Author Interview: Meghan Barnes, Peter Smagorinsky

Have you seen the JTE Insider blog managed by the Journal of Teacher Education editorial team? Check out the latest entry below.

In this author interview, Meghan Barnes discusses her article with Peter Smagorinsky, “What English/Language Arts Teacher Candidates Learn During Coursework and Practica: A Study of Three Teacher Education Programs.” Their piece will be published in the September/October issue of JTE, but you can read it now via OnlineFirst.

What motivated you to pursue this particular research topic?

Peter has been pursuing research in the field of teacher education and teacher development for a number of years, but our work together began in 2013. That year we wrote an article together, revisiting and revising the role that Lortie’s apprenticeship of observation may play in preservice teacher development. As we were analyzing the data for that article, we began noticing just how many different areas the preservice teachers in our study referenced as influential in their developing conceptions of what it means to be a teacher. We decided to return to the data and look specifically for all of the different people, places, and activities that the preservice teachers named as helping them to get a sense of what it means to be a teacher and how to teach. We found that the preservice teachers named a pretty large variety of influential factors, all of which played different roles in their development at different times and in different ways, producing difficulty in arriving at a coherent conception of effective teaching of the English/language arts (ELA) curriculum. As we struggled to make sense of the messiness we were seeing across all of these different factors, it became clear that words alone were not going to help us explain what we were seeing—and that’s when we started playing around with drawings to help us make sense of the data.

What were some difficulties you encountered with the research?

Peter and I faced our primary challenge as we began discussing the sense we were making of our data. As we reviewed the data, as well as the codes and overarching themes we had identified across the data, we struggled to communicate (even to one another) what we were seeing. This was when we started drawing. Individually, we drew composite portraits of teacher candidates—trying to demonstrate through images how they were learning to teach. We then drew images of the landscapes of schools and education in general, attempting to lay out the various factors that made up the contexts of schooling.

The first sets of images we created were entirely too neat and lock-step. The early drawings showed preservice teachers moving through a pseudo-assembly line as they learned how to be teachers: beginning with the apprenticeship of observation, moving into teacher education, and then being produced as novice teachers ready to enter schools. As we discussed these images and what we were finding frustrating about them, we discovered that we had drawn what many may consider to be the process of learning how to teach, but we had not drawn the process that our participants were sharing in their interviews. The process of individually drawing our understandings and then sharing them with one another proved to be very helpful as we moved toward our understanding that the process of learning how to be a teacher is a messy one, informed by various and often competing messages, people, experiences, etc. Once we scrapped the idea of a neat, linear process of learning how to teach, the entire sense-making process progressed much more fluidly—especially once we enlisted the help of Michelle Zoss, who was able to create visibly pleasing images that accurately portrayed how individual beginning teachers are influenced by many competing factors.

What advice would you give to new scholars in teacher education?

Let me preface this by saying that I have Peter to thank for any words of wisdom I may offer to other researchers in the field of teacher education. Peter has been an incredibly supportive and critical mentor throughout my doctoral work and has taught me first-hand how to conduct qualitative research. Based on our data analysis for this study, as well as our numerous discussions about teacher education and research in the field, I offer the following recommendations to novice researchers:

  • Don’t look for clear, concise answers to your research questions. Sometimes the answers to your research questions are multiple and conflicting—the main thing to remember is to always support those seemingly “messy” answers with your data.
  • Data analysis is rarely a linear process. Don’t be afraid to return to the data again (and again), to reconfigure your tables and charts, and/or to revise your codes and themes as you write about and discuss the sense you’re making.
  • Embrace the fact that people come to teaching through diverse venues, for diverse reasons, and at diverse times in their lives—and use that wealth of diversity to inform the ways you structure your teacher education program (including course work and practica experiences).
  • Develop an inquiry stance toward teacher education to learn more about your preservice teachers and to model how they can in turn develop an inquiry stance toward their own teaching and future students. Developing an inquiry stance toward your teaching and your students can also illuminate new paths in your research.

What current areas of research are you pursuing?

I am currently working on my dissertation, which looks at the roles that communities do and do not play in the preparation of preservice ELA teachers. In particular, I’m interested in the ways that preservice teachers view themselves in relation to the communities surrounding the university and their respective student teaching placement schools. This also entails inquiring into the ways that preservice teachers use knowledge of the community and/or their students as they develop lesson plans, select texts, and interact with students. In addition to my dissertation work, I am also collaborating with another faculty member to inquire into the political and civic engagement of preservice teachers as well as the ways that fear of polemical discussions in ELA classrooms may inhibit the likelihood that preservice and novice teachers will broach particular topics with secondary students.

Peter’s current work includes undertaking a book-length project based on the whole corpus of research from which these interviews were derived. It will be a study of how beginning teachers learn to teach, extending from their entry into the program through their first years on the job, taking a longitudinal view of their concept development. This project in teacher education is being investigated separately in a study of concept development in a semester-length service-learning course that serves as an English education foundations course. In a separate line of inquiry, he is wrapping up a book on autism-spectrum youth: Creativity and Community Among Autism-Spectrum Youth: Creating Positive Social Updrafts Through Play and Performance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan).

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