Teacher Educators Engage Pre-service Teachers with The 57 Bus
Tami Morton and Alexandra Babino
As an African-American female educator, I (Tami) connect with books that include African-American characters, particularly those that feature strong young women with strong ethnic identities like Deja in Towers Falling (Rhodes, 2016) and Jade from Piecing Me Together (Watson, 2017). Nonetheless, I was attracted to the true story selected for the 2018 Notable Books for a Global Society list, The 57 Bus (Slater, 2017) despite some apprehension.
The 57 Bus is an intriguing nonfiction story in which Dashka Slater uses her journalistic style to chronicle the explosive encounter of two high-school teenagers on the 57 bus. One teenager, Sasha, is White and from a middle-class neighborhood. Sasha, wearing a skirt, identifies as agender, rather than as either male or female. Richard is an African-American teen from a low socioeconomic status (SES) neighborhood. The book details the harrowing accounts of each student’s life prior to and after an eight-second timeframe that changed their lives forever—when Richard lights Sasha’s skirt on fire.
This book explores the points of view of two students who have been traditionally marginalized in today’s schools, namely LGBTQIA, African-Americans, and those from low SES neighborhoods. By doing so, this book portrays the multidimensional lived experiences of actual students related to controversial topics like sexual and gender identity, equal housing, equitable education, and justice under the law. The book thus has the potential to counter the dominant narratives of mainstream culture by highlighting the nuanced complexity between individual “choices” and consequences that ripple across a lifetime.
One of the first thoughts that came to my mind after reading this book was the potential responses of students. As a reading professor in teacher education, students in my courses are preparing for teaching reading in the K-6 classroom. Through conversations and research (Haddix & Price, 2013; Hermann-Wilmarth, J., 2010), I realized that most teachers preparing for these grade levels are concerned about what books they can share in their classrooms. They typically shy away from books that feature complicated conversations related to racism, sex, and politics. In fact, they believe that it is their responsibility as teachers to keep these books away from their future students. However, we believe that sharing these texts with pre-service teachers is essential, particularly since teaching is never neutral (Valenzuela, 2016). In a transformative education, teachers work to prepare students to become change agents to address problems in their communities (Freire, 2005; Nieto & Bode, 2018).
Beginning the Journey
Tami spoke to another faculty member, Ale, who teaches bilingual, ESL, and literacy classes. Ale is a second generation Mexican-American, who relates to books that explore the linguistic and identity borderlands of Latinx students. She resonates with characters like Marisol from Marisol McDonald no combina [Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match] (Brown, 2011) and Margie in Nacer bailando [Dancing Home] (Ada & Zubizarreta, 2013) who live at the intersection of two cultures. Together we were committed to exploring how pre-service teachers would experience the book in order to reflect on our own practice.
We decided to offer the book as an optional literature circle to our spring 2018 students that would occur outside of class. Specifically, we wondered how interactions with this book would influence pre-service teachers’ personal views in regards to complex social issues and if they would recommend the book for secondary classrooms. By analyzing students’ responses to these questions, we ultimately aimed to explore how we could further shape teacher perceptions about including diverse literature that fosters a more knowledgeable and inclusive disposition in teaching.
Inviting Our Students
At our medium-sized, public, rural university, we began the semester by briefly describing the opportunity to our four undergraduate literacy classes (two taught by Tami and two taught by Ale). We both provided a “book talk” in a manner similar to a commercial (Roser & Martinez, 1995), which included a brief description of the book and the issues that were highlighted. Tami also offered to purchase the book for any interested students.
During the literature circle, students were asked to read the book and complete three journal responses. The students were asked to respond in a written format to three questions:
- Before reading, how do you expect to respond to the book? Explain your reasoning.
- After reading parts 1 & 2, do you believe that you would include this book in your classroom? Explain why or why not.
- After reading the book, do you believe this text should be used in your classroom? Explain why or why not. Has your opinion changed?
While 44 students expressed interest in the literature circle, only 11 students completed all three reflections. Participating students were between 20 to 44 years in age and in their junior and senior years of college. When asked why they decided to abandon the book, all but one stated a variation of having school, family, and work commitments interfering with the time to read the book. One did not believe in the issues in the book and she did not need to read about it.
To aide in our personal reflection, we implemented the constant comparative method of data analysis (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007) to examine all student responses and identify “key issues, recurring events, or activities that may become the focus of the study and the basis for categorizing data” (Mertler, 2009, p.81). Our codes included reasons for joining the literature circle; personal and professional views; a change of views; and pre-service teachers’ recommendations across responses. From these codes, the three principal themes emerged and served as a springboard for our response included expanding understanding of social issues, conflicted recommendations for reading; and a need for further critical professional learning.
Setting a foundation
When asked why they wanted to join the literature circle, all participants (n = 11) stated they were avid readers and most (n = 9) were interested in reading a book that would help them serve their future students. Seeing their willingness to learn about minoritized groups buoyed our hopes for what we might learn about guiding pre-service teachers in creating an inclusive classroom. As teacher educators, we can build on pre-service teachers’ love for reading and openness to learn about the lived experiences of others. While seemingly obvious, we believe this observation should not go unsaid since many preservice teachers report not liking to read (Nathanson, Pruslow, & Levitt, 2008; Vansteelandt, Mol, Caelen, Landuyt, & Mommaerts, 2017). What’s more, other teacher educators (Boylan & Woosley, 2015; Mills & Ballantyne, 2010) have found that creating a more open disposition toward diversity may be a developmental process, where teachers move from self-awareness to openness, and then commitment to social justice. In our beginning literacy course, we first focused on (re)igniting a love for reading through literature circles. We believe this is an essential first step before expanding students’ understandings of critical, controversial topics.
In the first response, all students also noted they had never known anyone who was asexual. By the second response, all students reported some version of having “their eyes opened” to the challenges of being considered a minority in dominant society. Over the course of the three responses, pre-service teachers demonstrated an expanding understanding of the issues facing minoritized groups in a way that led to increased compassion and even a passion (n = 8) to engage with future students around these issues. An illustrative example of this point is how Justin progressed in his reflections. He began his first reflection by sharing, “I have experienced many things in my life, but several of the topics covered in this book are foreign to me […] The lessons taught in this book will be important for students to learn because they involve real world scenarios that students will encounter.”
By his second response, his reflection becomes both more personal and specific on why it is necessary for students to interact with books like this one,
The constant questioning of self that Sasha seems to have been dealt up to this point in the book are things that some people are dealing with on a daily basis in our world. Beyond being realistic scenarios for a lot of people in this country today, these scenarios are also both hot button topics […] If we are ever going to grow as a country […] we have to start having the dialogue, and I believe that school is the perfect place to begin this dialogue.
The issue has changed from discussions of minoritized groups that seem ephemeral and impersonal to “questioning of self” which brings the issues to an individual and immediate level. His response also expanded beyond students learning about general life lessons to having a dialogue in school with the purpose of creating social progress. Over the course of several months, most students (n = 10) demonstrated increased understanding of and empathy for Sasha and Richard’s complex experiences. From this experience, we learned that interactions around one book can expand students’ personal views.
While all participants grew in their personal views towards Sasha and Richard and the minoritized groups they identify with, this personal growth did not significantly change their professional views to the point where they would implement the book in a secondary classroom. Only two students enthusiastically and unequivocally recommended teaching from the book; three students vehemently opposed teaching with this book, and almost half of participants (n = 6) would have the book in the classroom as choice reading but would not include it as required reading. Most recommendations for teaching the book included caveats such as Jilliyn, who said: “I would really advise for my students to read [it], but I cannot force them to read it”; another student shared that she would definitely use this text in a secondary classroom if it were a mature class; and another reflected that while she enjoyed the book, she couldn’t recommend using it in a public school. They each qualified how they would limit its use on a smaller scale than the entire classroom.
As teacher educators, these responses lead us to consider how we might facilitate students along their journeys towards developing a social justice orientation to teaching. While we realize that this experience deepened their nascent understanding of these minoritized groups, through our personal and professional experiences we know that this is merely one of the first steps that we should continue to build on. Personally, as we’ve taught LGBTQAI students in elementary schools, we’ve noticed how our perspectives have transitioned over time: we first became aware of their unique needs, which led us to become curious to learn how we might better support them, and ultimately become an ally. Our personal experiences coincide with research (Boylan & Woosley, 2015; Mills & Balltantyne, 2010) that describes how developing a transformative pedagogy is a developmental process moving from self-awareness, to openness, and finally a commitment to social justice. This also aligns with our professional experiences in this study as we see evidence through students’ conflicting recommendations, suggesting that they are straddling the self-awareness and openness stages.
Need for critical professional development
Ultimately, reviewing pre-service teachers’ responses to the book reinforced the need to read texts about characters outside mainstream culture while providing students with the tools to expand their personal views and professional practice (Haddix & Price-Dennis, 2013; Nieto & Bode, 2018). Several pre-service teacher responses indicated their surprise and shock at the content and the language in The 57 Bus. We believe this would not have been the case if they had more experiences with children’s and adolescent books, particularly those that disrupt what people see as typical or expected (Summara, 2002).
Additionally, participants felt it was important for their future students to be exposed to books that share a well written story that provides values and truth, much like those identified by Hirsh (2010) as the “cultural classics.” While we feel this is a valid way of thinking about books, it indicates a more “purist” approach (Leland & Lewison, 2018, p. 5). A reader who has a purist approach pays more attention to the elements of story, like the plot, setting, characterization, and theme to discuss the framework of books. However, this approach should not always be the emphasis. We would like for pre-service teachers to have a more critical approach when reading literature, where they would consider multiple viewpoints, focus on the sociopolitical implications, and even take action to promote social justice (Leland, Lewison, & Harste, 2018).
Our Action Steps
As a result of this action research, we are both encouraged and challenged. We’re encouraged by how much personal development can occur in a small group of students over the course of several months; yet, we are also challenged as to how we may collectively coordinate across classes to intentionally include materials and create spaces to broaden pre-service teachers’ understandings of minoritized groups, in a way that will allow them to create inclusive, transformative classrooms. In particular, we are coming away with the following action steps.
- Continue to provide experiences like literature circles and book talks that foster a love for literacy within the framework of windows and mirrors (Bishop, 1990). With each text, invite students to reflect: How is this a mirror? How is this a window? This curiosity provides a foundation for empathy, as they see both similarities and differences between characters and themselves.
- Continue to provide safe places for students to reflect in personal writing on how they are processing “reading the world” (Freire, 1970). Affirm students’ thinking–including the struggle–and suggest additional resources (Rychly & Graves, 2012) that will inform their thinking beyond their personal experiences to demonstrate that personal and professional change requires time.
- Explicitly teach vocabulary related to minoritized groups, including person first language (Dunn & Andrews, 2015). Almost all of our students mentioned not knowing common LGBTQAI terms and found this chapter of the book especially helpful.
- Continue to provide multiple texts that defy stereotypes of diverse groups and thereby show the complexity of lived experiences (Tschida, Ryan, & Ticknor, 2014). Encourage students to see characters as individuals in addition to being members of their social groups so they understand general issues and trends related to each minoritized group, but also value each person’s unique experience.
- Continue to model curiosity in your own reading through your book selection, class readings, and reflections. Specifically, share how your thinking has developed and what contributed to your growth. By being transparent in our think alouds, we model how we are humble learners in our own journeys.
- Explore multiple ways of knowing through multimodality and transmediation (Hadjioannu, & Huchinson, 2014). Invite students to demonstrate their learning not only through multiple modalities (i.e. oral, written, visual), but also by translating their learning from one modality to another (i.e. written to visual). This further substantiates the value of complexity in understanding in the human experience.
As we reflect, we must keep in mind that, though many pre-service teachers have worldviews principally influenced by personal experiences, they are increasingly more open to discussions about multicultural literature. Research has found that pre-service teachers can and do remember the responses given to them about their teaching (Scheeler, McAfee, Ruhl, & Lee, 2006) and developing dispositions toward diversity can be developmental (Mills & Balltantyne, 2010). The next step is to provide multiple texts to use as a window (Bishop, 1990) into diverse cultures and settings and help students find connections. Then, as they are able to gain empathy and understanding, we may guide them to develop the critical tools needed to navigate more controversial issues in their classrooms.
Some use LGBTQIA to be more inclusive of additional groups than the commonly used LGBTQ. It stands for Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer questioning, intersex, asexual. Alternatively, other writers use the term “LGBTQ+”. Definitions of these and other terms are included in the book, The 57 Bus.
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Children’s Literature References
Ada, A. F., & Zubizarreta, G. M. (2013). Nacer bailando/Dancing home. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Brown, M. (2011). Marisol McDonald no combina/Marisol McDonald doesn’t match. New York: Lee & Low Books.
Rhodes, J. P. (2016). Towers falling. New York: Little, Brown.
Slater, D. (2017). The 57 bus: A true story of two teenagers and the crime that changed their lives. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
Watson, R. (2017). Piecing me together. New York: Bloomsbury.
Tami Morton is an Associate Professor at Texas A & M University-Commerce.
Alexandra Babino is an Assistant Professor of Bilingual/ESL Education at Texas A & M University-Commerce.