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Composition Forum 45, Fall 2020

Becoming Multilingual, Becoming a Teacher: Narrating New Identities in Multilingual Writing Teacher Education

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Dorothy Worden-Chambers and Analeigh E. Horton

Abstract: Teachers’ identities as writers and language users can have an important impact on their pedagogical practices. As the population of writing teachers becomes increasingly diverse, the development of teachers’ identities is an important but under-researched topic. This study examines how three prospective teachers from varied linguistic and cultural backgrounds constructed new identities through a multi-draft literacy autobiography project. We trace how these teachers’ identities changed and developed across the drafts of their literacy autobiographies, how their identity construction was mediated by the feedback they received, and how their language and literacy identities related to their emerging professional identities as prospective writing teachers.


There has been a recent movement within composition studies to question what Matsuda calls “the myth of linguistic homogeneity.” Rather than accepting “the dominant image of composition students as native speakers of a privileged variety of English” (Matusda 638), many are recognizing students’ diverse language resources and seeking to better support the linguistic, cultural, and racial identities of their students (see Horner et al.; Inoue and Poe). Yet while this attention to the identities of students is welcome, there remains a need for work examining the diverse identities of writing teachers. Multilingual writing teachers’ identity development is of crucial importance because teachers’ identities can have a profound impact on their practice (see Ellis; Street). Thus, if we wish to understand and improve writing instruction, “we need to understand teachers,” including developing “a clearer sense of who they are: the professional, cultural, political, and individual identities which they claim or which are assigned to them” (Varghese et al. 22). Understanding multilingual teachers’ identities will help teacher educators better support teachers in developing empowered, positive identities as language users, writers, and teachers.

In pursuit of these goals, this study examines how three prospective multilingual teachers constructed new identities through a literacy autobiography assigned as part of a course on multilingual writing pedagogy for students intending to teach at the K-12 and post-secondary levels in the US and internationally. Through the assignment, the teachers reflected on their language and literacy histories and began to construct more empowering identities as multicompetent language users. We trace how the teachers’ ascribed, claimed, and desired identities changed across the three drafts of their literacy autobiographies and how their identity construction was mediated by peer and instructor feedback. We then examine their teaching philosophy statements to see how their language identities relate to their emerging professional identities as writing teachers. Through our analysis, we consider the potential value of the literacy autobiography assignment as an opportunity for identity development for prospective teachers.

Writing Teacher Identity

Our perspective on writing teacher identity views teacher identity as always “multiple, shifting, and in conflict” (Varghese et al. 23). This dynamic nature of identity allows individuals to express “agency in identity formation” (23). However, identity is not only “claimed” by individuals but are also “assigned” to them by the social, political, cultural, and institutional settings they navigate (23). Whether identity is claimed or assigned, language plays a central role in the construction, negotiation, and maintenance of identities. Barkhuizen, moreover, notes that one primary form of discourse “individuals draw upon in the construction of their identities” is narrative (29).

In specifically focusing on the identities of writing teachers, we draw on work from three interrelated disciplines: applied linguistics, composition studies, and K-12 English language arts teacher education{1}. All three of these disciplines have examined the identities teachers bring to the classroom but from different perspectives and with different emphases. In the following sections, we aim to highlight common trends across disciplines.

The Impact of Monolingualist Language Ideologies

While the process of identity construction is complex for all teachers, teachers from non-English language backgrounds face additional challenges. The substantial applied linguistics’ literature on Non-Native English Speaking Teachers (NNESTs) has demonstrated that while NNESTs bring many assets to their roles as teachers (e.g. Llurda; Medgyes), they still face significant discrimination. The underlying cause of much of this discrimination is native-speakerism, a pervasive ideology in English language teaching which positions western, native speakers of English as the only legitimate representatives of the language (Holliday 385). Holding up native speakers as the only acceptable language model casts L2 English users “as deficient native speakers” rather than “multicompetent language users” (Cook 185).

The ideology of native-speakerism has significant negative impacts on the professional lives and identities of NNESTs as they are passed over for jobs (e.g. Ruecker and Ives), and may come to view themselves as deficient language users and teachers (e.g. Milambiling). Teachers can, however, combat such discourses and construct more empowered identities for themselves. For example, Ruecker et al. surveyed 78 non-native English-speaking teachers of first-year writing. While most of the participants reported experiences of having their credibility questioned, they still viewed their multilingualism as an asset to their work. Importantly, the teachers had not always held these positive self-perceptions but instead had developed them over time as they gained teaching experience and were supported by coursework and administrative structures which promoted a multilingualism-as-asset perspective.

The Complex Relationships Between Language and Race

Work examining the relationship between monolingualist language ideologies and racial discrimination is a recent development in applied linguistics (see Kubota and Lin). Such work has, however, consistently demonstrated that these forms of bias are deeply intertwined (see Amin; Rubin; Ruecker and Ives; Shuck). Rubin, for example, demonstrated that students’ perceptions of their instructors’ nativeness and comprehensibility is not based solely on their speech production, but also to a great extent on their apparent race and ethnicity. Ruecker and Ives’ study of English teacher recruitment materials further confirmed that the ideal teacher was both explicitly and implicitly constructed as a young, white, native speaker of English, a finding that “points toward a strong connection between racism and native speakerism” (750).

While such work is a recent development in applied linguistics, in composition studies, the relationship between language, race, and identity has long been a subject of interest. Much of this work has focused on the experiences of student writers, particularly those students who speak historically stigmatized dialects of English such as African American English (see Ball; Inoue and Poe; Smitherman; Young). This position, most famously expressed in the landmark Students’ Rights to their Own Language statement, further inscribes the interconnected nature of language, race, and identity by affirming students’ right to the “the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style” (“Conference”). Beyond the experiences of students, several prominent scholars have examined the role of race and language in their own professional identities (see AnzaldĂșa; Gilyard; Kynard; Villanueva; Young). AnzaldĂșa, for instance, has powerfully examined the intricate connections between race and language in her work. Villanueva’s academic memoir Bootstraps also critically explores how his racial and linguistic identities have shaped his professional identity as a rhetoric and composition scholar and teacher.

The Significance of Writing Teachers’ Identities on Their Classroom Practice

An additional, crucial strand of research regards the impact that teachers’ self-perceptions as writers have on their classroom practices. Much of this research comes from the K-12 teacher education literature, which has generally found that many writing teachers do not strongly identify as writers and often lack self-confidence in their writing abilities. Both Frager and Bausch’s studies, for example, found that the majority of the K-12 teachers they studied did not consider themselves strong writers and rarely engaged in writing outside of their classrooms.

Neither composition teachers nor L2 writing instructors are immune from such insecurities. For instance, Restaino found that though the teachers in her study had all entered graduate school with at least some belief in their efficacy as writers, the new demands of graduate-level writing shook their confidence as writers. L2 writing teachers, often trained in TESOL rather than composition studies, may face different issues when it comes to their writing identity. Lee, for instance, has demonstrated that the EFL teachers from Hong Kong in her study initially identified as language teachers and only came to identify as writing teachers through a teacher education course which invited them to reflect on and develop new identities. Novice writing teachers’ relationship with composition theory is often equally fractious. When theory conflicts with their own experiences as students or challenges their sense of self-efficacy, teachers may resist or even reject it, as found by both Farris and Ebest. Yet while this fraught relationship with theory is often framed as resistance, according to Grouling, such resistance is more rightly understood within the larger process of graduate students’ identity development in which their “student and teacher identities can either work against one another or be reconciled.”

Writing teachers’ identities can also impact their teaching practices. For example, Street has found that teachers who dislike and avoid writing themselves may also avoid teaching writing or may teach it with little enthusiasm or creativity (38-39), which may likewise impact their students’ eventual writing performance. Additionally, conflicts between composition theory and teachers’ personal beliefs and identities may have negative impacts on teachers’ classroom practices or even lead to them leaving the profession entirely (Welch 391-395).

The Potential of Narrative for Identity Development

Given previous research demonstrating the impact writing teachers’ identities can have on their pedagogical practices, teacher educators and supervisors have been eager to help teachers construct more positive and empowered identities. Much of this work has focused on the value of extensive writing as a tool for teachers’ identity construction. Engaging with writing in a prolonged way can help teachers begin to identify as writers and develop greater self-awareness of their writing process (e.g. Street and Stang; Morgan). Autobiographical narratives have often been highlighted as being particularly powerful tools teachers can use to construct their desired identities (see Ciuffetelli; Pickford; Rogers et al.). It is worth noting, for instance, that much of the work in composition studies that focuses on identity has significantly incorporated autobiographical narrative (e.g. Anzaldua; Canagarajah Teacher Development; Kynard; Smitherman; Villanueva; Young). When personal narrative is used to help examine the intersections of theory and personal histories, writers can begin to understand the relationships between their scholarly knowledge and lived experiences, possibly helping to reduce the often-noted resistance to theory among novice teachers. Martinez further argues for narrative counterstory informed by Critical Race Theory as a method of knowledge creation which allows people of color to speak back to the ideologies and “hegemonic narratives of the institution” (51). For non-native English-speaking teachers, language and literacy autobiographies, when paired with teaching that explicitly questions the dominant discourses of native-speakerism, can function as a counterstory allowing teachers to re-identify as multicompenent multilinguals, rather than failed native speakers of English (see Canagarajah Blessed; Pavlenko).

Together, research from these three disciplines has demonstrated the complexity and importance of writing teachers’ identity. Given the increasing linguistic diversity of teachers of English writing, however, more research examining how racially and linguistically minoritized teachers of writing construct their identities is needed. The present study addresses this need by focusing on the identity development of three such preservice teachers as they draft a literacy autobiography in a teacher preparation course.

The Study

The narratives analyzed here were written by prospective teachers enrolled in a course on the teaching of L2 writing at a large research university in the US. This elective course was open to both undergraduate students from various majors and to graduate students in TESOL and English. Approximately half of the twenty-four students in the class were white, native-English speaking US American students; the other half were international students, mostly from mainland China.

The instructor of this course and his teaching assistant (author 1) adopted a practice-based approach to teacher education in which the students engaged with the course content primarily through their own writing and teaching practices rather than teacher-fronted lectures (Canagarajah “Translingual” 267). The instructor also promoted an explicitly translingual stance toward literacy, which rejects standard language ideologies of native-speakerism and views languages “as always in contact and generating new grammars and meanings out of their synergy” (Canagarajah Translingual 266). As part of this orientation, the instructor encouraged the students to consider and draw from their full language repertoires—an orientation which certainly impacted the development of their writing and identities in the course{2}.

The major assignment for the course was the literacy autobiography. Students reflected on their literacy development in light of the new concepts and theories they were encountering in readings and lectures. Students completed three required drafts of the literacy autobiographies, all of which received feedback from peer writing groups and either the instructor or teaching assistant{3}. Students also created various teaching materials such as writing prompts, grading rubrics, and lesson plans which they posted to a class discussion board and used as the basis of in-class exercises. At the end of the semester, they revised three of these documents and submitted them in a final portfolio accompanied by their teaching philosophy statement. For our analysis here, we examined all drafts of the students’ literacy autobiographies, feedback from peers and instructors, and their teaching philosophies. Twenty-four students agreed to participate and gave their informed consent{4}.

Before we attempt to empirically assess others’ identities, however, we find it critical to state our own as they may differentiate us from our participants and influence our interpretations. We are both white women who are teacher-researchers in our own country of citizenship. While we possess multilingual competencies, in this study, we worked in our first language, English. Additionally, the first author was the teaching assistant in this course. In this role, she participated in leading class sessions, providing feedback on drafts of the literacy autobiographies, and grading weekly discussion posts. While she was not the instructor of record and was not responsible for assigning final grades, her position in the classroom was still one of power and authority relative to the participating teachers. While we acknowledge these differences and recognize the pervasiveness of the white, domestic teacher working with diverse, international students, we hope to use our position productively and reciprocally to understand how identities are negotiated in our classrooms and present suggestions for improvement that better the working and learning conditions for our students.

As a first round of coding, we read the final drafts of all participants’ autobiographies and identified the most prominent themes in their narratives. These themes included topics such as motivation, the connection between reading and writing, and intercultural rhetoric. Since our interest was in the development of teachers’ identities, we focused on three students for whom identity was a prominent theme in their literacy autobiographies - Meilin, Soojin, and Bendi{5}.

We analyzed the data using principles of grounded content analysis (see Corbin and Strauss), working collaboratively to ensure “definitional clarity” of our codes and to enhance the reliability of our findings (Miles et al. 84). Based on our first round of open coding and the existing literature on teacher identity (see Barkhuizen; Varghese et al.) we devised a more focused coding scheme. First, we classified each identity statement the students made based on the type of identity being discussed (i.e. Language, Culture, and Literacy). Within those categories, we focused on subcategories of identities Claimed, Ascribed, or Desired. A “claimed” identity is the way in which an author views themselves. An “ascribed” identity is one that the author perceives someone else or an institution place upon them. A “desired” identity is the identity to which the author aspires. Together, these two levels of coding yielded a total of nine categories:

  1. Language Identity: Claimed, Ascribed, or Desired

  2. Culture Identity: Claimed, Ascribed, or Desired

  3. Literacy identity: Claimed, Ascribed or Desired

Using these codes, the narratives were then compared between drafting stages to see how the students’ identification changed across the drafting process.

In conjunction with the drafts, we examined peer and instructor feedback to see how these interactions may have contributed to the identity development processes we observed in the drafts. We read the feedback and subsequent drafts in tandem to see if and how the feedback informed revisions on future drafts. We also examined the students’ teaching philosophies to see how their identities, as developed and expressed in the literacy autobiographies, were impacting their identities as literacy teachers. The participants wrote their teaching philosophies at the end of the course as a part of a portfolio project that included the literacy narrative. Whereas we used an inductive approach to create codes for the literacy narratives, for the teaching philosophies, we took a more deductive approach, using the codes from the literacy narratives to assess the teaching philosophies.


Learning to “Embrace My Trilingualism”

Meilin, an undergraduate TESOL minor, was born in Malaysia where she learned Mandarin, English, and Malay. After attending a Mandarin-medium primary school, in secondary school, all of her courses were taught in English and Malay. After two years of college in Malaysia, she enrolled as an undergraduate at a university in the US. The multiplicity of her languages resulted in a confused and frustrated linguistic identity. Using the literacy narrative as a facilitator for grappling with her mixed emotions regarding her multilingual identity, Meilin eventually lands in a place of contentment and appreciation for her language heritage.

Meilin organizes her identity development into three stages. Her story begins in the self-proclaimed “I-think-I-am-very-good-stage.” In this early period, she centralizes on her educational and familial backgrounds that determine the identity ascribed to her. She explains that her family’s choice for her to be educated in Mandarin resulted in her identity as being strongly tied to the Mandarin language and Chinese culture, claiming Chinese as her “mother tongue.” Although these labels were largely ascribed to her, she finds success communicating in this language and culture, and embraces Mandarin and Chinese as her own. She refers to herself as being “the teacher’s pet because I was the top student of my grade.” As she progressed through her education, she was required to operate more frequently in English and Malay, which resulted in a sharp shift in her identity.

While it may seem like being in multilingual Malaysia would encourage multilingual and multicultural positivity, Meilin’s experience does not support this hypothesis. Her transition into her “I-think-I-am-terrible-stage” is prompted by English and Malay language teachers criticizing her for producing work in these languages that seemed too strongly influenced by Mandarin and Chinese culture. In the preliminary draft, she offers little commentary on this stage beyond a limited expression of her self-doubt. A peer reviewer of this draft comments that “the apparent, though underplayed, frustration and paranoia you experienced are gripping to me [...] I would love to get drawn in by your reactions, emotions, and realizations.” Meilin acknowledges this feedback in the second draft with a much more developed “I-think-I-am-terrible-stage.” Her multilingualism, instead of being a source of pride and richness, becomes a tense point of frustration of which she “was constantly conscious.” She categorizes this time as “the darkest period of my literacy journey.” She poignantly reflects:

Languages turned my good feelings about writing into embarrassment and defeated feeling. I felt terrible when my papers were criticized for being ‘very Chinese’ so since then I always tried very hard to sound as native as possible and hopefully I could find my pre-owned satisfaction about writing back by getting recognition from teachers and peers.

Meilin’s identity underwent a significant shift in this period, and not for the better. She regresses from an empowered speaker of three languages to someone who struggles to confidently use even one language. The last statement of seeking approval from teachers and peers uncovers her personal identity as one being tethered to the ascribed opinions from outsiders.

The second draft features prose only through the “I-think-I-am-terrible-stage” and a brief outline of the third and final “Actually-it-is-not-too-bad-after-all-stage.” This leads to the instructor questioning, “Has your identity and voice in writing been changing along the three stages you identify?” In the final draft, Meilin answers her instructor’s question, writing: “Now I think about it, I realized a lot of times my literacy acquisition process has a lot to do with my identity exploration that contributes to many ups and downs throughout my bumpy writing road.” This exploration, although bumpy, allows her to see herself in a new light.

The final, “Actually-it-is-not-too-bad-after-all-stage” is sparked by her move to the US to finish her undergraduate career, which she calls “an exciting stage full of realizations and adventures.” For the first time in a while, she finds academic success, remembering that upon taking an English diagnostic test, her teacher recommended that she go into a higher level. Having not experienced praise for her English like this before, she writes, “I can’t tell you how surprised I was because I was one of the few among my friends who had this opportunity.” She appreciates this ascribed identity, but defaults to the perceptions of her previously ascribed identity of being deficient in English. As a result, she divulges, “I decided to stay in that [lower level] class anyway because I was not confident at all about my writing ability.” This decision reveals once again how Meilin had internalized her ascribed identities from her English classes in Malaysia. This identity adoption holds her back from seeing the positive aspects of herself and renegotiating her identity.

In spite of these events, Meilin continues her narrative to share that her time in the lower level class and subsequent semesters in the US gave her the opportunity to heal. She confesses, “Even though I had to spend more extra time than others to produce a paper with decent quality, I realized that it was okay to do so and I should not be too harsh on myself. I am taking one step at a time, and I really believe that one day I can be a very confident writer.” This transition reveals a sense of resolve within Meilin’s identity. It also shows, for essentially the first time, Meilin defining her own identity instead of simply adhering to the one given to her by someone else. This “Actually-it-is-not-too-bad-after-all-stage” story is a turning point to empowerment for Meilin.

In the final draft, Meilin moves away from her deficit-model literate identity and instead celebrates the growth she made. She reframes challenges as progress towards her current self instead of impediments to an ideal literate self. She comments on this negotiation process, writing about “my identity that I am very proud of.” She concludes in the final draft:

Instead of seeing the multidirectional influences amongst languages as a hindrance, now I learn to embrace my trilingualism as a valuable asset [...]. To me, whether to fully ‘embrace’ my identity as a tringual [sic] and to ‘replace’ it with something else is all about finding the right balance.

Such reflections show a transformation to positivity regarding her sense of self and her lived experiences. It also shows that while the stages she writes about were indeed stages of her development, drafts of this essay also contributed to her development, which is seen in the confident identity in the final draft that she did not yet hold in the first iterations of her narrative.

Meilin’s drafts of identity development position her as a prime example of advocacy for a literacy narrative’s power to enable writers to better understand their identity. Meilin displays an obvious transition from mere detail recounting to a thoughtful self-assessment and reflection throughout the three drafts of her narrative. Regarding teacher identity, this situates her to do well in her own pedagogy as she has a much stronger understanding of herself, which will enable her to have clearer focus in her teaching and be able to assist her future students who may also be negotiating their literate identities. In her teaching philosophy, she writes that she does not want her students to be “hindered from seeing writing as a platform where inner-self, outer-self and complicated socio-cultural elements come and interact together.” She adds that students should have “the consciousness of the power of choice in their hands and the knowledge to project their voices appropriately.” Both of these statements regarding who she seeks to be as a teacher seem, when compared with her literacy narrative, directly linked to her own experiences as a multilingual writer. The teaching philosophy offers a unique window into how Meilin’s identity will inform and inspire her pedagogy.

Overall, Meilin’s educational upbringing and childhood attributed many identities to her. Adhering to the archetypes of her identity roles, she had little control over her own sense of self, which, according to her narrative, left her feeling unhappy and constantly viewing her linguistic abilities and literacy capabilities within a deficit model that continued through the drafts of her narrative. Her development as a writer taught her skills to process her identity. She eventually negotiates her literate identity as a multifaceted, evolving identity that she appreciates. Meilin seems to, through drafting her life story, grapple with and then come to terms with her identity as a speaker and writer of Mandarin, Malay, and English, concluding with a sense of peace.

Breaking Down the “First and Second Language Boundary”

Soojin, a graduate student in the MA TESOL program, had a uniquely complicated history with both language and literacy. At seven, Soojin had moved from South Korea to Oklahoma with her family so that her father could attend school. After spending her elementary school years in the US, Soojin returned to Korea just prior to middle school, then came back to the US for graduate school. This shuttling back and forth between Korean and English environments forms the organizational structure of Soojin’s literacy narrative.

In the first draft of her literacy narrative, Soojin provides a largely straightforward recount of her transnational language and literacy development. She makes few identity claims in this draft, most of which focus on her language identity in terms of what she lacked or struggled with. For example, when she describes starting school in the US, she notes that “ESL class was obligatory for me because my first language was not English.” After returning to Korea, she also notes that “I had trouble learning L1 literacy again in school.” We can also see in these excerpts a traditional labeling of her languages in terms of L1 (Korean) and L2 (English) and her description of her proficiency in terms of non-nativeness in the case of English and struggle in the case of Korean.

In her second draft, this dichotomous relationship between Korean and English begins to evolve. Rather than simply labeling these languages as first or second, now Soojin describes their relationship as not only dichotomous but also in direct conflict with one another. As she moved back and forth between the US and Korea, she seems to see her languages as fighting for dominance. She explains that in the US, “If I gained more L2 skills, my L1 skills became weak” yet upon moving back to Korea, “as I came back to my L1 environment, my L2 became weaker.” Thus, Soojin constructs an identity as caught between two conflicting languages—only able to develop one at the expense of the other.

Even in the midst of this conflict, there are glimmers of Soojin forging a new relationship between her languages. While learning English in elementary school, Soojin explains that “there was no boundary between L1 and L2 at this period. I did both very naturally as they were my native language.” This breakdown of the perceived boundary between her Korean and English at this period, though Soojin does not maintain this perspective throughout her autobiography, is an important moment in her language identity construction as she claims both as native languages.

Some of these changes in Soojin’s second draft appear to have been inspired by the feedback she received from her peer-respondent, Huifen, whose questions encouraged several of the themes Soojin develops in the second draft. In particular, Soojin’s added reflections on the conflict between her languages appears to have been prompted by Huifen’s questions about whether learning Korean and English simultaneously was “beneficial or detrimental in respect of teacher of your literacy development.” Huifen’s feedback also explicitly brought in the question of identity as she asked whether “there is a transfer of identity while you went back and forth in L1 and L2 literacy.” While Soojin does not directly respond to this suggestion to focus on identity in the second draft, in the next round of feedback, Huifen again suggests that Soojin engage more with “the identity issue that you may encountered when you switched back and forth in you heritage language and English.”

In the final draft, Soojin adopts many of Huifen’s suggestions and does indeed expand her focus on many aspects of her identity, including cultural and racial dimensions. She describes her shock that “everybody looked different in the United States” to her as a “young girl who thought every person is supposed to have black eye and black hair.” Soojin describes how “some people made fun of me just because I looked different from others” and that this ridicule for her racial identity led her to wanting “to hide my identity,” which “affected my writing somehow.” When Soojin returned to Korea in middle school, she faced a different form of discrimination with her classmates mocking her “because I came from America and my Korean pronunciation was very awkward.” This ascribed identity as a racial, cultural, and linguistic outsider in both the US and Korea negatively impacted her developing identity as a writer, leading her to lose “confidence toward everything including writing.”

In the previous drafts, her identity claims mostly focused on her status as “not a native speaker” of English and the perceived conflict between her two languages. In this draft, while there are still traces of this conflicted language identity, Soojin describes moving to the US as “the period when I became bilingual.” This mention is the first time Soojin refers to herself as “bilingual.” While Soojin’s movements toward constructing this new identity as a bilingual are not consistently realized in her draft, she ends her autobiography with a description of her desired language and literacy identity: “My goal, as a writer, is to learn writing as a cognitive tool and integrate my thoughts with writing without first and second language boundary.”

Through the process of drafting her literacy autobiography and receiving feedback on it from her peers, Soojin engages in an extended process of identity construction and revision. In the initial drafts, she did not consider aspects of identity beyond her linguistic identity, which she conceptualized primarily in native/non-native speaker terms and through a lens of conflict between Korean and English. In her final draft, she considers a broader range of identity dimensions and begins the process of reconceptualizing her language identity as “bilingual” rather than two native languages in constant conflict.

In her teaching philosophy, we can see evidence of how these changes are already impacting her projected identity as a writing teacher. Soojin notes that she believes it is important to recognize the role that language development plays in identity development, explaining her belief that “first language acquisition is linked to the development of thought and identity” and that “a second language can threaten that very identity and sense of self.” Despite the potential identity threats a second language can create, Soojin still holds that “drawing boundary between students’ first and second language is not an effective way when teaching L2 literacy. [...] Teachers should study how a student’s first language and culture influence students’ writing in second language and apply it to teaching.” Thus, though Soojin herself has not yet fully resolved the barriers between English and Korean literacy, her experiences as explored in her autobiography are already affecting her developing teaching philosophy.

Literacy “Leads Me to My Home”

Bendi, a first-year student in the MA TESOL program, grew up northwestern China. Ethnically Tibetan, Bendi describes listening to traditional Tibetan stories and legends told by her grandmother and visiting the nearby monastery to talk to the lama as formative childhood memories. Upon reaching school age, however, Bendi was placed in a Chinese-medium school. In school, “the door of developing both Chinese and English literacy was opened, but the door of developing my Tibetan literacy and finding Tibetan identity was almost closed” until she decided to learn to read and write in Tibetan while studying as a graduate student in the US. Bendi’s literacy autobiography is organized around this trajectory of reclaiming her Tibetan identity through literacy.

Though it would become her eventual focus, Bendi’s Tibetan identity and literacy was completely absent from the first draft of her autobiography. In this draft, Bendi simply recounts her experiences learning to read and write in Chinese and English with no mention of Tibet or Tibetan. There are hints, however, within this draft of the eventual direction her autobiography would take. In particular, Bendi describes the general effect her literacy development has had on her identity, saying that “gradually reading and writing help me know myself better and change my life.”

It is in the second draft that Bendi begins to explore her Tibetan identity more directly. She begins this draft by identifying Tibet as her birthplace and describes her childhood as “filled with abundant legends, sagas, myth and ghost stories inherited and recreated over the past generations.” In particular, Bendi highlights her grandma as the primary storyteller in her family, whose “preference is the story of King Gesar, with rhythmized words, poetic sentences.” Listening to the epic of King Gesar and recognizing that it had taken place in Tibet, Bendi says, “opened me a gate of self-introspection and the awakening of national consciousness.”

As in her previous draft, Bendi claims an identity for herself as a curious and active reader outside of school. In this draft, however, she specifically ties her interest in reading to her Tibetan identity. For example, in elementary school, she sought out and read the Chinese version of her grandmother’s oral stories of King Gesar and describes how the “brief but accurate descriptions and colorful illustrations incubated my imagination and curiosity.” She also describes being inspired by the knowledge of the local lama, who told her that “his secret weapon was reading,” and that as a result, it “spurred myself to read more.” Through examples like these, Bendi credits her Tibetan cultural identity as driving much of her literacy development in Chinese.

Graduate school in the US offered Bendi access to a wide range of reading material that she might not have had previously. In her university’s library, she read books about Tibetan culture and history, such as a novelized version of the story of King Gesar. It was while reading this novel that Bendi realized that “neither the Chinese nor English edition could satisfy me and revive my memories.” Reflecting on this experience, Bendi mourns her distance from the Tibetan language and resolves to do something about it:

I first realized it is a regretful pity that I could not speak or write Tibetan as I completely received Chinese education. Undeniably, I was a Tibetan illiteracy. [...] Unfortunately, I could not be sent by the translated few words and authors’ conjecture, and I cannot ignore all of the knowledge that Tibetan people has gathered throughout centuries of existence but our young generation chooses to live in the shadow of ignorance, so I decided to learning Tibetan.

Only being able to encounter this rich cultural tradition through the filter of a Chinese or English translation inspired her to begin learning Tibetan, a project she undertook independently without the benefit of any formal instruction. Bendi befriended Tibetan speakers at her university with whom she could practice her spoken Tibetan. She also sought out Tibetan versions of novels and poetry she had previously read in Chinese or English as well as written versions of the stories her grandmother had told her. Working between documents in her three languages, Bendi not only began to develop her literacy, but also her cultural identity as a Tibetan person. She ends this draft of her autobiography reflecting on both her current and desired identities:

Today, when I touch Tibetan alphabets, I strongly feel the sense of responsibility and passion that I am longing for transmitting my reading experiences to those Tibetan students who may haven’t learned our mother tongue and ignored our glorious culture. For me, my own literacy development is a gift of my life. Through it, I taste three different kinds of language and culture. Most importantly, it leads me to my home, the place where I should stay.

In the final draft, Bendi maintains her focus on her developing Tibetan literacy and cultural identity. In this draft, however, she reflects more deeply on how her Tibetan cultural identity has not only affected her Tibetan literacy practices, but also her literacy practices in Chinese and English academic writing, explaining that “like the sunlight, my Tibetan literacy and identity developed in the out of school context gives me warmth and strength to my in-school literacy development.” In particular, Bendi reflects on how “the philosophy developed from Tibetan Buddhism actually influences the way in which I think of issues in academic reading and writing.” For example, Bendi credits the altruism and compassion “at core of Tibetan Buddhism” with influencing “the way in which I think about the conflicts of ideologies, politics, and religion, even in academia.” This influence manifests in how Bendi engages in argument, avoiding extreme positions and remembering that “every one who is involved in those controversial issues deserves compassion because we are all same in nature.”

In her teaching philosophy statement, Bendi’s goals as a teacher mirror her own process of identity development. She emphasizes the importance of respecting students’ “unique background; motivation, voice and identity” and describes her goal as a teacher as working to “encourage students to explore and build their own voices and identities rather than pursue the unity.” These pedagogical goals of respect and identity promotion clearly mirror Bendi’s own experiences with literacy in her three languages.


We believe that these teachers’ stories have value in and of themselves as they present a counterstory (Martinez 36-37) of writing teacher identity and development, highlighting the experiences of multilingual writing teachers in their own words. Engaging with such narratives can help us in composition studies begin to question the “stock story” (Martinez 37) in which the default composition teacher is assumed to be a white, native-speaker of English, educated in the US. Given the increasing diversity of the field, more narratives like these and greater recognition of them as valid scholarship should be encouraged. We would particularly point to projects such as the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives and Canaragarajah’s recent collection (Transnational Literacy Autobiographies) as models of this type of work.

Beyond their individual power as counterstories, Meilin, Soojin, and Bendi’s narratives offer a variety of insights into the process of multilingual writing teachers’ identity construction which can and should inform our efforts as teacher educators and mentors. One trend is the teachers’ movement away from the deficient, “non-native” identity to identifying as multiliterate and multicompetent speakers and writers. These new classifications provide a deeper and more accurate reflection of the teachers’ capacities to codeswitch and codemesh across a variety of cultural and linguistic situations. Though this process is likely not complete for any of these three teachers, the progress they made in this regard confirms findings from previous research that multilingual teachers can construct new, more empowered identities for themselves (see Pavlenko; Ruecker et al).

The teachers’ identity work did not occur in isolation; rather, it was supported through specific practices that can be implemented by other teacher educators. One factor that we believe contributed to these teachers’ identity development was the inclusion of research and theoretical readings which explicitly worked to deconstruct monolingualist language ideologies. For example, one of the required textbooks in the class was Suresh Canagarajah’s Critical Academic Writing and Multilingual Students, a book which takes an explicitly critical stance and promotes a multiliteracies approach to writing instruction. This critical focus was, moreover, not restricted to an isolated one- or two-week discussion. Instead, this critical perspective was woven into the course readings, lectures, and instructor feedback on the developing drafts of the literacy autobiographies and thus formed a central theme of the class from the first day until the final. Additionally, the instructor actively modeled such questioning. As a multilingual scholar of color, he not only provided his own published literacy autobiography as a model (Canagarajah, Teacher Development), but also frequently shared additional narratives of his own development as a teacher and his experiences encountering and overcoming language bias. Together, this explicit, sustained, and personally-modeled rejection of monolingualist ideologies provided the setting in which the teachers in this study reexamined and redefined their identities.

This finding has obvious implications for teacher educators who wish to support their novice teachers in such identity work. First of all, if teacher educators wish to promote their teachers’ identity development, incorporating a sustained and critical focus on issues of multilingualism and language ideologies is crucial. Instead of treating questions of language diversity and discrimination as just one more topic to be covered in a writing pedagogy class, these questions can be infused into the discussion of a range of theoretical and pedagogical issues. For example, a unit on writing assessment would be enriched by discussion on how language difference impacts rater judgments, the racist histories of standardized tests, and ways future teachers can design more just and equitable assessments. Such discussions could be informed by readings addressing these issues, such as work by Ball and Inoue and Poe. Novice teachers could additionally be encouraged to reflect on how their writing has been assessed, thinking about how these assessments were shaped by their ascribed identities and, in turn, shaped their claimed and desired identities as writers and teachers. Regardless of the particular topic, what we are arguing for is an approach that consistently incorporates a focus on linguistic and racial diversity and promotes identity reflection throughout a course.

In taking such a focus for a course, the identities of the teacher educators are also an important factor to consider. In the course we studied, the instructor was not only a scholar of color himself, but a noted researcher on language diversity in writing. His professional expertise and personal experiences were both woven into the course. Teacher educators who do not share this identity would, inherently, interact with the students and the project differently. To take our own identities as an example, we question, for instance, how our presence as white, native English speakers occupying a position of authority in the classroom might change how our students would react to our attempts to counter monolingualist ideologies. While we can only speculate, it seems possible that students could be reticent to resist the native-speaker bias when writing for an audience of privileged native-English speakers.

While we have no easy solutions for this issue, we maintain that it is the responsibility of all teachers, and especially white, native-English speaking teachers, to work to counter native-speaker bias. As we consider how to implement such critical pedagogies, we have become convinced of the need to intentionally make room for and privilege the perspectives of scholars and teachers of color and of diverse language backgrounds. This can be done, first of all, through a concerted effort to diversify the identities and perspectives represented in the readings we assign. While we believe that this is important for all teachers to undertake, it is particularly important for white, native-speaker teachers to bring in the diverse voices and experiences that they themselves cannot provide. Another strategy to incorporate diverse voices is to invite individuals or panels of linguistically and racially diverse writers to the class to speak about their experiences writing in English, the challenges of monolingual bias they have faced, and the strategies they have used to resist such bias. Such a panel need not be made up of composition scholars or teachers, but could include undergrads, graduate students, and professors from any discipline{6}.

Beyond including diverse voices, we would also encourage teacher educators who, like us, occupy a position of racial and linguistic privilege to discuss our own experiences with linguistic bias. While as white, native-speaker teachers, we have not experienced the linguistic prejudice many of our students have, we have extensive experiences to share regarding linguistic and racial privilege. We can speak, for example, of the confusion and guilt we have felt at being placed in a position of authority over more experienced and more qualified teachers when teaching internationally. We could describe the subtle and not-so-subtle preference for native speaker teachers in hiring committees on which we have served. Also, we could honestly share our incomplete but growing efforts to dismantle our own prejudices and to use our privilege to work as advocates for and accomplices (Stewart) with our students and colleagues. In this way, we can add our own narratives of privilege to corroborate the powerful narratives of teachers of color already in the academic literature (e.g. Anzaldua; Canagarajah Teacher Development; Kynard; Smitherman; Villanueva; Young). We hope that such self-reflection will serve as a valuable model, particularly for other prospective teachers in the course who come from positions of racial and linguistic privilege that they may not have critically examined before.

Another finding from these narratives is that, for all three teachers, their identity construction gradually occurred over their lives and through the drafting process. All three teachers’ initial drafts were simple recounts of biographic events with few identity claims and little reflection. It was only in later drafts that the teachers began to interpret these events in terms of their identities as language users, writers, and teachers. This finding is significant because it shows the importance and value of providing teachers with extended and repeated opportunities to reflect on their identities. Had the teachers in this study been asked to write only one draft of their literacy autobiography, the depth of their reflection and engagement with their identities would have been severely constrained, if not absent altogether. While the time commitment required for a project like this is significant, given the importance of writing teachers’ identity on their eventual teaching practice (Street 38-39) and the negative effects of prevalent discourses of native-speakerism on teachers (Milambiling 325), it is worth the investment.

While we believe these narratives can provide valuable insights about the importance of identity development among multilingual writing teachers, we also recognize that there are limitations both to the project itself and to our study. First of all, it is noteworthy that only three students out of twenty-four chose to focus on questions of identity in their narratives. It is also noteworthy that it was Meilin, Soojin, and Bendi—three students who shared the experience of being in the racial and linguistic minority in their formative years—who chose to focus their autobiographies on questions of identity. For these three students, questions of identity rose to the top as they reflected on their literacy development, whereas for the other students in the class, mostly white US American students and native Mandarin-speaking students from mainland China, questions of linguistic and racial identity did not appear to be salient to them. The students who did not choose to focus on identity as a primary theme still experienced other, valuable realizations and areas of growth through the project, but, given the importance and impact of identity on teachers’ future practice, we advocate for more explicitly framing an assignment like this around questions of identity. By making a focus on identity central to the project, we hope that the students who may not already be attuned to issues of identity would begin to critically reflect on their experiences with linguistic and racial bias or privilege, and how such experiences might inform their future teaching.

Another limitation we see relates to the role of the teaching philosophy in the project. This limitation has both pedagogical and research implications. Pedagogically, we see problems with using the teaching philosophy as the sole, summative form of reflection built into the project. While the teaching philosophy is a genre that does include reflective elements, it is also a professional and persuasive genre aimed at performing recognized teaching beliefs for the purpose of securing a job. This split purpose and the one-shot nature of the genre as it was utilized in this project limits its potential as a tool for critical reflection.

To address this issue, we encourage instructors to include more reflective opportunities that are embedded throughout the course, as opposed to having a sole summative reflective teaching philosophy. Incorporating low-stakes reflective spaces grants teachers moments to consider how they understand their ongoing identity development through the project as a whole. These low-stakes activities could include ongoing diary spaces, weekly prompted assignments, or in-class well-being response activities. In whatever form they take, reflective spaces can give moments of agency for teachers. For example, in our study, while the peer/instructor feedback served as a valuable tool in the development of these narratives, they were relatively one-sided conversations, which can potentially negatively reinforce ascribed identities. Engaging a type of talk-back space may be helpful for writers to question and respond to reviewers’ feedback. Overall, opportunities for sustained, private or semi-private reflection may help teachers feel like they have a safe space to process the project as well as anything that may arise as a consequence of working in such personal genres.

From a research perspective, the reliance on the teaching philosophy also creates limitations. This study does not include any data of the participants actually teaching. As a result, though all three participants showed evidence that their developing identities influenced their teaching beliefs, we do not know how, or even if, the identity development in the literacy narratives impacted their teaching practice. This limitation is particularly serious given Lee’s findings that in-service teachers face many threats and constraints to developing and enacting their desired identities in the context of their workplaces. Future research which examines the connections between multilingual writing teachers’ identity and their classroom practices, and the extent to which teacher education projects impact those classroom practices, would provide valuable insights which might inform efforts to prepare and support teachers for these identity threats.


As we noted at the beginning of this article, the population of current and future teachers of writing is becoming increasingly diverse. Such diversity is an unequivocal good for our students and for the field, but it does necessitate that teacher educators evaluate and innovate in our pedagogical methods in order to best support such diverse teachers. As this study has shown, one route to support preservice writing teachers is to invest time and effort into their identity development. The literacy narrative project described in this article is one example that we offer as an assignment which provides opportunities for teachers to reconsider and rename their language and literacy development outside of the prevalent discourses of native-speakerism. Such experiences can not only empower such teachers to claim new identities for themselves, but may also help them in creating new teaching philosophies that value their students’ own multilingual, multiliterate, and multicompetent identities.


  1. In combining these three areas of research, we concur with various scholars who have called for more interdisciplinarity between the various fields concerned with writing education (e.g. Reid; Tardy). (Return to text.)

  2. For more discussion of the translingual orientation and the design of this course, see Canagarajah Blessed; Translingual; and Transnational. (Return to text.)

  3. Author 1. (Return to text.)

  4. This study was approved by the university’s Institutional Review Board. (Return to text.)

  5. All student names mentioned in this article are pseudonyms. (Return to text.)

  6. The first author had the opportunity to observe a highly successful and similar panel discussion in a first-year writing classroom. (Return to text.)

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