[We continue to develop what we learned last November at our 2019 convention, “Creating Opportunities: Leadership to Ignite Movements and Momentum,” with Dr. Elsie Olan and Dr. Kia Jane Richmond, who extend their presentation from November.]
Positionality is an important component of teaching English Language Arts because, as Kezar (2002) notes, “people have multiple overlapping identities. Thus, people make meaning from various aspects of their identity” (p. 96). Each of us comes from a specific place, with unique experiences, and personal and cultural histories – all of which feed into our positionalities as individuals and as teachers. For example, Elsie identifies as a first-generation Latina teacher educator-researcher working at one of the largest universities in the United States. Kia Jane identifies as a white woman and Air Force brat who advocates for and mentors future teachers of English Language Arts at a rural Midwestern university. We continuously revisit and reinvent our identities through our conversations with each other and members of our discourse communities; these dialogic interactions inform our understandings of ourselves, our relationships with others, and our practices as teacher educators and researchers.
Reflection and dialogue are now more important than ever. In the shadow of COVID-19 virus and its unprecedented implications for teaching and learning, much of what many of us do as educators has changed. Yet one thing remains constant: the need for teachers and students to revisit who they are and where we want to go as learners. This is the best time for us to rely on each other for social and emotional support and to be empathetic to students’ needs (and our own) as well as understanding of what these uncertain times have demanded of educators and students -and how that has informed who we are and what we can do. Devising and implementing methods of conversation that help us – and our students – to explore representations of, and reflections on, ourselves as well as the characters portrayed in any literature we bring into our classes can provide opportunities for empathy, collaboration, and support for each other.
Both of us regularly employ an interactive, multimodal (drawing and writing) activity called “literacy quadrants,” which Elsie developed by adapting “Frayer’s Model (1969), a graphic organizer that helps students form concepts and learn new vocabulary by using four quadrants on a chart to define examples, non-examples, characteristics, and non-characteristics of a word or concept” (Olan & Richmond, 2019, p. 90). A major component of literacy quadrants prompts participants to “inquire into their identities” and invites them “to explore and ask questions about their learning, especially their reflective stances, critical approaches, and peer relationships within diverse learning communities” (Olan & Pantano, 2020, p. 80).
Throughout their dialogue with partners about literacy quadrants (images) and writing through a guided (examine-predict-discuss) sequence, participants are engaged in intentional and empathetic listening, defined by Rogers (1980) as sensing accurately the feelings and personal meanings of another and communicating through sensitive, active listening. Participants interact with their own (and their partner’s) constructed multimodal representations, and they reflect on their own lived experiences and their partners’ responses to both sets of images and writing. The beauty is that the interaction goes beyond participants’ acknowledgment of different perspectives, to places where they find connection, which helps them further probe/explore literature and their own lives.
The benefits of reflecting on our positionalities and beliefs through literacy quadrants and dialogue include the following:
- Reflecting upon one’s lived experiences, multiple identities, and literary texts can invite learners to situate themselves in relation to others’ lived experiences and positionalities. Thus, each participant has the opportunity to connect and to better understand how one’s interpretations and experiences are similar to and different from those of others (both in real life and on the pages of a literary text).
- Engaging in dialogue with peers helps participants to negotiate their positionings, reflective stances, and understanding of others’ lived experiences, which can lead to more empathetic communication and more equitable relationships between and among peers and teachers.
- Using literacy quadrants opens up the classroom (whether in face-to-face interactions or in a digital learning environment) as a vulnerable and safe space in which participants can express their understandings and misconceptions about literature and lived experiences without fear of having their voices muffled; the key is that empathetic listening provides a way to honor what is being said and to invite non-threatening questions from partners.
Kezar A. Reconstructing static images of leadership: an application of positionality theory. Journal of Leadership Studies, 2002, 8(3): 94–109.
Olan, E. L., & Pantano, J. A. (2020). An ‘epiphania’: Exploring students’ identities through multimodal literacies. English Journal, 109(4), 78–86.
Olan, E. L., & Richmond, K. J. (2019) Using literacy quadrants in preparing teachers of writing: Reflective tools for identity, agency, and dialogue,” Teaching/Writing: The Journal of Writing Teacher Education, 6(1): Article 6. https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/wte/vol6/iss1/6
Rogers, C. R. (1980). Empathetic: An unappreciated way of being. In C.R. Rogers (Ed.) A way of being. (pp. 137-163). Houghton Mifflin.
Dr. Elsie Lindy Olan, associate professor and track coordinator for Secondary English Language Arts in the School of Teacher Education in the College of Community Innovation and Education at the University of Central Florida, researches the role of language and writing, literacy, literature and diversity in learning and teaching in Language Arts education and cross-disciplinary education, and teachers’ narratives, inquiry and reflective practices in (national and international) teaching environments and professional development settings. Her work has been published in English Education, Research in the Teaching of English, Education and Learning Research Journal, Argentinian Journal of Applied Linguistics, and Language Arts. @ElsieOlan
Dr. Kia Jane Richmond, professor of English at Northern Michigan University, directs the English Education program and supervises student teachers in Michigan and Wisconsin. Her publications have appeared in English Education, Teaching English in the Two-Year College, Language Arts Journal of Michigan, and Composition Studies. She is currently writing a book, Mental Illness in Young Adult Literature: Exploring Real Struggles through Fictional Characters, forthcoming from ABC-Clio/Greenwood Press. @kiajanerichmond