Locating and Loving the Personal: Risk and Vulnerability in a Secondary English Language Arts Methods Course

Locating and Loving the Personal: Risk and Vulnerability in a Secondary English Language Arts Methods Course

Suzanne Knight (University of Michigan-Flint, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-495-6.ch001
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In this chapter the author takes up the use of narrative inquiry within a secondary English language arts methods course. She focuses on two discrete moments that took place during one class session, where she and her students shared and discussed personal narratives. In particular, she explores the pedagogy that might be required to support a group of pre-service teachers’ work to become a connected knowing group, including the disruptive nature of vulnerability and risk taking.
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For my teaching purposes, I define narrative inquiry as a pedagogy designed to support prospective teachers’ work toward greater self-awareness and self-understanding. Its purpose is to systematically draw teacher candidates’ attention to the ways they understand their world and to examine how those understandings then impact them in the classroom. The assumption behind such an inquiry is that prospective teachers enter their teacher preparation coursework already holding experiential knowledge that is often tacit (Clandinin, 1985; Johnson, 1989; Willinsky, 1989). If the knowledge itself is tacit, it also stands to reason that how this knowledge then shapes individuals as teachers is also tacit.

One goal of narrative inquiry as pedagogy, therefore, is to make this tacit knowledge visible. Toward this end this pedagogy begins with the act of “telling stories,” initially the writing of personal narratives. Some researchers, such as Villegas and Lucas (2002) refer to this telling as autobiographical writing (which I argue may be understood as personal narrative and thus, consistent with narrative inquiry) and argue that in addition to helping teacher candidates to better understand their worldviews, it can also provide a means through which they might examine their teaching practices, specifically the extent to which they equitably treat and respond to all students.

However, this aim of interrogating worldviews cannot be reached solely through the individual writing of narratives. The distinctive quality of narrative inquiry comes from its more collective nature (Conle, 2003); collaboration is essential (Bruner, 1996). Deeper and more complicated understandings of the self and how that self is then located in a classroom occur through dialogue (Witherell & Noddings, 1992). That said, then, another essential component of narrative inquiry is candidates’ sharing their narratives with each other and discussing the salient issues the written narratives raise, most specifically in relation to teaching practice.

Narrative inquiry, as I have described it above, holds the potential to disrupt future teachers’ misinformed perceptions of students (often shaped by embedded and invisible worldviews) and creates a space where they can interrogate the instructional choices they make based on those perceptions. Complicating this further, however, is that the pedagogy required in order to create such a space may—at the same time--disrupt students’ notions about the roles of teachers and students. Resting on my conviction of the potential of narrative inquiry, I explored the pedagogy involved in facilitating students’ discussions of their own written personal narratives, the collective feature of narrative inquiry.

My students were enrolled in a year long, masters-level secondary English language arts methods course while simultaneously completing a year of student teaching (post BA) in order to receive certification. At two points during the second semester of this year-long course, my students and I wrote a narrative piece, after which we identified the salient societal issue(s) that we believed had shaped us, such as race, social class or gender. For example, one student took up how being raised in a White, upper middle class home may have provided the types of experiences and knowledge that led to greater academic success. After identifying the issue(s) suggested in each narrative, we located an outside text that spoke to that issue. For example, the student mentioned above selected Lives on the Boundary: A Moving Account of the Struggles and Achievements of America’s Educationally Underprepared (1989) and Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools by Jonathan Kozol (1991) to help her make sense of and better understand the significance of her personal knowledge and experiences in light of her teaching practice.

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