Dr. Tom Crumpler and Dr. Lara Handsfield, professors in the School of Teaching and Learning, recently published a new book, The Complex Development of Preservice and Inservice Teacher Identities, which studied how teachers develop their teacher identities in the classroom.

Setting the scene

It’s early April, and Camille is teaching a lesson on pronouns in her third-grade student teaching placement. Trying to tap into the students’ interest in video games, she asked them to bring in video game manuals from home.

“All right, now you guys have a mission. We’re going to write down two or three sentences from your manuals that have pronouns in them,” said Camille. One student reads the sentence, “Your character is Princess Peach (of Mario Kart fame) and Camille playfully responds, “Hey, that’s my character. I was just Princess Peach.” Then another student asks, “Is that the one that can turn into a ninja?” Students’ excitement is palpable as they become video game characters, but perhaps a bit too palpable for how Camille perceives she should be managing the classroom.

In the previous classroom example, Camille’s lesson is being video recorded as part of a research project in which she explored how to integrate students’ popular culture interests into literacy instruction. She is also being observed by her cooperating teacher and is aware of the expectations that she implement the skills-based curriculum. However, those expectations may not include enacting a teacher identity that involves shapeshifting into a ninja. She quickly redirects the students’ imaginative conversations back onto pronouns, reminding students to raise their hands to participate. With that, the excitement in the classroom dissipates.

Like so many new teachers, Camille feels the weight of multiple ideologies and competing expectations regarding what literacy teaching should look like, and what kind of teacher she might become. Trying to walk that fine line between forming their own identity and following established ideologies can be a challenge for newer teachers in particular.

Exploring teacher identities

The Complex Development of Preservice and Inservice Teacher Identities, Thomas P. Crumpler and Lara J. Handsfield, Foreward by Brian EdmistonIn their book, Crumpler and Handsfield explore which ideologies of teaching and learning constrain or enable teachers to become the type of teachers they want to be, how teachers like Camille can be supported in negotiating this process, and what would happen if more attention was paid to these types of identity negotiations.

Crumpler and Handsfield also use the previous classroom pronoun discussion to explore the alternative possibilities of Camille’s lesson. Rather than stopping the student conversations and returning to the original, planned pronoun lesson, suppose she followed their lead, giving them choice within the lesson to extend their discussion into one about character. What if Camille invited the students to shout out other video game characters, and discuss these characters’ superpowers while acting the power out, employing process drama? Process drama is an unscripted and playful approach to learning that uses dramatic structures such as teacher and student roles, tableau (silent frozen moments), and others to activate imaginations and explore interpretive possibilities to enrich teaching and learning.

From here, Camille could choose multiple instructional options to finish the lesson that further engaged the students on a variety of literacy topics. For example, the students could draft a short narrative in the role of the video game character and then share their drafts with a partner at the table. Camille could use the texts the students have composed to teach aspects of grammar (pronouns and other parts of speech) as a feature of the next day’s lesson. The lesson is no longer solely focused on pronouns, but has evolved into a more expansive discussion on multiple literacy topics.

Implementing process drama into the classroom

Throughout their book, Crumpler and Handsfield also outline numerous practical recommendations that literacy teachers can employ within their classroom to enable them to engage their students, and allow them to be co-learners in the classroom. Just a few are highlighted below:

  • Students love their names. One process drama activity asks students to say their names in a way that suggests something about their personality. Then, the teacher asks students to say their names in sequences of six or eight. The rest of the class listens to the musicality of the names.
  • One useful dramatic strategy involves talking to a character. After reading a picture book with students, the teacher asks them if they could talk to any character in the story or a character that could be in the story, who would they like to talk to? The teacher then steps into the role as that character and engages the students in a conversation.
  • Tableaus are a fun way to invite students up out of their seats and work in small groups. A teacher brainstorms possible themes with students connected to a story they have read. In groups of four, the students arrange themselves in silent frozen scenes to show the rest of the class that theme. The teacher asks the rest of the class to interpret what they see.

Crumpler and Handsfield’s book shines a light on the importance of allowing teachers to develop their own teacher identities and provides real-life examples of how they can be supported in doing so. In turn, their belief is that students and teachers alike will be fully engaged, creating an environment for true learning to occur.