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Wonderings on Preparing Teachers to Disrupt Inequalities and the Theory- Practice Divide

readkingIn a recently published literature review, Wetzel and colleagues (2019) asked, “What do we know about how to prepare teachers to teach literacy in ways that disrupt inequalities and lead to more just and equitable educational practices” (p. 3)? They reviewed 109 studies centered on preservice literacy teacher education and found evidence of many promising practices. At READ East Harlem, we work with in-service (or currently practicing) teachers, many of whom have multiple years of experience teaching. They have a wealth of knowledge about literacy teaching and learning – and particularly literacy teaching and learning in NYC public schools, and we have worked with them to further refine and expand their work. 

reading2My wonderings center on connecting Wetzel et al.’s (2019) question and our literacy work with practicing teachers. What can we take away from our work with in-service teachers to inform preservice literacy teacher education? How might our ideas translate into coursework? These questions are important because one of the goals of preservice teacher education is to prepare teachers for the classroom, yet a long-standing issue in teacher education involves the frequent disconnect between theories and practices espoused and promoted in universities and the realities of what occurs in classrooms (e.g., Feiman-Nemser & Buchman, 1985); the university-field divide is arguably particularly acute regarding elementary literacy instruction and even more so in high-poverty urban schools that serve minoritized youth (e.g., Gutiérrez, 2006). The reasons for these exacerbated disconnects require more space than this blog post provides, but in short, high-stakes accountability policies over the last 15-plus years have targeted elementary literacy instruction (e.g., Coburn, Pearson, & Woulfin, 2011) and schools labeled “low-performing,” which tend to serve minoritized youth (e.g., Gutiérrez, 2006). 

Given all of this complexity, how can our work with experienced teachers who currently work in urban, high-poverty schools serving minoritized youth inform preservice literacy teacher education? (Many of the READ East Harlem literacy specialists also teach university-based literacy courses.) Can our work help to bridge the university-field divide? If so, in what ways? Clearly, I have more questions than answers, and so I brought these ideas and questions to our group of literacy specialists, most of whom have been working with READ East Harlem much longer than me. 


Some of the work the READ East Harlem literacy specialists have done involves a deep and close focus on teachers’ language. The language teachers use with kids – and the language teachers expect kids to use – can be inequitable and unjust, such as reflecting higher or lower expectations for certain students or conveying deficit-based views of students (Flores & Rosa, 2015). A focus on teacher language can be brought into preservice teacher education, particularly through the use of video – of cooperating teachers, of the preservice teachers, of teachers in professional development videos. One READ East Harlem literacy specialist does this in her courses; she has her preservice teachers take notes on their cooperating teacher’s language and then they work to revise it during an in-class workshop session. Analyzing and revising teacher language can work to “acknowledge social practices that hold inequities in place” and “shift educational practices in ways that disrupt Whiteness and white privilege,” two promising practices identified in Wetzel and colleagues’ (2019) literature review. Another area READ East Harlem specialists have worked in regards curriculum – or, more specifically, curricular programs adopted by schools which teachers are expected to implement (with varying expectations surrounding fidelity to the program, depending on school context). Often, pre-packaged literacy curricular programs do not meet students’ needs (e.g., Pacheco, 2010), so it is necessary to modify, adapt, and/or transform them so they are responsive to students.

READ East Harlem literacy specialists have worked with elementary teachers to use curricular programs as tools but to modify them to meet the needs of their class. This work can be challenging, but it is imperative, especially if teachers will be teaching in schools where administrators expect a particular program to be “followed.” Translating this work into preservice teacher education could include an assignment that involves looking at a unit from a commonly adopted program in district schools and restructure it so it better meets students’ needs and reflects current research and theory regarding literacy instruction.

readingEngaging in curriculum transformation work during preservice teacher education could also address “perceived and/or real constraints” that Wetzel et al. (2019) identified as a “barrier” to developing preservice teachers’ learning around literacy instruction that disrupts educational inequities. Often, a required curriculum is seen as a barrier – preservice teachers feel their agency is constrained in terms of the literacy instruction they are allowed to enact in their classrooms (Wetzel et al., 2019). Having the opportunity to revise a curricular unit during preservice education could potentially facilitate preservice teachers’ agency regarding instructional planning and decision-making, which they could then carry into their practice when they have their own classrooms.

These were just two of the ideas we came up with during our literacy specialist meeting. Certainly, there are many more! We will continue to build on the work reviewed by Wetzel et al. (2019) and on our own work with practicing teachers to help inform the work we do in our preservice literacy courses. 

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