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Crisis-response discourse of prospective teachers.


Teachers need to be aware of the social dynamics that influence learning. Examination of classroom discourse informs both instructors and their students. Described here are writing by prospective teachers during international crises and subsequent discourse analysis. Through writing and reflection, teachers-in training and their instructors increased their awareness of the social context of teaching and learning during extreme social situations. Recognizable in students' writings were social-psychological factors that influenced perceptions of a crisis, which can affect responses to it and instruction about it. We suggest methods for using writing during crises as well as training for its avoidance.


As students become more aware through rapid communication technology and the media of local to international conflicts, educators must respond to the psychological needs of their students. When conflicts reach crisis levels and distract students from their learning, responsive educators strive to relieve student anxiety, facilitate learning about the extreme situation, and help students understand their thinking as well as that of diverse others. With our backgrounds in teacher education and social psychology, we had instructional and research interests in our student's experiences during international crises that occurred in our societies. We facilitated student discourse for affective and instructional goals and began our study to analyze the elements of various perceptions of the crises that can be influenced by sociocultural contexts, especially by the messages of the mass media (Cortes, 2000). Hence, student discourse in our classes during extreme social situations helped us teach as well as study their instructional needs.

Learning Through Writing

Discourse, including writing and dialogue, is a popular instructional strategy for multiple reasons including enhancement of awareness and critical thinking that is facilitated by interactive writing of students and their instructor (Garmon, 1997; Hoover, 1994; Schmidt & Davison, 1983). Research on the use of writing in teacher education found benefits of improved communication with students and it enabled their instructors' closer examination of student learning (Hennings, 1992; Ducharme & Ducharme, 1996). Reflective writing can enhance students' self-understanding (Kelly, 1995; McMahon, 1997), as well as understanding others (MacIntyre, 1984). Learning occurs through an interactive process of constructing and expressing meaning, rather than a passive process of absorbing information (Vygotsky 1987). Learners construct their own understandings in response to new information and experiences (von Glaserfeld, 1995), and because they understand their own lives in terms of narratives (Lyons, & Kubler LaBoskey, 2002), the information that is not structured in a narrative form, can suffer loss in memory (Mandber, 1984). Stories and narratives give students a framework for imposing order on what otherwise would be random events; they unable learners to discern how diverse elements come together into meaningful experiences.

Especially valuable for learning are written reflections (Brooks & Brooks, 1993; Kroll & Black, 1993; Tudge, 1980; Shor, & Freire, 1987). Expressions of comprehension and affect recorded in written discourse enable broader understanding through a review of their contents. Reflections and narratives are valuable methods that stimulate students' higher levels of thinking and visions. Narratives are among heuristic devices that promote student discovery (Czarniawska, 1997).While reflecting about his/her own experiences and expressing it to others, a student acknowledges his/her own position, learns about another, and communicates tacit knowledge.

Shared narratives can augment awareness of self and others. While reflecting on a new topic, learners encounter own lived experiences that might contradict the dominant narratives, which do not address the lives of the underrepresented members of a society. Additionally, students can better understand conflicts expressed through narratives, such as disputes over who is responsible for a problem. As White (2003) argues, [narratives] "pave the way for persons to cooperate with each other, to unite in a struggle against the problem, and to escape its influence in their lives and relationships". (p.164). According to the author, "this practice frees persons to take lighter, more effective and less stressed approach to deadly serious problems" (p. 164). When written narratives are followed by an oral discourse, they may promote relationships through active and concerned listening. The transition from personal narratives to insights derived from shared perceptions of a situation occurs in a democratic context where they feel supported and in which their own stories are privileged and appreciated. Shared discourse enables expression and exchange of cultural values and perspectives. The world accepted by the student becomes less conflicting and more reconciling through reflective and interactive discourse and it prepares students for facilitating plurality, democracy, and consensus (Clark & Koshmanova, 2000; Ritchie, & Wilson, 2000). Such approaches to intercultural conflict may prevent the development of an extreme social situation.

The meaning of the term extreme social situation can be rendered by the Latin word terror, meaning fear or horror, and the recently used term of terrorism. According to Kireev (2001), terrorism" ... represents a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, the subjects of which infringe in various way on many legally protected common goods in the pursuit of the most varied goals." Concluding, the author argues, "This naturally gives rise to difficulties in developing a universal understanding of just what terrorism means" (p. 16). Our study occurred during international crises that were immediately described by media and politicians as "terrorism". Our description of the social-political context of each international crisis is an extreme social situation. We define an extreme social situation as a social crisis, as threatening to human life circumstances, in which infringement of societal values evoke fear or horror in the majority of citizens affected, which causes them alarm for the future as well as the present. During extreme social situations that affected our students, we used writing to help students understand a current international crisis and study their cognitive processes.

Discourse Analysis

The narrative analysis of Barclay (1996), Gergen, & Gergen (1988), Labov & Waletzky (1967), and Campbell, & Stanley (1963) informed our examination of student discourse during international crises. Analysis of narrative has facilitated research in the social and humanitarian sciences for analyzing social-psychological, cognitive, and perceptive processes, social attitudes, memory, and affect. While studying the impact of historical contexts on the formation of the personal and the autobiographical memory, Barclay (1996) found that sociocultural context indirectly influences a person's reproduction of certain events from the past. Sociocultural context can influence the meanings of personal stories and narratives, which are crucial for the construction as well as expression of 'self,' and which under the influence of this context, can also change. Thus a sociocultural situation influences the formation of narratives and perceptions, especially when it is extreme.

Responding to Social Crises

As a foundation for this study, we reviewed the studies by Ukrainian and Russian psychologists and research on social crises. Using student narratives in research about extreme social situations, our research revealed reason-outcome links and procedural characteristics in their discourse (Hapon, 2002). Elena Yarskaya-Smimova (1998) analyzed the historical memories and behaviors of people in socially extreme situations, while Soloviov (1997) studied modeling of the future on the basis of correlation of the structure of human consciousness and the unstable objective reality. Yezhov (1998) elaborated a methodology for research on personal differences in perception of conflict situations, while. With narrative analyses, Ivanova (1999) and Hapon (2002) examined gender differences of memory and found a relationship between gender specificity and perceptions of extreme situations. As prior research shows that attitudes to extreme events are influenced by gender characteristics, we watched for such effects in our study.

In social-psychology research, narrative analysis has been widely used, including examination of social opinions in the sphere of the mass media marketing as well as for studies on war and various crises (Mel'nikova, 1996). Studies showed gender differences in perception and structuring of a conflict environment. For example, "... males are oriented mainly towards modeling of outer picture of the world, females--towards structuring of local spaces, or interior, and making it more humanized" (Dorodnova, 1998, p. 155-156). Research findings of Ivanova (1999), who studied World War II, recognized that the females' memory was the most emotional, affected by relationships, and evaluative. Simultaneously, males' memories held linear structure (the beginning of the war- peak--capitulation--the end) retaining many events that were anchored with statistics. Females tended not to indicate battles, statistics, and sequence of events, but emphasize the beginning of the war, which actually caused a break of their existing life form (family, children), as well as hardships. Women's memory held mainly the events of the home front. Whereas women's evaluative memory recalled the costs war, men were more focused on a competitive outcome and emphasized: "We won." The research also indicated that female's hierarchy of meaningful, personal events was built in a different way than male's hierarchy. While females' interpretations did not follow event chronology, males did which indicated less cognitive flexibility. Women's cognition employs less binary oppositions during such an extreme situation as war (Usmanova, 2000).

Learning About Conflict

Our instruction and research responded to increases of intercultural conflict around us, some of which had become extreme situations. The work of Zlobina and Tikhonovich (1996) describes problems of psychological adaptation to social instability. We learned that issues and dilemmas of conflicts occur in the context of cultures, values, and beliefs (Koshmanova, 2003). Culture reflects and molds attitudes and stereotypes, and it is the medium through which behavioral patterns and values grow and are passed on from one generation to the next. Deep-rooted conflicts become embedded in cultural narratives, myths, and metaphors, and expressed in language (Koshmanova, 1999). The processes of addressing conflict involve development of intercultural understanding and recognition of cultural commonalities through listening and learning. In teacher education, we prepare teachers for more than knowledge and skill development. Our instruction includes methods of changing student dispositions to embrace, or at least accept, human diversity, and view conflict from multiple perspectives. We teach that conflicts are an inevitable part of life and they can become extreme situations in, and beyond, school if they are ignored or mishandled (Carter, 2002). If we wish to make a transition from a culture of war and violence to a culture of peace, nonviolent conflict transformation is an essential skill we must learn and teach to our students for the present and the future (Hutchinson, 1996). We train teachers for analysis of conflict with an orientation towards building peace before or in social crises (Salomon & Nevo, 2002).

Examining Discourse of Our Students

Qualitative educational research in education can reveal students' perceptions, attitudes, and cognitive skills. While conducting classes during different international crises, we recognized the potential of discourse to help us teach during, as well as study our students' responses to, the extreme social situations, which greatly concerned them. We realized that qualitative data could evidence student understanding of the social and political antecedents of current international crises, which they shared through their writing, discussion, and reflection about the long-term, deep-rooted conflicts that affected them. In two contexts, we studied how student writing during international crises facilitated learning. At one university in the USA and another in the Ukraine, analysis of student writing in teacher preparation courses occurred after what media and politicians described as "terrorist attacks." Recognizing the importance of instruction that is relevant to students' current situations, we used discourse to both relieve psychological tension and to learn about their instructional needs by examining their thoughts documented in their writings. Reflection on the thoughts preserved in writing facilitated student and instructor's understandings of the mental processes that influence both teaching and learning in extreme social situations.

At both public universities, undergraduate students who ranged from freshmen to seniors enrolled in educational psychology and social studies methods courses participated in the writing assignments. In the Ukrainian university, students in the educational psychology class followed instructions to write about the crisis in nearby Moscow in which Chechens besieged and held hostage an international audience at a theatre. In Florida, USA, students in social studies methods courses were instructed to write from at least two perspectives of the outcomes of the September 11, 2001 crisis. At the time of the data collection, 'terrorism alerts' within their country and its expanding wars abroad were foremost in the minds of the students. In the Florida University, students were given credit for writing from two or more perspectives about a current international conflict their nation was experiencing. They had bean instructed about the importance of teaching from multiple perspectives and helping their students gather information from diverse sources. Although they had a choice of conflicts involving the USA as a subject of their writing assignment, all of the students chose the topic of their nation's responses to the attacks on September 11, 2001. The writings of the students provided information for their self- and group reflections of their knowledge base, their psychological processes, and their needs as instructors during a period of crisis.

As their professors and researchers, we examined the characteristics of our students' thinking, which were evident in their writings, and subsequent discussions that we used in a context of extreme social situations. The narrative analysis we used was grounded in the works of Barclay (1996), Gergen, & Gergen (1988), and Campbell, & Stanley (1963). Like Gergen, and Gergen (1988), we coded three narrative forms: progressive, stability, and regressive narrative codes. Following strategies used by Barklay (1996), we analyzed narrative functions (orientate, content, or the sequence of events, and evaluative). Ultimately, we examined students' psychological and cognitive process through their writings with elements of their crisis descriptions.

Our Findings

In both universities, students expanded their knowledge of extreme social situations through reviewing and sharing their writing about them. For example, students in the undergraduate and graduate social studies courses recognized the difficulty they had with providing two balanced perspectives of a crisis, which concerned them. The students' written narratives, especially those of many younger ages ranging 18 to 21, and females, greatly reflected media descriptions of the crises. During discussions after the writing, students shared their different perceptions and knowledge of the crisis, which gave them a broader view of the international situation. While exchanging their ideas about the crisis, females displayed more emotional responses, judgmental descriptors, and narrower perceptions of the breadth of the crisis. Males described greater awareness of the multinational involvement in the crisis. Students expanded their gendered perceptions and thinking processes through listening to crisis descriptions of their classmates. The teachers-in-training recognized their need to acquire more than information they receive from the dominant media and to prepare for instructing their own students with multiple perspectives of international conflicts. They saw how gender socialization could influence perception and thinking habits. Thus, they recognized the need for training beyond stereotypical behaviors and thinking. Finally, the value of personal reflection became evident. One student in the Ukraine pointed out "Just through talking to you [the instructor] and my friends, it made me realize a lot of things about myself." Briefly, the students learned that:

1. Writing reveals perceptions and comprehension as well as value orientations, which are evident in analytical reflection.

2. Social events, including extreme ones, result with different personal meanings in human memory.

3. Gender socialization affects perception of, and response to, crisis.

4. Reflection on and analysis of thinking processes facilitates learning from shared discourse in the context of an extreme social situation.

To summarize, through writing and subsequent discussions about crises in their nations, teachers-in-training developed reflection and discourse analysis skills, recognized their perceptions and attitudes as well as factors that produced them, comprehended socio-cultural aspects of crises, and dispelled stereotypes of those involved in extreme social events. The students learned to acquire more than one perception of crisis for use in instruction of their own students as well as for forming their own position in response to an extreme social situation.

Implications for Educators

We suggest methods for use of written and oral discourse for learning through reflective analysis during crises. Classroom discourse can facilitate learning when it is not only used, but also analyzed. Learning through writing and discussion results from more than sharing perceptions of a situation. It happens through focused listening. Compassionate communication in interpersonal conflict or during an extreme social situation helps those involved to actively listen and respond to the needs of others as well as their own (Rosenberg, 2000). Writing about one's perceptions prior to sharing them provides an outlet for contained emotions as well as a method of documenting current understanding. Subsequent sharing of the perceptions followed by analysis of information known about a crisis can lead to extension of knowledge, including awareness of culturally diverse perceptions. Training prospective and in-service teachers how to handle crises is crucial for the well-being and intellectual development of their students as well as their preparation for well-informed and responsible citizenship.

Instructors who facilitate classroom discourse during an extreme social situation must be sensitive to students' emotional states and aware of the catharsis that a writing outlet for the mental and physical stress may cause. It is common for students of any age to cry and relieve their stress during reflective writing about painful experiences, including international crises. Indeed, students should be made aware of the importance of outlets for psychological stress and their role in protection of physical health. Instructors must be prepared to comfort students who become emotional in class. When emotions are extreme, a student should be given an option of nonparticipation in an activity that is too painful for them. Such instances often indicate a need for extra school support such as counseling. For the learning and affective value of the activities, we highly recommend writing during an extreme social situation followed by reflective analysis of the information that is documented. In teacher education, we continue to use writing to learn about perceptions, thought processes, and possibilities for responding to conflicts and avoiding extreme situations. We hope that such training will promote better-informed and responsible citizenry as well as support international peace.


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Tetyana Koshmanova, Western Michigan University, MI

Candice C. Carter, University of Northern Florida, FL

Nadia Hapon, Ivan Franko National University of Lviv, Ukraine

Dr. Koshmanova is an assistant professor of educational psychology who trains prospective teachers. Dr. Carter is an assistant professor of social foundations who prepares teachers for social education instruction and research. Dr. Hapon is an associate professor of educational psychology who trains prospective teachers.
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Author:Hapon, Nadia
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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