by Elsie Lindy Olan, University of Central Florida, Orlando Kia Jane Richmond, Northern Michigan University, Marquette
Elsie Lindy Olan and Kia Jane Richmond NCTE/CEL in Minneapolis, 2015
After our first encounter at the NCTE and CEL conferences in Minneapolis (pictured above, 2015), we began a productive and rewarding collaborative research and writing partnership. In our English Leadership Quarterly (ELQ) article (http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/ELQ/0392-oct-2016/ELQ0392Conversations.pdf), we describe our positionality this way:
Despite the fact that we teach English education at two very different geographically and socioculturally situated universities—one a mid-sized rural Midwestern university and the other a large urban Southern university—we discovered through extended dialogue that we both aim to make our methods courses safe spaces in which preservice teachers can consider and (de)construct their own identities as readers while preparing to teach literature in secondary schools across the United States and beyond […] And to do this, we use young adult literature and culturally responsive teaching. (p. 11)
As teacher educator researchers, we wanted to create essays that shared our research and that invited teachers to consider, problematize, and reevaluate issues related to the teaching of English Language Arts – and in particular, young adult literature. The idea of disrupting notions – which can be challenging and, at times, gut wrenching – is one that is essential to the transformation of one’s pedagogy and stance in the secondary classroom.
While writing a piece on young adult literature and classic literary texts, we reflected on which venue would be most appropriate for our writing and which audience would benefit from the questions we asked and the statements we made. As teacher educator researchers, an issue that students and alumni in our programs brought to our attention was one of feeling disempowered and confused as to the incorporation of young adult literature in the secondary English classroom. Another issue was related to feeling uncomfortable making connections between the classic literary texts they were asked to teach and their own students’ cultural and personal lives. This was a problem of practice that we also grappled with, but one that wasn’t unique to those of us in higher education; it was relevant to those in high school classrooms.
When we decided to write for English Leadership Quarterly, we chose to submit there because we truly had the understanding that ELQ is a platform that encourages classroom teachers, department heads, and teacher educators to share their journeys of transitioning into leadership and making decisions about curriculum that inform student learning and teachers’ pedagogical practices. As former teachers of secondary English, we also wanted to share our students’ experiences and those of alumni in order to inform teachers’ practices and invite readers into the conversation. CEL defines itself as helping “language arts leaders in sharing mutual problems and insights, exchanging resources, seeking the advice of successful leaders, and investigating issues of greatest concern to leaders.” Although all of NCTE’s groups encourage connection, CEL promotes and fosters collaboration between and among leaders in English programs – at the annual conference and beyond.
In our ELQ essay, we discuss the intentional inclusion of young adult literature and culturally responsive teaching in our methods courses. Our goal is to help preservice teachers connect to their experiences as readers. For example, Kae designed a lesson plan in which her secondary students created their own book covers for young adult novels they read, bringing in their own lived experiences as part of the process. This, Kae says, “allowed students to make their own choices, and therefore reflect on whether they could have made different choices, all the while allowing me to step back as the teacher and not tell the students how they should feel or think. . .” In another case, preservice teacher Elena chose John Green’s Looking for Alaska for her students at an alternative high school. She did so because she wanted to make the literature culturally relevant to students’ lived experiences, which included “struggles in and out of the classroom” as well as “difficulties with substance abuse […], physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, along with a multitude of mental and physical health issues” (p. 14). Elena’s choice of text was not only purposeful in terms of being culturally relevant but encouraged her students to read about an array of characters with unique abilities.
The collaboration on the ELQ essay was just the beginning of our investing in each other’s professional growth and finding connections as teacher educators and researchers. In 2016 and 2017, we worked together on multiple projects related to teaching English Education, young adult literature, and qualitative research. Often, our writing sessions happened via Skype, during which we could see and hear each other while working on the same document in Google docs. This process allowed us to better understand our individual positionalities, contexts, and sociopolitical environments of our different institutions as well as the educational practices of our school systems. Much of our research has involved examining not only our students’ needs as educators but also the programs in which they are prepared.
In a recent article published in the Wisconsin English Journal (https://wejournal.wordpress.com/2017/10/31/olan-and-richmond/#more-2020), we discuss how and why we each developed new courses to help future English teachers “build an appreciation of canonical texts and young adult literature and strategies for using literature to encourage critical thinking across the curriculum.” Through the process of sharing the creation of these courses, we found that we also made room for our own professional growth, which included developing new understandings of our programs, our practices, and our students’ needs. The Conference on English Leadership has been a part of that journey. We recognize that our dialogic interactions are reciprocal and cyclical in nature. We gather ideas through reading, researching, and tapping into our theoretical frameworks; we come together in real time to share thoughts and analyze and interpret data, while welcoming dissent and offering critique without personal judgment; and we come away from each project with new understandings and a plethora of additional inquiries that guide our next collaborative project.
We hope that readers of this CEL blog acknowledge the power that collaborative work has; at its core, our co-labouring has brought each of us new information, new opportunities for professional growth, and a partnership that is built on mutual respect, trust, and a willingness to change. For all of us in CEL, there are potential partners for collaborative projects, prospective sounding boards – someone willing to listen to problems, share concerns, and offer constructive feedback about teaching English Language Arts and/or issues related to leadership.
CEL’s recognition of our collaborative partnership culminated in the 2017 English Leadership Quarterly Best Article Award, which honored our unique voices and co-labouring. This honor was especially appreciated because we now identify a platform where our voices are valued and where a broader audience welcomes the need for dialogic interaction among not only teachers but also those who might be tasked with leadership roles. It is in this protected space where teachers, department heads, curriculum directors, English Educators, and others who take on leadership roles can find encouragement and support and can also feel comfortable asking provocative questions, knowing that data and theories can be examined through multiple lenses, which helps us to move forward in our careers. Because CEL – through its conferences and publications – offers a communal space for practicing teachers and leaders, we can bring forth difficult questions aimed at improving schools as well as teachers’ and students’ learning. Additionally, CEL provides a place for those in a liminal space, who are considering making a change in their careers. Conference on English Leadership members should appreciate this space as one that fosters collegial relationships and promotes reflective and reflexive practices.
Kia Jane Richmond, Oona Abrams, and Elsie Lindy Olan 2017 CEL Awards, St. Louis, Missouri
Dr. Kia Jane Richmond is 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, Composition Studies, Issues in Writing, and Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning. Her current research on mental illness and adolescent literature will be shared in a forthcoming book, Mental Illness in Young Adult Literature: Exploring Real Struggles through Fictional Characters, from ABC-Clio/Greenwood Press.
Dr. Elsie Lindy Olan is assistant professor and track coordinator for Secondary English Language Arts in the School of Teaching, Learning and Leadership at the University of Central Florida. She 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, English Leadership Quarterly, Research in the Teaching of English, Education and Learning Research Journal, Argentinian Journal of Applied Linguistics, and Language Arts. Her current research on teacher education and diversity will be shared in a forthcoming edited book, Transformative Pedagogies: Moving Towards Critical Praxis in an Era of Change, from Information Age Publishing, Inc. Elsie L. has presented her work and research at conferences in Mexico, Spain, United Kingdom, and United States.