysis of interviews and course observation data, we found that CBO directors and faculty who work in different contexts and come from different professional backgrounds conceptualized diversity at various levels of specificity or abstraction. Although differences in conceptions between CBO directors and faculty are interesting in their own right, a sociocultural perspective asserts that these differences informed the kinds of opportunities and tools available to preservice teachers as they began to develop their own principles and practices for teaching students from diverse backgrounds in high-needs schools.

A comparison of conceptions of diversity among faculty and CBO directors revealed that the two participant groups talked about diversity in remarkably different ways when asked about it in the context of their work. The majority of faculty defined and used the term diversity in general terms and referenced broad categories. For example, one faculty member described diversity as the “Multiple representations of variables such as race, ethnicity, language, socioeconomic background, gender, identity, disability, ability, religion.” In contrast, the community organization directors and staff defined diversity with greater detail and attended to within-group diversity with greater frequency. When asked about diversity in their CBO, this director replied, “Very rich in the Latino culture, but we are also very rich in diversity within the Latino culture as well as other cultures. Within our own Latino community, it’s very diverse from different places from Cuba and Nicaragua, Mexico, Guatemala, Chile. So it’s very diverse within one community.” In this initial analysis, these views were representative of each group as a whole. In line with our conceptual framework, we posit that faculty and CBO directors’ conceptions of diversity, which is one important element of background in this work, can impact and influence preservice teachers’ experiences—a possibility we take up later in the section on outcomes.


Lave and Wenger (1991) described legitimate peripheral participation in a community of practice, where one’s activities are meaningful in their own right. When activities are meaningful, they are valued, authentic, and relevant to those engaged and likely lead to more sustained learning for individuals and communities (Honig & McDonald, 2005). In our analysis, we found that in many instances, preservice teachers viewed their participation in community-based organizations as meaningful along these dimensions.

CBO participation as valued. First, we found that preservice teachers and CBO personnel described different ways in which the participation of preservice teachers was valued. In the context of their community-based experiences, CBO staff and directors interacted with the preservice teachers from a strengths-based perspective and assumed that they had some experience with and knowledge of working with children that they could apply to the work in the afterschool program. In some cases, the CBO directors and staff attributed expertise to the preservice teachers simply because of their enrollment in a master’s in teaching program. Regardless of the reason, however, many of the case study preservice teachers indicated that this assumption facilitated their participation. For example, Ardin reflected, “It was nice to be included in the teachers’ meeting. The director respects our opinion and considers us ‘experts’ since we’re studying education.” On one hand, this perspective led to situations in which preservice teachers were asked to participate in ways beyond their knowledge or ability. On the other hand, the perception that preservice teachers had some expertise perhaps helped them gain access to important opportunities to learn about working with children from diverse backgrounds, such as planning sessions and informal conversations with directors and staff.

In interviews with case study preservice teachers, they recounted multiple opportunities to draw on knowledge, skills, and identities that they developed outside the teacher education program. Although knowledge, skills, and identities ranged widely, from guitar lessons to swimming, preservice teachers had opportunities in their CBOs to draw on these aspects and connect them to their work with children and to teaching. Work in antiracist education suggests that teachers bringing their own identities, interests, and talents into the classroom is one pedagogical move that can support teachers’ and students’ abilities to understand one another in all their complexity (Pleasants, 2008). Emily, one of the case study preservice teachers, illustrated this point: “Being a competitive swimmer I was really excited about this field trip . . . I had a lot of fun teaching the children who had never been to swimming lessons how to float, kick, blow bubbles in the water, and jump from the edge of the pool into the water.” For Emily, and for others in our sample, the CBO modeled a core practice of culturally relevant teaching: the practice in which teachers recognize and draw on learners’ (in this case, the preservice teachers’) resources and knowledge developed in out-of-school contexts (Lee, 2008).

These findings suggest specific ways in which preservice teachers’ participation was valued and recognized in the context of the community-based organization. In a more generic sense, the participation of the preservice teachers in the CBOs was celebrated at the end of the quarter. Many directors and staff organized specific events to recognize the contributions of the preservice teachers. One of the case study teachers described,

After the performances we headed back to the classroom and all the kids were ordered to sit on the “big” rug. Once they were seated, the director began to talk about [us], and how much we have meant to the staff members and kids. They came out with a huge cake with our names on it! It was so great. And the cards the kids gave us truly touched my heart. I had no idea they had been planning this! We all ate cake, spent time together and then went outside.

Even though not all our preservice teachers were recognized exactly in this way, interviews with staff and directors, as well as evaluations of teachers’ participation, indicate that children and staff alike valued the preservice teachers and their time and participation in the organizations.

The initial findings regarding how preservice teachers perceived their participation as valued in the CBOs and how CBO directors and staff discussed the value of preservice teachers’ participation in their organizations led us to investigate how preservice teachers’ participation in other aspects of the teacher education program—namely university courses—is valued and relevant. In an interview, one case study preservice teacher commented on this point:

I found it kind of weird that that wasn’t modeled for us. I didn’t feel like I was seen by most of my professors. And I didn’t feel like I saw a lot of my classmates. And I think that goes back to orientation, where the focus was pretty much right away academic.

Another preservice teacher reported feeling uncomfortable that some faculty members, even by the end of the quarter, did not know her name. Both of these examples, which represent the sentiments expressed by other preservice teachers, raise an important question regarding how teacher educators model knowing and learning about their own students—the preservice teachers—and how the preservice teachers experience being recognized and valued in the context of university courses for their own knowledge, skills, and identities.

Our data indicate that participation structures in the community organizations provided preservice teachers with increased opportunities to participate in meaningful ways in their work with children, and increased opportunities for those individuals to be seen and valued for who they are and what they bring to the program. The preservice teachers’ comments in the preceding paragraphs remind teacher educators that it is important for us to “see” our students (Ayers, 2001). The CBO placements showed the potential to model something that teacher educators value but don’t always do. Our data suggest that the experiences in CBOs gave preservice teachers the opportunity to see and experience a more holistic view of children and, in some cases, of themselves. By participating in different practices, preservice teachers had the opportunity to see and learn different points of view, which may, in turn, have the potential to broaden the practices they bring to their interactions with their own students. Practices in community organizations often put children at the center, whereas practices in schools and teacher education often put instruction at the center. An essential goal of this work, therefore, is to examine if and how such centers might converge.

CBO participation as relevant. At the end of their first quarter, preservice teachers reported being able to use and apply knowledge and skills that they were learning in their courses to their community organization contexts. Indeed, what they were learning in their courses in some cases helped them to capitalize on important participation opportunities in their community organizations. For example, on learning about literacy environments, a pair of preservice teachers organized the literacy corner in their community organization during free time one day. Although it is encouraging to see preservice teachers take up new practices, there is also a tension in this work. Initially, during their time in CBO placements, many preservice teachers commented that their CBOs might improve if they looked more like schools. However, on starting their elementary school placements, many of them described wishing that the schools looked more like their CBOs. At this point in the study, we can only hypothesize that the preservice teachers were beginning to rethink the learning arrangements of both schools and CBOs and the relationship between the two as it relates to K–5 children’s opportunities. We intend to explore this idea further as the preservice teachers in ELTEP begin their first year of teaching.

Preservice teachers also reappropriated tools to mediate their entry into the CBO. They “borrowed” assignments that they did in coursework and reapplied them by having children in their CBO do the same assignments. For example, one case study participant explained how he and his partner used an assignment from the CBO seminar, as well as their literacy methods textbook (Fox, 2008), in the CBO:

We hoped this identity collage would be a way for us to “see” the kids though this was limited by our lack of appropriate magazines and our unclear presentation of the topic. A good start though and had some positive results in group bonding. Literacy lesson was great. We borrowed activities from Fox [a textbook from the literacy methods course].

Trying these assignments gave preservice teachers a chance to learn more about generating, implementing, and evaluating assignments, to learn about the children with whom they were working, and to engage them in meaningful ways. At the same time, they learned valuable lessons about pacing, resources, relevancy, authenticity, and if and how children valued the work.

Some of the assignments in different courses reinforced one another and gave preservice teachers different tools and insights to use as they engaged in their fieldwork. In the Differentiated Instruction course and the CBO seminar, preservice teachers were asked to interview a child in their respective CBOs. One of the preservice teachers reflected in a journal about one of the strategies he used to engage with the child he was interviewing: “Very fun interview. Was interesting talking about his family and they don’t speak much English & his ‘dad has an accent.’ Tried to validate Vietnamese by asking him to teach me some—he liked that.” Evidence also suggests that preservice teachers were thinking about and making sense of some of the concepts they were learning about in classes within the context of the CBO. In an in-class reflection, one preservice teacher shared how he was thinking about cultural difference and that it helped him recognize how it came up in interactions: “Interesting to be aware of my hypersensitivity to any mention or example of cultural difference. What am I not hypersensitive to and therefore missing?” Notably, he also wondered about where cultural difference might arise and where he might overlook it.

Throughout our data collection and analysis, we found that the case study preservice teachers’ participation in their CBO placements illustrated specific ways in which they applied practical strategies from their coursework in those settings. Concepts, assignments, and activities that preservice teachers were learning in courses were “tried out” in CBO environments. Although too early to assert, we are investigating the ways in which the CBO environments provide the preservice teachers with opportunities to try out and try on practices and strategies introduced in their coursework that may be different from how they apply such practices and strategies in the context of their school placements. The findings that distinguish how preservice teachers’ participation in their CBOs was valued also help us to see what the preservice teachers valued; what they viewed as relevant in their coursework; and how they were making sense of that work as they took up practices and transferred knowledge across settings (Honig & McDonald, 2005).

CBO participation in authentic activities. From the perspective of sociocultural theory as articulated by Lave and Wenger (1991), people learn through increased legitimate peripheral participation. For our study, this raised the questions, What kinds of opportunities to participate are available to individuals, and in what kinds of participation are they partaking? We found that preservice teachers had opportunities to engage with children by talking with them about a range of topics and issues, not only about tasks or ideas related to academics or instruction. Some evidence from interviews suggests that CBO staff and directors provided guided assistance to preservice teachers in how they talked with and related to children. For example, CBO staff offered guidance to the preservice teachers when mediating disputes between children, giving directions, interacting with parents and families, and engaging around different activities within the community organization. In this next quote, we see how a director, Yolanda, responded to a situation that happened when she picked up several children at a nearby bus stop (they stopped to pet an animal in someone’s yard). On their way to the CBO, they ignored a directive from the director that she thought was important for keeping the children safe. When she returned to the CBO, she called a meeting with all the children to discuss the situation. In Yolanda’s talk, she didn’t scold the children for misbehaving; she expressed her care for them. She recognized reasons that the children responded as they did, but she also recognized that she had something to teach them about safety when they are in her care.

CBO Director, Yolanda: So I took them to the community center and I said, “As soon as I come back with the other four, we need to have a conversation.” So basically I went to pick up the other kids from the other staff and then I say—they were kind of getting ready for the snacks and I say, “Everybody to the carpet. Everybody to the carpet.” So everybody went to the carpet and I start talking about the incident that happened. I said, “You know what you guys, it is so—you know in this country, everywhere, I know you’re kids and you love animals, which is good and is great that you care about animals. But we have some boundaries.”

Other data from this same CBO indicate that preservice teachers began to engage in this kind of response to the children, often after discussing how to approach a situation with the director.

In sum, preservice teachers’ participation in activities within their CBOs can be characterized as valued, relevant, and authentic. Our intention is not to suggest that all the time spent in the CBO placements could or should be considered along these dimensions; of course, there were instances in which activities did not directly support preservice teachers’ learning and development. However, understanding their participation through the lens of legitimate peripheral participation allows for a deeper understanding of how community experiences provided important opportunities to prospective teachers as they learn to teach in the context of a teacher education program.


Preservice teachers’ participation in their community organizations shaped their opportunities to learn about students’ diversity, families, and communities in ways that may support the development of culturally relevant practices. In this research, we explore the question of how preservice teachers’ participation in CBOs in conjunction with their other opportunities to learn in university courses combined to shape their capacity to enact culturally relevant practices. A limitation of this work at its current stage is our inability to address this question of impact on practice. However, we can address the impact-related question, What are outcomes of this innovation in terms of the opportunities to learn that it provides preservice teachers?

From our analysis, we identified four classifications of opportunities to see children as facilitated by the structuring of resources (Lave & Wenger, 1991) in the CBO activity system. These classifications, or outcomes, are explicated here. Because our primary unit of analysis is the elementary teacher education program, the outcomes for preservice teachers in this analysis were considered from a programmatic standpoint. Accordingly, outcomes were largely based in the constructs of “exposure” and “opportunities” that were facilitated for preservice teachers. In the following, we discuss four outcomes generated by the placement of preservice teachers in community organizations: (1) exposure, (2) engagement, (3) increased understanding about children’s home lives, and (4) attentiveness to intragroup diversity. Each of these relates to an overarching finding: Case study preservice teachers reported that the CBO placements provided them with opportunities to see children. We employ the phrase see children because observation and interview data reveal it as prevalent in participants’ discourse; we attribute this shared language in part to the cohort’s first common reading assignment, the second chapter from William Ayers’s To Teach (2001) entitled “Seeing the Student.”

The first outcome related to seeing children involves the exposure to new geographic or cultural settings where children spend time. The data reflect what previous research has suggested: Community-based experiences were significant because they exposed preservice teachers to communities with which they had little experience. This response from Ardin is typical: “My CBO definitely exposed me to a new community, which I haven’t really experienced before. So that’s helpful, getting to know the families and what the kids do.”

The case study and focus group participants not only talked about exposure to different ethnic, racial, and/or linguistic groups, but also discussed exposure to new geographic settings and sociocultural contexts where students live and/or spend time. Lila’s response, which follows, reflects an important element of the innovation’s mission: At a basic level, in order to “see children,” one must be close to them. For example, Lila stated, “So, it’s important for us to be in those places that they [students] are coming from so that we can actually see where they are coming from.”

Lila had consistently articulated her plans to work in a high-needs school; her quote was in reference to students in her future (hypothetical) classroom in such a school. We thus interpreted her response to reflect the belief that exposure to children in high-needs and diverse schools is not sufficient for seeing where students are “coming from.” We know from research that preservice teachers are exposed to diversity via practica in diverse schools; however, such practica provide exposure to diverse children in the typically mainstream—and historically marginalizing—institution of public schools. Thus, the ways in which exposure differs in community-based contexts is of particular interest and importance.

Second, we found that preservice teachers had opportunities to engage children different from themselves in regards to race, ethnicity, home language, and socioeconomic status in the community settings. This classification of seeing children is related, of course, to the first outcome about exposure. Yet, our analysis of the data suggests that preservice teachers—in various ways and to various extents—responded to their exposure as an opportunity to engage. Emily’s vignette that follows, like others in our data, offers an example of engagement in which the focus is on children, not on instruction. In schools, where focus is typically on instruction, that which teachers may want to learn about children is in relation to an instructional task; this may impede preservice teachers from seeing kids holistically and understanding their competencies and lives. Her quote expresses a willingness to rearrange a typical teacher-as-knower/student-as learner dynamic that often dominates school contexts. In reflecting on her CBO experience, Emily shared, in her words,

How important it was for me to show that I didn’t know that language [Spanish] and show that I wanted to learn instead of taking that hesitancy and kind of holding it in and being like, “Oh I’m fine, I know it all.” Getting down and being raw with them and saying, “I do not know what you’re saying, but I want to know” was a new thing for me that helped me to develop that. And I really appreciated that, because I want to work in high needs and that’s going to happen over and over again.

Emily acknowledged the newness of the experience, which suggests that she did not know about or did not employ this particular tool for engaging children before participating in the CBO activity system. By positioning herself as a learner, and thus approaching the children as competent and knowledgeable, she engaged them in a meaningful exchange. Emily’s quote indicates that she saw the opportunity to learn to engage with bilingual students in this way as an important aspect of her preparation for future work in a “high needs” school. She expressed her plans to make a professional habit of engaging students by drawing on their expertise and invoking their cultural capital (Lee, 2001, 2008).

A third programmatic outcome or classification related to seeing children was that CBO placements facilitated opportunities for preservice teachers to learn about children’s home lives in greater detail. This response from Casey, a case study participant, is suggestive:

So it’s like this whole different picture of this kid’s home life and what she’s going through. Like I was thinking, you know, mom and dad were home by 8:00 at the latest. No, no; dad works till like 11:00, so she’s home alone until 11:00. And this whole different picture of—I guess when she told me the information, I just put it into like this cookie cutter of how I imagined it would be. But when I got into the deep information about the reality it was a very different picture.

As this quote suggests, and other evidence of Casey’s experience affirmed, she became aware of a difference between assumptions about a child’s home life and a “deep” or more nuanced story—one with greater detail and authenticity—that came from developing a relationship with a child and her teacher at her CBO. Similarly, this quote from Dawn, a faculty member, indicates her perception that the CBO placements played a significant role in facilitating these more nuanced understandings:

I was listening to them [preservice teachers] share about their shadow assignments [assignments that required preservice teachers to interview and observe one child at his or her CBO], and one of the really nice things was that they were talking about kids’ strengths and weaknesses, as if they were telling the teacher about this kid. And quite a few of them talked about resources to help if there’s a problem in the school. Like, if somebody’s struggling with “this,” well, the CBO director’s the perfect person to talk to because she spends every day with the kid]—and she’s really good friends with the family. I don’t think they ever would have known that that person could be a good resource if the child’s having trouble in school.

Another one [preservice teacher] talked about, “Mom works really hard, but Grandpa is the guy.” I don’t think it would have occurred to them had they not been in the CBO and realized the power of extended families and communities for kids. I don’t think that they would have realized that. So the CBO helped a lot that way.

Because of the complex nature of learning, and the focus on seeing children in other activity systems (particularly the university coursework activity system), the individual outcomes Dawn mentioned here cannot be attributed specifically and solely to the CBO placements; however, as Dawn suggested, preservice teachers’ responses do raise the question about how such contexts contribute to educators’ learning about the ecology of children’s lives. Dawn referenced an assignment that drew out and perhaps guided the development of preservice teachers’ conceptions and understandings. This shadow assignment, along with other courses’ activities, readings, and assignments, acted as mediating tools for learning. The CBO placements themselves also mediated preservice teachers’ development by providing a context that was different from school.

These first three outcomes related to seeing children were found consistently in our interviews with the 6 case study preservice teachers and among the 7 preservice teachers who participated in the focus group. There was variation in how they were discussed, but we found them to be pervasive responses. The fourth classification of seeing children was less pervasive, but is one deserving of further consideration: We found that specific types of CBO placements facilitated preservice teachers’ opportunities to learn about intragroup diversity among children from the same ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. Here a preservice teacher shared her experience of developing a more nuanced understanding of diversity by engaging with language-minority children in her community-based fieldwork: “[The CBO] was kind of an eye-opening experience for me, too, because all of them are English language learners, so it seems like they would all have the same sort of process for how they would go about learning, but it was so different for all of them.”

This case study teacher reported that she initially had a generalized understanding of English language learners students, conceptualizing them as having homogenous learning processes and instructional needs. Through her experiences in a CBO in which nearly every student spoke an Asian language at home, she developed a more contoured view of intragroup diversity.

Our data indicate that in the community-based placements where most or all children were English language learners and/or of the same ethnic background (about one half of partnering organizations), preservice teachers had an opportunity to learn based on what Engeström (2001) would call an intensity of disruption. In the organizations in which preservice teachers worked with 20–30 children who, at a general level, were not very diverse (i.e., they had ethnic and linguistic similarities), there were perhaps more forthright opportunities for preservice teachers to see a finer grain of diversity. Abigail, whose field experience was also in a CBO that served linguistic minority children, recounted in a focus group session, “Having the opportunity [in my CBO] to be in a classroom where every single child was an English language learner . . . I will always carry that with me.” While reflecting on her school placement (where there were fewer English language learners), she realized the sensitivity she had developed to English language learners’ varying needs during her time at her CBO. The following quote is in reference to her school-based class:

We had six or seven in our class that were English language learners, and some of them have reached kind of this proficiency where they were really perfectly bilingual and doing well, academically, but there was definitely kids that were underserved. And it’s so striking that the teacher can’t even tell you exactly which kids speak a different language at home or what language they speak. And the one kid we had in the class that had a learning disability, I never once heard the CT [cooperating teacher] talk about how she is speaking Turkish at home.

We hypothesize that a possible factor in these preservice teachers’ attentiveness to intragroup diversity can in part be traced back to the talk about conceptions of diversity found in the interview data of CBO directors. As mentioned in the description of participants, our data indicate that directors and staff at the partnering CBOs spoke about diversity in markedly localized, concrete ways, which differed from the characteristically abstract talk around race, language, ethnicity, and SES in university courses. We suspect that the structure and interactions within the CBO activity systems facilitated opportunities for preservice teachers to learn about diversity on this concrete level—through peripheral participation (Lave & Wenger, 1991), and while situated within a local context of knowing.


Community experiences, although not common practice, have a long history in teacher education. Today, these experiences are reemerging as one strategy for improving the preparation of teachers to teach students from diverse backgrounds in high-needs schools—arguably one of the greatest and most important challenges facing education. However, despite their history and their reemergence, the body of research on community experiences in teacher education provides few guides for the design and implementation of such efforts, and few details of the nature of these experiences. Likewise, the literature in this area is limited in regard to research about preservice teachers’ participation, or the opportunities to learn facilitated by these field experiences. Findings discussed in this article contribute directly to the teacher education program at the University of Washington by contributing to our understanding of this innovation and helping the program to refine its practices. More generally, this study also advances the field’s understanding of community field experiences and highlights some ways in which this particular strategy of forging partnerships with community organizations can enhance the preparation of teachers.

Several specific findings from this study contribute to this advanced understanding. First, our findings related to the characteristics of teachers’ participation as valued, relevant, and authentic provide evidence of how such participation can contribute to prospective teachers’ understanding of children’s lives outside of school. To some extent, we suggest that their participation in CBOs did not merely complement or reiterate, but actually added to, the resources available to them while they are learning to teach. Second, we offer four classifications for how the placements in CBOs afforded preservice teachers opportunities to learn about children across multiple contexts of their lives. We found that beyond simple exposure to diverse students, placements in CBOs, at times, enabled preservice teachers to engage with children in ways that turned the relationship of teacher–student on its head, situating children as capable knowers, and positioning teachers as learners. The ability of teachers to see and understand children as competent individuals with knowledge and expertise potentially enables them to reach into and across difference in ways that are central to their ability to provide high-quality learning opportunities to all students (Ladson-Billings, 1994; Lee, 2008).

In addition, we found that CBO placements for some preservice teachers facilitated a deeper, perhaps more specific understanding of children’s home lives, family backgrounds, and cultural affiliations. Often, preservice teachers leave teacher education with an abstract, largely conceptual understanding of children’s families and cultures. Our data suggest that placements in CBOs aided preservice teachers’ development of more fine-grained knowledge—a more specific understanding—of individual children, which supported a broader view of the ecologies of children’s lives. Specifically, we found that preservice teachers, particularly those placed in CBOs with high concentrations of English language learners or children from one ethnic community, had more opportunities to make important distinctions about how individual children enact their language or ethnic affiliations.

At this point, the findings of this research are limited to the preservice teachers in the University of Washington Elementary Teacher Education Program. Nonetheless, future research and practice in teacher education can potentially extend this research by investigating questions of implementation and impact across various contexts. This study also provides a strong conceptual foundation on which this future work could develop. Using a lens that employs ideas from sociocultural theory and activity theory enables analysis of participation as well as programmatic outcomes, thus offering theoretically rich ways of describing and analyzing community experiences in teacher education.

Finally, this study provides preliminary evidence that placements in community-based organizations are a promising approach to supporting preservice teachers’ opportunities to learn to work with children from diverse backgrounds. In particular, partnerships with community organizations may move teacher education efforts closer to the overall goal of preparing teachers with contextualized knowledge of children that allows them to incorporate the complexity of children’s lives into the classroom in ways that ultimately improve children’s opportunities to learn.


1. For examples of programmatic efforts to address multicultural concerns and issues of social justice, see Cochran-Smith et al. (2009), Ladson-Billings (2001), and McDonald (2005).

2. Again reflecting broader trends in teacher education, the vast amount of research in this area focuses primarily on White teachers’ experiences and learning. The experience and learning of students of color through community initiatives are not often considered (Hollins & Guzman, 2005).

3. At the end of the first four quarters, qualified preservice teachers are recommended for certification, and then after the fifth quarter, which typically takes place over the course of their first year of teaching, teachers receive their master’s degrees. During the first quarter of the program, preservice teachers are placed in CBOs as their only field placement and are required to take five courses. In the following quarters prior to certification, teachers are placed as interns in high-needs public schools in the Seattle area and attend an array of methods and foundations courses. For more specific information on the UW’s elementary program please see http://education.washington.edu/areas/tep/elementary/index.html.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 8, 2011, p. 1668-1700
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16162, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 7:09:43 PM

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About the Author
  • Morva McDonald
    University of Washington
    E-mail Author
    MORVA MCDONALD is an assistant professor of education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Washington. Her research interests include teacher education and the preparation of teachers for diversity, as well as students’ opportunities to learn in and out of school. She uses sociocultural theories of learning to frame and understand teacher preparation and students’ opportunities to learn. Publications include: “The Integration of Social Justice in Teacher Education: Dimensions of Prospective Teachers’ Opportunities to Learn,” Journal of Teacher Education, 56.
  • Kersti Tyson
    University of Washington
    KERSTI TYSON is a doctoral candidate in the Learning Sciences program in the College of Education at the University of Washington. Her PhD dissertation examines the role of listening and learning in formal and informal educational contexts. In addition, she is engaged in scholarship that focuses on teacher education and preparing teachers to educate children from diverse backgrounds. She is a former middle school algebra teacher and has experience working at the state level in New Mexico on teacher quality policies.
  • Kate Brayko
    University of Washington
    KATE BRAYKO is a Ph.D. candidate in Curriculum and Instruction (Language, Literacy, & Culture) at the University of Washington. She is a literacy teacher educator, and her research interests include literacy instruction, teacher quality, and partnerships in teacher education. She has worked as a teacher of reading and writing in schools, jails, and community centers in both rural and urban contexts.
  • Michael Bowman
    University of Washington
    MICHAEL BOWMAN is a doctoral student in social and cultural foundations of education at the University of Washington. His work focuses on the relationship between urban spatial development, community organization, and schooling.
  • John Delport
    University of Washington
    JOHN DELPORT is a special education doctoral student at the University of Washington. He has taught in self-contained EBD special education classrooms in the United States, as well as in South Africa. He is interested in issues of over- and underrepresentation of culturally and linguistically diverse students in special education and the juvenile justice system.
  • Fuyu Shimomura
    University of Washington
    FUYU SHIMOMURA is a PhD student in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Washington. His research interests lie within multicultural teacher education, especially the inclusion of community-based cultural immersion in teacher education and its influence on preservice teachers’ development of intercultural competence.
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