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Understanding Ourselves as Teachers of English Through Analyzing Narrative and Identity in Teacher M


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Title: Understanding Ourselves as Teachers of English Through Analyzing Narrative and Identity in Teacher M

Understanding Ourselves as Teachers of
English Through Analyzing Narrative and Identity
in Teacher Man     Li Zhanzi
China's 5th International Symposium on ELT in
China the 1st Congress of Chinese Applied
Linguistics, Language Identity Symposium
May.19. 2007,Beijing.
  • Abstract Recent studies in discourse and
    identity suggest that while the construction of
    such major aspects of identity as race and
    ethnicity may have striking consequences, minor
    aspects of identities also contribute
    significantly to our sense of ourselves. Through
    an interpretation of the multi-positioning in
    Frank McCourts Teacher Man, the paper tries to
    illustrate how the highly appraised work
    reconstructs identity by appealing to ones life
    story. The relationship between narrative and
    identity will be explored with reference to the
    books multi-positioning. It is proposed that
    for the English teachers in China to understand
    themselves in a more flexible and enlightening
    way, more teacher narratives need to be elicited
    and analyzed in the similar vein.
  • Key words narrative discourse, identity, English
    teaching, reading positioning

I. Introduction Narrative and identity
  • Since identity is continuously and constantly
    produced and reproduced, sketched and designed,
    and often co-constructed by self and other,
    we should strive to demonstrate how identities
    are (re)produced through language (and other
    media) and how they come into existence through
    social interaction. (De Fina, 200622)

  • …Not only is it within social practice that
    identities are shaped, but also the construction
    and projection of identities are themselves
    interactional practices. The details of these
    interactions vary, as do approaches to their
    analysis. Yet practices as varied as narrative,
    life story, interviews, letter writing, and
    conversation all provide systematic (yet
    emergent) means of doing things through talk
    that simultaneously provide means of being.
  • So what we are going to do is to analyze the
    interaction between narrative and identity in
    Teacher Man and explore its implications in our
    own identifications as teachers of English.

Self as a narration rendered intelligible within
ongoing relationships
  • Self-conception not as an individuals personal
    and private cognitive structure
  • But as discourse about the self the performance
    of languages available in the public sphere
    (Gergen, K. Self-narration in social life)

  • We live by stories, both in the telling and the
    realizing of the self
  • Self-narratives function much like oral histories
    or morality tales within a society. They are
    cultural resources that serve such social
    purposes as self-identification,
    self-justification, self-criticism, and social
    solidification. (Gergen, in Wetherell, 2001249)

  • A growing number of scholars suggest that the
    form of stories (their textual structure), the
    content of our stories (what we tell about) and
    our storytelling behavior (how we tell our
    stoeis) are all sensitive indices of our
    personal, social, and cultural identities
    (Schiffrin, 1996170). Mishler (199920) argues
    that narratives are performances in which
    individuals speak their identities . This way
    of connecting narrative and identity challeges
    prevailing assumptions about the self. (De Fina,

  • Narrative analysts who focus on time order have a
    fancy for the grand narration which gives our
    life a unified, coherence meaning, which is of a
    higher order. (MacIntyre 1984 Taylor 1991).
  • But in factNeither the trajectories of our
    lives nor the stories we construct to understand
    ourselves and others are smooth, continuous and
    progressive. Each is marked by fits and starts,
    detours and hiatuses. (De Fina, 200643)
  • This is why we find the author retelling his
    childhood story, his story of his mother etc.
    These form part of the teacher man and are
    something he cannot do without.

II. Teacher Man and his narrative
  • About the author Frank McCourt and his work ----
  • Born 1930 in Brooklyn, New York, to Irish
    immigrant parents, grew up in Limerick, Ireland,
    and at the age of 19, returned to America.
    Surviving initially through a string of casual
    jobs, spending every spare minutes reading books
    from the public library, McCourt began a process
    of self-education which led to a career of a
    high-school teacher.

  • the final memoir in the trilogy that started with
    Angelas Ashes and continue in Tis
  • On McCourts 30-year teaching career in New
    Yorks public high schools, which began at McKee
    Vocational and Technical in 1958

  • Frank acquired authority in the classroom through
    the telling of his childhood story which
    implies the close connection between
    self-narrative and identity or in his attempt to
    reach self-understanding, he repeats and revises
    his childhood stories in the classroom an
    attempt to construct his teacher identity
  • Im a teacher in an American school telling
    stories of my school days in Ireland. Its a
    routine that softens them up in the unlikely
    event I might teacher something solid from the
    curriculum. (p.31)

  • As we know, teachers in the traditional sense do
    not have self-narration. They are more often than
    not stereotyped. A teacher with a self story
    fulfills the emptiness of the traditional teacher
    image and becomes the new teacher image, with
    whom the personal resources life stories become
    their teaching resource, a multi-dimensional
    construction of the teacher image.

  • Personal narratives …are of interest precisely
    because narrators interpret the past in stories
    rather than reproduce the past as it
    was.(Riessman, 200275) (De Fina et al.
    eds2006 234) In MacCourts narration, he keeps
    making reinterpretations of the past by telling
    stories, thereby acquiring his teacher
    identification teaching the interpretation of
    life experiences.
  • As we know, teachers in the traditional sense as
    a group identity do not have personal narratives.
    While making his childhood stories as resources
    for teaching, McCourt strives to construct a new
    teacher identity the personal becomes
    resourceful. The flat teach image becomes more
  • How he engages, reproduces and resists
    traditional discourse of teachering

My Life saved my life
  • My life saved my life. On my second day at McKee
    a boy asks a question that sends me into the past
    and colors the way I teach for the next thirty
    years. Im nudged into the past, the materials of
    my life.(p.24)
  • He tried to present a consistent image of
    composure and self-confidence, yet he regularly
    felt insecure, inadequate, and unfocused. After
    much trial and error, he eventually discovered
    what was in front of him (or rather, behind him)
    all along his own experience. review from
    Publishers Weekly

  • In the world of books I am a late bloomer, a
    johnny-come-lately, new kid on the block. My
    first book, Angelas ashes, was published in 1996
    when I was sixty-six, the second, Tis, in 1999
    when I wa sixty-nine. At that age its a wonder
    I was able to lift the pen at all. …(p.3)

  • Writing and story-telling
  • Im a teacher in an American school telling
    stories of my school days in Ireland. Its a
    routine that softens them up in the unlikely
    event I might teach something solid from the
    curriculum. (p.31)
  • I never expected Angelas Ashes to attract any
    attention, but when it hit the best-seller lists
    I became a media darling. …(p.4)

  • Personal narratives ….they are of interest
    precisely because narrators interpret the past in
    stories rather than reproduce the past as it was.
    (Riessman, 200275) In Macourts narrative, he
    keeps reinterpret the past to acquire his teacher
    man identity he was actually teaching how one
    reads and interprets ones life experiences.

You are your material
  • Here s how he persuades his students to write
  • Dreaming, wishing, planning its all writing,
    but the difference between you and the man on the
    street is that you are looking at it, friends,
    getting it set in your head, realizing the
    significance of the insignificant, getting it on
    paper. You might be in the throes of love or
    grief but you are ruthless in observation. You
    are your material. You are writers and one thing
    is certain no matter what happens on Saturday
    night, or any other night, youll never be bored
    again. Never. Nothing human is alien to you.
    Hold your applause and pass up your homework.

  • The difference between McCourt and the rest of
    the world is that he is a teacher with a life
    story (which has become a best seller). He owns
    it and the latter shapes his teaching style, that
    is using his life stories in the classroom
    whenever the students ask for it. He used his
    life to teach, and his job and life became one.
    How many teachers are willing to do that, or how
    many of us are courageous and candid enough to
    use our life experiences are worthy of classroom
    exposure. That also explains why most teachers
    have the split identification of themselves as
    teachers and as ordinary human beings. To be
    integral like the excellent ones, McCourt is an

A Teacher vs. Just teaching
  • That also makes the difference between veteran
    teachers and new ones the latter insists on the
    difference between teaching as a job and living a
    life outside the classroom.
  • The question is how we engage in the ongoing
    construction of our identities try harder, and
    you become a teacher man otherwise, just

  • His trademark charm, wit and unself-conscious
    self-effacement ensure that the flashbacks of his
    dreadful days growing up in extreme deprivation
    in Ireland dont sink the narrative in
  • one who shares his life stories not only to
    establish bridges of experience with his students
    but also to get them to open review by
    American Library Association

  • McCourt recounts his experiences in New Yorks
    urban classrooms with perspective and the
    indomitable flair of a story teller. …His
    thirty-year teaching career is punctuated with
    small triumphs, pitfalls, and the difficult
    choices, but always candor and respect for his
  • --Review from AudioFile

III. Construction of teachers group identity
  • In section II we discussed how Maccours unique
    experience made his a charismatic teacher his
    life story becoming a source of personal charm.
    In this section we are going to analyze the
    construction of teacher identity in the following
    aspects American scenario, teachers group
    image, observation of the classroom, reflections
    on teacher-student relationship, showcase of the
    successful teaching methodology, thoughts on
    educational ethics and description of the
  • Stereotypical understanding of teachers
  • Re-cognizing and re-identification of teachers
    through McCourts writings.

  • A dazzling writer with a unique and compelling
    voice, McCourt describes the dignity and
    difficulties of a largely thankless profession
    with incisive, self-deprecating wit and uncommon
    perception. Shawn Carkonen

3.1 American scenario
  • Everywhere in the book, we read about American
  • Mr.McCourt, youre lucky. You had that
    miserable childhood so you have something to
    write about. What are we gonna write about? All
    we do is get born, go to school, go on vocation,
    go to college, fall in love or something,
    graduate and go into some kind of profession, get
    married, have the two point three kids youre
    always talking about, send the kids to school,
    get divorced like fifty percent of the
    population, get fat, get the first heart attach,
    retire die. (p.292)

3.2 philosophy of education
  • In spite of the helpless rambling here and there,
    McCourt slipped in his educational ideals
  • This is where teacher turns serious and asks the
    Big Question What is education, anyway? …from
    Fear to Freedom…what I am trying to do with you
    is drive fear into a corner.
  • Such idealistic understanding of education helps
    to portray a noble teacher image.

3.3 capturing the elements in teaching
students, classroom, parents
  • A generous sharing of love-hate sentiments
    towards the students
  • …I dont want to be bothered by them. I dont
    want to see or hear them….I wish the kids would
    disappear. Im not in the mood.
  • Other days Im desperate to get into the
    classroom. I wait, impatient, in the hallway. I
    paw the ground. Come on, Mr.Ritterman. Hurry
    up. Finish your damn math lesson. There are
    things I want to say to this class. (p.303)

  • ???????????????????????… ????????????,???????????

  • As The Globe and Mail (Toronto) commented, his
    observations may be a bit repetitive but his
    depictions of daily classroom trials is extremely
    sharp and forms the core of the teacher man.
  • McCourts unique description of the classroom
    experience, which is likely to be representative
    of the teacher group
  • The classroom is a place of high drama. Youll
    never know what youve done to, or for, the
    hundreds coming and going. You see them leaving
    the classroom dreamy, flat, sneering, admiring,
    smiling, puzzled. After a few years you develop
    antennae. You can tell when youve reached them
    or alienated them. Its chemistry. Its
    psychology. Its animal instinct. …(p.304)

  • On teacher-student relationship
  • I said positive things about all my students.
    They were attentive, punctual, considerate, eager
    to learn and every one of them had a bright
    future and the parents should be proud. Dad and
    Mom would look at each other and smile and say,
    See? Or theyd be puzzled and say, You talkin
    about our kid? Our Harry? (p.86)

  • McCourt brings down the myth of the teacher image
    in the mind of those outside the teaching circle
  • Maids downstairs, side doors, talk about them
    with mercy, congratulate them on all the time

Practitioners local voice
  • Newspapers will ask you, mere teacher, for your
    opinion on education.. This will be big news A
    teacher asked for his opinion on education. Wow.
    Youll be on television. (p.7)
  • In other words, people care little about
    teachers views on education, although they are
    in the best position to make comments. As Paul
    Gee (200077) notes, researchers and teachers
    alike always assume that teachers have only a
    local voice on such issues. Rarely are
    teachers invited into or do they have access to
    a national voice. Even when invited to speak
    at national conferences, teachers usually speaker
    as representatives of their local areas and their
    own experiences, while researchers speak as
    transcending locality and their own experiences.

You have the makings of a fine teacher
  • love of Shakespeare
  • By quoting others evaluation, he mentioned
    several times
  • You have the makings of a fine teacher)…(p.66)
  • A grammar lesson in full how he tried all out
    to teach grammar (p.92)
  • English teachers say if you can teach grammar in
    a vocational high school you can teach anything
    anywhere. My class listened. They participated.

  • At the end of the book, he describes the new
    world he enters when teaching becomes
  • ??????????????????????????????????Roger
    Goodman???????, Bill Ince???????????????????,?????
  • The revelation appears at the end of the work.
    Guys story made them realize the grace of being
    able to live and work with health
  • This is their last high school class, and mine.
    There are tears and expressions of wonder that
    Guy is sending us on our way with a story that
    reminds us to count our blessings. (p.306)

3.4 situational and innovative teaching
  • Innovative not only using life stories, but also
    combining socio-cultural situations, e.g. inquiry
    about dinner the previous day, lunch
    investigation, review of school canteen and
    neighborhood restaurants(p.266)
  • Direct, lively, inspirational teaching in tune
    with middle school starting-from-life ethics,
    though somewhat contradictory with
    stick-to-the-curriculum requirements. A good
    reconciliation of both his teaching practice.
  • Combination of situational teaching and
    innovative teaching e.g. imaginative assignments
    -- writing excuses for historical figures
    suicidal notes, singalongs (featuring recipe
    ingredients as lyrics), field trips (taking 29
    rowdy girls to a movie in Times Square)

  • Writing excuse notes
  • An excuse note from Adam to God
  • An excuse note from Eve to God
  • ask them to think about anyone in the world at
    present or in history who could use a good excuse
    note (p.106)

  • Evaluation of the principle
  • Top-notch. That, young man, is what we need, the
    kind of down-to-earth teaching. Those kids were
    writing on a college level.
  • Energetic and imaginative teaching
  • Thank you and maybe you should divert them to
    remote figures in history …

You have a right to think for yourselves
  • His insistence on innovation
  • (when he was teaching in a college) That was
    something I should have known all along the
    people in my classes, adults from eighteen to
    sixty-two, thought their opinions did not matter.
    Whatever ideas they had came from the avalanche
    of media in our world. No one had ever told them
    they had a right to think for themselves.
  • I told them, You have a right to think for
    yourselves. (p.142)

3.5 identity of middle school teachers ----I
didnt call myself anything. I was more than a
  • An exaggerated list of hybrid middle-school-teache
    r roles
  • I didnt call myself anything. I was more than a
    teacher. And less. In the high school classroom
    you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a should to
    cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level
    scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown, a
    counselor, a dress-code enforcer, a conductor, an
    apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap
    dancer, a politician, a therapist, a fool, a
    traffic cop, a priest, a mother-father-brother-sis
    ter-uncle-aunt, a book keeper, a critic, a
    psychologist, the last straw. (p.23)

Differences between middle school and college
  • I have read novels about the lives of university
    professors where they seemed to be so busy with
    adultery and academic infighting you wonder where
    they found time to squeeze in a little teaching.
    When you teach five high school classes a day,
    five days a week, youre not inclined to go home
    to clear your head and fashion deathless prose.
    After a day of five classes your head is filled
    with the clamor of the classroom. (p.4)
  • …In college there were courses on literature and
    composition. There were courses on how to teach
    by professors who did not know how to teach.

  • About differences between universities and middle
    schools, he emphasized the necessity of updating
    teaching notes
  • In universities you can lecture from your old
    crumbling notes. In public high schools youd
    never get away with it. American teenagers are
    experts in the tricks of teachers, and if you try
    to hood wink them theyll bring you down. (p.80)
  • He emphasized the practice-orientation in middle
    school teaching
  • Professors of education at New York University
    never lectured on how to handle flying-sandwich
    situations. They talked about theories and
    philosophis of education, about moral and ethical
    imperatives, about the necessity of dealing with
    the whole child, the gestalt, if you dont mind,
    the childs felt needs, but never about critical
    moments in the classroom. (p.19)

3.6 expectations of the principle ---- He put on
no airs… He trusted me
  • Some afternoon Roger came to the Gas House to
    drink with us. He had no affectations, always
    cheerful, always encouraging, a supervisor you
    could feel comfortable with. He put on no airs,
    no intellectual pretensions, and mocked
    bureaucratic gobbledygook. …… He trusted me. He
    seemed to think I could teach on any of the four
    levels of high school…(p.219)

3.7 dilemmas of teaching
  • Whether to tell life stories in class
  • Although his students like his stories, parents
    are against his telling them in class. The
    different expectations from students and parents
    made teachers hard to adjust. He chose to put
    students need in priority and uses his life
    stories as bail to arouse their interest in

They have instincts that detect your frustrations
  • ……They know when they have you on the run. They
    have instincts that detect your frustrations.
    There were days I wanted to sit behind my desk
    and let them do what ever they damn well pleased.
    I just could not reach them. … You entertain them
    with stories of your miserable childhood. They
    make all those phony sounds… (p.94)

  • The heavy load of correcting homework
  • If you gave each paper a bare five minutes youd
    spend, on this one set of papers, fourteen hours
    and thirty-five minutes. That would amount to
    more than two teaching days, and the end of the
  • You hesitate to assign book reports. They are
    longer and rich in plagiarism. (p.222)

Educational ethics
  • to what extent does a teacher holds himself
    responsible for a students well-being
  • I could give this paper to a guidance counselor.
    Here, Sam, you take care of this. If I didnt,
    and it came out later that the stepfather abused
    the girl and the world knew Id let it slip by,
    important people in the school system would
    summon me to their offices … they would want
    explanations. How could you, experienced
    teacher, let this happen? My name might blaze
    across page three of the tabloids. (p.224)

Carrier advancement Aging teacher… still a
  • I was twenty-two then and now, at thirty-eight, I
    was applying to Trinity College. Yes, they would
    consider my application if I sat for the American
    Graduate Record Examination. …(p.193)
  • Thirty-eight was on my mind. Aging teacher
    sailing to Dublin. Still a student. Is that any
    way for a man to live? (p.199)

Identity dilemma for English teachers
  • I was confused. I was born in America. I grew
    up in Ireland. I returned to America. Im
    wearing the American uniform. I feel Irish. They
    should know Im Irish. They should not be
    mocking me. (p.189)
  • -- As non-native teachers of English, the
    identity gap may be bigger. Our students look at
    us with suspicion when we try to teach how the
    Americans do this and that.

Recipes or curriculum?
  • For English teachers, teaching language and
    teaching analysis has long been a dilemma.
    McCourt was satirical about the helplessness of
    the situation and ironical of the teachers
    efforts at digging deeper meaning
  • The other thing I like about the recipes is you
    can read them the way they are without
    pain-in-the-ass English teachers digging for the
    deeper meaning. (p.247)
  • Sometimes, but this is a poem and you know what
    English teachers do to poems. Analyze, analyze,
    analyze. Dig for deeper meaning. Thats what
    turned me against poetry. Someone should dig a
    grave and bury the deeper meaning. (p.265)

  • His uneasiness about reading aloud recipes in the
  • You bear a heavy responsibility as you go forth
    and it would be criminal of me, the teacher, to
    waste your young lives with the reading of
    recipes no matter how much you enjoy the
    activity. (p.255)
  • I know were all having a gopod time reading
    recipes with background music but that is not why
    we were put on earth. We have to move on. That
    is the American way. (p.255)

  • On the A train to Brooklyn I feel uneasy over the
    direction this class is taking, especially since
    my other classes are asking why cant they go to
    the park with all kinds of food and why cant
    they have recipe readings with music? How can
    all this be justified to the authorities who keep
    an eye on the curriculum? (p.249)

English teachers words or
meaning language or encyclopedia
  • As substitute for analysis, he asked students to
    respond, like after a movie. (p.265)
  • After a self-irony of digging for deeper meaning,
    he mentions people, esp. students high
    expectations of English teachers for their
    encyclopedic knowledge. Obviously, this is a
    demanding expectation for teachers with heavy
  • …Also, I ought to scan a newspaper in order to
    keep up with the world. An English teacher
    should know whats going on. You never knew when
    one of your students might bring up something
    about foreign policy or a new Off-Broadway play.
    You wouldnt want to be caught up there in from t
    of the room with your mouth going and nothing
    coming our. (p.223)

In sum
  • McCourt speaks for himself when he is speaking
    for teachers as a whole, vice versa. The teacher
    man he constructs is complementary to the
    protagonist in his previous two works unique
    and yet ordinary. His understanding/identification
    of himself is achieved through his efforts to
    speak for the teachers.

  • In Johnsons study of the discursive
    construction of teacher identites in a research
    interview, the finding is that
  • As the interview proceeds the teachers identity
    construction becomes increasingly agentive. She
    shifts from a dilemmatic (how she and others at
    the school are affected by parental expectations
    for good student results when students are not
    academically able) discourse
  • to a more positive construction of how her
    teaching practices help students to fulfill
    parental expectations, therefore positioning
    herself as a good practitioner. (Johnson, G.C. in
    De Fina,2006214)

V. Reading positioning identity construction of
Chinese teachers of English English teachers
in China teachers of English in China Chinas
English teachers
  • With more non-natives teaching English as a
    second or foreign language, researchers are
    noticing the unique contributions these people
    make to the field and their advantages.
  • Reading Teacher Man, especially exploring the
    connection between his narrative discourse and
    his identity construction gives us revelations
    about how to understand ourselves as English
    teachers in China.

  • Joseph, John E. 2004. Language and Identity
    National, Ethnic, Religious. PalgraveMacmillan.
  • Bethan Benwell Elizabeth Stokoe 2006 Discourse
    and Identity Edinburgh Edinburgh University
  • Fina, Anna De, Schiffrin, D, Bamberg, M. 2006.
    Discourse and Identity Cambridge University
  • Llurda, Enric. 2005. Non-Native Language
    Teachers. Perceptions, Challenges and
    Contributions to the Profession. Lleida,
    Catalonia, Spain Springer.
  • Johnson, Greer C. The discursive construction of
    teacher identities in a research interview in
    Fina et al. eds. 2006. Discourse and Identity.
  • Gee, Paul. An Introduction to Discourse Analysis.
  • Gergen, Kenneth Self-narration in social life
    in Wetherell, M et al. eds. Discourse Theory and
    Practice. 2001. London Thousand Oaks New
    DelhiSage. 247260.

  • Thank you all
  • for coming to our symposium!
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