The Absent Dialogue: Challenges of Building Reciprocity through Community Engagement in Teacher Education

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By Meghan E. Barnes

University of North Carolina, Charlotte


Approaches to education founded on the principles of community engagement provide faculty and students with a means for encouraging greater communication between universities and communities. Community-engaged teaching practices are particularly important within university-based teacher education programs. The increasing divide in the United States between the demographics of pre-service teachers (PSTs) and students in K-12 schools presents teacher educators with unique challenges: to prepare PSTs to work with diverse populations of students and to consider the community when developing lessons and curricula. This literature review examines current research and theory related to PSTs’ conceptions of the relationship between teaching English language arts and their knowledge of the community. Few of the studies reviewed inquired into the identities and experiences of PSTs before they entered teacher education. By evading a consideration of the experiences and backgrounds of their PSTs, however, teacher educators who endeavor to build greater connections across communities and their students fail to model the type of reciprocity necessary for community engagement, potentially contributing to PSTs’ limited understandings of diverse populations of students when they enter schools as teachers. This article highlights ways in which dialogue and reciprocity serve as methods for teacher educators to address and overcome some of the critiques and challenges of community-engaged teaching.


teacher education, community engagement, multicultural teaching

Author Note

Meghan E. Barnes, Department of English, University of North Carolina, Charlotte.
Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to the author:
Meghan E. Barnes
Associate Professor
Department of English
University of North Carolina, Charlotte
Fretwell 250E
9201 University City Boulevard
Charlotte, NC 28223
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The Absent Dialogue: Challenges of Building Reciprocity through Community Engagement in Teacher Education

The belief that an educated public has the potential to contribute to the sustainability of democracy is not new. Three historic legislative acts—the Morrill Act of 1862, the Hatch Act of 1887, and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914—communicated the importance of using education to meet the needs of and build stronger connections to society (Fitzgerald, Bruns, Sonka, Furco, & Swanson, 2012). However, the increasing value placed on specialized disciplinary knowledge in education since the early 1900s has contributed to perceived and real divides between universities and their surrounding communities and society in general. The adoption of a scholarship of engagement represents one way that university-based faculty and students might address this divide.

At its core, engagement is built on connection. For Boyer (1996), a scholarship of engagement creates “a special climate in which the academic and civic cultures communicate more continuously and more creatively with each other” (p. 20). Bringle and Hatcher (2011) drew on multiple definitions of engagement (including those developed by the Kellogg Commission, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation’s Committee on Engagement, and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching) to define engagement as scholarly, reciprocal, and mutually beneficial, embracing civil democracy, and cutting across teaching, research, and service.

This article centers primarily on the ways that a scholarship of engagement has shaped and informed university-based teacher education programs. Historically, many teacher education programs have adopted an “application of theory” model whereby those students preparing to become teachers—what I term pre-service teachers (PSTs)—learn theoretical and content knowledge through university coursework and then practice and apply that knowledge in schools (Korthagen & Kessels, 1999; Zeichner, 2010). Typically, PSTs are required to complete field work in the form of tutoring and/or school observations before they are admitted into a teacher education program. Once admitted, these PSTs then complete a practicum experience in which they actively observe a K-12 teacher on multiple occasions each week, while still involved in their university-based coursework. Typical programs in teacher education culminate in a formal student-teaching semester during which PSTs serve as the lead teacher of a K-12 classroom, under the guidance of a mentor teacher.

Because of changing student demographics in K-12 schools in the United States over the past 15 years, there has arisen a need to offer opportunities for PSTs to participate in community engagement during their teacher education training (Sleeter, 2008). Since 2003, the percentage of White students enrolled in K-12 schools has dropped from 59% to 50% of total enrollment (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2014). Conversely, the percentage of Hispanic students has increased from 19% to 25%; the percentage of Asian students has increased from 4% to 5%; and the current percentage of Black students in schools has remained relatively stable at 16% of the student population (NCES, 2014). The NCES (2014) estimates that K-12 student populations will continue to diversify: By 2025, approximately 46% of students will be White, 29% Hispanic, 15% Black, and 6% Asian.

The demographics of teachers in U.S. schools, however, do not mirror those of K-12 students. Rather, approximately 83% of U.S. public school teachers are White, 8% Hispanic, 7% Black, and 2% Asian (NCES, 2009). These percentages have remained fairly stable over at least the past four decades. Given that approximately 80% of college students who choose education as their undergraduate major are White, scholars predict that the K-12 teaching force will remain largely White for years to come. For better or worse, racial differences between teachers and students are also often linked to particular cultural, educational, and socioeconomic experiences. Not only are the majority of teachers White, most of them came from middle-class homes and enjoyed school success as students. Further, as they enter classrooms, novice teachers may have few personal experiences to draw from to inform their interactions with diverse populations of students. The dichotomous relationship between K-12 student populations and PSTs, then, presents teacher education programs with a unique challenge: preparing PSTs to work with and teach in schools and communities that may be unfamiliar to them.

Thus far, I have noted the importance of community engagement in higher education writ large and in teacher education more specifically. In the section that follows, I shift my focus to consider the important role of community engagement in preparing future literacy teachers, thus aligning the article with the current themed issue of the journal. Literacy, here, is conceived as a dynamic practice (Barton & Hamilton, 2000; Street, 1984) that includes much more than just the discrete elements of reading and writing (Barton & Hamilton, 2000), extending to “social processes and structures, identity formation, power, and ideology” (Brayko, 2013, p. 47). In other words, literacy is conceptualized not as an individual act but as a practice rooted deeply in the social, political, cultural, and historical contexts that individuals engage in on a daily basis. This definition takes into account the ways that readers and writers are influenced by literacy practices (Barton, Hamilton, & Ivanič, 2000; Street, 1984). It follows that in order to be an effective literacy, or English language arts (ELA), teacher, one would need to attend to the diverse ways that individuals and communities take up, use, and practice literacy.

In this literature review, I explore the conceptions held by PSTs of the relationship between teaching secondary ELA and their knowledge of the community. Specifically, I examine how future ELA teachers are prepared to work with diverse populations of students and how they position themselves in relation to and perceive community. The purpose of this review is not to address the ways that PSTs can or should engage with communities. Instead, it reveals a challenge to those educators who seek to incorporate community-engaged projects into their own teaching—the challenge of building connections, while simultaneously fostering reciprocity.

Literature Review Method

I began gathering materials for this literature review via a search on the ERIC database. I used a variety of search terms and combinations of search terms, including “teaching” and “community,” “teacher education” and “community,” “English” “teacher education” and “community,” and “secondary teaching” and “community,” to find articles and books pertaining to these topics. I used a few particularly salient articles (e.g., Haddix, 2015; Hallman & Burdick, 2011; Sleeter, 2001) as guides for other appropriate readings. As I read, I maintained an annotated bibliography to capture the overarching purposes, research questions, findings, and conclusions drawn from each text.

After reading the selected literature, I reviewed my notes multiple times and engaged in a process of tagging statements to condense the information into more manageable chunks (Miles & Huberman, 1994). I then reviewed all of the tagged statements and began a recursive process of developing codes that entailed multiple readings of my notes as well as periodic returns to the texts. After finalizing the codes, I searched the codes for overarching categories (Creswell, Hanson, Plano Clark, & Morales, 2007). At this point, I identified the two overarching categories that informed the organization of this article: PSTs’ conceptions of the relationship between teaching ELA and the community, and teacher education interventions that encourage PSTs to consider the community when teaching ELA. The codes and categories are presented in Table 1.

Table 1: Categories and Codes


I drew from Dewey (1938) to understand community as a conjoint experience. According to Dewey, the community is made and remade through the collaborative activity of community members. Greene (1995) extended Dewey’s conception of community, recognizing that community memberships are in a state of becoming—never finite or fixed, and “marked by emerging solidarity, a sharing of certain beliefs, and a dialogue about others” (p. 39). Community, then, cannot arise without active reciprocal relationships and dialogue among and across people (Greene, 1995). Throughout this article, I use the term community to refer to the people, spaces, and resources that surround and infuse schools. As I reviewed the relevant literature, I found that very few researchers have attended to PSTs’ conceptions of the relationship between teaching ELA and their knowledge of the community. I noted generalized conceptions of PSTs, often based on demographic data, across the studies reviewed. Additionally, many studies presented various methods that could be used to recruit, prepare, and support a more diverse teaching force who are prepared to work with diverse populations of students and to recognize students’ outside-of-school communities as influential in teaching and learning.

A pervasive assumption evident in much of the literature I reviewed was that similarities in demographic data are consistent with similar life experiences. This assumption also plays out in the ways researchers portray PSTs’ conceptions of the community; that is, by characterizing PSTs as a homogenous group with similar life and school experiences, researchers suggest that all PSTs will approach communities in similar ways. Such a conception fails to acknowledge the role of community in shaping teaching and learning. PSTs draw from their own experiences as students (Lortie, 1975) to view the classroom as an insular space with its own set of appropriate behaviors, texts, and curriculum (Burant & Kirby, 2002; Sleeter, 2001). Not surprisingly, considerations of how PSTs conceive of the relationship between teaching ELA and community is largely absent from the literature.

I organized this article into two sections, each reflecting an overarching pattern I noted across the literature. The first section presents representations that appear in much of the research around PSTs’ identities, experiences, and conceptions of the role of community in teaching prior to beginning their teacher education programs. When considered in light of the articles I reviewed for the second section of the paper, these studies demonstrate that portrayals of PSTs in research have changed very little over the past 30 years.

The second section focuses primarily on the diverse interventions that teacher education faculty have developed to help prepare PSTs to teach a diverse population of students. I review two common approaches—opportunities for experiential learning and self-inquiry (terms that will be defined later in this article)—and the ways researchers believe these learning experiences serve to positively benefit PSTs. I conclude the article with a critical analysis of scholars’ limited and homogenous conception of PSTs and their relationship between teaching ELA and knowledge of the community. I call for more research in these areas, inviting scholars to explore more nuanced portrayals of PSTs prior to entering teacher education programs and encouraging research that reveals PSTs’ understanding of ELA and the community when they enter the teaching profession.

Category 1: PSTs’ Conceptions of the Relationship between
Community and Teaching ELA

The demographics and experiences of the majority of PSTs do not align with those of the majority of students in U.S. schools (Florio-Ruane, 2001; Gomez, 1996)—potentially contributing to a pre-service teaching force with singular understandings of what teaching and student behavior should “look” like (Sleeter, 2001) and resulting in a disregard for the role of community in teaching ELA. Further, many PSTs enter their teacher education programs with limited visions for multicultural education, seeking instead technical skills that can be applied across classrooms, regardless of context.

PSTs Have Singular Views of Teaching Literacy

As the literature indicated, many PSTs do not enter teacher education with concerns about the ways that communities can and should shape literacy instruction. Instead, PSTs’ attitudes toward and approaches to teaching are colored by their own past school experiences (Lortie, 1975), often leading to limited perceptions of students, teaching, and schooling (Goodwin, 1994; Mueller & O’Connor, 2007; Sleeter, 2008). Sometimes these constricted views of schooling are enacted intentionally as PSTs reject approaches to teaching and learning they did not experience in school themselves. In other instances, PSTs, unaware of their myopic view of schools, enact teaching practices that may unintentionally alienate, overlook, or even silence the cultures, values, and experiences of their students.

New (1995) found that PSTs tend to generalize their school experiences to those around them, assuming everyone has a shared “understanding about what constitutes a language arts experience” (p. 107). Such views contribute to the perception that the ability to teach is an innate, rather than learned, skill. The historical and current culture of schools preserves teacher-centered instructional practices (Portes & Smagorinsky, 2010), which “[constrain] beginning teachers’ views of an appropriate teacher’s role” (Hallman & Burdick, 2011, p. 356). Both the assumption of shared experiences and the pervasiveness of teacher-as-authority further contribute to the false notion that all students can and should learn in the same way, regardless of their past experiences, languages, interests, and/or needs. For Lortie (1975), the perpetuation of a singular view of teaching reaffirms, rather than reforms, the teaching practices of new generations of teachers entering the profession.

Gomez (1996) recounted an experience with a PST named Lucy who, like most PSTs, drew from her own past school experiences as she worked to understand the students she was student teaching at a school very different from the ones she had attended. Lucy became frustrated as she discovered that her own experiences and prior knowledge did little to help her understand the students with whom she was working. To challenge prospective teachers’ attitudes toward “others,” Murrell (1992) placed an all-White, middle-class, female cohort of PSTs into inner-city schools during their student teaching placements. Like Zeichner and Tabachnick (1985) almost a decade before, Murrell found that the PSTs in the study rejected those experiences or views of schooling that did not align with their own preconceived ideas and experiences or used their student teaching experiences to solidify their own perspectives of teaching others. Yet, intentional exposure to diverse populations of students has become a popular way for teacher education programs to socialize PSTs into teaching practices that are not based on taken-for-granted previous experiences or relationships between teachers and students (Hallman & Burdick, 2011). Since Murrell (1992) and Gomez (1996), teacher educators have begun to recognize that in order for diverse field experiences to be educative, PSTs must also engage in regular self-inquiry (Burant & Kirby, 2002) and critical reflection (Haddix, 2015).

Singular understandings of how to teach ELA and what content and/or language should be privileged can be particularly challenging as the population of English language learners (ELLs) in U.S. schools continues to climb (NCES, 2010). Stereotypical views of how to teach ELA can easily “interfere with children’s communication proficiency in diverse classroom settings” (New, 1995, p. 105). The tendency to privilege one language over the inclusion of others has also contributed to a culture of “subtractive bilingualism,” in which non-native English speakers learn English at the expense of their first language (Portes & Smagorinsky, 2010). PSTs’ own language practices in schools and homes may further limit their considerations of the community when developing lesson plans and interacting with students. The increasing linguistic and cultural diversity of students in U. S. schools (NCES, 2010), however, demands that PSTs be prepared to consider what cultures, languages, races, and genders may be privileged in society—particularly in schools. One way that teacher education programs prepare PSTs for diverse populations of students is by incorporating of multicultural education courses.

PSTs Have Limited Visions of Multicultural Education

Many PSTs aspire to teach in schools like the ones they attended. This aspiration may contribute to a view of “multicultural teaching” as unnecessary (Gomez, 1996; Sleeter, 2001). Although PSTs may end up teaching in schools that are familiar to them, it is remains important that they consider the diversity of experiences, learning styles, and interests that students in a seemingly homogenous or familiar classroom may bring with them to school (DeStigter, 2001). Further, many PSTs enter teacher education coursework with limited visions of multicultural teaching (Goodwin, 1994), viewing multicultural curriculum as easily developed through the accumulation of technical skills and as an optional “add-on” to the existing curriculum (Sleeter, 2001; Vavrus, 1994).

New (1995) suggested that when the experiences or identities of the teacher and/or the school clash with those of the students, students may feel hostile, isolated, rejected, and vulnerable. This tension certainly exists in pre-K-12 classrooms, but it also exists in college classrooms where the worldview of a teacher educator and PSTs may not align. Previous research has suggested that when PSTs enter teacher education programs, the ways they are recruited and attitudes they possess may contribute to PSTs’ conceptions of multicultural education and the community.

Teacher recruitment. A number of researchers have noted the importance of recruiting more people of color and men into teaching (Delpit, 1995; Florio-Ruane, 2001; Haddix, 2015; Sleeter, 2001). Dee and Henkin (2002), Guarino, Santibanez, and Daley (2006), Knight (2004), and Sleeter (2008) argued that teachers of color have a greater knowledge of diverse cultures and are more committed to challenging and engaging diverse populations of students than their White counterparts. Over 20 years ago, Delpit (1995) interviewed teachers of color to learn more about their experiences in teacher education. Many of the interviewees felt that their experiences, their stories, their values, and their reasons for wanting to teach were not valued in teacher education by either the faculty or their peers. In addition, many of the interviewees felt that they were often placed in a position of having to serve as a “spokesperson” for their minoritized group as they challenged others’ stereotypes of them.

These findings are not unique to Delpit’s study; others have arrived at similar findings for different minoritized groups (Florio-Ruane, 2001; Galindo & Olguin, 1996; Gottesman & Bowman, 2011). Sleeter (2001), in particular, argued that the “overwhelming presence of Whiteness” was silencing for PSTs of color (p. 101). The PSTs of color in Sleeter’s study reported negative experiences in teacher education as they felt silenced by their White counterparts’ lack of interest in issues such as race and language, believing them to be unnecessary topics of discussion. Such negative experiences in teacher education pose another barrier to recruiting students of color into teacher education programs and the teaching profession in general. It is also important that teacher educators not excuse themselves from developing and refining their multicultural awareness and pedagogical practices (Cochran-Smith, 2001), since many may be guilty of homogenizing PST experiences and identities.

Teacher attitudes. Many researchers have found that attempts to develop PSTs’ multicultural awareness have been limited by the attitudes they possess about others when they enter teacher education. Many PSTs espouse beliefs that student differences should be inconsequential to the ways that they are taught or teachers’ orientations toward them (Gomez, 1996). Moreover, many PSTs believe that problems of learning and achievement are individual concerns connected directly to students’ out-of-school lives and not influenced by teachers and schools (Gomez, 1996; Louis Harris & Associates, 1991). When faced with a struggling student, many PSTs blame deficiencies in the student’s own learning and achievement, rather than considering the role the PST or the school might play in contributing to such struggles. When attempts to challenge prospective teachers’ attitudes about others were incorporated into individual courses, Ahlquist (1991), Ladson-Billings (1991), and Beyer (1991) found that the attitudes and preconceived ideas PSTs held about “others” and carried with them into teacher education led to limited success in terms of the programs’ efforts to challenge these ideologies. PSTs became resistant to teaching controversial issues and adopted the stance that teachers should remain neutral and objective.

The research has suggested that in addition to their attitudes toward others and toward learning, many PSTs remain interested in learning a “bag of tricks”—easily transferrable skills—for teaching diverse populations of students. To challenge this one-size-fits-all approach to multicultural education, Kaufman (2004) created a space in which PSTs could interrogate the role that emotion and affect can play in learning and in the classroom. This work encouraged PSTs to question why some students actively choose not to learn and to explore the reasons why some students may feel that classrooms threaten their identity (Kaufman, 2004).

Noordhoff and Kleinfeld (1990, 1991) constructed a teacher education program during which PSTs lived in the communities where they student taught. This group of PSTs lived and worked in a rural native Alaskan community for the duration of their student teaching. By the end of the semester, the PSTs recognized teaching to be much more complex than they initially thought. These PSTs also increasingly took into account the experiences of the diverse students with whom they were working as they developed lesson plans and reflected on their teaching practices. Gomez and Tabachnick (1991, 1992) reported similar findings with a group of elementary education students. Rather than placing these PSTs in diverse field-based practica, Gomez and Tabachnick asked to PSTs to write reflective narratives throughout their teacher education. At the beginning of the study, PSTs wanted concrete, singular recommendations for how to teach diverse students and claimed an approach to teaching diverse populations of students that was founded on color-blindness (i.e., all students are the same, regardless of the color of their skin). However, by the end of the multi-semester program, the dispositions of these PSTs showed evidence of having gained greater multicultural awareness.

Across the reviewed literature, PSTs were portrayed as lacking multicultural experiences (Gomez, 1996; Goodwin, 1994; Sleeter, 2001; Vavrus, 1994) and possessing attitudes at the beginning of their teacher education coursework that limit the role communities, students, and families play in planning for and leading instruction (Gomez, 1996; Hallman & Burdick, 2011; Ladson-Billings, 1991; New, 1995). Overall, the research suggests that PSTs evade considerations of the community in teaching ELA. Many of these studies did not question PSTs directly about how they viewed the relationship between teaching ELA and community, but instead drew conclusions about PSTs based on their demographics and assumed life experiences.

In much of literature I reviewed, PSTs were also portrayed as having limited opportunities to develop reciprocal relationships among teacher educators, PSTs, and surrounding communities. As a foundational characteristic of engagement (Bringle & Hatcher, 2011), reciprocity is based on connection rather than difference (Bickford & Reynolds, 2002; Mitchell, 2008), “where all learn from and teach one another” (Mitchell, 2008, p. 58). However, by assuming that PSTs have a limited set of experiences before they begin teacher education, teacher educators often fail to build connections with and learn from PSTs or to establish and model reciprocity with their communities of students. Indeed, these findings could have implications for the ways that PSTs view communities as they engage in community-engaged work during teacher education.

Category 2: The Influence of Teacher Education on PSTs’ Conceptions of the Relationship between Teaching ELA and Knowledge of the Community

Over the past three decades, researchers and teacher education practitioners have made a number of recommendations regarding how teacher education programs can better prepare the rather homogenous group of PSTs to work with diverse populations of students in ELA classrooms. From my review of the literature emerged six prominent recommendations for increasing PSTs’ multicultural awareness and encouraging them to think more critically about the social, historical, and cultural influences in student learning:

  • Align the overarching vision of teacher education programs with the goals of multiculturalism (Gomez, 1996; Haddix, 2008; Villegas & Lucas, 2002);
  • Increase opportunities for experiential learning (Burant & Kirby, 2002; Haddix, 2015; Hallman & Burdick, 2001; Kinloch, 2009; Kinloch & Smagorinsky, 2014; Zeichner, 2012; Zeichner, Grant, Gay, Gillette, Valli, & Villegas, 1998);
  • Develop multicultural frameworks for teacher education (Gomez, 1996; Florio-Ruane, 2001; Larkin & Sleeter, 1995; Sleeter, 2001; Villegas & Lucas, 2002);
  • Recruit more PSTs and teacher education faculty of color (Gomez, 1996; Haberman, 1991; Larkin & Sleeter, 1995);
  • Incorporate more opportunities for self-inquiry into coursework (Florio-Ruane, 2001; Hallman & Burdick, 2011; Kaufman, 2004; Villegas & Lucas, 2002; Zeichner et al., 1998); and,
  • Focus on relationship building among PSTs, students, and families (Burant & Kirby, 2002; Hallman & Burdick, 2011; Kaufman, 2004).

In the following section, I focus primarily on the roles of experiential education and self-inquiry since they were most common across all of the studies, were often paired together, and allowed me to speak to most of the other recommendations made as well.

Experiential Education

Experiential education within teacher education may include formal, or traditional, student teaching, service-learning opportunities (e.g., Hallman & Burdick, 2001), and other interactions in and with communities that surround schools, such as community inquiry projects (e.g., Burant & Kirby, 2002) and “cross-cultural immersion projects” (Sleeter, 2001, p. 97). Regardless of the type of experiential education, most of the researchers whose work I reviewed approached the development of such opportunities with an understanding that experience does not necessarily equate with education (Dewey, 1938) and that some experiences can actually be harmful if not structured carefully and paired with critical reflection and self-inquiry. Specifically, educative experiences are those that occur over time and in multiple spaces (Richards, Moore, & Gipe, 1996; Ross & Smith, 1992), afford PSTs the opportunity to learn more about teachers’ roles in schools and communities, promote a view of all students as able to learn, and prepare PSTs for ongoing learning and professional development (Zeichner, 1996).

Teacher educators and researchers are primarily concerned with the role that educative experiences play in developing PSTs’ multicultural awareness. Larkin and Sleeter (1995) conceptualized multicultural education as helping PSTs to “grapple with and understand such things as prejudice, institutional discrimination, and the alternative life experiences and perspectives of oppressed peoples” (p. x) and offered two options for teacher education programs that could encourage such considerations. Sleeter (2001, 2008) recommended that a more diverse population of teachers and teacher educators should be recruited into teaching and that teacher education should do more to develop the “attitudes and multicultural knowledge base of predominantly White cohorts of pre-service students” (p. 96)—a task that may be approached through the incorporation of experiential learning opportunities in schools. Similarly, New (1995) argued that field-based experiences whereby PSTs are placed in diverse classroom settings could help PSTs see an immediate relationship between the objectives of the teacher education course and their own histories. A common theme of simultaneous inward and outward looking emerged from the reviewed literature, suggesting that PSTs should be given opportunities to learn from, with, and about local communities, while also turning inward to consider their own schooling, family, and cultural experiences and the ways that those experiences may or may not inform their teaching and interpersonal interactions.

One of the challenges of experiential learning initiatives is the very place-specific approach that teacher educators must take when developing, researching, and/or presenting such work. In his review of Gottesman and Bowman’s (2011) work at the University of Washington, Zeichner (2012) found that as PSTs studied the historical and social foundations of the local community, they developed a “kind of situational ‘knowledge’ with regard to social foundations” (p. 380). While such situational knowledge can provide immediate help to PSTs as they select texts and develop lesson plans for a particular context, some PSTs are left feeling inadequately prepared to teach in other settings (Haddix, 2015). Rather than offering a set of universal pedagogical skills that could be applied to any setting, many PSTs may view experiential education as providing skills that are only appropriate in one setting. To challenge this perception, González, Moll, and Amanti (2005) suggested that teacher education programs should provide PSTs with opportunities to learn about and use the more transferrable tools of inquiry—tools that PSTs could use in a range of contexts to learn about and with students and communities.

Other studies have demonstrated more positive responses from PSTs who participated in experiential learning. Cooper, Beare, and Thorman (1990) placed PSTs from Minnesota in predominantly Latinx schools in Texas to complete their student teaching and found (through surveys) that these PSTs had more positive attitudes about the roles that race and culture play in classroom learning than those PSTs who did their student teaching in Minnesota. Noordhoff and Kleinfeld (1990, 1991) analyzed the written reflections of PSTs who lived with and taught secondary school to communities of Alaskan native peoples. Their reflections suggested that by the end of the semester, the PSTs were more likely to take into account the experiences of the diverse students with whom they were working as they planned instruction. Mahan’s (1982) study revealed “significant positive response” (p. 171) from PSTs who completed an alternative student teaching placement in one of three sites: an Indian reservation, a Latinx community on the border of Arizona and Mexico, or a low-income and predominately African-American school in Indianapolis. Similarly, Larke, Wiseman, and Bradley (1990) reported positive responses in relation to PSTs’ attitudes toward others after completing a minority mentorship project, which paired PSTs with an African-American or Latinx child for five semesters.

More contemporary studies (Brayko, 2013; Haddix, 2015; McDonald, Tyson, Brayko, Bowman, Delport, & Shimomura, 2011) have presented a less simplistic, more nuanced view of the affordances and drawbacks of experiential learning in teacher education. As part of Haddix’s (2015) teaching writing course, PSTs helped to coordinate a community writing event for local secondary students. The purpose of this assignment was to help beginning teachers develop a process for critically interrogating the social locations of their teaching. Specifically, Haddix wrote that “it is my goal that students understand their role as teachers, within a school community context, who bridge what is happening in their classrooms with the broader local and global communities” (p. 68). Although Haddix found that PSTs learned “the importance of providing opportunities for all students to see themselves and their communities represented in the work the teachers do inside the classroom” (p. 69), she also acknowledged that there were challenges to implementing community-engaged teaching for teacher educators, and, as has been noted previously, some students were left feeling ill-prepared for teaching.

Burant and Kirby (2002) incorporated a community inquiry project into their teacher education program to encourage PSTs to value the importance of developing relationships between the school and the community members. The project was structured to include both engagement in various school and community contexts, and reflective self-inquiry (Bullough & Gitlin, 1995; Knowles & Cole, 1996). Burant and Kirby found that this simultaneous outward and inward looking encouraged PSTs to develop “new, more liberatory views about children and their capabilities” (p. 562). Specifically, the PSTs in this study “found that the community around a school can be a fruitful resource for gaining knowledge about students, for understanding contextual factors significant to learning, and providing opportunities for linking community and school” (p. 571). Further, the community work encouraged the PSTs to confront previously held attitudes toward diverse communities and challenged the apprenticeship of observation—the 13 or more years spent in school as students that inform novice teachers’ perceptions of teaching and of schools (Lortie, 1975).

Many of the studies discussed here incorporated opportunities for reflection and self-inquiry into experiential learning activities. Gomez (1996), in particular, argued that in order to be educative, any field-based experience must include careful supervision, prolonged interactions across time and occasions with people different from the PSTs, and opportunities for reflection on action. Specifically, Gomez found that “among the most promising practices for challenging and changing PSTs’ perspectives was their placement in situations where they became the ‘Other’ and were simultaneously engaged in seminars or other ongoing conversations guiding their self-inquiry and reflection” (p. 124).


Self-inquiry in teacher education refers to those learning and reflective experiences that provide a space for PSTs to understand their own identities as complex and multidimensional (Zeichner et al., 1998). Although common in teacher education (Lee & Moon, 2013; Oner & Adadan, 2011; Stevenson & Cain, 2013), the use of reflection has been criticized (Fendler, 2003). Zeichner and Liston (1987) differentiated between reflective action, meant to encourage teachers to critically examine their practice to inform future pedagogical choices, and routine actions “guided primarily by tradition, external authority, and circumstance” (p. 24). Thus, novice teachers’ development is built around a combination of reflection and resulting action. In teacher education, the challenge is to engage PSTs in reflective practices that encourage them to acknowledge and question assumptions and practices that may be influenced by forces outside of the self (Brookfield, 1995). To encourage PSTs to look to and consider the community as they develop their own teaching practices, they must be encouraged to look both outward (e.g., through experiential learning opportunities) and inward (via self-inquiry and reflection). Potentially, the simultaneous processes of turning inward and outward could challenge some of the more problematic aspects of reflection.

Various modes of self-inquiry and reflection have been incorporated into teacher education programs over the past few decades. For instance, New (1995) suggested that oral histories offer a starting point for PSTs to assess their positionality in relation to their beliefs about students, communication, and schooling. In culturally diverse classrooms, the assumption of a shared identity can create tensions, resulting in reduced communication and interaction among students and between students and the teacher. New (1995) suggested that by incorporating and sharing oral histories in these classrooms, more communication and interaction across all groups can take place. Specifically, sharing oral histories can help PSTs to see how language practices are rooted in their own personal experiences and life stories—before then applying this knowledge to their own students. Further, PSTs can be encouraged to move students’ needs to the fore as they plan instruction and select curricular materials if they use “personal oral histories as the springboard to subsequent language arts activities in listening, speaking, reading, and writing, whether in the university class or the field classroom” (p. 114).

Drawing from experiences with primarily White PSTs who viewed themselves as lacking culture, Florio-Ruane (2001) held that reading autobiographical literature can serve as an effective approach to discussing culture. Florio-Ruane found that by reading the autobiographies of others, PSTs could “awaken aspects of their own experiences of culture, especially those that influence their work as teachers” (p. xxviii). The ways that the teachers’ identity can inform their interactions with and views of diverse populations of students was also echoed in the work of Kaufman (2004) and Hallman and Burdick (2011). Drawing from Flower’s (1997) work, Kaufman claimed that PSTs need “to identify as interpretive seekers and inquirers” (p. 181) if they hope to account for individual students’ needs in the classroom. Similarly, Hallman and Burdick (2011) offered service-learning and reflection as tools to help PSTs develop teaching identities that relate to the students they will teach. Through self-inquiry (including the writing of oral histories, autobiographies, and reflections), PSTs can interrogate their own experiences, identities, and beliefs, and, when paired with experiential learning opportunities, consider how the diverse experiences, identities, and beliefs of their students should influence instruction.


Few of the studies I reviewed inquired into the identities and experiences of PSTs before they enter teacher education. Instead, many of these studies assumed that because the majority of PSTs are White, middle-class, heterosexual, English-speaking women, they also share life experiences. In other words, there is a pervasive assumption throughout the literature that because one is a White female, for instance, there is a singular set of life and academic experiences. The presentation of teacher education programs as singularly responsible for changing PSTs’ multicultural awareness and potential for community engagement is overly simplistic, ignorant of the myriad other experiences that PSTs bring to teacher education programs and experience simultaneously while in those programs.

The tendency in research to homogenize the PST population does little to challenge the notion that being White is synonymous with being culture-less. A few researchers (Darling-Hammond, 2006, 2014; Greenwalt, 2014; Hallman & Burdick, 2011) have challenged this notion by restructuring their teacher education programs to foreground interrogations of PSTs’ own culture. Self-inquiry and reflection in combination with experiential education are essential to contesting the assumptions of a singular PST experience, and they also play a valuable role in preparing PSTs to look to the community as they plan classroom instruction. I argue that an approach that removes the focus from the life experiences and cultures of PSTs (regardless of their demographics), further homogenizes them and reifies “White vs. other” mentalities, which place the experiences of “others” in opposition to the experiences and beliefs of some elusive and homogenous “White” experience.

A common criticism of community-engaged work is that it too often fails to account for the wealth of experiences of community partners (Bortolin, 2011). This literature review reveals a different failure: the failure to recognize university students and teacher educators as members of the community. This is especially problematic when considered in light of Dewey’s (1938) conception of community as a conjoint experience, one that develops over time through the collective actions of community members. When the community and the university are positioned as opposites—one as the object of study and the other as the inquirer—opportunities for reciprocity across the groups, movement between the groups, and the development of a shared community are limited. This finding has implications for how PSTs view their work as teachers. Rather than considering their work as deeply embedded in and shaped by the communities surrounding them, these PSTs may work to insulate their classrooms from difference. Such pedagogical practices silence opportunities for connection and interaction and further deepen the divisions between student and teacher populations in U. S. schools.

Greene (1995) argued that by first attending to individual voices and differences, “the importance of identifying shared beliefs will be heightened” (p. 42). Similarly, Boyer (1996) advocated for a scholarship of engagement whereby “the academic and civic cultures communicate more continuously and more creatively” (p. 20). Approaches to community-engaged teaching, particularly within teacher education, that are founded on dialogue, connection, and reciprocity may provide a space in which PSTs can transcend difference as they interact with, learn from, and work alongside communities to better address the needs, interests, and unique histories of diverse populations of K-12 students.


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Author Biography

Meghan Barnes is an Assistant Professor of English Education at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. She currently researches community-engaged approaches to teacher preparation and preservice teachers’ beliefs about discussing polemical topics with diverse populations of students.