The literacy ecology of a middle school classroom : teaching and writing amid influence and tension
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This embedded case study of an eighth-grade English language arts reading classroom employed an ecological perspective based on Ecological Systems Theory (EST) to examine the ways in which a myriad influences, often conflicting and originating in a variety of settings external to the classroom, intersected in that classroom. The findings from this research point toward the reality of literacy classrooms buffeted by conflicting Discourses around writing that originate in official school structures, as well as the difficulty students and teachers have navigating the tensions created by those conflicts. The focal teacher for this study, a master teacher, navigated these conflicting discourses by being thoughtfully adaptive and balancing policy mandates with her own knowledge of and beliefs about literacy instruction, though she often made instructional decisions at odds with her knowledge and beliefs because she feared lack of compliance with administrative or district mandates risked her job. In this contested atmosphere, the teacher supported students in navigating the myriad literacy practices within the classroom, and the literacy practices from their lives outside of school, using writer's notebooks. These notebooks served as boundary objects because they incorporated a variety of influences and Discourses in a single tool. Even in creating a robust literacy ecology in her classroom through the use of writer's notebooks, thoughtfully adapting to the myriad policy mandates, and having departmental and professional support for her work, she left the school at the end of the year because she could not be the type of teacher she wanted to be in that school. The broader implication of her decision, and the research more generally, is that classrooms are not isolated from the settings within which they are embedded, and those settings often influence the classroom in ways that conflict and create tensions. Teachers and students, then, must make decisions about how to navigate those tensions, often at odds with their knowledge or beliefs. These conflicts and tensions within a classroom can be reduced, or mitigated through communicating, building trust, working toward consensus, and avoiding exercises of power.