The Mediational Role of Teacher Discourse in Students' Opportunities to Learn and Become Academic Writers
Bird, Erin M
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The teaching and learning of writing in the elementary classroom setting is a complex process. As students participate in the classroom community and write, they engage not only in the cognitive task of academic writing, but in various social practices as well- negotiating positionality, developing identities, cultivating understandings of genre, and navigating language resources in order to communicate. While the myriad factors that mediate students' writing development have been theorized and documented, few studies delve into the complexity of the teaching and learning of writing in the elementary classroom. One particularly understudied area is the writing conference. Through talk in the conference, teachers highlight the development of ideas and meaning making during drafting, and effectively and efficiently support individual needs (Black, 1998; Dyson, 1999; Smagorinsky, 2001). Despite the potential power of the writing conference, few studies examine the nature of teacher-student interaction in these moments and explore their affordances for learning at the elementary level without minoritizng students' language and literacy practices and, thus, the very identities of youth. This study, a qualitative case study of two exemplar teachers' writing conferences in a diverse, public, elementary school-examines the discursive moves of the teacher and student within the dyad of the writing conference. Specifically, I examine patterns in writing discourse, teacher positioning, and student positioning across writing conferences. Within this frame, I ask: How do two writing teachers' conference discourse mediate opportunities for students to learn and become academic writers? This study draws on ideas of discourse from sociocultural theories of Gee and Bakhtin to conceptualize teacher-student interaction, Lave and Wenger's concepts of communities of practice and brokering to explain teachers' and students' practices in the writing workshop, and positioning theories as an analytic tool for writing conferences to investigate teacher-student interactions in diverse contexts. A qualitative approach allowed for an in-depth examination across multiple instantiations of the writing conference, in two intermediate-grade classrooms, which yielded "thick descriptions" (Geertz, 1973) of the nature of writing time in the two classrooms (Stake, 1995; Yin, 2006). Further, a micro-analytic approach to qualitative analysis helped to identify patterns in teacher-student discourse in writing conferences and understand how they mediated students' opportunities for learning and identity development as writers. The comparative case design helped to surface themes across these two high-quality teachers and their students-as well as identify features that made them distinct. The three main sources of data which informed the present analysis were video recordings of classroom observations, field notes, and interviews with both the teachers and students. I analyzed multiple dialogic facets present in the writing conference and how those facets mediated understanding of writing practices and positioned the student, teacher, and text. I examined the language each participant employed, as well as how the teacher and student used semiotic features including gaze, gesture, roles, spaces, and objects throughout the conference to communicate with one another (Taylor, 2014). This study illuminates how teacher talk, demonstrated through pedagogical practices, positions the teacher and student, and thus impacts access to and support for learning academic genres for elementary writers. Through their different pedagogical approaches, the teachers framed what it meant to write and participate in the writing conference in different ways, and thus created different norms for engagement in the classroom community. Mr. Branson mediated opportunities for learning through his explicit teacher discourse, creation of a shared language, attunement to students' social and emotional development, and positioning students as writers. Conversely, Ms. Young took up a more dialogic teacher discourse, through her use of questioning. She elicited student understanding and used student responses as a guide for her instruction; decentered her authority; positioned writing as a collaborative endeavor; and positioned students as authors. Each teacher's discourse and conference structure provided particular affordances for student learning. Mr. Branson provided frequent, explicit, individualized support through conference dyads, reinforcing and repeating curricular foci-coaching his students to work hard to arrive at the "next level" of writing proficiency. Alternatively, Ms. Young's distributed conference structure illuminated how she apprenticed students into participation in the writing community as a collaborator, through her use of guided questions, affirmations, and facilitation of group talk-positioning writing as a social act. Both teachers found opportunities to position students as writers capable of engaging in complex writing tasks, and built relationships that offered support to take up the conference storyline and ultimately take up academic writing practices and identities. This study helps to understand the importance of attention to all facets of the student's experience within the classroom and supports further dialogue within education about how to support and cultivate the social emotional dimension of learning for students. Furthermore, this study may also contribute more broadly to theories of teacher discourse and student learning more broadly. Together, the theoretical and pedagogical insights from this work can be leveraged to support elementary writing teachers to improve their practice.
- Education - Seattle