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Civics English: Integrating Civics in Middle School English Language Arts Teaching


English Language Arts has historically been tied to the civic purposes of schools, and this qualitative study of a social design-based project (Gutiérrez & Vossoughi, 2010) examines the intersection of language and literacy learning and youth civic engagement, a problem space I call “Civics English.” In this dissertation, I describe and analyze the experimentation and inquiry process of a Professional Learning Community of English teachers in a diverse middle school as they integrated civic learning and action into their English teaching practices. The dissertation examines this teacher team’s development and shifts through various tensions and challenges that arise, analyzing through the lenses of Cultural Historical Activity Theory the ways their Professional Learning Community operated as an English teaching activity system attempting to integrate the cultural activity of civic engagement, leading to the teachers’ expansive professional learning (Engeström, 2001) about possibilities and challenges of Civics English.

The English teachers implemented various civic action projects, including producing and sharing multimodal civic advocacy essays online, composing and presenting children’s storybooks about civics issues, and organizing and conducting a Town Hall with local leaders about civic dimensions of allyship and youth sports. This study looks at how, contextualized by these civics activities, they adapt and innovate customary English Language Arts practices, such as reading novels, writing in authentic genres with blended text types, and developing literacy and discourse. As the teachers encounter various tensions that arise in their attempts at Civics English, I present evidence of how these tensions emerge from the contradictions of two intersecting cultural activity systems, and what adaptations and innovations the teachers develop to overcome these tensions.

Integrating civics causes shifts in the teachers’ practices of literary study, writing, and classroom discussion, as they orient students’ learning towards public audiences, collective action, and discursive models of political and professional discourse. I identify how reading literature creates an imaginative space for civic deliberation. And I demonstrate how the Town Hall civics project shifts various dimensions of literacy and language activity by recontextualizing them. The potentials and the constraints of these shifts are examined through studying the teachers’ work, students’ language and activity, and the civic event’s efficacy as an English teaching focal point.

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