Using Historical Fiction to Prepare Teachers for Diverse Classrooms
As a teacher of our Teacher Education Department’s Sociology of Education course, I seek ways to inspire teacher candidates to understand the imperative to develop relationships with their students. This is particularly important now when teacher candidates are largely white and middle class and their students represent a plethora of cultural and class diversity. Critical to connecting with students is learning about their lives to build bridges across differences.
Over the years, I have found one assignment, which I call Literature Study Teaching: Teaching a Text about Diverse Students’ Experience of Schooling, a powerful way to open candidates’ eyes to the importance of their students’ life-stories. Candidates read historical and biographical fiction chronicling collisions between diverse world views such as Fadiman’s (1997) The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which captures one Hmong family’s experience with the American medical community, or Jimenez’s (1998/2001) The Circuit and Breaking Through, the stories of an immigrant Latino family in America. Candidates read one of twelve curated books so they can encounter life experiences different from their own (please email me with suggestions or to ask for my list). Their choice of text places them in a small group to research and develop a class segment teaching “what teachers should know” about a student in their text. I find that narratives serve as a catalyst to candidates to begin the lifelong task of learning the vast cultural knowledge they’ll need to help them connect with their students. The narratives compliment other theoretical and sociological readings that I assign; their particularity reveals the human condition and helps us identify viscerally with students’ experiences (Check it out here This link will take you to an external website in a new tab.; Polkinghorne, 1988; Connelley & Clandinin, 1990).
Candidates collaboratively research, plan, and teach an hour long class segment. They resist the “sage on the stage” approach and create experiences in which their colleagues can learn through dialogue, videos, activities, and read-alouds to bring the text to life and create meaningful understandings. I share this thought experiment: Imagine that you must prepare a teacher to teach a student from your text; what do they need to understand about their life, culture, and school experience? Candidates research websites like Teaching Tolerance This link will take you to an external website in a new tab. for background knowledge and statistics, culturally-sustaining curriculum, and local community agencies. After each session, candidates solicit feedback on their teaching, and together we build an understanding of candidates’ needs and how to address them in our teaching.
In one memorable lit study session on Jimenez’s The Circuit and Breaking Through, candidates simulated a mock Professional Learning Community meeting guided by Francisco’s would-be second grade records. They asked: What do we notice about this student? What can this student do? What is he still learning? What learning activities/strategies would you implement given his learning needs? Next, they lowered the lights and read excerpts from the text that revealed Francisco’s story. We revisited our first our responses recorded on chart paper. Understanding Francisco’s experience as the child of migrant workers led candidates to find their suggestions sorely lacking and to re-examine them. Candidates cringed over having judged his parents. Their nudges to involve the parents seemed cold and even uninviting when they understood their work life and responsibilities. They came up with alternate ways to invite participation centered on their own efforts, such as home visits. Strategies for teaching multi-lingual students took on a new exigency.
I’ll close with two candidates’ comments about their learning:
- “We’ve got to read students like writers do. Ironically studying one student in one situation in one culture so in depth through the eyes of the author of one piece of literature prepared me better than the studying dry details from many cultures.”
- “I have heard the idea that there are other voices that are marginalized in school in theoretical writings. But the story actually brought the points of view I have never heard into the conversation in a real way. Then suddenly the idea that there are different points of view that students will bring to my classroom actually meant something to me, since I’m hearing the point of view so intimately. In the reading, I’m feeling the point of view, too.”
Connelly, F. M. & Clandinin, J. (1990). Stories of experience and narrative inquiry. Educational Researcher, 19, 2-14.
Fadiman, A. (1997). The spirit catches you and you fall down. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Jimenez, F. (1998 & 2001). The circuitand Breaking through. New Mexico: University New Mexico Press.
Polkinghorne, D. E. (1988). Narrative knowing and the human sciences. New York: State University of New York Press.
 I would like to credit my colleague, Andrea Whittaker, for creating this assignment.