This interview features insights from the JTE article, “Preparing Bilingual Teachers: Mediating Belonging with Multimodal Explorations in Language, Identity, and Culture” written by Patricia Martinez-Álvarez, Isabel Cuevas, and María Torres-Guzmán. The article is featured in the March/April issue of JTE; you can read the article by going to this link.
Q. What motivated you to pursue this particular research topic?
Isabel: The work (and collaboration) arises from the confluence of interests and motives. We share an interdisciplinary interest in understanding the processes that contribute to forming reflective professors that work for social justice that favors an inclusive education, without exclusions (Ainscow, Booth & Dyson, 2006), considering and valuing the cultural and linguistic identity of the members of classroom communities.
María: The anthropological thinking and ethnographic tools were organized as a survey of the use of the theory and methods in the bilingual classroom and their documentation in the literature. The first four sessions examined the historical development of culture in the classroom — the intention was to examine how the literature had treated the relationship – from the conceptualization of culture as associated with language (i.e, culture of poverty, one nation, one language, etc.) to its deconstruction and reconstruction as more fluid and associated with identity construction as agentic, shaping and being shaped by language and culture (Bucholtz & Hall, 2005). By the fifth class, teacher candidates had the conceptual tools to critique and nuance their definitions and to be repositioned to redefine themselves within the context of the course and as bilingual teachers.
While the course had evolved, the object of the main assignments (the family meal, the reflections about culture, the classroom observation, and the final presentation) had remained. The focus was on examining self as bilingual teachers who came to the teacher education program with rich histories, had committed themselves to a future in the field, and who would have to face on-going redefinitions associated with who they were and who the children they taught were. What had evolved were the technological tools at the teacher candidates’ disposal. In the iteration of the course we focused on, the family meal was transformed with the use of Comic Life, the reflection of culture was constructed multimodally through Inspiration, and students were encouraged to use instructional videos from youtube and other sources. From a Vygotskian perspective, the change in tools itself could transform the ways in which the learner engaged in the activity of thinking about language, culture and learning and the focus on the conceptualizations of writing was a window into doing so.
Patricia:The interest in integrating technology was two-folded. On one hand, we felt that our teacher candidates had to be prepared for the 21st century classroom by continuing to develop their technological literacy, not just by learning about different technological tools, but by learning to use these as they actually created multimodal products that involved negotiating meaning with the actual possibilities of the programs. We perceived the dynamism that technology allows for as an asset for a fluid exploration of the constructs. This was particularly significant in explorations of language, identity, and culture as technology allows for integration of multiple semiotic resources simultaneously. Likewise, we felt teachers would be more compelled to use some of these technologies in their future practice if they themselves realized their potential for bridging previously separated spaces.
Isabel: From a socio-cognitive perspective, the second author was studying –in different educational stages- some conditions and factors that favor the use of writing as a tool of construction and transformation of knowledge; such as the case of the epistemic conceptions of writing. Thus, the TC team felt that to generate a joint collaborative interest it was necessary to characterize the conceptions of writing of the teacher candidates, epistemic or reproductive, and analyze how the conceptions were associated with the mode teachers performed the tasks proposed by the program. For diverse reasons, the formative program of TC was an especially innovative and suitable setting to realize said study.
On the one hand, the assignments designed presented a high epistemic potential, given that they centered on reflection, negotiation, and meaning about central aspects for educational training. Moreover, the teacher education program attempted to systematically stimulate candidates to negotiate their own identity as growing bilingual teachers as they consider relevant issues of language, identity, and culture. On the other hand, and in relation to the above, it resulted particularly motivating to analyze how this reflection and negotiation was mediated by a multimodal composition (Kress, 2010; New London Group, 1996). In fact, the elaboration of the rubric to quantitatively analyze the multimodal composition permitted capturing its complexity which was certainly one of the challenges of this study.
Q. What were some difficulties you encountered with the research?
María: We encountered multiple difficulties which we believe is a normal part of the process of collaborative writing, particularly when coming from different theoretical traditions. There were two issues that were salient and significant that we wanted to share with others because of their relevance beyond our particular article: (1) the marriage between qualitative and quantitative methods and (2) connection of two theoretical frameworks that stemmed from different traditions – Cultural historical activity theory (CHAT) and writing conception theory. CHAT is Vygotskian based and the writing theories were cognitively based.
We could see the writing tradition as subsumed to CHAT as the latter focused on systems of activity but we also had the topic and focus of the class, that is, culture as identity construction. What made us think we could bring all of this together? The theories were coming into conflict and before we were comfortable with a written text we had to construct a link that was reasonable and expanded both traditions.
Since the tradition of conceptions of writing was cognitively based, it was not until we reconstructed it as a psychological tool with an ontological-historical pathway, in the Vygotskian tradition, that we could begin to see the links between the two and construct their complementarity. While lesser in number, there were candidates that saw writing as a way of reporting information; they report on the collective narratives that they encountered and that they might or might not consider them in storying their own identities. This use of writing was called reproductive writing conceptions. The majority of the teacher candidates in the course, however, were what the literature called epistemic writers. They treated the tool of writing as an instrument through which they expressed themselves and explore their evolving thinking. There was more than one activity at work: writing and thinking; they were acting as individuals in the social construction of selves within the role of bilingual teachers and they were considering the historical and alternative ways of understanding the role of multiple languages and cultures in teaching/learning. In other words, the system of writing activity was not considered as an isolated activity; it was considered in relation to systems of thinking about the relationship of culture, language, and learning and in relation to thinking about and creating their identities as teachers.
The qualitative/quantitative marriage was another related difficulty. Cognitive traditions lean toward categorizing and look for numerical tendencies whereas qualitative traditions look for process, patterns of interaction, and the role these play in creative resolutions or transformations. We needed to resolve how we connected the associated methods in a mixed method design so as to go beyond eclecticism.
First, we consulted Creswell (2003) on mixed methods and tried to reconstruct our process in order to name and describe it accurately. We decided, for example, that while our process was truly iterative, going back and forth to think about what we were doing, at each step we were connecting to the different aspects of the theory, we were interpreting the meaning of the texts, and we were contributing to our interpretations of the significance of our work. In other words, it was the systems of thinking, research, and writing in interaction. We used the quantitative method to define baseline information about the participants and to develop the criteria for selecting the multimodal composition cases we would use for the qualitative analysis. This process gave coherence to the research because we realized that with only one method we would not nuance the stories of the candidates. Thus, we summarized what we were doing as seeking to understand, through qualitative methods, how the multimodal tool mediated their uptake of the discourses the teacher candidates brought into the learning experience and those they encountered as part of the course to rethink the role of language, identity, and culture in relation to the learning needs of the children, to broader societal needs, and, ultimately, to their own identity construction and negotiating of belonging as bilingual teachers.
Patricia: Additionally, not all teacher candidates in the learning experience we studied felt that a multimodal response was their preferred way of communicating. Just as undergraduate and early schooling experiences tend to favor reading and writing in more traditional forms, some of our students also preferred to make meaning through reading and writing, rather than having to think through a multimodal process. Some of the teacher candidates resisted using the technology as an epistemic tool that could help them in more actively implementing all their semiotic resources for learning. Not only were the soon-to-be teachers exploring their evolving ideas about identity, culture and language, and situating them within their imagined practice, but they were also trying to rethink these connections using the digital and multimodal tools we were proposing.
This double-sided learning exploration proved to be initially challenging for some of the teacher candidates. It was though, worth the effort as it provided them with the opportunity to understand how such an approach could assist their own students in making meaning and how a multimodal approach can support very different thinking processes. The process was also recognized as an effective way to learning to use the actual technology tools.
Q. What current areas of research are you pursuing (as situated/informed within/by the new challenges we see for the field of teacher education)?
Patricia: While working in this project, we became acutely aware of the need to use tools that allowed for variation in response — where each candidate would have the opportunity to fruitfully develop their identities as bilingual teachers. While we needed to find our own pathways, as teacher educators, to be able to understand how to do this in a systematic manner and we also needed to respect the individual processes that different teacher candidates followed. These individual process, which are rooted in candidates beliefs and values, were acquired as they were participating in different social spaces in their lives, and thus reflect the reality of today’s public school classrooms where children are increasingly multilingual and multicultural.
In our research, we wanted to prepare teachers to address the needs of their students by respecting their individual learning trajectories. Thus, it made sense to explore how the different teaching and learning contexts differed and how we could utilize what we had learned in this project to prepare teachers for, not only the bilingual classroom, but also bilingual classrooms with children who have additional layers of difference. This understanding tapped onto one of our team member’s interest in preparing teachers for the bilingual classroom that incorporates children who live at the intersection of differences (i.e., in terms of ability, culture/race, and language, among others).
Additionally, we realize the relevance of thinking of teaching and learning as activities that involve multiple activity systems, which at the same time bring their own rules, division of labor patterns, resources, and communities (Engeström, 1993). When analyzing how the expansion of learning activity can take place, we have to think of teaching learning in terms of expansion that is situated both at the vertical (developmentally or within a certain activity system); and at the horizontal (across activity systems and disciplinary boundaries) levels (Engeström, 1993). A multivoiced process can assist in analyzing volitional actions that different participants in the activity systems take. Such a process can assist us in engaging with the larger sociopolitical context where our teacher education research is situated to address how differences, and related issues of identity, impact the learning of minoritized children and their teachers.
We wonder, how can teacher educators allow for different trajectories as candidates navigate not only their multiple identities and cultures but how these transform as they imagine themselves as teachers? How do they address the trajectories of children who live and learn at an even more complex intersection of differences? How do the different trajectories teachers follow as they rethink identity, culture and language for the multilingual/multicultural classroom translate into their classroom practice? These inquiries, among others, are leading our research as we address contemporary issues in the field of teacher education.
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