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Exploring Freirean Culture Circles and Boalian Theatre as Pedagogies for Preparing Asset-Oriented Teacher Educators


by Jamy Stillman & John Luciano Beltramo - 2019

Background/Context: Teacher educator development remains an undertaking that is both understudied and underavailable as an explicit professional path, despite scholarship suggesting that teacher education’s transformative potential hinges on teacher educators’ pedagogical work.

Purpose, Practice, & Participants: This article reports on a qualitative study that explored the development of teacher educators who expressed deep commitments to educational equity for minoritized youth. Fifteen current and prospective teacher educators participated over three years in situated adaptations of two critical pedagogical approaches: Freirean culture circles, where participants engaged in critical dialogue around conflicts encountered in their teacher education work that involved issues of inequity, particularly deficit-based ideas of P–12 students and their families, and Boalian theatre (or teatro), interactive role-play where participants dramatically re-enacted these conflicts and imagined potential responses to them. This study examines the ways in which these critical pedagogical spaces facilitated participants’ development as asset-oriented teacher educators.

Research Design & Data Collection: This research represents an ethnographic self-study, as the authors engaged in culture circles and teatro as participant-researchers. To study these spaces of critical teacher educator development, the authors collected ethnographic data, which included semistructured interviews with each participant, field notes, and audio/video recordings of dialogue and role-play, as well as participant written reflections.

Findings/Results: Through their engagement in culture circles and teatro, participants came to recognize some of the micro-pedagogies of asset-oriented teacher education, grappled with the relational dimensions of teacher learning, became familiar with possible tools of asset-oriented teacher education, and interrogated the social, political, and historical dimensions of the work. In doing so, they understood each area as linked both to specific settings and individuals and as connected to more common dilemmas that may play out across teacher education contexts.

Conclusions/Recommendations: While cautioning against widespread, mechanistic implementation, the authors recognize culture circles and teatro as offering special promise for the development of asset-oriented teacher educators. In particular, findings suggest that these critical pedagogies support the conditions for learning—particularly spaces that center participants’ identities and experiential conflicts—that can cultivate complex understandings about, and tools for engaging, the contingent work of asset-oriented teacher education. Such spaces seem particularly well equipped to cultivate critical understandings deemed essential for transforming the field of teacher education.



More than 30 years ago, Feiman-Nemser and Buchmann (1985) boldly challenged the prevailing assumption that good teachers naturally make good teacher educators. They argued that, “just as becoming a professional teacher involves transformation from person to teacher, so becoming a teacher of teachers means shifting to another role. . . . Experience alone will not suffice” (p. 65). This statement underscores the importance of teacher educator development, an undertaking that is both understudied and underavailable as an explicit professional path. Indeed, despite the prevalence of teacher educator positions in schools of education, and recent scholarship suggesting that teacher education’s transformative potential hinges on teacher educators’ pedagogical work (Ellis & McNicholl, 2015), we know little about, and few programs explicitly facilitate, teacher educator preparation.


This article reports on a study that explored the development of prospective teacher educators who expressed deep commitments to educational equity for minoritized1 youth. The study examined these prospective teacher educators’ participation over three years in situated adaptations of Freirean culture circles and Boalian theatre—critical pedagogical approaches described later in the article. We argue that these approaches, which are grounded in the situated knowledges of learners, center education’s political dimensions, and privilege reflection, offer special promise for facilitating teacher educators’ learning about the contingent and critical work of asset-oriented teacher education, and thus provide fertile ground for transforming the field.


PREPARING TEACHER EDUCATORS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY


Though it has yet to gain significant traction in the scholarly literature, teacher educator preparation has begun to garner some attention. In particular, increased scrutiny and greater acknowledgment of the need to transform teacher education, along with impending retirements, suggest a need to “regenerate” the field (Ellis & McNicholl, 2015; Knight et al, 2014). Yet, education doctoral programs typically fall short of preparing teacher educators, in no small part because they center research training, leaving many teacher educators to learn what they need to know while “on the job” (Loughran, 2006; Zeichner, 2005). Novice teacher educators also contend with heavy workloads, conflicting institutional pressures (e.g., to privilege publishing and the pursuit of external funding despite time- and labor-intensive teaching assignments), and limited access to mentoring (Ellis, McNicholl, Blake, & McNally, 2014; Stillman & Anderson, 2014). These conditions often lead teacher educators to feel underprepared (Goodwin et al., 2014) and/or to exit the profession before developing expertise (Murray & Male, 2005).


Perhaps more importantly, such conditions also undermine possibilities for future teacher educators to disrupt teacher education’s conservatism (Ellis & McNicholl, 2015)—its tendencies to resist change and uphold the status quo—despite teacher education’s history of underpreparing teachers to teach minoritized youth. Indeed, by “figuring it out on their own,” new teacher educators are likely to be apprenticed into existing teacher educator systems and structures, and therefore to perpetuate the traditional, top-down teacher education pedagogies known to marginalize the knowledges of minoritized communities and uphold hierarchies among universities, schools, and communities (Brown, 2014; Sleeter, 2017; Souto-Manning & Martell, 2016).


Scholars have suggested that certain learning experiences and knowledge bases for asset-oriented teacher educator development may help to disrupt this conservatism (e.g., Goodwin et al., 2014; Hollins, Luna, & Lopez, 2013). Goodwin and colleagues (2014), for example, argued that to halt the cycle of teacher education practice being “handed down” from one generation of teacher educators to the next, prospective teacher educators ought to undergo formal preparation that engages them simultaneously in the research and practice of teacher education. This, they suggested, would position teacher educators to take more reflective and critical stances toward their work and equip them with the knowledge and skills needed to foster transformation.


Despite this guidance, many recent efforts to “reform” teacher education likely pose risks to the profession’s capacities to prepare asset-oriented teachers, including capacities to prepare asset-oriented teacher educators. In particular, scholars (Ellis & Orchard, 2014; Philip et al., 2018; Zeichner, 2012) are raising concerns about the growing traction of practice-based approaches in teacher education, which advance a vision of learning to teach that downplays teachers’ development of “beliefs and knowledge . . . orientations and commitments” while advocating for training teachers in the specific “tasks and activities” of instruction (also called high-leverage practices) (Ball & Forzani, 2009, p. 497).


Practice-based approaches may help to achieve the important goal of moving teacher education closer to schools and, in some cases, advancing critical instructional approaches (e.g., Dutro & Cartun, 2016). However, practice-based approaches, like other teacher training models (Cochran-Smith, 1991; Shor, 1987), risk artificially “fragmenting” theory and practice, as well as identity, ideology, and practice (Britzman, 2003). These practices, therefore, also risk perpetuating the production of teachers who are unlikely to examine issues beyond the methodological—specifically, teaching’s social, emotional, political, and ideological dimensions (Bartolomé & Trueba, 2000; Shor, 1987). This is especially true in settings like fast-track teaching academies and some residency programs that have scaled up practice-based approaches with little regard for how such practices shape the purpose of schooling, impact different students, or are performed by different teachers (Gatti, 2016). At risk in all of this is also the production of teacher educators who, by “coming up” in research-oriented doctoral programs but in close proximity to teacher education programs that privilege practice, may develop reductive understandings of both teaching (as the performance of predetermined, decontextualized, and replicable practices) and learning to teach (as learning to perform or enact a collection of predetermined practices).


In this article, we take the position that to advance equity in education, teacher educators must prepare teachers as status quo-disrupting professionals who can exercise “pedagogical judgment” grounded in intimate knowledge of school and community contexts and relationships with students (Horn & Campbell, 2015). We are concerned that the predominant learning options currently available to prospective teacher educators—learning while on the job and/or in the context of programs that privilege research/theory or practice—are premised on oversimplified, culture-free conceptualizations of teaching and teacher education that do not contribute to transforming teacher education and the inequities it fosters. In the sections that follow, we explore the kinds of preparation that might support teacher educators to prepare asset-oriented teachers—teachers who challenge inequities through their recognition and elevation of minoritized students’ assets—and share one effort to reorganize teacher educator learning with this goal in mind.


ASSET-ORIENTED TEACHING AND TEACHER EDUCATION


To anchor our exploration of asset-oriented teacher educator development—in other words, the preparation of teacher educators who can develop asset-oriented teachers—we briefly recount the evolution of scholarship that describes the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that teachers of minoritized students ought to develop in order to advance equity in K–12 schools. Put succinctly, early accounts especially highlight the importance of teachers developing asset orientations—the recognition of, and will to act on, understandings that:


historically, schools have assigned value to knowledges and cultural practices associated with White, middle-class, English-speaking, Christian, and heteronormative traditions/communities while devaluing—and treating as deficient—the knowledges and cultural and linguistic practices of minoritized communities (e.g., Nieto, 1992);

these deficit perspectives have disadvantaged minoritized groups, particularly through schools’ imposition of low expectations for minoritized students and treatment of minoritized communities’ knowledges and practices as impediments to learning (e.g., Cummins, 1996; Nieto, 1992); and

minoritized students possess valuable knowledges and resources for learning that should be recognized and leveraged by teachers rather than suppressed or exchanged for dominant knowledges and practices (e.g., Ladson-Billings, 1995; Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992).


These understandings emerge from scholarship that underscores the central role of culture in learning and demonstrates how minoritized students’ cultural and linguistic practices can be leveraged for academic purposes. Moll and colleagues (1992) for example, suggested that by learning about the household and community knowledges or funds of knowledge of immigrant youth and their families, teachers might recognize the utility of students’ cultural and cognitive resources rather than treat them as deficiencies to overcome. Identifying language as one such resource, scholars also argued the need for teachers to treat multilingual students’ home languages as assets, rather than as barriers, to learning, including the learning of English (Cummins, 1996; Nieto, 1992). Meanwhile, Gloria Ladson-Billings (1995) showed how, through their engagement in culturally relevant pedagogy, exceptional teachers of African American youth leveraged students’ funds of knowledge to “produce students who can achieve academically” (p. 474), while “maintain[ing] [students’] cultural integrity” (p. 476). In this work, Ladson-Billings emphasized teachers’ cultivation of students’ critical consciousness, arguing that increasing achievement among African American youth, although important on its own, must serve the larger goal of helping students “understand and critique the existing social order” (p. 474).


With culturally sustaining pedagogy, Alim and Paris (2017) marry cultural and critical perspectives but make a crucial departure from the earlier scholarship recounted above. Arguing the need to move beyond making schools relevant for minoritized students, they posited that schools must serve as “site(s) for sustaining the cultural ways of communities of color” (p. 5), not as a means for minoritized students to acquire dominant knowledges or practices but as an end unto itself. With their work on raciolinguistic ideologies, Rosa and Flores (2017) apply similar understandings to multilingual youth, underscoring the importance of considering the inherent value of multilingual students’ languaging practices. In rejecting the idea that students’ “cultural ways” are stepping-stones to acquiring high-status knowledges and practices, these scholars advance a vision of teaching that elevates the knowledges and practices of minoritized communities, challenges racist norms and monoglossic language ideologies, and disrupts dominant notions of learning and achievement.


These status quo-disrupting approaches are often linked with scholarship that argues the need for teachers to develop critical perspectives of schooling and society (Shor, 1987; Souto-Manning, 2010). Much of this scholarship grows out of the seminal work of Paulo Freire, who recognized schools as inherently political and as potential sites for consciousness raising, problematizing inequality, and individual and societal transformation (Freire, 1970). In one example of critical teacher education scholarship, Bartolomé and Trueba (2000) argued that to facilitate a critical, transformative approach to education, teachers must develop political clarity, or “come to better understand possible linkages between the macropolitical, economic, and social variables and the microclassroom instructional activities and performance of subordinated groups” (pp. 278–279). This, they explained, would help teachers to develop the ideological clarity necessary for understanding “achievement gaps” as attributable to social and structural inequities rather than to deficiencies rooted within individual students or communities. Bartolomé and Trueba’s arguments remind us that unless teachers’ pedagogical clarity—their notions of effective instructional methods or teaching practice—is anchored in political and ideological clarity, their pedagogies are always at risk of disadvantaging minoritized students and perpetuating the status quo (Philip et al., 2018; Stillman & Anderson, 2015).


HOW DO TEACHER EDUCATORS LEARN TO FACILITATE THE DEVELOPMENT OF ASSET-ORIENTED TEACHERS?


The demands of asset-oriented teaching described above raise questions about how teacher educators are implicated in the production of inequity and how they can support teachers to undergo the transformation needed for teaching in equity-minded, critical, and culturally and linguistically sustaining ways (what we, for the purpose of brevity, refer to throughout this article as asset-oriented teaching). Over the years, scholars have proposed ideas for reorganizing teacher education with these goals in mind. These proposals include approaches for creating “social justice” teacher education programs that aim to develop in prospective teachers asset orientations and the capacities to teach for understanding (Zeichner & Flessner, 2010); they also include recommendations for developing critical (Shor, 1987; Souto-Manning, 2010; Valenzuela, 2016) and decolonizing (e.g., Dominguez, 2017) teacher education pedagogies that treat teaching as a political act, center the knowledges of minoritized communities, and identify teacher candidates’ transformation and development of critical consciousness as key aims. Other arguments for making teacher education more asset oriented focus on teacher education’s organizational dimensions, suggesting, for example, that teacher education prepare all teachers to teach all learners and emphasize equity across all (rather than one or two) courses (Lucas, Villegas, & Freedson-Gonzalez, 2008; Rueda & Stillman, 2012). Expanding the idea that teacher education must overcome propensities to privilege the experiences of White teachers in teacher education, or what Sleeter (2001) coined the “overwhelming presence of whiteness,” scholars have also argued for more effectively recruiting teacher candidates of color (Villegas & Irvine, 2010), disrupting dominant teacher education assumptions and practices to better support candidates of color (Brown, 2014), and centering the knowledges and practices of minoritized communities in teacher education (Souto-Manning & Martell, 2016).


These proposals offer promising direction for teacher education. Yet, they offer little guidance for preparing teacher educators to prepare asset-oriented teachersan endeavor that is complex, ill defined, and contextually contingent and that requires of teacher educators understandings of learning, politics, policy, culture, and history. Thus, in this article, we take the position that becoming an asset-oriented teacher educator requires thoughtful preparation, and we explore Freirean culture circles and Boalian theatre, both adult pedagogies, as potential approaches for cultivating such development.


THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK


The study on which this article reports explored the development of prospective asset-oriented teacher educators as they engaged over a three-year period in culture circles and Boalian theatre—approaches devised respectively by critical educators Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal. As described next, the decision to engage emerging teacher educators in these pedagogies was premised on the understanding that, like the preparation of asset-oriented teachers, the preparation of asset-oriented teacher educators is complex, ideological, and identity laden; should be intimately linked to community and community-situated knowledges; and therefore requires pedagogies that are poised to support related learning. Culture circles and teatro additionally honor teacher educators as adult learners, particularly by departing from the transmission-of-knowledge approach that even those proposing the need for teacher educator development espouse (e.g., Goodwin et al., 2014).


Our thinking about teacher educators’ learning also builds on Feiman-Nemser and Buchmann’s (1985) notion that transformation is necessary for teachers to become teacher educators. Drawing on critical pedagogy and sociocultural perspectives on learning, however, our understanding of transformation involves transformations of learners (i.e., emerging teacher educators) as individuals and as members of a professional community, as well as societal transformations, engendered by expansive learning (Ellis & McNicholl, 2015). These forms of transformation do not “present a completed recipe for ‘rolling out’ or ‘scaling up’” teacher educator development, “as the pervasive metaphors of reform might have it” (Ellis & McNicholl, 2015, p. x). Rather, we argue that transformations in teacher education will be only as effective as they are responsive to the communities and contexts where they are situated.


FREIREAN CULTURE CIRCLES AND BOALIAN THEATRE OF THE OPPRESSED


Our work with emerging teacher educators draws from critical pedagogy’s notion that education ought to “desocialize” rather than socialize students into the status quo (Shor, 1987) and that learning is mediated through a process of conscientization, whereby dialogue about lived experiences expands participants’ consciousness of the socio-political context and, when paired with reflective action (or praxis), can support individuals to transform their worlds (Freire, 1989). Brazilian educator Paulo Freire proposed culture circles as one approach to facilitating this process. Freire introduced the practice of culture circles in Brazil in the 1960s with impoverished peasants who, while living under an oppressive regime, had been denied access to education and were considered illiterate. Through culture circles, Freire taught participants to read and write, allegedly very quickly. Perhaps most notably, Freire’s version of literacy teaching centered the experiences of participants who, as they became literants, also became more knowledgeable about oppression and more empowered to challenge it.  


In culture circles, a teacher joins learners to engage in a critical cycle of learning, where members pose problems they have experienced in relation to a focal or “generative” theme (Freire, 1970, 1989; Souto-Manning, 2010). Members then engage in dialogue to clarify these problems, “collectively imagin[ing] how to take agentive roles and transform their realities” (Souto-Manning, 2010, p. 39). Finally, teacher and learners together craft and enact plans to take personal and/or collective action in relation to the problem/s explored through dialogue. Throughout this cycle, members draw and build on the situated knowledges of one another to further the dialogue (Freire, 1985, 1989). Notably, engaging in dialogue differs from engaging in debate or even typical talk. Whereas participants in debates or regular talk may seek to convince others or prove the worthiness of their ideas, in dialogue, participants aim to make meaning and co-construct knowledge, learn from each other’s experiences, and use emerging understandings to formulate new ideas (e.g., Souto-Manning, 2010).   


To assist in the critical cycle, scholars (e.g., Cahmann-Taylor & Souto-Manning, 2010) have suggested that culture circle members engage in Boalian theatre of the oppressed/teatro del oprimido (teatro), which builds on the foundations of critical pedagogy. Inspired by Freire’s work, and particularly following his English publication of Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1970, Brazilian political activist and theater director Augusto Boal initiated teatro with a similar population of participants, while the country remained under military dictatorship. In teatro, participants dramatically reenacted and reimagined conflicts identified during the problem-posing stage and rehearsed possible responses for changed outcomes (Boal, 1979, 1992, 1998). By re-presenting problematic moments and potential responses, teatro participants “reframe conflicts as opportunities for learning and for transforming,” “creat[e] alternative realities, and expand opportunities for action” (Cahmann-Taylor & Souto-Manning, 2010, p. 91).


Teatro follows a critical performance process that reflects and builds from culture circles’ critical cycle. The Joker, or facilitator, works with learners to generate a theme or focal topic for the group to explore. This collective theme generates from participants’ experiences but often represents a collective struggle. As such, although one person may offer the topic, it becomes everyone’s story. Under this generative theme, participants describe experienced moments of conflict or contradiction, “setting the scene” for how problems transpired (Cahmann-Taylor & Souto-Manning, 2010, p. 94). These scenes are then dramatically recreated through “spect-acting,” where participants fluidly alternate between the roles of spectator and actor. Such initial reenactments allow for a fuller articulation of the embodied experience via a multidimensional representation of the contradiction-in-context (Boal, 1998). Spect-actors build from the scenes of conflict to imagine and act out possible responses and futures, what Boal called “forum theatre.” Dialogues immediately following these dramatizations allow participants to process and evaluate their credibility and usefulness. As in culture circles, members are encouraged to appropriate the “scripts” and other tools developed in teatro, to take concrete action in and transform their work and world (Cahmann-Taylor & Souto-Manning, 2010).


SOCIOCULTURAL CONNECTIONS TO TEACHER LEARNING VIA CULTURE CIRCLES AND BOALIAN THEATRE


The critical approaches described in the previous section dovetail with the sociocultural perspectives that guide our understandings of learning, including the learning of teachers and teacher educators. As “embodied zone[s] of proximal development” (Griffin & Cole, 1984), culture circles coupled with teatro apprentice teachers and teacher educators through “public problem solving in which participants ‘try out’ new discourses, perspectives, and ways of mediating contradictions” (Gutiérrez, 2010, p.141). Through problem-posing and dramatizations, participants uncover conflicts and/or contradictions within their experiences, while deepening understandings of the conflicts/contradictions by discussing, reenacting, and reimagining them and their complex social, emotional, and ideological dimensions. To begin addressing such nuances, dialogue and teatro can elicit and expand participants’ situated knowledges, allowing members to propose, develop, and act out new approaches that are responsive to multidimensional exigencies of teaching and teacher education.


These approaches to teacher and teacher educator learning stand in sharp relief to more traditional, “solutions-oriented” models (Cahnmann-Taylor & Souto-Manning, 2010, p. 16), whereby problems of teaching are identified as methodological imperfections, often with little consideration for teachers’ situated knowledges of how conflicts emerge from and perpetuate sociopolitical, sociocultural, and sociohistorical patterns. In such models, teacher educators might use their expertise and positions of authority to present instructional moves as “solutions,” which teachers are expected to enact, assimilate, and apply across settings. Culture circles and teatro, alternatively, draw on teachers and teacher educators’ situated knowledges, not just to identify problems of practice, but also to more deeply interrogate and understand the contextual factors that give rise to them (Cahnmann-Taylor & Souto-Manning, 2010). Through dialogue and teatro, participants help one another expand these situated knowledges, thereby developing “scripts,” approaches, and other tools. Rather than uniformly administering them across contexts, participants are encouraged to take them up in contextually sensitive ways. These appropriations are not framed as magic bullets (or best practices) for solving (or eliminating) a methodological problem; instead, they are considered possible responses to a dilemma—a local effort to incrementally further educational justice in an enduring struggle toward transformation.


Although Freire’s and Boal’s work in Brazil served as inspiration for our group, our goal was never to import or replicate the approaches they developed. Rather, we understand that the power of Freire’s and Boal’s work lies in its situatedness: its emergence from within particular marginalized communities and its capacity to reflect and respond to the historicized and culturally specific experiences of community members. Indeed, in his “Letter to North-American Teachers,” Freire (1987) himself cautioned against the instinct to wholly transport a pedagogical approach from one setting to another, “since education is by nature social, historical, and political,” and “there is no way we can talk about some universal, unchanging role for the teacher” (p. 211). Thus, we crafted experiences that reflected and responded to our own experiences, practices, purposes, and needs, drawing most concertedly from scholarship on how culture circles and teatro have been taken up and re-contextualized in the United States (Rymes, Cahmann-Taylor, & Souto-Manning, 2008; Souto-Manning, 2009, 2010; Wooten & Cahnmann-Taylor, 2014). We found that these U.S.-based examples provided insights regarding how such pedagogies might offer generative tools for learning in our context, particularly among educators and in relation to equity-related problems in U.S. educational settings. This helped us avoid “importing” Freirean and Boalian pedagogies, and instead supported us to reimagine how such pedagogies could “recreate the process[es] across contexts” but “with regard to the specific cultures and histories of each community” (Souto-Manning, p. 2010, p. 10). In the next section, we detail how we made these pedagogies our own and illustrate how our engagement with these pedagogies was inspired by, yet differed from, others’ instantiations of them.


STUDY CONTEXT AND DESIGN


STUDY CONTEXT AND PARTICIPANTS


Our gatherings occurred over three years (2012–2015) in Los Angeles and were loosely affiliated with a university there, where Jamy was a faculty member and John a graduate student. While there, Jamy taught in an EdD program, which attracted mostly teachers interested in becoming teacher educators. In an intensive six-week course—which met weekly and enrolled EdD students (as a requirement) and PhD students, including John (as an elective)—Jamy assigned an article by Souto-Manning (2009), which described one instantiation of culture circles in a first-grade classroom. So inspired were students that Jamy suggested the class attempt its own circles, but with a focus relevant to the group as prospective teacher educators. For the remainder of the course, the class dedicated the final hour of our six-hour class time to culture circles.


Although our culture circles shared key aspects with other circles—that is, reliance on Freire’s (1989) five-part critical cycle—we (re)conceptualized those aspects relative to our context, time, and purpose. For example, Freire suggested that the cycle’s first stage, “generating themes” ought to be engaged mainly by the facilitator, who, acting as ethnographer, conducts thematic investigations of the community and codifies findings into generative themes that, through various representations, anchor the community’s problem-posing and dialogue. Because our circles emerged somewhat spontaneously within the context of a class with established learning goals, the facilitator (Jamy) was unable to conduct such investigations in advance. Instead, Jamy took a critical participatory approach, encouraging her then-students to draw on course concepts to dialogue about their experiences and concerns as emerging teacher educators. The hope was that this process would eventually lead the group to settle on a generative theme that could be explored over time.


After several weeks, students landed on a generative theme: “The difficulty of having critical conversations in practice if/when teachers have not unpacked their own biases, assumptions, knowledge, and beliefs (surrounding students, families, and communities), particularly in preservice teacher education.” Put another way, students were interested in interrogating the struggles that come with educating teachers who harbor deficit ideologies about minoritized students. Through several class sessions, we dialogued about theme-related topics that students generated based on their current or past experiences attempting to facilitate learning among preservice and practicing teachers. Rather than anchor dialogues in general representations that reflected shared experiences and that masked participant names or experiences, our dialogues emerged from the theme-related ideas that participants brought to the group. Eventually we came to call these ideas “seeds” because they were the fertile source for rich dialogue, problem solving, action, and reflection.


These sessions grew in energy and focus with each week, until, in our final class, one student asked if the group could continue meeting beyond the course. After assigning grades, Jamy followed up with an email, and 12 of the 21 students volunteered to keep meeting. For the next almost three years, the group met monthly in a basement room of the university library for 2- to 3-hour sessions.


Our circles averaged around 10 members per session; however, because students in the original group invited several new students to join, sometimes as many as 15 people participated. Table 1 includes profiles of the circles’ core participants, a group that, at least racially and ethnically, does not reflect the predominantly White U.S. teacher educator workforce (Milner, Pearman, & McGee, 2013).2 All participants expressed a commitment to equity from the outset, though participants had varying notions about what that meant. Although members each indicated an interest in working as teacher educators, being and becoming a teacher educator held different meanings for each participant, who collectively undertook a wide range of roles, as illustrated in Table 1.


Table 1. Project Participants

Participant

Race/

Ethnicity

Activities (over a 3-year period)

Yasmin

Latinx

EdD student/graduate, urban secondary science teacher

Teresa

Asian/

Pacific Islander

EdD student/graduate, urban secondary social studies teacher, faculty advisor/instructor in university master’s degree in teaching (MAT) program

Roger

White

EdD student/graduate, urban secondary math teacher

Miriam

Latinx

PhD student

Elena

Latinx

EdD student/graduate, urban secondary science teacher, cooperating teacher, school lead for new teacher induction and professional development (PD)

John

White

PhD student, former urban middle school humanities teacher and vice principal, teacher educator in university MAT program

Emily

White

PhD student/graduate, former urban elementary teacher, teacher educator in university MAT program

Megan

White

EdD student/graduate, former urban K–12 teacher, assistant director of special education for large urban district

Gabi

Latinx

EdD student/graduate, urban secondary humanities teacher, PD director for humanities teachers and director of Common Core implementation for large urban district, urban elementary school principal

Alicia

Latinx

EdD student/graduate, urban elementary bilingual teacher,  teacher on special assignment supporting teachers’ work with emergent bilinguals, urban elementary school principal

Samantha

Asian/Pacific Islander

EdD student/graduate, urban secondary math teacher, math department chair, math coach, urban high school vice principal

Juliana

Latinx

EdD student/graduate, former urban high school English/language arts teacher, adjunct faculty in university teacher education program, research associate


In our early postcourse gatherings, Jamy built on rituals from the course by providing and asking participants to carry around pocket-sized “seed” notebooks where, in the moment, they could jot down experiences they viewed as connected to our generative theme. In each subsequent gathering, dialogue opened with volunteers sharing “seeds.” After listening to multiple seeds, the group determined the most generalizable one—the one most relevant to the most people—and began to dialogue about it.


At the beginning, dialogue was our predominant form of interaction. As our trust and engagement grew, however, most participants began expressing a desire for a more concerted emphasis on action—one that extended beyond dialoguing about action, or individuals recounting how they engaged in actions in their own settings, what Freire called verbalism. Thus, around six months into the project, we began experimenting with teatro, specifically, forum theatre, during the problem-solving stage of the critical cycle. Jamy served as facilitator during the first year and a half of the project, at which point members—who were negotiating the role of (becoming) teacher educators—began rotating the facilitator role each month.


DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS


Using qualitative, ethnographic approaches to research, we began documenting the project almost immediately. Those students who expressed interest in participating after the course were asked to write reflections about the first six (in-class) circles and to share any ideas/hopes for future sessions. In the first postcourse gathering, Jamy indicated interest in documenting the group’s experiences and presented participants with consent forms required for institutional review board review. From the outset, Jamy communicated that any data collected would belong to everyone. All participants signed consent forms without hesitation, yet, because Jamy did not want to disrupt the group’s authentic process by formally analyzing data during the project, the project’s research dimension rarely came up. When Jamy conducted interviews around six months after the project’s end, she again informed participants about their rights to the data and indicated she would communicate with participants should she encounter opportunities to engage the data. Unfortunately, time constraints prevented the whole group from participating in the analysis that led to this article or to the writing of it. However, in an effort to uphold our commitments, before publication, we shared a full draft of this article with all core participants and invited them to provide feedback. Three participants responded and offered their reflections, specifically about our recounting of culture circles and reporting of findings. It is also worth noting that during the writing of this article, another writing opportunity arose, at which time Jamy invited all participants to contribute. Five participants indicated interest in working on that paper (Stillman, Struthers, Beltramo, Castañeda-Flores, Garcia, & Pyo, in press).


Once we began meeting outside of class, we videoed and wrote extensive ethnographic field notes during and after each session. Individual written reflections were also collected from participants, following each circle. Several months after the group had stopped meeting (mostly because many left the area to pursue employment opportunities), Jamy conducted semistructured interviews with most participants (n = 11). Interviews focused on members’ reasons for participating in the circles, their reflections on what and how they learned from their participation, and how they were taking up understandings/learnings attributed to their participation in their own work. All interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed.


Data analysis consisted of inductive and deductive coding. During our first passes through the written data (field notes, interview transcripts, participant reflections), we drew on grounded theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) to inductively uncover general patterns in the circles’ topics and processes. In this first pass, for example, we noted which seeds resurfaced most often across the data, and which topics within those seeds seemed to hold the most resonance—including emotional resonance (Cahnmann-Taylor, Wooten, Souto-Manning & Dice, 2009)—for participants. Our theoretical frameworks of critical pedagogy and sociocultural learning theory guided subsequent passes through the data. For example, critical pedagogy pressed us to examine how participants drew on situated knowledges to co-construct and re-construct understandings about teacher education/educators. Meanwhile, sociocultural learning theory helped us attend to the central tensions or conflicts that emerged during sessions, and to the potential relationship between such tensions and participants’ learning—including their co- and re-constructions—about the work of asset-oriented teacher education.


Throughout data analysis, we wrote memos about emerging themes, attaching data that confirmed and disconfirmed these understandings. Through this process, certain culture circles rose to the top as being especially resonant to participants collectively, as evidenced in written reflections, later dialogues, and/or in interviews, where participants referred to previous stretches of dialogue or teatro excerpts in order to probe a problem more deeply, revisit an idea through the lens of new experiences or understandings, and/or to comment on that excerpt’s application in their own work. These references prompted us to examine such sessions more deeply through video viewings and the transcription of salient stretches of dialogue and teatro. We then analyzed these transcriptions, focusing on interactions between participants and on how the tensions identified in field note and interview data operated in these interactions. Through this process, we aimed to honor that which was critical to the participants, according to their perspectives.


FINDINGS


Our analysis unearthed findings that mirror those reported in studies about teachers’ (rather than teacher educators’) participation in culture circles and teatro. In particular, participants reflected on the powerful sense of community they shared with other members and noted its importance as a pillar of support when they encountered conflicts while “on the job,” especially when conflicts required urgent, but potentially risky, responses. This was perhaps expressed most poignantly when, after dialoguing about a seed that focused on a challenging professional development session in which several teachers made disparaging remarks about Mexican students, Gabi, a district administrator who identified as Mexican and Salvadoran, publicly “took a stand.” Explaining that she “felt the presence of our community behind her,” she found herself with a sense of obligation and confidence that pressed her to step out of her comfort zone and speak up. In relating the incident to the group, Gabi shared that speaking up wasn’t as scary as she anticipated it would be because she “didn’t feel alone,” even though no members of the collective were physically present. Elena voiced similar sentiments when she described how the sense of community developed through culture circles, as well as the understandings about teacher learning cultivated therein, contributed to her decision to try and build a relationship with a teaching colleague who had pejoratively and publicly referred to Mexican parents as “peasants” and whom she otherwise might have dismissed as un-teachable.


As participants dialogued and engaged in teatro, several enduring tensions representing key aspects of asset-oriented teacher education and teacher educators’ work emerged: tensions in members’ capacities to view teachers as learners; tensions between patience and urgency in efforts to develop teachers’ asset-orientations toward minoritized students; and tensions between needing safety versus discomfort in learning spaces. These tensions served as anchors around which dialogue and teatro orbited, helping participants to construct nuanced and situated understandings of their own work and of broader efforts to prepare asset-oriented teachers. We focus on these particular findings in the remainder of this article because they appeared prominently across our data, and we think they offer important insights regarding teacher educators’ learning to prepare asset-orientated teachers.


Over the three years, participants’ seeds almost always represented our generative theme. Thus, seeds typically involved a recounting of a particular instance or the posing of questions about how to help learners (i.e., preservice or practicing teachers) recognize systems of oppression, particularly when they are reluctant to do so because of life experiences and/or stand to benefit from denying such systems’ legitimacy (Sleeter, 2017). Given participants’ varying localities, positionalities, and identities, seeds included varying instantiations of the generative theme. In the opening of typical circle, for example, participants shared a range of seeds, such as the following: Samantha, an EdD student and secondary math teacher and teacher leader, asked for suggestions regarding how to disrupt the ideology of a colleague who refused to take responsibility for student learning, instead preferring to talk disparagingly about (minoritized) students and their capacities; Emily, a PhD student and TA for an online preservice course on teaching multilingual learners raised questions about how to limit the influence of a candidate who used her age and authority as a former attorney to punctuate her comments about multilingual students’ “cognitive problems”; and Juliana, an EdD student and adjunct professor for a social foundations course, shared concerns about and wondered how she might address students who questioned her expertise as a woman of color. After listening to the contours of each seed, asking clarifying questions, and engaging in initial dialogue across seeds, participants built consensus around adopting a particular seed or combination of seeds, usually because that seed or seeds held the most resonance for the group.


As we analyzed data from our engagements with these “selected” seeds, three tensions central to the work of asset-oriented teacher education emerged. These tensions resurfaced repeatedly during dialogue and teatro and were described consistently by participants in written reflections and during interviews. The first involved tensions in members’ capacities to view teachers as learners. In other words, whereas participants tended to have little problem recognizing youths’ potential for growth or accepting as a natural part of learning youths’ gaps in skills and understandings, they often struggled to accept teachers’ need to learn the practice of teaching even as they do it.


During his interview, for example, John explained that one of his most salient takeaways was that “teachers are all learners and we need to look at them as learners . . . just like. . . . If I’m preparing to teach an eighth-grade class, I’ve gotta meet my students where they are,” while also noting that this was a stretch for our group, perhaps because “we feel more comfortable” with young learners (Emily), and/or because of the power differentials with children versus adults (Samantha). In a postcircle written reflection, Miriam grappled specifically with the idea of “meeting students [teachers] where they are,” especially when teachers express harmful ideas. Acknowledging her struggle to “be culturally responsive [with teachers] so that they can be culturally responsive with students,” Miriam referred to a quote that she said helped provide direction and inspiration: “I’m thinking of Freire’s (1970) words: ‘If I do not love the world—if I do not love life—if I do not love people—I cannot enter into dialogue’ (p. 90). I need to remember these words during this process of humanization and self-actualization.”


The second prominent tension involved struggles to balance patience and urgency in efforts to develop in preservice and practicing teachers asset-orientations toward minoritized students. Like the first tension, this tension, which Freire addressed in his teachings about critical, democratic education (Freire & Freire, 1998), reflects participants’ struggles to embrace teachers as learners. However, it goes further by acknowledging the challenge of being a patient instructor when a learner’s deficit ideologies about minoritized students stand to inflict (sometimes immediate) harm on students and thus demands an urgent intervention (from the teacher educator) and urgent change (from the learner/teacher). In a postcircle reflection, Gabi wrestled with this tension as it pertained to her work as an elementary school principal:


Discussing the difference between patience (respond with thoughtful and reflective tactics and strategies) and impatience (urgency to respond to difficult conditions) allowed me to understand the environment in which I work. . . . Dialogue and reflection require time. But we can’t be too patient, otherwise actions will never occur. But we can’t act impatiently. How do we find the balance?


Not surprisingly, this was a particularly acute tension for participants who themselves belonged to the same minoritized communities as the students they were preparing teachers to teach. As Juliana explained in her interview, being a teacher educator of color meant that, for her, there was “a lot of emotion attached to social justice issues” as well as “discomfort” since . . . all of the students [in her Foundations course] were White and here I was as a person of color teaching about issues of race.” For good reason, this context made it difficult for Juliana to avoid “like jumping [to conclusions], like oh these kids—they don’t care about social justice or maybe they’re racist; they shouldn’t be classroom teachers.” Through participation in culture circles, Juliana said she began to become “more reflective” and to “step back” and consider


how I could talk in more strategic ways with them and support them to change the way they think about young people. . . . What are the best questions I could ask to get them to continue to think about what they’re writing? Just like, not wanting to dismiss students and their futures as teachers because of this one class.


In this quote, we can see how the tension of patience versus urgency provided Juliana with a framework for negotiating the personal and professional dimensions of teacher education, and for coming to terms with her charge, as an asset-oriented teacher educator, to move peoplein other words, to facilitate new learning. Although this was an important learning experience, and ultimately helped Juliana gain perspective about her students and her role in relation to them, it also revealed to the group, and affirmed for Juliana, the harm that can be inflicted on teacher educators of color. This, in turn, raised questions about who should be responsible for facilitating this sort of learning and about broader issues of power and privilege in our group, and in the field more generally.


Finally, our dialogue and teatros frequently circulated around a third tension—needing safety versus discomfort in learning spaces, including our own. Participants often engaged questions about which environments support transformative learning, pondering the potential balance between safety and competence on one hand, and discomfort and ignorance on the other, much like the conditions that give rise to zones of proximal development. The mentioned data excerpts that illustrate the first two tensions exhibit aspects of this tension as well, particularly given that recognizing learners’ assets and exercising patience to facilitate learning are both approaches that give rise to learner comfort. However, participants also voiced concerns that privileging “comfort” might be one way for teacher educators to avoid conflict and/or otherwise challenging situations. During one circle, for example, Elena raised questions about a practice, “QTIP—Quit Taking it Personally,” that her principal had developed for her high school faculty. Elena took issue with this practice because “learning is personal,” and “sometimes professional growth comes from finding out about your own personal and professional shortcomings, and this might hurt, but it’s necessary for real development.” In her opinion, QTIP led teachers to “walk on eggshells,” which left “deficit-minded comments unchecked” and therefore imposed harm on students. In her words, “educators need to accept that learning is hard and personal, and honest conversations need to happen.”


Our dialogue and teatros consistently revolved around these three tensions. And, as participants grappled with and attempted to resolve such tensions, three forms of learning also emerged. We identify these forms of learning here but explicate them more thoroughly through an in-depth examination of how the group engaged one of Juliana’s seeds through dialogue and teatro.


First, participants began to develop tools and scripts that they could appropriate in their own settings as they worked to facilitate teachers’ learning about asset-oriented teaching. Unlike scalable practices that might look the same regardless of setting or student population, these tools and scripts represented central aspects of teacher educator practice while supporting contextually sensitive enactments. Second, participants began to recognize the relational aspects of facilitating teachers’ learning and to reflect critically on how their own relationships with learners (i.e., teachers) had (previously) and could (in the future) support teachers’ learning to teach in asset-oriented ways. Finally, in working to resolve the tensions described earlier, participants developed deeper understandings of the social, historical, and political dimensions of asset-oriented teacher education in relation to conflicts emerging from individual contexts and experiences, and as they pertain to generalizable phenomena within the broader field.


CENTRAL EXAMPLE OF TEATRO FROM ONE CULTURE CIRCLE


To illustrate these three tensions and the three forms of learning that materialized as participants worked to resolve them, we offer an in-depth account of one seed that took root within our group. Introduced by Juliana midway through the project’s first year, elements of the seed resurfaced in dialogue in four subsequent circles, eventually culminating during a teatro session early in the project’s second year. Again, we feature this seed not only because of its resonance (evidenced by its tendency to resurface over multiple sessions, in participants’ individual postcircle reflections, and in participants’ interviews), but also because it represents a common struggle in university preservice teacher preparation.


When our circles began, Juliana was finishing her final semester of graduate coursework and writing her dissertation; soon after, she became an adjunct professor of teacher education at a private Catholic university in Southern California. There she taught a social foundations course that enrolled undergraduate and graduate students.


Very early on, Juliana used our dialogues as opportunities to share concerns about the course and seek advice from others. For example, Juliana noticed right away that some students lacked respect for her and/or dismissed her, especially when she tried to engage them around issues of race, power, and privilege. Juliana and others wondered if these negative responses were linked to Juliana’s identity as a woman of color, a supposition that was later confirmed in course evaluations in which some students suggested she had a “chip on her shoulder.” As the semester progressed, Juliana’s concerns became more specific, including observations that students often embraced colorblind ideologies to exhibit their “unlearning” of deficit ideologies. These concerns culminated when Juliana began having particularly troubling in- and out-of-class interactions with a White male undergraduate, whom she called “Jake.” Like some other students, Jake displayed colorblind ideologies during class discussions and presentations and within written assignments.


At the heart of Juliana’s seeds involving Jake were concerns about how to effectively enact what we’ve come to think of as the micro-pedagogies of asset-oriented teacher education. We refer to these pedagogies as micro-pedagogies to underscore their intricateness and to highlight their underlying role in the commonly discussed, more macro-pedagogies of teacher education, such as lesson study, case study, student teaching, reflective journaling, pedagogies of enactment, and so on. The micro-pedagogies that cultivated the development of many seeds, such as Juliana’s, included practices such as facilitating class discussions about different forms of marginalization, power, and privilege; providing students with critical yet supportive asset-oriented feedback on written assignments; and figuring out how to take up student evaluations/feedback in relation to “politically charged” courses, in pedagogical terms, and as one negotiates one’s own professional positionality and job security.


Because these were issues that had appeared across multiple seeds, the group decided to dedicate its first fall circle to exploring Jake’s case through teatro. The idea was that this might generate guidance that Juliana could use the next day, while also offering insights that others might undertake in their own work. In preparation for teatro, Juliana shared various artifacts of Jake’s coursework, including reflection papers, an autoethnography about his own schooling, and a slide presentation he delivered in class. Juliana additionally provided an approximated script of a contentious office-hours conversation during which she cajoled Jake to recognize students’ racial identities rather than relying on a colorblind ideology, thereby seeing and treating all students the same.


It was this office-hours conversation between Juliana and Jake that the group decided to explore through teatro, with the goal of locating “scripts” for providing feedback intended to help students identify their own privilege and to recognize and dismantle deficit ideologies about minoritized students and communities. Just before engaging in teatro, the group reviewed and dialogued about Jake’s work samples to begin developing common understandings of his expressed experiences, ideologies, and knowledges.


Like other instantiations of teatro (e.g., Rymes et al., 2008), ours proved exceptionally challenging and involved multiple iterations, spect-actor changes, and various approaches to addressing the conflict (see Table 2). Here it is important to recognize an additional departure from others’ instantiations of teatro, in particular, our choice to allow spect-actors to rotate through protagonist and antagonist roles rather than just that of the protagonist—a practice premised on the understanding that it is only possible to change the protagonist’s actions. This design decision emerged organically, as participants expressed a desire to imagine and re-present as many possible versions of a conflict/scenario to understand its many possibilities and nuances. This decision also reflected our group’s composition; participants worked in a range of teacher education contexts and therefore were well positioned to introduce a range of experiences and understandings about how different conflicts might unfold, in different settings, with different actors.


In its first iteration, Juliana played herself (or the protagonist teacher educator), while John undertook the role of Jake (or the antagonist preservice teacher). Both spect-actors worked initially from the conversation script that Juliana had transcribed: Juliana solicited John-as-antagonist’s perspective on the course, asked him to elaborate on the meaning he made of course texts, and probed him on connections he made between course readings and his experiences as a K–12 student. Aiming to reenact Jake’s actual response, John kept responses vague, only peripherally addressing Juliana’s questions, and in his comments on course readings, he focused mainly on concepts related to socioeconomic diversity in schools without acknowledging race or racism. When Juliana probed John’s reluctance to actively participate in class discussions around race and schooling, John-as-antagonist referenced his former high school’s racially homogeneous student population, stating that conversations about race “don’t really apply to me” because race was “never a big deal” in his school. John continued that, were he to teach at his former high school, he would not encounter many students of color, and even when he did, John stated, “I would want to treat all of my students the same, since that’s what’s fair.” With this teatro reaching its ninth minute, Juliana looked to the audience of spect-actors for relief, noting later in her postcircle reflection, “I struggled with my language in helping John.”


Table 2. Spect-Actors by Roles and Iterations of Dramatized Scene

Iteration of Dramatized Scene (Time Elapsed)

Approaches Used by Protagonist to Address Conflict With Antagonist

Spect-Actor Portraying

Juliana, or Protagonist Teacher Educator

Spect-Actor Portraying Jake, or Antagonist

Preservice Teacher

Iteration 1 (0:00–9:09)

-

Solicited antagonist’s perspective on course

-

Asked antagonist to connect his own experiences as a K-12 student to course readings

-

Sought an explanation for antagonist’s reluctance to explicitly address race/racism in class discussions

Juliana

John

Iteration 2 (9:14–12:29)

-

Affirmed antagonist’s awareness of the import of student–teacher relationships

-

Asked how antagonist would build relationships with students

-

Pressed antagonist to consider students reluctant to engage with subject-area content

Jamy

John

Iteration 3 (12:33–19:45

-

Affirmed antagonist’s commitment to fairness

-

Challenged antagonist’s commitment to universal treatment of students

Jamy

Megan

Iteration 4 (19:51–23:35)

-

Asked antagonist to consider students with few traditional academic resources at home

-

Reminded antagonist of teacher’s responsibility for every student’s learning

John

Megan

Iteration 5 (23:43–29:07)

-

Encouraged antagonist to reflect on outstanding former teacher

-

Asked antagonist to consider learners who may not respond to his preferred teaching methods

Elena

Megan

Iteration 6 (29:15–32:06)

-

Took normative stance on teachers’ responsibility to facilitate all students’ learning

-

Assigned antagonist a reflective writing task around this discussion

Jamy

Megan


Jamy exchanged places with Juliana and, assuming the role of protagonist, began a new approach by alluding to John’s writing about past teachers who took an interest in him. Jamy-as-protagonist praised John for his “great awareness of the importance of relationship” and asked how he, as a future history teacher, would build those relationships with his own students. After John replied that he would provide enrichment for those students who shared his passion for history, Jamy responded, “What about those kids who aren’t that into history yet?”


Before John could answer, Megan “froze” the scene (meaning she signaled her desire to stop the action so that she could step in and try to move it in a different direction) and replaced him as antagonist. Megan-as-antagonist countered that, as a high school history teacher, she would demonstrate such passion in her teaching that all students would develop a similar affinity for the subject. Jamy-as-protagonist, however, cautioned that teachers typically encounter students who, “for a number of different reasons,” are “challenging for us to reach” and that such students often hold varying personal interests and “come from backgrounds that differ from” those of their teachers. Megan-as-antagonist responded that such “difficult” students “often just don’t know how to do school,” and so she would meet with them outside of class to explain how to “behave” the “right way.” Although Jamy praised Megan’s commitment to fairness, she challenged the idea, found in one of Jake’s essays, that “people are people” and thus deserve universal treatment. Megan relented a bit, admitting that students show important differences, especially in their varying levels of success in different subject areas. At this point, Jamy stepped out of character and asked for a pause to “think through this [approach] more.”


John re-joined, replacing Jamy as protagonist. John-as-protagonist urged Megan to consider what should be done for struggling students who “don’t have the resources to get better at a subject.” When Megan remarked that such students should seek out a teacher that “they get along with,” John asked Megan whether it was every teacher’s responsibility to make these connections with each student. Megan conceded John’s point, but only in an ideal world; in reality, for Megan, connecting with each student “just doesn’t really work.”


Now 24 minutes into the teatro, Elena exchanged places with John as protagonist and initiated a new approach: She noted how the antagonist had once extolled a former teacher, Mrs. Smith, who connected personally with students, and then asked Megan-as-antagonist how she might emulate Mrs. Smith. Megan answered that she plans to be “a fun teacher” who will rely exclusively on universal teaching strategies. Reflecting an approach used previously by Jamy, Elena-as-protagonist asked Megan to consider the possibility that students may not engage with or learn from what Megan considers “fun teaching.” Megan responded that she would request that the student “be patient” and “wait” for “things to get better” but denied responsibility for having to engage each student “all the time.” With the teatro exercise stretching into its 29th minute and fifth iteration, Jamy requested a pause, assumed the role of the protagonist, and took a uniquely assertive approach to resolve the tension with the antagonist. Jamy’s exchanges with Megan in this final iteration are captured in Table 3.


Table 3. Resolution of Teatro Exercise

Jamy

You know what? I think this is actually a really great place for us to kind of wrap up today. But what I want to leave you with is that in that situation, where you’re not reaching [that student], that’s actually not okay.

Megan

Oh. [Nods head]

Jamy

As teachers we need to hold ourselves accountable for every single student’s learning. I really just want you to spend some time thinking about what it would look like for you as a teacher to make your instruction interesting to everyone, and not to attribute a kid’s lack of interest or lack of engagement to a problem with their attitude, a problem with their family, about not knowing how to do school, right? Instead of turning the lens on the child and saying that there’s something wrong with them, turn it back on yourself and say, “What can I do as a teacher so that I can be that Mrs. Smith for every single kid?”

Megan

Cool. [Still nodding head]

Jamy

Okay, so I think we should meet again, in about a week or so, and in between now and then, I’d really like you to . . . keep a journal. I’m going to send you an email . . . [with] questions for you so that you have them. And I’m really excited for you, Jake . . . I think that if we start to do this work around what it really means to make your topic as exciting for your students as it is for you, then we’ll be on a really good path together.


Feeling exhausted by this lengthy and largely frustrating dramatization, the group agreed to conclude the teatro and shift back into dialogue. Here members examined the actions undertaken by spect-actors—identifying, considering, and critiquing protagonists’ approaches; exploring the social, historical, and political dimensions and tensions of learning underlying the conflicts arising in each iteration; and proposing new and/or extended approaches for addressing conflicts. Although space limitations prevent a reproduction of the entire dialogue, we offer Table 4 as an excerpt that illustrates the group’s deliberations around this teatro and the conflicts and solutions it presented. Samantha initiated this dialogue by commenting on Jamy’s decision to take a normative stance in response to the antagonist’s reluctance to meet every student’s needs.


Table 4. Dialogue on Teatro Exercise

Samantha

I like at the end how you’re like, “That’s not okay.” That’s really powerful to hear because Jake was kind of on his high horse a little bit, in terms of reinforcing all the things the student wasn’t bringing about. And it’s powerful for you to come in and say, “That’s actually not okay. You can’t think this way.”

Miriam

So, that happened, like, at the end [of the conversation]. But if it was just beginning, could you begin like that?

Jamy

I think that’s the kind of thing that you have to feel out. I do think that you want to have the conversation go on long enough so that the student feels safe, that they’re not under attack. And also it gives you an opportunity to find positive things to latch onto and then provide that in your conversation. . . . Also the reason why I said, “I’m gonna send an email with those questions” is . . . because it’s really easy to have a situation like that where all of a sudden you’re worried that this student is going to report you to a higher-up. . . . And sometimes that’s like retaliation against you. And I know that’s disconcerting, Juliana. But, you know, I think that it’s totally okay to demand that they do something else and you can assign it in a loving and supportive way.

Megan

I would hope that, after you called [him] back in a week, Jake would be like, “Whoa, I didn’t realize what you were saying until after I left.” Like, “I wasn’t ready to hear what you were saying then. But I heard it afterwards and I had a watershed moment.”

Emily

Yeah, I think [the teatro] was hard. I think that it’s not like it’s going to be this one conversation and then sudden transformation [in Jake].

Jamy

Yeah, I like Emily’s idea that it’s not going to like happen in one meeting or one session. I mean we didn’t really talk about race in this scene at all. And I think that was appropriate given the kinds of things the character Jake was saying. It wouldn’t have gone anywhere, right? But maybe when Jake responds to these questions in a reflective journal, then maybe you get to a place where you say, “Okay, now given all this stuff that we’ve been talking about and thinking about, why do you think Gloria Ladson-Billings found it necessary to write that book [that you read in class]? Where does race come into this?”. . . . So, I would say [to Juliana], try not to carry the hurt from the last class into this class and to go in with a really asset-oriented perspective on the individuals sitting in front of you. And be super explicit on how thrilled you are to be there with them, how you know that they bring so much and you’re really excited to learn about them. I just think that if you start out on that foot it’s not like you’re lying, or being disingenuous. . . . Doing that in your first days gets yourself in the mindset of thinking that, regardless of all that I’m going to confront with these folks, they’re all here because they want to serve kids.



COMING TO AN EXPANDED UNDERSTANDING OF THE CONFLICT  


As participants engaged in teatro and dialogue, they co-constructed new and expanded understandings of the conflict Juliana encountered in practice. As the data excerpts presented earlier suggest, this learning was tied to participants’ deeper consideration of three things: the tools involved with facilitating teachers’ learning to teach in asset-oriented ways; the relational conditions that influence how such tools are used and the moments of conflict they address; and the institutional and sociopolitical contexts underlying the mentioned and related conflicts that members encountered in their work. Importantly, these processes emerged in relation to the three previously described tensions that held relatively constant across circles and that participants began to identify as central to the work of asset-oriented teacher education. We describe such processes next.


Tools


Within each iteration, spect-actors playing the protagonist attempted to help the antagonist recognize a tension by experimenting with a new tool—a specific approach, line of questioning, or “script.” In the first iteration, Juliana asked John-as-the-antagonist to trace connections between his own schooling experiences and course readings on cultural capital. Juliana explained in a later group debrief that through this questioning, she meant to help the antagonist recognize the disadvantages students face when their cultural repertoires are neither valued nor reflected at school. This approach—like many of the tools applied by subsequent spect-actors—did not seem to shape the antagonist’s reflection as intended. Indeed, after nearly a half-hour of trying out various tools, the spect-actors playing the protagonist found little success in advancing the antagonist’s regard for or understanding of asset-oriented teaching. Meanwhile, the teatro still provided the opportunity for protagonists to audition new approaches and for spect-actors to watch and consider potential applications and impacts, but in a supportive way that was not as emotionally draining or risky as Juliana’s real encounters with Jake.


Within dialogue following the teatro, the tool that generated the most discussion was Jamy’s final approach, where she, in contrast to her approach in most prior circles, took a firm normative stance on teachers’ responsibility for “every single student’s learning.” In most other circles (like in the earlier portions of this exchange), different participants typically offered different solutions and, in many cases, problematized and re-conceptualized others’ ideas. Given the fluid relationship between facilitator and participant (or teacher and learner), this included problematizing and re-conceptualizing Jamy’s contributions, too. This was illustrated, for example, when, in a circle several months later, Jamy, playing the role of a district professional development coordinator, attempted to call out administrators’ deficit comments about Latinx students, only to be tapped moments later by a less frequent participant, Carl; instead of “calling out” or trying to convince, Carl offered up a set of critical questions for the administrators and others to consider. Participants ultimately found Carl’s to be a more compelling approach, especially because of its apparent capacity to frame the problem at hand as a community responsibility rather than one that could be pinned on an individual or lead to public shaming—a tendency the group had previously identified as counterproductive to educator learning.


In the case of the exchange featured in Table 4, it is important to consider the possibility that participants responded as they did to Jamy’s comment because of Jamy’s role as a faculty member and as participants’ former instructor. However, given the typical dynamics displayed in and across other circles, it seemed that, in this case, participants were mostly taken by the previously unexplored possibility of responding so assertively to a student rather than compelled to echo Jamy’s idea because of any power dynamics between her and others. Specifically, as noted in Table 4, Samantha’s comment recognized this tool as a “powerful” strategy in re-orienting preservice teachers to the ethical principles and obligations of the profession.


Relational Conditions


In dialogue, however, members avoided conceptualizing tools as mechanistic “best practices” to be applied universally with teachers. Rather, deliberations of approaches used in teatro frequently raised questions of how and when to thoughtfully appropriate them. Within these discussions, participants often underscored the importance of accounting for the social and relational conditions mediating teacher educators’ interactions with learners/teachers. For example, Miriam’s question about whether a teacher educator could begin a student conversation with the normative stance Jamy had taken sparked a discussion around the primacy of building relationships with students like the antagonist, who might need to “feel safe” and be recognized for the “positive things” they bring, before teacher educators can begin to help them develop their political and ideological clarity. In this way, dialogue acknowledged that, for teacher educators, successfully supporting a teacher’s learning might not simply result from using the most appropriate tool or practice to resolve a moment of conflict/contradiction; it might also be intrinsically dependent on the teacher educator’s relationship with the learner/teacher, which should be considered and potentially strengthened before determining the “right” approach.


The recognition of relational conditions was central to participants’ learning in a second respect: Dialogues, particularly those in early culture circles, revealed underdeveloped relationships as likely contributors to conflicts members experienced with teachers. For example, Roger—the chair of his high school’s mathematics department—shared his struggles to persuade fellow math teachers to enact a competency-based grading system he felt would offer students more equitable opportunities to communicate their learning. Originally, Roger framed the problem as teachers’ reluctance to embrace an equity-centered policy. As members probed Roger further, however, it became clearer that Roger’s conflict likely stemmed more from the lack of professional relationship and trust between him and his colleagues; members then offered Roger encouragement and suggestions for developing those crucial relationships while he worked with his department on the new grading policy. In such examples, the relational conditions of asset-oriented teacher education played a role in how members considered applying tools to resolve tensions and in how they uncovered the roots of some of the challenges they faced.  


Social, Historical, and Political Dimensions of Asset-Oriented Teacher Education


Another key consideration within the tensions examined through teatro and dialogue were the institutional and sociopolitical contexts that mediate asset-oriented teacher educators’ work. Given the group’s generative theme, it is unsurprising that seeds consistently emphasized instances in which teachers expressed certain ideologies—for example, colorblindness and deficit-mindedness—that pervade U.S. educational systems. In the teatro capturing Juliana’s office-hours conversation, for instance, the antagonist vehemently defended his belief that all students deserve the same (biased) social studies instruction regardless of their racial or cultural identities and that the academic failure of some students—especially those who did not “behave” in the “right ways”—was an inevitable and acceptable interpretation. In such cases, participants’ dialogue often turned to the cultural and sociohistorical contexts of K–12 schooling, underscoring, for example, how policies and practices (e.g., high-stakes testing, tracking) perpetuate teachers’ deficit and colorblind ideologies, affirming for teachers like the antagonist that their own instruction is inconsequential because some students are inherently motivated and capable whereas others are not.   


Dialogue and teatro centering on other seeds also surfaced the often hard-to-see mediating role of the social, political, and historical contexts surrounding teacher education, particularly within institutions, like universities and district offices. In the circles leading up to the office-hours meeting, Juliana (who identifies as Chicana) shared that some of her students had written personally hurtful comments in their evaluations of her course. Soon afterward, university administrators pointed out how Juliana’s evaluations placed her in the “bottom third” of instructor rankings and expressed expectations for immediate improvement. Dialogue within later circles helped the group situate Juliana’s experience within institutional patterns of assigning teacher educators of color to social foundations or multicultural education courses—courses that have historically garnered lower evaluations because of their challenging content. Participants also noted patterns across universities of faculty of color, and especially women of color, receiving lower evaluations than White colleagues, particularly in courses that address race. Through such dialogue, members came to better understand the sociopolitical context underlying Juliana’s seed, and participants with more teacher education experience were also able to provide suggestions—like avoiding emotionally ambiguous means such as email to communicate weighty and potentially implicating messages—that could support Juliana to more carefully traverse the potential hazards of her institutional setting.


Enduring Tensions of Preparing Teachers to Teach in Asset-Oriented Ways


Participants negotiated the learnings described in the previous section as they wrestled with Juliana’s seed, but also in relation to the broader tensions that lived within that seed and extended across most other seeds, dialogues, and teatros. Next, we detail how these tensions presented themselves in the dialogue and teatro chronicled earlier in order to illustrate them with some depth and to underscore both their localness and pervasiveness.


Comments from the preceding dialogue, for example, point to the tension of patience and urgency; Megan and Emily each proposed that, despite spect-actors’ intentions to help the antagonist expand his perspective during office-hours, Jake might require more time for reflection before new realizations can blossom. Jamy also referenced this tension when she asserted (in response to Miriam’s question) that, although Juliana hoped to talk with Jake about intersections between race and schooling and might feel an urgency to take a normative stance “at the beginning” of the meeting, his comments during teatro indicated that a more patient approach—targeted at teaching’s ethical principles and introduced at the end of the meeting—was perhaps a more appropriate first step for this learner. Indeed, through her suggestion that Jake journal following the meeting, Jamy raised the possibility that although patient responses are not the same as urgent ones, they are also not the same as letting a learner off the hook from the transformative ideological work that asset-oriented teaching often requires.


Here, another enduring tension of asset-oriented teacher education—struggling to see and treat teachers as learners—also surfaced, particularly as the group pressed Juliana to locate Jake in relation to her learning goals and to devise approaches that honored and leveraged that reality. This tension surfaced again in Jamy’s final suggestion to Juliana, when Jamy advised her to temporarily compartmentalize negative experiences from the previous course (to the extent that she was able) and “try on” a trusting persona for her incoming students. In this regard, Jamy suggested Juliana develop her role as asset-oriented teacher educator while enacting that role in her upcoming course herself, thereby straddling the roles of teacher and learner in the process.


The third enduring tension—knowing how to strike the “right” balance between learners’ safety and discomfort—also emerged in the described exchanges. Although Jake never explicitly expressed a need for more safety, his initial defensiveness and standoffishness toward Juliana—what Sleeter (2017) has identified as the somewhat typical “resistance” of White preservice teachers—signaled that pushing him too far too fast might backfire. As a community of emerging asset-oriented teacher educators, we also struggled to agree about the right level of safety and discomfort in our own dialogues and teatro. Some members frequently pushed for more discomfort because an issue’s urgent nature demanded that we know where each member stood. Meanwhile, others thought a more nurturing approach would ultimately yield better outcomes, including more risk-taking, opportunities for growth, and thoughtful actions beyond the circle. Although (or perhaps because) we never came to consensus about our “right” balance, wrestling with this tension helped to center topics of great importance to the group.


DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION


Our adaptations of culture circles and teatro were designed with the goal of facilitating asset-oriented teacher educators’ learning about the profession and their development of the understandings, practices, ideologies, and identities it requires. Rather than assume that the knowledge base for asset-orientation teacher educators can be predetermined and handed down by experts, our circles were premised on the assumption that knowledge is constructed through the critical analysis of lived experience. They therefore privileged members’ situated knowledges and contrasted with more formal learning approaches.


More specifically, our culture circles aimed to support teacher educator participants to “imagine ‘as if’ they lived in an ideal pedagogical context in which the contradictions of schooling are made visible” (Gutiérrez, 2010, p. 141) and critically engaged. Within this “ideal pedagogical context,” conflicts (framed as seeds) representing the realities of asset-oriented teacher education were identified and wrestled with. Because these conflicts reflected members’ own experiences, the understandings that emerged from them necessarily included the sense that practical dilemmas are always local—contingent on the contexts where they unfold and on present actors (i.e., teachers and teacher educators), relationships, and available tools.


Perhaps because of our project’s duration and the number of seeds/conflicts presented, participants also identified themes that characterize asset-oriented teacher education more broadly. Thus, as participants came to recognize some of the micro-pedagogies of asset-oriented teacher education, grappled with the relational dimensions of teacher learning, became familiar with possible tools of asset-oriented teacher education, and interrogated the social, political, and historical dimensions of the work, they understood each area as linked to specific settings and individuals and as connected to more common dilemmas that may play out across contexts, including their own. In Juliana’s case, for instance, members discussed not just Jamy’s approach to taking a normative stance on equity (a tool), but also how Juliana’s positionality, her relationship with Jake, and Jake’s adoption of a colorblind ideology informed when and how this tool could be thoughtfully leveraged.


Importantly, culture circles and teatro did more than deepen and expand participants’ understandings of the realities of asset-oriented teacher education. Participants critically analyzed such realities and imagined potential instantiations of asset-oriented teacher education. This occurred as members recognized and revisited several enduring tensions that undergirded the conflicts/seeds that captured the group’s attention. In relation to Juliana’s seed, members exercised patience and urgency in helping Jake acknowledge his responsibility to teach all students as a necessary precursor to future discussions with him about race and racism; struck a balance between safety and discomfort by utilizing critical questioning techniques and more normative stances; and acknowledged Jake as teacher and learner by suggesting reflective writing tasks to help consolidate the knowledge he built during office hours and that he would need in his future interactions with youth.


On one hand, these tensions served as fodder for critical, solution-driven discussions about striking the “right” balance with learners (e.g., between patience and urgency) in order to successfully facilitate their development. On the other hand, they illuminated the complexities of becoming an asset-oriented teacher and reminded members to consider these complexities in their current and future efforts to resolve any specific conflict/dilemma. These tensions were enhanced when, through teatro, participants rehearsed possibilities for change, imagining the realization of asset-oriented goals for teachers’ learning that often seemed unattainable in the seeds as originally presented. Rather than treat teacher educators as victims or objects of someone else’s actions (as is often the case in teacher education), teatro repositioned (emerging) teacher educators as agents who can, and do, change situations and possible outcomes. In this respect, teatro also supported emerging teacher educators to undergo the transformative identity work that marks the journey from teacher to teacher educator (Bullough, 2005), especially for those committed to advancing equity for minoritized students. Just as participants in the featured teatro imagined a different future than the one experienced by Juliana in the seed she presented, so too did they begin to envision a future teacher-educator self who possesses confidence to confront injustice, deeper understandings about the work of asset-oriented teacher education, and increased optimism about possibilities for their own growth and learning.


Despite these affordances, we are reticent to argue for widespread implementation of these pedagogies, which would assume the “transmission of mastery knowledge, based on a banking model of education” (Souto-Manning, 2010, p. 96). Instead, we hope that others recognize the potential promises these pedagogies hold for asset-oriented teacher educator development and will consider how such promises might be taken up in different settings in localized efforts to transform the field.


In particular, findings point to the conditions for learning—particularly spaces that center participants’ identities and experiential conflicts—that can cultivate complex understandings about, and tools for engaging, the contingent work of asset-oriented teacher education. Such spaces seem particularly well equipped to cultivate critical understandings deemed essential for transforming the field (Ellis & McNicholl, 2015; Sleeter, 2017), including, for example, understandings of the systems and structures within which teacher education is situated; understandings about the racialized and gendered nature of one’s own experiences and responsibilities (as a teacher educator) within such systems and structures; understandings about how teacher educators with different identities and positionalities experience and engage in the work; and understandings of how teacher–teacher educator relationships contribute to teachers’ learning about teaching minoritized youth. Importantly, certain conditions also likely must be in place for culture circles and teatro to take hold in generative ways. Undoubtedly, participants’ deep trust, dense relationships, mutual responsibility, and shared commitments supported members’ openness and vulnerability and made space for them to admit when they didn’t know what to do, to take risks without fear of evaluation, and to confidently step into the facilitator role, which helped socialize participants into the process of educating adults in critical yet supportive ways. Together, these conditions helped to create what Elena aptly called an “intellectual safe space.”


We thus argue that the type of learning that culture circles and teatro enabled is urgently needed in efforts to prepare the next generation of asset-oriented teacher educators. Although minoritized students have always been marginalized and underserved in U.S. public schools, today’s hostile federal policies and increases in hate crimes and speech leave students of color, immigrant, multilingual, Muslim, and LGBTQ students, and other minoritized youth exceedingly vulnerable. These students need teachers who recognize their humanity and assets for learning, who value their cultural and linguistic practices, and who possess the kind of ideological and political clarity necessary for pushing back on violent policies and practices that threaten students’ safety and well-being, let alone their academic development. Becoming such a teacher is complex and involves learning not only about curriculum and pedagogy, but also about learners and communities and the ways in which systems and structures limit opportunities for some and not others.


In light of this complexity, it is shortsighted to assume that those charged with preparing asset-oriented teachers can learn to do their work with limited or no preparation, or with preparation that—like models used in fast-track teaching academies and in some versions of university practice-based teacher education—reduces the work of teaching to a set of moves and routines that fail to account for the relational, political, and contextual/cultural dimensions of teaching. We argue that culture circles and teatro present a promising pedagogical space for the kind of professional learning that (emerging) teacher educators urgently need.


Notes


1. We use the term minoritized instead of minority to highlight the power relations that undergird the process of naming (groups of) people who have experienced marginalization through colonization, genocide, and/or racism. The term minoritized additionally makes evident the racial discrimination that accompanies any group being named a minority, even when that group makes up the numerical majority.


2. With the exception of the coauthors, Jamy and John, all names are pseudonyms.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 6, 2019, p. 1-38
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22740, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 6:19:14 AM

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About the Author
  • Jamy Stillman
    University of Colorado Boulder
    E-mail Author
    JAMY STILLMAN is associate professor of educational equity and cultural diversity and of research on teaching and teacher education at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research examines relationships between policy, teacher education, and teaching, particularly in relation to bi/multilingual K–12 learners. Dr. Stillman has published numerous articles in refereed journals, including Journal of Teacher Education and Review of Educational Research, among others. Most recently she coauthored (with Lauren Anderson) Teaching for Equity in Complex Times: Negotiating Standards in a High-Performing Bilingual School (Teachers College Press, 2017).
  • John Beltramo
    Regis University
    E-mail Author
    JOHN LUCIANO BELTRAMO is an assistant professor of education at Regis University. His research explores how approaches to dialogue such as culture circles and cogenerative dialogues can advance teacher learning toward more equity-centered classroom practices. Dr. Beltramo’s work has recently appeared in Teaching and Teacher Education, Urban Education, and International Journal of Student Voice.
 
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