Back to the Table

The ordeals that have kept me from writing regularly and resuming an academic career for the past three years are…not over. Thankfully. But this past Lent and Holy Week have been an inflection point in my life, I hope and believe.

Completing my first dozen years brought me to faith and literacy; my second dozen to teaching and service; my third to family and study. I don’t have a crystal clear idea where this fourth dozen leads me. But I do have these fuzzy notions: The times mean I’m fighting against revertin’ back to our daily programs. I need to write like I’m running out of time. And if I only live another dozen years, I want to have known that I spent these raising my daughter to be strong and humble, proud and loving, in this world.

So I’m trying to crawl back to the table.

Civics and the Teacher Professional Learning Community (part 1)

This is one of a series of posts presenting some ideas of my dissertation, in progress. 

The first of the three parts of my project involves investigating how a group of four teachers I worked with figured out ways to include civic learning and engagement in their English instruction. These four middle school English teachers had been colleagues for years, and worked together in what’s called a “Professional Learning Community” (PLC). I presented the general idea of integrating civic action of some kind into their English classes, and I offered suggestions and coaching along the way, but primarily I wanted to let them devise how they would make the idea materialize in their own classrooms. I learned a lot both from their individual, unique ways of trying out this idea, and from their dynamics as a team, the things they learned from each other and how their team interactions produced interesting results. The clearest result was that the question of how to get students involved civically in their English classes tapped into, and put pressure on, what this PLC of teachers thought mattered most in their jobs, their core visions as teachers, and opened opportunities to pursue those priorities together.

I spent a whole school year working closely with these teachers, attending their meetings, watching their classes, interviewing them. It was fascinating to watch the different ways that they interpreted the idea of “civic engagement,” and how each infused the vague idea I presented of doing “civics” in the English class with their own visions of what it meant to be a participant, a citizen, a young person active for justice. It was also fascinating to see how they learned from each other, the ways this team of long-standing colleagues exercised their teaching talents uniquely.

To offer an example, I would describe the approaches of two of the teachers. These two (we’ll call them Carol and Donaldo) had been colleagues and friends for years, both veterans at the school. Both had taught English, Leadership, and special programs for underserved youth. Both were seen as teacher leaders and enjoyed strong relationships and rapport with students around the school. They embodied the school’s philosophy of putting relationships of high expectations and respect at the center of a rigorous yet caring atmosphere.

Yet they were stylistically quite different, in some ways opposite, when it came to teaching English. Carol could be masterful at orchestrating a lively debate in her class, students on the edges of their seats and talking over each other to share their perspectives and experiences about issues relevant to their lives and concerns. Donaldo, on the other hand, would organize and tinker with his students to produce visual presentations (sometimes digital, sometimes on paper) that were diligently crafted and revised into gallery objects of individual expression. And though their reading and writing instruction were strongest at those tendencies, that’s not to say their teaching repertoires were limited or narrow. They were professionals who expertly taught skills and knowledge that didn’t necessarily fit neatly in their wheelhouse. Rather, it was by playing to their respective strengths that they made other aspects of the English curriculum exciting and vivid. Carol made energetic arguments in the classroom into motivation to write thoughtful essays. Donaldo used the occasion of writing a compelling personal narrative about family photographs as an opportunity to embed lessons about precise language and word choices.

Thus the projects that each teacher ultimately conducted with their students, which I’ll describe next, reflected their different tendencies as English teachers, even as the two teachers influenced each others’ notions of how to integrate civics into their teaching. But their projects also reflected their different ideas about what it meant to engage young people civically, which were again a Venn diagram of shared values but distinctive approaches.  Both sought to make the idea of civic engagement something personally meaningful, inviting students to seek out and research a social issue that touched them individually somehow. Both built their curriculum around culminating projects where students had the opportunity to create something that would become a kind of civic self-expression, which served both as preparation for their future democratic participation and as a contribution now to influence others about their issues of concern.

Carol wound up having her middle school students create a picture book that they would read to a younger student, at an age level they could choose, about a social issue they had interest in. This followed from a year of selecting and reading texts that bridged the chasm between larger issues of justice and young people’s personal sense of power or place. Students in one of her classes had read Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes, a book written as an Open Mic poetry slam for a class of urban youth, and Monster by Walter Dean Myers, about a young African American standing trial dramatizing his experiences as a screenplay. Carol integrated reading these texts with lessons from Teaching Tolerance and activities surrounding the school’s Ally Week. In all of these teaching units, Carol helped her students to feel the personal power of how social injustices impact young people’s lives, and her encouragement to speak up productively and compassionately represented an important ideal of civic engagement. Creating picture books and reading them to younger students as a civic education practice aligned with those ideals of engagement and language, where standing up and showing caring as an ally or older sibling was how these adolescents could become agents in their formation as members of their communities. Corresponding with her language teaching tendencies towards interactional exchange in a community of fairness and respect, Carol presented a version of civic engagement where young people took on the responsibility of communicating with younger community members to teach and demonstrate values of social concern and allyship.

Donaldo’s culminating project also focused on civic participation through persuasive storytelling and advocacy media. In Donaldo’s class, his students heard samples of recorded radio essays from the series “This I Believe,” and composed their own “This I Believe” essays. These essays included a blending of the writing types that the team had taken on as a goal, trying to effectively blend narrative, expository, and argumentative writing. And they had to tackle a social issue that was personally meaningful to them, another attribute Donaldo’s project shared with Carol’s. But rather than a project built on creating a tool for interacting with a younger learner, Donaldo’s project was aimed at producing an essay that would be accompanied by a recorded audio reading of their essay by each student. Donaldo also set up a well-lit location to take professional quality photographs of the students’ faces that could go with their essays, most of them featuring a quote from their essays printed over them. These images, together with the audio recordings of the essays, and the essays themselves reprinted and posted on a website, could be shared with peers or adult audiences. They conveyed a strong sense that these “This I Believe” essays, despite being concerned about a social issue, were profoundly personal expressions for the students, a piece of crafted, multi-media expression of self as advocate on the broader public forums of the internet and social media. Though Donaldo’s project had similarities to Carol’s, his tendency towards teaching language in the context of presentation and performance rather than dialogue and interaction corresponded to the suggestion of civic action as an organized expression of prepared advocacy and artistry.

Together, these two teachers’ projects provide a glimpse into how English teachers might make the connection between teaching English and engaging in civic action. Both demonstrated that young people’s civic engagement is often imagined or perceived as powerful when it is an act of self-expression and personal conviction, tied to narratives of young people’s own experiences and observations of the world. At the same time, both teachers pushed their students to communicate in registers other than the personal narrative mode, to seamlessly integrate factual information and persuasive rhetoric into their pieces. Both imagined a social component to their language, though the audiences they conceived of differed, one picturing a civic role of teaching younger children, the other a public contribution of multimodal media production.

Over the next few posts, I will describe some of the development that occurred among the teachers in the course of doing these projects, for Carol and Donaldo and the other two. I will use some of Carol and Donaldo’s students’ work and how these two teachers introduced, aided, and adapted to their students’ learning and language as my examples and evidence. (I will have much more to say about the other two teachers in later segments, when I discuss the case study classrooms and focal students.) These examples will tell a story of how focusing on civics crystallized many of these teachers’ pre-existing ideals of what teaching English was all about. At the same time, the circumstances, potentialities, and constraints of these civic action projects also surprised these teachers in some respects, and those surprises are also instructive about the prospect of the English classroom as as civic development space.

 

Finishing my Doctorate in Public

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The last seven years, since I started my PhD program in Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, I’ve been learning how to do research. Academic luminaries like my adviser, Sarah W. Freedman, and faculty mentors Laura Sterponi, David Kirp, and Kris Gutiérrez have surrounded me with an unparalleled set of role models and communities of support. My classmates and colleagues have been inspirations in their intellect and achievement.

But for the last three years especially, as my family responsibilities have unexpectedly grown rather than stabilized, I’ve had to withdraw from being a regular, responsible, contributing part of the academic community. I don’t take courses anymore since I’m in my dissertation stage. Though I’ve been collecting data, analyzing, and writing my dissertation, it has all happened at a much slower speed than I’d anticipated. It’s been a long time since I’ve been part of a research group, attended an academic conference (much less presented or submitted to one), or published any academic writing.

My strange, bell-curve shaped academic career so far, in contrast to the straight-line upward trajectory of academic activity I expected, has sometimes given me a feeling of failure. I don’t even think I’m doing well now as a graduate student, not even to mention how I will do once my academic career properly begins after graduation, if I ever find a position. Though I’m only a few months worth of writing and revisions away from being finished with my PhD, an excruciating series of family health catastrophes and personal life interruptions have made those last few steps stretch out farther and farther like a cruel prank where you glimpse the finish line but it turns out to be running away faster than you are.

The challenge isn’t just lacking the scheduled time and the support system to finish– and instead having various family and other duties draining away my hours. It’s also lacking the public, the community, where I can become a researcher. As a student, I loved courses. I loved the interaction, the syllabi, the readings and assignments, the knowledge-drops from the brilliant minds surrounding me, the works in progress we shared with each other. When I went to class, what I loved was not just the discipline and structure of a course of study, something that I can formulate for myself (and have, many times over). I also found invaluable the others, even if they were just three or four, who undertook that journey with me. Without that surrounding me, I grope around for a lifeline, fighting against all the other expectations and burdens that

My experiment is to use this blog as a place to finish my dissertation “in public,” so to speak. To write bits that I would share with a colleague or classmate or professor in a research group. To explain and describe the things I’m learning, forcing me to formulate them in a way that makes sense to regular people, not just the artificial audience I construct in my own head. I think that sums it up: to get out of my own head.

And so I’ve retitled the blog “Academic in Public.” Because I’m trying to learn how to be an academic who is not hidden away in a tower. Especially in these times when suspicion of academic, intellectual, and cultural elites has elevated to a frightening pitch– and perhaps with no one to blame more than those elites themselves. (Or is it “ourselves?”) I want to keep engaging in public.

The title is also appropriate because of what I’m going to be writing about: schools and development, civics and politics, culture and literacy. Those are the interests of my dissertation study, so they constitute the unexplored territory my research is mining. They’re also those areas that I think about, read about, talk about, and work at all the time. Academics: the research community, schools and teachers, knowledge and evidence, children and young scholars. And the Public: our polity and communities, our policy and strategies, our politics and struggles. Academic in Public.

 

“Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes” by Emerson and Fritz Chapter 3

writing ethnographic field notes
The third chapter is entitled, “Writing Field Notes I: At the Desk, Creating Scenes on a Page.”  My summaries and reactions:
Recognizing that all writing, even that which attempts to take a neutral stance and remain as descriptive as possible, is a kind of construction, the authors are mindful about what influences this construction and attempt to raise, in this chapter, several of the circumstances, questions, and decisions that factor into the ethnographic description that the fieldworker puts on the page (or screen) after being in the field.
Issues of how soon and how long the ethnographer gets to the desk (as fresh as possible, as soon as possible, ideally an hour writing for every hour in the field, as much unpolished memory as an outpouring can produce) get squared away pretty quickly.  Techniques for recalling the day (use of jottings, initial lists of topics, beginning with high points, turning jottings into extended texts) are exemplified.  These seemed fairly obvious to me, but might be helpful to someone else.  I find myself to be that kind of extensive, compulsive note-taker anyway.  This method sounds like second nature to me.  Sometimes in the course of going from jottings to notes, new or fresh significance emerges, and that’s something I see happening often in my field note taking.
The technique of writing “lushly” (Goffman), depictions of scenes, including spatial arrangements, details of the setting, the appearance of people to contextualize talk and action (while resisting the too-easy categorizing and stereotyping we tend to do in taking in other human beings), casting evocative images… these produces portraits of irreducible importance, where the discovery lies in the ethnographic task.  Otherwise, everything defaults to the bell curve, the expected scene, without idiosyncrasy that makes the scene matter.  Dialogue can flow in and out without repeatedly adding the she saids and he saids, and the authors make their pitch for capturing verbatim dialogue however possible and getting the narratives of the speakers as important artifacts of culture, something which is already my starting point into ethnography.  Aspects of transcription like capturing breaks and rhythm, pitch and prosody, as Hymes and company articulated, create many decision points in transcription, ones that the responsible ethnographer makes deliberate decisions about.  Characterizations are discussed, as is the use of active rather than passive verbs.
Organizing writing about the day’s events can be broken down with these tools:
sketches: like a still-life picture, a multi-sensory scene.
episodes: capturing action, a “slice of life.”
transitional summaries: because a full sequence is often impossible, linking episodes with transitional summaries segments and coheres the account.
Finally, including in-process analytic commentaries or asides also helpfully warrants a discussion here.  Asides are quicker, commentaries are fuller.
As a reflection, the authors describe a “writing” mode where the ethnographer is intent on producing the observation text, and then a “reading” mode that involves looking again, reflection, etc.  It’s helpful to think about the discipline of ethnography, for me, as investing enough in this writing mode to work fully and intently as an observer, before leaping too quickly, all-too-quickly, to the analytical or interpretive mode.
Overall, the chapter feels the driest, but perhaps because this is the most obvious, practical, and re-tread territory, and the authors want to give details and procedures in pretty straightforward fashion without overproblematizing or over-thinking these steps.  The examples are helpful, but for the most part, I’d be more interested in a version of this chapter organized around common dilemmas or problems that the fieldnote taker encounters in attempting the work, and the way these tools are solutions.

“Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (2nd Edition)” by Emerson, Fritz, and Shaw (2011) Chapter 2

writing ethnographic field notes
The second chapter is entitled, “In the Field: Observing, Participating, and Jotting Down Notes.”  My summaries and reactions:
To the wary new ethnographer, chapter 2 provides a lot of reassurances and helpful clarifications.  Telling someone to be an observer and a participant among people, without the “scientific” goal of slicing away variables and maintaining an extremely tight focus, means always tangling with perceptions, reactions, emotions, and positions of self in relation to others.  This prospect can fill you with doubt.  Am I capturing what matters?  Do I pollute my observations with my own feelings or subjectivity?
The ethnographer’s fieldnotes always involve perceptions of significant ideas and facts, but that significance is determined first and foremost by the priority to the perspective from “within,” rather than the outsider’s perspective.  Yes, ethnographic writing wants to include initial impressions and reactions of the participant observer, but not uncritical ones.  Those impressions are good for identifying things that regular participants might take for granted, like when a commonly-used saying strikes the observer as strange or unrelated, or a behavior doesn’t appear logical even though everyone takes it for granted.  But the ethnographer is certainly not satisfied with their own perceptions of weirdness.
Rather, the ethnographer does well to note her reactions and responses, observe the reactions and responses of locals or those being studied, and consider the indigenous meanings, narratives, practices, perspectives that make events significant or not, etc.  How do local actors attribute importance or grant attention?  The authors give an example of the observer in an ex-prostitute’s residential program who notes a brief conversation about a woman’s new haircut, jotted down, easily passed over as insignificant, except that people at the site grant it significance by further talking about the haircut and identifying its significance: it turns out to be consequential because the haircut is a step towards the trappings of a sex worker lifestyle that the observed woman is supposed to be getting away from.
Overall, the authors convey that the writing of fieldnotes is tied in with observation, and observation does not dismiss the subjectivity or judgments of the observer, but must discipline them under the endeavor of the anthropological task.  This includes become a systematic observer and recorder, including being attentive to the “where, when, and whom” that are often taken for granted in events by local people, as well as the “why” and “how” of routine and mundane interactional accomplishments.  Over time, then, the writing can narrow and focus, after starting as a broad net, becoming more and more focused on a set of issues.
The authors then talk about “jottings,” writings in the field done to capture a moment before it’s lost to memory, often in the form of mnemonics to be filled in later with detail.  Dialogue, topics, etc.  Jottings are the ethnographer’s activity but also their mindset, approaching the experience in the field with the thought of capturing for later writing.  These jottings involve
–capturing key components, fragments of talk as focal points, sometimes just as reminders of the specificity of the moment,
–sensory details, needed to later reconstruct the feel of what happened,
avoiding “characterizing scenes or what people do through generalizations or summaries,” which are often used by novices as convenient or efficient notes but not helpful for close descriptions.
–details of scenes, conversations, interactions, quotes, concrete events that show rather than tell.
–emotions– how they are exhibited, what they come out as, etc.
–general impressions and feelings, even if their significance isn’t immediately apparent.
Besides the content of field notes, field workers have to think of the occasions and places they can pull out their notebook or Macbook or whatever writing tools.  This isn’t just a practical question of what feels convenient, because the field worker has to be conscious of how the act of writing interacts with the ethnographer’s presence and participation in the field.  The fieldnote writer is torn between being present in the field and pulling away, whether physically or interactionally, for taking notes.  Where does one position oneself?  Does one begin taking notes during a delicate situation, and risk offending or scaring the participants?  Is the ethnographer distracted by the task of writing and missing the actual cues of the interaction?  Whether jottings are open or hidden, strategic and conscious jotting is a key and sometimes evolving part of ethnographic writing.  And of course, there is the ideal that the ethnographer becomes someone the participants trust and have gotten used to, standing by and writing away and recording the situation where the participants are freely doing what they would do, comfortable with the ethnographer’s work and place in the ecosystem.  But reaching that point obviously takes a long process of building trust and familiarity, and introduces a different sort of “weirdness” to the regularity of everyday life.
It’s a weird stance, a weird place to be, and one that requires my sense of judgment and constant critical analysis.  In my case, especially as something more than just a participant observer, I know the colleagues I work deserve that I am being open and honest, remaining critical and analytical of myself in order to be nonjudgmental of others, and striving to be descriptive and purposeful in my writing.  Those are the challenges of ethnographic writing, but dealing with those challenges is the work that you’re doing.
As I read the chapter, I think of the awkwardness of being a fervent notetaker wherever I’ve been.  I just gave a little talk with some middle schoolers at the school (though not the classroom) where I’m doing my observations, explaining how being a note-taker has changed my life.  (This is all tied to the course’s curriculum, which introduces student skills like note-taking in all classes).  Being an inveterate note-taker has utterly shaped the way I belong to social situations involving work, and balancing that with the awareness of faces and voices and presences that I’ve also worked at being attuned to, that’s hard to reconcile sometimes.  When I’m at the site, sometimes I don’t know whether to pull out the recorder, the scrap of paper, the laptop, the notebook, and when to simply be present and conscious.
I do know, however, that I’m guided by the ultimate goal of ethnographic writing, and that requires the tension between participating, belonging, being fully present and heads-up, and stepping back to think, to capture stories, to consider, to tie in with theory, to identify and sometimes make meaning.  That tension is a familiar one, one that I think has some close overlap between other tensions I try to hold together in my work as a teacher-coach and my work in education as a whole.  I feel like it’s an important posture to maintain, the commitment to live with and understand and learn people, but the devotion to an ongoing conversation of reflection and analysis about that living.  There are specific ways that reflection and analysis goes on, a certain kind of disciplined inquiry that ethnography entails, and those commitments are also vital.

“Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (2nd Edition)” by Emerson, Fritz, and Shaw (2011) Preface & Chap 1

I sometimes get asked by people who don’t know much about the kind of research I do what it entails.  In many settings I’m in, I’m an incurable note-taker, constantly writing, furiously.  What’s going on in my note-taking, they wonder, and how is it research?  Am I writing private judgments and opinions, copying every uttered word like a stenographer, drawing caricatures of people dressed up as superheroes?

Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes by Emerson, Fritz, and Shaw is a book I’ve been waiting to read, timed with the beginning of qualitative research I’m conducting for my doctorate.  (For anyone keeping count, it’s the fourth of five books I plan to read simultaneously and record on this blog, along with occasional journalism, academic articles, pieces of culture, etc.)  From my skimming, it will package up and remind me of what I learned from taking courses with and hanging around anthropologists as a graduate student, and what I have taken away as the intellectual practice of being-in-a-place and taking-notes-while-there, which I think is a theoretically important, rich, and potentially weird thing to do.

Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes by Emerson, Fritz, & Shaw (2nd ed)

The authors begin by pointing out classic works on ethnographic writing, analysis, and fieldwork (Geertz, Sanjek, etc) that, despite their import, don’t provide an organized introduction to the act of writing while in the field, or taking fieldnotes.   The authors describe very different uses and conceptions of fieldnotes in practice– how they’re done, why (or whether) they matter to the ethnographer, how organized or idiosyncratic they should be– which make it difficult to transparently discuss or teach how to do fieldnotes.

Transparency, or “making explicit the assumptions and commitments [held] about the nature of ethnography as a set of practical research and writing activities,” is the authors’ response to the different conceptions about fieldnotes specifically and  ethnography generally.  In that spirit, the authors are ethnomethodologists and symbolic interactionists, which I think gives them sensitivity to “mundane” practices that compel them to think this carefully about fieldnotes as a kind of habitual practice for ethnographers.  Their experiences teaching courses about taking fieldnotes and their imagined audience of not just ethnographers in anthropology and related fields, but also people in experiential education and service learning– those are interesting to me as a writing educator.  They talk about writing not only about the “critical incidents” one encounters “in the field,” but also the everyday practices, habits, and routines that get taken for granted, which is of course core to the ethnographical enterprise, but also important to learning and reflection for people who don’t consider themselves academic researchers.

The book’s organization is structured based on the actual processes by which takers-of-fieldnotes, including non-experts, experience them, beginning with the notetaker’s assumptions and stances, then moving to the step-by-step aspects of writing, describing, developing analyses, organizing, etc.  The first chapter begins with detailing the place of fieldnotes in ethnographic research, essentially the interconnected activities of being in the field and writing about it.  Here, the ideas of social worlds, the interactional accomplishments of everyday situations that are defined between people, and the interpreted meanings of interactions, those kinds of concepts that ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism are concerned with, become developed between the ethnographer’s participation in the field and all that’s entailed in writing description.

Being in the field means the immersion of body, self, personality, in the social situation, not as objective outside observers, but as participants in the lives, interactions, and practices of the people studied.  Then, the ethnographer can understand the ways of thinking, the struggles, and the meanings of people in that setting.  But because of this, writing isn’t just noting what you observe and witness impartially, but working through perceptions and interpretations that you the ethnographer make.  The authors provide the examples of three different descriptions of supermarket checkout lines in LA to exemplify how “orientations and positionings” of the observers change the accounts, the representations in writing.  These show how fieldnotes involve selection, emphases, choices, filters and lenses of interpretation.

Therefore, fieldnotes involve a kind of inscription, a notion from Clifford Geertz, where the ethnographer takes “social discourse,” passing events happening in moments, and turns them into writing through a transformation, onto paper, of the events.  Selection, framing, and other reductions are involved, of course, and that’s why method matters.  What are we selecting for, looking for, viewing for?  And yet, even while defining those lenses, the ethnographer’s job is to be aware of context, details, factors, influences, all that might go into a “thick description” (Geertz again) that understanding people requires.

The four implications the authors draw: (1) data is always tied to the observational processes, and whatever the method is always the data at the same time; (2) the ethnographer is always looking for indigenous meanings, local interpretations, not imposed though mediated through the ethnographer; (3) writing fieldnotes contemporaneously is necessary, though not sufficient, to build the account, because the writing nearest to the occurrence maintains the character of contingency and specificity of the moment; and (4) the everyday activities, the mundane interactions, the microscopic moments– those are the ethnographer’s concern, with detail, attending to sequences, eventually leading to identifying processes, to document life.

The authors conclude by summing up some different takes on what’s involved when ethnographers write down the cultures and localities they’re immersed in– is it, as Geertz called it, inscription, putting into words a moment?  Or is that too much like “salvage ethnography,” the rough notion that anthropologists are about capturing and bottling up disappearing languages and heritages before they pass into extinction?  Is it narrating, translation, or “textualization,” as Clifford calls it?  Each perspective tells us something about what’s involved in fieldnotes, the authors explain, and yet none adequately parse out what’s involved in the daily “way of life” that ethnographic fieldnotes invites a researcher into.

As I said at the top, these are ideas I’ve been familiar with and have influenced me, but I appreciate the clarity and coherence with which the authors introduce ethnographic fieldnotes in the larger context of what ethnography is.  As a qualitative researcher (I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m an anthropologist or ethnographer formally, since my discipline lets me pick and choose what’s most useful and necessary to answer whatever research question), I am pretty aligned to these authors’ perspectives about research work.  There are more critical questions about research and communities that the authors haven’t taken up yet– in the “immersion” experience, we can’t forget that the farther and faster we “swim” into the waters, the more we push out waves that ripple through the ecology of the lake.  But I appreciate this refresher as I set up the infrastructures to take fieldnotes in my own work.

“A Review of the Literature on Teaching Academic English to English Language Learners” by DiCerbo, Anstrom, Baker, and Rivera

From the Review of Education Research, this literature review piece does the kind of job that makes me thankful for literature reviews, assembling and organizing the existing research within certain boundaries.  In this case, the authors, researchers at the George Washington University Center for Equity and Excellence in Education, gather research since 2000 that describes academic language, research on how it is taught, and the implications for teacher education and professional development.  It’s a valuable piece that puts together much of the research I read, a piece that I’ll share with others, and definitely cite in my work on academic English.  A rough outline of the piece, before some of my own thoughts:

I. Introduction: Language’s important in teaching/learning and schools, “hidden curriculum,” and CCSS emphasis.

II. Methodology: Marking the boundaries for inclusion in this review

III. Conceptualizations of Academic English in the Literature:

   A. Differentiates Academic vs Social English

   B. Explicates Features within and across Content Areas

      1. Vocabulary

      2. Grammar

      3. Discourse

      4. Science, Mathematics, History/Social Studies

      5. Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Math

   C. Addresses the Social Function of Language

IV. Research on Academic English Instruction

      1. Instruction in Academic Vocabulary

      2. Instruction in Grammar

      3. Classroom Discourse

V. Implications for Teacher Knowledge

VI. Conclusions and Research Priorities

My Commentary:

Like any literature review, or really any work covering extant knowledge, the authors/reviewers have to gather, select, and justify their selections.  Sometimes, that’s the most interesting part.  For example, from the paradigms of evidence these authors are working within (the piece is based on an unpublished report commissioned by the US Department of Education), they need to cite the “scarcity of research” to justify a broad inclusion of studies with different research methodologies, including quantitative and qualitative studies.  They cover empirical studies with various approaches, including linguistic studies, educational ethnographies, and even works of theory.  I’m presuming here, but with an audience sector that tends to privilege quantitative, gold-standard research, adding those notes about the inclusion of qualitative research is a necessary move.  But there is a feeling of, why should those have to be justified?  Qualitative studies are necessary to get at the depth and detail of phenomena like teaching and learning or structures like academic English.

Anyway, if I have any critiques of the piece, they aren’t ones where I would fault the authors for the shape of the review.  Instead, they would be things I’d add as I shared the piece with others in order to say, “this review covers many important perspectives well, but if you wanted to think comprehensively about the topic of ELLs and academic English, I’d also include consideration of these things.”

What are “these things?”  They’re related things: a somewhat attenuated discussion of “English Language Learner,” a little short shrift to social and cultural dimensions of both ELLs and academic English, and a few other perspectives that could have been included somehow.  Some of these oversights are a matter of a lack in the research, not in the reviewers, and some of it is alluded to in their conclusion.

First, while the article repeatedly specifies work on English Language Learners and not the general population, this seems more like a useful limiting or boundary line for a segment of work than an exploration of all that goes on under that label in relation to language.  In that sense, this review addressing “English Language Learners” is a little bit like the uses of the label itself: useful for focusing, categorizing, and specifying, but not quite ready to take on the full-blown implications of addressing the population of immigrants and children of immigrants.  The complexities of the population (which have huge impacts on their relationship to, and learning of, academic English) aren’t really discussed, and they could have cited scholars like Kate Menken, Laurie Olsen, Ofelia Garcia, Tatyana Kleyn, and many others.  Granted, those researchers may not always be doing work directly concerned with the linguistic or learning aspects of ELLs, so I can understand their omission from the review.  But some parts of education have a habit of ignoring the concrete social dimensions that both research and teacher instincts tell us have a primary role in student learning and achievement, such as whether groups of immigrant youth are isolated, overlooked, or embraced in a school community.  Like I said, if I were tasked to write a similar review, I know such considerations might end up on the cutting room floor, but when we talk about language and immigrants in pre-service and professional development training, I’d hope we have a bigger-picture conception.

The authors do have a useful section talking about the social function of language, which I notice draws heavily on the work of James Paul Gee.  I can understand why and I’ve done the same; Gee has a way of pulling together theory, research, and practice from language, literacy, and education research in very accessible, comprehensive, and still sophisticated ways.  There’s also work cited from Systemic Functional Linguistics like Halliday and others, who have done great work on academic language analysis with awareness of its social dimensions.  But I wonder about the missing perspectives from fields like language socialization (ie Patricia Duff) and sociocultural and other socially-inflected approaches to second language acquisition (although Lourdes Ortega and others within these schools are cited, but not explicitly discussed).  Again, their omission may have to do with research not directly addressing ELLs in P-12 schools and things like that, so it’s understandable.  And it’s a relevant question whether, when we talk about ELLs and academic English, we’re talking about second language acquisition, first language acquisition, or something that really busts those simplistic categories (see Ortega and folks like Ofelia Garcia for that stuff).  But really important thinking and research still left out, which I think is highly relevant to ELL education.

All of these concerns are triggers for my own work, and people familiar with my research projects (still in progress… grad student… ) will see these as familiar concerns coming from me.  But my work needs the knowledges and awarenesses from the research reviewed in DiCerbo, Anstrom, Baker, and Rivera’s piece, for which I’m grateful.