Reflections from Graduate School: Bridging Two Communities

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By Melanie M. Wong

[This article was first printed in the Fall 2016 issue of TEAL News.]

For most PhD students, life is very much like a balance beam; it is difficult to maintain an equilibrium as it is a never-ending cycle of work. My academic thoughts often occur while doing mundane activities such as taking a shower, walking the dog, or navigating traffic. For this PhD Candidate and Kindergarten to Grade Twelve (K-12) educator, it is a constant juggling act to maintain two different identities (Norton, 2013) and be a member of these two Community of Practices (CoP) (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Initially it was quite natural to participate in a K-12 educator CoP although I have found that as I have been away from this CoP, it has become inherently difficult to relearn the discourses and social practices. When I reflect on the process of academic discourse socialization (Duff, 2010), it becomes apparent that becoming an academic does not come easy. There are often moments when I feel like an “imposter” or when I don’t quite fit in. However, as I have begun to realize, in all of the CoPs I belong to, I am constantly negotiating language and social practices in order to participate.

When my academic journey began, I was already a K-12 educator. As a practicing teacher, I was comfortable discussing pedagogy and best teaching practices, but coming into a doctoral program I had to “flip my switch” to discuss theory. Unfortunately, it was not as simple as it sounded to “flip a switch.” When we consider English Language Learners and teaching these individuals, the reality is everyone is a learner of “English,” whether you are a native or a non-native speaker of the language. In my own experience, academic English was a new language. Problematizing and discussing the abstract was a discourse I was not familiar with. As a K-12 educator, we wrote report cards and lesson plans. The language required for these tasks were familiar. I have often referred to my past educator experiences as “putting on a pair of very comfortable shoes.” Being an educator was something I knew. In my humble opinion, over the last four years since entering the PhD program, I have been learning a new language, a new way of expression, and discovering a new identity. Learning academic English has been a personal struggle. Some individuals may find it interesting that I have had difficulty learning academic language considering that I am a native speaker of English. However, my experiences learning to be an academic has taught me that the ways that we use language to express ourselves differ significantly from the language I utilize when teaching elementary school or speaking with school board colleagues.

From my experiences working as a teacher educator in a K-12 setting, there is often a disconnect between theory and practice. It is not that teachers do not care about the theory, but classroom teachers are juggling additional factors that require immediate attention and often the day to day is about survival. When I speak with some teaching colleagues, there is still a strong sense that at the university there is an “ivory tower” and unfortunately this creates barriers between practice and theory. For example, teachers want “things they can take home and do the next day” during professional development sessions rather than listening to “research findings.” In the K-12 educator CoP, experience matters. If you have taught, you are usually respected. Many teachers I have met have the misconception that professors do not understand their field or have had any teaching experience. However, often teachers do not realize that many professors have had vast teaching experiences (whether in K-12 or beyond) prior to entering into academia. It is these experiences that fuel their curiosity to engage in research. Perhaps what perplexed me further from my personal experience is how some educators deny the importance of research, yet it is research that often drives innovative teaching practice.

My discussion above illustrates some of the challenges of belonging to these two CoPs. Although there was personally a familiarity with the K-12 educator CoP, since being away from this CoP, there have been changes and challenges to re-learn the social conventions. Alternatively, being a member of an academic CoP has presented a number of additional challenges, including learning the language and feeling a sense of belongingness. My question is “How can we “bridge” these two CoPs?”

After reflection, I have three suggestions that could potentially help to bridge these two communities further. First, I believe it is important to have opportunities for knowledge exchanges to occur between both school boards and universities. School boards and universities need to create an ongoing “open dialogue.” These dialogues should include leaders, classroom teachers, and classroom researchers. Many of the misconceptions and misunderstandings can be resolved just by maintaining open communication channels. It is also an opportunity for both CoPs to mutually support each other.

Second, at the beginning of my reflection I elaborated on both my difficulties learning the academic language and the disconnect between theory and practice. Unfortunately both academic language and academic journals are not often accessible to many teachers. Most teachers are not reading the latest research because of these barriers. A simple solution might be for researchers to consider publishing in teacher journals or other forms of text (e.g., blogs, etc.).

Third, extending on my last suggestion, rather than just presenting at academic conferences, professors need to consider presenting their work at teachers’ conferences. Venues such as teachers’ conferences promote knowledge exchanges between academics and educators. It allows for an open dialogue to start to occur and continue.

Bridging these two dominant CoPs in my life has not come naturally for me. However, it becomes apparent that this is not an individual effort but rather one that takes a community of people to accomplish.

References

Duff, P. (2010). Language socialization into academic discourse communities. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 30, 169-172.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Norton, B. (2013). Identity and language learning: Extending the conversation (2nd ed.). Toronto, ON: Multilingual Matters.

Biographical Information

From the Fall 2016 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter:  Melanie Wong is a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia (UBC). She is a K-12 educator working for the Calgary public school district, and she has taught undergraduate classes at UBC. Melanie is passionate about language learning and educational technology. Find out more at her website: http://melaniewong.ca

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Original reference information:

Wong, M. M. (2016, Fall). Bridging Two Communities. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/BC-Teal-Newsletter-Fall-2016-Final-2.pdf

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