Culturally Significant Learning in an Online Children's Literature Class: Transformations and Transactions

Culturally Significant Learning in an Online Children's Literature Class: Transformations and Transactions

Sue Christian Parsons (Oklahoma State University, USA) and Stephen Adam Crawley (Oklahoma State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-0206-8.ch016
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The chapter examines how online delivery of a graduate children's literature class influenced candidates' understandings of culture and culturally-relevant literacy practice. Employing inductive thematic analysis, researchers analyzed student work and reflections on their experiences transacting with high-quality, diverse literature. Analysis led to three primary results illuminating how the shift to online delivery, in conjunction with promoting and supporting access to high-quality diverse literature, influenced candidates' learning and engagement: candidates connected to and affected change in their “place-based” contexts, deepened understandings via interconnectedness and choice, and shifted in pedagogy and perspectives. Descriptions of course design and instructor's problem-solving processes may be particularly relatable to educators seeking insight into effective online teaching and learning.
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Career teacher “Paula” (pseudonym) thought about pursuing a master’s degree for years, but her busy life and rural setting, far from a comfortable drive to a university campus, complicated that pursuit. When her undergraduate alma mater began offering their literacy education master’s program online, she decided to take the leap to enroll. She did so with a good bit of trepidation as she was not confident in her technological skills and it had been decades since she had been enrolled in school. Still, she was driven to learn more so she could better meet the needs of learners in her small school, in a community experiencing a changing demographic including an influx of English language users—so she logged on and dug in.

Years before, the literacy education faculty at Oklahoma State University (OSU) wrestled with similar concerns. Their literacy education master’s program had a strong reputation for developing leaders and advocates. Program faculty—committed to strong, engaging, scholarly teaching and creative, responsive delivery—had offered on-site coursework at two campuses for years, moving from fully face-to-face to some hybrid offerings. They were intrigued by the potential for outreach an online program would offer, especially into underserved rural areas that stretched across their state, but they were holding out until they felt confident that the quality of learning engagement for candidates would not be compromised. This chapter addresses candidates’ development from instruction and experiences in an online graduate-level children’s literature course in a recently transitioned degree program, particularly relative to cultural understandings and culturally-relevant pedagogy.

Advanced Studies in Children’s Literature is the first course candidates encounter in the Reading and Literacy Education master’s program at this large, public Midwestern university. Candidates are K-12 classroom teachers seeking an advanced degree and Reading Specialist certification. Because of the university’s location, the graduate program draws candidates teaching and living in both urban and rural settings. Teaching the course fully online for the first time did not significantly change that demographic, though it did change the interrelationship between university and classroom teaching sites.

The course has been a staple of the master’s degree curriculum for almost twenty years, most often taught by Suzii, the first author of this chapter. All aspects of course content are offered through a multicultural lens, with a primary goal of fostering student awareness of sociocultural implications in literacy education. The course is framed by and infused with a critical literacy theoretical stance in which literature is seen as a “space for constructing critical conversations and interpretations, where both teachers and students negotiate meanings, discuss the systems of power inherent in the meanings available, and share experiences of how these stories relate to their lives and communities” (Serafini, 2003, p. 7). It is designed so that candidates apply what they learn to teaching their own students and engaging with their school communities. Until Fall 2018, the course had been taught in face-to-face or hybrid formats. When the decision was made to move the master’s program fully online, the children’s literature course was the first migrated.

This chapter examines candidates’ responses and development in an interactive, multicultural children’s literature course taught online, highlighting practices and platforms that resulted in such rich results. The primary focus of this qualitative study is on how learners grew in understandings and practices related to diversity and equity in literacy education, specifically, “How did the shift to online delivery of an interactive graduate-level children’s literature class influence candidates’ understandings of culture and culturally-relevant literacy practice?” The authors include the course instructor (Suzii) who designed and redesigned the course, and a new professor with extensive experience as an online learner (Adam) who collaborated with Suzii on a broader analysis.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Literature: This term encompasses picturebooks and chapter books—physical and digital formats—rather than other types of text such as news articles. Whether fiction or nonfiction, a text is deemed literature based on an engaging writing style that supports readers’ connections with the work.

Touchstone Texts: A list of 28 texts (primarily picturebooks)—compiled by the instructor—that candidates read and repeatedly referenced throughout various learning engagements.

High-Quality: A descriptor for texts based on writing and/or illustration, especially in how they engage readers and provide accurate, sensitive depictions of the people they represent. Often quality is determined through award or honor recognitions.

Diverse: This phrase refers to the many different ways of being in the world such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion, language, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and dis/ability among others. It also acknowledges the intersections of these identities and that they don’t exist in isolation.

Transaction: Transaction involves the merging of two or more entities to create new meaning. According to Rosenblatt’s transactional reader response theory, the reader brings meaning (based in experience) to a text and takes meaning from that text, resulting in a unique construction—what Rosenblatt calls the “poem”—for each reading. Unlike interaction, which simply involves the meeting of two entities, transaction involves overlap and change.

Picturebook: Approximately 32 pages on average, such texts involve a symbiotic relationship between words and images. Picturebooks differ from picture books (two words) where illustrations simply duplicate the written words and primarily serve as a scaffold for emergent readers.

Multicultural: Similar to diverse, this word references the many ways of being in the world. In this chapter, the term is specifically a descriptor for literature depicting one or several minoritized cultures.

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