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Tensions Between Envisioned Aims and Enacted Practices in the Teaching of Muslim Young Adult Literature

by Wendy J. Glenn & Ricki Ginsberg - 2020

Context: Research notes the repeated existence of a disconnect between teachers’ aims and practices, particularly when their work is done in communities with significant numbers of students who are minoritized by dominant societal norms. Simply wanting to do this work is not enough and can result in harm to students and the communities they inhabit.

Research Question: How does a teacher envision instructional aims and enact classroom practices as she infuses young adult literature with Muslim characters and content into her curriculum?

Setting: Freshman classroom in a diverse school community in the northeastern United States.

Participant: This study examines the thinking and teaching practices of one classroom teacher. It focuses on how the findings have resonance and transferability for other scholars who are studying the phenomenon and who seek to use the findings as a model to conduct related research.

Practice: During 10 weeks as a regular part of their English course experience, one class of freshman students read and discussed young adult novels that contain Islam-related content and a Muslim protagonist. The classroom teacher facilitated the sessions. At least one university researcher on the project attended one class session each week to observe and collect data.

Research Design: This qualitative study uses an inductive methodological approach to establish clear links between the raw data and research question in systematic and iterative ways.

Data Collection: Data sources from the 10-week instructional period included: four semi-structured participant interviews (one prior to the start of instruction, two during the instructional period, and one following instruction); 16 weekday reflections generated by the participant; and 10 weekly classroom observations conducted by the research team.

Findings: While the teacher had clear purposes for her instruction of the texts, her enacted practices did not always align with or result in the attainment of her goals. The teacher’s aims of being a teacher expert conflicted with practices that rationalized a lack of the knowledge necessary to enact this role. And the teacher’s aim of teaching for equity and justice clashed with her practices, which reflected a valuing of safety over conflict.

Conclusions: The study intimates the inadequacy of simply wanting to teach less familiar cultural content and argues that an anticipation of cognitive dissonance seems essential to determining culturally responsive aims that are strongly connected to enacted practices as teachers choose to bravely navigate unfamiliar territories.

Young adult (YA) fiction is largely authored by writers who rarely represent characters and communities of color. According to the Cooperative Childrens Book Center (2016), only 12.6% of books for children and young adults were authored or illustrated by people of color in 2016. Publishers, authors, educators and others who participate in the grassroots We Need Diverse Books campaign (http://weneeddiversebooks.org) have committed to increasing awareness of and access to more varied YA literature. Such a commitment aims to provide connections for young people not historically and contemporarily included in this literature as well as opportunities for all young people to engage with stories that invite thoughtful and respectful consideration of differences. As this movement gains momentum, the field is shifting in simultaneously exciting, complicated, and hopeful ways.

This momentum makes this an ideal time to consider the challenges that might result when teachers take up this charge and teach literature that reflects cultures and communities with which they have less knowledge or lived experience (Borsheim-Black, 2015). If teachers choose not to select diverse titles for instruction, a normalization of the dominant narrative may be perpetuated, and the diverse voices that have been historically silenced remain quiet. If teachers engage in this work in harmful ways, a normalization of deficit-oriented perceptions of minoritized groups is likely (Ginsberg, Glenn, & Moye, 2017; Glenn, 2015, 2014, 2012). However, if we can better understand the tensions that emerge when teachers use texts that feature cultures and communities with which they (and sometimes their students) are less familiar, we might identify approaches that increase not only the inclusion of diverse texts in our curricula but also the implementation of culturally affirming pedagogies that achieve equity- and justice-related aims. We recognize that the fiction most commonly taught in U.S. secondary schools is couched in a literary canon defined by Whiteness, middle class values, and male-dominant norms (Smolkin & Young, 2011; Stotsky, Traffas, & Woodworth, 2010), and that the predominantly White teaching force is disproportionate to the growing number of minoritized students who inhabit K12 classrooms (Aud et al., 2010). If we believe that inviting students to engage with multiplicity across race, ethnicity, culture, religion, sexuality, and gender is inherently important to the education of all students as students and as members of both local and global communities, we then believe that not only broadening but busting the canon is an essential act for all teachers.

More specific to this study, we center on our current existence in a xenophobic cultural moment, one that regularly marginalizes and misrepresents Muslim people and culture (Bajaj, Ghaffar-Kucher, & Desai, 2016). Classroom engagement with and conversation about texts for young people that contain Muslim characters and culture are imperative and essential. While scholars have examined the representation of Muslims in literature for children and young adult readers (Torres, 2016) and how reading such titles can impact preservice teachers understandings (Baer & Glasgow, 2010; Sensoy & Marshall, 2010), none have explored the complexities of this work from a teachers perspective.

We wish to note that this is important, hard, and risky work for teachers who are outsiders with respect to the cultures represented in the texts they teach. Thus, our intent is not to criticize our teacher participant for choosing to engage in this necessary and political work, but rather to examine the complexities that come with courageous teaching. Existing policy research notes the repeated existence of a disconnect between teachers aims and practices, particularly when their work is done in communities with significant numbers of students who are minoritized by dominant societal norms (Luft & Roehrigh, 2005; Milner & Laughter, 2014; Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2012). These studies highlight the reality that simply wanting to do this work is not enough and can actually result in harm to students and the communities they inhabit. Within the Muslim context, although teachers (and teacher educators) often aim to teach about others in hopes of achieving the aims of social justice education, Good intentions and bad science about Muslims and Islam have worked to cement stereotypes, promote intolerance, shut down learning, and in doing so thwart education for social justice (Sensoy & Ali-Khan, 2016, p. 506). The research question that guided our study grows from this work and asks: How does a teacher envision instructional aims and enact classroom practices as she infuses YA literature with Muslim characters and content into her curriculum?

This study contributes to the field by helping us better understand how a classroom teacher struggles (sometimes with awareness and sometimes not) to enact her intended aims. As a classroom study, our work puts us in these moments of tension with the teacher, allowing us to bear witness to her experience in ways that feel intimate and valuable, and enabling both critique and possibilities for change.



The work of this study is grounded in the new look model of cognitive dissonance (Cooper, 2007; Stone & Cooper, 2001) expanded from the theory developed originally by Festinger (1957). Festinger conceived that when individuals face inconsistency among cognitions (thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, surroundings, and/or behaviors), they experience a natural pressure to maintain an internal consistency among these cognitions. This cognitive dissonance motivates individuals to reduce or avoid stimuli that may increase the dissonance among the cognitions. They first work to rationalize inconsistencies, but if this rationalization proves impossible or unlikely, psychological discomfort ensues. Strategies that people use to reduce cognitive dissonance include changing one or more of the cognitions attributed to the dissonance, adding new aspects to the cognition that causes the psychological dissonance, or trivializing the dissonance (Walton, 2011). While the first strategy can serve as personal improvement, the latter two strategies function to discount or neutralize cognitive discrepancies and may impede the subjects learning process (Walton, 2011, p. 776).

More recent conceptions of cognitive dissonance have added nuance to the original theory, with researchers such as Cooper (1999, 2007), Stone and Cooper (2001), and Cooper and Fazio (1984) reviving and revising Festingers original work and confirming the validity of the original theory in a slightly modified form. Coopers (2007) book is particularly effective in the way it values and honors Festingers work while exploring the historical narrative of Festingers theory and demonstrates, through reference to and description of several studies in the field of psychology, how the theory has stood the test of time despite critique by other scholars. Cooper (2007) also shows how small revisions made to Festingers theory over time have addressed four limiting conditions that capture, with increasing complexity, the process that individuals undergo when facing dissonance resulting from conflicting ideas or experiences. As Cooper explains,

Festingers essentially uncomplicated version of dissonance theory took us a long way. It is, and always will be, convenient to think of dissonance in terms of what the words actually mean: a discrepancy among cognitions. Decades of research have supported Festingers theory, generated and supported new hypotheses, and added many limiting conditions to the theory. I have referred to these as the but onlys. (2007, p. 71)

For Cooper, Stone, Fazio, and others who have taken up this new look model of cognitive dissonance, inconsistent behavior produces dissonance, but only when people have freedom to choose a behavior, people take responsibility for this behavior, the behavior leads to aversive consequences, and/or those consequences are foreseeable.

Various studies on teacher development draw upon cognitive dissonance theories to describe how teachers experience conflict that results in a questioning of their beliefs and practices. Delaneys (2015) study identified the spaces created when stories collide, particularly when narratives of professional practice advanced by outside forces (institutions, curricula, accepted norms, etc.) come into tension with narratives of self that are held by educators. These borderlands of teacher practice

represent contested spaces of teacher practice, where many actors outside the classroom have strong beliefs and conceptions of what should be happening within the classroom . . . and where varying notions of best practices converge, and sometimes conflict, with the professional knowledge and decision-making of teachers. (p. 374)

In these borderland spaces, making sense of which conceptions and approaches to value can challenge teachers in ways that undermine their professional identities, subverting their agency to make decisions that best meet and reflect the needs of their students (Delaney, 2015, p. 375). Similarly, Galman (2009) aimed to gain a deeper understanding of how stories can result in dissonance in the professional identity development of preservice teachers in the early stages of their teacher education. Findings suggest that dissonance plays an important catalytic role in the teacher education process given the relationship between the stories that preservice teachers tell and their developing professional identity. Individual participants chose to opt in or opt out of the dissonance experienced when their views of themselves as teachers did not align with what they were learning in their courses and field experiences; in response, they either created an alternative story that distanced themselves from the dissonance-creating dilemma or resolved the dissonance between personal and institutional stories by creating a third, workable story [they] could live with (Galman, 2009, p. 477).

Related to this studys focus on the teaching of culturally unfamiliar content, scholars within the field of education have used cognitive dissonance theories to examine issues of diversity and teacher positionalities. McFalls and Cobb-Roberts (2001) studied the explicit instruction of cognitive dissonance-reduction strategies in one of two diversity course sections. The researchers were curious as to whether this instruction would influence student resistance to diversity issues. They reported that students who were metacognitively introduced to the idea of cognitive dissonance prior to discussions of diversity showed fewer responses of denial in comparison to those who did not receive this supplemental instruction. This attention to the explicit naming and study of cognitive dissonance as a tool for growth aligns with claims made by Gorski (2009). In his Promising Practices feature article, he argues that the best wayperhaps the only wayto engage cognitive dissonance as a pedagogical tool in social justice learning is to teach explicitly about cognitive dissonance (p. 55). He describes an instructional activity, called the Who Said It? quiz, to explain what can happen when individuals practice naming cognitive dissonance and how this process can make it easier for people to acknowledge the ideas with which they are struggling (p. 56).  

In another relevant example, Eisenhardt, Besnoy, and Steele (20112012) studied the field experiences and reflections of three preservice teachers who were working with two students who had learning and socialemotional needs different from their own. The three teachers all experienced cognitive dissonance between their beliefs about teaching and their actual experiences with the students. The inconsistencies between their beliefs and lived experiences with the students demonstrated for them the value of challenging their teaching beliefs. They developed a new set of beliefs better aligned with the student needs. Through the theoretical perspective of cognitive dissonance, Guerra and Wubbena (2017) articulated contrasting findings resulting from their qualitative investigation of the relationship between teacher beliefs and their associated teacher practices at two public elementary schools with diverse student populations. Their work reveals that, while their teacher participants held theoretical beliefs about culturally proficient teaching, they also held deficit beliefs associated with pre-existing cognitions about the reasons for disparities in the academic outcomes of diverse student populations. Guerra and Wubbena (2017) also shows that teacher participants minimized dissonance between conflicting cognitions by aligning classroom-teaching practices with deficit beliefs that ultimately undermined their efforts to support student learning and development.

As we engaged in our exploration of the tensions that emerged when a classroom teacher struggled to enact her intended aims, we relied upon a particular process of cognitive dissonance informed by the new look model described above and explicated here. An individual engages in an action or behavior that results in consequences that can be positive, neutral, or aversive. The individual assesses the consequences of the action or behavior. If the consequences are deemed unwanted or negative, the individual attempts to determine who is responsible for the unwanted consequence. Dissonance occurs when the individual feels personally responsible for bringing about the aversive event. In general,

people will be able to absolve themselves of responsibility for an aversive consequence if they believe they had no choice but to behave as they did and/or the consequence was unforeseeable when they made that choice. People are motivated to seek avoidance of responsibility for aversive consequences. Dissonance is unpleasant and the result of needing to reduce dissonance is usually the work of changing attitudes. If responsibility can be denied, the process is over. (Cooper, 2007, p. 74)

Although it is possible for an individual to make a positive emotional attribution to the discomfort and tension, in most cases, the attribution is negative. The individual searches the environment and immediate past behavior to find a reason for the discomfort and tension. If the individual can attribute the uncomfortable response to an external stimulus, the process ends and the existing attitudes and understandings remain. If the individual cannot attribute the uncomfortable response to an external source, the individual assumes responsibility for bringing about an unwanted consequence that explains the resulting discomfort and tension. The individual is now in a state of cognitive dissonance and is motivated to reduce this state through a change in attitude or understanding. Attitude change occurs to render the consequences of behavior non-aversive (Cooper, 2007, p. 76).

The new look theory of cognitive dissonance serves two functions for the work of this study. We wondered whether the teacher participant might experience cognitive dissonance in response to the new stimuli of teaching texts that reflect a culture different from her own. Our work aimed to identify moments that Kincheloe (2005) describes as untidiness, as part of a process in which we construct new relationships in the interaction of cultural understandings, the influences of the information environment, familiar stories, idiosyncratic ways of making meaning, and schooling (p. 115). We were additionally curious as to whether her aims or practices might shift in reaction to any cognitive dissonance she might negotiate. Cognitive dissonance theory became even more relevant to our work as we closely examined the ways in which our teacher participants envisioned aims and enacted practices also acted in cognitive dissonance with each other.



The work of this study examines the thinking and teaching practices of a single participant. Flyvbjerg (2006) advances, The advantage of large samples is breadth, whereas their problem is one of depth. For the case study, the situation is the reverse. Both approaches are necessary for a sound development of social science (p. 241). We intentionally selected our participant because she believed herself to be well trained in her educational preparation, and she expressed strong interest in integrating the Muslim YA texts in her classroom. The participants thinking may be transferable to other professionals in the field with similar qualities, and studying her thinking and teaching practices has the potential to inform other scholars seeking to learn about the phenomenon. Strategic selection of participants improves the transferability of a study and understanding of a phenomenon (Flyvbjerg, 2006), and understanding the participants thinking and praxis has implications for other teachers and scholars who are invested and interested in teacher education and the instruction of unfamiliar cultures with students.

We perceive humans to be complex beings and advocate that qualitative, dense studies of single participants allow for stronger understandings of the complicated realities that exist when scholars study phenomena such as the connections between teacher philosophies and praxis (Flyvbjerg, 2006). A dense qualitative study of a single participant aligns with our theoretical framework of cognitive dissonance, which shoulders the nuanced polarities that can exist among cognitions. Our aim is to focus on how the findings of this study have resonance and transferability (Tracy, 2012) for other scholars who are studying the phenomenon and who seek to use the findings as a model to conduct related research. (See the Implications section for recommendations for scholars based on the findings of this study.)

This study uses an inductive methodological approach that allowed us to establish clear links between the raw data and research question in systematic and iterative ways (Thomas, 2006). Both authors are former secondary English teachers. Author 1 is a White female who was in her 15th year of teaching at a nearby university at the time of the study. Author 2 is a multiracial female who was an advanced doctoral candidate at the time of the study. We, the authors, along with one additional researcher, met with the classroom teacher to select texts and assist with the design of the unit. The participant was unfamiliar with Muslim YA literature, so the four of us worked as a research team to read dozens of texts with Muslim content. As a team, we met once to deliberate about the texts and eliminated those that might promote or affirm stereotypes. After narrowing the list to five potential texts, we reread the texts and met again as a team to discuss critically their uses in the classroom and to co-plan the course structure. We also sought the advice of three Muslim Americans, who helped with text selection (eliminating one of the five texts) and the building of cultural understandings around each text. (For a brief summary and list of the selected texts, see Appendix A.) To help the teacher prepare for instruction, we documented the suggestions of the Muslim Americans for her, critically analyzed the texts as a team, co-determined themes that she might use in her classroom each week (e.g., equity, stereotypes, othering, perceptions), and talked about strategies for engaging her students in discussions (e.g., written conversations, fishbowls, gallery walks). We believed that she should feel prepared and confident to teach the unfamiliar content, but we also respected her freedom as the teacher of the course, so we did not prepare handouts or co-design lesson plans beyond our conversations about potential weekly topics and discussion strategies.

During 10 weeks as a regular part of their English course experience, one class of freshman students at North High School (all names and locations are pseudonyms) read and discussed young adult novels that contain Islam-related content and a Muslim protagonist. The classroom teacher facilitated the sessions. At least one university researcher on the project attended one class session each week to observe and collect data.


Early in the spring semester, the research team visited the class to explain the project and invite students to participate. Students were informed that they could participate in all class activities related to the project even if they chose not to participate in the study. After securing student assent for participation, students participated in an initial written interview that gauged their initial understandings of Islam and Muslim culture and invited them to identify which of the YA titles they would like to read and discuss with their peers (each group focused on a different title).

One day each week over the next several weeks, students worked in small groups to discuss their selected YA novel; responses were prompted by guiding questions generated by the research team (for greater explication of each activity, theme, and the related guiding questions, see Appendix B). Groups documented their ideas on paper (via a worksheet or journal entry) as a source of data. The full class came together to discuss highlights of the conversations and engage in a related activity. The university researchers served as participant observers during these sessions, recording field notes and engaging in the classroom conversation as appropriate. At the end of each session, the classroom teacher documented her perceptions of the teaching experience as a source of reflective data.

On the four days of each week when the groups did not meet to discuss their novels, students read the requisite number of pages for each day that they decided upon as a group. At the end of each of these independent reading classes, students recorded comments and questions growing from their reading, focusing specifically on issues of Islam and Muslim culture. These comments and questions were used to generate the guiding questions and activity for the following group meeting. On the first day of each of these weeks, independent reading time was preceded by direct instruction by the teacher and notetaking by the students around key elements of Muslim culture and Islam. Students reiteratively recorded information around several questions: What is Islam? Who is Muslim? How do Muslims differ? How is Islam similar to and different from other religions? What do followers of Islam believe? How do followers of Islam worship? How do followers of Islam celebrate? What practices are evidenced in Muslim culture? The information provided in response to these questions was adapted from Semya Hakim's article What is Islam? which appeared in War, Terrorism, and Americas Classrooms, a special report in Rethinking Schools (available online at www.rethinkingschools.org/sept11).

After groups read and discussed the entire novel, students completed a final written interview to gauge their perceptions of Islam and Muslim culture. They then participated in a two-week-long project that asked them to design a product that allowed them to share their learnings from the project and educate their intended audience (book trailer for viewing by students in other English classes, poster for display in the library, resource guide for classmates wanting to learn more about Islam, etc.). These products were presented as part of a public event at the local university that included the participation of the authors of the books read by the students. The university researchers again served as participant observers during these sessions, recording field notes and supporting students as appropriate.

This co-construction of the classroom unit can be deemed a manipulation of the normal planning process of the teacher participant. While we understand this to be a limitation of the study, we believed that this process would provide the students with more accurate understandings of Muslim culture and would position the teacher toward success as she approached this unfamiliar content. Ethically, we believed the co-construction of the classroom to be in the best interest of students. As researchers, we recognize our potential bias and investment in the success of the project. Thus, following the planning stages of the unit, we positioned ourselves as researchers and worked intentionally to distance ourselves from the instruction of the unit. We did rejoin the teaching process in the final days of the instructional unit when we worked with students on their final project presentations during one class period.



The participant was a high school teacher who self-identified as a White Catholic and who elected to engage in a semester-long project designed to explore how freshmen students reading of YA literature that features Muslim characters and content might influence their understandings of Muslim culture. The teacher, Thea, had been teaching for 3.5 years at the start of the study, all at the same school. She earned bachelors and masters degrees from a highly ranked teacher preparation program in the northeastern United States. The school in which she worked has a student population of approximately 1,600 and is highly diverse in terms of race, culture, and socioeconomics. Within the class we observed, 15 students self-identified as students of color, and one student self-identified as White. The students of color described their cultural affiliations to be African American, Ghanaian, Indian, Jamaican, Japanese, Native American, Nicaraguan, Peruvian, and Puerto Rican, including five students who noted some combination of two or more cultures. While we did not explicitly ask students about their religious affiliations, most of the students noted in conversations that they self-identified as Christian or Catholic.


We were interested in exploring how our teacher participant might face inconsistency among various cognitions (thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, surroundings, and/or behaviors) (Festinger, 1957) as she taught content that was unfamiliar to her. Our data sources from the 10-week instructional period were aimed to help us better understand any inconsistencies and included:

(1) Four semi-structured participant interviews (one prior to the start of instruction, two during the instructional period, and one following instruction) (see Appendix C1 for a complete list of the interview questions);

(2) Sixteen weekday reflections generated by the participant (see Appendix C2 for the weekday daily reflection guide questions); and

(3) Ten weekly classroom observations conducted by the research team (see Appendix C3 for the protocol used for the classroom observations to ensure reliability).

Using an iterative process, we independently (re)read the interviews and coded the first interview using marginal notes focused specifically on our research question of identifying the teachers aims and practices (both self-reported and observed). We used initial codes (Saldaña, 2013), or a paraphrasing of strong ideas represented in the data (e.g., wants to examine stereotypes [students] might have of the media), and in vivo codes (Saldaña, 2013), or direct quotations from the data (e.g., opening up their mindsets). We then met to have a shared conversation to review the resulting codes and check consistency. Next, we independently coded the remaining interviews. Following shared conversation to review and revise codes to reach consensus on interpretations and understandings, we repeated the entire process for analysis of the weekday reflections and classroom observations.

We independently reviewed all of the codes, listed them, and grouped similar codes into categories (second-level interpretations). Following this independent process, we met to have a shared conversation of ways in which we grouped the codes into categories to discuss and address any differences between researcher interpretations. Together, we then created a shared document and listed all of the categories, and then we added all of the raw data under each category heading. Keeping the raw data connected to the categories ensured reliability in that all of our interpretations were tightly connected to the participants interview responses and reflections and the researcher observations. This allowed us to ensure that our interpretations were central to the participants responses and the observed practices and contextualized within the data (Larkin, Watts, & Clifton, 2006, p. 114). For example, under the category needs to do more research (which was later grouped under the first overarching theme of rationalizing inadequate content knowledge), an example of raw data from each data source included:


I feel like I would tell someone to do a little more research than maybe what I . . . I wish I did more, but then again I dont know how much I would have retained off the top of my head for when theyre asking questions. I feel like you can only prepare so much. You dont know what the kids are going to ask. (Interview 1)


I wasnt sure if I should answer his question or direct it to another classmate to see if they knew! Then I forgot to readdress it so I dont know if he has the answer now. (Reflection 4.21)


Amaya says, My best friend is Muslim and had to shave her head.

Thea responds, I dont know, we would have to look that up. (Observation 2)

Independent review of the categories resulted in the generation of three themes aligned with the research question: rationalizing inadequate content knowledge, preserving community at the expense of equity, and claiming flexibility while remaining in control. We participated again in a shared conversation to review the themes and discuss/address any differences. In order to allow for transparency and potential replication of the study, we share a sample of the data reduction process within Appendix D1. All of the codes and categories (this time, for the second theme of preserving community at the expense of equity) are listed in this sample. Within Appendix D2, we share an example of the data analysis process by demonstrating the process from raw data to category to theme. These paired appendices offer an example of the data analysis process from raw data to codes to categories to themes.  

To provide trustworthiness within research, Lincoln and Guba (1985) suggest four criteria: credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability. For credibility, we, the two researchers, met often through the data analysis process to discuss our interpretations and reach consensus regarding any discrepancies. For transferability and dependability, we worked to provide clear, transparent, rich descriptions of the data within the findings section and data processes within this methodology section. For confirmability, we viewed all data sources equally and ensured that all three data sources were listed in multiple iterations within each overarching theme. Further, we worked to demonstrate this internal coherence across the data sources of our interpretations within the findings section by sharing multiple data sources for readers to see the triangulation. Although qualitative research is considered to be true in its validity (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005), this triangulation in the methodological approach and reporting of the findings allowed us to achieve depth of understanding of the participants aims and practices from multiple sources of data across the duration of the unit.

For the purposes of this paper, we focus on the first two themes, which were more closely tied to considerations of Muslim content and culture. Our intention is to consider how Theas aims and practices worked together and in competition with one another in her implementation of new content.  



Data suggest that tensions existed between the teachers aims and practices in her planning and instruction of YA literature with Muslim characters and content. While the teacher had clear purposes for her instruction of the texts, her enacted practices did not always align with or result in the attainment of her goals.


A first key finding centers on how Theas aim of being a teacher expert conflicted with practices that rationalized a lack of knowledge necessary to enact this role. In describing her aims, she expressed a desire to answer students questions accurately in hopes of doing the culture and religion justice (Interview 1). In the implementation of the unit, however, she experienced tension resulting from the teaching of content that was both new to her and culturally unfamiliar given her inability to draw from lived experience as a non-Muslim. We theorize that she absolved herself of responsibility for providing students this information in that she perceived herself as having no other choice given her existence outside of the cultural community about which she was teaching. By resolving the dissonance resulting from this tension in this way, she freed herself to engage in practices that resulted in stasis relative to the accumulation of knowledge.


From the outset of the study, Thea recognized and was concerned about the fact that she would be teaching texts that include cultural content that did not reflect her lived experiences as a non-Muslim. She explained,

I dont want to do a bad job representing culture or religion that Im not a part of and dont know a whole lot about. . . . I didnt grow up in that culture or religion, so when they [students] ask questions, I cant give firsthand experience or firsthand knowledge. (Interview 1)

Thea expressed a desire for accuracy and correctness growing from these concerns about potentially misrepresenting a culture to which she does not belong. Again, she explained,

Because I dont know, I want to make sure if they [the students] ask me a question, I dont just reply with what I think is the right answer and then find out that was totally wrong information and now Ive misinformed them which could inform their opinions. I worry about not knowing so much about it, and theres so much to know. . . . I want to make sure Im doing it accurately. (Interview 1)

In hopes of achieving her goal of accuracy, Thea expressed motivation to learn more and become more knowledgeable as a teacher and expert for her students. She noted, I hope that I will become more comfortable teaching about a religion and culture that might be controversial to my students because Ive never done that before (Interview 1). She was enthusiastic about learning new information and getting a refresher about Islam as she learned alongside the students, which she described as a new (and great!) feeling (Reflection 3.16). It is important to note, too, that Theas envisioning of a successful teacher aligned with this aim and centered on the accumulation and sharing of expert knowledge. When asked the interview question, You have obviously chosen to go outside your comfort zone. Why do you think not knowing as much as you normally do when teaching a text makes you uncomfortable? Why did you do it anyway? Thea responded,

I think not knowing makes you uncomfortable because youre supposed to be the expert on that book; youre supposed to be the expert on that topic. . . . I feel like Im supposed to know everything. Im supposed to have all their answers. (Interview 3)

Despite the centrality of expert knowledge in her belief system about effective teaching, Thea struggled to provide her students with the information they requested. She experienced a tension between believing she should be the expert and experiencing the reality of not having the information to do so. Thea recognized repeatedly the need to seek out information about Muslim culture and Islam in response to student questions and interests. For example, when students struggled to understand the cultural significance of the headscarf and whether wearing one was a choice or mandate across Muslim communities, Thea reflected upon how she would address this when she returned to the class:

I didnt know if this was true. I assumed the rules/expectations differ in different areas of the world or even within families. I need to find out more information about expectations of the headscarf because the students seem to be extremely interested in it. (Reflection 3.13)

And nearer to the end of the study when students continued to have questions about the distinctions between Muslim culture and the Islamic faith, Thea argued that the students definitely still need a stronger understanding of the cultures in their novels (Reflection 4.7). She persistently saw and identified the need to learn more. However, rather than seeking information that might respond to student needs, she cited having to learn new content and being a cultural outsider as reasons for not doing so or not being able to do so.

Regarding the learning of new content, Thea expressed concerns about losing the comfort that comes with teaching familiar content and gaining the discomfort of potentially not having the answers and thus being made vulnerable as an educator. Thea found security in teaching the same texts year after year. As she explained,

Its definitely just more comforting being able to anticipate their [students] questions and knowing the answers because youve taught it. And there are not a lot of surprises when youve taught a text four periods a day for five years. You kind of know what, you know where the misconceptions are going to be and you know how to fix those misconceptions and how to address them. (Interview 3)

When teaching a new text, Thea commented on how she was not able to depend upon her rich knowledge of the story, characters, etc. in responding to student questions. When describing her approach to teaching the texts in this study, she noted,

The questions that come up every year, I expect. These are all new questions. Each day, new things come up that I dont know. Instead of just being, or knowing the answer, Im like Im pretty sure its this way. I dont want to give them any information because Im not even like pretty sure that this is the answer. (Interview 2)

Not having the answers to students questions heightened her anxiety in teaching the novels. As she explained,

When the students ask me a question about a character and I dont immediately know it, I feel like, Ugh, Ive done a bad job today. Sometimes theyll ask me about a minor character, and Ill be like, Who? And then Im like, Oh, no! I mean, yeah, of course I know who Dave is! Oh, no, I dont know who Dave is. What page are you reading? So I feel like Im unprepared because I dont immediately have the answers to their questions whereas with other texts, I do. (Interview 3)

This tension between wanting to know and not knowing is also directly connected to Theas instruction of literature that lies outside her lived cultural identity and reality. Because she is an outsider, she feared misrepresenting Muslim culture and the Islamic faith and struggled with whether or not she had the understanding (and by extension, authority) to answer student questions; she believed that her expertise was limited due to her inability to speak from lived experience. Thea described, for example, how she struggled to answer students questions about the headscarf in Muslim culture. She says,

I experienced, like, difficulty when answering some of the students questionsDo all Islam girls have to wear headscarves?and I didnt feel like I had the authority to answer on that, and I didnt always have the answer right away. Especially for general statements, I didnt want to say, Yes, because I didnt want to misrepresent any group. So, I think I experienced some tension with, like, do I have the authority to tell them this information? (Interview 4)

In an earlier interview, Thea was asked to unpack her claim that she does not have the authority to teach texts outside of her culture given her regular (and enthusiastic) teaching of other multicultural novels. Thea was asked, You said that you teach A Raisin in the Sun frequently. Youre not Black, so whats different about teaching a book that features a Black community that youre not familiar with and a Muslim community that youre not familiar with? Her response referenced her expert knowledge around the civil rights movement, Jim Crow laws, and segregation as satisfactory for lessening anxiety around teaching texts like A Raisin in the Sun. She explained,

Maybe its more the history that Im familiar with? Im not as familiar with, I cant associate myself with an African American culture, but the questions students ask are almost more based in, I can answer more historically accurately. So I feel more confident in giving them those answers because I know more about it. (Interview 2)

Thea noted that teaching texts about Muslim culture is different somehow:

When were talking about A Raisin in the Sun, even though Im not Black, I can speak on Okay, no. Walter would not be allowed to be a doctor because of his race. And I can answer that confidently. I know that. Now when they ask me, At what age do girls have to start covering their hair? Im like, I dont know. When theyre older? Your book says age 3, so I know when theyre a little bit older than that. I just dont have that, I dont have all the knowledge that I do with learning about segregation while growing up and then researching it as their teacher. (Interview 2)

Theas desire to resolve the dissonance created by the tension between needing to know and not knowing resulted in practices that in some ways undermined her aims. She wanted to do the culture and religion justice, but by positioning herself as wanting to also be the teacher expert, she did not pursue opportunities for collaborative explorations of content with students. When confronted with not knowing something, Thea bravely cited her lack of knowledge and offered to gather more information at a later date. For example, when a student said that he learned that Muhammad is the most common name in the world, Thea told him, I am not sure if that is true and itd be interesting to look it up! We are going to look it up together next class (Reflection 3.16). When another student asked if the character in his book was Islamic or Muslim or if those are the same thing, Thea said,

I told him to write the question on his paper and see if his group members could answer it. I wasnt sure if I should answer his question or direct it to another classmate to see if they knew! Then I forgot to readdress it so I dont know if he has the answer now. (Reflection 4.21)

While her decision to pause the sharing process when the answer is unclear does indeed honor the complexity of helping students develop complex understandings of culture, especially cultures outside of their own, the practice of deflection ultimately denied herself and her students the opportunity to know more.

In an attempt to resolve the dissonance between wanting to know and not knowing, Thea also engaged in practices that sometimes privileged her right answer over the lived experiences of those who claim a Muslim identity or affiliation with Islam. Thea prided herself on her ability to offer students speedy responses to their questions and demonstrated frustration when she was not able to take up this role as expert and answer students questions quickly. When sharing background information on greeting practices within Muslim culture, one student commented, Isnt that what they say right before they blow things up? Oh wait nooo . . . thats Allah Akbar. Upon reflection, Thea explained,

I dont know what Allah Akbar means so I wasnt sure how to respond. . . . I wish I knew the context of Allah Akbar so I couldve corrected [the student] if she was wrong. It was frustrating for me not to know offhand what it meant and not be able to provide her with accurate information right away. (Reflection 3.9)

Although she chose to offer no response rather than an incorrect one, the persistence of her desire for speed in getting to the right answer seems to have kept her from seeing an opportunity to take up the complicated (and problematic) depiction of Muslim culture inherent in the students comment. In a similar instance, a student explained that her best friend was Muslim and that, as part of her cultural beliefs, she shaved her head. Rather than affirming the lived experiences of the best friend and perhaps inviting her own student to explore this further in thoughtful conversation with her friend, Thea responded with, I told her Id have to look up the information and get back to her because I dont know about that rule (Reflection 3.13, Observation 2). Although this exchange might have led to conversation around how varying practices might exist within a particular culture or religion, Thea deferred to a more reliable source to find the right answer in the attempt perhaps to assuage her own discomfort.


A second key finding centers on Theas aim of teaching for equity and justice conflicting with her practices that reflected a valuing of safety over conflict. She expressed a desire to engage students in critical thinking and inquiry, create opportunities to analyze and perhaps challenge their existing beliefs about others, and foster students compassion and empathy development through literature. Her practices, however, focused instruction and classroom discourse on teacher moves that sometimes protected students in ways that discouraged engagement with the complexity of the unit themes and Muslim-related content contained in the texts.

At both the outset and conclusion of the study, Thea positioned herself as possessing an equity stance in naming her desired aims for the unit. From the start, as she envisioned her role in helping students engage with content centered on Muslim culture and the Islamic faith, she imagined a space in which she would

open up their [students] mindsets to something they havent thought about and examine stereotypes they might have because of the media and thinking maybe thats not quite right because maybe you have to be a little critical of what youre hearing and how people are being portrayed. (Interview 1)

She wanted students not only to think more critically about their existing assumptions, but also move from critique to compassion as they engaged with the stories they were reading. She described this process of immersion into fiction as

going to teach them [students] to look inside themselves and then hopefully be able to transfer that and be more aware and more compassionate and go into the world thinking of what other people go through and how you cant always judge someone based on Oh, Im Muslim or Oh, Im this. (Interview 1)

At the conclusion of the study, Thea framed her aims of compassion in expressions of empathy across cultures, arguing,


I think it was a worthwhile experience to show them [students] that even though Im not

a Muslim person and I dont practice Islam, I still made connections to each of their characters, so I feel like that was a lesson I was trying to instill in them, to bring to life, that people from all walks of life can still find something to relate on. So even though I dont have the authority to talk about how some of your characters feel, I can still feel empathy towards them if something bad was happening. I might not be able to talk about, Oh, I understand how, you know, the character feels being trapped in 9/11, but I can feel empathy for that and sympathize. So I tried to instill that in them instead of trying to speak from, Oh, I know everything about this, and I have the authority to tell you. It was a fine line, I think. (Interview 4)

In this excerpt, she thoughtfully avoided taking up a culture-blind orientation in her recognition that although we can connect as humans across cultural communities, we cannot assume to know completely another humans reality.

In naming her aims, Thea also wanted the unit to help her students build a disposition toward action-taking in their everyday lives and speaking up when they encounter troubling positionings of people who are Muslim. She hoped that through students reading of the fictional titles and participation in the planned activities,

this project can challenge them to inform some of their friends if they are talking negatively, like Hey, thats not cool. I think it will have a lot of them doing a lot of self-reflection and hopefully transferring that to their everyday lives . . . [and] teaching their friends or even teaching their family about what theyve learned and how to be more empathetic or compassionate toward others. (Interview 1)

Again, this aim held constant over the duration of the study, as evidenced by her commitment to this work with her students at the units conclusion:

I think exposing them to something theyre not familiar with is a totally worthwhile cause because youre just better preparing them for whats beyond high school. When you go to college or to a job, youre not always going to meet people who are the same, and if youve had literature or lessons in school or conversations to help you think about Oh, what Ive heard from the news about someone whos Islamic might not be true, then they might be able to create a different and more positive relationship than if they only took maybe something negative they heard from a family member or from the media or just in passing. (Interview 4)

Thea recognized the challenges of being an educator for equity and justice and the potential vulnerabilities this creates for teachers and students. When reflecting on advice she might offer to other teachers interested in taking up similar work in their own classrooms, she highlighted the discomfort they will likely face. She pointed to a moment in her own instruction when students named stereotypes they have experienced in their lives and cautions,

Some teachers might not be okay with talking about stereotypes, and it would make them uncomfortable to say [repeating a student comment], Black people cant swim, when there are a bunch of Black students in the class. You have to be okay with that, and you have to have set up your classroom to know that its welcoming and you can discuss those things without aiming it at the, making it a negative thing. (Interview 2)

She cited this same classroom moment at the end of the study and offered a similar stance:

You dont want to say thats inappropriate, because thats reality, but sometimes those stereotypes arent things that you say in a classroom because you want to teach them not to stereotype. So sometimes it goes against your instincts as a teacher to be like, Oh, no, dont say that because you dont want them going around saying, Uh, Black people cant swim, because youre like, [adamant voice] Stop stereotyping people! But in the lesson, you have to take a step back and acknowledge that these are the important conversations and they might be uncomfortable, but thats whats making this whole thing worthwhile and thats what will help them make sense of their book and make sense of the world around them. (Interview 4)

Thea recognized the potential harm that can come when teachers do this work but do it poorly. She explained,

I would have to, like, tell another teacher, Its gonna be uncomfortable, and if youre not okay with that, or youre not okay to having an open conversation where things might be said that youre not comfortable with, then this kind of project is not the project for you because I dont know that the students would gain valuable insight, and they might come away with worse insight into the world. (Interview 4)

And she described the kinds of practices that need to be in place in order to open a classroom space to the challenging conversations that result when equity and justice are centered. She advised being open and having confidence in your students and setting some set of boundaries about being respectful but knowing that you have to let them say their piece and respect that, which could be difficult (Interview 4). When thinking about how this work can land on students, she advocated for the creation of a space in which diverse perspectives are able to be offered and valued, but one in which hurtful comments will not be tolerated. There are some things that are not acceptable: Were not okay with stereotyping or profiling people in this room (Interview 1). Here Thea described her vision of the ideal balance between this tension:

Its a safe space, be honest, tell me your true feelings, and they might know, Well, I shouldnt be saying this, but I want to know what theyre thinking. If they say some controversial things out loud, I want to say, I value your opinion, but thats not how I want you to go about living your life. Please dont be prejudiced. . . . We can have these conversations, but we have to have them in a respectful way. I have to make sure I set the tone in the room, that its okay to be honest, but we have to be respectful of each other. If youre saying a negative perception, make sure youre still saying it somehow respectfully (if there is a way to be negatively respectful). (Interview 1)

In her practices, Thea valued moments when students opened themselves to considering emotionally the inequities revealed in the novels they were reading; she equated students expressions of anger as evidence of their growing critical thinking and compassion. In describing students reactions to the novel If You Could Be Mine, a love story between two young women living in Iran who are unable to publicly reveal their relationship due to Islamic law, she cited two examples of students engaging in social critique that made her proud of the work she and students were doing together. She first explained how the students in the small group reading this novel were so enraged that they [the two young women] arent just allowed to be in love. That warms my heart because its showing me that theyre not judgmental, theyre not being judgmental (Interview 2). She then explained how these conversations (and resulting emotive reactions) found their way into the larger classroom. She noted,

Even when the students are explaining their books to other students in the class who arent reading the same one, if they say, Oh, they cant be gay because of the government, the other students are mad. And usually theres not too much to be mad about from the other books they read. Thats been awesome because it seems like everyone is engaging with each other and their texts, and Ive never seen so much emotion. (Interview 3)

However, although Thea noted the challenging, sometimes uncomfortable, conversations as essential elements of this work (as noted in the aims described above), when these conversations (or smaller moments of student talk) arose, she regularly chose to shift the conversation away from potential controversy. We argue that this resulted from Theas commitment to classroom community-building as an essential part of her teacher identity, something she articulated repeatedly in conversations prior to and during the study. At the conclusion of the study, in fact, Thea highlighted how the students involved in this project were special, like a family, in ways that students in her other class periods were not. She explained,

I know that I would not have done this project with my C period class just because the vibe that class has is not as much of a family vibe as the class that I did this project with has. And I feel like you need to cultivate that vibe and that feeling and those emotions to have these meaningful connections, and my other class has some behavior problems. (Interview 4)

The researchers also witnessed and recorded clear evidence of the positive community that Thea worked with her students to create and how Thea positioned this group as special. When discomfort arose in this classroom around the unit themes or content contained in the novels, Thea experienced tension between her equity-oriented aims and desire to keep this community strong. In the attempt to preserve this community, she resolved the resulting dissonance by privileging safety and security over conflict in the classroom. We theorize that she identified the reason for her discomfort and tension as growing from practices that have the potential to counter her aims as an educator, practices that are external to who she is and wants to be. As such, they could be dismissed as less essential in the service of lessening the likelihood of potential dissonance and having to change an existing belief about her teacher identity.

The practices of shifting the conversation or remaining on the periphery were evidenced in classroom engagements that centered on the larger themes of stereotyping, othering, etc. around which the unit was organized. When sharing background information on greeting practices within Muslim culture, one student commented, Isnt that what they say right before they blow things up? Oh wait nooo . . . thats Allah Akbar. Thea struggled with the decision of whether to talk with the student about how her comment could reinforce dangerous assumptions. As she reflected upon the lesson, she explained,

I wanted to lecture on how its wrong to say before they . . . and how generalizing one group of people is bad, but I also want to hear the students talk freely. I didnt want to discourage [the student] or any other student from speaking their mind for fear of getting in trouble. (Reflection 3.9)

This same thread of potential reprimand runs through other examples of practice. During one lesson, students were asked to describe some of the cultural practices in which they engage as part of their daily lives. Thea asked a student, who self-identifies as African American, to share a response; when the response was not clear, another student jumped into the conversation and said, He said soul food.  He means Kentucky Fried Chicken. Several students laughed, and Thea responded, [Student name], youre being stereotypical, and changed the subject (Observation 2). When reflecting upon this moment, Thea expressed the tension between her intended aims and selected practices, writing,

Some of the students like to joke or rank on each other in good fun, but I dont want to encourage stereotypes. [Student 1] was talking about his culture and [Student 2] jokingly said [Student 1] liked fried chicken and watermelon, which is stereotypical of African American culture. I dont want to encourage stereotypes, but I know the students are joking with each other in good fun and because they have a good relationship with each other and are bonding in their own way. I wouldnt want to get them in trouble, but I definitely dont want to encourage stereotyping. (Reflection 3.13)

Although Thea publicly named the behavior as stereotyping, by choosing not to engage in further conversation, she may have missed an opportunity for student learning. By making this choice in response to a fear of potentially disrupting a studentstudent friendship, she evaded conflict in hopes of preserving amicability in the classroom space.


In another lesson, as part of a conversation that referenced the lesbian relationship in If You Could Be Mine, a student chose to share the fact that her mother is married to a female and holds a gay identity. This information was not widely known by the students or known at all by Thea and could suggest the existence of a safe space in this classroom community. The student [Student 1] shared, My mom is married to a female, and people judge me all the time. People cussed them and said, You guys shouldnt have kids or whatever. Thea invited another student to consider this challenge in the context of his own life:

Thea said, [Student 2], how would you feel if that happened to you?

[Student 2] said, If my dad was gay, I would not like that. Like, I would say something about gays, and then it would be awkward. You know how gays act. And they would kiss and stuff like that.

Some members of the class laughed.

[Student 1] said, That is not how they all act. There is one football player who is gay, you know. They arent all like that.

[Student 2] said, Yah, but its my Dad. I dont want him to be gay.

In her reflection on this conversation, Thea again struggled to reconcile her aims and practices:

I also struggled with letting the students share honestly without stepping in to monitor.

When [Student 1] shared about her Mom being gay and then [Student 2] said he wouldnt want his Dad to be gay, I felt badly that [Student 1] might feel upset about what he said. I didn't want [Student 1] to leave my classroom feeling like her classmates had negative opinions of her family. I also want all the students to be able to voice their opinions, so I didnt want to scold [Student 2] if thats how he feels. If I scolded him, that could set a negative tone for the other students and not make them want to share honestly. It was a difficult balance because I dont want any students feelings to get hurt, but I want everyone to share their true feelings. (Reflection 3.31)

In this interaction, Thea launched the conversation but remained silent thereafter, even when Student 2s comment about how all people with gay identities act in certain (stereotypical) ways and the resulting laughter suggested a potential opening for thoughtful engagement. Theas decision to remain quiet and not step into the conversation to complicate Student 2s thinking about a gay identity allowed his views to stand at the expense of Student 1 and her lived experiences. Out of fear of behaving as an authority figure who determines right or wrong and doles out punishment to students whose ideas are troubling, Thea held to her identity as a community builder and privileged her desire to maintain her role over her stated goals for equity. Although her aims (noted above) indicated her desire to create a space in which some things, namely stereotyping or profiling (Interview 1), would be treated as unacceptable, she allowed these behaviors to happen and go unchallenged.

In addition to wanting to protect students feelings and her own positioning in this classroom community, Theas practices suggest, too, a desire to protect both students and her own perspectives and opinions, particularly when cultural practices growing from Muslim culture and the Islamic faith rub up against those normalized in the United States. Thea hoped that her students would develop a more positive view of Muslim culture and Islam than evidenced in the popular media as students read the fictional texts and participated in the activities that comprised the unit. However, when conversations included certain cultural content, she experienced a tension between this aim and a persistent commitment to privileging Western societal norms (unwittingly or not). To resolve the dissonance growing from this tension, Thea allowed inaccuracies to stand or offered overly simplistic explanations of Islamic history and Muslim cultural practices.

When Thea came up against cultural content that could be construed in a U.S. context as potentially negative toward Muslim culture or the Islamic faith, she regularly chose not to address the content directly, even when student comments reflected inaccuracies in understanding. This was readily evidenced when students tried to make sense of the relationship between the Taliban and ISIS. As part of a whole-class activity, Thea shared historical contextual information that described the initial, often positive, role of the Taliban in Muslim communities, as well as the shift that resulted when the Taliban leadership and subsequent aims changed to align more closely to what we know about ISIS. However, when students asked clarifying questions about this content, Thea noted,

I wasnt sure how to answer questions about the similarities between ISIS and the Taliban because I didnt want to sway their [students] opinion. . . . I wasnt sure if I should correct them or not. I ended up telling the students to use whatever prior knowledge they had to [respond to] the statement and that there was no right or wrong answer. (Reflection 3.1)

By framing students answers as opinions in a fact-based activity, Thea validated all responses, even those that were incorrect and potentially problematic. Given the positioning of ISIS as an enemy within the U.S. context and the deeply felt personal emotions connected to the losses resulting from the organizations acts of terrorism, we wonder if Thea struggled to counter students thinking with a more nuanced view of the Taliban and ISIS out of respect for students experiences and resulting views. The choice to allow for multiple views perhaps felt safer than engaging in pursued conversation that could lead to highly charged conflict.

When Thea came up against dissonant cultural content, she also offered somewhat simplistic explanations of Muslim cultural practices. In response to the novel, If You Could Be Mine, students questioned, for example, the significant age difference between an intended groom and bride in an arranged marriage. As Thea explained, In If You Could Be Mine, one of the students asked if the man Nasrin got engaged to was a pedophile because the novel says he is much older than Nasrin (Reflection 3.2). In her reflection, Thea unpacked the challenge she felt in responding to the students question:

It was hard to explain that he wasnt a pedophile and sometimes in arranged marriages it is acceptable for an older man to marry a younger woman. I was nervous answering because I didnt want to make it seem like the man was always older or that arranged marriages always happen. It was a tough question to explain why Nasrin was in an arranged marriage without reinforcing any stereotypes. (Reflection 3.2)

Although Thea explicitly challenged the naming of the groom as a pedophile, she struggled to articulate the differences between pedophilia and the cultural practice of arranged marriages between older men and younger women. We argue that she might have instead invited her students to move beyond their own place of cultural bias to think explicitly about how we bring our own values to bear when making sense of the cultural practices of others. Such conversation might have created space for complexity, perhaps even healthy conflict, that would have allowed Thea to more fully achieve her equity-oriented aims.



As Thea worked through this new experience of teaching unfamiliar cultural content, she experienced cognitive dissonance (Cooper, 2007; Festinger, 1957) growing from challenges to her existing (and desired) teacher identity. For example, when she experienced discomfort due to a possible inability to maintain her status as the classroom expert, she attempted to rationalize her chosen practices. She explained that teaching a new and unfamiliar textand not having the answers to students questions immediately availableresulted in a discomfort and vulnerability that sometimes made it easier to avoid having to engage with the questions as they arose. It was easier to predict students questions when using the same texts over several years and approaching cultural elements of these texts through a historical lens. When her disengagement did not resolve the tension (students continued to express a need to know more), she worked to address the ensuing psychological discomfort by trivializing the dissonance: She noted that she had no choice given that she could never fully understand enough about Muslims or Islam because she had no lived experiences with this cultural or religious community. This intimates a genuine fear of not getting it right, a fear grounded in a desire to be accurate, but one that might be paralyzing.

Similarly, when Thea experienced discomfort growing from a desire to protect the community that she and her students established together, she rationalized her chosen practices by disavowing an alternate approach and claiming a necessary commitment to allowing students to express themselves. She would honor their voices, even when they expressed potentially problematic ideas that, if addressed specifically, could have resulted in powerful conversations around equity and justice. When this approach did not resolve the tension (the curriculum repeatedly invited consideration of social justice content), she reaffirmed the very thinking that led to her psychological dissonance by allowing all perspectives to stand and be honored equally, even those that were untrue or potentially hurtful to students in this space. Theas desire to protect this space came from a place of genuine care for students and their comfort as learners and people, but that desire might have resulted in missed opportunities. Across both of these examples, the practices she employed ultimately function[ed] to discount or neutralize cognitive discrepancies and impeded the her (and sometimes her students) learning process (Walton, 2011, p. 776).

This work suggests that real discomfort can result when teachers explore classroom content as outsiders to the culture under exploration, and that the resolution of this discomfort can sometimes counter a teachers intended aims, even when those aims are grounded in an equity stance and desire to explore unfamiliar cultural content sensitively and with care. In Theas case, we believe that this teaching experience resulted in challenges to her teacher identity and values, namely her desire to be a content expert and effective community builder. We argue that her aims for this particular unit were not inherently aligned with her core teacher identity, which resulted in practices that reflected her more deeply felt beliefs about teaching, even when they contradicted what she claimed she set out to achieve. Talking about, even planning for, the infusion of new cultural content in the classroom is not the same as implementing it with students. When Thea found that she could not gain access to the culture given her status as an outsider, she continued to find ways to hold authority and maintain community in the classroom. As she entered into this new experience, she navigated from a space in which she felt confident and well prepared into one that raised her own insecurities. Weinreich (2003) suggests that individuals experience a threatened identity as they navigate dual cultural spaces (p. 68) and that if they perceive incompatible appraisals of themselves, they might reject the alter-ascribed identity and defend their ego-recognised version of themselves (p. 22). Thea navigated this new territory and experienced dissonance, and while she aimed to be vulnerable, her practices reveal the ways in which she rejected threats to maintain the safety of her identity. The work of teaching is public. Sometimes we need to preserve our own sense of self as professionals and people. Identities are deeply rooted in our experiences: Trying on something new, something that makes us immediately vulnerable, pushes on our sense of self and may cause us toknowingly or notreject our aims to preserve a sense of safety and community in the classroom.

The teacher of this study had courageous aims and purposes for her instruction of texts that featured Muslim characters and content. Yet there were tensions between her envisioned aims and enacted practices. Although this work is not necessarily generalizable, it has implications for teachers who incorporate texts that feature cultures and communities that lie beyond their own lived or learned experiences into their practice. As teachers navigate cognitive dissonance resulting from new, unfamiliar cultures, they might reevaluate potential desires to be all-knowing teacher experts and instead concentrate intently on how they, preferably alongside students, can accumulate more knowledge about the culture.

In the context of both teacher preparation and development, the process of building new conceptions of the teacher as partner rather than expert could begin with deep reflection and critique of both participants own schooling experiences and those forwarded in the social narrative of teachers and teaching. Teacher education faculty and professional development facilitators might look, for example, to the work of Buchanan (2014) to support educators in thinking about their professional selves, particularly how educators might recognize and draw upon professional agency to negotiate new roles for themselves that resist external attempts to position them in particular ways. They might also draw upon Yu, Johnson, Deutsch, and Vargas (2018) work to consider the importance of teacher noticing and teacher investment, and how teacherstudent interactions that fulfill adolescents developmental needs of autonomy, competence, and connection by honoring student perspectives can promote positive youth developmentand build stronger classroom communities. The work of this study is part of our agenda for further, larger-scale research on the topic. Our next project will use the knowledge gained from this study to analyze the aims and practices of teachers in five school sites across the United States to determine whether and how other teachers are experiencing this same cognitive dissonance as they attempt to enact practices that meet their envisioned aims in the teaching of young adult titles that reflect culturally unfamiliar content.

A revisioning of the teacher role also requires a reconsideration of the safety required within a positive learning community. As evidenced in our work, attempts to foster safety might result in inequitable practices that are harmful to those within and beyond classrooms; and paradoxically, a safe community might require an open interrogation of unsafe classroom contributions that hinder the implementation of culturally affirming pedagogies that achieve equity- and justice-related aims. The work of Dutta et al. (2016) could provide a powerful opportunity for preservice and practicing teachers to reconsider their views on community, and consider how a pedagogy of discomfort can invite educators and students to enter and critically engage with difficult and discomfiting spaces that are systematically unacknowledged or silenced in the classroom . . . [and] imagine more radically inclusive possibilities in the classroom (p. 345). Anticipating cognitive dissonance within the classroom and within ourselves seems essential to designing culturally responsive aims that are strongly connected to enacted practices that best support both students and teachers as they bravely navigate these unfamiliar territories.



We wish to thank Tala Adawiya and Asfia Qutub, preservice teacher candidates, and Alya Hammeed, editor and writer, for their guidance in selecting the young adult texts and designing the curriculum for this study. We are grateful for their expertise, honesty, and support throughout this learning process. We also wish to note that this project was funded generously by the Humility and Conviction in Public Life project of the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute (http://humilityandconviction.uconn.edu/).



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Annotated Bibliography of the Literature Circle Novels

Tasting the Sky (Ibtisam Barakat, 2007, Memoir): This memoir details the authors childhood experiences as a Palestinian refugee living on the West Bank in Ramallah during the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War. It is a highly personal account of her challenges amidst war and the ways in which language served as a powerful tool for her emotional survival.


If You Could Be Mine (Sara Farizan, 2013, Contemporary Fiction): Set in Iran, this novel describes 17-year-old Sahars forbidden love with her best friend, Nasrin. In a desperate attempt to allow for more acceptance of their relationship and to prevent Nasrins pending arranged marriage to a man, Sahar contemplates gender reassignment surgery.


All We Have Left (Wendy Mills, 2016, Contemporary Fiction): This novel, which is set in 2001 and the present day, details the events of 9/11 and the years following in the lives of those affected most directly. Sixteen-year-old Jesse harbors deep resentment toward Muslims following the loss of her brother but reconsiders her perspectives when she connects with a Muslim teen who takes pride in her identity and is inextricably connected to Jesses brother.


Shooting Kabul (N. H. Senzai, 2010, Historical Fiction): Fadis family is forced to leave Afghanistan to travel to the United States. When they are running toward a transport truck, Fadi accidentally lets go of his sister Miriams hand, and she is left behind. Fadi finds solace and hope in photography as a way to cope with his guilt and grief and maintain faith that his sister will be found.



Activities, Themes, and Guiding Questions for Each Week


Week One

Activity: Concentric Circles

Theme: Perceptions

Essential Questions: What initial perceptions do you have of the Islamic culture? Where do these perceptions come from?


Week Two

Activity: Gallery Walk

Theme: Culture

Essential Questions: How would you define culture? How does your culture affect your life? How is culture woven into the text you are reading?

Week Three

Activity: Facts of Five

Theme: Stereotypes

Essential Questions: In what ways do you experience or witness stereotyping in your own life? How do we critically evaluate stereotypes that exist in texts?

Week Four

Activity: Conversation Playing Board

Theme: Equity

Essential Questions: Whose voices are heard in the text? Whose voices are denied? How can we connect the text to issues of equity?


Week Five

Activity: Fishbowl

Theme: Othering

Essential Questions: What does it mean to Other? Why do we Other? How do we Other? How do you see Othering in your text?

Week Six

Activity: Body Biography

Theme: Personal Connections

Essential Questions: What personal connections can you make with the text? How are you similar and different from the characters and their experiences?


Week Seven

Activity: Written Conversation

Theme: Authority/Authenticity

Essential Questions: Could you write a story about someone of a different culture or faith than you? How accurate do you think it would be? Who has the authority to author a text that features Islam-related content and characters? How do we better examine the authenticity of a text?

Week Eight

Activity: Socratic Seminar

Theme: Classroom Use

Essential Questions: Classic texts are most often taught in high school classrooms. What value does a text like this bring to your education?



Complete List of Interview Questions

First Interview

How would you describe yourself as a teacher? What do you value most?

How would you describe your student population?

As a classroom teacher, why is this project important to you?

Why might this project be important for students?

What do you hope you might gain as a result of this work?

What personal and professional challenges are you anticipating you will face in facilitating reading and conversation around this content?

What challenges are you anticipating students will encounter as they read and engage in conversation around this content?

Have you thought about or done anything to prepare to face these anticipated challenges?

Second and Third Interviews

Tell us a little bit about how the instruction of the unit is going.

What types of emotions have you experienced while teaching this unit?

What strategies have you found particularly useful in helping students make sense of a less familiar culture through the reading and discussion of literature?

What strategies have you found less useful in helping students make sense of a less familiar culture through the reading and discussion of literature?

What surprises have emerged in the facilitation of these reading and conversation processes?

What has been particularly challenging about this work?

How have you negotiated those challenges?

What has been particularly rewarding about this work?

Is teaching this text more or less challenging than you anticipated?

What role does culture play in the instruction of this unit? What role does your race or ethnicity and religion play in the instruction of this unit?

Fourth Interview

Will you likely engage in similar work with your students in the future? Why or why not?

What do you wish you might have known or done differently before starting this project?

What advice would you have for teachers who are seeking to engage in a similar project?

What are you most pleased by or excited about as you reflect upon this project?

What are the challenges of engaging in this kind of work?

What are the benefits of engaging in this kind of work?


Weekday Daily Reflection Guide Questions

What did I learn about this content or teaching this content today?

What did students learn about this content today?

What was challenging for me today?

What was challenging for students today?

What questions about Islamic faith or Muslim culture did students pose that I didnt expect and/or wasnt sure how to answer?

Other comments


Classroom Observation Protocol

Observers Name:

Observation #:

Observing [participant]s classroom on [day], [date] from [time].


During the observation:

*While in the room, jot typed notes that hone in on observations of Islam and Muslim culture, the texts, and the key concepts of the day.

Example of jottings (Emerson et al., 2011):

Jorge = at table doesnt introduce me to anyone

now only speaks in Spanish

chit chat whos playing

theyre. not very good apology

*Include drawings and/or descriptions of the setting, the people, the activity.

*Include direct quotations of what people said (if relevant).

*Include observers comments (things you are thinking and want to keep track of).



 [Write jottings here.]


Following the observation:

*Within 12 hours, transfer the jottings into field notes (paragraph form).

*Include an Afterthoughts section (a paragraph or two reflection).

Field Notes:

[Write field notes here.]



[Write afterthoughts here.]


Data Analysis Sample of Theme to Categories to Codes (Theme Two within the Findings)


Teacher expresses aim of equity, justice, and critical thinking. But her enacted practices demonstrate the stronger value of preserving community (shortened to: preserving community at the expense of equity).


Category: Aim of discussing difficult topics and fostering critical thinking


Difficult topics

Challenge kids

Critical consumers

Values critical thinking

There needs to be a willingness to discuss difficult topics


Category: Teaching for equity and justice


Opening up their mindsets

Wants to examine stereotypes

Wants to examine stereotypes they might have of the media

Wants to challenge students to look introspectively

Values student connections to content

Desires for students to make personal connections

Recommends that teachers be ready to have uncomfortable conversations that are necessary

Doesnt feel that students would gain valuable insight without uncomfortable conversations



Category: Welcoming, open environment


Wants students to talk freely

Welcoming environment necessary


Wants all ideas welcomed


Strong rapport noted by observer


Calls students amazing and brave

Category: Skimming the surface of content


Students read stereotypes but not discussing critically or rejecting stereotypes

No critical discussion or rejection of stereotypes

Observer notes no time given to discussing problematic nature of stereotypes

Okay with missing things

Students dont have time to share more than few words about own cultures

Students simply list five stereotypes and share stereotypes with partner


Category: Valuing safety over conflict


Student shares personal issue with potential racism in school; teacher gives alternate explanation

Tells students how they should react to specific things

Worries about reacting to challenging questions from students

Difficult, awkward conversations

Unnatural position

Teacher changes topic after student makes stereotypical comment

Student shares mom gay; other student shares sin; no critical comments from Thea



Data Analysis Samples of Raw Data to Theme Levels (Theme Two within the Findings)

Raw Data: And some teachers might not be okay with talking about stereotypes, and it would make them uncomfortable to say, Black people cant swim when there are a bunch of Black students in the class. You have to be okay with that, and you have to have set up your classroom to know that its welcoming and you can discuss those things without aiming it at the, making it a negative thing. (Interview 2)

Code: Difficult topics

Category: Discussing difficult topics and fostering critical thinking

Theme: Teacher expresses aim of equity, justice, and critical thinking. But her enacted practices demonstrate the stronger value of preserving community (shortened to: preserving community at the expense of equity).

Raw Data: And were going to have great conversations about life and maybe opening up their mindsets to something they havent thought about and examine stereotypes they might have because of the media[.] (Interview 1)  

Codes: Opening up their mindsets; wants to examine stereotypes

Category: Teaching for equity and justice

Theme: Teacher expresses aim of equity, justice, and critical thinking. But her enacted practices demonstrate the stronger value of preserving community (shortened to: preserving community at the expense of equity).

Raw Data: I also wanted to lecture on how its wrong to say before they . . . and how generalizing one group of people is bad, but I also want to hear the students talk freely. (Reflection 3.9)

Code: Wants students to talk freely

Category: Welcoming, open environment

Theme: Teacher expresses aim of equity, justice, and critical thinking. But her enacted practices demonstrate the stronger value of preserving community (shortened to: preserving community at the expense of equity).

Raw Data: Leon continues to read [his list of stereotypes], Asians name their kids by dropping silverware down the stairs.

The whole class laughs.

Thea says, I havent heard that. Has anyone else heard that before? You have heard that before, Leon? Can you explain that?

Leon says, So its like Ching, Ling, Ding.

Rashi says, It actually makes sense.

Leon continues, Black girls have difficult names. (Observation 3)

Codes: Students read stereotypes but not discussing critically or rejecting stereotypes; no critical discussion or rejection of stereotypes

Category: Skimming the surface of content

Theme: Teacher expresses aim of equity, justice, and critical thinking. But her enacted practices demonstrate the stronger value of preserving community (shortened to: preserving community at the expense of equity).

Raw Data: Candice says, My mom is having a meeting with a teacher because I have a bad grade in Orchestra.

Thea says, So tell me why you think that it is because you are Black.

Candice says, Because it is nobody else in the class but me. Maybe there is one other girl who is Black in the class.

Thea responds, Maybe she doesnt like you because you are skipping.

Candice says, I dont understand. I dont even talk, and I am failing Orchestra. She kicked out another Black student because she felt threatened. She doesnt have no other problems.

Thea asks, Is there anyone else who is Black?

Candice says, Yah and she makes fun of her, too. Everyone else is either Puerto Rican, or . . .

Thea nods and says, Hmm. She walks away. (Observation 3)

Codes: Student shares personal issue with potential racism in school; teacher gives alternate explanation

Category: Valuing safety over conflict

Theme: Teacher expresses the aim of equity, justice, and critical thinking. But her enacted practices demonstrate the stronger value of preserving community (shortened to: preserving community at the expense of equity).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 2, 2020, p. 1-44
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23037, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 6:48:52 PM

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About the Author
  • Wendy Glenn
    University of Colorado Boulder
    E-mail Author
    WENDY J. GLENN is Professor of Literacy Studies and Co-Director of Teacher Education in the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research centers on literature and literacies for young adults, particularly in the areas of socio-cultural analyses and critical pedagogies. Two recent publications include: Glenn, W. J., Ginsberg, R., & King, D. (2018). Resisting and persisting: Identity stability among adolescent readers labeled as struggling. Journal of Adolescent Research, 33(3), 306–331; and Glenn, W. J. (Nov. 2017). Space and place and the “American” legacy: Female protagonists and the discovery of self in two novels for young adults. Children’s Literature in Education, 48(4), 378–395.
  • Ricki Ginsberg
    Colorado State University
    E-mail Author
    RICKI GINSBERG is Assistant Professor of English Education at Colorado State University. Her research interests include educational equity, teacher education, multicultural young adult literature, culturally responsive pedagogies, the recruitment of teachers of color, and multiracial identities. Recent and upcoming publications include: (2017). Finding comfort in the discomfort of being multiracial: Lessons from my schooling. Multicultural Perspectives, 19(2), 103–108, and with W. J. Glenn, Eds. (Under contract). Engaging with multicultural YA literature in the secondary classroom: Critical approaches for critical educators. Routledge.
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