President's Teaching Scholars Program




Creating Powerful Pedagogy with Preservice Teachers

For well over a decade, I’ve shepherded the children’s literature methods course for Preservice teachers (EDUC 4311), and while myriad questions about my practice have occupied me over the years, one central query continues to tug on my thinking: how can I help Preservice teachers learn to create powerful pedagogy? For me, the term “powerful pedagogy” means curriculum, instruction, and assessment that engage children deeply in literature, moving will beyond the basic comprehension of text and into opportunities for active and analytical reflection about literature. My interest in this question is hinged to a central assignment in which my Preservice teachers work in teams to develop a literary unit of instruction for an elementary classroom of children. The facets of the assignment are multiple. How effective is their children’s literature section, and do the trade books they choose link well to each other in critical ways? Do the preservice teachers provide a sound rationale for the importance of their unit choice? IN other words, why will it be meaningful for the children? What big curricular pieces will enable them to accomplish their goals? Will the children engage in literary discussion or in writing, and/or in the arts? How will the preservice teachers link their unit to state standards? In what ways will each of their individual lessons stay on the trajectory of the central unit goals? How will they evaluate how well their children are learning? And how will they adapt their instruction to meet the needs of all children?

To assist the preservice teachers in this endeavor, I’ve developed model units, collected exemplary units from previous students to showcase, and both lectured and conducted small group discussion of varying aspects of the unit assignment. I serve as a mentor an a partner to each team, offering suggestions, loaning trade books and academic articles, and pointing out places for fresh ideas. Finally, I evaluate the unit assignment in stages over the course of the semester from the proposal through the first, penultimate, and final drafts. But the dilemma remains the same. While some students quickly latch on to the idea of powerful pedagogy, others need much more help in learning to create curriculum, instruction, and assessment that will draw children deeper and deeper in literature.

In earlier studies of my practice, I’ve followed preservice teachers as they learned to engage individual children in literature (e.g., Wolf, Carey, & Mieras, 1996), and I’ve explored preservice teachers’ evolving understandings of diversity (e.g., Wolf, Ballentine, & Hill, 1999). But I’ve never researched the unit assignment. The PTSP Project on Teaching and Learning offers me the opportunity of doing just that. At the end of fall semester, 2005, I’ll have the final drafts as well as the revisions of all the units created by my 60 students. I’ll select fifteen students – five whose understandings of powerful pedagogy came very quickly, five tat took more time to come to such understandings, and five where the understandings came quite late or perhaps weren’t well understood even at the end of the course. Then using the unit drafts in stimulated recall sessions (putting the unit on the table and going through each of the sections in turn), I’ll interview the selected preservice teachers to hopefully uncover when and how their “Aha!” revelations occurred and when they didn’t, concentrating in particular on what aspects of the unit creation were the easiest as well as the most difficult. After completing one round of audio-recorded, individual interviews, I’ll transcribe and analyze the data for preliminary patterns. Then I’ll conduct a second round of interviews to present the patterns to the individual preservice teachers to triangulate my preliminary findings. In additions, this second interview will help me tease out the nuances in the patterns.

Creating powerful pedagogy is hard but essential work. If preservice teachers fail to grasp the concept during their time at the university, when they become teachers, it is likely that they will fall into the trap of following the advice of their textbooks lockstep or creating a series of disconnected activities that will ultimately fail to engage children in literature. And this is clear: If children are denied the opportunity to engage in reading, they will not become readers. Thus, this PTSP project will allow me to track very young teachers as they learn to discern between “fun” but often-silly activities for children, and serious teaching that will help children become thinking individuals. The results of this study will naturally fold back into my practice, helping me understand how to communicate more effectively how powerful pedagogy is essential to the art of preservice teachers’ future teaching and, even more important, their children’s future learning.

Shelby A. Wolf
Education, Children's Literature