Creating new spaces: investigating opportunities for identity exploration in a high school English classroom

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Vetter, Amy Maurine

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The purpose of this qualitative study was to examine how identity exploration occurred in a high school English classroom. This semester-long study employed ethnographic methods of data collection, including student and teacher interviews, classroom observations, and video and audio recordings of classroom events. Data was analyzed using the constant comparative method and discourse analysis (Davies and Harré, 1990; Gee, 2005; Strauss and Corbin, 1990). Sociocultural theories of language and literacy and theories of identity and agency were used to inform analysis about the relationship between identity and literacy in this high school English classroom with a White teacher and African American and Latino/a students (Bakhtin, 1981; Holland, Skinner, Lachicotte, and Cain, 1998; Wells, 1999). Findings suggest that the following four categories of instructional practices and talk were used to facilitate identity exploration by the teacher: (a) connection of classroom literacy practices to the everyday lives and literacies of students, (b) encouragement of multiple perspectives and viewpoints, (c) engagement in the investigation of sociopolitical issues, and (d) development of student agency. These practices and ways of talking attempted to create a figured world that valued students’ backgrounds and discourses. The case studies of three students provided insight into how they appropriated, resisted, and/or transformed identities and literacy practices during identity work. The students’ stories indicated that identity exploration provided a space for them to reshape old identities and imagine new identities, to transform the classroom structure in order to be successful, and to examine tensions in order to make changes within their local contexts. This study offers insight into the possibilities of identity exploration in literacy classrooms and argues that identity work may be one way for teachers to transform opportunities in the classroom for students with diverse backgrounds.