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Pedagogy 3.2 (2003) 277-280

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English Education Students and Professional Identity Development:
Using Narrative and Metaphor to Challenge Preexisting Ideologies

Janet Alsup

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During my six years as an English educator, I have seen many preservice teachers express confidence in their ability to teach secondary school English early in their undergraduate programs. This confidence, while not always misplaced or inappropriate, can mask a lack of critical understanding of effective pedagogy, especially when it is based on the students' memories of their school experiences, which my students intend to replicate in their own classrooms. Often, their personal histories have become foundational narrative ideologies on which their teaching philosophies are built.

Many educational researchers and theorists believe, in fact, that personal histories can have a more powerful effect on the beliefs and practices of preservice and new teachers than university courses (see Lortie 1975; Crow 1987a, 1987b; Ross 1987; Britzman 1991; Holt-Reynolds 1992; Knowles 1992). Others find that teacher education courses can promote the development of preservice teachers' professional identities if they ask the students to examine critically or interrogate their personal histories for evidence of what constitutes a good teacher and what the job of teaching entails (see Knowles and Holt-Reynolds 1991; Bullough and Stokes 1994; Tillema 1998).

To engage my students in such critical examination, I have developed two assignments for a course titled "The Teaching of Literature in the Secondary Schools." I call these assignments the "pedagogical discussion assignment" and the "photographic philosophies assignment." The first assignment [End Page 277] may be more effective for the student who prefers verbal or language-based learning activities, while the second may appeal more to the visually oriented student.

Using Narrative to Reconceptualize Belief

Many scholars in psychology, anthropology, education, and English studies have written about the power and potential of narrative (see Campbell 1988; Britzman 1991; Goodson 1992; Bloom 1998; Mishler 1999; Wortham 2001; Bruner 2002). They agree that human beings partly construct their selves by producing and assimilating narratives that inform them, consciously or unconsciously, how to interact in the world. For example, memories of high school may exist as internalized narratives that preservice teachers rehearse and tell others and that come to be deeply held ideological patterns that structure the teachers' beliefs about high school teaching and drive their classroom practices.

I created the pedagogical discussion assignment to take advantage of narrative's potential to shape and reshape teacher identity. The assignment asks my undergraduates to take turns leading a discussion about teaching a literary text and about the narrative histories that influenced their pedagogical decisions. The student leading the discussion describes his or her goals for teaching the chosen text, provides ideas for classroom activities and assignments, gives suggestions for assessing student learning (and alignment with Indiana's ninth- through twelfth-grade standards for the teaching of English language arts), and writes an essay that reflects on these goals, activities, and assessments and that accounts for his or her choices concerning the teaching of the text. In this critically reflective essay, the student (1) discusses supporting research or theory; (2) includes anecdotal or narrative evidence from past classroom experiences (either as a student or as a teacher) that demonstrates the appropriateness of his or her pedagogical choices; and (3) assesses his or her teaching philosophy or system of beliefs and its consistency with these choices. This reflective essay is shared with the student's peers, who respond both to the pedagogical ideas and to the essay. To get the discussion started, the student asks his or her classmates if they agree or disagree with the pedagogical choices. The student might also ask the classmates to offer suggestions or other narrative or anecdotal evidence that supports or opposes the choices.

The student's interests and concerns determine the questions he or she asks; however, a key component of the assignment is that the preservice teacher provides narrative, theoretical, and philosophical support for his or [End Page 278] her pedagogical choices and that the classmates participating in the discussion respond with educational...


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