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A Fire in Their Bellies

Author(s): Rebecca Janine Joseph


A Fire in Their Bellies: California Teachers Strategically
and Effectively Resist a Mandated Reading Curriculum

This study examines six teachers' responses to increasingly mixed messages about how they should develop the literacy of California's youngest and most at-risk students. These mixed messages tell them, on the one hand, that they need highly developed knowledge and skills to teach literacy in linguistically diverse classrooms. On the other hand, they are told not to use this knowledge, but rather to adhere rigidly to the substance and pace of scripted literacy curricula. Not surprisingly, recent studies suggest urban teachers who use mandated curricula experience loss, guilt, and depression and often leave their schools. However, other preliminary evidence shows that many effective teachers are staying within their schools and continuing to provide high quality literacy instruction to their students. These studies, however, do not highlight the factors that contribute to these teachers' efforts. My dissertation seeks to fill this gap by investigating how six first grade urban teachers, identified as "effective" by district personnel, university professors, and peers, implement scripted reading curricula. The findings indicate that these teachers identify a number of ineffective instructional approaches, among them decontextualized blending and vocabulary activities and inadequate comprehension and writing strategies. To counter these challenges, teachers enact what researchers have coined transformative resistance. In this study, this resistance ranges from subtle modifications that access students' background knowledge for blending words to the deletion of major program sections and the integration of writer's workshops. Prior educational and life experiences, teacher training, and ongoing desires to learn along with supportive peers and school leaders affect their responses. Despite a tightly monitored policy context, these teachers respond in deep and meaningful ways to a mandated literacy curriculum rather than blindly implementing it. They consider how each activity and approach will meet their students' needs and based on individual and collective factors modify and adapt the curricula. These findings suggest that other teachers can become effective resisters by honoring their creativity, thirst for knowledge, and practical experiences.

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