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Knowing what students know: negotiating challenges of distance, desire, and context in constructivist literacy classrooms.


As Deborah Loewenberg Ball (1997) asserts in "What Do Students Know? Facing Challenges of Distance, Context, and Desire in Trying to Hear Children," "No task is more fundamental to teaching than figuring out what students are learning. Paradoxically, no endeavor is more difficult" (p. 769). In the current climate of accountability in the United States, student learning is measured predominantly with standardized test scores. However, there is much more to student thinking and understanding than can be encapsulated in a test score, especially within the context of contemporary, "transformative" models of teaching and learning that derive from cognitive and social constructivist theories (Rivet & Krajcik, 2008). It is vitally important for teachers to develop multiple strategies to "find out what children already know, and take them from where they are to somewhere else" (Clay, 1993, p. 6).

In Ball's 1997 chapter, based on a study of her own third grade mathematics teaching, she discusses the complexity of truly understanding student thinking. Through rich explorations of and reflections on her own practice and her own struggles, Ball describes three main challenges that all teachers must overcome in attempting to discover what children know. The first challenge is that of distance, of "listening across divides": teachers' and students' differences in age, developmental levels, and sometimes the cultural and linguistic barriers which exist between them complicate communication. Ball (1997) notes that "teachers are faced with learning what people quite different from themselves think, say, and mean" (p. 18), and that this challenge of distance is particularly difficult for teachers of young children because of differences in age and developmental levels.

The second challenge is that of context: students' understandings change from moment to moment. As Ball (1997) explains,

Despite the fact that schools tend to treat knowledge as something that can be transmitted and then measured, understanding is variable, and not nearly as stable or externally consistent as we pretend. Children can think one thing under one set of conditions and quite another under other conditions. They can seem to "get it" one day and have little clue the next. Contexts matter and new insights can, at times, confound that which had previously seemed clear, or change that which had seemed solid. (p. 24)

The third challenge is that of desire: teachers' strong desires for students to learn influence what they interpret from students. Because teachers care about their students and want them to learn, teachers often "ask leading questions, fill in where students leave space, and hear more than what is being said because they so hope for student learning" (Ball, 1997, p. 31). To truly understand what students know and how solid or fragile that knowledge is, teachers need to overcome this challenge of desire.

Building on Ball's suggestions for further inquiry, this study draws from sociocultural and cognitive learning theory and applies Ball's theory to a different context, subject matter, age group of children, and philosophical approach to teaching. The study focuses on two primary-grades teachers in a school that is grounded in experiential learning and constructivist pedagogy. Educators in this school teach in a reform-based way (see, e.g., Barak & Shakhman, 2008; Steele, 2001) that actively involves students in the learning process, cultivates higher-order thinking, encourages inquiry, and requires teachers to be able to adapt instructional plans spontaneously in response to student understanding. Both teachers in this study implement a readers'/writers' workshop model (Atwell, 1998; Lenters, 2012; Manak, 2011; Ray, 2001) which emphasizes student choice, independent reading and writing, and discussion as the core of their literacy instruction and assessment. The study is framed by the research question, "How do two constructivist elementary grades teachers negotiate the challenges of distance, desire, and context in understanding student thinking in literacy?"


Sociocultural theory, grounded in the work of Vygotsky (1978) and his contemporaries, provides the central conceptual framework for this study. This theory proposes that individuals reach higher levels of mental functioning through social interaction with others. The National Research Council's work on how people learn, particularly the role of metacognition in learning (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000), also forms part of the framework. In addition, Rogoff's (1990, 1995) work on cognitive apprenticeship informs the analysis of the teachers' practice and the way they structure learning experiences for students. Apprenticeship learning is shared problem-solving between an active learner and a more skilled or knowledgeable partner, working in the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978), with an overarching goal of developing self-regulation in learners (McClelland & Cameron, 2011; Schunk & Zimmerman, 2007). Dorn, French, and Jones (1998) apply these principles specifically to the teaching of reading and writing and propose several elements of an apprenticeship approach to literacy, including observation and responsive teaching, modeling and coaching, adjustable scaffolds, structured routines, and assisted and independent work.

Language plays a central role in apprenticeship learning. As teachers and children engage in interactive oral discussions, sometimes called "instructional conversations" (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988), language serves as a mediator of thinking. Through discussion, children acquire important tools for the mind (Bodrova & Leong, 2007), and the talk helps teachers see strengths, misconceptions, and problem solving approaches in students' thinking.


This study used qualitative, case study methodology. A limitation of this method is that the findings cannot necessarily be generalized. However, as Spillane (2000) points out, "this particularization is also one of its strengths, especially considering the context-specific nature of teaching" (p. 309).

Participants and Setting

Mark and Kate have approximately 15 years each of teaching experience. They teach at a K-12 public school which embraces a philosophy of experiential, interactive, constructivist education. Mark teaches first grade, and Kate teaches a multi-age second-third grade class. Because the school practices looping, both teachers have taught their students for at least 2 years.

Mark's and Kate's instructional approaches include a variety of literacy development strategies and structures such as teacher read-alouds and think-alouds, mini-lessons on cognitive strategies, literature circles, formal assessments, and word study. However, students spend a majority of their literacy time independently reading books (often self-selected), working on various stages of the writing process independently or with small groups, and engaging in structured literacy conversations with their teachers and their peers.

Data Collection and Analysis

Data sources include (1) field notes and transcriptions from 20 combined hours of recorded observation in Mark's and Kate's literacy classes throughout 4 months; (2) transcripts from two semistructured interviews with each teacher; (3) transcripts of an activity in which the teachers looked at student work samples and did a think-aloud on what they could tell about the various students' thinking from the work; and (4) assessment artifacts from each teacher, such as charts to track the content of informal reading conferences.

Data analysis involved (1) writing analytic memos throughout the study; (2) iterative review of all the data sources, including coding of the notes and transcripts based on the themes of distance, context, and desire; and (3) basic discourse analysis of the field notes and transcripts, focusing mostly on the nature of scaffolding through language, ways in which the teachers responded when students seemed confused, and how elements of instructional conversations in the dialogues helped the teachers understand students' thinking. Emergent themes and conclusions were shared with the teachers to establish validity.


Data analysis suggests three main strategies (1) that these teachers use to negotiate the challenges of distance, desire, and context in understanding student thinking in literacy: engaging in meaningful, responsive literacy conversations within an apprenticeship model; knowing themselves and their beliefs deeply; and structuring multimodal experiences in a variety of contexts.

Engage in Meaningful, Responsive Literacy Conversations Within an Apprenticeship Model

The most important, prevalent strategy for overcoming the challenges of distance, desire, and context is that Mark and Kate structure their literacy teaching around meaningful, responsive conversations within an apprenticeship model. As evidenced in interviews and classroom observations, Mark and Kate both strive to have "real conversations" with students about books, writing, and "themselves as readers." The focus of the conferences is primarily meaning making, comprehension, and response to texts. The discourse is not just about recalling facts but about what the children think. It is much more dialogic than univocal (Lotman, 1988; Wertsch, 1991; Wertsch & Toma, 1995), and it embodies key elements of instructional conversations (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988). The teacher's role is to scaffold appropriately within the zone of proximal development by asking questions that both assist and assess (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988), coaching, modeling, and creating a challenging but nonthreatening atmosphere. These authentic conversations allow the teachers to bridge the "distance gap" and get inside their students' thinking. The following vignette, crafted from recorded classroom observation and field notes, illustrates a typical literacy conversation during Mark's informal reading conversations with his first graders:

Mark is sitting next to a first grade boy who is reading a nonfiction text about birds. He asks, "What word are you working on? ... What have you figured out about that word? ... Okay, let's read together: "It has a close ... dependent ... something...." "So, look [he begins to spell and sound out the word] ... R-e ... that would be 'ree' ... and then you have ... l-a-t-i-o-n. Remember that t-i? The sound it sometimes makes?"

S: Tch ...

M: Right, Re.. lay ... tch ...

S: Re ... lay ... re ... lay ... relation? Relations?....

M Relationship. Let's stop at that period and figure out what this means, first. So, it's talking about the thistle plants, and that's what [the bird is] standing on in this picture, isn't it? And, it's saying that the "American goldfinch has ... a close. .. dependent ... relationship with" that. So, a close relationship means ... that they do a lot together. Like, you and your brother have a close relationship, don't you? [Student shakes his head vigorously.] No? Or you and your best friend have a close relationship? The goldfinch has a close relationship with the thistle. In fact, it's not only a close relationship, it's a close, dependent relationship. That means ... he really needs the thistle. Who do you have a dependent relationship with? Somebody you really need?

S: I really need my mom ... to get me away from my brother! [Both laugh.]

M: So, you have a dependent relationship with your mom? So, why do you think the bird ... depends on the thistle?

S: Basically it's right here ... um ... the goldfinch needs a good place, um, to land and to eat ...

M: Yeah, maybe 'cause he needs to land on it or he needs to eat something from it? Let's read on and see if it explains ...

The student reads aloud the next section, which describes what the goldfinch feeds its babies and how it uses thistle down to line its nest. Mark wants to make sure the student understands.

M: Now, stop there again. What does that mean, to use thistle down to line its nest? Can you picture what that means?

S: To like, make it a place so it wouldn't, so it like, if the eggs, if the babies were at one side, and it was really like, and this was the hen ... and the babies might not know how to fly, and it might, um, fall ...

M: So, what would the thistle down be like?

S: It would maybe, like, help the nest, to like ... be on the walls and it couldn't really break that hard ...

M: Okay ... do you see how each seed has something stuck on it? You've seen these before, right? On our hikes. What's that stuff like that's hooked to the seed?

S: It's sorta like cotton.

M: They're very soft, aren't they? And lining something means putting it on the inside. And look at it.... Here, see, your pants ... [Turns up cuff of student's pant leg] ... nope, they don't have a lining. Did you ever have a pair of pants or a jacket or something that had something real soft on the inside?

S: This one has it! [Shows inside of his sweatshirt]

M: Oh yeah! The lining of your sweatshirt is real soft, isn't it? Well, the lining of a goldfinch's nest is real soft because of thistle down seeds. So what are the two reasons that the goldfinch needs the thistle? Is dependent on the thistle?

S: Um, to feed its babies, and um ... to make sure that the nest is soft and comfortable.

This vignette illustrates several elements of instructional conversations (Goldenberg, 1992/1993). For example, Mark does not approach this reading conference with preplanned or scripted comments. Instead, he listens to, and watches, the student read, noting where comprehension breaks down and providing scaffolding when needed. He also hooks into the student's background knowledge to help him understand the meaning of key vocabulary.

The central role of talk and meaningful conversations in a classroom is revealed in this excerpt from an interview with Mark:

Rich oral language ought to be just filling up the room. Kids ought to be hearing and speaking a lot; there ought to be a lot of discourse. Really having a conversation, a thing that a lot of little kids never do much of, at least with an adult. Part of the reason is because the adults tend to pre-empt those. The teacher will pose a question, and that's the only kind of conversation you have going on. They say something, you say something and then they cue you. That's such an impoverished environment to me. For that reason, I don't always stay real purposeful in my conversation with a kid. I want to respond to what they say, not with correction, but with a response.

In this kind of discourse-rich environment, where lots of talk occurs, teachers and students have opportunities to engage on a much deeper level than in a classroom whose common discourse pattern follows the traditional initiation-response-evaluation norm (Cazden, 2001). As expressed in Ball's (1997) chapter,

With more conventional approaches to teaching and assessment, children may represent their ideas in more standard, more adult--and hence, more familiar--terms. Indeed, teachers and curriculum developers often work to constrain children's expressions, channeling their thinking in ways that will help them remember things correctly. (Edwards, 1993, cited in Ball, 1997, p. 22)

The flexible nature of this instructional model requires Mark and Kate to observe carefully and be ready to respond to wherever students are in their thinking, even if it changes from moment to moment (as Ball describes in the challenge of context). According to Tharp and Gallimore (1988), "Because student productions are not predictable, responsive teaching involves thoughtful, reflective tailoring of assistance to learners as instructional opportunity and need arise" (p. 135). The previous vignette about thistles and goldfinches provides an example of this responsive teaching. Similarly, Kate noted that she doesn't decide what to ask students in interactive book clubs until I get there.

It's totally off the top of my head. It depends on the group, the book they are reading, what themes we talked about as a class, what skills we are honing in on, questions they may have, a strategy we've been using that morning.... It's dependent upon a lot of circumstances.

Of course, she also draws from her prior knowledge of, and experiences with, the students, but her comments capture the responsiveness required in a conversation-based, apprenticeship approach to literacy learning.

Similar to Kate, Mark often does not plan out in advance what to say to students in the context of responsive literacy conversations. He remarked,

There are always a million great things to learn, and the likelihood that the thing I had in mind when I approached them initially is the apt thing for them at that moment is fairly low. So the best assessment device for that kind of readiness, or teachable moment, is what you are hearing from the child. What they are interested in is what they are likely ready to learn something about.

These examples illustrate the importance of listening closely to one's students and attending carefully to their literacy needs in that very moment, two useful approaches to negotiating the challenge of distance.

Another important aspect of this conversation-based apprenticeship model is that Mark and Kate help students monitor, assess, and communicate about their own literacy development, in an attempt to build self-regulation. They both strive to have their students become "independent thinkers" and "self-directed learners," goals they regularly articulate explicitly to their students, as evidenced in classroom observations. In reading and writing conferences, they frequently ask students questions such as: "What are your goals for yourself as a reader today?," "What do you think about the level of this book for you?," "What are the things you have noticed yourself as a reader doing lately?," and "What are the strategies you can use to help you figure out this word?" This kind of articulation and reflection (Dorn et al., 1988) makes both the child and the adult more aware of the child's cognitive processes. It is more likely for teachers to get an accurate view of student understanding when students can articulate what is going on inside their heads moment to moment. This practice helps teachers get to know students and their needs better, thereby reducing the "distance" factor and also mediating the challenge of context. The following vignette, constructed from transcripts of recorded classroom observation, illustrates how Kate engages a third grade student in reflecting on his own reading level:

It is time for independent reading. Kate directs the students to choose a "just right" book from their book bag. A "just right" book is one that the student can generally read independently and comprehend, although it is slightly above the student's current level of development. Kate then circulates around the room and settles in to talk with one particular student. While he gets his book out, Kate consults a clipboard that has a record sheet with students' names, dates she conferred with them, the book they were reading each time, and a place for comments. Kate asks him, "Okay, and which is your 'just right' book?"

S: Harry Potter.

K: Harry Potter? Let's just see ... [Kate consults her records.] So the last time we were together you were also reading Harry Potter, right?

S: Right.

K: Okay. So first, why did you choose this book?

S: Because, because like, because my mom has never read this book to me, and I want to try to read it by myself.

K: Really? Did your mom read other books of the Harry Potter series to you?

S: Yes. She read Chamber of Secrets, and now we're reading The Prisoner of Azkaban.

K: So tell me why you think this is going to be just right for you?

S: Because like, because ... like, it has the words in small letters, and some of them have the big at the beginning ...

K: How is that going to be just right, then? How is that going to tell you it's just right?

S: It's just going to tell me that it's just right that I can read a whole chapter in a couple of days.

K: So, what's your goal going to be for reading this morning?

S: Finishing the chapter.

K: Why is that a goal for you?

S: Because like ... because when we were reading, the last time I read it, I wanted to read it by saying the words ... I was reading it silently.

K: Should we try reading this page out loud?

S: Yeah.

K: Yep, let's try this page together. [The student begins reading aloud, stumbling over a few words in the book's first page.]

In this vignette, Kate does not simply accept the student's pronouncement that the reading level of this particular Harry Potter is "just right" for the student. Instead, she asks him to explain why he thinks this particular book is "just right" for him on this particular day. Furthermore, she prompts him to set a goal for himself for today's reading. These types of instructional moves within the context of literacy conversations help students develop independence and self-regulation with their reading.

Another important aspect of the conversation-based literacy apprenticeship model is figuring out how much assistance to provide. Mark notes, "The scaffolding shouldn't be bigger than the building," implying that too much assistance can be detrimental. However, determining the right amount can be difficult. Before providing assistance, the teacher needs to have a good sense of the child's level, strengths, and needs. Mark and Kate both note that observing and listening to their students' reading and writing processes is their primary strategy for actively diagnosing the understandings and needs of the students. These diagnostic strategies are also useful for determining if students' understanding changes from day to day or from context to context.

Throughout observations, I witnessed Mark explicitly telling some students how to pronounce various words during literacy conferences, but taking the time to work through the sound-by-sound pronunciation with others, and apparently ignoring errors with yet other students. It appeared to me that I was possibly seeing "desire" in action: that he wanted students to succeed, so perhaps he was doing some of their work for them instead of insisting that they figure out the words or their errors on their own. So, I asked Mark about the decisions he makes about when and why to intervene and assist a struggling reader. He remarked,

You know, it is an individual case, not just individual kid by kid, but moment by moment. You just sort of have a sense of trying to calculate constantly, which is going to be the most valuable right now? ... If the kid happens to be not fluent at decoding words and all you pay attention to is building sounds into words, you're telling him that's what reading is.... And, kids ought to be getting the implicit rewards of reading even when they are very primitive readers. They ought to be able to make sense out of a text, not just be able to say a word, even when they are just beginning. And so for that reason, I'll lend them some decoding skills of mine sometimes as they are going along.

In a response to a similar question, Kate commented that knowing when to step in to assist a child is "intuitive, and it's also understanding that moment in time as you are reading." Consider the following transcript excerpt in which Kate provides scaffolding for a student who was tripping over three particular words in a Harry Potter passage:

K: Okay, how can you figure out this word here?

S: By cutting off some of the letters?

K: Uh huh.

S: Dr ... llls ...

K: Say it quickly.

S: Drulls.

K: So does that make sense?

S: Yeah.

K: What do you think that means, then? When we go "dr-i," do you see that "ill," i? And then, ll-s.... Say that word again. Dr- ills.

S: Dr-ills. Drills.

K: Is that different from what you just said?

S: Yeah. [Student resumes reading aloud.] "He was a big buffy [sic] man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very ... a very large mustache. Mr. ... Mrs. Dursley was thin and ... bundled [sic] ... and"

K: And ... what did you say that word was?

S: Bumbled ... bundled ...

K: Bumbled? What does that word mean? "She was thin and bumbled." What do you think that word means?

S: That she like ... that she wears thin clothes? [Resumes reading.] "... and had nearly twice ..."

K: Let's just go back to this word again ... when you've got the b and the l, what do you say?

S: Bow ... bl ... bl ...

K: Bl ... bluh....

S: Bluh ... bluh ... nnnn

K: nnnnn ... d. So, let's go through that ... bluh, bluh, nnnn, d.

S: bluh, bluh, nnnn, d.

K: Blahhhhnd. [Blonde].

S: Blonde.

K: So, when you say, what was the word you showed me just now?

S: Blonde.

K: Did you change your mind now then about what that word is?

S: Yeah. [Resumes reading aloud.]

In this episode, Kate questions, cues, and prompts the student, but she does not jump in and try to correct all of his errors. Eventually he is able to complete the task of sounding out several words. However, she keeps having the student re-read text chunks and paraphrase meaning in his own words to verify that he actually comprehends what he is reading. In alignment with her stated goals, her assistance helps the student develop meaning along with decoding skills.

In summary, these examples highlight, once again, how meaningful, responsive conversations in an apprenticeship framework are a crucially important strategy for overcoming the challenges of knowing what students know when their understanding shifts from moment to moment. They also point to the delicate dance of knowing when to let a student struggle through a challenge and when to jump in with tailored assistance. The seductiveness of desire makes achieving this balance particularly difficult. Finally, responsive conversations infused with careful, attentive listening help teachers overcome communication gaps between themselves and students that can be caused by differences in age, developmental levels, culture, and/or language.

Know Oneself Well, Both as a Teacher and a Learner

A second strategy is for the teachers to know themselves deeply, both as teachers and as learners, through metacognition and reflection. Data analysis indicates that this particular strategy is most helpful for negotiating the challenges of desire and distance. Interview transcripts and classroom observations illustrate that Mark and Kate are explicitly aware of their own beliefs, and they consciously build their classroom practices upon these beliefs. Their main defense against the seductiveness of desire is their strong commitment to developing independence and self-directedness in their students as core aspects of their belief systems. As Mark notes,

I must restrain myself. This is one of my most important strategies in getting to know students' thinking. You have to let them be uncomfortable, past the point of being uncomfortable for you. You do want to jump in; it's really hard to hold back.

When they sense that distance between themselves and their students is getting in the way of understanding student thinking, both Mark and Kate note that they reflect back to their childhoods or to times when they experienced something similar to what the child is experiencing. This type of reflection and metacognition has the potential to help close the distance gap, depending on how much similarity exists between their own experiences and that of the child. In one interview passage, for example, Mark comments on how he uses memories of, and reflections on, himself as a learner to understand better what his students experience:

I've made an attempt my whole career to kind of strengthen my imagination. At least it's really a moral step to try to remember. I think memory is the main tool for [overcoming the distance challenge]--and often that means literally trying real hard to remember childhood ...

I feel like if we're not constantly trying really hard to imagine the experience our students are having, then we're turning into a destructive machine.

So, yeah, I feel that's right at the center of my call to be a teacher is to kind of exercise the moral imagination and put myself in [the students'] places.

I remember real hard, and I've had help from writing teachers and writers I admire. So it's about valuing that and trying to do it with my own students.

In another interview passage, Mark discusses how he "watches himself as a reader" as a way to understand more clearly what his first graders experience as they learn to read. He notes,

My reading is so automated as a proficient reader, that my attention has not normally been on what's going on inside when I read.

And so, to stop and try to watch myself read real carefully is another way I can get in their place, in their position. I try to get what is inside my head to the outside, and that's something I do in read-alouds.

I do the think-aloud partly just to train myself to try to think, what goes on when I read, what am I doing? So, that helps. That's another way of closing that distance.

Kate also cited examples of thinking back to her childhood as a way to help her understand her students' reading experiences, as illustrated in this passage from an interview transcript, edited for length and clarity. Notice how, even though Kate's experiences differed from those of her student, Jeremiah, she uses her childhood memories to help her understand Jeremiah's perspective:

I was intensely curious about why second grader Jeremiah was besotted by a particular book and walked around class with it for days. It turns out that Jeremiah's beloved kindergarten teacher had read it to him, and he had many warm memories about the book because of that. It's great that we can all have that one book that we carry with us, that we will have for all our lives.

For me, though, the passion didn't stay like that. I don't remember that one book. I wasn't a reader as a child. And I wasn't read to. And I didn't come from a family that had any books. What I remember of books was perhaps Farmer's Weekly. My mother and dad never read. But then eventually I fell in love with a series of books called the "Jill and the Pony" books because I had ponies and rode, and I remember reading in my bedroom about ponies in books. So I get why that book is so engaging for Jeremiah. It brings back memories that enlighten him.

Structure Multimodal Experiences in a Variety of Contexts

A third strategy that emerged during this case study is structuring multimodal literacy experiences (Jewitt, 2008) with children in a variety of contexts. Data analysis indicates that this particular strategy is most helpful for negotiating the challenges of distance and context. Aligned with the school's philosophy, Kate and Mark incorporate experiential learning and field work in the community as part of interdisciplinary units of study. For instance, Mark's students raised and investigated chickens, snakes, frogs, and fish as part of their unit on eggs, and Kate's students took responsibility for a public garden in the school's neighborhood as part of their unit on community.

In their daily instructional dialogues with students, to foster comprehension, Mark and Kate make reference to these non-literacy-specific events that they have shared with their students. For example, a first grade student was reading a book on the life cycle of a snake and had a question about the meaning of a particular phrase related to snakes. Mark directed the student to go look in the classroom snake cage to help him understand experientially what the text was describing. When another student was confused about the differences in life cycles between different types of frogs, Mark helped the student make connections to their shared experience of raising frogs in the classroom, as seen in this transcript excerpt:

M: Oh, and this even has pictures of what they look like growing inside the egg. Now, this is surprising to me, it looks like a picture of a frog that's already a frog inside an egg. Now, is that the way our frogs looked inside the eggs?

S: Nope.

M: What was inside the eggs in ours?

S: Um, a little black dot.

M: Yeah, and then, what hatched out?

S: A tadpole.

M: Yeah, a tadpole. So, I wonder what this picture is telling us, that that's different from some other kinds? Or, what does that mean, you think? ... Oh look, it says "some frog eggs ..." Read this paragraph.

S: OK. "Some frog eggs develop directly into baby frogs and do not have a tadpole phase. As you can see, the little frogs are already completely formed inside the eggs."

In yet another episode of literacy conversations, a student comes across the word "rejected" in a story and asks Mark what it means. Mark has the student experientially act out the process of rejecting something; then he applies the meaning back to the text so the student will understand:

S: "Rejected." What does rejected mean?

M: You don't know what it means? If I offer you this coffee [holds out his Starbuck's mug] and you say, "No, thank you," you would be rejecting the coffee, wouldn't you?

S: Yes.

M: So, let's have you reject it. Here ... [Mark holds out coffee mug.]

S: No! [Student swats the mug away dramatically.]

M: You just rejected my coffee. Now, what did Ishtar reject?

S: Hmmmm.... Marriage?

Since knowledge cannot be separated from the contexts in which it develops (Putnam & Borko, 1997, 2000), this variety of instructional settings influences what and how students learn. Different students display different strengths and different types of expertise depending on the context and the particular moment. These multimodal literacy experiences allow the teachers to observe various facets of their students' understanding, something which helps them overcome the challenges of distance and context.


A number of intriguing, relevant, and useful conclusions and implications emerge from this case study. First, the analysis of Kate and Mark's approach to overcoming challenges in understanding students' thinking adds to the literature on a current "hot topic" in research on teaching: What does it take to teach in a reform-based way? Based on the data analysis of the present study, a few responses to this question include:

* a willingness to hold back and let students struggle on their own and even fail;

* teachers' confidence in themselves that they will know how to respond to students without having completely preplanned, prescribed lessons;

* an ability to examine oneself as a learner;

* keen observation and listening skills, grounded in mindful awareness and paying close attention;

* reflecting on, and articulating, one's beliefs about teaching and learning and how they translate directly into concrete practices and interactions with students;

* and a willingness to let go of control because in this kind of authentic-conversation-based approach, one cannot predict the outcome--or at least one can't predict the way that students will get to certain outcomes.

Second, all teachers at all levels should be aware of how the challenges of distance, desire, and context can get in the way of truly knowing what students know. These challenges are particularly exacerbated in schools where the teacher's cultural and socioeconomic background differs from that of her students, and where ignoring these challenges can negatively affect children's opportunities to learn. Since the majority of teachers (including Kate and Mark) in the U.S. are White and middle-class, and our student population increasingly includes large numbers of students of color from low-income backgrounds (Hollins & Guzman, 2005; Zeichner & Hoeft, 1996), this issue is particularly relevant and timely. On the other hand, as Mark pointed out in an interview late in the study, these three challenges should not be viewed simply as negative. As he commented, "All these [challenges] are paradoxical. They both characterize a problem and they characterize sort of a structure that makes the teaching relationship happen. If it weren't for distance, for example, then I wouldn't have anything to teach them."

The reform-based approach portrayed in the classrooms of Mark, Kate, and other constructivist teachers is sometimes at odds with what schools are being pushed to do in response to education policy. A question we all need to ask ourselves is, "Can we hear our students' voices across the standards and the tests?" One first step that all educators at all levels and in all contexts can take toward negotiating the challenges of distance, desire, and context in understanding their students' understanding is to prioritize quality dialogue and conversation in the curriculum and instructional approach, regardless of subject area, grade level, or philosophical approach. Talk is a powerful way to get to know one's students and their thinking processes.


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(1.) The author also includes "knowing students' histories" as a significant finding of this study, but it is not discussed in the scope of this particular manuscript.
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Title Annotation:VOLUME 14, NUMBER 1: CHAPTER 6
Author:Dorman, Elizabeth Hope
Publication:Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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